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Stranger In The Night
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Jacob’s Strange Wrestling Match With God

By James Donahue

Among the strange stories found in the Old Testament is Genesis 32: 24-32; Jacob’s weird all-night wrestling match with an unseen figure in the darkness. Some students of the Hebrew Scriptures say Jacob’s opponent was an angel. Others suggest that it was God himself because of the conversation and miracles that occurred near daylight the following morning.

Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebekah, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, and of Bethuel, the wife of the twin brother of Esau. Isaac and Rebekah were up in years when Jacob and his twin brother Esau were burn. While born twins, the brothers were different as night and day, and it was said that they came out of the womb fighting.
Esau who was born first, was a burly, hairy man’s man who became “a cunning hunter and a man of the field.” Jacob, however, was a quiet “plain man, dwelling in tents.” He was probably a sheep herder and interested in spiritual matters and the arts.

As the brothers grew older their role as enemies grew as well. The conflict was eventually over inheritance which was described in the scriptures as a blessing supposedly handed down by Isaac. The implications are that the situation had grown so severe that Jacob literally fled with his family to avoid what was sure to be an open life or death confrontation with Esau.

Jacob fled to Haran where he worked for Laban in exchange for his daughters, Rachel and Leah. He was away for 20 years before returning home for his next confrontation with Esau. He had received word that Esau was coming to meet him and that he had an army of 400 men. Jacob’s intent, however, was a mission of peace. He was bringing gifts and livestock for Esau.

Jacob, his two wives, two female servants and 11 sons arrived at the Jabbok River. After setting up camp along the river, Jacob crossed alone to the other bank where he expected to spend the night alone, perhaps in prayer or if it came to this, stand his ground against Esau. The story is not clear why Jacob was on the river bank alone that night.

Suddenly Jacob discovered that he was not alone. There was a dark, shadowy figure there with him. For whatever reason, the two immediately began fighting. The match continued through the night. Just before dawn, when the stranger “saw they he could not overpower (Jacob), he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched.” Then the man asked Jacob to let him go because it was daybreak.

The unanswered question here was who did Jacob think he was wrestling with? Did he think it was Esau? Perhaps a robber? But then after his opponent injured his hip with a mere touch, he realized that he had been battling with a much more powerful force. He surmised an angel or perhaps even God. Because he answered the man: “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.”

Then the stranger asked: “What is thy name?” Jacob then told him it was Jacob. The stranger then said: “They name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”

In ancient Hebrew text the name was first given as “Yisrael,” which was a combination of two words: Yisra, which means “to persevere,” and “El,” a divine name for God. Thus the name Israel is translated to mean “to persevere with God.”

The blessings seemed to rain down on Jacob after this. The very next day he had his long dreaded confrontation with Esau. But instead of raising swords for battle, Esau ran to Jacob and threw his arms around him, welcoming him home.

Both sons became the fathers of two great nations. Jacob’s children became the origin of the Nation of Israel, while Esau launched the Edomites. The two tribes clearly had their troubles, and Israel remains a power in the world to this day.

So this is the Bible story. But is there a grain of truth to be found here? Did Jacob really wrestle with God, or an angelic spirit that long night on the banks of the Jabbok River?

The Old Testament is packed with odd stories like this, many of them filled with implications of magical goings on that makes them difficult, if not impossible to believe. Yet stories like this contain lessons designed to teach us how to get along with one another.