Genesis 32 contains the strange story of Jacob wrestling with God (or an angel, or some sort of God-man, or even Jesus). No matter how many times I read it I always seem to walk away with more questions than answers. What is going on here? Does Jacob actually out-wrestle God? It’s a strange story.
The story is set up by Jacob’s plan to try and manipulate his meeting with Esau to try and reconcile peacefully, instead of through war. Jacob has really spent most of his life “manipulating” the situation. (This is not always in a bad way, but he has managed to control situations to the point where he typically benefits from what is taking place.) Jacob used his brother Esau’s hunger to gain control of Esau’s birthright; his extra share of the estate as the oldest child. Jacob tricked his father into giving him Esau’s blessing. Through his years of “working” for his uncle Laban, Jacob was able to secure large flocks of sheep and goats, and even many servants. He arrives at his uncle’s house with nothing but the clothes on his back. He leaves with a large family and as a very wealthy man. Now, he is trying to make peace with Esau through sending multiple gifts to ease his anger, and even splitting up his family so that if Esau attacks some, the others might escape.
But the plan is placed on hold at the bank of the Jabbok. After sending his family across, Jacob stays behind and wrestles with a man until daybreak. The wrestling match is a draw, so the man deliberately throw’s Jacob’s hip out of joint. (32:25 the Message) Jacob makes two demands at this point: tell me your name, and bless me. Jacob seems to still be trying to manipulate the situation to his own advantage. He wants information and he wants blessing. While he does receive these things, it is not in the way he imagines as he ends up realizing he has seen God face to face and yet lives. Now, Jacob will limp to his meeting with Esau. There’s no chance to run, no chance to control the outcome. If Jacob is to survive this encounter it is only by God’s help.
It’s interesting how often I/We try to control the outcomes of our situations. We spend time crafting intricate plans to help the future work out for our best interest. We decide in advance how others should respond to us. At times we even try to manipulate the situation so that the outcome is favorable for us. We are in many ways acting like Jacob.
While this story is still very confusing, it seems that after this encounter at the Jabbok, Jacob seems more willing to trust God. Up to this point in the story, Jacob is the swindler, the manipulator, the one who is working everything out for his own advantage. But at the Jabbok, his name is changed. He is now Israel, one who has wrestled with God and come through. There is a maturing process that happens for Jacob at the Jabbok. After wrestling with God, Jacob seems to see more clearly who is really in control. He can not control the future. All he can do is limp through life, trusting in God. But he can do this, because he is a changed man. He is no longer Jacob, the one who grasps at the heel, he is Israel, the one who has wrestled with God and has come through.
We can not control the future; grasping at the heel of every situation, trying to manipulate the outcome to our own advantage. Trying to live life this way makes us self-focused; it is not the way of God. Instead, we are called to trust God, to seek deeper relationship with God. We may not walk as strongly. We may even limp through life. But we will recognize our dependence on God, and God will secure our future. When we wrestle for control, we often fail. When we quit fighting and trust the one who is in control of all things, we will overcome.