What Jacob Learned when Jumped at Jabbok

Question
Can you briefly explain Genesis 32:22-32?
Answer
This is a fascinating set of verses (Gen. 32:22-32; cf. Hos. 12:2-6). It's enlightening and convicting. While there are more, here are a few brief truths:

Jacob always seemed to be in a wrestling match with those around him. We see this in his birth when he was grabbing his brother's heel (Gen. 25:26) [1], his underhanded dealing in stealing Esau's birthright (Gen. 25:29-34; 27:1-29), and with Laban who prompted some of Jacob's later problems (Gen. 29:1-30). Jacob seemed to be a man who was always depended on himself. He was very crafty and devious and was always trying to get ahead his own way. It certainly wasn't what was within Jacob that caused God to choose him. God elected Jacob to salvation before the foundation of the world (Rom. 9:10-13; Eph. 1:4-5).

In Genesis 32, we observe that the story begins at night (Gen. 32:22) but ends at light (Gen. 32:31). This describes the way our redemption story plays out as well: "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son" (Col. 1:13; cf. Isa. 9:2; Matt. 4:16; Luke 1:79; 1 Pet. 2:9).

What happens next is really the answer to Jacob's prayer in Genesis 32:9-12, which is the first recorded in the Bible. We observe Jacob coming to the ford of the Jabbok River (Gen. 32:22). This is a swift-moving river that flows into the Jordan. Sending his family on ahead (Gen. 32:23), Jacob remains behind and is all alone (Gen. 32:24). Suddenly, it seems out of nowhere, God jumps Jacob at the Jabbok! A Man is wrestling with Jacob.^^nbsp^^^^nbsp^^

Who is this Man? Is it God? Is it Jesus? Most likely it was the appearance of God himself as the Angel of the Lord [2] or a theophany. (Please see, "Did Jesus have a physical body before his incarnation?" and "Was there more than one incarnation?" below.) Jacob is a man who seems to often encounter angels (Gen. 28:12; 32:1-2).

It's also very telling that in Genesis 32:1-2 we see Jacob "on his way" and here he intends to be "on his way" again across the Jabbok. He didn't meet God at his camp at Mahanaim as one might expect (Gen. 32:2). Jacob learned that the omnipresent God makes his presence known in many unexpected places in life.

The Man doesn't prevail against Jacob (Gen. 32:25). Does this imply that God is weak and not omnipotent? No, it implies nothing of the sort, for in the very same verse the Man merely touches Jacob's hip socket and he is lame (cf. Gen. 32:32), which is really a blessing [3]. When God tests us we often find ourselves in wrestling matches with him.^^nbsp^^^^nbsp^^While he is all-powerful (Rev. 19:6; cf. Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3, etc.), he may even allow us to prevail for a time (Gen. 32:25). But ultimately, it's a lesson. What a gift divine wrestling is! It can provide evidence of our faith and great blessings if undertaken in the right spirit (Gen. 32:27-28).

In Genesis 32:26 the Man says, "Let me go, for the day has broken" and Jacob replies, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." That's a pretty bold statement coming from Jacob. After all, he has just been injured. Physically speaking, he's at an extreme disadvantage. But he keeps on hanging on and even demands a blessing! The fact that Jacob perceives his opponent as someone capable of blessing him — the lesser is blessed by the greater — is an indication that he realized this was no ordinary wrestling match. Tricks or human cleverness would not work.

The Man asks, "What is your name?" Jacob answers and submits to the Lord when he surrenders his name, "Jacob" (Gen. 32:27). How humiliating, because Jacob's name means "grasps the heel" or "cheats" or "supplants" (Gen. 25:26; 27:36). It's as though he's saying "uncle" and confessing his sin! The Man then says, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel" (Gen. 32:28), which essentially means "God strives, or struggles, or fights." Now this is quite a blessing! And indeed, God fought for and with Israel (Jacob and the nation) in the Old Testament (Exod. 14; Jer. 1:13-19, etc.). Even today God fights for each and every one of his children; they then have success through humility and prayer, not by their own cleverness or power.

When we fight against troubles that come our way, in a sense we are also wrestling with the Lord. Say what? God is sovereign and so, without being the author of sin but completely within his providence, directs all things happening to his children for their good (Rom. 8:28). All things — no matter whether good or bad — may only come upon us by God's divine permission (Isa. 45:7; 1 Cor. 10:13). Since all things are from God, when we resist any of them, we are fighting against the hand of the Lord. But at times that can be good!^^nbsp^^^^nbsp^^Jacob prevailed in wrestling with the Lord. How? Why? By clinging to him with all his might and confessing his sin! Such faith is the way we can triumph today as God also delivers us from the travails he ordains (Pss. 18:2; 74; 79; 1 Cor. 10:13). God is the author of repentance (cf. Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:24-26), and when repentance comes, it is one of the most beautiful times in the Lord! We should pray for personal Jabbok experiences.

After surrendering his name, Jacob then asks the Man, "Please tell me your name." But the Man answered a question with a question saying, "Why is it that you ask my name?" But this simple question wasn't answered, and here is why. When the Man asked Jacob for his name, it was his prerogative and also a way to humble him and enable him to confess his sin. However, for Jacob to ask for God's name is a completely different manner! To know someone's name intimately in biblical times was a way of having ownership of something or someone (cf. Gen. 2:20; 3:20; 17:5, 15-16; John 1:42; Rev. 2:17). Besides, Jacob should have already known it. In his prayer he prayed to God mentioning him three times (Gen. 32:9 - Elohim, Elohim, Yahweh). Additionally, he should have recognized God's gracious acts of wrestling mercy. Apparently in his remaining pride, Jacob didn't notice the revelation of God as he should have. And isn't this true of us all at times?^^nbsp^^^^nbsp^^What's more, even when God does marvelous wonders in our presence, he never fully reveals everything about himself. There is still a lingering mystery of I AM! (Exod. 3:14).

Jacob then names the place "Peniel" (Gen. 28:30) which means face of God. Did Jacob literally see the face of God? No, because he wouldn't have lived. (cf. Exod. 33:20; 1 Tim. 6:16). In context, "face to face" in Genesis 32:30, while it may literally mean "facing another to the face" (cf. Jer. 32:4; 34:3), it also carries with it the idea of "appearing before" (cf. Deut. 5:4) or merely a "presence" (cf. Exod. 33:14-15). It speaks of a form of God (Exod. 33:11; Num. 12:8; Deut. 34:10; 1 Cor. 13:12) — a theophany.^^nbsp^^^^nbsp^^(Please see, "Has any man seen God the Father or not?" and "Was there more than one incarnation?")

So, Jacob left Jabbok as a limping healer (Gen. 32:31-32) and no more a lame deceiver. He makes amends with Esau (Gen 33:3-4, 10). He proceeds as a new person with a new name and new walk, and with closer relationship(s)!

Jesus clung to God the Father throughout his entire incarnation. This can be especially seen in his closing moments at Calvary (Matt. 26:39, 42, 44; Luke 23:46). However, Jesus didn't cling to God for the forgiveness of his own sins, but for all those he loved before the foundation of the world (John 15:13).

Cling to God and be blessed.^^nbsp^^^^nbsp^^

Reference

[1] It's sort of fitting that in pro-wrestling "a heel" is a wrestler who portrays a villain or a bad guy.

[2] Josh. 5:13-15 – "a man was standing before him" … "I am the commander of the army of the Lord."

[3] Ryle notes that the physical disability Jacob suffered serves as a memorial of the spiritual victory and a symbol of the frailty of human strength in the crisis when God meets man face to face. Ryle, J.C., The Book of Genesis (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1914), p. 323.

Related Topics

Did Jesus have a physical body before his incarnation?
Was there more than one incarnation?
Has any man seen God the Father or not?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).