Episode 48 – Ch 32 | Jacob Wrestles With God
Well thank you for once again joining me in this verse by verse Bible study, I’m Randy Duncan, and in this episode we’ll be covering chapter 32, which sees Jacob now on his way home, preparing to once again face his brother Esau, but also, we encounter this strange episode of Jacob wrestling with God
As a reminder, in the last episode, we covered chapter 31, which saw Jacob’s showdown with Laban, and after 20 years, finally leaving to return to his homeland. And so with that, we begin chapter 32.
Verses 1-5…Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. 2 And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim (my-hine-uh-yim’) 3 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, 4 instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. 5 I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”
So again, Jacob finally leaves Laban, and as he does a new era in the life of Jacob and the formation and development of the people of Israel is about to begin.
And it tells us that Jacob is met by angels of God. And that’s it. Nothing more! No details on what happened or what was said. Maybe this is just a sign to Jacob of God’s promise to protect him, even as he prepares to once again face Esau. When God promised “I will be with you”, as well as a reminder to Jacob that He would worship God if God brought him back home safely.
But we are told that Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau. This is actually the first time the Bible records a human sending messengers. It is normally God who sends messengers, but the messengers of God are angels, although they both appear in human form. So just as God has sent messengers to Jacob, Jacob now sends messengers to Esau
And what is the message they are to give to Esau? Well first, notice how they are to begin their message, “Thus says your servant Jacob…” Notice how Jacob begins the conversation, by stating he is Esau’s servant. Jacob is beginning to right the wrong he committed years earlier by stealing Esau’s birthright. He begins by acknowledging Esau’s rightful place, and so takes the first step in giving up the rights he stole, trusting God to fullfill His promise. And so you will see he repeatedly refers to Esau as his lord, and himself as Esau’s servant.
Jacob believes Esau has now hated him for 20 years, and so he now wants to show respect to Esau, hoping to remove the hate from his heart
Jacob also tries to explain why he hasn’t tried to make peace with his brother over the last 20 years, telling him that he has been with Laban all this time. Notice that he tactfully leaves out the reason he went to Laban’s in the first place, which was to flee Esau, who wanted to kill him
Jacob’s message then transitions to describe the wealth he has acquired, maybe hinting that he has the ability to compensate Esau if he needs to, to sort of pay him off.
V6-8 – -6 And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” 7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, 8 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.”
Jacob sent his messengers as a means to gather some intelligence in his preparation to meet Esau. Well, the messengers return with an update for Jacob all right! Their message is that Esau is on his way! He is coming to meet you, and he has 400 men with him!!
It says that Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. I bet! It appears that Esau has obtained intelligence about Jacob’s movements as well, and is coming to meet him. Notice that they don’t say “your lord is coming to meet you”, which is how Jacob instructed them to address Esau. They say, “Your brother is coming to meet you”.
Now when they say he is “coming to meet you”, the Hebrew phrase for “coming to meet” used here can either mean as friends or enemies, and Jacob can’t be sure which it is. But the fact that he is bringing 400 men with him is a bad sign. Because that was about the standard size of a militia. Remember that Abraham took 318 men against a group of Kings to rescue Lot. And so, this is not a good sign, it doesn’t sound good at all to Jacob, and he is terrified.
So out of fear, Jacob divides his people into two camps. He can’t just retreat, because that would have violated the non-aggression treaty and boundary agreement he had just made with Laban. Not to mention that he is travelling with women and small children. And so all he can do here is to try and minimize his losses. He says, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, then the camp that is left will escape.” IOW, Jacob is hoping to save at least part of his family.
V9 -12–9 And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”
So again, Jacob is fearful and in great distress here. And so he begins to cry out to God, and what we see in these verses is the longest recorded prayer in the book of Genesis. Jacob is finally developing a relationship with God, and so perhaps he can also develop a right relationship with his brother Esau.
In Jacob’s prayer here, he admits that he is not worthy of all the love and mercy God has shown him. This is an important step in Jacob’s spiritual maturity. His confession acknowledges that he is unworthy and undeserving. Just an observation, but how many of us today could say this exact same thing and it still apply to each of us? For us to admit to God that we are undeserving of all He has done for us.
He then leads for God to deliver him from his brother Esau, whom he fears. Jacob says that he is afraid for his children and his wives if they are attacked. Just think how much more Jacob is tormented by his own conscience here, knowing that something he did 20 years ago may now very well result in his family being attacked. It must truly be an awful feeling. One of such regret and anguish.
And so he does all that he can, he splits up his camp in hopes of saving some, and he goes to God in prayer. I think Jacob is doing exactly what many of us would have done in the same situation. But I also think we already do what Jacob is doing to some degree. We sometimes go to God in prayer as a last resort. After all of our efforts have failed or been insufficient, then we reach out and cry out to God. You see, we get the order backwards. Why is it that we don’t seek God first? For some of us, the sad truth is that if we didn’t have difficulties come into our lives that we can’t handle, God might not ever hear from us. Or at least only occasionally. Think about that for just a moment, all you parents out there. How would you feel if the only time you heard from your children was when they needed something or they were in trouble? How would that make you feel?
But Jacob continues here and says “But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea,” It’s like he is reminding God of God’s promise to be with him and protect him. And in a way, he is telling God, “You’re the one who told me to go back, and now look”. And so Jacob here is petitioning God, not based on his own merit, but based on God’s promise.
But this brings up an important question, or observation. Why did Jacob feel the need to remind God of His promise to protect him? Did he not yet fully trust God? Did he have some lingering doubts?
I think it should bring a little comfort to all of us that even Jacob appears to have had some doubts, some worries, some anxieties…even though he knew God had made him a promise! That should comfort all of us who have ever had doubts!
The reality of life is that we live in a world full of uncertainty, pain, suffering, loss…and when we are going through tough times, it is natural to ask questions, to question God, to ask “why”?
Even the great men of the Bible, who knew God, and were close to God, cried out and questioned God! Psalm 10:1 says, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
Psalm 22 reads, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, …2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.
Psalm 44 says “Why do you sleep, oh Lord? Why do you hide your face, ignoring our affliction and distress?”
And what about Job?? Do you think he may have had some serious questions for God, after being a faithful servant to God, but then losing everything? You see, it’s not just you that has questions. It’s ok to have questions. But remember this, …Job never received an answer from God as to why. And you may not either. And just like Job, God may require you to simply trust in His wisdom, to trust that there is a greater purpose and plan that you can understand in the present moment.
V 13- 21 – 13 So he stayed there that night, and from what he had with him he took a present for his brother Esau, 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty milking camels and their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 These he handed over to his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass on ahead of me and put a space between drove and drove.” 17 He instructed the first, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘To whom do you belong? Where are you going? And whose are these ahead of you?’ 18 then you shall say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a present sent to my lord Esau. And moreover, he is behind us.’” 19 He likewise instructed the second and the third and all who followed the droves, “You shall say the same thing to Esau when you find him, 20 and you shall say, ‘Moreover, your servant Jacob is behind us.’” For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” 21 So the present passed on ahead of him, and he himself stayed that night in the camp.
So Jacob begins to gather gifts to present to Esau. His plan is to try and pacify his brother with free gifts. And a total of 550 animals is a very large gift! A fitting gift for a servant to his lord, to whom he owes his life. And so this is a fitting tribute in recognition of the giver’s subordinate status
Notice also how Jacob ordered the gifts. He did not send them all at once, but spaced them out. There is an arrangement of presentation here, a series of increasing value. Jacob is trying to make a positive psychological impact on Esau, hoping Esau will be overwhelmed by everything. And so he presents him with the gifts in the most dramatic way possible, he presents them in waves, or droves. Esau has time to check out the gift, listen to the message of the servants, and then the next wave of gifts arrive. And this happens over and over
By doing this, Jacob is hoping to gradually overwhelm Esau with the sheer size and generosity of the gifts. Hoping that this will pacify Esau enough to receive him and forgive him
And that brings us now to the last few verses of this chapter, and this strange episode where Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being.
22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
So Jacob decides to transfer his entire camp across the river, at night, which was difficult and considered very dangerous in ancient times. Particularly with a river like this one, which is believed to be the Zarqa, the Blue River, which is about 20 miles north of the Dead Sea, and has very steep banks on both sides. And so to cross with a large party, especially at night, was only done when there was a great sense of urgency or need.
But after Jacob does this, he is left utterly alone. Alone in the dead of night, with no one to help him or come to his rescue. If we look at this through a theological perspective, Jacob must face God alone. With no possessions, no protection, just him and God. And the reality is that is what each of us must do as well. Facing God, accepting or rejecting Jesus Christ, cannot be done by someone else on your behalf. Your sweet grandmother can’t do it for you. Your parents or your best friend can’t do it for you. You must make that decision yourself.
But verse 24 tells us that a man wrestled with Jacob until the breaking of the day. It is only later that we learn this invisible man was God. So not only is Jacob about to face Esau, he now faces this strange encounter with a mysterious being.
It tells us that “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” God has apparently come to Jacob on some form of equal footing. Was this some sort of theophany? A pre-incarnate Christ? We are not told exactly. But in either case, once again, we see Jacob’s strength, as this divine being, after wrestling and struggling with Jacob all night, is not able to overcome him by sheer force as an equal.
And so he resorts to merely touching Jacob’s hip socket, dislocating it. Now, some believe commentators believe his hip was not dislocated, but maybe just severely strained. They say this because they argue Jacob would not even have been able to limp after that if his hip was out of socket. But either way, whatever was done, this results in Jacob’s strength being neutralized. Jacob can no longer wrestle as he had before. He can no longer fight. All he can do now is merely hold on.
The being then tells Jacob, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob recognizes that he is in the presence of a divine being, and he demands a blessing from him. He is physically broken, but still, he will not give up. What started as a battle of physicality, now turns to words. Jacob will prevail, not by natural strength, but with prayer… quite the lesson right there for you and I.
It seems like way too often, we go to prayer as a last resort, when everything we have tried has already failed. Then, we finally turn to God for help with those things we couldn’t control or handle on our own. It seems like maybe this is backwards, that it should work the other way around.
But we come now to the heart of the matter. And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”
‘What is your name”? It is a rhetorical question of course. But it forces Jacob to consider his name and what it means, deceiver. It forces Jacob to own up to his devious past, to admit his guilt. If he is going to embrace a new name, and a new life, with fresh beginnings, he must recognize and admit his past.
And then we have some of the heaviest words in the Old Testament in V28, when God says, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
So God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. The Hebrew actually reads “It shall no more be said” when addressing him as Jacob. It indicates a spiritual change, a spiritual metamorphosis. Jacob’s new name represents a change from a deceiver, a supplanter, into a prevailer. Up until now, he has prevailed over people by deception and trickery. But now he will prevail with God. And in his dealings with people, no longer through his physical strength, but by his words. He still has a desire to prevail, but his desire is now properly oriented.
This new name reminds me of 2 Cor 5:17, which says “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” This is what is happening here with Jacob. He has now come face to face with God, encountered God, struggled with God, and been blessed by God. And Jacob will become a new person, with a new name, a new perspective, and a new destiny.
God renames Jacob “Israel”. The name Israel comes from two words. ‘yisra” meaning “struggle, and “el”, meaning God. So Israel means, “struggle with God”. The name Israel is associated with struggle and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.
God tells him that he has struggled with God and with men, and has prevailed. Jacob struggled with Esa, with his father Isaac, and with Laban, and has overcome. And now, he has struggled with God. And by clinging to God, Jacob overcomes in the face of tremendous adversity. And God rewards his sincere commitment to the blessing.
Jacob had feared for his family, for his descendents, and now, he can be assured that he will become the patriarch of a nation named Israel.
V29 says 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”
In Judges 13:17-18, Manoah asks the angel of God, “What is your name”, to which the angel replies, “Why do you ask my name”, the same response we see here. In both cases, their answer suggests that the person asking has not yet fully realized who they are speaking with. Their response is sort of like asking, ‘Don’t you realize who I am?”
It is only later that they fully realize they have encountered the deity. Interesting. It was only after the resurrection did it finally sink it for the disciples. Even though they experienced Jesus in person, they fully believed he was the Messiah, much of what he taught them did not fully register until after his resurrection.
We also see that Moses asks a similar question of God at the burning bush. But he doesn’t receive a name. God merely replies, “I am” what I am”, which basically means, “I exist” or “to be”, “I am”. You see, the pagan gods all had names, and so it would be normal to ask for God’s name. But what name would do God justice? What sort of name would describe God?
No matter how you choose to describe God, it comes up short. For some things we experience or see in our everyday life, there are truly no words that can fully capture the moment. And any words we use to try and explain to someone just seem to fall short of fully communicating what we felt or experienced. Whether a beautiful sunset, or the birth of a new baby into the world, Whether it’s love or beauty or a sense of being in complete awe or overwhelmed by something, sometimes words just fall short. Words alone cannot do justice to that which you are attempting to describe. Some things in life cannot be described using words, they must be experienced! And this certainly applies to God. And so it’s like God is saying, look, you wouldn’t understand if I explained it anyway, and so all you need to know right now, is that I exist.
So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The Hebrew word Peniel literally means “the face of God”.
And so as we bring this chapter to a close, I think it’s important to pause and consider a couple of things. First, as we have seen with Jacob’s journey, and in his wrestling with God, God’s prescence doesn’t necessarily mean that we will have no difficulties in life, no conflicts.
Second, when we stop wrestling with God, and simply cling to Him, hold onto Him, we might discover that He has been there for our good all along.
It reminds me of Christ’s promise in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, even until the end of the age”.
Another takeaway that could apply to each of us is that it is only after Jacob is “broken” that he is able to prevail. It is only after he has been physically broken, when he loses his physical strength, that he prevails through prayer. After God injured his hip, he is left with nothing else to do but simply cling to God. It sound a lot like what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:10, talking about leaning on Christ rather than himself, when he said “when I am weak, then I am strong”.