A question was raised in our Facebook Bible Daily Reading Group concerning Jacob’s wrestling encounter with God as described in Genesis 32. Was this a literal, physical wrestling match and if so, why?
Yes, Jacob’s interaction with God in Genesis 32 was a literal, physical encounter. There is no reason to read the text any differently and Jacob’s lifetime physical impairment, that being a limp, is evidence of the physicality of the narrative. However, the physical nature of this remarkable experience does not negate the text’s obvious spiritual underpinnings. The wrestling between Jacob and God was a physical encounter mandated by spiritual unrest.
I believe the “man” Jacob wrestled against was more than just an angel, but was the “Angel of the Lord”, a phrase sometimes used to denote the very presence of God, such as when Moses encountered God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:2). Even more so, I typically believe the Angel of the Lord as described in Genesis is the pre-incarnate Christ, so that Jacob is wrestling with none other than Jesus Christ in Genesis 32.
Jacob had reached a place where his lifelong striving with others had left him spiritually and emotionally bankrupt. Even from inside the womb, Jacob was “grabbing” at Esau’s heel in order to become the firstborn and claim the benefits thereof. He was a man of deception and lies. He was a man on the run. He was a man with a tremendous promise from God and yet was struggling with the nature and timing of that promise.
So God mercifully makes himself available for a struggle. And Jacob was right to engage. Because no matter the course of events our life has taken, it is ultimately God with whom we must do business. We do well to remember that God creates both the light and the dark (Isaiah 45:7) and that all trials to our faith in Christ Jesus ultimately flow through His providential care. And so God makes himself available to us, available for us to wrestle with and grapple with, and all the while he is fighting alongside us and for us, even while being the one with whom we are wrestling. It is a delicious truth of our faith that only God could muster up.
What happens as God was fighting for Jacob and against Jacob is that He finally wounds Jacob’s hip. Notice carefully the text at Genesis 32:6 – Jacob says he “will not let go.” He has moved from wrestling with God to clinging onto God. And so it is with God’s mercy, that so often He wounds us because He is for us. Clinging to God is key for faith and it frequently requires our wounding. Our human flesh is just too prone for boasting if it came through any other means.
For what it’s worth, I believe the encounter with God lasted until morning so that Jacob or anyone else would not have accused him of having a dream. His name change and limp were lifelong reminders of God’s mercy and Jacob’s change of heart. He moved from striving to clinging.
And so may we all.