Jacob was blessed by God in a dream when he was shown the ladder into heaven with God standing on the top to answer the prayers brought before Him. And God then promised to be with him wherever he went, to keep him and to bring him back to the land his ‘fathers’ and their generations were to receive. On return Jacob was met by the angels of God but he did not feel the need for their help and rather depended on his own self. But God planned to prepare him for the meeting with Esau, his elder brother, whom he had deceived earlier through a wrestling bout at night. Jacob had to learn it the hard way to surrender to God’s authority and power but this wrestle changed him physically, morally and spiritually.
Why the wrestling bout – Isaac’s wife Rebecca conceived through a blessing from God but the “children struggled together within her”. Answering her prayer, God declared, ‘the older shall serve the younger’ and the fight between the two children started before birth in the womb itself. At the time of birth the second son held on to elder son’s heel and was named Jacob meaning to follow, to be behind but also to supplant, circumvent, assail, overreach or heel catcher. Thus Jacob from before birth fights to be the elder or first born and he then bought his brother’s birthright and made him swear an oath for that sale in exchange for food (Genesis 25:22-33). To further seal his right, Jacob, in collaboration with his mother Rebecca, pretends to be Esau, by covering himself with goat skin, and receives his blessings meant for the firstborn son (Genesis 27). On being threatened by Esau of reprisal, Jacob, at the suggestion of his mother, flees to his uncle Laban’s place.
It was during this journey into uncertainty that God reveals to him the ladder reaching up to heaven and promises to be with him, to keep him or protect him and to bring him back to the land promised to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob names that place Bethel, where beith means house of El or Elohim or God or House of God. Bjt then he makes a conditional statement that if I come back, then the LORD shall be my God (Genesis 28:11-22). Despite having received an open promise of protection and blessings, Jacob still desired to be self dependent rather than be God dependent.
Later while herding Laban’s herds of sheep and goats and to settle the dispute about ownership, Jacob proposes that any animal that is born spotted or bearing stripes shall be his while the rest will go to his uncle. To give effect to his plan of deceit, he moved three days journey away and after cutting tree branches of poplar and almond and chestnut trees, peeled white strips in them and placed these in feeding troughs and watering points. The flocks brought forth speckled and spotted lambs in large numbers to the surprise of his cousins(Genesis 30:32-39).
Laban’s sons become suspicious of Jacob and finally God tells him to ‘return to the land of your fathers and to your family and I shall be with you’. Jacob convinces Rachel and Lea, his wives and convinces them to leave, Rachel steals her father’s family idols and they run away at night, unknown to Laban (Genesis 31:1-20). Laban chases them but is convinced by Jacob and his wives about their innocence and he after blessing them returns to his place.
On his journey Jacob is met by the angels of God probable to lead him safely to a meeting with his estranged brother Esau, but he wants to depend on his own self. He sends messengers ahead and they return with information about Esau coming over to meet him with 400 men and this did not look like a welcome party. On hearing this Jacob was greatly distressed. In his life he had deceived his father, brother and father in law and in desperation he disperses his family and possessions into various small groups. Fearful and distressed, he prays to God to save him, something which he should have done the first thing. To placate Esau, he sends presents to his brother and at night crosses over Jabbok, the small stream. The name of this ford means ‘he will empty or emptying’ and Jacob is now ready for being emptied of his own self and it is then that God meets him ((Genesis 32:1-14).
At night a man wrestles with Jacob till dawn and the Hebrew word abak used here is translated as wrestle or be dusty. This word is used only here in the Scripture and God initiates this wrestling to bring down Jacob from his self sufficiency to humble submission to God. The area was the border of land of Esau and Laban where the birthright is finally given by God to Jacob through physical and spiritual fall into the dust before the Creator God (Genesis 32:24-26). As every other detail in the Scripture, this story is also included by Moses under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to teach us and lead us towards God in our times of despair. Wrestling with God in prayer and in times of disease, lack and distress is an essential part of our spiritual formation and development.
Why did God appear in person – Jacob was blessed by God in a dream while he was on his outward journey then why did God choose a different way this time. While God’s ways are different from our ways and in His Sovereign authority He can do what He likes, but God does not do anything outside His established norms. Usually in our relationship with God we fall into a set routine pattern and in this we hide our true feelings and while praying right things we may not be praying true things. The real intent is kept deep inside the heart on the hope that no one will come to know. The closeness of wrestling rips apart the face masks that we wear revealing what lies beneath to our own selves for God is always aware of that.
Jacob was left alone after sending his wives, children and servants with the flocks ahead of him (Genesis 32:24). Is this loneliness more of the soul or ‘pseuche’, the seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversion caused by the fear of Esau and of losing control over the situation. In his loneliness, a man or ‘ish’ wrestled with him and since Jacob was at cross roads in his life and afraid of his future, did he wrestle with his own personal self. When sleep eludes us due to any reason, most of us struggle or wrestle with our thoughts and the situations of life, our inner enemy or our past. Wrestling is getting into the dust, what we eventually are, our origins, rolling in it, being overwhelmed by it and through that exorcise the demons to enter into the new life and inheritance.
When do we wrestle with God? – First, when we fall into the deep pit and are in a mess – Usually we get real intimate with God only in times of despair and from a deep pit filled with the filth of our sinful lives. God wrestled with Jacob despite his filth and there is no need to clean and get rid of that, for we can’t. We must appear before Him as we are for He knows all about us and He initiates the wrestle at His time and place. Lord Jesus came to heal the spiritually and morally sick and it is not an invitation to sin or argue or justify but to come to God as a needy, sick sinner (Luke 5:31).
Second, we wrestle with God on losing some worldly treasure – The loss of a family member, job, or health or any other such traumatic situation that directly impacts our perceived state of comfort of life, leads us into closeness with God. And there is no need to hide pain or ugly questions that keep on coming up but we cannot forget that God is not on trial in a court room and we are not the judge of our suffering. Job just could not understand the reason for his suffering and accusations of his three friends and he wrestled with God to finally say, “What have I done to You, O watcher of men? Why have You set me as your target?” (Job 7:1-20). In chapters 38 to 41 then God questions Job where God wrestles to maneuver, touch, engage, effect change and win. Job could never understand the real reason but He did say to praise God, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You” (Job 42:5) and this compensates any amount of suffering for an individual.
Why do we wrestle with God? – It is a physical fight where both get very close and we wrestle to grow closer to God in prayer and worship to finally cry out, ‘I will not let You go unless You bless me’ (Genesis 32:26). The aim is to have more of God through a close relationship, not to beat God or force Him to follow our plan but to surrender to His authority and through that get strengthened and be close.
Why couldn’t God prevail over Jacob? – God is love and He does not want to break us. He wrestles like a father with His child to encourage but He does not hesitate to twist our arms to correct for He wants to change us and then bless us. Jacob got a dislocated hip but also a new name, Israel – a combination of ‘sareta’ or wrestling with ‘El’ or God and prevails. All his life Jacob had wrestled with men and prevailed through deceit whereas this prevailing over God is, being pinned down by God to Himself. In losing Jacob wins and becomes fully subject to God’s plan and power where his old identity of deceiver gets changed to Israel meaning ‘Let God rule’. His injury from God is like a surgeon’s operation where poison of the wound is released and healing affected. We can never leave in the same state as before, after wrestling with God.
Why did God not appear in a dream to Jacob? – In the earlier two situations Jacob was distressed and needed comforting. A dream was enough to reassure him of his future but this time physical appearance became necessary to effect a permanent change in him and to reassure him of God’s blessings. After the meetings in the dream, Jacob did not change and physical touch was needed to change him permanently and establish him in a blessed state. Wrestling is a two way exchange where we bring our mess of sinful living, our pain, suffering and lack to get thrown down to the dust to remind us of our life origin and end. The change or transformation is through loss and purpose of wrestling is to know closely the Great wrestler.
Are blessings routed through suffering only? – Jacob was all alone when he went out and on return, though he has a large family and wealth, he was again all alone. Probably he managed to be alone to pray or get adequate rest and get strengthened to face Esau. But a strange thing happens and a man comes to wrestle with him. It is speculated that it could be one of the idol gods of Laban or Esau, who want to stop him from leaving or entering their respective territory. Jacob initially doubted the identity but was later aware of the reality of the contender and despite being in great pain stills holds on to Him to get blessed (Genesis 32:26-28). This pleased God to answer his prayer and Jacob gets a new name loaded with great meaning. Jacob was physically weakened but strengthened in faith to face Esau. Jacob was made more vulnerable through his injury to make him fully dependent on God and not on himself. All of our wrestling with God leads to peace and sometimes He blesses us in unexpected ways and will even cause a limp to increase our faith.
Wrestling with God changed his identity – The deceiver received his blessing not through deceit but by prevailing with God in faith and restoration to his family occurs as a result. Apostle Peter asked by the Lord to wrestle with Him to confirm his love as many times as he denied Him to receive blessings of a new role (John 21:15-17). Without faith it is impossible to please God and Jacob’s request while suffering physical pain of injury and psychological pain of failure, pleased God (Hebrews 11:6). There is always more going on than what we see or understand and God uses every circumstance for our good to change us (Romans 8:28) and God wrestles with us to give us much more than we can otherwise get without that sustained effort in prayer. God started the wrestling to get Jacob out of his fear of Esau to shift his focus to God and this wrestling became God’s channel to pour out His grace and mercy.
Son of God wrestled with God His Father in the Gethsemane Park while surrendering to His authority and power and an angel strengthened the Lord Jesus (Luke 22:43). To teach about perseverance in prayer Lord Jesus preached to the disciples about the parable of the ‘widow and the unjust judge’ (Luke 18:1-8). Through prayer we are to keep wrestling with and through God with your adversary to break his resolve. When God delays answer to our prayers we need to get into the dust in humility before Him and not let go of Him for He loves us and will intervene in our situation to bless and transform us.
Psalm 13 is the classic example of King David wrestling with God in prayer to exclaim, “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” He is well aware of God’s love for him and remains steadfast to finally rejoice and say, “I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me”. We need to cling to God in faith and wait for the outpouring of His mercy and love, though sometimes this wait may appear to be long and painful!