57. Genesis 32:22 – 33:17

III. C. continued

7. Jacob Wrestles with the Angel (Genesis 32:22 – 33:17)

The man who came to wrestle with Jacob appears in this narrative out of nowhere. Like the serpent in the garden, like Melchizedek meeting Abram, like the three angels walking past Abram on the way to Sodom, this nameless man came unaccountably and suddenly from nowhere. Again the mythic and the historical intersect. The wrestler was called a man in this passage and was called an angel in Hosea 12:3,4, and he is frequently interpreted as a pre-incarnation appearance of the Messiah. Why did they start wrestling? Clearly the man picked a fight with Jacob. I think that initially Jacob thought the man was Esau. Perhaps he was a hairy man who smelled of the fields; in the dark he may even have looked like Esau. But at some point in the wrestling Jacob recognized the hand of God in the hand that was pinning him down. Suddenly it all became much more serious.

And so they wrestled through the night and day was about to break. The identity of the man is mysterious, but his motivations were even more so, regardless of who he was. Why did God appear to Jacob and wrestle him? Or if not God Himself, why did God send an agent to wrestle with Jacob? And once Jacob recognized the supernatural character of his adversary, why didn’t he give up? What did he hope to gain by wrestling with God? Wouldn’t it have been more humble, more righteous, more reasonable, once he recognized the man as being from God, to surrender to His power? But Jacob refused to quit until the man blessed him. What made him think fighting with God should get him a blessing? Doesn’t God prefer that we submit humbly to His will?

One reason Jacob might not capitulate was that the strange man had started the fight in the first place. Perhaps Jacob was thinking something like, “All right, if God wants to fight then let’s fight.” It does not sound like the kind of thing many Christians would think, and it does not sound much like what we know of Jacob’s character. We are accustomed to believe that submission to God is the highest good, the thing that He wants, the sign of great spirituality. The harder God pushes us the more we are supposed to accept. If He pushes us into the mud and we are supposed to lie in a huddle and let Him pick us up and throw us back again if He chooses. God’s will be done. That would have been a natural mode of thought for Jacob as well. “Don’t fight with gods” is a maxim recognized in the most primitive religious circles.

The thing is, Jacob’s belligerence seems to be what God was looking for. There had never been a doubt about who would win the fight; Jacob was elderly and had never been a fighter anyway. When the stranger wished to put an end to it he merely touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh and crippled him; he could have done that at the beginning, at any point. When the dawn was approaching and “he saw he had not prevailed against him” it was not an admission that he couldn’t beat Jacob. It was an acknowledgment that Jacob was not going to quit fighting without some serious injury. Even after Jacob was crippled, he would not let go until he had gotten a blessing from him. It was evident that the stranger was going to have to really hurt Jacob in order to stop the fight. Jacob wanted that blessing regardless of the pain.

And he got it. Mind you, God did not have to bless Jacob; He could have reprimanded him for being so stubborn or He could have cast him to sleep or injured him in a more debilitating way, like blindness. As strange as it may seem to think it, apparently God had been rather hoping that Jacob would not give up the fight.

I think what was going on here was that God made Jacob pay for the blessing he had stolen from Esau. It was important for Jacob to know, before he saw Esau again, that the blessing he had stolen was meaningless, worthless. All blessings come from God and God was not to be tricked into blessing a man, even one that He had already decided to bless. So God fought with Jacob as Esau could reasonably have fought with him twenty years before. Perhaps the angel even appeared in the form of Esau when he came to him; but whether He did or not God was substituting for Esau. He was saying to Jacob something like, “Do you really want My blessing without cheating? Do you want it enough to fight for it? It can’t be truly yours by means of a lie.” I also think that at this moment, God’s Spirit softened Esau’s heart toward his brother. When the sun arose, Esau was in the right frame of mind to receive Jacob’s gifts; God had taken all his revenge for him.

And what was the blessing Jacob received? A new name. The angel asked his name, not because he couldn’t remember, but because Jacob needed to remember it. We all remember our names, of course, but when Jacob spoke his own name he would have said, “Supplanter” or “Deceiver”; to give his own name was to confess his sin, it was to call to mind why he had fled from Esau, why he had been forced to flee from Esau, why he justly feared to see Esau again. And in place of that name, God gave him a new name, a new identity. No longer was he Supplanter; now he was Wrestler-with-God. Jacob would not have to meet Esau ever again. Now it would be Israel who went back to meet Esau, a man with a new identity who was not guilty of cheating his brother, a man who had been forgiven.

But God was doing more than just giving Jacob a new name, more than just comforting him in his fear. God was announcing that Jacob had indeed become a different person. The Jacob who had fled Esau was a person who had little regard for God. That Jacob would never have wrestled with God. That Jacob would make God prove Himself (sound familiar?) and God had done it.  God had proven Himself worthy of Jacob’s devotion. God had proven His desirability, and now Jacob knew for the first time that he wanted Him. He was a different man, with a different name and a different identity and a different relationship to God. He had fully embraced the Covenant that belonged to him by birth.

But God was doing more than just revealing to Jacob how much he had been changed over the years. God was taking a new name for Himself as well. In other words, He was taking another step in revealing Himself. From this point on He would be known all over the world as the God of Israel, the “God of the One Who Wrestles with God”. Not only is a certain kind of wrestling with God desirable to Him, it is a part of His essential nature to seek out such people and to be their God. These are the people He wants to be the God of, the ones who will wrestle with Him until dawn, who will not let go until He blesses them.

With this episode we have touched on one of the essential differences between the biblical Jewish and Christian tradition, and the Muslim tradition. The word “Muslim” means “one who submits to God” whereas “Israel” means “one who wrestles with God”. The relationship of Allah to a Muslim and the relationship of Yahweh to a Jew or Christian are very nearly opposites in nature. It is no wonder that the Jew/Christian and the Muslim cannot easily understand one another. Allah and Yahweh are two completely different understandings of the one true God. Allah desires submission above all. Yahweh desires engagement above all. The Muslim revelation is not just discontinuous from the biblical revelation in time; it is discontinuous from the biblical tradition entirely.

But the name Israel was also a prophecy about the character of the people He had chosen to be His people. They would prove to be a rebellious people, a stubborn people, a people who always put Him to the test, and who wrestled with Him continually. There is the wrestling of a man like Jacob who sought to hold on to God, and there is another wrestling of a man like Saul of Tarsus who sought to destroy Him. It is God’s pleasure to find people who will struggle with Him rather than people who don’t react to Him at all. There is a place for wrestling, there is a place for submission, but there is no place for indifference.

The other side of the coin to Jacob wrestling with God is that God wrestled with Jacob. God loved Jacob and therefore He wrestled with Jacob. God never wrestled, even metaphorically, with Esau. This is what the latter prophet Malachi would mean by saying, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau I have hated.” The evidence that God loves us is that He strives with us; in fact this is a more reliable sign of His love than His blessing is. The apostle Paul says something similar in Romans 1 when he repeated the phrase “Therefore God gave them up…” The essence of God’s wrath is abandonment. The abandonment that is wrath is not a matter of feeling, but a reality that is usually, perhaps always, not felt. It is no evidence of God’s attitude toward you how you are feeling about His attitude toward you. To feel abandoned by God is not to be abandoned; in fact, it is probably the opposite. To feel abandoned by God is to feel that He is missing and to feel regret and longing for His return, and He does not abandon those who long for Him. On the contrary, the one who is abandoned by God in fact is the one who misses Him not at all, who is oblivious to the abandonment, who is content to live alone.

God is the One who wrestles with His people, a new aspect of the Covenant relationship, a new quality of God revealed for the first time. It was to emphasize the importance of this new revelation about the Covenant that God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. The new name showed that Jacob had a new dimension to his intimacy with God that had been given to him by God Himself. God would not be content to reveal Himself to His people by mail; He would look at them face to face; He might get angry, but when He did get angry He would fight with them rather than walk away from them.

But dawn began the day in which he would have to face Esau, so he made his final preparations. He would go in the front with his wives and children in groups behind him, the first group being Bilhah and Zilpah and their four children, then Leah and her six children, and finally Rachel and Joseph. When Israel did see Esau, it was not as the blessed one, the one who would rule over his brother, and the one who had the double portion. Instead, he was the one who bowed to Esau, the one who gave  gifts to Esau, the one who called Esau “lord”. God had foreordained that Esau would serve Israel but that did not mean what the world might mean by it. Since the beginning the people of God submit to each other, the greater to the lesser, the ruler to the ruled, the parent to the child and the husband to the wife and the master to the slave. The kingdom of God has never been like a human kingdom.

Though Israel and Esau met peacefully, and were reconciled, they had never felt close or comfortable with each other and never would. Israel refused Esau’s offer of an escort and his offer to leave a bodyguard (Israel obviously had no ability to protect himself). Hebron, and Isaac, would have been a logical destination. But Israel was exhausted from his traumatic escape and return and did not want to travel far, and he had never been close to his father. Israel had little intention of actually going to Seir whatever he said. Instead he moved a few miles further west along the Jabbok and established a long-term camp at what became known as Succoth, to the east of the Jordan. Initially he was probably just looking for a place to rest and to recover from what had been a difficult trip, as well as to find the best available pasture. There is no record in the Bible that the twins ever saw one another again until Isaac’s death, and never again after that. Though there was forgiveness for the sins of the past, there was no closeness between them. The only brotherly love we have encountered in three generations of this family history is Abraham’s love for Lot.

2 Comments on “57. Genesis 32:22 – 33:17”

  1. dantrewear Says:

    This is what I like about the Jacob – Esau reunion:
    “4 But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.”
    “[10] … For to see your face is like seeing the face of God…”.
    For me, one of the most inspiring passages in the entire bible; Esau, cheated, probably pagan, is Christ-like to his brother.

  2. You’re bringing out an aspect of this story that I didn’t and I appreciate it very much. There was a lot going on in Esau that I had not appreciated, or noticed, until you pointed it out. I am going to look back at this passage again from the new perspective you have opened up.
    And thank you for fulfilling the main purpose of this blog.

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