One cannot encounter God and remain unchanged. Moses descended the mountain with a radiant face. Isaiah was overwhelmed by his own inadequacy. And when it comes to Jesus’ disciples—however unlearned they were—it was evident that they had been “with Jesus.” The same can be said of Jacob, who was forever altered by his experience of “wrestling” with God.
An Unexpected Encounter
In the earlier chapters of Genesis, Jacob had wrestled with virtually everyone around him. He wrestled with Esau to take his birthright. He wrestled with Isaac to secure Esau’s blessing. He wrestled with Laban to marry Rachel (and Leah). In Genesis 22, Jacob was about to encounter Esau for the first time in 20 years. Jacob hears that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men so he sends a gift ahead of him (Gen 32:6). As Jacob waits at his camp—fearing a coming battle with Esau—he is attacked by an unexpected opponent (Gen 32:24).
Did Jacob Wrestle with God Himself?
Jacob’s encounter in Genesis 32:22-32 is odd enough on the surface, but did he really wrestle with God Himself? It seems unlikely at first. The text simply says that “a man” wrestled with Jacob. Jacob even appears to win the exchange. The “man” fights Jacob all night and realizes that “he did not prevail” so he put Jacob’s hip out of joint (Gen 32:25). As the day breaks, he pleads with Jacob to release him, but Jacob will not let him go unless the stranger blesses him.
All this leads one to think that Jacob simply wrestled an unidentified human. Or perhaps it was an angel (Hos 12:3-4). However strange it may seem though, it appears that the “man” was more than a human or angel; this person was indeed God. In Shining Like the Sun: A Biblical Theology of Meeting God Face to Face, David Wenkel makes several points that build a cumulative case that Jacob wrestled with God in the form of a man:
- The man was able to bless Jacob. Since he blessed Jacob, the man was “greater” than him (see Heb 7:7). Of course, this need not require the man to be God himself but it suggests more might be in play.
- The man crippled Jacob through simply “touching” his hip. This wound was not from a strike or blow, but a simple touch. This suggests a supernatural power.
- The man was able to rename Jacob. Giving names was reserved for the father, so this stranger had unique authority indeed. What’s more, in the narrative of Genesis, it was God Himself who previously renamed Abram to Abraham.
- The man implies that he is God. The man’s rationale for naming Jacob “Israel” is that “you have striven with God and with man, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:28). The context strongly suggests that this very encounter exemplifies the man’s statement.
- The man did not reveal his name to Jacob. This suggests that he would not release authority to Jacob by revealing his name and/or that Jacob already knew his identity.
- This story may point back to another similar encounter. In Genesis 18, three “men” appear to Abraham but one is revealed to be the LORD Himself. The larger context of Genesis prepares the reader to conclude the same could be happening with Jacob.
- Jacob believes that he encountered God. After the encounter, Jacob “called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered’” (Gen 32:30). Jacob’s encounter is the first in Scripture where the phrase “face to face” is used of someone meeting with God.
A New Name and Identity
What does all this mean for Jacob? While Jacob’s striving may simply appear to be perpetuating his lifestyle of deceit, the opposite is in fact the case. Jacob here is not striving against God, but with Him. His plea for a blessing is one of dependent faith in God’s promises to the patriarchs. When he names the place “Peniel,” he recognizes that his very life was spared in this encounter. His physical wound reflected the larger transformation that he experienced. This encounter with God left him forever changed. As Wenkel concludes, “Jacob the ‘heel-grabber’ limped way when the fight ended and the sun rose, but he was blessed and changed because of God’s grace.”
* * *
This post is adapted from chapter 2 in Shining Like the Sun by David H. Wenkel (Lexham Press, 2016).