Can you imagine grappling with God? Can you imagine wrestling with him, going toe-to-toe, mano a mano? We may use that language to express struggling with God, say in prayer. But Jacob physically wrestled with God. Let’s look at this strange encounter in Genesis 32 that occurs while Jacob is traveling back to see Esau. We’ll do so by following these notes from the Tyndale Commentary series.

Jacob Wrestles with God

And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 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.

Genesis 32:24–25

Why Jacob remained alone on the north side of the Jabbok River is not stated. Perhaps he was simply ensuring that no-one was left behind. The text, however, contains an abrupt transition to a wrestling match with a man. The reader is given no other identification of this person, heightening the mystery of what is happening with Jacob. However, there is another multiple play on words that alerts readers to the importance of this encounter from the beginning. It involves three words which have three consonants in common, b, y, q: Jabbok (Hebrew ybbq, v. 23), Jacob (Hebrew y‘qb, v. 25) and wrestled (Hebrew wy’bq, v. 25).

The struggle between Jacob and the man is not described or explained. The narrative simply skips immediately to the end of the scuffle when the man realized he could not defeat Jacob. Instead he struck him on the hollow of his thigh, dislocating Jacob’s hip. This reveals the man’s extreme power, since the dislocation of a hip joint normally occurs during high-energy impacts. This supplied Jacob with the first hint of the identity of his adversary. By this point the reader, too, must suspect that this is no ordinary man. It is God in his manifestation as the Angel of God (cf. v. 30; 48:15–16; Hos. 12:3–4). Here God is depicted as assuming human form. Thereby imposing upon himself the physical limits of a man until the very end of the struggle.

Wrestling for a Blessing

Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 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.”

Genesis 32:26–28

Having disabled his opponent, the man demanded that Jacob release his hold, since the new day was dawning. There has been much discussion as to why dawn would necessitate that Jacob let loose the man. It is often suggested that since this man would later be revealed as God, and since no-one can see God and live (Exod. 33:20), Jacob’s survival depended on it. Yet Jacob demanded a blessing, acknowledging that his opponent was a superior.

Before proceeding to the blessing, the man enquired about Jacob’s name. The point is not that the man was ignorant of Jacob’s identity, but that Jacob had to admit to who he was, and therefore to what he had done to Esau, whom he feared (cf. 27:36). The new name given to Jacob is constructed of two elements. It consists of the word ’ēl, meaning ‘God’, and the verb root śārāh, meaning ‘contends’. The explanation for this name is given by the man who had wrestled with Jacob. It was to serve as a reminder that Jacob had struggled with God and with men and had prevailed, thereby implying that this man was God himself (v. 28).

There is an irony in the explanation for this name in that the man was not able to overcome Jacob, but Jacob overcame God and . . . men.

Identifying the Wrestler and Place of Wrestling

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. 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.”

Genesis 32:29–30

Jacob now reverses the relationship and asks the man his name, though Jacob includes a polite please. The man’s reply is only a question about why Jacob asked for his name, not an explanation of why he would not tell it to Jacob (contrast Judg. 13:18). Then we are told that he gave Jacob a blessing – presumably in addition to the blessing that came with the new name Israel. With that the man disappears from the narrative without any explanation of his departure.

Jacob’s realization that the man he had encountered that night was God is shown in his naming of the place Peniel, meaning ‘face of God’. Elsewhere this place is called Penuel (v. 31; Judg. 8:8–9, 17; 1 Kgs 12:25), but here the name is presented in a form that sounds more like ‘face of God’ to make it match more closely Jacob’s reason for naming it. Jacob’s explanation was not simply that he had seen God face-to-face, but, most importantly, that his life had been spared even though he had seen God. The fear of sinful humans to look upon the holy and righteous God is mentioned repeatedly in the Old Testament (Exod. 3:6; Judg. 6:22; 13:22; Isa 6:5). Yet God spared Jacob’s life, another sign of his favour towards the patriarch.

Jacob’s Recovery

The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 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.

Genesis 32:31–32

By the time Jacob was on his way it was fully sunrise, and he was left with a limp because of his dislocated hip. The final verse of this chapter contains a rare (for Genesis) editorial comment: the linking of the Israelite tradition of not eating the muscle around the hip socket because of Jacob’s injury. It is noted that Israel had kept that tradition to this day (v. 32), that is, to the time of the writing of Genesis. This custom is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, and was not part of the divine legislation for Israelite dietary practices given through Moses. This final verse also gives a sense of closure to this incident through the arrangement of anatomical features mentioned in it: thigh muscle . . . hip socket . . . hip socket . . . thigh muscle.

The Meaning of the Wrestling

Jacob’s mysterious night of wrestling came on the heels of a stressful day. He was clearly worried about his forthcoming encounter with Esau and how to pacify his brother who had previously plotted to kill him (27:41–42), and he took extraordinary measures to court his brother’s favor. As he planned for his meeting with his brother, Jacob appeared to be doubleminded concerning his faith in God. He was encouraged by the appearance of God’s angels (32:1–2), and this moved him humbly to ask Yahweh to rescue him from Esau (32:9–12). At the same time, he sent gifts to Esau in stages in order to placate him, not entirely certain that God’s work alone was enough to protect him from his brother.

This struggle to cling on to God’s promises instead of relying on his own effort was addressed by God himself in the wrestling match with the mysterious man.

As the account of this struggle unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear to readers that this is no ordinary man who has engaged in this scuffle with the patriarch. The readers learn that Jacob came to realize something about his opponent during the tussle that night: he was able to bless Jacob and rename him. Then he is gone as quickly as he appeared. Jacob then states what readers ought to expect at this point in the story: that the mysterious stranger was God himself, whom Jacob had seen face-to-face. At sunrise the patriarch limps away, but not without having gained knowledge of God and of the steadfastness of his promises.

Readers who struggle with the enigmatic nature of this passage learn of God’s unwavering commitment to all his people. They are now ready to move on to Jacob’s meeting with Esau. They are more assured that God is able to see them through their challenges. Just as they will see Jacob through his reunion with Esau.

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  1. I would like to know from what language “mono e mono” is taken. I know it isn’t Greek, Latin, or any of the Romance languages. If it was supposed to be the popular Spanish phrase, it should be “mano a mano”. What appears in this article is “money __?__monkey”.. I know that this is not the main point in the article, which is very good. I know I need a reminder of how Jesus told us to behave! Thank you.

    • Brad Hoffman Reply

      Hi Lynda! Thanks for sharing your observation. Correction made! Blessings!

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