Paul Vawter Is it possible for man to obtain God’s blessing through strictly human efforts? Does there come a time in each believer’s life when he is forced to lean completely on God and cling to him in helplessness and so receive the blessing that God desires to give him? Often believers are tempted to rely on their own strength and cunning when it comes to temporal things and on God only as a last resort. Examples of the failure of such reliance are plentiful throughout Scripture, but in Genesis 32 Jacob finds himself physically wrestling with God in an attempt to secure his blessing and protection.
There is something about this account which resonates with most readers. Each person desires God’s blessing, but such blessings often are not apparent or easily grasped. Often this is due to man’s constant struggle to earn the blessing for himself rather than trusting God to provide it. Jacob is a prime example of one who chooses to help God along rather than trusting God to keep his word. Prior to his birth, God predicted that Jacob would receive the promise (25:23), but Isaac intended to bless Esau even though Jacob had already obtained the birthright (27:1-4; cf. 25:33). In response, Jacob deceived his father and brought on himself the wrath of Esau, forcing him to flee to Padan-Aram. It was on the way there that God met him at Bethel and reassured him that he was to be blessed (28:11–19). Even after this incredible eye-opening experience with God, Jacob still tried to secure his own blessing by deception and craftiness toward Laban. Laban proved to be every bit as good at deceit as Jacob, but God still blessed him (31:38–42). As he returned to Canaan, Jacob prepared to meet Esau who had sworn to kill him. This represented the greatest threat to date to God’s fulfillment of his promise to Jacob. As is often the case, Jacob’s efforts on his own behalf had proven at best problematic and at worst devastating. Whereas in the past he had always managed to elude his opponents and use his skills in deceit to get what he wanted, at Jabbok he was forced to choose a different path.
This paper will attempt to demonstrate that this event in the life of Jacob plays an important role in the meta-narrative of Genesis, God’s faithfulness to his promise in spite of man’s weakness and in the face of impossible circumstances. Further it will show that the exegetical difficulties of this account can be reasonably explained in light of the greater context of Genesis and its rhetorical purpose. Finally, this paper will explain the application of the principles taught in this account, namely that each believer ought to have a consciousness of his own weakness, a hunger for God, and the willingness to confess his own unworthiness before him. The procedure will include addressing preliminary issues related to the book of Genesis and the life of Jacob. This will be followed by an exposition of Genesis 32:22–32, an explanation of the difficulties presented by the text, an analysis of the rhetorical purpose of the author and an application of the primary principles contained in the text.
There is a great deal of conflict regarding the nature of the Pentateuch and the book of Genesis in particular. The tendency among many has been to search for distinct threads supplied by different sources, woven together to form the book as it stands today. The problem with this approach is that it unnecessarily complicates the structure of the text, denying any real centralizing theme or purpose and effectively preventing the reader from drawing any coherent principles for application from the text. Furthermore, this approach denies the divine nature of Scripture and claims to know something which is unknowable, namely the nature and origin of the Genesis history prior to the book’s composition. Van Groningen states, “However, if we take the claim of Scripture seriously that Genesis, as all Scripture, is part of the revelation of God in Christ, then we have the proper key.” Understanding Genesis to be part of God’s supernatural self-revelation means that we can analyze the present structure of the text, identifying central themes and applying truths in principle form from the OT text. The method of interpretation then in Genesis is consistent with that used throughout the Biblical narratives, as Van Groningen further states, “we are to employ and apply the basic hermeneutical principles and rules and exegetical tools which are in harmony and consistent with the revelation of God in Genesis given to us in human words.” The hermeneutical principles which apply directly to narrative include identifying the scene, analyzing the plot, determining the point of view of the author, examining the dialogue and mapping out the structure. Before Jacob’s encounter at Peniel can be examined, however we must explain the significance of his story to the rest of the book of Genesis.
As we consider Jacob himself, we are struck by the fact that he seems out of place when compared with the other patriarchs. Indeed, Vos observes, “Of the characters of the three patriarchs, that of Jacob is least represented as an ideal one. Its reprehensible features are rather strongly brought out. This is done in order to show that divine grace is not the reward for, but the source of noble traits.” Jacob is often the model of what not to do in one’s relationship to God. Within the context of Genesis, however, the account of Jacob is placed in a significant position which is consistent with the overall theme of the book, God’s promise to the patriarchs and its fulfillment. The book of Genesis is naturally divided by the toledoth formula which occurs 11 times throughout the book. Each of the major toledoths is described as the account of the father, while the son is the primary focus of the account. The life of Jacob is described throughout the account of Isaac from Gen 25:11–35:29, while the account of Jacob beginning in 37:2 relates the Joseph narrative to the greater Jacob narrative. These toledoths relate the promise of God being passed through the younger son rather than the elder, and the Jacob account shows further that God’s plan will not be frustrated even by the weakness of the one through whom God has chosen to work.
A closer look at the life of Jacob reveals structural elements which may help shed light on the events at Peniel. Geller suggests that a chiastic structure appears in chapters 27–33. Jacob received Isaac’s blessing, albeit through deception, and in response to his struggle with Esau he fled to Padan-Aram. Later he fled from Laban only to receive another blessing followed by a meeting with Esau. In addition to chiasm, many parallels can be found between the account in chapter 28 of Jacob’s vision at Bethel and that of his encounter at Peniel in chapter 32. These parallels include the presence of angels, Jacob being found alone, and the traversing of the border of Canaan. Curtis identifies linguistic similarities as well, “In both instances mal’ākîm (‘angels’) were encountered by Jacob, and in both chapters the verb pāga’ (‘meet, encounter’) is used.”
Exposition of Genesis 32:22–32
An outline of Jacob’s midnight struggle may be as follows:
The Prologue (32:22–24a)
The Event (32:24b–25)
The Blessing (32:26–28)
The Evaluation (32:29–30)
The Epilogue (32:31–32)
Earlier in the day, Jacob had seen angelic messengers from God (32:1–2) and had sent his own messengers to Esau in hopes of finding a kinder, gentler Esau than the one from whom he had stolen his father’s blessing (v. 3–5). The return of his messengers brings bad news that Esau is coming to meet Jacob with 400 men (v. 6). Jacob then made a practical decision to divide his company into two parts so that one might escape what he believed to be an impending attack (v. 7–8). Immediately afterward, Jacob prays to God, reminding him of the promises God made to him 20 years earlier at Bethel (v. 12) and pleading with him for deliverance from Esau (v. 11). He then prepares a very generous series of gifts intended to appease Esau. At this point, Jacob sends his family on ahead of him, effectively placing everything he owns between himself and Esau. Having completed these tasks, Jacob finds himself alone along the Jabbok stream.
The text simply says that a man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. There is no introduction, no identification, just this abrupt and dramatic statement. In fact, the man whom Jacob wrestles remains unidentified expect by Jacob’s remarks in v. 30. It almost seems as if the author intends for the reader to remain in the dark just as Jacob was during this nighttime attack. Not only is the identity of Jacob’s attacker withheld until later, but the identity of each action in v. 25 is initially ambiguous. Not until the end of the verse do we see that it was Jacob whose thigh was touched, and Jacob against whom the attacker could not prevail.
The mysterious opponent blessed Jacob by changing his name in v. 27–28 and again in v. 29. This identifies Jacob as the one refusing to let go of his opponent in v. 26 and demanding a blessing. Why his opponent was concerned with the breaking dawn is the cause for much speculation, but little is given in the text to explain it. The man asked Jacob for his name in response to Jacob’s demand for a blessing. The fact that Jacob’s name revealed his true character is significant here; it is almost as if Jacob was forced to own up to his past. According to Marks, “Insofar as ‘Jacob’ metaphorically is the ‘deceiver,’ his response may appear cannily unreadable (like the paradox of the Cretan insisting all Cretans are liars), but it has the virtue of repealing the flatly dishonest response to blind Isaac’s similar question earlier in the cycle (‘Who are you my son?’ . . . ‘I am Esau,’ 27:18–19)—a deception that showed him to be ‘rightly named Jacob’ (v. 36).” The significance of Jacob’s new name will be addressed later in this paper, but the fact that this “man” was able to change Jacob’s name suggests that he was more than simply a man.
Jacob persists in asking his name, a request which is again refused. Marks explains, “The question he poses in response to Jacob’s is usually taken to mean that the name is holy or forbidden—the meaning implied (with a different set of ironies) in the story of Samson’s birth: ‘Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?’ (Judg 13:18).” Jacob’s response to this refusal is to name the place Peniel, signifying that he knew the identity of his opponent at least by this point in the narrative. Mathews says, “The appellative pĕnî’ēl means ‘the face of God [El],’ originated by Jacob because he survived this face-to-face (pānîm el pānîm) meeting with God.” While Jacob’s explanation for this name is often translated “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved,” Ross contends that it means “and my life has been delivered.” Either way, Jacob recognized that it was God with whom he wrestled.
As the sun rose in the sky, Jacob forded the river and resumed his journey toward Esau, limping on his injured thigh. This prompts the explanation in v. 32 that the Israelites refused to eat the sinew or vein of the thigh as a result of Jacob’s injury. The injury is significant in this account as it gives a physical reminder of the event which so dramatically affected Jacob’s life, and which apparently also had a tremendous impact on the entire nation of Israel. Ross concludes, “The point of the story for the nation of Israel entering the land of promise is clear: Israel’s victory will come not by the usual ways nations gain power, but by the power of the divine blessing.”
Present Difficulties in the Text
There are numerous difficulties presented by a variety of different writers as each attempts to explain the significance of the elements of Jacob’s encounter at Peniel. First, there are questions about the nature of the event itself. Historically, there have been a number of different explanations which suggest that the events of Genesis 32 happened in some other realm than the physical, earthly realm. Josephus interpreted it as a dream in which Jacob wrestled an apparition who used a voice and words. Philo and Clement of Alexandria to a lesser degree held that the struggle was only spiritual, while Jerome believed it to be a long and earnest prayer. In contrast, Keil and Delitzsch in their work on the Pentateuch clearly state, “The wrestling match was physical and real, not simply spiritual.” This is indicated by Jacob’s real, physical disability which resulted from his wrestling match. However, Keil and Delitzsch caution against falling to the other extreme and assuming it was simply a physical encounter, “The match differed from simply a physical event by the fact that through prayer Jacob received the ‘victory.’”
Thus, the event was real, but what about Jacob’s opponent? Was it really God? And if so, how could Jacob have prevailed against him? These questions have plagued commentators and the suggestions concerning his identity vary widely. Some have suggested a close relationship between Jacob’s experience and other legendary stories from ancient times. Von Rad is one example, “How close our story is to all those sagas in which gods, spirits or demons attack a man and in which then the man extorts something of their strength and their secret.” Later, however, Von Rad offers a different suggestion, “The opponent appeared to be a man to Jacob, while he later reveals himself as God.” That the man was actually God himself is declared first of all by Jacob in v. 30, and there are many authors who support this. Keil and Delitzsch suggest that his opponent was divine and that he refused to identify himself in order to heighten the mystery of the event and cause Jacob to take it to heart. Wessner disagrees, however, “The Genesis text unquestionably says that Jacob physically saw someone face to face, but that someone was neither an ordinary man nor God himself, as is often assumed, but rather a messenger acting on behalf of God.” In response to this type of argument, Leupold reminds us that though the figure here may be described as an “angel” the OT regularly refers to the Angel of the Lord when describing a theophany. Thus we should not be surprised to find the Second Person of the Godhead himself appearing as an angel in his pre-incarnate state.
Still others suggest that there is no way for us to accurately identify the man in this passage, and Geller says that is exactly what the author intended. Geller further states, “The point is this: the meaning is in the restless activity of the mind as it tests possible answers. By being unclear on such a vital point the text allows intimations of all possible answers.” The problem with his conclusion is that it defies any real interpretation of the passage and would mean the author of Genesis has no rhetorical purpose in writing the book. While this position is untenable, others have suggested that Esau was Jacob’s mysterious opponent. Ross identifies the real problem with all of these theories, “It must be stressed that he was not wrestling with a river demon or Esau or his alter ego, but with One who was able to bless him.” The blessing and renaming that Jacob received could only come from God himself, since it was God who initially established the promise of his blessing on Jacob in Rebekah’s womb and again at Bethel. Jacob had already received Isaac’s blessing. What higher blessing could he obtain except from God? Wessner’s conclusion is essentially the same, “In effect, the face to face encounter serves as a supernatural ‘stamp of approval,’ . . . not as a Jacob-initiated victory over a local god or spirit as is suggested by some.”
Another difficulty is the source of the text itself. Von Rad believes that this text developed gradually over time with many editors making modifications over the centuries. McKenzie essentially agrees with this position stating that the pattern of the story is ancient while many of its key elements were added later. Certainly Bruce is correct when he states that any prehistory of this event is irrelevant when it comes to our interpretation, since the Biblical context in which it is found is of primary importance, but is this response sufficient? Ross argues against this evolutionary development of the Jabbok account: “To say that the account gradually developed from some such ancient myth greatly weakens a very important point in the history of Israel and solves none of the tensions that exist.” Again, we must ask if this was a gradually developed myth rather than an account of a real event in Jacob’s life, would it serve the purpose of providing a significant point of national identity for the Israelites? Certainly an event of this magnitude must have been based in reality or else its import would have been lost long before Israel became a nation. Even more significant is the burden placed on proponents of this passage’s evolutionary development to provide some evidence beyond simply assumptive statements in support of their position. To this author’s knowledge, there has not been any such evidence offered to date.
The final area of difficulty present in this narrative is the nature and meaning of Jacob’s new name, Israel. Certainly there appears to be a consensus among most commentators that Jacob’s new name involves more than simply a different title. Vos suggests that the name Israel illustrates a new maturity in Jacob’s faith, while both Delitzsch and Leupold seem to say it represents a new found faith which was missing from Jacob’s life prior to Jabbok. Curtis observes, “It seems likely that the change in Jacob did include a moral dimension, since in the subsequent meeting with Esau there is little evidence of the trickery and bribery that had characterized Jacob before.” While it does seem that Jacob has changed as observed by his actions toward Esau in the following chapter, Hamilton explains that the new name does not necessarily carry any guarantee of a transformed life.
While v. 28 suggests the name Israel refers to Jacob’s ability and success in wrestling with God and overcoming man, the name itself is somewhat more problematic. Ross details a number of different approaches to explaining the meaning of the name ranging from the use of the name of a Canaanite deity to a variety of roots from different Semitic languages. Hamilton says, “The original meaning of Israel is much debated (‘God rules’? ‘God heals’? ‘God judges’?) as is the relationship between yiśrā’ēl and the verb śārâ, (‘struggled’?).” The one statement which is clear on the subject is God’s, in which he states that Jacob will be called Israel, “for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” This provides the most succinct explanation for the name Israel. The name Israel simply indicates to Jacob that although he has wrestled with God and men, it is God who will fight for him. Jacob has been reduced to clinging to God and crying out for God’s favor, instead of his habitual deception and trickery.
The entire Jacob narrative serves an important rhetorical purpose, not only in Genesis but throughout the Bible. As was demonstrated earlier in this article, the length and arrangement of both the 9th and 11th toledoth sections indicate the importance of Jacob in explaining God’s faithfulness in regard to his promise. Jacob acts as an icon of the failure of human strength and craftiness in overcoming spiritual obstacles as well as relational and physical ones. Thus Jacob is a figure to which many people can relate, as they have also tried and failed to achieve things which only God can achieve. Still, a more important lesson is the theme running throughout the Jacob narrative that God will accomplish his goals even through uncooperative tools. The prophet clearly refers to this same principle in Isaiah 25:1, “O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will give thanks to your name; for you have worked wonders, plans formed long ago, with perfect faithfulness.”
We can see in Jacob, however, the progression towards a greater usefulness as God uses the difficult circumstances of his life, which often are brought about by his own self-will, to build his faith and change his character. In the beginning, Jacob is brash and reckless, willing to do anything to get what he wants, but when the sun rises as he crosses the Jabbok one more time he limps toward his brother, broken and humbled. Terino explains that this is the movement of the entire Jacob story,
The overall structure of the Jacob narrative moves from estrangement to reconciliation; while the overall framework poses the question of blessing in connection with the divine promises, the narrative sequence takes the reader through a plot of conflicts, before the resolution can finally take place: (1) conflict with Esau, (2) conflict with Laban, (3) conflict with the mysterious man.
This then is the lesson which Jacob learned while wrestling with God, namely that God’s promise would be fulfilled by God himself without the need for cunning and deception. Indeed, the next morning Jacob had the opportunity to see God’s handiwork in his relationship with Esau. Curtis explains, “The subsequent meeting with Esau was a test case for Jacob in that he saw clearly that God would do what he promised as he overcame a major obstacle to Jacob’s return to the land entirely apart from the schemes and devices of Jacob.” In fact, the limp which he carried with him from this encounter would be a reminder to Jacob that he had been crippled in his character previously, and that crippled state had slowed his progress and nearly destroyed him.
This lesson learned by Jacob and other principles drawn from this account can be used to draw out truths which can be applied even to readers thousands of years removed from these events. Hamilton identifies three characteristics of Jacob at Peniel: (1) He was conscious of his weakness when his thigh was put out of joint, and no longer able to wrestle with God, he clings to him. (2) He had a consuming hunger for God, refusing to let go until he was blessed. (3) He confessed his unworthiness to God by declaring his name, Jacob. The absence of these traits before Peniel prevented Jacob from truly knowing God’s blessing, just as surely as their absence will prevent his full blessing for any believer. Ross concludes, “The blessings of God come by His gracious, powerful provisions, not by mere physical strength or craftiness. In fact there are times when God must cripple the natural strength of His servants so that they may be bold in faith.” Paul received this truth in a vision of heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:10 where he states, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Bruce says, “this, I am confident, is the lesson which the author of Genesis himself intends to be drawn from the story of wrestling Jacob.”