To “wrestle with the angel” has become a proverbial expression for wrestling with problems. People want God’s blessing, but refuse to ponder, grapple, and fight through to victory. Moses recorded this about 400 years after this dynamic event took place. By the time this event occurred, Israel had several centuries of failure behind them. They had forgotten the God of Peniel.
The story takes us by surprise, for we don’t expect to read something so unique. Perhaps it was unexpected for Jacob also. It is the experience of a pilgrim heading home. It is a simple, short story with few details to cloud the issue. In fact, only the beginning and ending are preserved. Apparently, Jacob is crossing the brook called Jabbok. How interesting that the word “Jabbok” means a “pouring out, or emptying”. Perhaps this indicates that we must be emptied of self in order to “wrestle” with spiritual matters. There he meets an angel who has the appearance of a man, wrestles with him, and dialogues with him. We know that this was actual (rather than figurative) wrestling, for in the end Jacob receives a physical injury. Hosea 12:2-5 proves it was indeed an angel. This being is first seen as a man, then as an angel, then as the Lord. When it concludes, Jacob has received a new name: Israel.
The narrative states Jacob was alone. This scene at Bethel takes place after Jacob leaves Laban and before he meets Esau. These two events are connected by this angelic encounter. Jacob has already sent his people and his flocks across the brook Jabbok ahead of him. Perhaps he was in consternation, stressed out about tomorrow’s rendezvous with his brother.
This text is often used as a basis for sermons on prevailing prayer. However, it is never stated that Jacob actually prayed – only that he wrestled. Read the earlier account regarding Jacob and Esau. Even from their birth Jacob was a contender, a “wrestler”, clutching the heel of Esau while still in the womb (Genesis 25:26).
This “wrestling match” takes place at night, presumably in the dark. It was no easy thing, for they wrestled with each other all night long until daybreak (v. 24). God didn’t send an army of angels to deal with his brother Esau. He sent one angel to wrestle with Jacob.
The sport of wrestling is an enigma. It is the only sport in which one never loses physical contact with the opponent until one gives up or is defeated. The process of spiritual wrestling indicates an intense, earnest holy desire to exercise faith and to contact God Himself. Jacob seemed destined to wrestle with God, and was determined not to miss the opportunity. What causes us to wrestle with God is unimportant: only the outcome. Spiritual wrestling brings us into a state of submission in order to fully appreciate the blessings that await us.
One cannot get God’s blessing without interaction and communication with Him. Although the angel could have freed himself from Jacob’s grasp at any time, it is to God’s advantage to keep on wrestling with a stubborn saint. Although Jacob didn’t know the outcome, he somehow knew he was involved in a spiritual encounter.
We are told that “the angel prevailed not.” In a wrestling match, each hopes their opponent will yield. Jacob’s perseverance is seen by his working to purchase Rachel for fourteen long years. His steadfastness is proven by his resolve to get the blessing of the birthright Esau despised, even if it meant deception. True to Jacob’s character, he wrestled as long as he had strength. Like the importunate widow of Luke 18, he would not let go until he was blessed.
About daybreak, the angel struck Jacob’s thigh. Note that Jacob’s hip is dislocated during the wrestling process. It was his perseverance that God honored. He continued to wrestle despite the pain. His resilience reveals his stubborn determination to be blessed. A man cannot continue to physically contend with another when his thigh is out of joint for it is the central nerve center of a wrestler’s strength. But Jacob was actually victorious when he lost..…because God won. Paul said, “I take pleasure in my weaknesses: for when I’m weak am I strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).
God sometimes “dislocates” our plans. He tried to work on Jacob through dreams, hardship and disappointment. It seems that Jacob’s whole life thus far was a series of wrestling with different things. He was cunning when he traded for his brother’s birthright. He was clever when he worked the trick with Laban’s animals. Jacob didn’t learn lessons at Bethel, Haran, or Mahanaim. But he is a wiser man after Peniel. He thought he could get through life by using his own wits. His scheming seemed to have become a lifestyle until he wrestled with the angel. The Lord had to destroy all of Jacob’s self-reliance and bring him to the end of himself. God cannot bless you until He breaks you. Though He may have to cripple you to get your attention, His blessings always outweigh the damage. The question is whether or not you feel God’s blessing is worth the pain of wrestling. We wrestle spiritually, Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, not physically (Ephesians 6:12).
The angel said, “Let me go!” But Jacob continues to fight and says, “Not until you bless me!” Jacob was not wrestling for no reason. He was ready to release the angel only if and when he blessed him. God wants the type of “wrestling” with His children that bespeaks respect, determination, and resilience. Some turn lose of God too easily, but Jacob finally got his blessing.
“What is your name?” the angel asked. “Jacob,” he replied. We must remember the name Jacob means “supplanter” (Genesis 27:36). It refers to one who gets what he wants through cunning. He contended in his mother’s womb, and won the name “supplanter”. He contended with Esau, and won his birthright. He contended with his father and won the ratification of his birthright. He contended with his father-in-law Laban, and won livestock by trickery. God doesn’t want you to get promoted through deception, but by character and determination.
The angel renames him “Israel,” which describes what he had become: one who has prevailed with God. This moment at the brook Jabbok, the nation of Israel was founded. Out of his body would come the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob now can go forward in life, without the stigma of his past life. God dealt with Jacob on other issues many years before this……but something in him still needed to be changed. God wrestles with us, not to change our name, but our nature. God’s struggles with us are always for our benefit.
A new name describes a new character. Abram became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah. Saul became Paul. If your name and nature is changed, God must do the changing. You don’t get to rename yourself through self-effort, for God alone knows when you are really transformed. Jacob’s new name may have been the guarantee of a successful meeting with his brother Esau the next day…a day that was already dawning. When facing an uncertain tomorrow, face God the night before. By wrestling with God, Jacob was told he would prevail over other men, not God. Only by prevailing with God first can you prevail with others.
Jacob then asked the angel what his name was. Jacob was curious, mystified and perplexed. All our wrestlings with God are really only attempts to find out more about God. The great struggles in our lives often involve our desire to know God better. The angel never told Jacob his name. It was not important. The angel never allowed Jacob to think he had total control of the situation. The angel denied Jacob the request for his identification, but he blesses him right then and there. Although there is great curiosity about angels in the world today, the really important thing is to be favored by God.
If you follow the life of Jacob, you will find this is the third place Jacob names in honor of his angelic encounters: Bethel in Genesis 28:19, Mahanaim in Genesis 32:2, and here at Peniel. It is good to build memorials to great spiritual victories.
“I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.” Jacob named the place of his encounter Peniel, “the face of God” because he had seen God face to face in the form of an angel. He now knew that his life was preserved from the wrath of Esau, as he had prayed in verse 11. He does not give the place a name which recalled the negative aspects of His encounter, but the positive recollection of his face-off with God. You forget the struggles when you see His face and receive His blessing. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
In the same spot where God handicapped him, He blessed him. The name of Peniel prevails there to this very day, regarded by Jews as sacred ground. Others will learn of the place of your struggles and victories. Jacob limped away from there with a new name for himself and a new name for the place where he met God. The Hebrew term indicates that his leg muscle shrank. Our own strength must shrink in comparison to His. Although he hobbled away from Peniel, Jacob knew why he was limping: he was humbled to know what God could do.
Along with the parcel of ground named Peniel, Jews in the twenty-first century have another way to remember the struggles of their great ancestor Jacob. Because the angel touched his leg muscle, Jews traditionally do not eat that same muscle in animals because it represents Jacob’s thigh-muscle. This runs from the top of the thigh down the entire back of the leg down to the ankle. It is one of the strongest muscles in the entire anatomy. It is not a Mosaic dietary ordinance, but a Jewish tradition to carefully extract this muscle from the legs of animals prior to cooking and eating. This tradition is so strong in some Jewish families, that if no one present is skilled enough to extract this muscle (called the nervus ischiadicus) they do not eat the hind legs of that animal.
Jacob’s injury probably caused a permanent limp, for we are not told it ever healed. If this is true, he ambled on for God the rest of his life. Jacob left Peniel with two things he didn’t bring there: a new name and a new limp. But he left with the knowledge that a determined person always receives the blessing.
The moral of this story is uncomplicated. You don’t know how an “Esau” may treat you tomorrow so you better wrestle with God about it today. The best preparation to meet with people you are not sure about is to meet with God first. Jacob asked God in verse 11 to deliver him from Esau, but God does not always answer prayer as we expect. We must trust that the God of Peniel is in control of our circumstances. God has a way of removing our obstacles before we can figure out how to move them ourselves. For example, the women went to Jesus’ tomb, wondering how they could possibly move the stone (Mark 16:3). But when they arrived, they found that it was already gone.
The man named “Jacob” became the man renamed “Israel” (v. 28). He fathered the nation that retains his name. God has never let Israel go, for that great nation survives today. But the Jewish people do not exist through her own cunning and cleverness, but because of the faithfulness of the God of Peniel.
Happy are the people who learn from the wounds God gives them.
Points to Ponder
1. What physical injury is inflicted upon Jacob (Gen. 32:25)?
2. This story takes place between which two events in Jacob’s life?
3. What are we told regarding Jacob and Esau while in their mother’s womb (Gen. 25:26)?
4. What does Paul state in Ephesians 6:12 concerning “wrestling”?
5. What is said concerning Jesus in Hebrews 5:7?
6. Describe the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:41-44).
7. Paraphrase Luke 11:5-10. What is meant by the word “importunity”?
8. According to Luke 18:7, what will God do for His children – and why?
9. Why does God desire to “wrestle” with us?
10. In what specific ways can “wrestling matches” help us to know God better?