Jacob’s epic all-night wrestling match in Genesis 32:22-32 is one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament, but I, for one, wish a little more colour commentary was provided.
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” – Genesis 32:24-25
That’s all we get about the action inside the squared circle. Where are Ed Whalen and Gorilla Monsoon when we need them?
Ed: The Angel of Life has Jacob in a front facelock, and it looks like he’s getting ready for his patented DDT maneuver. … But, whoa, Jacob grabs his heel and somehow turns the tables, and rockets the Angel to the canvas with a textbook snap suplex.
Gorilla: That’s brought this capacity crowd to its feet. The fans are literally hanging from the rafters.
Ed: And now Jacob hauls him up, gives him an Irish whip into the turnbuckle – off those ropes, look out, Nelly, and Whammmo! – a devastating clothesline by the Schemer.
Gorilla: He levelled him with that clothesline. Now, Jacob grabs the Angel’s legs – looks like he’s going for the Boston Crab, but can he lock it in? … He does! He’s got him! Look at the look of pain on the Angel’s face as Jacob applies pressure. This one’s over, folks. Call a cab!
Ed: Wait a second, Gorilla. The Angel’s reaching for Jacob’s hip. I think he might have another trick up his sleeve …
And how did the wrestling match even begin? Did they cross paths and have an argument that turned violent? Or was this a Pearl Harbor Job (as Gorilla might have said), where one grappler caught the other unaware? Was Jacob lying down, about to fall asleep, when suddenly the angel leaped off of a nearby boulder and flattened him with a Randy Savage-style flying elbow? Was he bending over to tend the fire, when he somehow found himself on the wrong end of a full nelson?
… Or was Jacob the one who did the ambushing? Given his track record of opportunistic self-centredness, that seems more likely – but the Bible doesn’t tell us.
Perhaps the most important detail that’s left out of the story, though, is who, exactly, Jacob wrestled with. Some, including artist Alexander Louis Leloi, whose painting is at the top of this post, say it was an angel. (That’s where the Angel of Life reference above, also a nod to ’80s Stampede Wrestling heel, The Angel of Death, came from.) In Verse 30, Jacob seems to think it was God himself – but in Verse 24, it simply says ‘a man wrestled with him till daybreak’.
But since Jacob was there and I wasn’t, I tend to default to his interpretation of the event and assume that he went toe-to-toe with God. And in light of my understanding of John 1 that God the Son has been the bridge between Heaven and Earth since the beginning, I tend to imagine that Jacob tangled with the pre-incarnate Christ that day.
One problem with this understanding, though, is that Verse 24 says Jacob’s opponent ‘couldn’t overpower him’.
Couldn’t? Is it even possible that Jacob’s strength and wrestling prowess were superior to those of Jesus? That’s what the New International Version seems to be implying here. Other translations word this section a little more gently, suggesting that Jacob’s opponent was losing, not that he had lost. So maybe this isn’t as big a deal as I’m making it out to be.
The scene makes more sense if we extrapolate that Jesus chose to let Jacob put him in an unbreakable submission hold, in order to teach him a lesson.
Jacob – who’d spent his whole life so far relying on his abilities as a confidence man to take advantage of family, friends and foes – seems to be convinced here that he can even overpower God with his own strength and dexterity. But this ridiculous notion is decisively pile-driven to the mat, when one touch of his adversary’s hand wrenches Jacob’s hip out of joint and cripples him for life.
This story, which was read in liturgical churches around the world this week, is one we can all identify with, isn’t it?
We all wrestle with God now and then, don’t we? We struggle with whether or not He exists, and whether or not He’s good. We struggle with the concept of letting Him take charge of our lives. We struggle to discern what His will for us really looks like. And we struggle to obey the aspects of His will for us that are not unclear, but are unpleasant or difficult.
And sometimes we can think, maybe subconsciously, that these wrestling matches somehow disqualify us from God’s favor; that anyone who’d presume to question God is not worthy of His love.
This story says otherwise, though, quite strongly.
Despite Jacob’s dismal track record as a liar and a manipulator and an opportunist, God showed up to wrestle with Jacob. And notice also that even though God could have ended it any time He wanted to, the match went on for hours.
I think God wants us to wrestle with Him; that He’d rather we actively engage with Him than avoid what’s bugging us about Him. We won’t provoke His wrath if we manage a bodyslam or two, or hook a figure-four leg lock on our Creator.
Jacob’s audacious willingness to wrestle with God is worth emulating, but he makes two flagrant mistakes that we need to watch for in our own lives:
1. He was determined to win. Wrestling with God is good, but the delusion that we can win – and that it would be good for us if we did – is wrong-headed and self-destructive. There can only be one King of the Ring.
2. He thought God wouldn’t bless him unless he won. After his hip had been wrenched, he had to have been in agony. But Jacob wouldn’t let Jesus go until He blessed him – as if the blessing would have been withheld otherwise.
I hope you know that Jesus wants nothing more than to bless you – not in the way you want to be blessed, necessarily – but in other ways, that are infinitely better for you. Ways that are right for you. Ways that He knew would be the right way to bless you, before He created you. So let Him win the match already, and receive your blessings!
The saddest part of the story for me is that Jacob didn’t have to spend the rest of his life walking with a limp. If he had simply let God be God, and believed that God is good, Jesus never would have had to wrench his hip.
What blessings does Jesus want to bestow on you, if only you’d let Him?
In what way(s) are you crippled because you won’t yield in your wrestling matches with God?
Peace be with you.