Wrestling with God
Genesis 32 is a challenging passage. I want to be completely honest and transparent you let you know that there are mysteries in this passage that I do not completely understand. With that said, this passage contains an incredible wealth of practical lessons of how to approach God and wrestle with Him in our greatest moments of need and I believe it is well worth our time and careful study.
Genesis 32 already begins with a challenging couple of verses.
So Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is God’s camp.” And he called the name of that place Mahanaim.
- Genesis 32:1-2 NKJV
It is unclear how the angels manifested themselves. Some believe Jacob had a vision or a dream, others argue that he saw the beings as he traveled, but the text does not supply us with any specific details beyond the fact that the angels of God met Jacob as he traveled. Jacob then names the place “Mahanaim” which literally means “two camps” or “double camp.” There are several possible interpretations for this as well. Perhaps God was protecting Jacob by going before and behind him, or perhaps this is a reference to when Jacob divides his company into two (verse7).
However, just because this passage presents us with some challenges it does not mean that we are unable to draw lessons from it. Angels of God meeting Jacob remind us of Bethel (Genesis 28:13-15, discussed in detail on my post Gate of Heaven) where God promised Jacob to be with him.
Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.”
- Genesis 28:15 NKJV
An interesting connection between Bethel (Genesis 28, my post) and Mahanaim/Peniel (Genesis 32) is that at Bethel we have God making promises to Jacob and at Mahanaim/Peniel we have the fulfillment of those promises. (Mathews, K. A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. Vol. 1B, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005. p536) When Jacob makes his appeal to God later on it will be based on God’s promises made at Bethel.
Assessing the Threat
Then Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. And he commanded them, saying, “Speak thus to my lord Esau, ‘Thus your servant Jacob says: “I have dwelt with Laban and stayed there until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight.” ’ ”
- Genesis 32:3-6 NKJV
And the Lord said to her:
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two peoples shall be separated from your body;
One people shall be stronger than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”
- Genesis 25:23 NKJV (bold mine)
Jacob rightfully fears that his brother might interpret his return as a threat, thinking that Jacob is coming to claim his birthright, his inheritance. With Jacob out of the picture, everything that belonged to Isaac would go to Esau and it would make sense for Esau to not want to part with it. Therefore Jacob wants to inform Esau that he is financially stable and is not a threat, he is not there to be Esau’s master, nor to take away any of his possessions. Jacob does not know how his brother feels but wants to initiate contact in an attempt to preemptively diffuse any ill feelings before they escalate.
Fear and Distress
Jacob’s messengers return with news from Esau. I can imagine them talking with Jacob.
“Well, the “good” news is that your brother Esau is coming to meet you. The troubling news is that he is bringing 400 men with him. I don’t know how we will feed so many men, where will they sleep? Why would Esau bring so many people to meet you?”
Okay, it probably didn’t go like that. The 400 men mean that Esau has amassed a private army. Some interpret the fact that Esau is coming from the “country of Edom” (verse 3) to mean that Esau has begun to displace the peoples around him (the Horites) and conquer their land (Deuteronomy 2:12).
This is why Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed” (verse 7).
Jacob’s distress inspires the prophet Jeremiah when he is describing the dreadful condition of Israel in exile.
Alas! For that day is great,
So that none is like it;
And it is the time of Jacob’s trouble,
But he shall be saved out of it.
- Jeremiah 30:7NKJV (bold mine)
The language used by Jeremiah describing that event seems to point to the eschatological day of the Lord (Zephaniah 1:14-18). Daniel uses similar language when describing the time of the end (Daniel 12:1). Jesus Himself uses similar language when his disciples ask Him about the signs of the end of the age (Matthew 24:15-21).
Personally, I believe that the experience Jacob is going through is similar, it gives us a glimpse, it helps us understand what God’s people will feel like at the time of the end. But just because that will be the ultimate culmination of the trial a faithful child of God will be required to go through, it does not mean that the lessons we can learn from Jacob’s time of trouble are not applicable to the struggles we may be currently facing.
Let us take a step back and observe the main issues and challenges taking place in Jacob’s life at this point.
Jacob fears for his life and the lives of those with him because of his brother who is coming with an army towards him. Not to mention that Esau had already made plans to kill Jacob (Genesis 27:41). So Jacob is afraid because he messed up, he cheated and lied and did things he should not have done. The things Jacob did cannot be undone, and he fears that he won’t even have a chance to apologize or explain himself, or that his apology will fall on deaf ears. Jacob has every reason to be afraid. Jacob has a serious enemy. And remember that Jacob just escaped from his uncle who also wanted to do him harm. (blog post here) Jacob has very real reasons to be afraid.
We have addressed the physical/human dimension. Now we must also address the spiritual dimension.
The fact that Esau is coming towards Jacob with 400 men might cause Jacob to question God’s promise to protect him. Or, perhaps he would not think about God not keeping His promise but rather think that his personal sins have caused him to forfeit God’s promises of protection. Personally, I never question God’s ability or willingness to keep His end of the covenant or relationship or promise. I always worry that I am not keeping my end of it. Have I, like the children of Israel turned away from God, have I turned to idols and false gods expecting them to deliver me? Have I walked away from a loving relationship with my God?
Keep these issues tucked in the back of your mind. We will address them further in a bit.
Time for Action
Jacob is not going to sit on his hands and wait for his brother to come to him. Jacob has no way to fight his brother off but perhaps he can diminish the damage his brother will inflict on him/his household.
Part 1 - Divide the people into two camps.
So Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two companies. And he said, “If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the other company which is left will escape.”
- Genesis 32:8 NKJV
Jacob figures while his brother is busy attacking one company the other will escape. After all, Esau has no idea how large Jacob’s company is.
Part 2 - Cry out to God for help.
Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you’: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children. For You said, ‘I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’ ”
- Genesis 32:9-12 NKJV
Let’s see what we can learn from Jacob’s prayer. Right from the start, we notice Jacob claiming specific promises that God made. Jacob quotes God’s promise back to God and I believe we can benefit from doing the same. But in order to do that we need to be familiar with God’s promises, and in order to do that we need to spend time in God’s word. As you read the Bible, keep a list on the back page of your favorite promises and Bible texts for different occasions. Think of it as your personal apparel to wrestle with God. (A list of some of my favorite Bible verses for prayer can be found here.)
Next, Jacob humbles himself. He does not demand that God do what he says, Jacob does not even claim to deserve any blessings from God. Jacob recognizes that God is mighty and good and that God has always provided for him.
Jacob then begs God to continue to provide for him. Since God loves him and promised to keep him and has provided for him miraculously so far, Jacob pleads with God to continue to provide, bless, and protect him and his household. Jacob explains to God all his fears, Jacob describes the worst-case scenario to God in his prayer.
Finally, Jacob closes his prayer time with another reminder of God’s promises. Jacob quotes to God what God promised and holds on to them, by faith Jacob claims that which God, in His mercy, promised Jacob.
Part 3 - Send gifts!
Who doesn’t like gifts right? Jacob decides to send out very generous gifts to his brother. Wisely he spaces them out hoping his brother will receive a dopamine hit with each wave of gifts. Who can remain angry after repeatedly receiving generous gifts right? Genesis 32:13-21 describe in detail all the gifts Jacob sent and the message that was to accompany each gift.
Jacob sends all the gifts ahead and stays behind, and as night fell he remained in the camp.
And he arose that night and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed over the ford of Jabbok. He took them, sent them over the brook, and sent over what he had.
- Genesis 32:22-23 NKJV
There is no explicit explanation for why Jacob separated himself from everyone, however, it is possible that he was trying to protect them. Perhaps he thought that when his brother saw him it would cause him to become enraged and by that point, his family and servants would have already escaped unharmed. I imagine Jacob trying to guess how his brother might react and trying to plan accordingly.
Wrestling with God
Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.
- Genesis 32:24 NKJV
Jacob was all alone in the dark. Everyone had gone on ahead of him. I imagine him scared, nervous, anxious, hyper-aware of any sound or movement around him, not knowing where his brother Esau and his men were. Next thing he knows there is a man there and the two of them wrestle, all night. We get the idea that Jacob is fighting for his life, he fights with everything that he has.
As he wrestles, imagine his mind racing, he remembers deceiving his brother, lying to his father, and now his family, his wives, his children, his servants, and animals will all suffer. All these innocent lives will now suffer because of his selfish and foolish sins. Jacob wrestles as he begs God for forgiveness and deliverance. But his sense of guilt seems to shut him out from the presence of God. In the darkness, as he fights for his life, Jacob feels alone, guilty, and scared, but he refuses to give up.
Jacob confesses his unworthiness, he trusts God’s unfailing love. Jacob sinned, and failed and lied and cheated. But his God, the God of his fathers is a loving God, a God who delights in saving, and blessing, and forgiving. Jacob casts himself at God’s mercy while recognizing that he has no merit by which to claim any of the blessings he desperately needs. Jacob needs God to save him, and he must be saved by grace, through faith. He must receive his salvation like a child.
25 Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. 26 And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.”
But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!”
- Genesis 32:25-26 (bold mine)
Jacob must have experienced excruciating pain when his hip came out of joint. This is when Jacob realized he was not wrestling with a mere mortal. Despite the great pain he was in, Jacob refuses to let God go without blessing him.
Through humiliation, repentance, and self-surrender, this sinful, erring mortal prevailed with the Majesty of heaven. He had fastened his trembling grasp upon the promises of God, and the heart of Infinite Love could not turn away the sinner's plea.
- Patriarchs and Prophets p.197
When we wrestle with God, in the most challenging moments of our lives, do we hold on to Him refusing to let Him go unless He blesses us? Or do we quit, give up, and walk away? How much faith do you have in God’s amazing grace? How much do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins?
Do you begin to doubt the moment things get tough? Do you walk away from God when He doesn’t do what you expect Him to do right away? Do you know how to wrestle with God? How to humbly confess you don’t deserve the blessings He has given you and you don’t deserve what you are asking for, but claiming it simply because He promised and because you believe that He is a God who keeps His promises, who is loving and merciful?
Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”
- Exodus 34:5-7 NKJV (bold mine)
God is a merciful, gracious, patient, truthful, and good God. He is willing to forgive, but He does not clear the guilty. Meaning, if you repent and ask Him for forgiveness, He will forgive you. But if you hold on to your sin, refusing to repent or confess, if you don’t ask for forgiveness, your sin remains. And your sin separates you from God.
But your iniquities have separated you from your God;
And your sins have hidden His face from you,
So that He will not hear.
- Isaiah 59:2 NKJV
What is your name?
Jacob had sought to steal God’s blessings at first. He wanted to purchase the birthright from his brother Esau and to lie to his father in order to steal the blessing. (discussed in more detail here [sermon audio], and here) Now Jacob is asking God for a blessing and God asks him who he is.
So He said to him, “What is your name?”
He said, “Jacob.”
- Genesis 32:27 NKJV
Jacob is honest with God and with himself. He is Jacob, the deceiver, the younger son, the one who does not deserve the special blessing or the birthright. The one who sinned and does not even deserve God’s blessings. Jacob comes before God as he truly is, begging God to do something about it.
As long as we come to God as someone else we limit what He can do for us. Don’t come to God as someone who had everything figured out when you clearly don’t.
Don’t come to God as someone who deserves blessings, when you clearly don’t.
Don’t come to God like a victim when you have done more than your fair share in offending others.
Come to God as you are. No masks, no excuses, no lies. Just come as a humble, deeply flawed human being in search of mercy, blessings, and salvation.
Claim it not because you deserve it, but because God promised it!
God always keeps His promises.
A New Name
And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.”
But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!”
So He said to him, “What is your name?”
He said, “Jacob.”
And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
- Genesis 32:26-28
When you approach God with humility and persistence, and you refuse to let go of Him, He will bless you, and give you a new identity.
Jacob came into this situation a lying, cheating, scheming, scared impostor. Israel limped out of this situation victorious. He was not victorious because of anything he did, but because of what God did for him. Living with Laban, Jacob had learned that he needed to depend completely on God and that paved the way to where he was now. It was not an easy life that granted Jacob success and victory, it was not an easy life that allowed Jacob to struggle with God and man and prevail. It was a tough and unfair life, full of trials and difficulties that caused Jacob to turn to God and grab a hold and refuse to let go.
Jacob had learned that his strength, his identity, his future, and his present, everything was anchored in God and who God was as a saving, merciful, powerful God.
Jacob had repented form his old ways. Jacob had confessed his sins. Jacob now claimed God’s promises and refused to let God until God did what He promised to do.
A new day dawns.
When Jacob fled from his brother God met him as the sun went down (explained in more detail here) and promised to be with him. (Genesis 28:11-17) Now the sun has risen, and Jacob is limping away a new man.
So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Just as he crossed over Penuel the sun rose on him, and he limped on his hip.
- Genesis 32:30-31 NKJV
I have met some giants of faith in my life, I believe all of them walked with a limp. It is challenging to realize our dependence on God when we think we can handle life on our own strength. But if you are blessed to meet someone who has wrestled with God and prevailed, you will see someone who may look fragile, or weak. She may look old fashioned and he may look like he is a bit out of touch with the latest trends, but if you get a chance to talk with that person, you will realize that she is not afraid of anything, you will realize that he has learned that he can face anything this old world can throw at him, not because of her or his strength, but because they have wrestled with God, and have refused to let go unless he blessed them.
The same peace, victory, strength, and assurance is available to you today. It’s quite simple really, at least the theory of it is. Repent, confess your sins, turn to God, claim His promises, and hold on tight. Even if it lasts all night. Even if it hurts. Even if it feels like you could never win. You continue to claim His promises. Quote them to Him. Hold on by faith. And you will be transformed, you will overcome, not because you’re so strong but because God’s strength is made perfect in your weakness.
And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
- 2 Corinthians 12:9 NKJV