The Ultimate Wrestling Match

Genesis 32

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
September 2015

We are studying the life of the Patriarchs.  We studied the life of Abraham, his son Isaac and now we are studying the life of his grandson Jacob.  He had twelve sons and became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. After twenty years in Northern Mesopotamia living with his uncle, he heads home.  He takes his wife, kids and animals on a five hundred mile journey back to the Promised Land.

Why is he leaving?  God told him to leave.  We come today to one of the most interesting chapters in the whole book.  This chapter is fascinating on some many levels.  It is mind blowing.  It contains one of the strangest theophanies in the entire Bible.

A theophany is a visible appearance of God.  God appears to Jacob in an amazing way.  You may be shocked to see what God actually does in this chapter. This section may challenge your view of God.  Jacobs sees both angels and God in this chapter.  We will look at the applications from this chapter.

It is one of my favorite chapters in the book.  This is a man’s chapter.  Genesis 29-30 is all about women’s issues (reproduction, childbirth).  There is some martial arts in this chapter.  For those who like wrestling, should like this chapter.  This was the greatest wresting match of all time.  It was the ultimate wrestling match.  Jacob has an all-night wrestling match with a heavenly being.

Jacob has an encounter with God in this chapter that radically changes his life.  He is never the same after this.  When God first appeared to him in a dream and he saw the stairway to heaven.  When he meets God in this chapter, he is completely changed as well.  He is a new man. He is changed physically.  He is also changed spiritually.  It is the turning point in his life of Jacob.  He doesn’t get saved here but he is changed. He gets a new name in this chapter.  In Hebrew, he goes from Ya-a-kov to Yis-rah-el (32:28)

As Jacob heads back home, he encounters some angels. “Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. And when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called the name of that place Mahanaim” (32:1-2 ESV).  Jacob gives a name to this place.  Jacob likes to give names to important events in his life.  By the end of this chapter, we will have seen five names (Bethel, Mizpah, Galeed, Mahanaim, Peniel).

He saw some angels on his way up to Haran (28:12) and now he sees some on the way back but this time he is awake when he sees them.  This is very important because it tells Jacob that he is not traveling alone.  He has an angelic escort. He needs this encouragement because he will encounter some bad news.

And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, instructing them, “Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male servants, and female servants. I have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’” (32:3-5 ESV)

They came back and told him that he is coming with four hundred men (32:6).  That doesn’t sound good. The last time Jacob saw his brother, he was angry with him and was planning to kill him.  Now he is coming to meet him and has four hundred men with him.  Jacob is outnumbered.  He just has some wives and kids with him and a bunch of animals.  Abraham did a whole military operation with 318 men (14:14) and Esau has 400 (32:6), so Jacob plans (32:7-8) and then he prays (32:9-12).

This is the first time we have ever seen Jacob pray.  Jacob was not a real spiritual man.  We do not see him doing a lot of praying but when his life was in danger, he turns to prayer.  It is a good prayer.  It is a SPECIFIC prayer (“deliver me from the hand of my brother”).  It is a HUMBLE prayer.  Jacob says that her is unworthy of the least of God’s blessings (32:10).  It is a BIBLICAL prayer.  Jacob is praying the promises of God.  God told him to leave Haran, said He would be with him and now his life is in danger.  It is also a LONG prayer. It is the longest prayer in the Book of Genesis.

When he is done praying, he has one more plan – a bribe.  He gives Esau a large gift (32:13-21).  He did it to appease or pacify Esau (32:20).

Jacob’s Wrestling Match 

That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 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.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” (32:22-28)

What is happening here?  Jacob has been traveling south from Haran to get back to the Promised Land but in order to get into Canaan, you have to cross a river.  You have to cross the Jabbok River.  It is a tributary that flows west into the Jordan River.

It is about fifteen miles north of the Dead Sea.  Today, it is called the Zarqa River (the modern Arabic name). Jacob sent his family (his wife, servants and eleven sons) across the river and he is alone at Jabbok.  Jacob is at Jabbok and he is alone.  It is much easier for God to speak to us when we are alone.  Jacob is alone and vulnerable.

While Jacob is by himself in the woods and someone attacks him at night.  Someone ambushes him.  He doesn’t know who it is.  It is dark. They fight for hours.  It is an intense conflict. Jacob has a surprise attack at night in the dark by an unknown assailant and Jacob has to fight for his life. Jacob displays incredible strength and courage in fighting back for so long.  That leads to two questions: Who attacked him? Why did he do it?

Who is the Assailant who Attacks Jacob? 

At first, this person seems to be an ordinary man.  Moses calls him a man.  “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” (32:24-25 NIV).

The Book of Hosea calls him an angel.  Hosea 12:4 says that he “strove with THE ANGEL and prevailed.” Jewish tradition says that Jacob wrestled an angel.  That is no contradiction because in the Bible angels often took the form of men.

We saw that in Genesis 18.  Abraham was sitting in his tent in the shade and sees three men coming from the distance.  They look like travelers.  Two of them turned out to be angels in disguise and one was God himself.  The man that Jacob wrestled turned out to be much more than a man.  He turned out to be God himself.  Who attacked Jacob?  He was called a man.  He was called an angel.

Jacob called him God. “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” (32:30 ESV). Jacob did not say that he saw an angel face to face.  He didn’t say, “I wrestled face to face with some strange man all night”.  He said that he saw God face to face.”  In fact, Jacob is shocked that he is still alive after this encounter.

Not only Jacob, but also Jacob’s attacker, identified him as God. “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” (32:28 ESV).  He did not say that you have struggled against men and angels but against men and against God. Jacob apparently drew the right conclusions.  The attacker confirmed what he said.  This was no ordinary angel.  It was the angel of the Lord (16:7).

Now, when Jacob left the Promised Land and headed five hundred miles north to Haran. God appeared to him in a dream.  He saw a stairway to heaven with angels going up and down it and, as he looked to the top of the stairway, he saw God.

Now, as he goes out of Haran and travels five hundred miles in the opposite direction, he gets another appearance of God but this time it is NOT in a dream. This fight didn’t take place in a dream because when he woke up, he had a dislocated hip and had to limp.

Why would God be in a Wrestling Match with Jacob?

This whole incident raises some interesting questions.  If this man is God in human form, why is he doing this?  Why would God appear to Jacob as a wrestler?  Why is God wrestling Jacob?  God made a covenant with Jacob.  Why is He attacking him? There are two reasons.  The first reason is that Jacob had spent most of his adult life wrestling with people, so God came to Jacob as a wrestler.  Jacob was a fighter from birth.  Jacob spent his entire life wrestling.  He was a life-long wrestler.

He was a wrestler before he was born.  He wrestled his twin brother in the womb. When Esau was born, Jacob was grasping his heel (25:26). He had to wrestle Laban for his wife Rachel.  He wrestled with his brother.  He wrestled with his father. He wrestled with his uncle.

He wrestled with his wives who were always fighting over him.  Now, in the middle of the night, Jacob has an all-night wrestling match with a heavenly being.  Jacob spends all night in a face-to-face wrestling match with God.  He wrestled with God and man and overcame (32:28).

The second reason is that Jacob was filled with fear.  Genesis 32:6-7a says, “And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying,We came to your brother Esau, and he is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” Then Jacob was GREATLY AFRAID AND DISTRESSED” (ESV).

Jacob was going to meet Esau the very next day.  Esau planned to kill him and he is terrified.  That is what is on his mind.  He is thinking about it and worried about it, so much that he cannot sleep.  He is dreading facing Esau and even sent everyone ahead of him.  He hides behind his wife and kids.  He divided the camp into two parts to minimize casualties.  If that did not work, he may have been planning to run for his life.

Jacob was consumed by his fears.  That is why God wrestled with Jacob at Jabbok.  He forced him to face his fear and rely on God.  God dislocated Jacob’s hip, so running from Esau was not an option.  He has to face him.  By the end of this match, Jacob and realizes who he wrestled and is ready to meet Esau.  Once you have spent time with God, you no longer are afraid of man.

A Summary of This Amazing Coinflict

Let’s try to summarize what we have learned about this event so far.

1. Jacob receives a surprise attack at night by an unknown assailant in the dark.

Jacob has no idea who his assailant is.  Is it a robber?   He does not know if it is Esau or one of his hitmen sent to take him out.

2. The assailant who attacked him was actually God.

It may have been the pre-incarnate Christ.  God is the one who starts this fight, not Jacob.  “And A MAN WRESTLED WITH HIM until the breaking of the day” (32:24).

3. This is not a real wrestling match in one sense.

Much of pro wrestling also is fake. It was a real match on Jacob’s part but angels are stronger than people.  The strongest man could not defeat an angel.  It would be no contest for the one who created the world to wrestle a puny man, even the strongest one on the planet.  An all-powerful God would have no trouble pinning Jacob in a wrestling match.

4. God was the one who stopped the fight with just one touch.

One touch to Jacob’s hip and the whole match is over.  Jacob can’t wrestle anymore.  Wrestlers get their leverage from their hips.  A wrestler’s strength is in his legs.  Jacob could not use his anymore.

5. When Jacob cannot fight anymore, he clings to the assailant.

Jacob went from fighting to clinging.  He moved from wrestling with God to clinging to God.  Even though he can’t win the match, he still holds on and will not let go, even after he is injured.  He continues to hold on, even when he cannot fight anymore, even when he is tired from wrestling all night and even when he is in pain from his injured hip.

6. When Jacob realizes who he is wrestling, he asks for a blessing.

When Jacob realizes that the person he is wrestling is no ordinary man, he has a completely different attitude.

7. Jacob does not win the physical contest but comes out of it completely changed.

He got a new name (Israel), a new power (he prevailed with God), a new blessing (not just blessed by Isaac, he is blessed by God), a new testimony (he saw God face to face) and a new reminder (walks with a limp).[1] Jacob gets the blessing he sought, but his hip is out of joint and he has to walk funny (32:31).

Three Powerful Lessons from Jabbok

This is a very strange passage. I want to spend some time looking at it.  As we read this section, think about how it might apply to us today.  Some have misunderstood what this passage is teaching.  Many preachers use this passage to talk about Jacob wrestling in prayer.  It sounds great.  It is real spiritual.  It makes great preaching but it is not what the passage is talking about.  It preaching the right thing with the wrong text.  Preachers do that a lot.

There is a lesson in this section on prayer but Jacob NOT wrestle God in prayer.  How do we know?  First, Jacob didn’t start this fight.  Jacob did not wrestle the angel in this chapter.  The angel wrestled Jacob.  When you pray, you want something from God. Here, God wants something from Jacob.  Jacob wasn’t trying to get something from the Lord. The Lord was trying to get something from Jacob.  Jacob is not seeking God here.  God is seeking him.

Second, you do not get your hip out of joint from praying, unless you try to do it in some weird yoga position for hours. You might get some sore knees when you pray but it is pretty safe on the hips.

There was no prayer during the wrestling match.  The prayer came after.  Prayer started when the wrestling stopped.  Prayer came when he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”.  He did not prevail by wrestling but by praying. What can we learn from this wrestling match?

1) Lesson on God

This is a very strange theophany.  Here we have God the Wrestler.  Would God do this today?  Would He cripple a man and give him a permanent disability?  Yes.  He is the same yesterday, today and forever.  Some preachers teach that God would never do such a thing but he did it here.  He wrestled Jacob and then dislocated his hip. That seems more like a permanent injury than a bruise.

He ends the contest wounded and limping.  That must have been painful, as well as humbling. He was crippled.  God did this, not Satan.  Jacob did not wrestle Satan.  He wrestled God.  God did this to a BELIEVER but he did it for his own good. God will cripple a man to get his heart.

2) Lesson on Blessing

The path to blessing often involves brokenness.  Jacob got the blessing he sought but that blessing involved brokenness.  When we fight and struggle against God and what he is doing in our lives, then God often does something to us to get our attention.  He crippled Jacob.

Jacob became completely powerless and helpless.  All he could do was cling.  He goes from struggle to surrender.  He goes from wrestling to clinging.  He went from fighting and struggling against God to trusting God.  Jacob was a BELIEVING MAN at Bethel but a completely BROKEN MAN at Jabbok. He used to be an expert wrestler and now he can’t wrestle anymore.  In fact, he has trouble walking.  We all need a Bethel experience.  We also need a Jabbok experience.

Jacob went through a huge transformation.  He began very self-confident, independent, self-reliant and resistant to what God was doing in his life.  Once God crippled him with one touch, he became very dependent and humble.  He is completely broken.  Before he wanted to defeat this opponent and then he realized that he needed him.  He wanted him to bless him.

What God may do to us may be completely different than what he did to Jacob.  We may not have any health problems but we may face a major crisis in our life that forces us to rely completely on God and depend on him.  Sometimes God dislocates our bodies.  Other times he dislocates our plans and our life to get us to turn to him, as Barnhouse points out.

3) Lesson on Persistence

Jacob lost the first round of the match.  He could not compete once his hip was injured.  He won the second round because of his persistence. Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (32:26). Jacob is about to face Esau and needs to go with God’s blessing for his own protection and that of his family.

Jacob has the DESIRE to be blessed.  It is something that he need before he faces Esau.  It is not just a want but a NEED.  In his mind, his very survival is at stake.  He does not just ASK, he INSISTS on it.  He persists in his request.  He didn’t give up.  Jacob’s prayer was only passionate, it was persistent.  Do we show the same persistence when we pray?


[1] Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch, 116.




[1] Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch, 116.

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