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2. Jacob

2.5 Jacob's Wrestling With God

This study will bring together themes from the others. We have seen that until this time, Jacob was involved in idolatry, he had the idea that the promises concerned the obtaining of physical blessing in this life, and that he could bring about their fulfillment by his own efforts. He was not totally committed to Yahweh as his God (28:20). The fact he promises to give a tenth to God in the future suggests that he did not then consider God to be his King, for the idea of tithing seems to have been established before the Law of Moses was given (as were many other elements of that Law; 14:20). This life of half-commitment and deceit in order to further his own selfish ends was abruptly changed by the night of wrestling. And we have seen that we must all go through this same experience, especially in the last days, whether it takes hours or years. There can be no doubt that Jacob expressed a deep repentance that night; Ps. 85:1,2 associates the return of Jacob with his repentance and forgiveness. We have shown that the blessing promised to Abraham essentially concerned forgiveness more than physical blessings (Acts 3:25,26), and Jacob came to realize this that night. Mic. 7:20 is explicit that the promise to Jacob concerned forgiveness. That we are on the right lines of interpretation here is indicted by Is. 29:12-14, which speaks of how Israel's latter day repentance will be after the pattern of Jacob's in his time of trouble: " Jacob shall not now be ashamed (of his sins), neither shall his face now wax pale (at the thought of their consequences)...they also that erred in spirit (attitude, as Jacob did) shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine" , as Jacob learnt the real import of the promises. He realized that all his life, he had been wrestling with God, his Angel, and he now came to beg his God for the blessing of forgiveness, implying he had repented. The Hebrew for " wrestle" can mean both to wrestle and also simply to cling on to. It seems he started wrestling, and ended up clinging on to the Angel, desperately begging for salvation and forgiveness. His great physical strength (remember how he moved the huge stone from the well, 29:2) was redirected into a spiritual clinging on to the promises of forgiveness and salvation. And this will be our pattern of growth too.  

It seems Jacob was familiar with the idea of wrestling with God as being related to prayer. Rachel speaks of how " with wrestlings of God have I wrestled...and I have prevailed" in obtaining a child (30:8; AV " great" = Heb. 'elohim'). We know from Hos. 12 that Jacob became aware that he was wrestling with an Angel, not just a man. His wrestling is therefore to be understood as prayer and pleading, although doubtless it started as a physical struggle with an unknown stranger, who he later recognized as an Angel, and then perceived as God Himself.  

It is clear enough that Jacob came to realize that he had not yet received the true blessing of God, i.e. forgiveness, whereas earlier he had felt that his blessings of cattle etc. was the fulfillment of the promised blessing. It is therefore evident that Jacob repented during that night of wrestling. This is confirmed by the Spirit's commentary elsewhere:

- " Thou hast brought back the captivity of Jacob. Thou hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin" (Ps. 85:1,2) is one of many examples of where Jacob's return home is associated with his repentance and forgiveness, which thereby makes it a type of Israel's final homecoming in the last days.

- As Jacob's wrestling with God led him to repentance, so Israel are bidden repent. Amos makes an appeal to this end which is shot through with reference to Jacob's meeting of God that night: " Ye have not returned...prepare to meet thy God, O Israel...he that maketh the morning darkness, and treadeth upon the high places (idol groves)...the Lord, the God of Hosts is His Name" (Am. 4:12,13).

- The approach of Esau in angry judgment reflected God's attitude to Jacob (33:10). Jacob realized that he must " appease" (Heb. kaphar, normally translated 'to make atonement') Esau with gifts of animals. This is surely a confession of sin on his part (32:20). But when he offers them to Esau, Esau kindly responds that he “has all”. But all the same Jacob wants to make the sacrifice, to give up the material things...and in all this, too, we see an accurate reflection of God’s position with Jacob (and indeed all of us). 

Yet what did Jacob repent of? Doubtless he realized that the life of half-commitment, passively assenting to the doctrine of his parents and grandparents, whilst doing his own thing, was effectively a rejection of God. This was the main thrust of his repentance. And yet the Angel commented that Jacob had struggled with both God and men, and had prevailed. Which men? Jacob recognized that the Angel represented Esau (33:10), his brother with whom he had emotionally struggled all his life. The struggle in the womb had been lived out all their lives to this point. Perhaps the Angel's face appeared like that of Esau? Jacob saw the face of the Angel as it were the face of Esau- implying that the Angel he wrestled with was Esau's guardian Angel. He was being more obliquely shown the truth which New Testament passages like 1 Jn. 4:12,20,21 state plainly: that our relationship with our brother is our relationship with God. And Jacob was thus repenting of how badly he'd treated his brother.

But there is reason to think that the Angel also reminded Jacob of his father Isaac. The way Jacob begs the Angel to bless him recalls how he so earnestly wanted to obtain his father's blessing. Jacob's pleading for blessing with the Angel would have reminded him of Esau's desperate pleading for the blessing from Isaac. All these things were restimulated in Jacob's mind by the wrestling. The Angel asks him what his name is (32:27), in exactly the same way as Isaac had asked him 20 years before. At that time he had lied. But now he truthfully answers the Angel: " Jacob" , the deceiver. And then he begs for the blessing of forgiveness. He had struggled with men, with Isaac and Isaac's influence of Jacob's spirituality, with his brother Esau, with Laban, and with himself. And the Angel said that in all these struggles with men, Jacob had ultimately won in that he had confessed he was a deceiver, he had accepted the perversity of his nature.  

Rejecting The Physical Blessing

Jacob's new appreciation of the blessing of forgiveness is reflected by the way in which he effectively tells Esau that he is handing back to him the birthright, the physical blessings. The way he bows down seven times to Esau (33:3) is rejecting the blessing he had obtained by deceit from Isaac: " Be master over your brethren, and let your mother's sons bow down to you" (27:29). His experience of the blessing of God's grace was sufficient for him, and he rejected all else. It's a shame that the English translation conceals Jacob's rejection of the physical blessing in 33:11: " Take (51 times translated " take away" ), I pray thee, my blessing...because God hath dealt graciously with me, and I have enough (lit. 'all things')" .The Hebrew words translated " take (away)" and " blessing" are exactly the same as in 27:35,36: " (Jacob) came with subtlety, and hath taken away thy blessing...Is not he rightly named Jacob? he took away my birthright, and now he hath taken away my blessing" . Yet now Jacob is saying: 'I have experienced the true grace of God, I stand forgiven before Him, I see His face in His representative Angel (cp. Christ), I therefore have all things, so I don't want that physical, material, temporal blessing I swindled you out of'. And Paul, in his spiritual maturity, came to the same conclusion; he counted all the materialism of this world as dung, that he might win Christ and be found in him, clothed with his gracious righteousness. Later, Jacob again resigned the things of this world for the sake of what was implicit in the promises, when he told his family: “Put away the strange gods that are among you” (Gen. 35:2). These household teraphim would have been the property deeds to Laban’s property, but because of what God had promised him at Bethel all those years ago, Jacob was willing to resign all that hope of worldly advantage (35:3). 

And yet how seriously will we take all this? Will the wonder of the grace in which we stand motivate us to reject demanding careers, reject rigorous education programs, give up second jobs, from the wonder of our spiritual experience and our desire to concentrate on these things? There can be no doubt that the wrestling experience of our lives will result in our rejection of materialism, and wholehearted devotion to the more spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. Jacob began that night by pleading: " Deliver me from Esau" (32:11), and he concludes by marvelling that his life is " preserved (s.w. " deliver" ) from God's wrath (32:30); his  concern with physical problems and human relationships became dwarfed by his awareness of his need for reconcilliation with God. In essence, this is Paul's teaching concerning peace in the NT; if we have peace with God, the wonder of this will result in us having peace in any situation. This is easy to write, so easy. And yet it is still true. If we see the seriousness of sin, and the wonder of being in free fellowship with the Father and Son, we will have peace. The wholehearted repentance and clinging on to God of Jacob that night is used in Hosea 12 as an appeal to all Israel to repent as our father Jacob did, and rise to his level of maturity 

Jacob's Wrestling With God

" In his manhood he had power with God" (Hos. 12:2 RVmg.) suggests that he reached spiritual maturity that night. To be that familiar with God that we can reason with Him, struggle with Him in prayer, seek to change His will over an illness or situation... this is spiritual maturity. This whole characteristic of striving with God was memorialized in his new name: Israel, implying 'striver and prevailer with God and men'. And this must be the characteristic of Israel after the Spirit too. There is a confusion in the Hebrew between ‘striver’ and ‘prince’- for the struggle comes before the crown. Our relationship with Him, our attaining of salvation, is a struggle, a wrestling,a desperate, desperate clinging on, a pleading with tears. Yet this is almost the opposite of the spirit of our community; a comfortable drifting through life, attending the same round of meetings, largely hearing pleasant platitudes, no tears, no little real self-sacrifice, little realistic self-denial, little self-examination and daily struggle to be the more spiritual in the 'small' things of life, hiding behind the institutionalization of spirituality which our history has inevitably resulted in, staying up late, rising up early, labouring with God to build the House, foregoing the petty luxuries and niceties, give give giving... Yet Jacob that night really is a type of us all:

- 'Israel' is the most common title God uses for His people; and it means 'one who struggles with God and prevails'. This, therefore, will be the characteristic of all His people. Note the humility of God, the Almighty, in desiring to articulate our relationship with Him in terms of us struggling with Him and winning. Hos. 12:4 seems to emphasize this, by saying that Jacob in his prayer and pleading had power over the Angel.  His strength was in his humility; by his strength he had power over God, but it was by his weeping and pleading that he did (Hos. 12:4). This, then, was the true strength 'over' God.

- The Haggadah [recited at the Passover] invites every Jew of all ages to see himself as Jacob’s son: “A Syrian [Laban] almost caused my father to perish” is to be recited by all males at the feast. This likewise is how close we should see our connection with him.

- Describing our final gathering to judgment it is prophesied: “I will assemble her that halteth, and I will gather her that is driven out” (Mic. 4:6). This is all very much the language of limping Jacob being gathered home. But in him we must see all of us.

- Strong defines 'Israel' as meaning 'he who will rule as God'. This would therefore be the basis of Rev. 3:21, which promises that he who overcomes (also translated " prevail" ) will be a ruler with God, on His throne. It seems that the Lord has his mind back in Gen. 32, and he saw all who would attain His Kingdom as going through that same process of prevailing with God, overcoming, and being made rulers with Him.

- The Angel came to Jacob with the desire to kill him, as Esau (whom the Angel represented) approached him in the same spirit. It was by Jacob's desperate clinging on to God, his pleading, his intense prayer (Hos. 12:4) that he changed God's intention, after the pattern of Moses in later years. The sentence of death we received in Adam perhaps doesn't mean as much to us as it should. Our reversal of it will involve quite some struggle.

- Mt. 18:8 says that it's better to limp into the Kingdom than be rejected for self-righteousness. Surely there is an invitation here to see the limping Jacob, walking away from the encounter with the Angel, as our role model.

- Hezekiah saw Jacob's watershed experience that night of wrestling as analogous to his own experience during his sickness: " I reckoned till morning, that as a lion he would break all my bones (cp. Esau's approach)...I shall go softly (cp. " I will lead on softly" , 33:14)...for thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back" (Is. 38). Tragically, Hezekiah didn't keep Jacob as his hero. He succumbed to the very materialism which Jacob permanently rejected that night.

Through the whole incident with the wrestling Angel, Jacob was led to understand something of the meaning of the Gen. 28 vision of a ladder with Angels (mal'akim) ascending from him to Heaven and returning to him. He sends messengers (mal'akim) to Esau (Gen. 32:3)- and they return to him as it were as a mighty host of an angry army. Hence he named the place Mahanaim, two camps / hosts- for he perceived that Esau's host was indeed the host of God in His Angels. And thus he comments that he saw the face of the Angel / God as if it were the face of Esau (Gen. 33:10). And so God can masterfully arrange incidents in our lives too, which are somehow the summation of all our previous encounters and interactions with people... to teach us His way. This is why there is sometimes a sense of deja vu in our lives.

Fighting To The Kingdom

Jacob wrestled / struggled in prayer with the Angel. Consider the Biblical emphasis on the idea of struggle, quite apart from the fact that Jacob's night of wrestling is a cameo of the experience of all who would be counted among the Israel of God:

- Job felt that his prayers were a striving with God (33:13). Christ's prayers in Gethsemane are described as a " striving" (Heb. 12:4); Paul asks the Romans to strive in prayer, so that he may be delivered from unbelievers (cp. Esau), and return to them with a blessing (Rom. 15:30). This is all allusion to Jacob. Likewise Epaphras 'strove' for the Colossians in his prayers (Col. 4:12 AVmg.).

- Prayer is portrayed as a struggle. The Romans were to strive together with Paul in prayer (Rom. 15:30); the Lord's prayers in Gethsemane were a resisting / struggling unto the point of sweating blood (Heb. 12:2). " I would that ye knew what great conflict I have for you...that their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding" is parallel to " We do not cease to pray for you... that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding" (Col. 2:1 cp. 1:9,10). Paul's conflict / struggle for them was his prayer for them. Our groanings, our struggling in prayer, is transferred to God by the Lord Jesus groaning also, but with groanings far deeper and more fervently powerful than ours (Rom. 8:22,23 cp. 26). Our prayers are to give the Father no " rest" (Is. 62:7), no cessation from violent warfare (Strong). The widow by her continual coming in prayer 'wearied ' the judge into responding; Strong defines this Greek word as meaning 'to beat and black and blue' (RVmg. gives " bruise" ). It's a strange way of putting it, but this is another reminder of the intense struggle of prayer. Jacob's wrestling with the Angel was really a clinging on to him, pleading with tears for the blessing of forgiveness; and in this he was our example (Hos. 12:4-6). Lk. 21:36 RV speaks of the believer 'prevailing' with God in prayer. The 'struggles' of Moses in prayer are an example of this; through the desperation and spiritual culture of his pleading, he brought about a change even in God's stated purpose.

- " The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force" (Mt. 11:12) is constructing a parable from the idea of Roman storm troopers taking a city. And those men, the Lord teaches in his attention grabbing manner, really represent every believer who responds to the Gospel of the Kingdom and strives to enter that Kingdom. The same word translated 'take by force' is used by the Lord in Lk. 16:16: " the Kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it" ; true response to the Gospel of the Kingdom is a struggle. Entering the Kingdom is a fight (1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7).

- The fact God uses such language is proof enough that He has no room for those who want a passive ride to His Kingdom. Passivity is nowhere to be seen in the above passages. It's an all or nothing struggle, after the pattern of Jacob's. It has been widely observed that God has expressed His purpose in a way which seems in some way flexible; e.g. through intense prayer, Moses changed God's stated intention to destroy Israel. It would seem that God reveals Himself as a God who can be wrestled with in prayer in order to militate against passivity in our relationship with Him; if we know His purpose can be changed through intense prayer, we will be powerfully motivated as Moses and Jacob were.   

Jacob And Us

Here in this incident of Jacob's wrestling with God we see most poignantly the similarities between Jacob and ourselves. Time and again, our lives present us with our own selves, just in different guises. And so with Jacob. He was probably surprised that Rachel would deceive her father by stealing his idols and then lying to him; he had thought she was so wonderful, so pretty, so spiritual. But then he would have come to see that he too, for all his outward spirituality, had also deceived his father. Likewise he would have reflected how Leah must have been party to the cruel deception she played on him at the time of his marriage. Her father Laban would have advised her to do it, or she’d be left a spinster. And Jacob too had listened to his mothers’ false reasoning in similar vein. Leah had pretended to be her sister- just as Jacob had pretended to be his brother, on anothers’ advice, in order to deceive his own father. Jacob in a national sense must meet their watershed. They are smart, they are fast, just as Jacob was. And just as so many in the new Israel are too. As God worked with Jacob and gave him material blessing even in his self-righteous years before his final meeting with Esau and the Angel, so has Yahweh blessed His people; material prosperity, a strangely fertile land, a charmed life in international foreign policy, miraculous military victories in 1948, in 1967, in 1973, a booming economy…and yet they must yet meet Esau, and then the light of the Lord’s countenance. And we are all following the same pattern. It may well be that the watershed for natural Israel will be at the same time and in the same essential form as for contemporary spiritual Israel. For each member of ‘Jacob’ must go through this in their lives. The material blessing of the brotherhood at this present time may be the counterpart of 1948, 1967, 1973… And the outcome of it all is that Jacob ends his days worshipping, as he leans upon his staff; i.e. he worshipped as he limped, having lost his natural strength, and leaning upon the Lord’s support. The muscle in the thigh which was touched is the strongest muscle in the human body. Jacob’s strongest point was turned into His weakest, and this is our pattern. Here is our happy end too, in the very and final end: to worship, limping, leaning on our staff.