Jacob – Wrestling with man and God

Jacob, one of the Patriarchs of the Bible.  The antihero, the one who leaves us aghast because he tricked his own blind father, Isaac,  and stole the blessing which belonged to his elder brother (Esau).

“Serves him right!” (padan muka in Malay) when he in turn is tricked into marrying the wrong girl (Leah), on the first night of his wedding.  Then, feelings of glee turn into outrage and pity for him, when his father-in-law, Laban continues to exploit him by making him work 14 years for the 2 daughters, 6 years for the flocks, and changes his wages 10 times unilaterally.

After years of manipulation by Laban, in Genesis 31, God finally tells Jacob to leave and go back to the land of his fathers, i.e., go back to Isaac. However, this would also mean that Jacob would have to meet Esau again!  And the last time Jacob saw Esau, Esau had put a death wish on his head. There was certainly no love lost there between the two brothers. So, in fear and trepidation, Jacob made that treacherous journey home with his family and his livestock.

In Gen 32:22-32, Jacob has this long, overnight wrestling match.  The identity of this assailant is rather perplexing – who or what was it? In Gen 32:24 the Bible describes it as “a man” but in Gen 32:26a, Jacob asks for a blessing, and in Gen 32:30, Jacob says “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”  Why would Jacob ask a man for a blessing and also identify this person as God? How can a man turn into God?[1]

From the story of Jacob’s life, I can only postulate that in life Jacob struggled with man.  He started jostling with his twin brother Esau in the womb. He was Mummy’s boy, whereas Esau was Daddy’s boy. He must have struggled with that.

Then, after tricking Isaac and Esau, he met Laban (the Master Deceiver) who gave Jacob a good life lesson on what it feels like to be the one holding the rotten end of the stick. He had to deal with two wives and there were his brothers in law too.

But in the midst of all his struggles in life, God was there. God saw Jacob in his mother’s womb (Gen 25:23). He was there at Bethel (Gen 28: 12) just before Jacob met Laban. God was there telling Jacob to leave Laban (Gen 31:3). Angels met Jacob on his way to see Esau in Mahanaim (Gen 32:2).  And we learn in Gen 32:22 that the night before meeting Esau, Jacob had this long, arduous wrestling match with man/God. 

Wrestling is an ancient sport, found in every culture. In fact,[2] wrestling is natural, essential. It’s part of the human spirit. It’s innate.  It’s a sport that displays character, perseverance, resilience, and grit[3].

During this night encounter, Jacob was left all alone, stripped of everything that he owned and held dear.   He had nothing except his life. Then the wrestling began. I believe that as Jacob wrestled with this entity (which he first saw as a man) he began to see God’s hand in his life, and then it dawned on him that his struggles with man was really a struggle with God.

God was the one responsible for his life. People and circumstances were utilised by God to shape him into this man with character, perseverance, resilience, and grit.  God began to polish this rough stone into a diamond and to erase from him the spirit of deceitfulness.

In the end, Jacob didn’t have to cheat his way to victory. He could do it fair and square.  Jacob began to attribute the struggles of life to God, and God was prepared to accept responsibility for the struggles too.

The best part of this story is the way God wrestled with Jacob, it was a funny type of wrestling because in verse 25 it says that “the man saw that he could not overpower him…”  How is it that God could not overpower Jacob? God can certainly overpower anybody. 

When I was a child, I used to wrestle with my late Dad.  Since I am a girl, it was more of a tease than real wrestling. My Dad was ticklish at his earlobes.  If I pinched his earlobes he would cringe and he would let me win.

I believe that God in His infinite kindness appeared to Jacob such that Jacob could overpower Him.  In short, God let Jacob win. Perhaps it was to boost Jacob’s confidence. Certainly, God did not break Jacob’s spirit nor kill him.

But God had to touch Jacob’s hip socket and dislocate it. Jacob still held on to God and demanded a blessing. Then the man asked Jacob “What is your name?[4] To this, Jacob answered “Jacob”.

I can only postulate that the hip socket incident that brought Jacob to his knees is linked to the issue that distressed Jacob most – the incident when he deceived his father, Isaac, and stole Esau’s blessing as the first born. If you recall, in order to deceive his father who was blind, Jacob had put on Esau’s clothes and had covered his skin with goatskins.  When questioned by Isaac – “Who is it?”[5], Jacob said “I am Esau, your firstborn…”[6] and when Isaac asked again “Are you really my son Esau?” Jacob replied “I am[7].  In carrying out this charade, at Isaac’s request, Jacob even kissed Isaac.  Perhaps Jacob had a flashback to this earlier shameful incident.

However, this time, when confronted by God who asked him “What is your name?” Jacob no longer needed to deceive anybody. He came clean and said, “I am Jacob, the trickster” (paraphrased). That’s when God renamed Jacob and called him Israel – “because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome”. 

Towards the end of his life, Jacob personally acknowledged the hand of God in his life. and in Gen 48:15 he prayed “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm…” Thereafter God became known as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.

I believe many of us can identify with the story of Jacob in some respects.  I too have had my fair share of struggles.  There were some difficult colleagues, clients, hard task masters, dealings with people with power, disloyal staff, gossipers, fair-weather friends, wicked greedy persons, a mixed bag of relatives, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Of course, together with the bitter, there is the sweet, and I’ve had the privilege to meet the finest people in the world and they have remained dear friends and family.  I have my inner darkness of regrets, fears, failures, which I have had to face head-on in order to move forward.  Since retirement when I had to put everything aside, I can see more clearly that God was behind all these human struggles and trying circumstances, and that God had used them all to draw out the dross within me and to put steel in my soul.  I’m still a work in progress. Spiritual lessons are only learnt on earth. He is God of Tammy too.

I hope this short piece is an encouragement to you.  God is for you and with you.  Every struggle is not meant to break your spirit. He will not test you beyond what you can bear.  You may have to face your inner darkness to move on.  Every pruning, though painful, will bring out the best in you.  May He also be God of (your name). 

[1] Commentators hold different views – the assailant being God, man, Angel, evil spirit, Satan, shadow man

[2] “Wrestling is Innate” by Ted Witulski, in USA Wrestling, 4.6.2004

[3] Quoting Erica Wiebe, Olympic champion woman wrestler

[4]  Gen 32:27

[5] Gen 27:18

[6] Gen 27:19

[7] Gen 27: 24

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