Genesis 32 – Grappling With God

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Today’s PassageGenesis 32

Take your time machine back to late 2003, track me down on the campus of St. John’s College, and ask me who my favorite Bible character is, and I’ll tell you it’s Jacob. Why, you ask? My sophomore self tells you that it’s because God uses him in spite of his faults. In a book of hot messes, Jacob’s debatably the hot-messiest. But God gives him the name “Israel,” makes him the literal namesake of an entire race, and changes him dramatically over the course of his life. Jacob grows both in humility and courage; he learns to leave behind his swindling and cheating and to face the world honestly instead. Jacob’s story is hope for schmucks.

Now, Switchfoot didn’t create my partiality toward Jacob, but they certainly helped. They released their breakout album The Beautiful Letdown in February 2003, and the closing track “24” both encapsulated much of my college experience and helped me get through it. (College was rough.) But there’s a line from that song, “I wrestled the angel / For more than a name,” which is a reference to Jacob’s experience in this chapter. Here Jacob spends a sleepless night grappling until daybreak with an unidentified man, who gives him the name “Israel.” Like Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis 28, it’s one of the events we tend to think of when we think of Jacob. And, fan of both Switchfoot and Jacob that I was, I latched onto it hard.

But frankly, the role of Jacob’s wrestling match in my life does nothing to properly contextualize it for us. We find it in the narrative as Jacob is heading home, knowing that he’ll have to face his brother, who previously wanted to kill him. He sends out messengers to let Esau know he’s coming, splits his family and possessions into two parties to increase the odds of a surviving descendant, and sends waves of gifts on ahead as repeated signs of goodwill and contrition. Jacob’s scared. He knows he’s wronged his brother. But now he’s facing it straight.

In the middle of all this, he prays a remarkable prayer. He tells God, “I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which You have shown to Your servant” (10). Jacob says, in effect, “I didn’t do this. You did.” He gives God the credit for his prosperity, and moreover, he admits that he and his garbage behavior have done nothing to merit it. This isn’t the same Jacob who scrambled through his early life to take what he can get. He’s growing, and he’s not done growing yet.

Then comes the part where his family crosses the river Jabbok, but Jacob ends up in a wrestling match that lasts all night.

Who is this guy that he’s grappling with? The text identifies him simply as “a man” (24), who refuses to tell Jacob his name (29). The man gives him a few parting gifts that don’t exactly shed light on the question of his identity, either. Jacob gets a blessing, a dislocated hip joint, and a new name. That name, Israel (יִשְׂרָאֵל), comes from the words for “God” and “to strive,” and the man explains: “You have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (28). The NASB notes that “Israel” may be taken to mean “he who strives with God” or “God strives;” for all Jacob’s effort, perhaps we’re meant to understand that God has done all the heavy lifting by working in Jacob. And while we might possibly be looking at a pre-incarnate Christophany here, none of this means that the man was necessarily God.

I’m not sure what to say in conclusion. This is another one of those huge passages that I feel I can’t do justice, even at my best. But in a sense, I don’t need to say anything in conclusion, because the story doesn’t actually conclude here. Jacob’s meeting with Esau still looms on the horizon, and tomorrow we’ll see how that goes. If you know already, try not to spoil it for everyone else.

3 thoughts on “Genesis 32 – Grappling With God

  1. יִשְׂרָאֵל
    From below, “That name, Israel (יִשְׂרָאֵל), comes from…”
    Your word processor showed Hebrew Israel in reverse order, left to right vs right to left. Word does that inexplicably to me sometimes.

    Regards from Mr. Pickey
    TF

    Like

    1. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, Mr. Pickey. :) I copied the Hebrew directly from the Strong’s Concordance entry on Biblehub, and it’s displaying correctly on my screen (yodh on the right, lamedh on the left, all the other letters in correct order in the middle). But if I can figure out what’s making the Hebrew display right to left on other devices such as yours, I’ll be sure to fix it going forward.

      Like

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