Jacob wrestles with God – and earns a new name (Genesis 32:22 – 32:32)
During the night, Jacob took his two wives, two female servants, and eleven sons to cross a ford on the Jabbok River. After sending his family across the river, followed by all his possessions, Jacob was left alone.
During the night, a “man” wrestled with Jacob. When the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip, dislocating it.
The man told Jacob, “Let me go, it is daybreak.”
Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob but Israel, because you struggled with God and humans but overcame all adversity.”
Jacob plead with the man, “Please tell me your name.”
The man replied, “Why do you ask my name?”
Then the man blessed Jacob.
Jacob called the place Peniel saying, “It is because I saw God face to face yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above Jacob as he passed Peniel. Jacob was limping because of his injured hip.
To this day, Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched by God during his night-long struggle.
What the story means to us today
Jacob’s transformation is complete
In the previous story, we found Jacob turning a corner, offering a sincere prayer to God, one that serves as a model for our prayers today. In this story, we find Jacob fighting against God, refusing to yield. In effect, Jacob has been wrestling with God all along.
Up to this point, Jacob has lived in darkness, fighting the plan God has for him. Finally, God “touches” Jacob. Rather than a physical defeat, we should see God’s touch as a symbolic representation of God winning over Jacob’s heart and soul. Once God “breaks” him, all Jacob can do is cling to God’s side. He now recognizes that he is powerless against God’s will.
Many Christians find themselves in similar circumstances today. When life’s events turn dire or difficult decisions arise, we often feel like we are struggling not just with the event, but with God. We can feel God’s will, we know what he wants us to do, but we resist.
When you find yourself in a position of struggle, don’t attempt to “wrestle” the solution from God. Instead, with respect for his power and grace, pray. Ask for God’s assistance (as Jacob requested a blessing) and follow his guiding principles. Above all, you must recognize that to struggle against God’s will, in the end, is a futile battle.
Additional thoughts and considerations
What goes around comes around
“What goes around comes around” (or alternatively, “What comes around, goes around”). The results of things that one has done will someday have an effect on that person. It’s an old proverb that often rings true. Following the Bible’s moral code results in much more than good feelings and a pleasant, cooperative societal structure. In Jacob’s case, neither time nor distance could erase Jacob’s sin – the mistreatment of his brother. The past always catches up with sinners.
Why did Jacob request a “blessing”?
Jacob asks for a “blessing” from the man as a condition for withdrawing from the battle but the verses do not reveal that the “man” Jacob wrestled with is God until later in the story. It may be that Jacob’s opponent was representative of the foregone relationship between Jacob and his brother. A better explanation however, is that Jacob knew his opponent was supernatural and not merely a man.
The symbolism in Jacob’s request for a blessing is powerful – before Jacob can make things right with his brother, he knows he must first make things right with God.
Why would God ask Jacob what his name was?
As we will see in the next verses, it was not Esau who hunted Jacob but rather, God, as he began applying the finishing touches on his plan. As part of this plan, God asks Jacob, “What is your name?” An all-knowing God would already know Jacob’s name. So why did he ask?
God’s question is a rhetorical question intended to focus Jacob and the storyline on his old name. Recall that in the Old Testament, a person’s name was linked to his nature. Jacob’s name meant “heel-catcher”, a name that was appropriately applied to his character – a trickster, deceiver, schemer. But Jacob was no longer clutching the heels of another man. He was beginning to listen and act on God’s direction. Jacob now realizes that struggling against God is futile. Jacob’s spiritual transformation is complete, his people’s destinies forever changed, and fittingly, his name is changed too.
Why didn’t God tell Jacob his name?
In the verses, Jacob asks the Man what his name is. The man replies (without answering), “Wherefore dost thou ask my name?” Just as God had asked Jacob his name (which he already knew of course) to emphasize his ground-breaking renaming of the patriarch, Jacob asks God what his name is – likely to confirm the otherworldly event was really happening as he envisioned. However, God did not have to reveal his name to Jacob – his true character was revealed by his actions – the touching of Jacob’s hip and the blessing he bestowed on Jacob.
The science and history behind the story
The sinew that shrank
The verses tell us that “to this day, Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip”. Although not founded on the Law of Moses, remarkably, this tradition is still held to this day. The sinew is carefully extracted by a butcher before preparation of the meat. If the butcher lacks the skills to extract the sinew, the entire hind portion is discarded.
The Jabbok River
The Jabbok River (Zarqa River) rises from springs in Ain Ghazal (near Amman Jordan). The area is one of the oldest known settlements on the planet dating back earlier than 10,000 BC. At one time, it is believed the area was forested, rich with resources, and heavily populated.
Notes on Biblical translation
Jacob’s missing daughter
Newer biblical translations tell us that Jacob took two wives, two female servants, and eleven sons across the ford in the Jabbok River. But by this time, Jacob had twelve children, not just eleven sons. The twelfth child was his daughter, Dinah (Benjamin was not born until later). Because of this, some translations render the description as “family” instead of breaking out the categories as the original text did. The reason for the discrepancy? The original word translated to “children” typically describes male offspring only.
The original Hebrew word for “wrestle” sounds audibly like a combination of “Jacob” and “Jabbok”. English readers can envision this as “Jac-Bok”. The word only appears here and in Hosea.
Some translate the word as “struggle” while a few believe it may mean “persevere”. The writer likely intended to link the setting (Jabbok) with the main actor (Jacob) in the mind of the reader, using a word that signified Jacob’s resistance to God’s will or his failure to fully trust in the Lord. As such, the wrestling match between God and Jacob may be describing a mental match rather than a physical fight.
22 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. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 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. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, k because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, q and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
But during the night he got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions.
24–25 But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
26 The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
27 The man said, “What’s your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
29 Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.
30 Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”
31–32 The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip. (This is why Israelites to this day don’t eat the hip muscle; because Jacob’s hip was thrown out of joint.)
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
The NET Bible
22 During the night Jacob quickly took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 32:23 He took them and sent them across the stream along with all his possessions. 32:24 So Jacob was left alone. Then a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 32:25 When the man saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he struck the socket of his hip so the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated while he wrestled with him.
32:26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” “I will not let you go,” Jacob replied, “unless you bless me.” 32:27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” He answered, “Jacob.” 32:28 “No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.”
32:29 Then Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” “Why do you ask my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. 32:30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.”
32:31 The sun rose over him as he crossed over Penuel, but he was limping because of his hip. 32:32 That is why to this day the Israelites do not eat the sinew which is attached to the socket of the hip, because he struck the socket of Jacob’s hip near the attached sinew.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.
King James Version
So went the present over before him: and himself lodged that night in the company. 22 And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. 23 And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.
24 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 25 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. 26 And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. 27 And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. 28 And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. 29 And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. 30 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. 31 And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. 32 Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew that shrank.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.