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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Jacob’s Strength vs. God’s Weakness


Shane Rosenthal

Release date:

July 16, 2021



Jacob was born to wrestle. According to Gen. 25:22, he struggled with his twin brother Esau even in his mother’s womb, and was born grasping his heel. This is why he was given the name “Yacov,” which literally means, “heel-grabber.” Viewed negatively, it can also mean supplanter, cheater or deceiver, which as you read through Genesis is quite an apt description of Jacob’s character. For example, in Genesis 27:35 Isaac specifically says that Jacob had deceived him, and took away his brother’s blessing. 

The curious thing is that Jacob’s deceptive act ended up being the basis for Israel’s inheritance of the promised land. If he had not worn his brother’s garments and lied about his identity, he (and all his posterity with him) would have been destined to inherit the land of Edom. In other words, what Genesis seems to be telling us is that the people of Israel never actually had the right to the promised land. It rightfully belonged to Isaac’s firstborn son Esau. But is this the way that God’s promise to Abraham works? Is this how the people of Israel ended up inheriting the promised land — through Jacob’s deceptive tactics?

It’s amazing that Israel’s founding patriarch is presented in Genesis as such a schemer and deceiver. What other nation in the history of the world has ever presented the founder of their clan or nation in such a way? But not all commentators are convinced of this. For example, national radio talk show host, Dennis Prager recently published his own commentary on the book of Genesis in which writes that “Jacob’s behavior is often viewed as unscrupulous. But it is quite defensible” (p. 301).

Similarly, another writer observes that,Yes, Jacob was a deceiver. But deception is not always sinful. In this case, Jacob was a righteous deceiver. Jacob was a good man, a ‘blameless’ man…who righteously deceived those who opposed God’s covenant.” Basically, these writers are attempting to justify Jacob’s actions because they want him to be — or perhaps need him to be — the hero of the story. After all, this is the man whose name will soon be changed to Israel. In other words, since he’s the figurehead of the future nation, he must be the good guy in this story. 

But I believe Genesis is telling us plainly that Jacob’s character is flawed, and that he indeed is a deceiver and a schemer. And yet, for some odd reason, he is granted access to the promised land in spite of his sin. Furthermore, this narrative also informs that the blessing given to Jacob came at a cost, since he was allowed to enter the promised land at the expense of his brother Esau who in turn was sent away to the east. Whereas Jacob was blessed with the fruitful land of Canaan, Esau was cursed with the dry and infertile region of Edom. 

The best way to account for this strange narrative is to focus on the way these themes end up being resolved in the the history of redemption. You see, of us are like Jacob. We are sinful and corrupt and do not have the right to enter into God’s ultimate land of rest. However, if like Jacob we wear the garments of God’s firstborn son, the one who did have the right to live with God for all eternity, if we wear his righteousness like a robe, then we will not be exiled from the heavenly Jerusalem. But, as with the Genesis narrative, all this comes at a cost. Jesus Christ was cursed so that we could be blessed. In order that we could be brought near, he was exiled “outside the camp” (Heb. 13:12-13). He died, that we might live.

As I first began to wade through various interpretations of the mysterious wrestling match that we find in Genesis 32, it appeared to me that most commentators had essentially adopted the hero approach. This wrestling match, you see, was a time in which, through his own tenacity, Jacob struggled with God and refused to let him go until he was able to secure his desired blessing. And according to these interpreters, the practical implication is that we too should struggle with God as we wrestle with him in prayer. Like Jacob, we should cling to him and refuse to let go until we receive our blessing.

This is essentially the approach taken by Matthew Henry who in his commentary on Genesis chapter 32 says that “Jacob is here wrestling like a champion and yet weeping like a child. Note, that prayers and tears are the weapons with which the saints have obtained the most glorious victories.” In this view, Jacob is thought to be a kind of champion who wrestles with God and comes out victorious. This also happens to be the interpretive approach you’ll discover in otherwise respectable exegetes such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Sinclair Ferguson.

In his recent Genesis commentary, Dennis Prager acknowledges the importance of this scene, since this is the event in which Jacob receives his new name and identity. Prager writes, 

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of the meaning of the name Israel. It means ‘struggle with God.’ That God would bestow this name on his people could only mean God assumes — even expects — those who believe in him to struggle with him. There are believers who think that struggling with God such as questioning, or even doubting God is impious. But God assures us it is not only not impious but expected, and it can be meritorious…(p. 386).

The problem with the above interpretation is according to a careful reading of Genesis 32, Jacob wasn’t actually wrestling with doubts or found to be questioning God in any way. Instead, what we find is that he was attacked in the middle of the night and was involved in a real physical altercation. In other words, Prager seems to have spiritualized the text and changed its meaning. This is similar to the way that many popular preachers end up interpreting a verse like Mark 4:39. “If Jesus can rebuke the wind and sea,” they’ll say, “then he can calm the storms in your life.” But again, as you take a close look at the passage, no one on the boat that day who saw Jesus calm the storm responded by saying, “Wow Jesus! I see that you have a knack for calming storms. You know, I’m currently dealing with storms in my marriage, and wonder if you’d be willing to help.” Instead, we’re told in verse 41 that “they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” In other words, the entire weight and thrust of the passage is centered on Jesus’ identity, rather than our own practical and therapeutic interests.

Prager goes so far as to say that struggling with God intellectually and spiritually can actually be “meritorious.” This makes sense when take into account his Jewish background, since that sort of language has never been taboo in Jewish theology. What is a little strange, however, is when you find that same emphasis among Christian interpreters. I mean, if the main point of Genesis 32 is that all of us should struggle with God and refuse to let him go until we receive our blessing, it sounds as if this kind of encounter is being viewed as “meritorious” in a certain sense. Though most Christian interpreters don’t end up using that particular word, they still end up arguing that we can secure God’s blessing by our own grasping, striving, and stubborn refusal to let go.

If you’re familiar with this section of Genesis, you’ll know that Jacob is now returning to the land of promise after fleeing to the land of Haran for twenty years since his brother had threatened to kill him in retaliation for stealing his birthright and blessing. And you’ll recall that as he was leaving the land in chapter 28, Jacob had a dream about angels ascending and descending on a great stairway, and that Yahweh appeared to him there and promised to be with him, to bless him, and to one day return him to the land of promise. Yet, what had Jacob done to deserve this special visitation? The answer is — absolutely nothing. He was not striving or grasping for anything at all. Instead, he was fleeing for his safety. And unlike Genesis chapter 11, we don’t find Jacob attempting to build a tower reaching to heaven, or even trying to climb the stairway that appeared in his vision. Instead, he’s fast asleep at the bottom, which makes this a wonderful picture of God’s mercy and grace. At the end of the day, none of us are saved by our climbing or striving, but by God’s gracious and merciful intervention.

So now, as Jacob returns to the region of the promised land after his twenty year exile, God appears to be far from the patriarch’s mind. In fact, a completely different Lord appears to be at the forefront of his mind. For as we see in verses 4-5 of Genesis 32, he instructs his servants to send a message to his brother Esau, saying:

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.’” Now, this Hebrew word here translated favor can also be translated grace. So, ironically, Jacob is focused here, not on the grace and favor Yahweh, but on the grace and favor of his brother Esau. And when he hears back from his servants that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob is greatly afraid and distressed, and prays to God for deliverance, since in particular he fears that Esau “might come and attack me, the mothers with the children.

In verses 13-15, Jacob sends hundreds of cows, goats and camels as an “offering” to his brother. Basically, he’s attempting to appease his brother’s anger, so that as he says in verse 20, “Perhaps he shall accept me.” Interestingly enough, the word used there for acceptance is actually the same word we find in back in Gen 4:7, when Cain was told by God, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” Since Cain did not end up doing what was right, but murdered his brother, he was later exiled to the land “east of Eden” (Gen. 4:16). So what about Jacob? Did he do what was right? No. He sinned against both his father and his brother. So why has he been invited to enter back into the land of promise? Shouldn’t he, like Cain, be exiled from the place of God’s dwelling because of his many sins? The point I believe we’re meant to see, over and over again is that while Jacob deserves to be exiled, it’s out of God’s inexplicable mercy and grace that he’s been invited to share in the blessings of the Abrahamic promise. 

Notice what happens next. In Genesis 32:22 and following we’re told, “That night, Jacob arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children,and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone.” Why does he do all this? Because he is currently afraid that his brother will come and attack him, “the mothers with the children.” He had already divided up his servants so that Esau would encounter wave after wave of gifts designed to turn away his anger, but just in case his brother was not appeased, he decided to move his wives and children out of harm’s way, to the opposite side of the river. Jacob was essentially thinking to himself, “if Esau comes to attack me, I must face him alone.” 

And so when we’re told in the latter part of verse 24 that “A man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day,” what do you think would have gone through Jacob’s mind as he was attacked in the dark? It’s not difficult to guess. Based on all that we’ve been told about his state of mind, Jacob would no doubt assume he’s just been attacked by his brother Esau.

In their helpful book Echoes of Exodus, Alastair Roberts & Andrew Wilson say that “It is very possible that, fording a river in the dark, Jacob thought that the man he was wrestling actually was Esau (whom he was scared of meeting)…which might explain his desperation to find out the man’s name. Only as dawn is about to break does Jacob realize that he has been wrestling with God himself” (p. 77). Similarly, Oxford scholar John Lennox argues something similar in his recent book on the life of Joseph. He writes the following:

Jacob lingered behind and, alone in the darkness, no doubt with increasing trepidation, imagined that the next person he’d encounter will be Esau. He had presumably decided, maybe to protect his family, that he must face Esau alone. Yet he was not alone. For without warning, in the middle of the night, he found himself under surprise attack…He probably thought at first that it was his brother Esau who had failed to be modified by the gifts and had now come to fight him. His future will be decided by hand-to-hand combat in the night…Yet as the wrestling progressed, it slowly dawned on Jacob that there was something very strange about the encounter…No, this strange opponent was not Esau. It was someone altogether different (p. 48).

That Jacob initially thought he was wrestling his brother Esau is a rather fitting idea when we stop to realize that he’s been doing this his entire life. Even in the womb, Jacob had wrestled with Esau, and has been striving with him ever since. But in verse 25 we’re given a clue that Jacob’s assailant is someone entirely different. “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” Though this man was not able to prevail against Jacob, he seems to have had the supernatural ability to dislocate a hip by a mere touch. Now it was completely dark so Jacob may not have been aware of what just happened. From his perspective, all he likely knew was that as he was wrestling, he suddenly began to experience a great deal of pain in his hip. Then in verse 26 the still unidentified man says, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob replies, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 

So now, at this point, can we really argue that Jacob is demanding a blessing from God? In reading this text carefully, have we found any clues yet that the patriarch actually knows the true identity of the man he’s wrestling with? In fact, as we’ll see, there’s evidence that Jacob is confused about his assailant’s identity all the way up to verse 29 when he finally asks for the man’s name. So if we take this knowledge back to verse 26, I think we can say with some degree of confidence that Jacob still believes he’s wrestling with his brother Esau. In other words, in his mind, he’s refusing to let go until Esau finally “cries uncle” and relinquishes the right to the blessing of first-born status.

This, you’ll recall was the thing he’d been striving for since the day he first emerged from the womb. By an accident of his birth, his brother won the blessing of firstborn status, and through the means of deceitful tactics, Jacob wrested that blessing from his brother — which is why the twins were currently at odds. And now that he has been attacked in the night (just as he had feared), Jacob believes that he must solve this conflict once for all — by force.

But then in verse 27, the unidentified man inquires of Jacob, saying, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” the patriarch replied — likely with some hesitation. Here I think we’re meant to consider the significance of this question in light of Jacob’s earlier deception. Back in Gen. 27:18-19, Jacob “went to Isaac saying, ‘My father.’ And Isaac said, “Who are you, my son?” Jacob said, “I am Esau your firstborn.” This, you see, was the very falsehood that had enabled Jacob to secure the blessing from his brother in the first place. And here in this scene, as he is re-entering the land of promise which was actually Esau’s by natural rights, God himself, in the form of a man, appears to Jacob and asks him to finally come clean about his true name and identity.

In verse 28 the man tells the patriarch, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Jacob’s response to this announcement shows that he is completely perplexed by these words, since he proceeds to ask for the man’s name — even though he was just told that he had been striving with God. And in response to Jacob’s inquiry, God then replies, “Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him.” 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.” 

So let’s think about this for a minute. Are we really to conclude that Jacob obtained his blessing because of his amazing wrestling abilities? Is Jacob really that good of a wrestler that he could be victorious over God himself? Of course not! Jacob is not blessed because of his strength, or his tenacity. Instead, he actually discovers that he has been blessed when he stops to consider the fact that he’s been wrestling with his creator. He has “seen God, face to face, and yet has been delivered!” Actually, not only has he been delivered, but he has somehow prevailed over God! But how can a man prevail over God? If this really is God in human flesh, then He could have conquered Jacob with a single word. And therefore, the only solution to this mysterious passage is to say that Jacob overpowered this man and obtained his blessing, because God, in his gracious providence, allowed it to happen. 

Recall once again the principle we discussed earlier, that Jacob received the Abrahamic blessing at the expense of his brother Esau, who as a result of his brother’s treachery, ended up inheriting the infertile desert region of Edom. It seems more than a little strange that Jacob should be awarded the promised land as a result of his deceitful tactics. But perhaps here in chapter 32 God will set things right. Yet, what we find instead is that God allows Jacob to prevail over him in this strange and unexpected wrestling match. And this is the scene in which the patriarch is renamed, Israel, which means “he struggles with God.” This is the birth of the future nation — this is is how the people of Israel end up gaining access to the promised land. It all comes down to this moment which ultimately points not to Jacob’s strength, but toGod’s weakness and condescending grace. For as Paul says in 1Cor. 1:25, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

In his commentary on this mysterious passage, Augustine offers the following insight:

Jacob held his brother’s foot who preceded him in his birth, and…because he held his brother’s heel, he was called Jacob, that is, “supplanter.” And afterwards…the Angel wrestled with him in the way. What comparison can there be between an Angel’s and a man’s strength? Therefore it is a mystery, a sacrament, a prophecy, a figure; let us therefore understand it. For consider the manner of the struggle too. As he wrestled, Jacob prevailed against the Angel. Some high meaning is here. And when the man had prevailed against the Angel, he…kept hold of Him whom he had conquered [saying], “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” When the conqueror was blessed by the Conquered, Christ was prefigured. So then that Angel, who is understood to be the Lord Jesus, said to Jacob, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall your name be”…Such great power had this Conquered One, that a single touch to Jacob’s thigh, made him lame. It was then by His Own will that He was conquered. For He “had power to lay down” His strength, “and He had power to take it up again.” He was not angry at being conquered, just as he was not angry at being crucified (Sermon LXXII).

I’m convinced that Augustine is on to something here. Because of the events of Genesis 32, the descendants of Jacob would later come to be known as “the people of Israel.” In other words, this is a monumentally significant passage in the history of redemption, which is a fact that is often ignored by many commentators. So are we really to believe that the ultimate point of this passage is that God’s people should all pray with tenacity? Surely there’s more to this story?

In John chapter 11, there’s a report of a man standing up during meeting of the Sanhedrin and saying, “‘If we let Jesus go on like this, everyone will believe in him, andthe Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ Then, Caiaphas, the high priest said, ‘Don’t you understand that it’s is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.’” Here in this section of John’s Gospel, Jacob’s children are still found to be striving, scheming and plotting. In fact, this is actually how they intended to remain in the promised land. 

Fearing the Romans more than God, the leaders of Israel weren’t even aware of the fact that the person they had just arrested was the Lord of heaven and earth veiled in human flesh. After all, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2). But the very thing that these leaders intended for evil, God intended for their good — and ours as well. This is what Peter ended up proclaiming on the day of Pentecost, “Men of Israel,” he said, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man attested to you by God with miracles, wonders, and signs that God did among you through him, just as you yourselves know. Thisman, who was delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you put to death by nailing him to a cross….Let all the house of Israel therefore know thatGod has made him both Lord and Christ — this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:22-36). 

By delivering Jesus over to be executed, the leaders of Israel thought they were securing the ability to remain in the promised land. Again, that which they planned with evil intent, God meant for good. For it is through this treacherous act that all of us finally do gain access to the ultimate land of rest. As Paul says in Philippians chapter 2, “though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” According to Augustine, all this was in a sense prefigured for us in Jacob’s strange wrestling scene recorded in Genesis 32. 

At the end of the day, this story is not about the power of Jacob’s striving or grasping. No, the story of Jacob ultimately points us to the gospel of his greater son Jesus, who refused to “count equality with God a thing to be grasped,” as he laid down his life for us. It is through his work alone that we inherit the right to dwell in his country. It’s a gospel centered on the weakness of God, which is stronger than men.