Jacob Wrestles with God

The story of Jacob found in Genesis 32 deserves a close examination. I believe that it gives us a perfect illustration of how God deals with men. I have found that much of the persistent controversy over gender roles in the Church seem to make the issue all about us. We’ve taken to the Pauline epistles most often to justify our positions and viewpoints on men and women and what their ‘place’ is, or isn’t, in the community and society.

But I have discovered that, ultimately, it’s about God and how he himself chooses to deal with men and women. Nothing—nothing—any of us do, as men or women, will change the way God deals with each gender. God treats every human of every ethnicity, gender, class, and race the same with regard to righteousness. But when it comes to certain qualities, nothing is more obvious or explicit in the Bible than the differences in God’s dealings between men and women.

In the story of Jacob we see the reality of God and the man dueling. One of the first things we notice is that Jacob is all alone. I believe we can draw a couple of truths from this fact. Firstly, dueling with God is a deeply personal event, and it is easy to feel all alone and in the dark. He comes in the dark of the night when no is around, to remake and try you. How will you respond when he is the only one to respond to? Often, the most that other people will see or know of our personal battles are what we share openly with them. Our moments with friends, family, and neighbors are never as true to our character as are our moments alone with God. These battles which God puts us through are deeply personal and they are between you and God alone. Friends and family may provide prayer or encouragement, but often our deep trials are very difficult to express to others, and even our best efforts will only yield a shadowy picture. Secondly, I think this also shows that true manhood begins, and is sustained, where no one is around to see it except God.

The most important fact for our observation in this story is the manner in which God shapes Jacob while alone in the dark—a wrestling match. Remarkably, it is a mutual, two-fold fight and it is long. Quite long.

God Initiates

God initiates it with the intent of subduing a man he has chosen out and bringing him under his control. When God saw that Jacob was refusing to be subdued, God didn’t give up but rather disabled him with a touch. Obviously God was not against Jacob or he would have squished him to nothing. This was a struggle with a different purpose. God was for Jacob. It was a hand to hand, man to man duel intending to get Jacob to willingly yield.

Man responds

In verse 26, we find that the wrestling match has suddenly switched around and now it is Jacob wrestling God. What was Jacob trying to do? He was trying get a blessing from him and would not let God go until he got it. Again, we see a merciful struggle because, obviously, God could have given him another disabling ‘touch’ and yet did not. God wanted the man to endure. When Jacob endured and refused to give up, God gave him the blessing and renamed him Israel which is, essentially, defined for us in the same verse: “for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”136

A man’s relationship with God is very much a wrestling match. This theme can be seen repeated in the lives of so many biblical figures such as Jonah, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Hezekiah, and the apostles. It’s tough. But it’s also merciful because it’s ultimately a father seeking to bring out the best in his sons and to make them into strong men of honorability. Because of that we can confidently enter the ‘ring’ with God and know that he will not give us anything that we can’t handle and that we shall come out completely transformed into what we could never have been without him.

The story of Jacob, one of God’s most important chosen men, is best contrasted, I think, with the story of God’s most important chosen woman as revealed in Ezekiel chapter 16. There, we discover an entirely different prerogative of God in the shaping and transforming of a woman.

Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord GOD.137

There is no wrestling match here. God instead is gently pursuing after her and seeking to wash, clothe in splendor, adorn, provide her fine food, and crown her with a royal authority. His protective, cherishing, adorning, and providing character enabled her to become of renowned beauty.

To make Jacob into the renowned Israel he wrestled him to the ground. To make the girl into a renowned Bride of royalty he brought her up and lavished splendor on her. What more is there to say? The God of the Bible sees and treats men and women incredibly different—as different as night and day. This is what the Father does with us. Just as a man needs the Father’s tough love to achieve the inner strength and capability that he desires, a woman needs the Father’s gentle and adorning love to achieve a renowned and authoritative inner beauty. This is far from the incorrect notion that the scriptures teach us to objectify and suppress women as some would like to think, for the passage makes clear that the final objective of God was an ‘advancement to royalty’ which insinuates a level of authority on par with his own. The key truth here is that she cannot possibly think to ever obtain such a “royalty” without a husband providing it. I think that husbands are rarely doing this sort of thing these days.

Ultimately, the thing that makes a man and puts him ‘in his place’ is how God deals with him and the thing that makes a woman and puts her ‘in her place’ is how God deals with her. Nothing more. Understanding our sin, mortality, shame, and the utter sickness of our inner condition is the first step toward redeemed manhood and womanhood. Without this understanding we will never be true men or women but only phony play-actors.