Two Questions Touching the Nature of God Which Arise from the Story Found in Genesis 32:24-32
Two Questions Touching the Nature of God
Which arise from the story found in Genesis 32:24-32:
With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle?
Why Was This Being Unable to Prevail Against Jacob?
Genesis 32:24-32  Jacob was left alone, and wrestled with a man there until the breaking of the day.  When he saw that he didn’t prevail against him, the man touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained as he wrestled.  The man said, “Let me go, for the day breaks.” Jacob said, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.”  He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob”.  He said, “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” He said, “Why is it that you ask what my name is?” He blessed him there.  Jacob called the name of the place Peniel; for he said, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”  The sun rose on him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped because of his thigh.  Therefore the children of Israel don’t eat the sinew of the hip, which is on the hollow of the thigh, to this day, because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip.
This story brings up one question that in this lifetime may not have a complete solution. With whom did Jacob wrestle? Did he wrestle with a man, with an angel, or with God? The story points to this man being more than a man. This may then lead to another question. If the man was more than a man, either an angel or God, how is it that he didn't prevail against Jacob? What kind of God (whether himself or one of his angels) would be unable to prevail against a mere mortal? (For it is generally assumed, and reasonably so, that Jacob is a mortal and not a god or demi-god such as is found in the Greek myths.) I will argue that Jacob wrestled with a man that was also much more than a man. I will also answer the second question such that God is exalted as God, not simply in spite of this not prevailing against Jacob, but because of it.
With whom did Jacob wrestle? The story begins by stating that Jacob wrestled with a man. This man was a real physical being that could be touched and could touch. He could hear and speak.
This man is presented as being more that a man as well. He touches the hollow of Jacob's thigh and it is strained (or put out of joint according to some translations) such that Jacob limped because of it (v.31) and the remembrance of this is passed on to his descendants in the form of a dietary regulation (v.32). When this man is asked for his name, he does not give it, but seems to imply that it should be obvious to Jacob who he is. The scriptures testify that the greater blesses the lesser (Hebrews 7:7). This places the man on a higher lever (whether human or divine) than Jacob. Afterward the event was over, Jacob called the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), saying “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Jacob clearly believed he had wrestled with God.
This man changed Jacob's name to Israel. He said to Jacob, “You have fought with God and with men and have prevailed” (v.28). This can be taken to mean that in this particular event, Jacob was in fact wrestling with God in the form of a man. Perhaps a more likely meaning of this is that Jacob had previously prevailed against men in various struggles and conflicts, and now in this struggle he had prevailed against God.
We see that Jacob wrestled with a man who was more than a man. Who was it? Was he wrestling with an angel as a representative or authoritative ambassador of God? This is very possible, and would not be the first time nor the last time in the history of God's people that an angel (often referred to as the “Angel of the Lord”) appeared to one or more of God's people in such a way that it was described as God appearing to them (for example, see Judges 13:19-23).
However, if it was not an angel with whom Jacob wrestled, then it seems the only other possibility is that he wrestled with God in the flesh. While this seems a strange thought, it is also not the first time that God appeared in the flesh to his people (for example, see Genesis 18:1-33, note verse 22), nor is it the last time. At a later time, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14) of a man who would be called Immanuel (which means “God with us”). Through his own teaching, through signs and wonders, through the teaching of the apostles, Jesus is shown to be both man and God in the flesh (consider John 1:1-14). *
While arguments can be made for either possibility, Moses does not make this clear to us in his record of this event, and thus I do not feel compelled to offer (or even think it best to offer) a definitive opinion on the matter. It is clear that Jacob wrestled with a man that was much more than a man, either God in the flesh or an angel in the form or a man as a representative of God.
This conclusion leads to the …
This question concerns the power, and thus the nature, of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The question could be simplified into something like this: How is it that God (or even his angel) could not prevail against Jacob (a man) in a wrestling match? One might even dare to shorten it further to the questions: Is God weak? How could a man be stronger than God? However, I will focus on the first question, as that is a question that comes more directly from the story at hand. How is it that God (or even his angel) could not prevail against Jacob (a man) in a wrestling match?
This second question begins as, “how is it that God COULD not prevail against Jacob?” Looking at the story again, we find that the question is not an accurate question. The story does not tell us that God COULD not prevail against Jacob, it merely tells us that God DID not prevail against Jacob (v.25). While DID not might include the idea of COULD not, it does not necessarily include it. In this case, I think it is quite reasonable to conclude that God DID not prevail even though he was quite able to prevail. The creation and maintenance of the world, along with the mighty works performed by God as recorded in the history of God with his people, both of these lead me to accept that God was, is, and always will be almighty.
Now the second question has become, “Though God COULD prevail against Jacob, how is it that he DID not prevail against Jacob?” This really is two questions: 1) How could God be such that he might not prevail over a man? 2) Why would God become such that he might not prevail over a man?
With the first question, we have seen that God is able to come to men in the form of a man. Taking on such a form for the sake of appearing to men does not (in a sense) necessitate losing all that makes God God, including his power, but may require concealing some of the visible things of God.
The greater question (in my opinion) is why would God become such that he might not prevail over a man. God is our creator. He is able to create us. He is also able to destroy us. Yet, he delights not in destroying his creation, but delights in seeing his creation change and grow, from bad to good, and from better to best (as stated by Ezekiel in Ezekiel 18:23,32; 33:11).
Brute force is not a father's main tool in raising his children. Wisdom, discipline and instruction are much more useful, particularly when brought to a level that the child can understand. When employed properly, and received, properly, such instruction and discipline can help raise that child up to a higher level. The prophets, Jesus, and the apostles spoke of God as the Father. (Consider that God has not learned from the example of earthly fathers, but it is the best earthly fathers that have learned from the example of God.) He deals with men both as individuals and as communities at their level in order to raise them out of their condition to a better level. So this is the answer to the why. Why would God become such that he might not prevail over a man?
In this story of Jacob wrestling with a man, God deals with Jacob on Jacob's level. God does not appear in all the awesome power and glory of God, but comes as a man, a man like Jacob. God values perseverance and endurance in his children (consider Matthew 24:13), particularly in connection with obtaining the goal God would have us reach. Will Jacob persevere? How much does Jacob want the blessing? God, as a man, pushes Jacob to his (Jacob's) limit. Most people would give up before now, but not Jacob. God saw that he didn't prevail against him. I think God was pleased that Jacob was so committed to gaining the blessing. Jacob does receive the blessing. He comes out of this event changed for the better. This is a transition in Jacob's life. God showed his awesome power not in crushing a man, but in changing a man. God showed his strength not with brute force but with a meekness that can touch the heart of a man. King David wrote to God, “Your gentleness makes me great” (Psalm 18:35).
Understanding this brings us to …
ONE LAST QUESTION
God desires that all men would turn from their sin to God's ways, and live (live forever). Jacob wanted that blessing. He fought and wrestled for it. When it became more difficult, he still held on. He wanted the blessing. What about you? Do you want the blessing of eternal life? Will you wrestle and strive with God? When it becomes difficult will you give up, or will you still hold on until you have gained life at last, until you hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”?
We desire that each one of you may show the same diligence to the fullness of hope even to the end,
that you won’t be sluggish,
but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherited the promises.
*1 For more information concerning appearances of God to men in the Bible, I recommend the two brief articles below found on the GotQuestions?org website:
What is a theophany? What is a Christophany?
Has anyone ever seen God?
Scripture references taken from the WEB unless otherwise noted.