Did Jacob really wrestle God? If so, why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?
The account of Jacob’s wrestling match in Genesis 32 is filled with metaphor, but I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the events described in this passage. I’ve often heard this story summarised as the the time “Jacob wrestled with God”. Is this actually what the Bible says?
The story opens in v24 saying, “a man wrestled with him [Jacob] till daybreak“. There’s no indication here that this person represents anything other than a human like Jacob himself. But that soon changes.
In the very next verse as daybreak arrives, “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.” Verse 31 implies that this injury was a permanent one, “he was limping because of his hip.” And v32 uses this injury to explain why the Israelites avoided a particular portion of meat in their diet.
This description of the fight certainly doesn’t provide definitive proof that this man was anything but human, but it paves the way for that line of reasoning. When most people read, “he touched the socket…” we picture a gentle touch with the power to cripple. However, the Hebrew word can also mean “struck” and it’s difficult to decide which is most appropriate. Whatever the precise action, the point is that he did this because daybreak was approaching. Apparently, he possessed the power to disable Jacob at any point during the night.
Then in v30 Jacob (now named Israel) raises the stakes by observing that,”I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Jacob claims that he saw (and wrestled) God. Not a man. Not an angel. But God himself… in the flesh.
Making the issue particularly cloudy is the statement in Hosea 12:3-4 which is translated differently in many Bible versions, but seems to indicate that the person Jacob wrestled was an angel, “He struggled with the angel and overcame him” (NIV).
So was it a man? An angel? or God himself?
I’m not sure how one could read these different descriptions and arrive at a definitive answer. Personally, I am inclined to think that Jacob wrestled an angel.
It seems to me that the angel is first described as a man because that’s how Jacob knew him. But after the crippling “touch”, Jacob realised that something much greater was going on. It’s at that point that Jacob seeks the blessing.
I wonder why Jacob described this encounter as “seeing God face to face“. Certainly the “man” didn’t describe himself as Yahweh. In fact, when Jacob asked for his name the man declined to give it. I suspect that Jacob wasn’t splitting hairs at this point. Whether it was God, or a messenger sent from God, Jacob would not have expected such an even struggle.
I have trouble accepting that the “man” was God mainly, because v25 says that the man “could not overpower Jacob“. That certainly doesn’t sound like God in the flesh. Then, when Hosea describes the man as an angel, it suddenly all makes sense.
We see an example of this style of thinking from the lips of Jesus in Luke 10:16, “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.” Or we might say, “Whoever wrestles with my messenger, wrestles with me.”
I wonder how many times we reject or wrestle God because we fail to acknowledge those acting as his messengers?
I know this post doesn’t really deal with any super profound meaning, but I hope it adds a little clarity to this passage. If you want to dig deeper I encourage you to listen to the sermon linked at the top of the post.