Hermeneutics,  Old Testament

When We Wrestle with God for the Wrong Reasons

I recently was pointed to an article by Desiring God which encourages the believer to wrestle with God like Jacob wrestled with God at Peniel/Mahanaim (Gen 32:1-32). The implication of the article is that Jacob’s wrestling match with God is a pattern for us to follow—we too ought to wrestle with God!

I have written before about the bad habit of reading Bible stories inappropriately, but this is a good example of this bad practice. Like many well-intentioned Bible readers, the author assumes that the actions of the characters in the story are to be emulated and the events of the story should form our expectations of how God operates with us. For example, the author notes the following:

God will meet you in your anguish, fear, and uncertainty. But he may not meet you in the way you expect or desire. Your greatest ally may show up looking at first like your adversary, inciting you to wrestle with him.

Notice the presupposed leap in deduction. The author presupposes that this narrative teaches that we are to wrestle with God. And, when we wrestle with God we will be blessed (if we wrestle long enough). But, if this is the way we read narratives, why can’t the same narrative also teach us that having two wives will ultimately lead to God’s blessing? The problem with reading the Bible this way is you can come up with any theology you want!

Many have been taught that they should endeavor to be like those in the OT (e.g., we are to wrestle with God because Jacob wrestles with God). But, this idea is extremely suspect.

One of my favorite counter examples is Jephthah. Jephthah is listed as a hero of faith (Heb 11:32), yet in Judges 11:29-40, Jephthah makes a foolish vow to sacrifice whatever comes out of his house if God gives him success. Jephthah ends up sacrificing his daughter (Judg 11:39-40)! Importantly, the text of Judges never speaks negatively of this action! So, what prohibits us from following Jephthah’s example? I mean, God even gave Jephthah the victory! Doesn’t that prove God is pleased with Jephthah?

Rather than seeing Jacob’s wrestling with God as a template for us to wrestle with God, I think it important to wrestle with the details of the text to arrive at a proper application.

Wrestling with God is a Refining Experience for Jacob

Jacob’s wrestling match with God is not a rational for us to wrestle with God. The setting and details of the story make that abundantly clear.

First, Jacob had been given a unique promise by God that he would receive the Abrahamic blessing of the Patriarchs (Gen 28:14-15). This was Jacob’s motivation to pray when he learned about Esau’s coming (Gen 32:9-12). Yet, though God had promised Jacob the patriarchal blessing, Jacob was still Jacob.

Jacob means “he clutches the heel” (Gen 25:26), and it came to symbolize Jacob’s propensity to seek to win blessing through his own cunning and wiles (cf. Gen 27:1-40). However, God would not be defamed by allowing anyone to think Jacob manipulated his way into the blessing.

wrestle with God
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Gustave Doré (1855)

So, God wrestled with Jacob. He did so at night, so that Jacob could not tell with whom he was wrestling. Jacob realized this was no natural encounter near daybreak when at a simple touch the “man” dislocated Jacob’s hip (Gen 32:25).

At that point, Jacob’s goal in the wrestling encounter changed. He no longer saw this encounter from a physical perspective, but from a spiritual one. He understood that his hope lay only through divine blessing. He was broken (both physically and spiritually). So he begged for God’s blessing.

What we see is a picture of Jacob’s refining. This is evident by the declaration that Jacob is no longer known as “Jacob” (i.e., one who grabs heels and works his own way through life), rather, he will be called “Israel” (“God fights”). Jacob has been refined and has come to know that God and only God will be the source of His covenant blessing. God is the one who fights for him. His moral reformation has been complete.

Contemporary Application

So how do we apply this passage to our lives? Rather than trying to put ourselves in the story to wrestle with God, we need to take a step back and learn the intent of the story.

The main character is God! He is teaching Jacob (and His people—including us) that within the covenant plan He alone has the power to accomplish His plan. Furthermore, He alone has the right and authority to choose whomever or however He wishes to accomplish it. In accordance with that, He will refine those whom He wants to use so that they are usable. For the rest of his life, Israel most likely walked with a limp as a reminder—not to wrestle with God, but to depend on God.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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