Knockout, pinfall or a submission, Jacob?


This is Jack Baumgartner’s amazing oil painting entitled “Jacob wrestling with God.” It’s drawn from the mysterious encounter in Genesis 32. Let’s read from vv24-32:

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 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.  Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is daybreak.’ But Jacob replied, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ The man asked him, ‘What is your name?’ ‘Jacob,’ he answered.  Then the man said, ‘Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.’  Jacob said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he replied, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’ The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.”

Why was this story told? There are a number of explanations given:  It explained to the Jew why he was called an “Israelite.” It traces the origin of that name, Israelite, to a distant ancestor, who had shown a mighty strength, and had been, in the language of those times, a “wrestler” with God, from which the Hebrew word “Israel” derives.

Next, it explains the name of a village called Peniel, the “face of God.” This is the place where God was seen, face to face.

Third, it explains why the Jews didn’t eat a certain part of the flesh.

But all this is just a bit on-the-surface. There’s something deeper going on here. What is the spiritual truth behind the concept of “wrestling with God”?

Quite often, the most obvious explanation is the right one. In this passage, that deeper truth must be somehow associated with the mystery of naming . The  line “What is your name?” is repeated so often as to make this quite clear. And this business of naming goes in two directions: it goes towards a greater revelation of who God is, and a bigger picture of all he intends for Jacob.

Perhaps the bigger the idea you have of God, the larger your own destiny becomes.

But first we have to consider the whole -rather sad- saga of Jacob’s own life, for it is his name that is about to be changed.

And his story is one of deceit and treachery.His name means “Grabber” because he came out of the womb grabbing his twin brother’s heel. As a young man, he cheated his brother, he then cheated his father and much later cheated his father-in-law. The present story precedes his homecoming, when he is terrified that his cheating ways are going to catch up with him (or when, as one preacher put it: “He was about to get his mess of pottage back”).

So even the name “Jacob” has some association with the concept of wrestling.

And it’s true to say that the past was about to catch up with him. Jacob the twister had deceived his own father twenty years previously. When he left it was to run for his life from Esau’s retribution.  Now he’s on his way home and his brother is ready for meeting so  he schemes to offset the crisis by sending the women and children first -a kind of reverse Titanic strategy for a human bodyguard-. but now it’s night and hes on his own.

Perhaps it all comes down to this, that you have to face God on your own. We all arrive at the crisis point. We all get to Jabbok, sooner or later. The crisis is expressed as a conflict with God, which the writer tells as if it were a wrestling match.

But note that: it wasn’t a tussle with Esau (which Jacob anticipated) or with some other ghost of his sneaky past, but God.

Ultimately it is not the human relationship that you have to sort out, but the one that God intended you for, with Him. For this was not the first time that Jacob had met with God. When he had run from Esau twenty years before, and fresh from his sin, God had given him a vision of a ladder extending from earth to heaven. It was a tender revelatin of forgiveness. God gave him a reminder that all communication between heaven and earth was not severed. The way was clear and unimpeded still.

And now twenty years on, God meets him again, but it’s somewhat different. Now there’s a picture of power and awesome mystery.

It’s strange: you would have expected the reverse, that first God would meet him in authority and then later more tenderly. You’d have expected a storm and then a peace but it’s the reverse. But isn’t that life? We experience God as saviour and then later recognize him as Lord.

And so God brought Jacob to the point of wrestling with the Truth: the outcome was a larger revelation of just who God was, of His lordship of life, of His sovereign authority… And in that very encounter, Jacob himself was both crippled and enlarged, simultaneously. God never seeks a knockout or a pinfall: He desires submission.

Even Jesus in Gethsemane “learned obedience through what he suffered.” He learned to say, in the final crisis, “Not my wil but thine.” This was Jacob’s lesson too. God touches us at the tenderest spot .

And for the rest of his life, Jacob limped. It was a recognition of the touch of God upon him. And inside too, the effect of this revelation was to change Jacob’s character. His name was changed from Jacob to Israel because he himself was an altered man.

So what is the name of your God? And what is your name both now and hereafter? For God will not leave you the same as He finds you now…

For life and death we make our choice. If we choose the life of Christ, of truth and love, then we also choose the cross and all the obloquy and shame that wait on truth.

But we must choose, and then we live with our choice.

And in this world, “even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”),  yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we exist. And there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we exist.…” (1 Cor 8).


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