“A man” wrestled with Jacob all night. It’s the strangest story. Jacob is 97 years old, but “the man” can’t throw Jacob off and eventually has to ask Jacob to let him go (32:24-26). It gets even stranger when Jacob says he’s been wrestling with God (32:29-30).
This narrative is full of ambiguity. Who is this man? Does Jacob initially suspect he has been attacked by Esau? Or is Jacob the one who initiates the fight? Is “fight” the right way to translate the verb ʾā·ḇǎq? In Hebrew, the word sounds like the names Jacob and Jabbok (the river). But ʾā·ḇǎq occurs nowhere else in Scripture. It probably means embrace, but is it a wrestle or a friendly embrace?
Ambiguity permeates this passage. When Jacob reached the eastern border of the Land, the angels of God “met” him (32:1). Was that a friendly greeting, welcoming the long-lost son back home? Or was it a confrontation, heavenly guards demanding to know Jacob’s business and identity in approaching the land? Is “the man” who now wrestles with Jacob one of these heavenly guards? Hosea 12:4 later describes the assailant as an angel.
Curiouser and curiouser the story becomes! Why would Jacob transport his wives and children through the river in the middle of the night unless they were in grave danger? But why would he himself go back to the wilderness side alone if he expected a dangerous confrontation (32:22-23)?
If Jacob was under attack, why hold on to his opponent for dear life? If the assailant intended harm, why does Jacob demand blessing (32:26)?
If Jacob did not submit to his assailant, why accept his new name (32:28)? Why does the assailant refuse to reveal his own identity (32:29)?
Why must the assailant be gone before daybreak (32:26)? Why does Jacob believe he has seen the face of God (32:30)? If Jacob was actually fighting God, how come God “could not overpower him” (32:25)?
Confusing? Let’s try a kingdom perspective, i.e. God as king, the land as his realm, and Jacob representing the coming nation.
Jacob is returning after twenty years in exile for his deception. The king commanded him to return (32:3, 13). As he crosses into YHWH’s land, he finds “God’s camp” on the eastern border. The Holy Land is guarded. Jacob is challenged as he enters the Land.
The geography is important here. Jacob approaches from the east. Eden was east (2:8). The cherubim guards were set at the eastern entrance (3:24). Those who rebelled against God occupied the east (4:16; 11:2; 13:11; 25:6). Jacob has been living in “the land of the people of the east” (29:1).
Entry to the tabernacle/temple was from the east, where guards protected the holy space (Numbers 3:7-10). The whole Jacob narrative is constructed around the name Bethel, meaning house of God, the dwelling place of the great sovereign (28:19). The God of Bethel summoned Jacob to return (31:13). Jacob must live at Bethel (35:1-16).
But Jacob cannot live in the holy place. As he tries to enter, he is challenged. The question is not “Is the one who wrestles with Jacob for or against him?” The question is, “Is Jacob for or against the one who is wrestling with him?” Joshua faced a similar challenge as he entered the Land from the east (Joshua 5:13-14).
Jacob does not back away. He grasps the fight, and holds on. The representative of the heavenly king gives him a new name—a new character. In that exchange, Jacob becomes Israel—the one who won’t let go, who fights on, even when fighting with God (32:28).
It’s all about this name change. Jacob meant deceiver. He almost destroyed the Abrahamic family and he made a mess of Laban’s family too. But this encounter transforms him into Israel—one who fights with God. He no longer fights against God; he fights with God. Or perhaps God fights with him. It’s a wonderfully ambiguous name, so appropriate to the generations ahead.
His renaming is so transformative that Israel’s first act is to rename the place. Peniel means “face of God” (32:30). The eastern-most entry to the land is the place where he was challenged, transformed, and allowed to enter. He can now move on to Bethel, the house of God. The entry to God’s house is the entry to see God’s face, to be accepted (compare 32:20).
This entire narrative is crafted around the changes of name. With a new name, Jacob is transformed into Israel. He passes Peniel, entering to live before the face of God. Can a human live there and survive (32:30)? The struggle with the divine sovereign has only just begun.
What others are saying
J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1973), 85:
That night, as Jacob stood alone by the river Jabbok, God met him. There were hours of desperate, agonised conflict, spiritual and, as it seemed to Jacob, physical also. Jacob had hold of God; he wanted a blessing, an assurance of divine favour and protection in this crisis, but he could not get what he sought. Instead, he grew ever more conscious of his own state—utterly helpless and, without God, utterly hopeless. He felt the full bitterness of his unscrupulous, cynical ways, now coming home to roost. He had hitherto been self-reliant, believing himself to be more than a match for anything that might come, but now he felt his complete inability to handle things, and knew with blinding, blazing certainty that never again dare he trust himself to look after himself and to carve out his destiny. Never again dare he try to live by his wits.
… The nature of Jacob’s “prevailing” with God was simply that he held on to God while God weakened him, and wrought in him the spirit of submission and self-distrust; that he had desired God’s blessing so much that he clung to God through all this painful humbling, till he came low enough for God to raise him up by speaking peace to him and assuring him that he need not fear about Esau any more.
John Goldingay, Genesis for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 17–50, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 118:
Yet God does bless him and gives him a new name that epitomizes his nature. As is often the case, the comment about the names has some subtleties about it. It links Jacob’s new name with the fact that he is the great fighter. And yes indeed, Jacob is a person who keeps fighting with God in order to stay the man he is. In the end God lets him do that because even God cannot force people to change. God can only make them limp. Yet a neophyte Hebraist would know that “Isra-el” does not actually mean “he fights/persists/exerts himself with God.” It is a statement of which God is the subject—as God was the initiator of the fight in the story. If anything, “Isra-el” would mean “God fights/persists/exerts himself.” God strives to get a person like Jacob to become the kind of person he could be and should be and that God wants him to be, and keeps at it in this struggle with Jacob.
Read Genesis 32:22-32.