Grappling With God (Genesis 32)

Don’t ask me how but the other day I came across that awesome video of Hulk Hogan in the WWF body slamming Andre the Giant.  Both men were legends and both men were huge.  Hulk was 6’ 7” and 300 pounds of pure muscle.  But Andre the Giant was a Giant in his own class.  Probably had Nephilim blood in him.  Like a descendent of Goliath or something Andre was 7’ 4” and over 500 pounds.  I don’t care how big you are, body slamming the Giant makes you a legend.  If you haven’t seen the video you haven’t fully lived your life yet.

Our text today brings us to another famous wrestling match:  Jacob and God.  What does this have to do with our text?  Well, our title is “Grappling With God” and it is that famous scene where Jacob wrestles with God.


This is a very big moment for Jacob.  He is about to meet his brother Esau for the first time in 20 years.  Twenty years ago his brother wanted to kill him because Jacob stole his blessing.  Jacob had no idea whether time had soothed that anger or not and whether Esau would kill him or kiss him when they met.  Jacob sends messengers and they return with news that Esua is on his way with 400 men.  Jacob is fear-struck by the news and so he divides up his whole entourage into groups.  He lines them up one behind another so that Esau meets his parts of his group in waves.  After this strategy is put in place and the next day was the big day Jacob would meet Esau, Jacob spends the night alone.  Then the strangest thing happens where he ends up wrestling some anonymous guy all through the night.  It appears to be a draw, but Jacob walks away with a limp, a new name and a blessing.  What a fantastic and bizarre chapter we are in today.

Lets go through 3 headings:  1) Jacob’s Plan, 3) Jacob’s Prayer, 4) Jacob’s Pummeling

JACOB’S PLAN (3-8, 13-21)

Jacob’s plan starts with panic.  The messengers he dispatched to notify his brother that he was coming have returned with frightening news:  “Your brother Esau is coming with 400 men.”  Remember Jacob and Esau are twins, and Jacob did not have a good relationship with Esau.  First he got Esau’s birthright – which Esau is more at fault than Jacob for that blunder.  But second, Jacob stole Esau’s blessing by tricking their old dad Isaac.  When Esau found out Jacob left town and spent 20 years “in exile.”  Now he’s coming back.  Now he doesn’t know whether Esau is going to kill him or kiss him.  Since we tend to expect the worst, and in the interest of self-preservation, Jacob formulates a plan.  His plan has several features:  a get away and a gift.

  1. First he plans a getaway.  He divides his whole camp into two groups.  The first group will be ahead of the second group, with some distance between them.  His rationale is in verse 8, “If Esau attacks the first group then the other group can escape.” 
  2. Then he plans a gift for Esau.  What a gift it was too.  Verse 13-15 tallies it all up, “….” This enormous crowd was a gift to Esau.  Jacob divided them up into groups and put them in a line, like a parade, so that Esau would meet group after group.  With each group the servants would present themselves to Esau as a gift.

    The goal in giving the gift is to gain Esau’s favor and hopefully avert any violence that Esau might be planning.  Look at verse 20 where Jacob explains “I will pacify Esau with these gifts…perhaps he will receive me.”  It reminds us of the wisdom found in Proverbs.  Proverbs 18:16 says, “A gift opens the way.”  Proverbs 21:14 says, “A gift given in secret soothes anger, and a bribe pacifies great wrath.”  

This is the plan Jacob makes to meet his brother.  Why is Jacob afraid?  Obviously he is afraid that his brother is still holding a grudge and wants to get revenge on him for stealing his birthright.  Who wouldn’t be apprehensive in Jacob’s sandals?  

However, couldn’t we ask the question:  “Why is Jacob afraid when God told him He was going to be with him, protect him and watch over him?  Why didn’t he keep his possessions, not give a gift, and just roll into town confident God was with him?”  Its sort of the same question we asked about Abraham and Isaac when they went into a new city and pretended their wives were their sisters so that the natives wouldn’t kill them.  Why would they do that when God told them He was with them and would watch over them?  

Before we get too judgy of the Patriarchs though the same question could be asked of us:  “Why are you afraid of what you’re afraid of?  God said He would be with you and watch over you.  Why are you afraid of that person?  Or that situation?  Don’t you trust God to take care of you and take care of it?” 


So Jacob panics and makes his plan.  But Jacob’s faith is seen in the fact that he turned to God and prayed.  Read along with me….

First, his family’s faith is his faith.  Verse 9, “God of my father…”

Second, his humility.  Verse 10a, “…”  A true mark of humility is when we feel our own unworthiness before God.  Humility is key to the Christian life.  

Third, his acknowledgment that everything he has is from God.  Verse 10b, “…”  

Fourth, his honesty.  Verse 11 he says, “….”   He is afraid.  He is scared. Jacob is brought to his knees.  He probably has never felt so vulnerable.  It’s not just his own safety, its his family.  He feels powerless to protect them.  

APPLICATION:  Welcome your weaknesses.  There are times in our life when God will strip every layer of protection away, and toss aside every safety net we’ve set up so that we are utterly powerless.  And the point is not to punish, although that could be the case if sin is happening.  But the point is to teach us not to look to ourselves and our plans – but to Him.  To know that if we have no food he feeds us; and if we have no clothes he covers us; and if we have no protection he watches over us; and if we can’t see he guides us.  Eleanor Slater’s favorite verse was 2 Corinthians 12:9 and 10, and it is the right verse for this point.  turn there with me.  Blessed is the man or woman who accepts and steps into their limitations, their weakness, their utter inability because they see with God they have an infinite strength, an infinite supply, an infinite security no matter what their circumstances look like.  

Fifth, his prayer shows his knowledge of God’s promises.  Verse 12 he says, “…..”  

APPLICATION:  The faith in your prayers are only as good as your knowledge of what God has actually said.  This is why prayer demands knowledge of the Bible.  How can we truly talk to God in any meaningful way unless we understand who He is and what promises He has made (and didn’t make!) so that we can base our prayers on.  

Sixth, finally, you can see Jacob’s faith.  He brought up the promises God made him and left them with God.  You can see how Jacob trusts God’s ability, and once again, it is God’s willingness that Jacob is appealing to.  Nowhere in Jacob’s mind is God’s ability in question.  It is God’s willingness.  His faith, therefore, makes him know God can and his faith therefore makes him press God to be willing.

So Esua is one day away.  Jacob has arranged his whole camp according to his plan.  He has prayed over the whole situation.  Now its time to sleep.  Or so he thought.  


Instead of sleeping Jacob’s whole night was spent in an exhausting wrestling match with some mysterious man.  Follow along with me in verse 22 to 32, “….”

This is bizarre!  So this guy just showed up when Jacob was all alone?  Imagine how startled Jacob would’ve been.  And then, just exactly what triggered a wrestling match?  Did the guy challenge Jacob?  Was it like a face off in an old western?  Or did Jacob think he was an attacker and just launch into trying to subdue him out of self preservation?  And just exactly what does it mean that they “wrestled?”  Was it like some fight in a western – breaking chairs over each other’s backs, crashing through windows, throwing each other on top of tables, breaking beer bottles over each other’s heads?  Or was it WWF style with body slams, close lines, drop kicks and leg drops?  And just exactly how much stamina did these guys have?  All night till daybreak?  I’m 42 and I get winded walking to the mailbox.  Jacob is over 100 years old at this point!  Look, if anyone thought Jacob was a wimp because it said he was a “tent-dweller” when he was younger you gotta change your mind.  This guy is hard as nails.  He could probably body slam Andre the Giant!  

Lets point out a few things here:

First, it appears the mystery man is in fact God.  A couple reasons why we know this:

First, because the man renamed Jacob – something only God could’ve done.  

Second the man didn’t give Jacob his own name.  Its like in Judges 13 when the angel of the LORD said to another man, “Why do you ask my name, it is beyond understanding.”  Another thought is it was too early for God to reveal His name.  God didn’t reveal his name until Exodus 3 with Moses.  

Third, because Jacob named the place Peniel.  Peniel means “face of God” and Jacob explains “I have seen God face to face.”  So Jacob tells us the man was God, and Jacob knew it was God.

Fourth, because God confirmed it.  In Hosea 12:3-4, over a thousand years later, God refers back to this very night, “In the womb he grasped at the heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged his favor.”   

But how can God show up like that as a man?  No problem, He is God.  Remember in chapter 18 when the three “men” showed up to Abraham and they ate a meal?  God can appear as an angel, a man, a burning bush, or whatever He wants. 

A second thing to notice in this section is that Jacob gets a new name.  He is renamed Israel.

There is not an exact precise meaning for Israel.  Some commentators say it means “God struggles.”  In other words the name indicates God’s willingness to battle and the idea would be God is Israel’s protector, and Israel needs to trust Him to fight for them.  But others say the Hebrew for Israel means, “he struggles with God,” as in Jacob was the one who fights.  If that seems strange to you I’m with you.  I’m like, “Well, doesn’t anyone know Hebrew? Can’t they tell us a precise meaning?”  

But then, if you think about it, its the same way in English for us.  For instance the other day I saw the Planet Fitness billboard which says, “Judgment Free.”  Now what does that mean?  It can mean two things.  It can mean “this is a place without judgment. Come in and workout without feeling embarrassed.”  Or Judgment Free could also mean, grammatically at least, “We will judge you free of charge.”  Like, “Come on in and we’ll make judgments about you at no cost!”  Now, grammatically both meanings are legit.  But which one do you think Planet Fitness is trying to convey?  Context matters.

And the context for Israel seems to me to indicate this meaning.  The man names him and explains the name in the very same verse, “You will be Israel, BECAUSE you have struggled with God and humans and have overcome.”  Furthermore, God referred to this wrestling match in Hosea 12 and God himself says that Jacob struggled with God as a man, and wrestled with the angel and overcame him. It seems best in my opinion that the intended meaning of Israel is “He struggles with God.”  

A third thing to see from this section, if the mystery man is God why was there even a struggle? What does it mean that Jacob struggled with God and man though?  I can see Jacob wrestling with man easily enough:  deceiving his brother Esau and his father Isaac, beating his father in law Laban at his own game, and so on.  But how does a human being “grapple” with God?  How does a mere man in any sense “wrestle” the Creator of the universe?    “Grapple” or “wrestle” implies there is some contest, some kind of back and forth, some struggle, some “i got you, but, oh no, now you’ve got me.”  But how does a finite man offer a “contest” to an omnipotent and all-knowing Being?  Laughable, isn’t it?  About as laughable as my 2 year old body slamming Andre the Giant!  

Stepping back you can recall with me that other men have “wrestled” with God in different ways:  Moses resisted God’s assignment for him; Job’s complaint in his suffering; Jonah fleeing God’s commission; Jacob’s grandson Onan would “wrestle” with God by disobeying him in Genesis 38 (God killed him and so He won).  The nation of Israel you could say “grappled” with God its whole history.  There are more but you get the picture.  

It seems the idea of wrestling can have two senses.  One sense is that a man is waiting on God to come through for him and is “wrestling” with God in the sense that he prays persistently.  He keeps praying to God and won’t let God rest until God answers.  The other sense could be seen as a man in the process of submitting to God’s will.  In other words, a man may not be accepting what God’s plan is for him and he resists, and “kicks at the goads” to use the Apostle Paul’s term, and God is patiently, even painfully, taking a man through a process.  

This is the image I think being conveyed here.  It was a physical image of the relationship between God and Jacob, God and man for that matter.  Surely “God” could have body slammed Jacob and walked out with not contest.  But He chose to wrestle.  He is working out His purposes in the middle of human history and working with men – their hearts, their desires, their corruption, their greatness and their weakness, their selfishness.  This scene does not take place in a vacuum.  It is not isolated from all the rest of history or Scripture.  God initiated the wrestling match that night, and he did it with an eye towards the future of Jacob’s life and progeny.  That night was symbolic of the life of God and man.  

APPLICATION:  Are we wrestling with God?  While God did not “incarnate” as a man like with Jacob where we literally are grabbing his limbs and trying takedowns and headlocks, we can say that we “wrestle” with God metaphorically.  I wrestle with God when I don’t understand why He has allowed trials and hardships to come into my life.  When I haven’t accepted or submitted to His will and I continue to try my own way is another way.  Prayer is often how I refer to this passage.  Prayer is wrestling with God:  I want something, something righteous and good, and I tirelessly verbally wrestle God in prayer to answer me and grant my request.  

FOURTH, Jacob was blessed.  From earlier in Genesis we saw that blessings were not just wishing someone well, but that they had the power of prophecy behind them.  This isn’t to say that everyone in that time who stood up to bless the newly weds or who shared a meal had that.  But in Genesis we are tracing the lives of the Patriarchs and blessings involved foretelling future prosperity.  The blessing in this instance may very well have been a reiteration of what Jacob had already been told:  all the Abrahamic promises of land, descendents and Messiah, as well as Jacob’s own personal prospering, as he mentioned in his prayer in verse 12. 

Fifth, Jacob left wounded.  It’s interesting to notice the order of events in the chapter.  Jacob prayed, then God showed up, and God hurt Jacob.  Some wounds are blessings.  The wound would be a constant reminder of his match with God.  What wounds 

   WHY IS THIS WRESTLING MATCH IMPORTANT?  A foreshadow or a type of Israel’s future relationship with God?  A defining moment for Jacob, validating him as an overcomer?  

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