Face To Face (Genesis 32-33)

On the eve before meeting his brother Esau Jacob wrestled with a man all through the night.  We saw last week that this man was God, that he gave Jacob a new name, that he permanently injured Jacob.

Many 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.  When Jacob says, “I will not let you go until you bless me” has always been a favorite image of this persistence in prayer.  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.

These are images I think are being conveyed here.  It was a physical image of the relationship between God and Jacob – you could say it was a picture of God and man for that matter.  Surely “God” could have body slammed Jacob and walked out with no contest.  God’s strength is not in question here.  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.  

What is so important about Jacob wrestling with God that particular night?  Why did God wrestle with him, and why on that night?  Was the wrestling related to Jacob’s meeting Esau the next day?  Did the angel give him any assurance of safety, or did he let Jacob continue to worry?  Was the grappling with the angel meant to reframe Jacob’s mind to have confidence in meeting his brother the next day?  If so, we note that there are no mentions of assurance or protection.  The angel doesn’t say anything about Esau not harming him.  

The grappling match, on the eve of meeting Esau, was certainly connected to meeting Esau, but this moment with God was bigger than meeting Esau.  In a very real way that night with God came to redefine Jacob, and make him see his whole life in a whole new way – including his reunion with his brother.  But God chose this night for a reason.  Perhaps because Jacob was returning to his family, but he was no longer the man he was when he left.  His name wasn’t even Jacob anymore, now it was Israel:  a man who had struggled and overcome.  Perhaps Jacob, at this most important personal moment, returning after such a long time to those he knew, discovered that neither he nor they were the same anymore.  In other words, he was not returning to an old life, to be the same old man he was before.  How appropriate then that before coming face to face with his past, his old life, he spent the entire night in a struggle with God.  God was the agent of Jacob’s change, God gave him the promises, gave him his large two camps, gave him his wives and children, God gave him success against Laban, God watched over him all the time and protected him, and brought him safely to his family once again ….God is also the one who gave him a wound, and a new name.   

Again if the reason this real event happened was in order to symbolize things about Jacob’s descendents then you can also see it in the geographical location.  Its interesting that he stood on one side of a river wrestling with God, while on the other side of that river would be the land God promised him and blessings.  When Jacob woke up the next day and crossed the river it would be with God’s blessing.  This makes us remember how in the future Jacob’s own descendents would be standing on one side of a river, the Jordan, “wrestling” with God about whether to go in and take possession of it (Exodus 14)  

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. 

Notice the tenacity of Jacob, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”  Is that the kind of tenacity we press God with? 

Notice too that God’s blessing came with pain.  Jacob wrestled, was exhausted, and then in the end he was permanently injured.  How many of God’s blessings come with pain?  God is not averse to hurting us because the reality is hurting us can be for our good and his glory.

So with the sunrise Jacob is limping and in desperate need of coffee and ibuprofen.  But he’s also a new man with a new name and the blessing of God.  He’s ready to meet his brother.  


To Jacob’s great surprise, no doubt, Esua opens his arms and bear hugs him, tears streaming down his cheeks.  

Notice first the grace of Esau.  Say what you will about the godlessness of Esau, the foolishness to trade away his birthright like he did, but here is an Esau you could say is at his best:  magnanimous, large-hearted, gracious, deeply affectionate.  Perhaps he’s matured and learned much over twenty years, and along with Jacob, maybe he’s not the same man he was either.

There is an application for us, don’t miss it:  forgiveness.  Esau no longer held a grudge towards Jacob.  When Esau saw Jacob he did not “see” Jacob’s offense.  Forgiveness.  You know you have forgiven when you can embrace the person you’ve forgiven, no longer having your thoughts and affections ruled by what they did to you.  Esau by all evidence had cancelled Jacob’s debt and moved on, the events of 20 years ago seem to have been nowhere in his mind when he saw Jacob.  His embrace was real and from his heart.  Before treacherously killing his own king Macbeth said, “False face hides what false heart knows.”  There was no false face with Esau.  His heart was as true as his hug.

APPLICATION:  Who do you need to forgive?  Who do you still refuse to embrace?  What harm are you still not cancelling?  Remember God has commanded us to forgive, thus we are under obligation to give to others what God has given to us.  

Notice second the grace of God.  Perhaps God had something to do with Esau’s changed heart.  If so, it would have been an act of kindness to his man Jacob.  God can lead the hearts of men.  Proverbs 21:1 says, “In the Lord’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him.”  Potiphar favored Joseph (Gen 39:4); Pharaoh’s heart was hardened (Ex 4:21); the chief official favored Daniel (Dan. 1:9).  Perhaps the kindness Esau felt towards Jacob was not simply to be chalked up to “time.”  

APPLICATION:  Trust God to work His purpose in the hearts of others.  


The sincerity of Esau’s love is evident again in his reaction to Jacob’s gift.  He’s confused (v8), and then he declines (9).  He has plenty.  He doesn’t see the moment as a chance to take from his brother – his brother who stole from him years ago.  

I don’t know about you but I see an uncanny resemblance here between Jacob and the Prodigal son.  Just like the prodigal, Jacob left home in disgrace.  Just like the Prodigal, Jacob returned home humbly.  Both the Prodigal and Jacob came home giving even though when both left home they took from their loved ones:  specifically, the Prodigal offered himself as a slave to his father, while Jacob offered huge gifts to his brother.  Just like the prodigal Jacob is embraced and received with tears and joy.  Just like the prodigal, Jacob no doubt was feeling something beyond relief:  he was feeling loved.  All his fears washed away….what does 1 John 4:18 say?  “Perfect love casts out fear.”  Esau’s love washed away all Jacob’s fears.

Jacob was wounded by God but healed by Esau.  And in one sense he was experiencing another transformation right there in the grip of his brother’s hug.  Do you see how he insists that Esau accepts the gift?  Not that I expected him to take “No” for an answer – “Whew!  I’m glad you said that brother ‘cuz inflation is killing me.”  Think of how affected Jacob was by Esau.  I gotta believe that his motivation for giving the gift shifted. He was trying to protect himself and hoped to pacify his brother with the gift (32:20).  Now, discovering his brother’s affection, he wanted to give him the gift still but it wasn’t for the same reason anymore.  Now it was from love.  Jacob wanted to reciprocate the love that had just been shown to him.  Love begets love, “We love him because he first loved us.”     

APPLICATION:  What is our motivation?  Is it selfish?  Or is it selfless?  The very same act can have two very different motives.  

APPLICATION:  Love begets love.  Never underestimate how contagious love is.  If you are infected with it, and you give it to someone else, watch how they spread it.  “We love because he first loved us” says 1 John 4:19.  Husbands, remember how it says, “Love your wives as Christ loved the Church?”  That is a command, but, I dare say an implied promise too.  For if you love your wife with the love of the Savior that woman will get so infected with your love that she will love you to the ends of the earth and back.  That woman wants your love, needs your love.  Give her your love.  


Now, so soon after his reunion, Jacob is going to separate from Esau.  Read 12-20.  Perhaps it was because he still had reservations about Esau.  Maybe he felt like Abraham and Lot – that it was better to separate because both your camps were too big.  But Jacob makes his way to Shechem and buys property to settle down.  This move was one of those fateful life decisions that Jacob may have regretted.  But we’ll cover that in the next chapter.  The best place to end is the very last verse:  read verse 20….

Jacob’s response to all that happened was to worship God.  He sets up an altar and worships his God.  He called the place “El Elohe Israel” which means “Mighty is the God of Israel.”  Remember his new name was Israel.  Mighty is my God!  


Jacob asked the man he wrestled, “What is your name?”  The man said, “Why do you ask my name?”  And he didn’t give his name.  Referring to God, Agur said in Proverbs 30, 

“Who has gone up to heaven and come down?

    Whose hands have gathered up the wind?

Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak?

    Who has established all the ends of the earth?

What is his name, and what is the name of his son?”

We live on this side of the cross now.  So we know that name.  We know the name of the man Jacob wrestled with.  We know the name of Agur’s God, and the name of his son.  It’s the name the OT never disclosed but the NT reveals.  It’s the name the angel instructed Joseph to give to the son in Mary’s womb, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”  Give him the name Jesus.  Why Jesus?  Because he is the Savior who will save people from their sins.  

Acts 4:12 proclaims, “There is no other name given to men under heaven by which we must be saved.”  

Romans 10 declares:  If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.  As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”


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