Skip to content

Wrestling with Jacob


Last week the Adult Bible Study Guide explored the moral complexity of Jacob, who both tricks people but also is favored by God. Misled, trick, lie—whatever word one uses probably depends on how one understands the purpose of biographical narratives in the Bible. These are not Victorian 19th-century readings for the home circle. That type of morality tale for character development does not linger in the mind and soul the way that complex characters do, no matter the time period. There is a reason that sacred scripture persists beyond the concept of divine inspiration. The characters, not merely the words, ring true. 

Some people mislead. This includes those we consider good in human history and even today. But tricking others carries consequences beyond the final judgment. The deceived also get to react to a liar’s behavior and motives. Even if the liar is considered “blessed by God,” like Esau, we judge in the here-and-now.   

The teacher comments in the lesson state

Jacob organizes wave after wave of gifts to be delivered to Esau to “appease” him (Gen. 32:20). The Hebrew verb kpr, for “appease,” means “to atone.” The association with such other words as minkhah, “present,” a word referring to the offering (Lev. 2:1–14), and nasa’ panim, “forgive,” or “accept,” attests to a religious perspective. Jacob has in mind his past reconciliation with God (Gen. 32:22–32) as he attempts to reconcile himself with his brother (compare Matt 5:23).

In the transcript from Bill Moyers’s Genesis: A Living Conversation, actor Mandy Patinkin tells the story this way. Now, “20 years passed and Jacob was an older man. He decided to return to the land of his father and to face his brother Esau for the first time since Jacob had tricked him out of his blessing. On the way, he heard his brother Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men and Jacob prayed. He prayed to God that Esau wouldn’t destroy him and his children. Jacob sent his wives and servants to the other side of the river. He stayed alone.”

But despite all this, Jacob’s actions create a reaction, however prophetically-aligned his motives. Robert Alter’s translation of the encounter in Genesis 32:22–31 captures the tensions in the ensuing divine and human confrontation. 

And he rose on that night and took his two wives and his two slavegirls and his eleven boys and he crossed over the Jabbok ford. And he took them and brought them across the stream, and he brought across all that he had. And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. And he saw that he had not won out against him and he touched his hip- socket and Jacob’s hip-socket was wrenched as he wrestled with him. And he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” And he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Not Jacob shall your name hence be said, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men, and won out.” And Jacob asked and said, “Tell your name, pray.” And he said, “Why should you ask my name?” and there he blessed him. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen God face to face and I came out alive.” And the sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel and he was limping on his hip.

This is biblical realism and also a deep mystery. This famous wrestling all-nighter has been interpreted in many ways. Who is the other combatant? 

  • Esau, 
  • An angel, 
  • God, 
  • A demon, 
  • A Jungian Daemon, 
  • Jesus in human form before the incarnation, 
  • Jacob wrestling with himself. 

Did I miss one? And what does the wound mean? In the transcript from the above Moyers conversation, Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann and Jewish midrash scholar Burton L. Visotzky debate its meaning.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: The wound in the Christian tradition has been transposed into the cross, and what you’re talking about is a church that is increasingly embarrassed about the cross or postures itself as though you can have the gospel without the cross, as though you can have the blessing without the wound.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: I think Walter’s point is well taken, that one of the points of the story is that you don’t get the blessing without getting wounded, and that even God’s unconditional love for Jacob actually winds up costing Jacob something physically. I was sitting here earlier kind of getting the creeps, I confess, listening to Christians claiming, we have our wounds, and suddenly dawning on me that what we’re talking about is Christian theology, that we’re talking about the cross. As a Jew, that makes me uncomfortable to see the cross there in the Hebrew Bible.

WALTER BRUEGGEMANN: I wasn’t suggesting that.

BURTON L. VISOTZKY: But I think your point was well taken. The fact is that Christians have had their wounds, just as Jews have. In some way, it’s easier to hear Renita talk about it because the African American community is a community that is still fresh with wounds. Judaism, I think, is in that moment as well. Certainly, we can all remember 50 years ago the Holocaust. That was an enormous wound. But since 1967 with the power of the state of Israel and the wealth of the American Jewish community, we’re also in danger of forgetting that we were once an oppressed people and that whatever blessings we have, there are wounds. There’s always cost. And maybe God’s love isn’t quite as free as we’d like to think it is.

It almost sounds like the cost of discipleship. In the last two stanzas, Charles Wesley, a leader in the Methodist movement, evokes that divine-human mystery in this poem from the 18th century called “Wrestling Jacob.” 

Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life's short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness I,
On Thee alone for strength depend,
Nor have I power, from Thee, to move;
Thy nature, and thy name is LOVE.
Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin with ease o'ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And as a bounding hart fly home,
Thro' all eternity to prove
Thy nature, and thy name is LOVE.


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) by Paul Gauguin French (1848–1903). CC by NC, Scottish National Gallery, photographed by Antonia Reeve.

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.