5 Important Lessons from Jacob's Wrestling Match with God
I love the Old Testament. The stories within its pages provide timeless, multi-layered lessons for God’s people. One such story is Jacob’s wrestling with God, found in Genesis 32:22-32. In this short passage, there are key points we can apply to our own lives. Let’s take a look at the significance of this story and how it relates to our walk with God.
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How Did Jacob End Up Wrestling God?
Before we can really understand the significance of Jacob’s wrestling match, we should review his life up to that point. Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, and the grandson of Abraham, whom God promised to make a father of many nations. Jacob had a twin brother, Esau, who was the first-born, but Jacob grabbed him by the heel during their birth. The name Jacob means “the Supplanter” or “to grab another’s heel.” Literally speaking, it means to take what belongs to someone else. God even told Rebekah that her older son would serve the younger.
When Jacob and Esau were grown, Jacob tricked his brother out of his birthright with a meal. Later, Rebekah conspired with Jacob to trick Isaac and steal Esau’s blessing. This resulted in Esau wanting to kill his younger brother, so Jacob fled. On his journey to his mother’s homeland, he had a vision of angels and a ladder to heaven.
When Jacob reaches Haran, he meets his match in his uncle Laban. Though Jacob is in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, he is tricked into marrying her older sister, Leah. Jacob persists, however, and is finally able to marry the object of his affections. Jacob worked many years for Laban. Because of God’s protection and Jacob’s intelligence, Jacob was able to take much of Laban’s herd for himself. Finally, God directs Jacob to return to the land of his father. The problem with that is it means Jacob will have to face Esau. Will his brother’s rage still burn after all of these years?
As he approaches home, Jacob sends messengers to Esau. They return to tell him that Esau is approaching them with 400 men. Things don’t look good for Jacob. He strategically divides his people and possessions and sends them across the Jabbok river. He stays behind and prays.
It is then that he encounters a man whom he wrestles with through the night. The man injures Jacob’s hip, but still, Jacob will not let go until the man blesses him. Jacob knew that he wasn’t wrestling a man, but God himself, and refused to let go until He blessed him. Jacob names the place where the wrestling match happened “Peniel” which means “Face of God.”
Here are five lessons we can learn from Jacob’s wrestling match with God.
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1. We Need Forgiveness, and it Only Comes by the Mercy of God
Jacob was guilty of what he did to Esau—and he knew it. Up until this point, Jacob had relied on his own wits for his success, but now he didn’t know what would happen. His survival was dependent on his brother’s forgiveness of his wrongdoings. Jacob had no control over his brother’s heart, but there was One who did.
“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak” (Genesis 32:24).
It’s significant that the wrestling match happened at night. During the day we can be distracted by the busyness of life. The quiet and solitude of night makes us face the fears we hold in our heart. It was time for Jacob to see that he could no longer depend on his own strength. The forgiveness he needed to survive was out of his control.
If we are to follow God, we need to come to the point of recognizing our wrongs and our weaknesses. It is only through God’s mercy that we can be forgiven, and his grace that sees us through to the other side of the night.
2. God Honors Perseverance, Especially in Our Seeking of Him
“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’” (Genesis 32:25-26).
Jacob had two admirable qualities. One was a spiritual sensitivity. This was seen when he fled from his brother and had the vision of the ladder to heaven, and again when he followed the voice of the Lord telling him to return to his homeland.
The second quality was his determination. Jacob was not a quitter. His perseverance is highlighted in his pursuit of Rachel and his patience in serving Laban to have her hand in marriage. Jacob exemplifies both qualities in his wrestling with the mysterious man. He knew it was God he wrestled with, and he refused to give up until God blessed him.
What makes this even more impactful was the moral consequences Jacob was up against. He didn’t deserve the blessing but was willing to face whatever judgment or consequence was necessary to receive it.
The consequence was not insignificant. The wrestling match left him lame, but Jacob had his blessing.
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3. Our Identity Is in Christ
“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’” (Genesis 32:27-28).
Jacob had an interesting heritage. By way of His grandfather’s faith, he was in the lineage of those who would multiply into many nations. He had inherited some of his grandmother Sarah’s jealousy, some his mother’s unscrupulous wit, and some of his father’s loyalty. He was named “supplanter” at birth and lived up to his name.
Jacob in his early years was a selfish man. His love for Rachel and his loyalty to her family changes him partially, but it’s in his wrestling with God that Jacob reaches a turning point. He is given a new name: Israel, the Prince of God.
What is the significance of a new name? It is a new identity. God does this many times throughout the Bible. Jesus does the same for every new believer.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (1 Corinthians 5:17).
As we keep reading Genesis, we see that Jacob’s name switches back and forth from his old name to his new throughout his life. In Genesis 35:10, God reminds Jacob of his new name once again. This often happens with us. God gives us a new name — His beloved, a new creation in Him — but we forget who we are. Once we have wrestled with God, we should hold tightly to our new identity. We may stumble and forget who we are, but we can always come back to what God has called us to be.
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4. God Wants Us to Know Him Intimately
“Jacob said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he replied, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ Then he blessed him there” (Genesis 32:29).
Jacob knew who God was. He knew God was the God of his father and grandfather. But the God Jacob wrestled with by the Jabbok was God in the form of man; the part of the trinity who would come to earth and who would bear “…our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness….” (1 Peter 2:24.) During the wrestling match, God became the God of Jacob’s heart.
Many people know about God, but never have a true, life-changing encounter with Him. Knowing what God has done for others isn’t the same as understanding what He has done for you. God cares less about how successfully we appear to be living a righteous life and much more about the condition of our hearts. The only way to have a relationship with God is to spend time with Him. Reading the Bible, praying and worshipping with our hearts and minds fully focused on God brings us to a closer, more intimate relationship with Him.
Sometimes the biggest obstacle to spending time with God is ourselves. Our priorities get mixed up. I know that when I start my day by spending time in God’s word and/or praying, the rest of the day goes better. The actual events in my day don’t change, but my attitude does because the peace of God is with me.
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5. Closeness to God Requires Humility
“The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip” (Genesis 32:31).
Jacob was made lame by his wrestling match with God. For the proud, self-sufficient, quick-witted Jacob, this physical disability was a sign of his new humility.
Humility, as defined by Marriam-Webster, means, “freedom from pride or arrogance.” In our world, humility seems counter-culture and counter-success. But in God’s world, we become better people when set aside our pride and rely on Him. Jacob wasn’t the only biblical person who was humbled by God. We see the same kind of stories in Simon Peter and in the conversion of Saul to Paul. In fact, Paul would later write about a thorn in his flesh:
“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me — to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
No one would want to go through life with a disability or ailment to keep them humble, but God knows what we need and that our dependence on Him instead of ourselves is our greatest strength.
The sun was rising on Jacob as he limped away. He had a new ailment, but also a new identity, a new name, and a new intimacy with God.
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The End of the Story
After Jacob’s wrestling match, he saw his brother Esau. Instead of killing him, his brother met him with an embrace and tears of joy. Esau had forgiven his brother. Jacob’s life was spared. Esau didn’t even want any of the possessions that Jacob offered him (though he accepted them at Jacob’s insistence). He only wanted to be right with his brother.
The rest of Jacob’s story isn’t a happily-ever-after. He would end up losing his beloved wife, Rachel, in childbirth. His favorite son would be betrayed by his older brothers and sold into slavery. Jacob’s life ends in a foreign land. Through it all, God reminds him time and again that He is with him and His promises hold true, even if Jacob can’t see how they are possible at the time.
As you read the account of Jacob’s wrestling match, what parts of his story can you identify with? Where do you need to seek forgiveness? Are you persevering in your pursuit of a relationship with God? How can you draw closer to Him and be humble? When we take the lessons God has for us from the stories in his Word, we can grow, have more peace, and be the man or woman God has called us to be.
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Melanie Campbell is a member of Oregon Christian Writers and ACFW. Her debut novel, One Woman Falling, won the Oregon Christian Writers Cascade Award and is a finalist for the Selah Award. She lives in Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley with her husband, their three children, and several spoiled pets. You can learn more about her writing and sign up for her newsletter by visiting her website at melaniecampbellauthor.org. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.