22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ 27 So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ 28 Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ 29 Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
I had several uncles, but I would like to focus on two of them. They were about the same age, born in the same place—in South Carolina, in Pickens County, in the town of Easley. One was tall, red-haired, freckled; the other short and dark-haired, built like a bowling ball. Both finished high school and had about a year of college. In fact, Bowling-Ball Uncle played tackle that year for the Clemson football team. Then the war came, WWII, and they both served in the military, in the Pacific theater. After the war, they came home, got married, got a job. Both worked for the police department in the city of Greenville. They worked there until they retired. Both had two children, one boy and one girl. They even had a tragedy in common in that both lost their wives in middle age.
Now you would think that given all these similarities that the two uncles would think pretty much the same about most things. They had pretty much identical backgrounds, and you would think that particularly on something as important as religion—which shapes so much of character and guides so many decisions—that they would hold the same views.
You would think that, and you would be totally wrong. They had completely opposite views on religion. Bowling-Ball Uncle was a devout Christian. Church was a big part of his life. He attended most every Sunday. Being a cop, he worked some Sundays, but when he was not on duty, he went to church. He tithed his income to the church, he served in many offices in the church. Whatever was needed, he did it. The other uncle, tall, fair-skinned uncle, was an outspoken atheist. He despised the church; He despised all religion as a collection of fairy tales that we tell each other because we are afraid of the dark.
Now the two uncles knew each other very well, saw each other practically every day of their working lives, everyday except Sunday that is, and they seemed to like each other, but they argued constantly, and neither ever gave an inch. And whenever I was available, this was primarily when I was a teenager and a young adult, they liked to use me as a soundingboard to bounce their ideas to one another. In the years I knew them, they went through every possible argument about every kind of religion. Everything that happened became something for them to argue about.
For example, if they were alive today, both of them have passed on by the way, but if they were alive, Atheist Uncle would say, “Look at what happened in Haiti, all those people killed in that earthquake, that proves that there is no loving God.” But Believer Uncle would reply, “Look at how people around the world are responding in love to help Haiti. Their love comes from a loving God.” And so the argument would go.
Believer Uncle would say, “How can you not believe in some kind of life after death?” Atheist Uncle would reply, “How can you possibly believe in life other than this physical life?”
Now as I have indicated, I was often in the middle when these two very determined adversaries squared off, and I always had some difficulty in determining who won. After one of their confrontations, I would ask myself, “Well, who got the best of that one?” And to me it often seemed like it was pretty much a draw. And particularly as a teenager, I would repeat their arguments in my mind and think of other arguments and continue the arguments. I would say, well Believer Uncle, he is going to say thus and thus, and Unbeliever Uncle is going to reply thus and thus, and the arguments naturally spilled over into my own thinking. They were arguing about religious topics. I had to ask myself, What do I think about these things?
And I sometimes felt that I was in the position of a character in an old cartoon where the devil is on one shoulder whispering in this ear, and the angel is on the other shoulder whispering in that ear. And I was wrestling with both the demon and the angel, trying to figure out what I believed. In a way, I am still wrestling. I still don’t have everything figured out. I guess the difference today is that I don’t expect to be able to figure out everything.
I know that most people think that preachers believe everything and never question anything. Most people think that preachers are rather simple individuals who never have any doubts about the faith. I used to think that myself. I thought that I was a unusual preacher because Atheist Uncle is still whispering in my ear sometimes, asking, How could a loving God possibly allow that to happen? But then I got brave enough to talk to some other preachers about what they believe, and I discovered that , lo, they are pretty much just like me. They have the same doubts and struggle to believe that I do. We are all spiritual wrestlers.
That is what Jacob was doing in Genesis. Jacob had many reasons to wrestle with God. Actually he was not wrestling with God, he was wrestling with himself, and as I said he had his reasons.
Jacob was one of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob came out of the womb behind his brother Esau, holding his brother by the heel. Thus, he was called “Jacob,” which means in Hebrew "supplanter" or "tripper." It was an apt name. Jacob spent most of his early life trying to trip up and replace Esau. He persuaded Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of soup. Still later, Jacob impersonated Esau and deceived his old nearly blind father into giving him the blessing that was intended for the eldest son.
Esau was enraged, and determined to kill this upstart brother of his. When Jacob learned of Esau's murderous intent, he ran.
Jacob went north toward the city of Haran in Syria, where he had relatives. One night on the road, he had a strange dream. He saw a ladder stretching from earth to heaven and angels going up and down it. When he awoke, he realized that the dream was a symbolic representation of contact between heaven and earth. The dream meant that God was present both in heaven and on earth. Further, the dream meant that God was with him. God was with Jacob even though Jacob had not been the kind of person we ordinarily think of God being with.
When he reached Haran, Jacob worked for Laban for twenty years. Laban was a wily con artist and he conned Jacob. Jacob learned how it felt to be scammed. But in the end, he departed prosperous. He came to Haran with nothing but his shepherd's staff. He left with wives and concubines and children and flocks and herds.
But as he approached Canaan, he learned that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 warriors, and he remembered that twenty years ago, he had cheated Esau.
V22 tells us that night Jacob sent his wives and concubines and children across the ford of the Jabbok, while he remained on the other side of the river. The opening words of V24 are, "And Jacob was left alone." Actually Jacob had been alone most of his life. He had gone his own way, thought his own thoughts. So now Jacob must sit alone in the darkness to reshape his life.
Jacob must face the darkness in his own soul and overcome that darkness before he can become the kind of man that God wants him to be. And the same is true for us. We must face the darkness in our souls and overcome that darkness before we can be the kind of men and women that God wants us to be.
It was a time of crisis for Jacob: of outward crisis—Esau was coming; Of inward crisis—Jacob cannot go on being the kind of person he has been. And Jacob must first settle his inward crisis before he can deal with the outward crisis. This is the way it always is. We must always deal with crisis in our souls before we can deal with our worldly troubles.
Jacob had two great visions of God in his life. Twenty years earlier at Bethel he had the vision of the angelic ladder that assured him that God would be with him. Some commentators think that revelation was the most important event in his life. Certainly that was a great vision, the kind of uplifting, positive vision that we would all like to have from God. But that was not the crucial event in the life of Jacob. The crucial event was when he wrestled with something in the darkness by the river Jabbok.
We should note that this spiritual crisis took place when Jacob was a middle-aged, supposedly successful man. He was the father of many sons, a man of property, a man of experience. Some might ask, Was not Jacob a little old to still be having such a religious struggle?
Some folks think that the crisis of the religious life is something for young people. They teach that we have some sort of religious crisis in our youth, and that once we pass through that crisis, once we are “saved,” we will never have any more doubts about spiritual things. The story of wrestling Jacob teaches a different lesson. Twenty years have passed since young Jacob had the vision of the ladder--the promise of God's protection and security--but Jacob is still struggling.
Genesis 32:24 describes Jacob's inner crisis in terms of a wrestling match. He is wrestling with Jacob the con artist, Jacob the rogue. Jacob defeats this man, and as soon as the “man” is defeated, the “man” is transformed into God.
To signify that God has come on the scene, this man touches Jacob in V25 and puts his thigh out of joint. But Jacob wrestles on. He is not yet aware that the struggle is over, then we are told in V26 that dawn is breaking. This is a symbolic way of saying that Jacob is receiving spiritual knowledge.
When Jacob realized that he now faced God, he asked To know the name of God. In seeking a name, Jacob wanted far more than a few syllables, far more than a spoken word. He wanted to know God.
Now God did not directly answer Jacob's question—because he has already answered it. This whole episode in Genesis 32 is God's answer to that question. Jacob met God that night, and that encounter had such an impact upon him that ever after he could affirm, I know, I know that God is with me.
Of course, he cannot fully describe in human language how he knows. This is always the way it is with the great experiences of life. They impact us so deeply that words are always just a pale shadow of what actually happened, and all we can say is, "Too understand you just had to be there."
I remember the first time my wife and I visited Grand Canyon many years ago. I had seen pictures of the canyon in color, and I thought that it was a big ditch, and I was prepared not to be impressed. Then we got there, and I walked out to the edge and looked at that big ditch, and I was stunned, because pictures do not convey the immensity of the canyon. Thus, I would say, along with everyone else, "You have to see it to believe it." That is the kind of knowledge that Jacob obtained that night when he wrestled with God. It was an experience that went beyond the mind into the very depths of his soul.
Jacob is still Jacob, still a human being. He does not have all the answers and never will, but he knows that God loves him. He knows that God is with him, and that makes him more than Jacob, that makes him Israel, which has several possible translations, but basically means “beloved of God.”
We are all Jacob, we wrestle for spiritual truth, but what we need to understand is that we are also Israel, beloved of God. We do not have all the answers, but we have one answer that we need to cherish—God is with us. That is the answer. God is with us.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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