World Class Wrestler – Jacob
Jacob started his wrestling career prenatally (Gen. 25:22). His birth caught him and his brother in the act as he refused to interrupt his fight with his brother long enough to even be born (Gen 25:26). Jacob and Esau continued to develop their wrestling skills likely through their growing up years pitting their strength against each other with Esau likely winning many of their skirmishes.
Likely because of his underdog status with his brother (which his parents at first may have found somewhat amusing), Jacob would have become an easy target for alternative ways to try to win against his brother, something all too familiar for many of us.
Throughout his life Jacob found himself wrestling much of the time, though not always in physical matches as much as during his early years. His rounds now spilled into emotional wrestling, struggling for social status, wrestling with nearly anyone around him in attempts to find a sense of worth, satisfaction and strong identity. It was this deep yearning to feel loved, valued, cherished, wanted, affirmed and whole that became a compulsion driving him throughout much of his life. Yet it was his experiments with alternative techniques for winning that often kept his life in turmoil.
We find Jacob early on experimenting with different methods for achieving what he felt was missing, searching for a sense of blessing that might bring him peace, value and identity. As a young man he felt inferior to his brother who had received a huge advantage simply because he happened to come out of his mother's body a few seconds ahead of Jacob. This seemed grossly unfair in Jacob's mind and must have rankled him for many years.
But one day Jacob suddenly encountered a sudden advantage when his brother came in from hunting famished for food and too impatient to fix his own. Jacob seized on his brother's dilemma as an opportunity to leverage his own advantage as a domestic expert with good stew ready to go. After extorting an oath from his brother promising he would relinquish his birth advantage in exchange for a little physical satisfaction for his ravenous appetite, Jacob poured him a generous helping of soup. Yet for whatever reason, this quickly arranged covenant didn't hold credibility in the mind's of anyone else.
Not long after this we read find his family experiencing an intense famine that drove them to seek relief among the Philistines, not unlike what his grandfather Abraham had experienced years before. As the boys observed how their father Isaac reacted to danger in fear by lying instead of trusting God, very similar to how Abraham had acted under almost identical circumstances before Isaac had been born, they saw that deception could be a useful way of getting what they wanted. This pattern stuck with tragic results for much of Jacob's life and proved to be an alternative wrestling move he relied on repeatedly. Yet deception proved to be a mixed advantage as time after time it resulted in suspicion, anger and wounded relationships not only for himself but in the lives of his wives and children.
After returning home after the famine, Jacob's family faced another crisis as his father decided it was time to hand over family leadership to his favorite son Esau before it was too late. A rift had developed between Isaac and Rebekah in the way they related to their twins that was unhealthy and divisive. This attempt by Isaac to exclude his wife from his plans to bless Esau only exacerbated this deepening rift in the family and created a situation where his wife felt compelled to resort to the deceptive ways of her own family of origin to encourage her favorite son to indulge her weakness and pit themselves against the other half of the family in order to steal the birthright advantage away from Esau.
Whether or not Jacob willingly participated in this scheme or felt compelled by his mother to go along, the result was a major rupture that tore the family apart permanently. It is easy to blame Jacob or his mother for resorting to deception instead of leaving things in God's hands, but don't forget that they all had witnessed not that long previously Isaac doing something similar to avert danger himself by lying about Rebekah's relationship to him during the famine. Everyone was learning their lessons of deception well, and the lessons were not healthy or faith-building.
After this round of family wrestling in which it appeared Jacob had gained an advantage by tricking his father into saying words to Jacob intended for his brother, he found himself running in terror for his life from his enraged brother set on vengeance. Never mind that Esau ignored the solemn oath he had made to Jacob, the fact was that intrigue and exploitation seemed to be more popular than honesty and trust even though Jacob longed to be closer to God and know the blessing that only originates with Him.
Clearly the trick pulled on his father at the suggestion of his mother did not produce the hoped for results and Jacob had to escape quickly. Running for his life to never see his mother again, Jacob likely felt hopeless despair taking over his life. Finally, exhausted in every respect, he found a collection of boulders in which he could hide and placed a large rock over the opening (called a pillow) and curled up in the chilly darkness to get some sleep hoping his brother would not find him there.
Jacob could not escape the next wrestling match even though he thought he had found a refuge from his brother. Internally Jacob found himself in a far deeper struggle as he wrestled with his own screaming conscience assaulting him with waves of guilt, regret and condemnation. His longing to personally hear from God like his grandfather had enjoyed so often seemed not only a distant dream now but likely impossible since he was starting to see how his selfishness and false-heartedness had ruined the entire family dynamics. He must have felt like a worthless worm cowering in the dark and cold, listening to the wild animals rooting around outside and feeling terrified that somehow his brother still might make mincemeat of him if he were to locate him again.
That night in Jacob's sleep, God came to join the wrestling activity of Jacob's life. There is a principle taught by wrestling coaches that to win over an opponent you must gain control of their head. Wherever the head goes the body will ultimately follow. In the darkness filled with apprehension, shame, condemnation and hopeless despair, God put Jacob into a headlock for the first time to turn his attention toward something he had been overlooking all his life. He gave him a glimpse of true reality that was strikingly different than how most others were viewing it. This brought hope, courage and strength for Jacob to again move on with his life.
But Jacob's wrestling days were far from over as he continued to rely on his alternative tricks learned from an early age. Arriving in his mother's homeland he immediately fell in love with a beautiful girl (something that seems to dominate many of the stories of this family) and commenced to find a way to get her for his wife by hook or crook. What he didn't realize was that his uncle was already a seasoned expert of using deception in wrestling with others so the fight was on almost immediately before Jacob even knew what was transpiring.
The next 21 years were a saga of deception and counter-deception as these two men and the women in their lives became entangled in a complex matrix of intrigue, suspicion, exploitation and jostling for supremacy. Jacob even used his connection with God to leverage his business affairs much to his uncle's dismay and fury. Over time it became apparent that these two families could not live compatibly with each other so Jacob decided to opt out. The problem was that to extricate himself from this wrestling match became a dicey proposition. Even trying to separate himself from his difficult situation turned sour as his uncle threatened violence against Jacob for sneaking out without consulting with his boss.
Throughout all the years since Jacob had attempted to gain value and identity by compelling his brother to promise giving Jacob their father's blessing, Jacob had wrestled incessantly inside. His external circumstances often merely shadowed the constant struggle ever present in the heart of Jacob even after God had promised him everything he longed for. Yet Jacob had not received God's assurances but had made counter promises thinking he had to earn God's blessings. What a tragedy, but not unlike most of us still try to do today.
Because Jacob relied more on his own methods to gain success than trusting in God's promises, he failed to know the peace, satisfaction or security that his heart longed to experience. Even though he had maneuvered into becoming the recipient of his father's words, his heart had known that they had not been intended for him. Deception may have enabled him to fool his father into saying things in his presence, but his heart knew that the real blessing had not been received so he could never feel secure that his identity was actually his, or that God loved and wanted his good anymore than his father had.
Jacob now came to the greatest crisis of his long and diverse career. He found himself headed back toward his greatest fear – his still furious, un-placated brother who was still nursing resentment and bitterness after so many years. Jacob knew that Esau was just as likely to make mincemeat of him now as when he had betrayed him so many years previous, only now his brother had far more effective resources to carry out his desires for revenge.
Why didn't Jacob choose to head some other direction instead of straight toward his brother's wrath? Was it because there were no other options, no other places where Jacob might set up camp and grow his family? Maybe, but more likely it was because Jacob was beginning to realize that he needed to take God's promises seriously or his problems would only continue to multiply. God had made it clear that He wanted Jacob to take his family and return to the land of his father.
Jacob was finally coming to where he was willing to follow God rather than trusting his own resources and wrestling moves. He was keenly aware of the extreme danger of leading his vulnerable family and all his wealth directly toward the greatest threat on his life. Yet he was fast coming to his tipping point, his crucible, the point of critical mass where he felt compelled to confront everything that had defined his life since he was born. He could no longer rely on his alternative moves but had to face his fears head-on instead of running away.
After making arrangements to diffuse any potential attack from his brother in ways that might salvage at least part of his family, Jacob went off alone into the dark to face his worst enemy directly – his own conscience, his own accusing soul where he could review his own history of failures along with his emptiness, pride and self-dependence.
He may have imagined that he would spend a quiet night contemplating and reviewing his life completely alone. He may have thought that given enough time maybe he could figure things out, sort out where he had gone wrong and figure out how to reconnect with the God who had shown up to him in various times in the past. But little did he imagine the way God would get involved in the wrestling that now consumed most of Jacob's emotions at this pivotal point in his life.
I want to back up just a bit at this point to visit something that is often overlooked in this story because I believe it has enormous significance not just for Jacob but everyone in his household. It is found in this passage.
Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When he saw them, Jacob said, "This is God's army." He called the name of that place Mahanaim. Jacob sent messengers in front of him to Esau, his brother, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. (Genesis 32:1-3 WEB)
I find it encouraging that God knows just when we need a glimpse of the real world outside our dark cocoon of artificial reality we experience in this world. This reminds me of the servant of Elisha who felt terrified by the extreme threat of a large army surrounding the little town where they were located, that is until Elisha asked God to open his eyes so he could witness the much larger army of angels ever present around them. Jacob was allowed to see that same contingent of angels that gave him courage to do the right thing concerning his broth and to move toward his fears instead of running away this time.
Were these angels provided to support a violent resistance by Jacob to meet his brother's threat? I don't think so. Rather, God's armies of angels are sent to assure us that things are not as they seem to us, and that no matter what happens in our lives, God can always be trusted to do what is best, even if we lose our lives. God is not restricted to our narrow perceptions or potential solutions. We can trust Him to take care of us no matter how extreme our circumstances may seem from our perspective.
This vision of angels must certainly have influenced Jacob's thinking as he walked into the darkness to face not only his fears but all the shame and guilt of his past. He was painfully aware that the reason for the present fury of his brother was because of his own attempts to steal the birthright from him by deceiving their father. It was no use to continue living in denial or avoidance or seek to blame; it was time to take full responsibility for all of his choices and find a way forward more in line with God's ways.
The Bible says that Jacob spent the night wrestling with a man. That is very brief and nebulous with little to go on for detail. Given the end of the story though, it seems clear that this 'man' was in fact God coming to visit with Jacob personally. I believe that not only had God come to be with Jacob during his great crisis of identity but that He had come to personally provide Jacob with the very blessing his heart had been longing for all his life but that had so often eluded him.
Someone has suggested that the initial touch from God that launched Jacob into the mother of all wrestling matches was actually an offer of a hug, an affirmation of affection, acceptance and even an invitation for intimacy where Jacob might receive the very sense of identity and value he so craved. But because (like so many of us still do today) he assumed his fears were more reliable than his hopes for God's goodness, his immediate reaction was to fight rather than embrace.
Jacob was likely a very strong man by this time in his life. Though his early wrestling career with his brother may have left him feeling inferior due to a weaker physique in comparison to his robust twin, I suspect he spent much of the rest of his life buffing up his body through much hard work in years spent taking care of thousands of sheep and goats. Yet in this face-off with a mysterious stranger in the dark, Jacob now finds himself paired with someone who seemed to wrestle in ways totally foreign in many respects, yet in some ways vaguely familiar.
Had this divine messenger come to actually pit His strength against that of a mere human being like Jacob, this story would make no sense given the all-night pitting of human muscle against supernatural superiority. Yet I am convinced that what God had in mind for Jacob was to provide him with a physical outlet through which he could release much of the pent-up frustration from his entire life of attempting to find value and identity through all the wrong ways. I believe that God's wrestling moves were vastly different from the defensive tactics used by wrestling opponents so that Jacob was kept off balance. In addition, throughout the night I imagine that Jacob's mind was reviewing scene after scene of his own shameful story finding that the reactions he was encountering from this Stranger perfectly matched what was going on in his thoughts in real time which itself could have been very unnerving.
I just discovered something compelling for me as I looked up the Hebrew word translated as 'wrestled' in this passage. Its main meaning is not to wrestle but rather means 'to float away (as vapor), to bedust' and comes from a root word defined as 'volatile light particles, dust, powder.' Furthermore this is the only place this word is found anywhere in the Bible.
What this opens up to me is the possibility that we have traditionally taken too narrow of a view about what may have transpired that night in Jacob's experience. If the meaning of this word is taken at face value, Jacob found himself attempting to wrestle with someone who was more like a vapor and who might easily slip his grasp like dust, Someone who might even be defined as being composed of light particles, even with volatile potential. This brings a whole new dimension to what Jacob may have gone through during that night while facing his fears and his confused feelings about God.
Whatever developed during that ultimate wrestling match with a God who didn't respond like any opponent Jacob had ever encountered before, clearly the conclusion of this encounter was just what Jacob's heart had been longing for his entire life. Jacob's real enemy was not his brother or his uncle or anyone else, and certainly was not God. Jacob's problem, just as is true with all of us, was that his misconceptions about God lay at the root of all the malfunctions in his life, and the same is true in ours. God came when Jacob was most ready to listen, to give him personally the blessing of identity that he needed most. God also came to challenge Jacob's core feelings and beliefs about not only how God felt about him but how Jacob viewed himself. And is that not what every heart needs to experience?
Most of us know how this wrestling match ended. Superficially it appears that God won the match by using his supernatural advantage to simply touch Jacob's 'thigh' to disable him. But do we really grasp what actually was going on there or do we settle for the simplistic idea that God simply ended the scuffle because it was starting to get light and He didn't want Jacob to be able to see Him too clearly?
Remember, this wrestling match was about Jacob's sense of identity and value more than anything else. God clearly made Himself appear weak in contrast to His natural capacity It would be like a world-class athlete wrestling with their two-year-old leading her to believe she was winning against her big strong daddy. What she does not fully appreciate until much later is that her daddy seemed weak because he was so filled with affection for her while from her perspective it would have seemed like he was actually losing to her.
So with Jacob, and so with each of us when we find ourselves wrestling with God, imagining Him as our opponent when all along He is our greatest ally, friend and fiercely protective Daddy. We may imagine that He has failed us in many of the events in our past and that maybe He doesn't care about us as much as we long to be cared for and loved. Yet it is the limitations of our immaturity and inability to see His much larger perspective that prevents us from appreciating the intense, passionate love of our heavenly Parent rather than our narrow, dark perceptions of what events in our life really mean.
Jacob's feelings about God were mixed as most of ours are as well. He could have imagined much of his life as being successful because he had worked so hard to earn everything he had acquired. Yet when he encountered God's advance army of angels he began to realize that earning and deserving are not even part of God's way of relating with His children. Upon receiving the report that his attempts to placate his brother were rebuffed and he was approaching with a small army to inflict punishment for Jacob's actions years before, Jacob turns to his heavenly Father with new appreciation for how God had treated him all the years of his life.
I am not worthy of the least of all the loving kindnesses, and of all the truth, which you have shown to your servant; for with just my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. (Genesis 32:10 WEB)
Jacob is starting to see a completely new picture of God he had never really appreciated before. In contrast to his own selfish clawing for advantage he starts to see a God who has done nothing but show him loving kindnesses all his life. And in sharp contrast with all the deviousness and deceptive techniques that have marked Jacob's life, he sees the pure honesty and truthfulness that defines all who live in God's kingdom and his heart is overwhelmed.
When he saw that he didn't prevail against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled. (Genesis 32:25 WEB)
A person's strongest physical potential is in the muscles of the upper legs, what we generally refer to as the thighs. But this also happens to surround the area of greatest vulnerability, especially for men, which they know they must protect during any fight with an opponent lest they become disabled by a blow to their private parts.
But there is another aspect of this that I find quite compelling. The way a solemn oath was sometimes affirmed in ancient times was to have the other person place their hand in the most vulnerable spot on the other person's body (see Gen. 24:2; 47:29). This is usually translated as thigh in the English, but in reality it was having someone access the most vulnerable body parts indicating a level of complete trust while conveying a most important message.
Given this context if might be possible that the touch that disabled Jacob and brought the wrestling match to a sudden halt could have been more than simply a divine touch dislocating Jacob's hip or whatever. It could have been a touch affecting part of what had been one of Jacob's weaknesses in his life, his seeking for satisfaction through procreation rather than increased intimacy with God.
Whatever kind of touch Jacob experienced, whether it was a touch that debilitated the strongest muscles of his upper leg or whether it affected his sexual organs or both, Jacob suddenly became keenly aware that this mysterious stranger must in fact be the very God his heart had been longing for his entire life. When this realization broke into his consciousness his reaction must have been instant and intense – he threw all the strength he had left – his upper body strength –into clinging tenaciously to the body of this God-man in a desperation that was an expression of the passion of his life. He now chose to cling to God with all the strength of his life until he could receive from God the identity and sense of value that had been missing in his life ever since his first years of self-consciousness.
Jacob was left alone, and wrestled with a man there until the breaking of the day. When he saw that he didn't prevail against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled. The man said, "Let me go, for the day breaks." Jacob said, "I won't let you go, unless you bless me." He said to him, "What is your name?" He said, "Jacob." He said, "Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed." Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." He said, "Why is it that you ask what my name is?" He blessed him there. (Genesis 32:24-29 WEB)
Blessing as it was practiced in ancient times, and in some cultures still today, involved the conveying of a sense of destiny, identity, importance, value and self-awareness to another person, usually at the point of becoming an adult. It was a pivotal initiation into adulthood and the lack of receiving this blessing had serious repercussions. I believe this lack of receiving a father's blessing and sense of identity is one of the major reasons we see so much confusion about identity, widespread depression and tragic dysfunction in our world today. We have many distracted and contradictory sources claiming to define who we are, yet we find ourselves empty and grasping in many directions to find satisfaction but come up short, so we turn to short-term pleasures to fill the void instead.
Part of our underlying problem is that our default way of defining value relies on false premises. We presume that identity and value can come from what we do or how we look, what we have achieved or what genetic pedigree we might have. Yet none of these things can provide an identity that can stand the test of a deep crisis, for we were designed to receive our true identity from the One who created us to be a reflection of His image. We are designed to be human beings, not human doings. Yet we now have been duped into imagining that what we do can alter our worth or somehow give us more identity while all along God is seeking to inform us that we already have a secure and complete identity in Christ, both by creation and through redemption.
At the end of this amazing encounter, Jacob was declared by God as the winner of the wrestling match with God. Now that seems downright bizarre from our perspective, for based on our standards it would seem obvious that Jacob clearly came out as the loser. Yet the same can be seen when we examine the life of Jesus on this earth. He appeared to come to a loser's end, being convicted as a criminal and punished by a horrific execution. Yet from heaven's perspective it turned out to be the greatest victory every achieved in the history of the universe.
And he said, Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel: for in your fight with God and with men you have overcome. (Genesis 32:28 BBE)
How is it that Jacob was the victor in his match-off with God? And what did God mean when He said that Jacob had also overcome with men? Jacob's victory which led God to call him an overcomer was not achieved by winning a context against God but rather winning the fight to overcome his own dark views of God and his own false perceptions about his value and identity and where they came from. It was when the truth that the only Source he could trust to define who he really was had been with him all his life and he hadn't needed to strive at all. When he came to realize that everything else he had depended on his entire life to define his value was worse than worthless, it was then that he threw his arms around the only One who truly loved him and refused to let go until he received what he craved the most, the affirmation and assurance that he was loved and important to the only real Father that mattered.
And what about overcoming with men? Had Jacob overcome men the same way he had overcome with God?
I believe God was introducing Jacob to the real world of heaven where God's promises are not so time sensitive as we perceive things. From heaven's perspective Jacob was already a winner in the coming face-off with his brother and so far as God was concerned it was a present reality.
This story of the greatest wrestler is not just an intriguing story of a man who lived long ago and experienced some things in his life similar to what we may experience. This is rather the story of humanity, of each one of us. Jacob simply mirrors the deepest longing of all of us, that deep craving for an identity that can never be taken away from us along with a sense of worth and value that is impossible for us to earn. We crave far deeper satisfaction than the shallow and temporary rush we might get from any achievement or award we can receive from efforts to impress others. Deep inside we are acutely aware that no matter how beautiful we may be, how rich we might become, how strong or powerful we may be in the eyes of those around us, there must be a much safer source of real identity that cannot evaporate readily when the light of reality starts to dawn around us.
I find a prophecy in Jeremiah that many of us believe will be fulfilled in the last days of this earth's history. It predicts that many will experience something very similar to what Jacob experienced that night. It will be a time when the issue of our value and identity will become a crisis of epic proportions for each person and a time when everyone will either fully align themselves with God's method of defining identity or will rely on the world's artificial methods for achieving value and identity. This time of identity crisis interestingly is called in Scripture 'the time of Jacob's trouble.'
For thus says Yahweh: We have heard a voice of trembling, of fear, and not of peace. Ask now, and see whether a man does travail with child: why do I see every man with his hands on his waist, as a woman in travail, and all faces are turned into paleness? Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob's trouble; but he shall be saved out of it. It shall come to pass in that day, says Yahweh of Armies, that I will break his yoke from off your neck, and will burst your bonds; and strangers shall no more make him their bondservant; but they shall serve Yahweh their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up to them. Therefore don't you be afraid, O Jacob my servant, says Yahweh; neither be dismayed, Israel: for, behold, I will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return, and shall be quiet and at ease, and none shall make him afraid. (Jeremiah 30:5-10 WEB)
When we come to understand and have a greater appreciation for this vital part of how we see ourselves as children of God, based on His version of who we are instead of any other, we can pass through our own experience of wrestling with ourselves and with God. We will struggle to dissociate our dependence from any other source for determining our worth and identity to rely solely on God as our only reliable source through which we view not only ourselves but every other human as well. This will not be an easy thing to do as our faulty assumptions for determining identity run deep in our psyche. Jacob found this out that night as he wrestled with the dust of light particles in God, but that experience served to break every other dependence and to cause him to throw himself entirely on God as his only Source of blessing and identity. And so must we do as well.
Interestingly this theme of overcoming runs all the way to the end of Scripture where we find it repeated in every message to the seven churches as notices about those who overcome. Time and again Jesus says, 'To him who overcomes...' Then we are introduced to a group of people who are called overcomers, and what they have overcome is their connection and dependence for their identity on the very symbols that define all those in opposition to the Lamb, God's symbol of true identity and a symbol most descriptive of God's own character. And this becomes part of God's salvation as well.
I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, "Now is come the salvation, the power, and the Kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ; for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them before our God day and night. They overcame him because of the Lamb's blood, and because of the word of their testimony. They didn't love their life, even to death. (Revelation 12:10-11 WEB)