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Wrestling with God

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 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.’

One of the strangest stories in the Bible is of the patriarch Jacob, some 1750 years before Christ, being approached by a mysterious stranger who wrestles with him in the middle of the night. The stranger injures Jacob in the hip, but Jacob won’t let go until his mysterious adversary blesses him.

At first, the stranger’s identity is unclear, but by the morning Jacob knows: “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” (verse 30).

What is the message of this story? Surely this mysterious wrestling match is a summary in miniature of God’s dealings with Jacob all through his life.

Almost the first thing we hear about Jacob is that he wants the blessing of God. This was the most precious of all the family heirlooms – first given to grandfather Abraham. It far exceeded even the family’s considerable wealth. Jacob spotted this, and was desperate to get it – unlike his older brother Esau, who tragically failed to see its value. Jacob famously got his brother to sell it to him for a bowl of stew, and then later conned their father Isaac to give it to him rather than his brother.

And so Jacob got the blessing of God, but in the process, God pommelled him with difficulties. He had to flee the wrath of his brother; he had to learn what it was like to be on the receiving end of deception himself; he had to navigate other sorrow and worries. At the time of the wrestling match, he was facing the huge anxiety of meeting his angry brother, Esau. And yet, in the midst of it, the Lord was with him, and indeed, making him the ancestor of the very people of Israel.

Truly Jacob sought – and was receiving – God’s blessing, but at the same time God was wrestling with him, and even injuring him. It was as if Jacob had to be put through this, in order to turn him from a deceiver into a man of God.

The message for us? We might say that as Jacob, Israel and head of his people, was injured by God in the course of seeking His blessing (which came to Israel as a people), our Lord Jesus was also injured in seeking God’s blessing for us. But, while wonderfully true, the link is perhaps rather tenuous and speculative.

Better, if we are in Christ, we are recipients of God’s blessing; but God may also wrestle with us to make us conform to the image of His Son. The whole story of Jacob is an example of this, and may help us make sense of some baffling and painful moments in our own lives.