Southminster Presbyterian Church

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Wrestling with God

Ken Onstot

Scriptures: Genesis 32:9-12 and 22-32

Introduction to Scripture Readings

Before we hear our scripture readings, we need a brief review of the story of Jacob.  Jacob is the grandson of Abraham who tricked his blind father Isaac into giving him the blessing that Isaac had intended for Jacob’s twin brother Esau.  When Esau found out about this, he vowed to kill Jacob.  So Jacob fled across the Jordan River to the east to live with his uncle Laban.  He lived with Laban for many years, working for him, marrying both of his daughters, and becoming quite prosperous.  But then God told Jacob to return to the land of his parents, the land that God has promised to Abraham, Isaac, and their descendants.  There is just one problem: to return to the promised land, Jacob has to face Esau.  So Jacob sends word to Esau that he is coming home, and word comes back that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men.  And that is where our first scripture begins.

[Read scriptures]


[Slide 1] The story of Jacob’s wrestling match poses numerous questions:

1)      Who is the wrestler? [Click 1]

2)      Why are they wrestling? [Click 2]

3)      What’s with the stalemate? [Click 3] What does it mean that neither quite wins?

4)      Why are they obsessed with each other’s names? [Click 4]

5)      Why is daybreak so important? [Click 5]

Let’s take these questions one at a time:

Who is the wrestler? [Slide 2] The Bible says only that Jacob was alone, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”  The man comes out of nowhere and is totally unidentified.  One interpretation is that Jacob is having a dream about wrestling with Esau. [Click 1] That might explain why they are wrestling.  They have been wrestling with each other since they were born.  It might also explain the stalemate.  But why are they asking each other’s names?  And why would Esau have the authority to give Jacob a new name?

The better answer is that Jacob is wrestling with God. [Click 2]  In verse 28 the wrestler says to Jacob,[Click 3]  “You have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”  Later in verse 30 Jacob confirms this when he says, [Click 4] “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

But that interpretation makes the other questions harder to answer. [Slide 3] Why are they wrestling?  And what’s with the stalemate?  What kind of God can be wrestled to a draw?  And what is important about daybreak?  Why does God have to ask Jacob to let him go before sunrise?  Does God have a curfew?

The key to this story is Question 2: [Slide 4] Why are they wrestling?  The answer becomes clear in verse 26: [Click 1: v. 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.’”

The whole conflict with Esau started over blessing.  Jacob tried to wrestle away the blessing his father intended for Esau, and now Jacob tries to wrestle blessing from God.

We see this in two of Jacob’s prayers. [Slide 5]  In Genesis 28 when Jacob flees from his brother Esau, he has a dream of a ladder going up to heaven with angels of God ascending and descending the ladder.  After this encounter Jacob utters his first recorded prayer—Genesis 28:20: [Click 1] ”If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.”  To me this is not a prayer; this is a negotiation.  Jacob is bargaining with God.  Even here Jacob is trying to wrestle a blessing from God.

Jacob’s next prayer, [Slide 6] comes in Genesis 32 in the scripture Edina read for us. Jacob journeys home and hears that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, so he prays.  This time Jacob admits that he is not worthy of God’s blessing, but then he says to God in verse 9: [Click 1] “Lord, you said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred and I will do you good.’”  Then Jacob repeats that point at the end of the prayer in verse 12: [Click 2] “Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”  In this case Jacob is trying to force God’s hand by holding God to the promises God made to him.  In other words, Jacob is still wrestling with God.

By the way, earlier in Genesis, God did not say to Jacob, “I will do you good.”  God said to Jacob, “I will be with you.”  There is a difference, and that is where the stalemate comes in. [Slide 6] What’s with the stalemate? It means that God will allow us to hold God to God’s promises.  God agrees to be held by us, but not always in the way we think or want.

Now we come to Question 4: [Slide 7] “Why are they obsessed with each other’s names?” [Click 1] First, why does Jacob want to know God’s name?  Answer: So that Jacob can summon God.  So that Jacob can call on God’s name, knowing that God has to answer.  But God doesn’t work that way.  The wrestler refuses to reveal his name.  Even later, when Moses asks God’s name, God says, “I am who I am.”  We are not given a name by which to summon God.

And yet, even though we cannot control God, God offers to be with us. [Click 2] And that is why God asks Jacob’s name.  The name Jacob means “usurper.”  Of course God already knows this.  But when Jacob admits his name, he admits that he is a usurper, trying to take God’s blessing into his own hands.  When Jacob admits his name, it is a kind of confession.

But then God gives Jacob a new name: Israel, which means “God will strive or persevere.” Jacob thinks he has to wrestle a blessing from God, but actually God is striving for Jacob.  God has been striving all along to bring Jacob to the place and the life God wants for him.

But morning comes when Jacob must let go of God and turn to face Esau.  That is the meaning of Question 5: [Slide 8] Why is daybreak important?  Daybreak is when we must get up from prayer and face the challenges of the day.  But still God promises to go with us, even when we limp. [Slide 9: Blank]

When rightly understood this scripture describes a profound reality.  I have seen people wrestle with God.  I have seen it at the Bible studies I have done at Praisealujah.  Before the Bible studies at Praisealujah there is singing, and during the singing I have seen numerous people go up to the front, drop to their knees and in some cases prostrate themselves on the front steps begging God’s help to make it through another day.  They are wrestling with God.

I have seen at the City of Glory worship services.  At the end of their worship service people come up to the front for prayer.  This is not a casual prayer like we usually offer.  Pastor Lauden lays hands on them, and even though it is in Swahili, I can tell it is intense.  Pastor Lauden sweats when he prays.  When he prays he has to wipe his forehead with a handkerchief.  Pastor Lauden wrestles with God.

You may not have been that intense, but I know many of you have also wrestled with God.  You have wrestled with God over a loved one with cancer or a child with special needs or a grandchild with addictions.  You have wrestled with God over your job, or lack of one.  You have wrestled with God, sometimes in anguish, over things that have happened in your family or in our community or in our country.  I know people in this church who have wrestled with God.  God allows you to wrestle a blessing from God if you hold on.

But be warned: when you wrestle with God, you will not come away unscathed or unchanged.  You may in fact come away limping, but you will also come away with a new name, a new identity marked not by your power but by God’s.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7