The first thing that we need to notice about this episode in Jacob’s life is that it happened when he was alone. “The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone,” (Genesis 32.22-24a, ESV). By this time, Jacob had sent all of his possessions on ahead of him. Some were being sent to Esau as gifts and the rest to stay protected in case things didn’t go as he wanted with his brother. No one knows for sure why Jacob got up in the middle of the night and took his family across the river to the other side, and then returned back to camp alone.
But the point is that he was alone. There was solitude. Much like in Genesis 28 when he dreamed of the stairway to heaven, Jacob is alone and is about to have an encounter with God. Whether or not he realized this was going to happen we don’t know, but we do know that he was alone when it did.
What we also need to understand is that these experiences are not all going to be moments at a creek with bright moonlight glistening. Often times there will be a struggle. A fight will break out. Which is exactly what happened with Jacob. “And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day,” (Genesis 32.24, ESV). Jacob was in the fight of his life.
In writing this Moses made two play on words in order to get the attention of his readers. The ford, the river that Jacob took his family over was named Jabbok (ya-boke), which is nearly identical to the word Moses used for wrestled (aw-boke). And by using the word, he also came close to Jacob’s name, switching what would be to us the c and b. Jabbok (Ya-boke), wrestle (Aw-boke), Jacob (Ya-kobe). Jacob deceived his brother. He deceived his father. He deceived his father-in-law, but he could not deceive his Maker. Jacob had met his match and what a match it was!
Here Jacob and God are wrestling, and we see that as the sun comes up, Jacob has the victory. “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him,” (Genesis 32.25, ESV). Now surely we must admit that there is absolutely no way that Jacob could fight against God and win. That is simply impossible. If God is all-powerful and he is, then Jacob cannot be more powerful. But what we have is God’s allowing Jacob to win.
Jacob endured to the end, prevailed over God by God’s own power. And as he did, God touched his hip and set his thigh out of socket. If by a mere touch, he set the socket out of joint, then surely it would have been hardly anything to have killed him on the spot. But that wasn’t what God wanted. Instead, He wanted Jacob to be strengthened, not in body, but in spirit.
Which is why God asks to be let go. “Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’,” (Genesis 32.26, ESV). Could Jacob have kept God from leaving? Is there any way that Jacob could restrain Him? No. God was sticking around because He knew what Jacob wanted and needed even before Jacob knew. Blessing.
But here’s the thing: Jacob did not struggle all night with God only to let Him go for nothing. He wanted a blessing. He was willing to fight for that blessing. He was willing to continue on, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Just as surely as God blessed Jacob, He will bless us. That is not only the promise of Jesus it is the promise of Paul. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things,” (Romans 8.32, ESV)? We see in Genesis 32, “And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed’,” (Genesis 32.27-28, ESV).
Going back the fourteen years or so when God met Jacob in a dream, it was there that He promised to never leave him, but to bring him back. He’d be with him the whole time. And as they are on their way back, God is not allowing Jacob to stay the same person he once was. No longer would Jacob be a supplanter, a heel-grabber, a deceiver. From now on he would be Israel, one who has striven or wrestled with God and prevailed.