Wrestling With God
As we near a climactic moment in Jacob’s life, it’s important to remember that Jacob’s story has been a story of wrestling. He struggled with his brother in the womb (25:22), and he emerged grasping at his brother’s heel, and was thus given the name Jacob. Even though he was the younger brother, God set him apart as the heir of the promise; “the older will serve the younger.” And this promise caused more wrestling for Jacob. He wrestles with his brother for the birthright, and prevails by driving a hard bargain, capitalizing on his brother’s godlessness in despising the birthright. Later, he struggles with his father, who prefers his older brother because of his appetites and despite the promise of God. With the help of his righteous mother Rebekah, Jacob secures the blessing that was his by divine promise, prevailing over his father and his increasingly embittered brother.
After wrestling the blessing from his father, Isaac freely reaffirms it, sending Jacob away from Canaan to Haran, partly to protect him from Esau’s fury and rage. On the way, Jacob receives more than his father’s blessing; he receives the blessing of Abraham directly from God himself. Standing above a giant stairway to heaven, Yahweh promises Jacob that, even though he is leaving Canaan, his descendants will still inherit this land. He will have numerous offspring, and his offspring will bless all the families of the earth. And most importantly for Jacob’s immediate journey, God promises to be with him wherever he goes. Yahweh is no local and tribal deity. He is not limited to the land of Canaan, but journeys with Jacob into Haran.
And over the last two weeks, we’ve seen Jacob wrestling again, this time with his uncle Laban. Twenty years of struggle with the worldly and deceitful and manipulative Laban. Laban initially receives him with joy, much as he’d done with Abraham’s servant years before when the servant had come seeking a wife for Isaac. At that time, Laban’s relatives had sent him great gifts of costly ornaments. But this time Laban’s nephew brings no gifts, but comes with only the clothes on his back. And so Laban uses his nephew, and Jacob struggles. He labors for seven years to win the hand of Rachel, and then is tricked on his wedding night. The righteous trickster is knocked down. But he gets back up, and he labors and struggles for seven more years in order to marry Rachel. And then, when he attempts to leave, Laban again attempts to use him to get rich, but God prospers Jacob in his wrestling with Laban over the flocks, and after 20 years, Jacob leaves Haran, laden with his uncle’s wealth, and journeys back to the promised land. And even there the wrestling doesn’t end. In Genesis 32, he is returning to Canaan, and he meets the angels of God. Perhaps he thinks that his story is turning in a new direction. But then, when he sends his own messengers ahead to Esau, he finds that Esau is coming to him with a small army. Jacob’s wrestling is not over. He divides his family into two camps in hopes that at least some survive. He pleads with God to deliver him from his brother (32:12). And then he sends his brother lavish gifts of goats and rams and camels and cattle and donkeys in hopes of appeasing him.
Esau in the womb; Isaac over the blessing; Laban for his wives and livelihood. And now back to full circle with his brother. Throughout his life, Jacob has been wrestling with men. And all of this struggle and labor and toil and hardship hearkens back to Genesis 3 and God’s curse because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Part of the curse is war between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. In struggling with his ungodly brother and his manipulative uncle, Jacob has been struggling with vipers. Even his father has a season where he behaves like Adam in his sin, defying God’s law for the sake of his appetites. Jacob has been in the midst of that enmity between the woman’s seed and the serpent’s seed. But not only that, he’s experienced the curse upon the ground. Jacob was supposed to receive the blessing; according to God’s promise, it simply should have come to him. But he has to wrestle and struggle and even deceive in order to get it, in the same way that the ground, which was originally designed by God to yield its bounty with cheerful work now fights back against man and yields thorns and thistles. Jacob doesn’t receive the promise on a silver platter; he gains it by the sweat of his brow and the grace of God. The birthright (and the status and position and dignity that it conveys) doesn’t come easy. The blessing doesn’t come easy. His bride doesn’t come easy. And his wealth and prosperity and vocational fruitfulness doesn’t come easy. It’s labor; it’s toil; it’s a struggle. The story of Jacob shows us the wrestling of a man in a broken and cursed world.
The Wrestling of Rachel and Leah
But, as pastor David preached two weeks ago, it’s not just Jacob who is wrestling. The wives of Jacob live in that same cursed world and have to wrestle themselves. They wrestle with their father. When Jacob tells Rachel and Leah that they should leave Laban and Haran in chapter 31, they say, “Is there any portion or inheritance left to us in our father’s house? Are we not regarded by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and he has indeed devoured our money” (31:14-15). In other words, when Laban stopped treating Jacob like family but instead treated him like a common laborer, working for wages, he began to treat his daughters like slaves, like currency, like something to be used in a negotiation. He didn’t just wrong his nephew; he despised his daughters. And then, not only that, but he squandered their inheritance. In a cursed world, your own father can become an enemy.
But it’s not only that they have to wrestle and struggle with their father. Because of their father, they wrestle with each other. His decision to use them for his own gain, to promise Rachel and then deliver Leah, results in the daughters struggling with each other. And eleven of the patriarchs come into the world in the midst of that family strife. Laban’s wickedness means that his daughters must compete for the affection of Jacob, and given that Jacob love Rachel originally, Leah is at an immediate disadvantage. But Yahweh saw her, and gave her children. But the names of her first three children all show that the child-bearing isn’t just child-bearing. It’s competition. “I am hated.” “Maybe now my husband will love me.” “Now this time my husband will be attached to me.” And then with the fourth son, we see perhaps a shift. “This time I will praise the Lord.”
But we don’t just see Leah’s struggle, as the unwanted sister. We see the struggle of barren Rachel. “Give me children or I die!” she yells at her husband. Laban’s wickedness leads to daughter competition and then Rachel’s envy and then marital strife as Jacob grows angry at his beloved. This is quintessential marital conflict. Because men and women are different, and they tend to wrestle with different things, and they tend to wrestle in different ways. In her grief, Rachel cries, “Give me children or I die,” and Jacob responds in anger because he thinks, “I can’t fix that!” A husband struggles and wrestles with something that his wife just doesn’t understand. It’s not a struggle for her. And then a wife struggles with something that the husband just doesn’t get because it isn’t a struggle for him. And as a result, they miss each other and begin to struggle with each other because his struggle isn’t exactly the same as her struggle and her struggle isn’t exactly the same as his struggle, and when it is the same, they don’t struggle in the same way. We’re like Jacob and Rachel here.
And given her barrenness, Jacob and Rachel turn to desperate measures, just as Sarah and Abraham did. Jacob bears children for Rachel with Rachel’s servant Bilhah. And Rachel takes this as vindication from God. And then, when Bilhah bears a second son, we explicitly hear the theme that we’re exploring. “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and prevailed.”
Now Rachel has children on her knee andshe has Jacob’s affection, and this reawakens the competition in Leah, who now gives her servant Zilpah to Jacob and receives two more children by her. And when Asher is born, she says, “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.” But it’s hard not to hear the desperation and self-deceit in those words. The craving, the desperation, the attempt to convince oneself that I am now finally happy because I have again matched my sister.
And the competition becomes so intense that it spills over into everything. Rachel’s request for some mandrakes from Leah’s son (likely for fertility purposes) results in a bargain. Like Jacob with his brother over the birthright, like Laban with Jacob over the wives and the sheep, Leah now drives a hard bargain. She hires her husband with fertility drugs. And she has a fifth son and a sixth son, and every time she says, “Now my husband will honor me.” And then finally, God remembers Rachel, barren all this time, and gives her a son, Joseph, and she cries out “God has taken away my reproach.”
In that sad chapter, we see the wrestlings of these two sisters because of their father’s sin. And just as Jacob’s wrestlings echo the curse of Genesis 3—the war between the serpent and the curse on the man’s labor—so also the wrestlings and strivings and struggling of Rachel and Leah echo the curse of Genesis 3. The offspring of the woman will crush the serpent’s head, and these women struggle to produce offspring. Not only that, God told Eve, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing. In pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” We normally think of the pain of childbearing as the actual physical challenge at birth. But this passage shows us that it is the whole issue of childbearing and child raising and marriage that was cursed because of the fall. In a cursed world, these women wrestle and strive for the affection of their husband. They wrestle over the bearing of children. They wrestle with their husband—with one sister screaming for children and her husband angrily ruling over her, and the other desiring him so much that she has to hire him. Even their servants are dragged into their rivalry. And now they find themselves, divided into two camps (did they mix the children, or did they divide according to their mothers?), fearing for their lives because Esau is coming with an army.
Wrestling with Esau in the womb. Striving with Isaac over the blessing. Struggling with Laban over wives and flocks. Struggling with a father who disinherits and despises. Wrestling with a sister over a husband’s affection and children. This story has been filled with Jacob and Rachel and Leah wrestling and wrestling.
Wrestling with God
Now I recount all of that to make a simple point from today’s passage. When Jacob finds himself alone near the Jabbok river, preparing to face his angry brother, he wrestles with a man in the night. And the man does not prevail over Jacob, but wounds him in the hip, and in the morning Jacob discovers that he hasn’t been wrestling with a man; he’s been wrestling with God. And I think what we’re meant to see here is that all of Jacob’s wrestlings to this point, and all of Rachel and Leah’s wrestling and struggling in a cursed world, has been a wrestling with God. When we wrestled with Esau, he was wrestling with God. When he struggled with Isaac, he was struggling with God. When he was striving with Laban, he was striving with God. And when Rachel and Leah wrestled with their father and with each other and with their husband, they were wrestling with God.
And here’s the lesson for us: Make all of your wrestling a wrestling with God.If you’re a man living in a cursed world, and you’re wrestling with your boss or a co-worker or your job, or if you’re wrestling with your rival or a friend, if you’re wrestling with a brother or a father, if you’re wrestling for position and status, if you’re wrestling with your wife or your children, make all of your wrestlings a wrestling with God. If you’re a woman in a cursed world, and you’re wrestling with unwanted singleness, or infertility, or the struggles of raising children, or if you’re struggling in your marriage, or if you’re wrestling with other members of your family (a father, a mother, in-laws, siblings), or if you’re wrestling and striving with friends or coworkers or your job, make all of your wrestlings a wrestling with God.
What does it mean to make all of your wrestling with life in a cursed world a wrestling with God?
It means you humble yourself before God. When Jacob hears that Esau is coming with his army, he prays and says to God, “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps” (32:10). Wrestling with God means that in your wrestling you remember and embrace the goodness and kindness and steadfast love to you in your unworthiness.
It means you cling to God’s promises. Again, as Jacob confronts Esau’s return, he says to God, “You told me to return here so that you could do me good” (32:9). Or again, “God, you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude’” (32:12). Wrestling with God means clinging to his promises and calling upon his promises and staking everything on his promises.
It means you ask him to help you in your wrestling. Jacob humbles himself, reminds God of the promises, and says, “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children” (32:11). Wrestling with God means that you ask for deliverance.
Wrestling with God means that you don’t let him go until he blesses you. I hope you feel the paradox of that. You’re wrestling, struggling, striving with God, and you’re doing so in the confidence that he wants to bless you, and that you won’t let him go until he does.
Wrestling with God means that you embrace the limp that God gives you. When Jacob wrestles with God, God touches his hip and gives him a limp that he carries for the rest of his life. The passage connects Jacob’s wound to Israelite dietary restrictions, likely having to do with the offering of sacrifices. All of Jacob’s wrestlings have prepared him to be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, and the Israelites were reminded of the centrality of this moment in the patriarch’s life every time they offered an animal and didn’t eat the sinews of the hip socket. When we wrestle with God, we may cling to him and prevail, but we also may walk with a limp, one that we’ll carry the rest of our lives.
Wrestling with God means that you act in the confidence that comes from meeting him face to face. After Jacob wrestles with God, he names the place of his wrestling Peniel, “Face of God.” He says, “I have seen the face of God, yet my life has been delivered.” The next day, when we meets Esau and discovers that Esau is not planning to kill him and his family, he says to Esau, “No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (33:10). In other words, having wrestled with God face to face, Jacob sees God’s face everywhere, and he is able to act in the confidence that God will deliver him. And he does. What’s more, he is able to maintain that confidence in the face of his powerful brother. Esau tells Jacob to journey with him, with Esau out in front, leading the way. Jacob subtly puts him off, telling him that he will meet him at Seir, but then instead went to Succoth and then bought some land near Shechem. Why does he not go with Esau? I think the most likely explanation is that Jacob is attempting to demonstrate his own independence from his brother. Laban had greeted him warmly and then turned him into a servant. Esau might attempt to do the same. By separating from his brother and establishing his own household in Canaan, Jacob demonstrates that he is dependent upon God alone for his flourishing, and doesn’t need to rely on his powerful, older brother. Wrestling with God has given him the confidence he needs to confront his brother.
In sum, wrestling with God means that we must develop a kind of triple vision for our struggles. There are layers to our struggles and our strivings. At the first level, there’s the people or situations with whom we’re wrestling. Uncle Laban, Father Isaac, Brother Esau, Sister Rachel or Sister Leah, or barrenness or singleness or the job or the position or whatever the struggle is. But then, behind that struggle, we recognize what Paul says in Ephesians 6:12: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, when we’re wrestling with flesh and blood, we remember that we’re not wrestling against flesh and blood. Behind the conflict with Esau is the enmity with the serpent and the dark powers. Behind the plots of Laban are the schemes of the devil. And behind them all are the plans of God. That’s the third level that we must see. Our wrestling with flesh and blood, and our wrestling with principalities and powers, are most deeply a wrestling with God. Behind the plots of man and the schemes of the devil is the plan of God, and his plan is to do you good. And this means that we can see the plans of God in the plots of men and the schemes of the devil, just as Jacob sees God’s face in the face of the brother with whom he’d wrestled his whole life.
Make This Your Struggle
This is the chief challenge for us. When we’re wrestling and struggling in a cursed world, our struggles feel more real to us than God. Laban’s tricks are more real to us than God. Esau’s fury is more real to us than God. Barrenness and infertility is more real to us than God. When Rachel cries out to Jacob, “Give me children or I die!” she is showing that Jacob is more real to her than God. When Jacob responds to her in anger, “Am I in the place of God?” He is acting as though Rachel is more real to him than God. Wrestling with God means that he becomes most real to us. Which brings us to the Table.
At this Table, God makes himself real to us. Jesus makes himself present and real to us. As real as the bread and wine are to our senses, that’s how real Christ is to the soul by faith. So come and welcome to Jesus Christ.