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Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31

Kathryn Schifferdecker
The story in Genesis 32 about the wrestling match between Jacob and God is one of the key
texts for understanding the character of Jacob.
It is appropriate, then, that the story is included in the series of Jacob stories assigned for
this summer. This is the last story in that series (though Jacob also will appear next week in
the story about Joseph).
The preacher would do well, of course, to set this story in the context of the whole saga of
Jacob. The congregation should understand that this encounter with God takes place the
night before Jacob is to meet his brother, Esau, for the first time in twenty years. Back then,
Esau wanted to kill Jacob, and for all Jacob knows, he still wants to do so. In fact, Jacob
has just heard that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men (32:3-8)! It does not
sound like the makings of a happy reunion, and Jacob is terrified.
Dreading that encounter with Esau, then, Jacob first has another encounter on the banks of
the River Jabbok. He wrestles with a "man" until daybreak. Even after the stranger puts
Jacob's hip out of joint, Jacob will not let go of him until he gives him a blessing. The
stranger asks him his name, Jacob answers him, and then the man gives him a new name,
"Israel," "for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed" (32:28).
(The name "Israel" is most simply translated, "God contends," but it is understood here as
"one who contends with God.") Then the stranger blesses him.
Jacob somehow knows that this being is the same God who has kept him throughout his
long travels. So he calls the place Peniel ("face of God")--"for I have seen God face to face
and I'm still alive!" (32:30).
Ever after this encounter, Jacob limps, bearing the scar of the encounter, bearing the scar of
a death, one might say, the death of Jacob the trickster and the birth of Israel the nation.
My colleague, David Lose, says, "Law and Gospel is all about naming reality. It's about
telling the truth, twice. First we hear the difficult truth of our brokenness, our fears, (and)
our sins. And then we hear the good and gracious news about God's response to our
condition, for Christ's sake, no matter what."
David uses this story in Genesis 32 as one example of Law and Gospel, of "telling the truth
twice." God asks Jacob's name, and he says "Jacob." (The name "Jacob" is derived from the

Hebrew word for "heel" and has the connotation of "supplanting" or "cheating.") And that
name encompasses the truth of who and what Jacob has been--a supplanter, a cheater, a liar,
one who lied to his blind father and stole his brother's blessing, one who had to run for his
life and go into exile, one who struggled for twenty years with his father-in-law Laban,
deceiving and being deceived. That's the Law, the hard truth of who Jacob was and is.
But then God gives Jacob a new name: Israel. And this is the truth of who Jacob is
becoming, a new man, the father of a new nation. Traces of the old Jacob will remain, but
he has matured from the callow youth he once was. (Compare, for instance, Jacob's prayer
at Bethel in 28:20-22 with his prayer in 32:9-12.) The once self-centered youth will become
the patriarch, the man who, in his old age, leads his family down into Egypt and blesses
Pharaoh himself (47:7, 10). This is the second truth, the Gospel of the story. God gives
Jacob a new name, and a new identity, and he is changed ever after.
The preacher should take note of what happens after this wrestling match and name change.
Jacob/Israel sees Esau coming with his four hundred men, so he arranges his company, and
then goes ahead of them to meet Esau. One wonders whether the long-dreaded encounter
with his brother has lost some of its power over him, given the encounter he's just
experienced. Nevertheless, there must still be some fear in Jacob's heart as Esau runs
forward. Instead of striking his brother, however, Esau grabs him in a bear hug, kisses him,
and then weeps. It seems Esau does not bear grudges.
It is a scene of reconciliation, a scene of gracious welcome, and overwhelming relief. One
can imagine both brothers sobbing, holding on to each other to keep from falling down.
And somehow, this encounter, this reconciliation, is for Jacob something like the encounter
he just had at the Jabbok. In an echo of his earlier statement, he says to Esau: "Seeing your
face is like seeing the face of God" (33:10).
This scene illustrates a remarkable change in Jacob's character. We knew Jacob first as the
deceiver who took his brother's blessing. He finds, however, like his father and grandfather
before him, that the blessing--the blessing given to the "chosen" one in each generation--is
not an easy thing. Abraham waits a lifetime for God's promise of a son to be fulfilled, and
then he is asked to sacrifice that son. Isaac endures that near-sacrifice. Jacob, too, goes into
a kind of death as he is exiled from his homeland for twenty years. The blessing brings with
it great responsibility and, often, great pain. Ellen Davis writes of Jacob at the end of his
life: "It is hard to recognize the egocentric youth in this careworn old man, who is rendered
almost transparent by surrender to the demands of the blessing he once stole."1

Jacob, the shallow youth, becomes Israel, the father of a nation. One of the major turning
points in this transformation is the encounter at the River Jabbok. The story of the wrestling
match tells us much about Jacob, about the man he was, and about the man he becomes. It
is also, of course, a parable of the nation Israel. Israel is the nation that wrestles with God.
She holds on to God fiercely, even when God seems absent or uncaring. Israel holds God to
God's promises because she is the nation that bears the great responsibility of being chosen,
and blessed, by God. The remaining alternate Old Testament readings assigned for this
season after Pentecost will trace that blessing--its joys and its sorrows--in the lives of
Jacob's descendants.
(For another treatment of this story, see the fine article on this Web site by Nathan Aaseng,
"Wrestling with God." )

1Ellen F. Davis, "Job and Jacob: The Integrity of Faith," in Reading Between Texts, ed.
Danna Nolan Fewell (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992) p. 213.