Jacob Wrestles with God: Meaning and Key Bible Verses


In this submission, The Right Hand of God: A Psychotherapist’s Case for the Reality of a Living God author Ara Trembly offers a commentary on Jacob wrestling with God, featuring key Bible verses. This article is an excerpt from the book. Lord’s Library’s Ministry Leaders Series is a collection of contributed articles written by ministry leaders on key Christian topics.

Ministry Leaders Series BadgeThe story of Jacob wrestling with God is certainly one that may invite psychological interpretation, especially since it involves powerful emotions and a reported physical encounter—a wrestling match—with God, who is essentially a spirit. This episode could be seen as a true encounter with God, as a dream, as a psychic manifestation of Jacob’s internal struggles, or simply as an impromptu wrestling match with some unknown person who might be an angel.

First, let us consider Jacob’s mental and emotional state. It is worth noting that Jacob’s history where his twin brother Esau is concerned is one of conflict and deception. In fact, Jacob’s name literally means “supplanter,” or “someone or something taking the place of another, as through force, scheming, strategy, or the like” (Dictionary.com). Jacob was born holding his twin brother’s heel, and his name may also be interpreted as “holder of the heel.” As the twins (not identical) grew, they could not be more different from each other. Jacob seems to have been a quiet, scholarly man who stayed home in the family tents a lot and was his mother’s favorite. Esau, on the other hand, was a rough and tumble individual who is described as “a skillful hunter, a man of the field.” Esau was their father’s favorite.

The struggle between the twins actually began while they were still in the womb. See Genesis 25:21-23 below the fold:

The Gospel

Jacob Wrestles with God Meaning

  • Genesis 25:21-23: “And Isaac intreated the LORD for his wife, because she was barren: and the LORD was intreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to enquire of the LORD. And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.”

Jacob later induces the apparently naïve Esau into giving up his birthright (as the oldest son) for a bowl of lentil stew that Jacob was cooking. When the time comes for Isaac to bestow his traditional blessing on his sons, Jacob and his mother Rebekah scheme to deceive old and blind Isaac into blessing Jacob in Esau’s place. This includes a web of lies told by Jacob to his dying father. When Esau finds out about the chicanery, he asks his father to bless him as well, but Isaac tells him that the blessing had already been given and that Jacob has already been named as Esau’s “master.” This must have been especially galling for Esau as the older brother and presumed inheritor of the bulk of his father’s estate. Esau then vows to kill Jacob. Rebekah, hearing this, sends Jacob away to live with her brother Laban.

It is with this history between the brothers that we are brought to the time of Jacob’s encounter. In a chapter that is headlined “Jacob’s Fear of Esau,” we see the following. See Genesis 32:9-11:

  • Genesis 32:9-11: “And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the LORD which saidst unto me, Return unto thy country, and to thy kindred, and I will deal well with thee: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands. Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children.”

Jacob realizes that he is obviously unworthy before God, but he must also realize that he is unworthy due to his sin: the well-documented lies, scheming, and deception toward his twin brother. It is not unreasonable to assume that Jacob feels guilty for his sins against his brother. He may even believe that he deserves to die at Esau’s hand after he treated Esau so badly. It is also possible that Jacob is trying to somehow justify the scheming actions of his own mother, whom he presumably loves. The fact that he fears someone who has openly threatened to kill him seems obvious, but the situation is complicated by Jacob’s realization that Esau might well be justified in taking revenge. This fear is heightened by the news from Jacob’s messenger that Esau is approaching with 400 men at his side. Jacob then divides his entourage into two groups so that if one group is killed, the other might survive.

These conflicting feelings likely put Jacob into a state of extreme stress and moral uncertainty. Not only is Jacob’s own life in danger, but his scheming and trickery have now put the lives of his family and the entire entourage in danger. It would be no surprise if Jacob was feeling completely overwhelmed by what he feared might happen, as well as by his own culpability. Perhaps he is experiencing what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.”

Perhaps more to our point, one source says of cognitive dissonance “It refers to the mental conflict that occurs when a person’s behaviors and beliefs do not align.” If we assume that Jacob has been raised to respect and practice God’s Law and the commandments, it is obvious that his behavior towards Esau does not reflect these beliefs. The same source cited above notes that “As people generally have an innate desire to avoid this discomfort, cognitive dissonance has a significant effect on a person’s behaviors, thoughts, decisions, beliefs and attitudes, and mental health. People experiencing cognitive dissonance may notice that they feel anxious, guilty, and ashamed.”

All of this certainly describes Jacob’s mental, emotional, and spiritual predicament. Jacob then sends his two wives and children away, fearful of the carnage to come. This is the kind of situation that keeps one up at night worrying.  Now comes the struggle. See Genesis 32:24-32:

  • Genesis 32:24-32: “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew that shrank.”

Who is this “man” with whom Jacob wrestles? The answer depends on how we view this event. If this is a dream, a psychological interpretation might hold that the “man” is some aspect of Jacob’s own psyche. This makes perfect sense in light of the cognitive dissonance struggle described above. Perhaps this is the very picture of the conflict between a man’s cherished beliefs and his sinful nature which may act in opposition to those beliefs. Even if this event is not a dream, it could certainly be a psychic manifestation of Jacob’s internal struggle.

Some have sought to portray the “man” as an angel sent to bring Jacob to a realization about himself. Other sources claim this is the guardian angel of Esau. Yet the text does not seem to support the idea that this is any kind of angel.

Many believe that Jacob is wrestling with God Himself. This seems to be what Jacob later believed. Then again, it is difficult to think that any mortal could prevail in hand-to-hand combat with the Creator of the universe. It is also unlikely that Jacob could have held his own against an angel, since those beings clearly have strength and powers superior to humans. We can reasonably conclude, however, that Jacob is struggling with God if we remember that our Lord can take whatever form pleases Him in order to bring about His purposes.

Again, putting the psychological spin on this, we can state with some certainty that for Jacob, God is personified by His Word. If we then say that Jacob is struggling against the Word of God—the Word that would have forbidden Jacob’s treachery—it makes sense to say that he is contesting with God. God could certainly have manifested as a wrestler far mightier that Jacob, but that would not have allowed the Lord to have this wonderful teaching moment. Instead, the Almighty in the form of a “man” allows the wrestling match to continue all night. The victory is easily achieved by a mere touch that dislocates Jacob’s hip. This could obviously have been done at the start of the struggle, but the struggle is the point of the lesson. This symbolizes the battle every one of us has against thoughts and actions that run contrary to God’s Word. God’s Word has won. Jacob clearly sees this as he now holds on to the “man” (holding fast to the Word) and requires a blessing. An ordinary man could certainly never have supplied a meaningful blessing, nor would he have had any authority to change Jacob’s name to Israel—more evidence that this manifestation is God the Father.

Jacob knew full well with whom he had wrestled. But what are we to make of the remark that he had seen God face-to-face? In addition to the points mentioned previously, it is useful to note here that the word “face” does not exclusively describe a person’s physical countenance. In defining the term, Merriam-Webster cites an “archaic” notion that “face” could also refer to one’s presence. 1400 B.C., when this text was written, certainly qualifies as archaic. It also seems logical to assume that if he had seen the Lord’s physical countenance and survived, Jacob would certainly have described that countenance just as Daniel did in Daniel 7:9.

But Scripture does not describe Jacob wrestling with the Ancient of Days as chronicled in Daniel. On this occasion, He chose to appear in a different form that could directly engage Jacob and re-shape his very conscience. We can deduce from the circumstances that Jacob certainly did come face-to-face with the Word of God. And since the Word of God is the personification of the Almighty Himself, Jacob can truly say that having come face-to-face with God, he survived. God in His mercy showed that face to Jacob and not only allowed him to live, but to prosper.

This experience also spells the end of Jacob’s cognitive dissonance, along with the beginning of God’s blessings toward Jacob. When Esau finally catches up with Jacob, the feared brother is overjoyed to see Jacob again and seems to hold no grudge. Jacob, who once grabbed for whatever he could seize, is now generous in bestowing gifts on his brother. See Genesis 33:4-11:

  • Genesis 33:4-11: “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept. And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children; and said, Who are those with thee? And he said, The children which God hath graciously given thy servant. Then the handmaidens came near, they and their children, and they bowed themselves. And Leah also with her children came near, and bowed themselves: and after came Joseph near and Rachel, and they bowed themselves. And he said, What meanest thou by all this drove which I met? And he said, These are to find grace in the sight of my lord. And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself. And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me. Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God hath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it.”

Note that in verse 10 Jacob tells Esau, “for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me.” Clearly, Jacob is not saying that Esau looks like God. Instead, Jacob is describing the look on his brother’s face as one that reflects the presence of the Lord. This fits nicely with Matthew Henry’s recitation of the text below.

“And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me.”

God has done a wonderful teaching and healing work in these brothers, and He has done it through a theophany that fit the situation perfectly. This is a fine example of our God’s love for us, and of His complete understanding of our spiritual and emotional needs.

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Ara Trembly
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Ara Trembly

Ara Trembly

Ara Trembly is the author of "The Right Hand of God: A Psychotherapist's Case for the Reality of the Living God." His background includes graduate study in psychology at New York University and Rutgers. He holds a Master's Degree in Counseling from Philadelphia Biblical, and in Communication from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Ara is a Christian counselor, consultant, and public speaker as well.

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