22 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. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 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. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 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.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh. – Genesis 32:22-32 ESV
Jacob has sent his gifts on ahead, hoping their arrival will persuade Esau to forgive and forget all the injustices and inequities Jacob had committed against him. But it will take time for the gifts to arrive and for Jacob to hear how effective his attempt to bribe his brother had been. In the meantime, Jacob took one more precautionary step. He relocated his two wives, his concubines, and his 11 sons on the other side of the Jabbok River. His intention was to use the river as a natural barrier, providing his family with an extra measure of separation and safety should Esau reject his gifts and come seeking revenge.
After sequestering his family on the far side of the river, Jacob returned to the other shore alone, and waited to face his fate. And the text paints a rather sobering and sorrowful picture when it states, “Jacob was left alone” (Genesis 32:24 ESV). He was left to do battle with his inner demons, wrestling over his past indiscretions and second-guessing the many times he had attempted to determine the outcome of his life by doing things his own way.
But Jacob quickly discovered that he was far from alone. Moses indicates that “a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:24 ESV). This unnamed intruder assaulted the weary and worried Jacob, forcing himself to fight for his life. And the two contestants seem to have been equally matched, until Jacob’s opponent delivered a debilitating blow. Moses indicates that “Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he [the man] wrestled with him” (Genesis 32:25 ESV). The Hebrew word translated as “touched” is נָגַע (nāḡaʿ), and it can also mean “to strike.” This injury left Jacob incapacitated and unable to continue the fight, but he would not let go of his assailant.
But the stubborn and ever-opportunistic Jacob refused to give in, demanding that his opponent provide him with a blessing. He held on for dear life and declared, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:27 ESV).
While it’s unclear whether Jacob had somehow determined the identity of his opponent, it’s readily apparent that he was not willing to walk away empty handed. While the other man had won, Jacob demanded a consolation prize, in the form of a blessing. Jacob doesn’t elaborate, so we have no idea what kind of blessing he had in mind. But he had fought long and hard and felt he deserved something for all his effort. His demand for a blessing recalls the words of his brother, Esau, spoken after he discovered that Jacob had stolen his blessing.
“Oh my father, what about me? Bless me, too!” – Genesis 27:34 NLT
All his life, Jacob had been wrestling with someone over something. It had begun in the womb with his twin brother and that conflict had carried over into their adult lives. Jacob had also wrestled with Laban, his father-in-law. And, according to the prophet, Hosea, Jacob had spent his entire life wrestling with God.
Now the Lord is bringing charges against Judah.
He is about to punish Jacob for all his deceitful ways,
and pay him back for all he has done.
Even in the womb,
Jacob struggled with his brother;
when he became a man,
he even fought with God.
Yes, he wrestled with the angel and won.
He wept and pleaded for a blessing from him.
There at Bethel he met God face to face,
and God spoke to him… – Hosea 12:2-4 NLT
There seems to have been no point in Jacob’s life when he thought he had been blessed by God. Despite all of God’s promises and the content of the blessing he had tricked his father into giving to him, Jacob was still doubtful about his future. And as he stood all alone on the far shore of the Jabbok River, waiting to see if his brother would come with open arms or with a sword in his hand. Jacob was still fighting for the blessing he already possessed. It was his father, Isaac, who had declared:
“May God Almighty bless you and give you many children. And may your descendants multiply and become many nations! May God pass on to you and your descendants the blessings he promised to Abraham. May you own this land where you are now living as a foreigner, for God gave this land to Abraham.” – Genesis 28:3-4 NLT
But sadly, Jacob still didn’t feel blessed. He was scared and doubtful about his future. He was operating in a vacuum, with no confidence as to what his brother might do or how his life might pan out. And this was in spite of all that God had promised to do.
“I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:13-15 NLT
But instead of reprimanding Jacob for his doubt, God changed his name.
“From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.” – Genesis 32:28 NLT
The name, Israel, actually can mean “strives with God” or “God fights.” This new designation was meant to signal a change in Jacob’s identity and to reaffirm his God-ordained destiny. Jacob had fought with God and God had fought back – and won. His will would be done. Despite all of Jacob’s clever machinations and attempts to manipulate his own fate, God had been in control all along.
It seems that Jacob had his suspicions about the identity of his more powerful opponent, and so he attempted to get confirmation by asking for his name. But his question was answered with a question: “Why do you want to know my name?” (Genesis 32:29 NLT). There should have been no doubt in Jacob’s mind. He had just gone toe-to-toe with God and had lived to tell about it. And he went on to acknowledge this amazing reality, by naming the place “Peniel (which means ‘face of God’), for he said, ‘I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared’” (Genesis 32:30 NLT).
In one corner stood the conniving and manipulative trickster, Jacob. In the other stood the angel of God, representing the all-powerful and all-knowing God of the universe. It was an epic mismatch, but God graciously allowed Jacob to prevail. Despite the fact that Jacob had spent his entire life fighting with God, the Almighty still allowed him to have the upper hand in this battle. Not because he had earned it or deserved it, but simply because God was preparing to bless the nations of the world through Israel – both the man and the nation.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.