Jacob’s struggle with (the angel of) God at Jabbok is given little detail and it leaves much to interpretation. It appears to say that Jacob wrestled with an unknown assailant until dawn (from sometime the night or morning before) and prevailed. But before he released his assailant (after a crippling blow to his own hip), he begged for a blessing. Many understand this as “wrestling” in prayer. But this was a true, physical confrontation. The wrestling is unique to Jacob’s path.
Is this God’s allowance for Jacob’s free will?
Is this saying that we cannot win against God until we submit to Him?
The story of Jacob wrestling with God is so vague that interpretations of it reveal more about ourselves than the original story. The story itself is nearly inscrutable. So any attempt to understand the story without immediately inserting ourselves into it is challenging.
The word translated “wrestled” literally means “to stir up dust” or “make dusty”. So the idea of Jacob and God here is that they had a “dust-up”. It is just that vague.
We need to set the scene. Jacob spent some of that night sending off gifts to appease his brother Esau. Then, he was speaking to, organizing, and sending ahead his wives and children in different groups. Finally he found a place to be alone. Whether he had moonlight, starlight, or torchlight, it was still dark, and could have been early morning by this time.
By modern pictures, the terrain around Jabbok is rocky, as river beds and river banks usually are, making for unsure footing unless you can see where you are going. So that Jacob encountered this “man” in the dark, on unstable ground (with a river running through it) and stirred up the dust with him. Dust stings the eyes and gets into places, making you feel grimy, especially if he exerted himself and perspired. If Jacob wrestled with God, he was a mess quickly.
Isn’t wrestling about submission? in order to win, doesn’t that mean your opponent is in a hold they cannot break from? So for hours, at least, Jacob and God grappled in the mud, the dust, the water, trying to gain a hold on the other. The point of this physical confrontation, for lack of any other information, is submission. It’s done in the dark, so that Jacob doesn’t see the face of God while he is wrestling. Only when he submits (and changes his relationship with God) in the morning does he see (the angel) of God’s face. That’s why daybreak is crucial in the story, lest Jacob see the holiness that is represented by the angel and die. What’s why the angel forces the confrontation to a close by breaking Jacob’s hip (a very painful injury). Only when he is broken does Jacob submit. So maybe its not that Jacob couldn’t pin God, but that Jacob wouldn’t let God pin him. And God limited Himself to the power and strength of a man to bleed off Jacob’s will? It is assumed that the Angel attacked Jacob, and thus Jacob defended himself. Over time, Jacob realized this was not mere man.
We get an answer to our questions about this text in Hosea. When he “wept” he finally “prevailed”:
“He strove with the Angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor . . .” (Hosea 12:4)
Isn’t this the only way to win with God?
No one else in Scripture wrestles with God. Thus it is not prescribed as normal practice. We cannot then recommend that anyone else wrestle with God. If a person is wrestling with God today, it means they refuse to submit to him. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not a noble deed.