Jacob Wrestling with God

There are many strange scenes in the Bible where God does not appear to be omnipotent and omniscient. Ancient storytellers sometimes paint the picture of a primitive deity. The resolution to this dilemma may lie in realizing the literary nature of some of these stories and the theological meanings they are meant to impart. We shall look at a few strange examples and then turn to the issue of Jacob wrestling with God and see if we can come up with a solid takeaway on that narrative. I will quote Karen Armstrongs work, In the Beginning, several times below. It is a quite fascinating little book.

In Genesis 3:8-9 God must inquire as to Adam’s whereabouts since he is hiding in the trees.

Genesis 3:8-9 8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

Even before this we see in Genesis 2 that God seems to think Adam is lonely and wants to find a suitable helper for him. So he creates all the different animals and parades them before Adam who is to name them them all. One after another until they are all done. Strangely enough, no suitable helper for Adam is found in the animal kingdom. Was God really expecting this to work? So God, apparently lacking foresight, has to put Adam to sleep and make him a companion from his rib. In lieu of this it is not surprising that many modern scholars think there are two different creation stories in Genesis. The omnipotent God of chapter one (1:1-2:3) looks dissimilar from the more primitive version in chapter two (2:4-25). Not to mention that animals are created before humans in the first account, but after in the second.

Genesis 2:18-20 1Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19 So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.

We should not be surprised that there are two separate accounts. Giving us a scientific history of the universe is not the goal of Genesis. Karen Armstrong wrote, ” By allowing these contrasting views of creation to coexist side by side, the Bible makes it clear from the very beginning that it will not give neat, tidy answers to questions that simply do not admit of a simple solution. Instead, the authors make us wrestle with the complexities of the set, and in the process we come to realize at a deeper level than before there is no easy, straightforward path to enlightenment. We cannot treat the Bible as a holy encyclopedia where we look up information about the divine, because we are likely to find contradictory data in the very next chapter.” [1] Moving on to the second book of the Bible we also see another odd story. In Exodus God has his plans to kill Moses thwarted by his wife Zipporah who touches his feet with their son’s foreskin in order to save him.

Exodus 4:24-26: 24 At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it. “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,” she said. 26 So the Lord let him alone . . .

The idea that God, who created the heavens and the earth with his mere word, tried (unsuccessfully!) to kill Moses seems absurd. Not to mention, why is God actually trying to kill Moses when he is doing his bidding?  This seems to come out of nowhere. Also of note, possibly worthy of a Reddit TIL (today I learned), is that according to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, “feet” is actually a euphemism for “penis.” Thus we see how a quick-witted wife dabbing her husband’s penis with the blood from her first-born child’s circumcision foils the Creator of the universe’s plans to murder Moses in his sleep. This of course, makes a bizarre story even stranger. Some might argue that God was upset their son was uncircumcised so He was simply pushing Zipporah into action. The latter portion of this is not the plainest reading of the text and one wonders why God couldn’t have just told her to circumcise the child? The act of attempted murder still retains its moral ambiguities in either case. This is easily one of the oddest stories in the Bible. Despite being relegated to the status of subservient helpers in the garden story, women play prominent roles in portions of Genesis–often demonstrating more insight than their male counterparts.

Though the Bible is inspired by God, it seems we are not dealing with historical narratives in these examples. These appear to be mythological stories and sacred histories aimed at teaching theological truths. In some cases it is really hard for modern readers to understand the point of them but that is actually part of the beauty of Scripture. The literal reading is often not what is meant. The text often points to something beyond itself, something Divine. We are sometimes challenged to dig deeper, examine ourselves and wrestle with God and the world around us. With that in mind, let us look at one such wrestling match.

Genesis 32:24-30 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the 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 is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans,  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 place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Hosea 12:4-5 seems to retell this in a shorter fashion. Taken literally, this account presents us with a litany of problems. Foremost is a human being reaching a stalemate in a wrestling match with God who resorts to kicking him in the hip and has to ask to be let go since daybreak was coming. We are left unsure why the man/God/angel feared daybreak but that is another issue. A second problem is Jacob seeing God’s face and living. This is two-pronged. Exodus and later Jewish thought may render God appearing in human form to any person as blasphemous. In fact, in their eyes, no human can actually see God’s face. Not only that but in Exodus God tells us what happens if any human were to see his face.

Exodus 33:20-23 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Yet we see Jacob doing precisely what God tells Moses no one can do (see also Deut 34:10, Judg 6:22-23; 13:22). Even Jacob seems surprised by this. One of the interesting things here is that Jacob asks the man/God/angel his name but he doesn’t get an answer, only a blessing instead. The lack of the name may relate to the notion that “possession of such knowledge brings power over the one who is named (cf. Exodus 3:13-14; Judg 13:18).” [2] So though later audiences probably should have found this tale a bit troubling, why does it find its way into Genesis? Karen Armstrong writes, “Yet the editors who put together the final text of Genesis in about the fifth century BCE felt able to include the tale because it so eloquently described the religious experience of Israel. There would be no final revelation: God would never fully impart his name and nature to his people. The sacred was too great a reality to be contained within a purely human definition or system of thought. Thus, the people of Israel would have only fleeting and frequently ambiguous glimpses of the divine, though they would know that they had been blessed. Their lives had been touched by a reality that transcended mundane existence, and that elusive contact gave them the strength and insight to face the challenges of an uncertain world. After this strange encounter with God, Jacob left Peniel, limping from his damaged hip, just as the sun was rising, fully prepared to face his brother and achieve the difficult reconciliation. Above all, the Israelites recognized the image of the wrestling match. They did not imagine their religious heroes achieving enlightenment effortlessly or with the calm serenity of a Buddha. Salvation was a painful, difficult process. Hence the significance of the very name “Israel,” which can be translated “One who struggles with God” or even “God-fighter.”[3]

The actual etymology of “Israel” is not known but its meaning here as told in this context seems clear. This account also seems to serve as an explanation for a Jewish dietary practice not otherwise found in the Law (Exod 32:32). We can look at the stories of many Biblical characters who faced adversity and struggled in following God’s commands. Abraham was tested (Genesis 22) and asked to sacrifice his only son Isaac on the altar. He had to wrestle with God and decide if he would obey him or not. This is an impossible request for most! Israel may have seen itself in the same type of struggle with God as Abraham, Jacob and so many others. Did a man named Jacob really wrestle with God thousands of years ago? I am inclined to lack belief in this story but like Jacob and Israel, we must all wrestle with God. In some ways Jacob represents all of us when trying to understand God, scripture and our place in this world in our sinful condition. We must be resolute, strong and hold fast in our convictions. We must fight tirelessly as Jacob did. We are not guaranteed an easy road. In fact, we should probably expect the opposite. Yet we are given a blessing, we are given hope. Karen Armstrong wrote, “Genesis has been one of the sacred books that have enabled millions of men and women to know at some profound level that human life has an eternal dimension, even though they may not always been able to express this insight in logical, rational form. Like any scripture, Genesis points to a reality that must essentially transcend it. . . . The biblical authors force us to make an imaginative effort. They imply that it is a hard struggle to discern a sacred reality in the flawed and tragic conditions in which we live and that our experience will often be disconcerting or contradictory. Like Jacob, we will have to wrestle in the dark, denied the consolations of fine certitude and experiencing at best only transient, elusive blessing. We may find the we have been wounded in the course of our struggle.” [4] Fortunately, we have Jesus.

  1. Karen Armstron, In the beginning, pg 19-20, 1996
  2. New Jerome Biblical Commentary, pg 34, 1990
  3. Karen Armstrong, ibid, pg 4.
  4. Karen Armstrong, ibid, pg 6.

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