Genesis 32-33: Has He No Wound?
January 14, 2020
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
In the middle of this story of the apparent reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, there is the well-known mysterious account of Jacob’s wrestling with God (32:22-32). He is wounded by that wrestling (32:25, 31) and is told that because he has wrestled both with God and with men and prevailed, his name will be changed (32:28). No longer will he be called Jacob but Israel, meaning, of course, “he strives with God” or “God strives.” This Old Testament patriarch now, at this moment, has his name changed from Jacob, the deceiver, to Israel, the man who wrestles with God. And it is that name “Israel” that God’s people carried from thereon.
Around this extraordinary encounter, there is the story of how Jacob sends ahead herds, flocks, and gifts to Esau (32:13-21), and how Esau appears to have forgiven Jacob, and Jacob appears to have reconciled with Esau (33:1-11). They are probably not as close yet as each would like to believe as their reconciliation does not continue forever, but they continue to live apart afterwards (33:12-20). Still peace at some level reigns.
But the story in the middle (32:22-32) is of such significance in art, literature, and popular piety that it is worth particular focus. What is its meaning? Is it an encouragement to pray—prayer beyond the merely perfunctory, but prayer that is “wrestling with God”? Certainly we are told by Jesus to “keep on praying and never give up” (Luke 18:1), and to be like the persistent widow who kept on knocking at the unjust judge’s door until she gained justice against her adversary (Luke 18:1-5).
It seems then we can take encouragement from this story at least to pray persistently. But there is more here than only an encouragement to heartfelt, courageous, wrestling with God in prayer—important as that is! There is also a description of what it looks like for a man, or woman, to gain maturity with God. Often, talented, gifted, young, energetic followers of God are a bit like Jacob. They keep on driving forward, doing well, exercising their charisma and talents. But until they are broken, until they have a scar, they are still “Jacob” and not yet “Israel.”
It seems God’s way down through history is to break a man before he uses a man. How easy it would have been for God to have won this victory, wrestling with a child like a father does. But he wrestles with Jacob and allows, indeed initiates, a wound as a reminder of the man’s newly-won sense of dependence on God. Until that happens, then all the charisma and gifts and talents in the world are dangerous, both for the individual and for those wooed by those talents.
I knew one pastor who, when hiring for his staff team, had a checklist of spiritual qualifications in addition to the standard forms and interview questions. One of those qualifications was “suffering.” Have you been broken? Perhaps you are wrestling with God over some matter now. Be encouraged that if he wounds you, it is only to bless you, mature you, and refine you as fire. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11, NIV).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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