by Alyssa Robinson
We’re having a little bit of fun this summer with our worship series Weird. In this series we’re taking a look at some of the weirdest stories from the Old Testament to find truth and hope for today. The list of weird stories is long, so we hope you’ll tune in to the Life + God Podcast and read our weekly blog posts to explore even more weird stories beyond Sunday morning.
Maybe the perfect story to start with is Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok in Genesis 32:22-32.
Here is a high level summary of the story of Jacob.
Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebecca and younger brother of Esau. One of the defining stories we read about Jacob is in Genesis 27. He and his mother Rebecca colluded to trick his father Isaac into giving Jacob a blessing that was meant for Esau. This is not the first time that Jacob used his cunning to outsmart his brother. Although Jacob seemed to be sharper, Esau was bigger and stronger. He could have easily destroyed small, slender Jacob, so once Jacob succeeded at stealing his father’s blessing, he ran away to escape the wrath of Esau. And he stayed on the run for 20 years!
Jacob faced many adversities and trials in chapters 28-31, but managed to build a community of people to lead with bountiful resources.
That leads us into chapter 32. At this point, Jacob has been running from his brother for two decades, and now he comes to learn that his brother has found him and is coming for him with an army of 400 men. Jacob panics. He knows that if Esau reaches him, he and all of his people will be destroyed. Esau has an army of warriors while Jacob has a community of men, women, and children who simply want to live peacefully.
To escape his fate, he starts sending his resources to his brother as gifts: 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 milch camels, 40 cows, 10 bulls, the list goes on! But Esau doesn’t stop marching.
Jacob was scared for his community, scared for his wives and children, and scared for himself. Jacob is not a brave, heroic figure to put on a pedestal. More than half of his stories include fleeing from an adversary or someone he’s wronged. You’d think those experiences would humble him, but somehow he gets more arrogant over time. This time there was nowhere left to run. He escorted his family to a safe space across a stream of the Jabbok, and then found himself alone.
In case you thought this story was already weird, this is actually where it gets weird!
Genesis 32:22-32 (The Message)
But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”
The man said, “What’s your name?”
He answered, “Jacob.”
The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.
Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!” ← There’s that arrogance.
The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip. (This is why Israelites to this day don’t eat the hip muscle; because Jacob’s hip was thrown out of joint.)
I have a few different theories about how to interpret these verses:
- Jacob fell asleep and was experiencing a stress dream because of the impending slaughter by Esau. Sometimes when I’m under extreme stress, I have wild dreams that are a manifestation of the fears and anxieties in my life.
- It’s a poetic expression of Jacob’s prayers to God. I’ve had plenty of conversations with God in which I refuse to give up my stance. I can definitely be stubborn, angry, and defiant in my prayers.
- Jacob literally wrestled with an angel and/or God to secure a blessing. It wouldn’t be the first time Jacob had gone to extremes to secure his future safety. This experience was just more supernatural and mystical than previous events.
Honestly, there isn’t one explanation that I lean toward more than the next because the explanation doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is the wrestling, whether it’s metaphorical or literal. What I love about Jacob in story after story is that he never backs down from a fight. And it’s not because he’s brave, but because he’s afraid. It seems that every decision Jacob makes is made out of fear, but his fears push him into a relationship with God. And God is here for it! God shows up. God wrestles with him. Side note: if you’re a fan of the Enneagram, my guess is that Jacob is a counterphobic Six.
The Bible stirs up so many questions for us. In the coming weeks we will roll around in really weird stories, some you’ve probably never heard or discussed before. My hope for you is that you approach this series like Jacob. Bring your fears, doubts, questions, and curiosities. Maybe some of you are more like Jacob before chapter 32. Maybe you’ve been running from the tough questions for decades. Wherever you are in your “Jacob Journey,” come ready to wrestle! Because when we wrestle with scripture and with God, we are blessed. Think about it. Wrestling requires energy, nearness, struggle, and even pain. It is extremely intimate and vulnerable.
Take these weird stories home with you. Have conversations with your friends and family around the dinner table, ask the tough questions, wonder about the culture the characters lived in, and imagine yourself in the story. Weird stories can be fun! Maybe weirdness is something to be celebrated. God made a weird world. It’s unique, interesting, surprising, wild, and remarkable.
Do you want to know how the story ends with Esau and Jacob? Read it for yourself! Open up Genesis 33 and discover what happens when Esau finally collides with Jacob after a 20-year hunt.