Genesis 32:22-32

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.[1]


Many centuries after Jacob passed into glory, Hosea summed up the life of the patriarch:

In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. …Jacob fled to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep.[2]


The verbs of Hosea’s poem give us an overview of the life of Jacob: he grabbed, fled, served, fought. Two of those verbs form the names of the patriarch: ‘grabbed the heel’ (agab) and ‘fought’ (sara).[3] Twenty years before the Great Smackdown, Jacob was a man governed primarily by his own power and wiles. He kissed up to anyone who could do him good and treated everyone else like garbage. He lived according to his own human wisdom and did what was right in his own eyes.

Jacob was the person in your class who took up everyone’s time asking questions just to weasel that extra point from the teacher. He was the supervisor at work who promised you anything for your loyalty and took credit for your work. He was the person that stabbed you in the back to get the promotion you deserved. He was the friend who flattered you until you gave him what he wanted and then tossed you away like a used Kleenex. He was the classic passive-aggressive, sneaky, smarmy, money-worshiping preacher, Elmer Gantry, in Sinclair Lewis’ novel of the same name. He could speak the ‘God speak,’ but he was all about himself. Jacob was a younger version of Uncle Laban.

But when Jacob began to sojourn in the East, under the thumb of a much older and more experienced autocrat – his uncle Laban – the patriarch slowly began to change. For 14 years, he labored in abject poverty with a growing family full of strife and suspicion. In all that time, Jacob was faithful to his sleazy cheating uncle. Jacob kept his word and did his work well, laboring another six years and growing wealthy in the process – even as his uncle continued to cheat him.

God was using miserable circumstances to chip away Jacob’s self-reliance and human wisdom. God, being rich in mercy, is in the business of turning the sneaky into the honest, the proud and smarmy into the humble, and the ugly into the uniquely beautiful. This passage will teach us meaningful change is rarely pleasant. As my father often used to say to me, all learning hurts; if it doesn’t hurt, you haven’t learned anything.

Prior to Peniel, most of Jacob’s life reflected his Theology of Victory. He was certain that his chief end was to take dominion of everything he could by any means necessary. He cheated his brother out of his inheritance for a bowl of vegetarian chili; he lied to his father; he slinked off to a foreign land; and he may have practiced superstitions to gain wealth, despite the fact that God had clearly promised him (and been the source of) wealth. Like most of us most of the time, Jacob was sure that God existed only to bless his efforts and fulfill all of his felt needs.

We see that very clearly in his attempt to bargain with God at Bethel in chapter 28. As he was fleeing his angry and cheated brother, slinking out of the Promised Land, God appeared to him in a night vision where he saw the Lord of the ladder standing watch over him. Jesus pledges God’s unmerited unconditional covenant loyalty to Jacob. And this is how Jacob responds:

“If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” [4]

What a sad and tiny faith Jacob had 20 years before this text! IF God will meet my needs, then I will worship Him and give him some of my stuff. God had just sworn by Himself that He would keep covenant with Jacob and Jacob barely believed it. But IF it’s true, then Jacob will choose to acknowledge God and pay God back. This was a man who had a tiny faith in God and a greatly overinflated faith in himself. And he will continue to live at least partly like this for the next 20 years of his life. He would grow in faith and obedience to YHWH, leaving Mesopotamia at God’s command. But he would continue to struggle with his weak faith. His trembling fear of his brother while camping with a vast angelic army being the latest example of his vacillating nature.

One the one hand, Jacob’s royal gift of 550 animals to Esau was a humble attempt at restitution for the stolen patriarchal blessing and family birthright. But on the other, it was also a crafty move to turn a 401-man war party into a group of herdsmen. The army can either fight or keep control of their booty. But they cannot do both effectively. Even the absolute best of our motives is mixed with personal self-interest. In Jacob’s case, giving gifts to appease his wronged brother was as much a pagan act as a sincere attempt at repentance. Jacob did not send a message of repentance, only gifts.

This is the way the pagan approaches God: he believes that his gifts will buy him a hearing; he must bring his best in order to gain what he wants. “God will surely love me more if I come in my best clothes, with a large check for the offering plate, and with a smile painted on my face. Poor and wretched and naked and needy is NOT good enough to earn the favor of God.” There is great gap between true repentance and worldly sorrow and groveling. Like most of us most of the time, Jacob has yet to learn the difference. But he’s about to receive some severe grace.


At some point in the dark of night, Jacob decides to send his wives, concubines, and his 11 sons (and one daughter) across the Jabbok river. “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.[5]

“This river in eastern Canaan flows through deep-cut canyons into the Jordan about 23 miles north of the Dead Sea. It is approximately 50 miles long and descends from its source at 1900 feet above sea level to about 115 feet below sea level where it meets the Jordan. This fact explains the many deep-cut canyons. As such it provides an impressive locale for the event that is about to take place. It is shallow enough to ford.”[6] Jacob is now alone on a dark desert night in a river gorge. Likely, he’s so worried of the impending attack that he has not built a fire.

He is worried. He is pacing back and forth. He rouses his family and moves them across the swift river in the dark. Possibly he splits his family into two groups and puts each with the two camps of herdsmen and flocks. Then he crosses back to the other side to be alone. He’s nervous. He’s frightened. He’s feeling guilt. He’s terrified his past sin will now bring death to his entire family. He’s too jacked up to sleep. This was the darkest night of Jacob’s life. His past sins are coming back to haunt him with a vengeance. All he can do is wait to see what sunrise will bring. Jacob wanders his now-empty camp. This is Jacob’s Gethsemane.[7]

NINJA JESUS (24b-26)

He has surrendered his wealth, his servants, and his family. But he has not surrendered himself to rest in the bare word of God.[8] Then, out of the blackness of the night, someone appears and grabs Jacob; no twigs have snapped; no gravel has been crunched. The stranger just appears like a ninja. Imagine Jacob’s terror! This is no creak or bump you only hear when your home alone. Someone has come from out of nowhere and grabbed Jacob with a crushing grip. Moses simply writes, “And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.”

Jacob was in the mighty hold of someone intent on taking his life. But in the dead of night down in the river canyon, he can see only that his attacker has a human form. His opponent was silent and nameless. Could this be an assassin sent by Esau? Was it a robber? All Jacob knew was the man was powerful. But Jacob was no slouch himself. This was the man who moved the stone covering from a well that normally took three men to move. All through the night, for as long as six or seven hours, the two men fought. The night “became one of burning sweat, dripping hair and beard, and slipping appendages. There came brief periods of labored breathing, and then renewed fury, gouging, pulling, butting. And then more rage— and more pain and thirst— and smothering frustration.”[9]

Unknown to Jacob through most of this exhausting and terrifying struggle was that he was fighting with a divine being. God was his ultimate and intimate enemy. He could not, in those hours, see this Great Smackdown for what it truly was – a parable of his entire life. Throughout the entire Jacob narrative, his life has been characterized as a grasping struggle. Jacob had wrestled with his brother (25:22), and then with his father (chap. 27), and then with his father-in-law (29 – 31), and now with God (32). Jacob had always struggled with both men and God.

What is most significant about this text is that the man (Jesus) is said to have wrestled “with Jacob” and not that Jacob wrestled with the man, which would be the wrong way around. This is important for understanding the passage. [10] Jesus did not come down for a nice chat and a cup of tea! Jacob is NOT wrestling this man to get a blessing; Jesus is wrestling Jacob to get something from him! The Lord of the Ladder has come down to Jacob in a most dramatic way.[11]

Have you ever had God wrestle with you? Maybe there have been times in your life when you knew you weren’t pleasing God. That is a VERY draining, vitality-sucking, joy-robbing experience – having God wrestle with you because you insist on getting your own way. If you find yourself exhausted and burnt out in your Christian life it is because God is wrestling something away from you. Being drained and frazzled can be the best possible place to see Jesus! If you consider your own experiences of being wrestled by God, then perhaps you get some idea of the intense struggle in this passage. It goes on all night long. This Great Smackdown teaches us that God doesn’t sit around waiting for us to submit to him; He doesn’t store up blessings He can’t give you because you don’t ask. NO! He comes down and wrestles you.


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.”

As his exhaustion reached its limit, Jacob wrestled on with no idea that he was in the grip of relentless grace. Did he howl in pain as the Lord dislocated his hip with a mere touch? Moses doesn’t say. Jacob is reduced to simply clinging to his opponent, his disjointed leg dangling useless in the agonizing struggle. A mere touch that dislocates his hip suggests superhuman power and begins to make Jacob realize this is a divine encounter.

There is fierce determination in Jesus. But there is amazing humility here as well. Jesus is letting Jacob prevail. Jesus is losing the battle to gain the ultimate victory. We see in this Smackdown something of the character of our Lord, who submitted Himself to the ultimate humiliation unto death to gain victory for Jacob and all of us who cling to the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Promised Seed who lived perfectly to give us his righteousness and died sacrificially to pay the wages of our sin.

As the sun begins to rise in the east, the light begins to dawn on Jacob. Is not our God an astounding author and poet of history? The light of the world is shining on Jacob at the break of day! Remember the account of creation when the glory of Jesus lit up the whole world before the sun was ever spoken into existence?

As we read this passage, we can see that look begin to break across Jacob’s face as he begins to understand something huge about the grace of God. This is the kind of “Ah ha” moment that makes wrestling with self-reliant people who are convinced they are really fairly good so worthwhile! There is great joy when we get even the tiniest glimpse of how sinful we really are and what kind of statement God made about us at the cross. The Promised Seed lived and died for his enemies, not his friends! And, if you truly know God, those glimpses are a life-long process of growing in gospel sanity.

And if you don’t truly know Him, you will spend the rest of your life giving lip service to sin you really don’t believe you have. But as the light is breaking over Jacob, he is becoming more of a new creation. After such a long struggle, the mere touch from the Lord of the ladder is enough to dislocate Jacob’s hip. When God wrestles with His people, we never come away unhurt – all learning hurts. But we always come away blessed!

As the wrestlers became exhausted from their marathon match, they began to speak. The unknown assailant began: “Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’” (v. 26). Jacob had already been given an intimation of the assailant’s supernaturalness by the effortless dislocation, and his concern to remain unknown (v. 29) was another hint of his supernatural origin. Later Scripture would record that no man can see God and live (cf. vv. 30, 31; Exodus 33: 20). Jacob sensed the divine. Here Jacob, sensing the character of his opponent, seized the opportunity and insisted on a blessing. After all, he still is Jacob. We all know that the spirit of a man is not merely in the words he utters, but in the attitude in which he speaks. And here we discover Jacob’s heart-attitude in the God-given interpretation of the story provided us in Hosea 12:4: “He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor.” It was not from proud dominance that Jacob asked for blessing, but with tears. His request came when he was at the end of himself. “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (v. 26) was a tear-choked plea.[12]

NEW NAME (26-32)

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.”


Broken from this revelation, Jacob begs for a blessing but receives a question instead. In Mark 5:9, the incarnate Jesus asked the same question of a demon and received the response, My name is Legion, for we are many. Rather than merely giving a blessing, the Lord of the ladder requires confession. And this is a painful, humiliating confession for a man who has lived his life to please himself and who, 20 years before had attempted to bargain with God, who is certain that he’s really a fairly good guy.

Broken Jacob must face up to his name, the summation of the life he has so far led: my name is supplanter: usurper, deceiver, schemer. I am an autocrat. I am ‘that guy who will do anything to anyone as long as it buys ME security and wealth and peace. In me there dwells no good thing. Up to this point in his life, Jacob never had to consider how horrible a thief he had been to his brother, or how great a liar he had been to his father, or how much of weasel he had been to his whole family. His theology has been one of victory and dominion: take the Promised Land any which way you can. I can’t be a bad guy because I’m on a good mission; I know God personally. But now, clinging to Jesus and begging for blessing, his theology has gone from one of victory and dominion to one of abject moral poverty and, complete inability, and total clinging dependence.

What do you think about Jacob as he clings desperately to the leg of this mysterious God-Man? Does he seem pitiful to you? Is Jacob a looser? This is what Martin Luther called the Theology of the Cross: like Jesus, our victory comes through shame and suffering and humility. Victory for the people of God comes not in the worldly way of conquering by strength or cunning, not by outward appearance, but in the heavenly way of helpless dependence on Christ alone: nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.  THIS was Jacob’s blessing!

Jacob prevailed over men by guile, but he prevailed with God only by defeat.[13] The blessing of Jacob’s defeat is that Jesus gives him a new name. No longer is the one who clings to Jesus a supplanter, and a liar; now he has a name that will always remind him of his Great Smackdown at Peniel (the face of God).

Israel can mean “one who struggles against God,” or “one for whom God struggles” and that is certainly the context into which Jesus pronounces his name/blessing. But ultimately, whenever we find el/God in a name, God is the subject. So, Jacob’s new name, Israel, means “May God fight (for him).” In fighting with Jacob, God was fighting for Jacob.

As Israel limps away from Jesus, he has gone through an amazing journey. He has seen the Lord at the top of a ladder in Bethel upon leaving the land. He has seen angels encamped around him at Mahanaim. At Peniel, the Lord has come down the ladder, descended to earth and wrestled for the soul of Israel. Israel and the children of Israel, with their new identity, are now free to enter into the Promised Land. Many generations later, the nation of Israel will receive a new identity in the Exodus and the Passover and yet again enter into the Promised Land. But they will forget Jacob’s lesson at Peniel and cling to idols for their ‘blessing.’ Like Adam and Eve, like young Jacob, they will be driven from the land for their sins (and returned to Abram’s starting point in Mesopotamia).

But one day, Israel’s children will give birth to the God-Man, Jesus, the Lord of the ladder, come in permanent flesh. Jesus will be the New Israel in whom heaven and earth meet. The Lord of the ladder will shed his mystery, come to his people by night, and be surrounded by angels of glory who announce his arrival to shepherds like Jacob. In humility and suffering, the New Israel will concede defeat, bow his head, give up his spirit, and win for his people a permanent and eternally-secure victory. Our striving in the Theology of Victory will be forever put to death in the death of the Son of Man at Calvary. And our Promised Land will be one whose designer and builder is God.[14]

Oh Christian, if you are proud of you accomplishments, if you are satisfied with how far you have come in life, if your theology is one of victory and dominion in your own strength, then you have not yet begun to contemplate the depths of you sins before a God who is holy, holy, holy. When Jacob named the place where he met the angels Mahanaim (two camps), he prophesied better than he knew, for he lived in his own camp, in his own strength, under his own power. Only when he left his own camp in desperation did he meet Jesus.

Perhaps God seeks to wrestle from you this morning that sense of your own goodness to which you still cling. May He teach you the theology of the cross, even if you come away limping for the rest of your life. If you are hurting this morning, we invite you to come. Come and conquer through the defeat of Jesus. To you who take his victory by clinging to Him in faith, the risen and glorified Jesus promises a permanent Promised Land and a new name:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers … I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’[15]

If you are here this morning and you do not know Him whom to know is eternal life in the Promised Land from which you can never be cast out, we invite you to come to Him, cling to His cross, by simply saying, Thank you, Lord Jesus for dying for me.


The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price. [16]

Amen. Come quickly Lord Jesus.

[1]The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Gen. 32:22-32). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2]The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Hos. 12:3,12). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] Johnson, S. Lewis. Believers Bible Bulletin: Piniel – From Supplanter to Prevailer. 1980 (Gen. 32:22-32) Dallas: Believers Chapel.

[4]The Holy Bible: English standard version. 2001 (Gen. 28:20-22). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 32:22–24.

[6] Hamilton, 2:328.

[7] Johnson, p. 8.

[8] Boice, J. M. (1998). Genesis: An expositional commentary. Originally published: Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1982. (816). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

[9] Hughes, 400. Kindle Edition.

[10]Boice, ibid.

[11] Pink. A.W. Gleanings in Genesis.

[12] Hughes, 400-401. Kindle Edition.

[13] Johnson, p. 9.

[14] Heb. 11:10.

[15]The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Re 2:17). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[16]The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Re 22:17). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.