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Sermon #156: Jacob Wrestling in the Jabbok

Updated: Oct 20, 2019

Sermon #156 St. James the Less #63 10/20/19

The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 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. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." 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." 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. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. -Genesis 32:22-31

Jacob in the Jabbok

This morning we heard about a biblical wrestling match between Jacob and what at first seems to be a man, but is in fact an angel or God himself. It is an odd little story, but for students of the Old Testament this is a major part of the Book of Genesis.

You may not be surprised to know that wrestling matches are not common in the Bible, especially when it comes to one of the three great patriarchs of the Jewish faith being put into a heavenly headlock.

But the ancient Jewish and Christian thinkers, read this passage with keen interest, trying to decipher its deeper lesson for life and faith. We, along with them must ask the questions that this text naturally raises.

What does it mean to wrestle with God? And why is it significant that Jacob is given a new name and has to limp for the rest of his life because of this encounter?

To answer these questions, we need to know a thing or two about Jacob and his situation when all this occurs in Genesis 32.

We heard at the very beginning of our reading that Jacob has taken his family across the ford of the Jabbok. This is no small thing. The Jabbok is a river that flows at the bottom of a deep-cut canyon in modern day Jordan. This rocky and perilous canyon is about 50 miles long. For some perspective, that’s from here to Columbia, TN, and it descends from the river’s source in the east at 1900 feet to a staggering 115 feet below sea level where it flows into the Jordan River. That’s 2,000 feet of elevation change.

The Jabbok River Valley

The trouble was not crossing the Jabbok; it was making it safely to a point where you could cross it that was the issue. It could be a difficult journey, through rocky canyons with small paths along deep ravines.

And the whole reason Jacob was risking a journey like this with his family had all to do with his brother. He was about to meet his brother, Esau, for the first time in 20 years.

You may recall that Jacob and his mom fooled his father Isaac. Jacob’s twin brother, Esau was the older of the two of them by a few minutes, and he was in line to receive his father’s blessing and this was a big deal.

Only one son could get the blessing, and it was supposed to go to the older Esau. Jacob ended up fooling his father in giving him the blessing by dressing up as Esau, putting wool on his arms because Esau was harrier than him, and even telling his father that he was in fact Esau.

After deceiving his father into getting the blessing, Jacob ran away because his brother swore to kill him. Now some 20 years later, Jacob and Esau are now about to meet. Jacob is anxious, not knowing if his brother is still angry with him and wanting to kill him.

And so, in our reading, we find Jacob alone, in the dark, in the valley of the Jabbok the night before he is to meet his brother. At some point in the night he is awoken by a stranger who is wrestling him. This continues until the first rays of light start illuminating the canyon walls above them.

The divine wrestler touches Jacob’s hip socket, and dislocates it before begging Jacob to let go before the darkness fades. Jacob asks the stranger for a blessing, and the stranger looks at him and asks, “What is your name?”

This may seem like a simple question; maybe even an odd question in the situation they find themselves, but it’s exactly the question Jacob has been running from.

He has been away from home 20 long years. He left his family, and in the meantime has started a new life, and has begun to raise a family of his own. He is about to have to confront his past, with all the deception and lying that took place when he claimed to be Esau in order to get his father’s blessing.

He is returning to his home not as an Esau-wannabe, but as Jacob…At least he’s going to have to accept that before he faces his brother. So, when the divine stranger asks, “What is your name?” he is challenging Jacob to claim who he is rather than who he’s pretended to be.

This simple request, “What is your name?” is a deep question about who you are, and possibly who you want to be. In fact, this story is the source of many of our modern tales of self-discovery.

Disney uses it for many of its movies. Just think about Aladdin, where a poor boy wishes to become a rich prince in order to win the favor of the princess, with the help of a genie he tricks the princess into thinking he is something that he really isn’t. In the end, he must stop hiding behind a disguise, and in so doing he discovers who he truly is.

The same is true for The Lion King, Simba has to accept who he is. There’s that great scene of him looking up at the night sky and hearing his father’s voice say, “Remember who you are.” This young lion cannot run away from his true identity any longer, and by accepting himself and the responsibility that comes with that, he ultimately accepts his destiny.

This is a classic narrative plot in many fairy tales and stories that we have heard all our lives just with different characters in a different setting. It is used in everything from Homer and Shakespeare to the most recent Star Wars films.

All of them get around to asking the main character in one way or another, “What is your name? Who are you?”

Many of those great stories are based on the biblical narrative, but in particular in this story of Jacob.

For Jacob, being forced to face the old life that he ran away from, he must now own who he is and what he has done to gain such favor. He cannot run from his past self any longer, he is Jacob, with all the baggage that comes with that. And it takes God wrestling him to the ground for him to finally own it. But amazingly, once he finally owns it-once he says “I am Jacob,” he is then able to be given a new name.

Name changes in the Bible are always significant. When God gives you a new name, it normally means you are given a new role or that something has changed with you. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah. Simon becomes Peter in the New Testament, and Saul becomes the Apostle Paul.

Jacob is given the name Israel, and that is the name that his family-turned-nation will be known by forevermore. Some translate Israel to mean, “He strove with God” because of this wrestling encounter. But some scholars believe a more accurate translation would be, “God will rule.”

I believe that translation fits this story perfectly. Jacob was able to accept who he was and thus given a new name because he surrendered to God. He realized that it is not Jacob who will rule, but it is God who rules.

Wesley Hymn

The prolific hymn writer Charles Wesley wrote a piece based on this passage. It has transformed how I read this story. It’s better than any commentary I’ve read on it. It goes like this,

1 Come, O thou Traveller unknown, whom still I hold, but cannot see; my company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee; with thee all night I mean to stay, and wrestle till the break of day.

2 I need not tell thee who I am, my misery or sin declare; thyself hast called me by my name; look on thy hands, and read it there! But who, I ask thee, who art thou? Tell me thy name, and tell me now.

4 Yield to me now, for I am weak, but confident in self-despair; speak to my heart, in blessings speak, be conquered by my instant prayer. Speak, or thou never hence shalt move, and tell me if thy name is Love!

5 'Tis Love!'tis Love! Thou diedst for me! I hear thy whisper in my heart! The morning breaks, the shadows flee; pure universal Love thou art: to me, to all, thy mercies move; thy nature and thy name is Love.

For Charles Wesley, this “Traveller unknown” is none other than Love Incarnate. It was this Love that wrestled with sinful and weary Jacob until he could accept who he was, and surrender to the God who rules, whose love rules all things.

Jacob went away from that encounter a different man. He walked away from that canyon with a new name, and an undeniable limp that would be a constant reminder of what happened that night. He had experienced God and was changed.


We have all had our own dark, lonely night in the Jabbok, so to speak.

Lost, anxious, wrestling with at least our thoughts-not sure of what the morning will hold. I know for me, and likely for you as well, we got to that point in part because we wanted to rule, or at least set the rules.

We wanted to be in control of the situation, we wanted to call the shots: our life is supposed to look this way instead of what it presently is. Our marriage is supposed to be thriving, not ending in a divorce. I thought I would be healthier or happier or wealthier at this point in my life.

The Jabbok is a dark place to be, but a place that God loves to do his transformative work.

It’s in those moments that we are the most vulnerable, the most willing to cry out for help, the most likely to surrender our misguided expectations for life, and in so doing, accept the fact that “Yis-ra-el” God will rule. That in fact, he has always ruled but we have become too distracted and unaware of that reality.

We may come out of that experience different, possibly with a limp, but we will be forever changed for the good. When you encounter the living God, you never come out the same.

Those Jabbok moments of our lives may actually become the cornerstones to our life as faithful followers of God and disciples of Jesus Christ.

For the One who rules, who reigns, and even wrestles…ultimately his name is Love.

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