Note: The study below is a revision of my Chapel Address presented before the Faculty, staff, and students at Northern Baptist Seminary on January 10, 2012.
The God Who Loses
22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.
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.” (Gen. 32:22-30 NRSV).
This text in the Jacob narrative is an amazing text, because it says that in the struggle between God and Jacob, it was Jacob who won: “You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
It is important to notice what God said to Jacob when God changed his name to Israel. God said: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (v. 28). Notice that it was God himself who said that Jacob had won the fight.
It is also important to notice what Jacob said after his name was changed: “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Jacob said that his struggle was with God himself, even though the text says that God appeared to him in the form of a man (v. 24).
In this brief study of the struggle between God and Jacob, I will not be able to present a detailed study of this text. Unfortunately, I will not be able to talk about the God who blesses. God blessed Jacob with a new name.
In addition, I will not be able to present a detailed study of the God who is gracious. This gracious God allowed Jacob to see God’s face and live.
Instead, in this study I want to reflect on the God who loses. In doing so, it is necessary to emphasize again that it was God himself who said: “You have striven with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.”
I will begin this study by giving a brief background to the struggle between God and Jacob.
The story of Jacob’s encounter with God occurred just before Jacob’s encounter with his brother Esau. Jacob was facing a crisis in which he knew that anything might happen to him or to his family.
Note that the text is very clear about the nature of the struggle: it was the man who wrestled with Jacob; it was not Jacob who wrestled with the man. Sometimes this text is used in sermons and Bible studies as an example of prevailing prayer, but this view is a misinterpretation of the text.
The purpose of the struggle between God and Jacob was God’s desire to change Jacob, to end his rebellion against God’s plan for his life, to bring him to a point in his life where he could see the futility of being a deceiver, and to end Jacob’s confidence in his own cleverness.
Was this a physical struggle between God and Jacob? The outcome of the struggle provides a definite answer to this question. Jacob left the struggle limping because of the injury to his hip. The fact that future generations of Israelites remembered this event by abstaining from eating
the muscle in the hollow of the leg as food indicates that the struggle was real.
Because the fight occurred at night, Jacob did not know who his assailant was. It is possible that he thought that the adversary was one of Esau’s men, or maybe that the man was Esau himself. This is the reason Jacob fought so violently against the stranger.
The text is clear that Jacob was afraid to meet his brother. In preparation for the meeting with Esau, Jacob sent some of his servants to announce his coming. When the messengers returned to Jacob and told him that Esau was coming to meet him, together with four hundred men, the text says that Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32:6-7).
The encounter with Esau was something that Jacob did not want to happen, even though he knew that the meeting was inevitable. In preparation for this meeting, Jacob prayed to the Lord:
“O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number’” (Gen. 32:9-12).
As Jacob prepared to cross the Jabbok river, God answered Jacob’s prayer by appearing to him in human form. God’s appearance in human form is called a theophany. The reason God revealed himself to his people in the Old Testament was that God wanted to enter into a personal relationship with those who were created in his image and likeness.
In his desire to have fellowship with human beings, God does not wait for them to come to him. Rather, he often takes the initiative and reveals himself to them. The Old Testament presents many stories that show the depths of God’s love for humanity and how he takes the initiative to bring people into fellowship with him.
God is not simply some distant being who lives outside of his creation. He did not create the world and then stand back to see what would happen to it. God has a plan and a purpose for his creation and he has been consistently working out his will throughout time.
The knowledge that God speaks and acts within human history and in the human world is an important component of our Christian faith. Christians believe that God is in control of his created world and that he has the ability to affect what happens within that creation.
The Christian faith is centered in the truth that God acts in the world and in the lives of people. The belief that God is active in his creation creates in God’s people a desire to understand where God is at work in order to accomplish his will.
The physical manifestation of God in any form is an amazing thing. It creates a reaction. It necessitates a response from people. The appearance of God in human form is in fact a theophany. In the theophany God appears to humans, not in a dream or vision, but in the affairs of everyday life.
The most obvious and prolonged theophanic event in history is the coming of Jesus Christ. Through this manifestation, God revealed himself as a man with the purpose of bringing people into fellowship with him. Because this event was so pivotal to God’s plan for his creation, it is easy to allow it to be the benchmark against which all other actions of God are measured.
However, the Pentateuch is also filled with marvelous theophanic events of great importance. God walks among, and talks with, his people. He is a God of action and revelation and he works out his will in history. When God works in history, he inevitably makes himself known, and thus revelation in history is a natural consequence of God’s working with human beings.
The appearance of God through a theophany reveals truths about God and his intentions for mankind.
To be continued. Next: what happens when God loses?
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary