What Happens When God Loses?

In my previous post, The God Who Loses, I began a study of Genesis 32:22-30, a text which describes the struggle between God and Jacob.  The present post is a continuation of my previous post.  For this reason, I recommend that you read my previous post before you read this post, since the background provided in the first post is basic for the understanding of the present study and the one that follows.


It was God in human form who appeared to Jacob.  Jacob himself was a witness of that reality.  Jacob said: “I have seen God face to face.”  And yet, the word “man” in verse 24 and throughout the text has caused problems for many interpreters of the text. The prophet Hosea said that Jacob strove and prevailed against an angel, not God (Hos. 12:4).

Even some translators of the text have problems with the fact that God appeared as a human being and lost the struggle to Jacob. Thus, some translations avoid making this point. Take for example the Douay-Rheims, which is a very literal translation of the Latin Vulgate.

The Douay-Rheims and the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, read: “But he said: ‘Your name shall not be called Jacob, but Israel: for if you have been strong against God, how much more shall you prevail against men?’” (Gen. 32:28 DRA).

Thus, the Vulgate does not say that Jacob struggled with God.  Rather, it says that Jacob will prevail against men because he was “strong against God.”

The Complete Jewish Bible reads: “Then the man said, ‘From now on, you will no longer be called Ya’akov, but Isra’el; because you have shown your strength to both God and men and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:29 CJB).

This version says that Jacob showed his strength to God and to man and that he prevailed, but against whom Jacob prevailed, the translation does not make known.

The TANAK, the Jewish translation of the Bible takes a different approach.  It reads: “Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed’” (Gen. 32:29 TNK).

Here the Tanak says that Jacob prevailed, not against God, but against divine beings, probably a reference to the angel mentioned by Hosea.

The Targum Onkelos reads: “And He said, Thy name shall be no longer Jakob, but Israel; for a prince art thou before the Lord, and with men, and thou hast prevailed.”

Onkelos says that the reason Jacob prevailed is because he is a prince before God and before men.  But as the translation reads, it is not clear whether Jacob prevailed against God or against men.

The issue with these translations is the reluctance to accept the fact that the God of Abraham appeared in human form to Jacob.  However, some Jewish scholars are willing to talk about the humanity of God.

The Jewish scholar Yochanan Muffs, who was a professor at the Jewish Seminary in New York, in his book The Personhood of God (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1992), p. 59 wrote that “the God of agape is human in His concern for mankind,” primarily when it comes to the realization of his law in the world.

Muffs wrote (p. 59): “The law-giving God, on the other hand, is most human–too human–in His desire for the realization of the law.” Muffs continues:

“YHWH the savior may be a transcendent, condescending monarch, but His commandment to a people to carry out His laws springs from a creative urge to see an unrealized plan fulfilled in the world.  It was for this reason that the divine plan is delegated to a people, for this reason that God is angry over its nonfulfillment, and for this reason that God allows His anger to be cooled by mortals in such a human way.  It is clear, then, that we are dealing with a most human God” (p. 60).

In his book The Humanity of God (Richmond: John Knox Press 1960), p. 37-64, Karl Barth said that God’s humanity is enthroned in heaven.

The expression “for the day in breaking” (v.26) indicates that a long struggle took place between God and Jacob.  In fact, the outcome of the struggle was in doubt until the heavenly antagonist struck Jacob’s hip and put it out of joint.

The words of verse 25, that God could nor prevail against Jacob, clearly shows that in the final outcome of the fight, it was Jacob who had won the struggle. This truth is reinforced by the words of God in verse 26, where God asked Jacob to let him go. It is also reinforced by verse 28 in which God himself admitted that Jacob had prevailed.

Gerhard von Rad, in his book Genesis (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961), p. 316, said that the idea that a human being could defeat God is a “monstrous conception.”  However, he admits that the text clearly says that Jacob defeated his heavenly adversary.  Von Rad concludes that maybe the writer knew something about God that is now “concealed in the text.”

But some writers are not willing to say that God lost. Arthur Pink in his book Gleanings in Genesis (Chicago: Moody Press, 1922), refuses to believe that Jacob was able to prevail against God.  He wrote: “[Jacob] had contended for the birthright and had succeeded.  He had contended for the blessing and succeeded.  He had contended with Laban and succeeded.  He had contended with ‘men’ and succeeded.  Now he contended with God and fails” (p. 292).

But Pink’s statement, that Jacob contended with God and failed, goes against the text for the text clearly says Jacob struggled with God and with humans and that he prevailed (v.28).

Even Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on Genesis (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 266, says that the match was “a draw,” an “even match” (p. 267), since neither could “have his way.”  And he emphasizes that the match was a draw by using the word “draw” five times in his book.  Brueggemann concludes: “The stranger did not win (v. 25). But he did not lose either” (p. 269).

However, notwithstanding Brueggemann’s emphasis that the fight was “a draw,” the biblical text is clear: Jacob won and God lost.

But, what happens when God loses?

Jacob won his struggle with God, but his victory was a defeat.  Now he is a cripple, carrying on his body the trophy of his victory.  As Brueggemann wrote, “And he limped every day thereafter to show others (and himself) that there are no untroubled victories with this holy One” (p. 270).

In the Garden of Eden, God told the man: “do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” But God lost the battle of wills, for Adam ate from the fruit of the tree.  Adam’s victory was his defeat.  By winning the battle of will against God he lost the opportunity to eat from the tree of life and live forever.

When God loses, man’s victory becomes his greatest defeat.  God’s loss affects God deeply. When God in the days of Noah saw that humanity was prevailing against the divine will, “The Lord regretted that he had made humankind on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain (Gen. 6:6).

But humanity’s victory against God was short lived. Soon the flood came and wiped out every vestige of that victory.  When God loses, the victor eventually experiences a magnificent defeat.


The struggle between God and Jacob is similar to the struggles people face with God. People struggle, people fight, people resist, but to no avail.

Jacob was living outside of God’s will for more than twenty years.  God had appeared to Jacob at Bethel, but Jacob’s response was only a vague promise of service.  During the years he lived in Haran, working for Laban, there is no indication that Jacob sought the presence of God until he realized that his life was threatened by Laban and his sons.

And so is with every person who refuses to put God first, who rejects God’s will, and who refuses to trust in God, notwithstanding all the promises and assurances God promises them.

Even though Jacob won the struggle, God did not leave him alone. It was good that God did not allow Jacob to remain in his rebellion, and since God did not leave Jacob alone, we can be assured that he will not leave us alone either.

To be continued.  Next:

Why God Allows Himself To Lose

Enter to Win a Free Copy of my Book Divine Violence and the Character of God.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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3 Responses to What Happens When God Loses?

  1. Dan says:

    A very interesting interaction with the text. This is a great example of the condescension of God. Part of a large and significant theme in Scripture.

    What does this reveal of a deity who can force or manipulate events for our ultimate good but chooses to allow our choice to stand? It seems, in one sense, odd that God would allow man to reject His absolute good.

    Do you think God allows this to happen so as to turn it into a ‘teachable moment’? If so, Jacob no doubt learned and grew in his faith and relationship with God. But also, it seems there was an awful lot of pain, suffering and loss in the Flood (not to mention what happened in the Fall). Will God finally allow some (many) to reject Him?

    I look forward to your continuing study in this area.


    • Claude Mariottini says:


      As you mentioned, this episode is a great example of God’s condescension. My next post on this topic will discuss how God gives human beings real freedom to say “yes” or “no” to God’s love.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini


  2. Pingback: Did Jacob give God the smack down? | Unsettled Christianity

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