In a previous post, “The God Who Loses,” I described Jacob’s struggle with God (Gen. 32:22-30). The text in Genesis says that in the struggle between God and Jacob, it was Jacob who won. God said to Jacob: “You have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
In a follow-up post, I discussed what happens when God loses. I concluded that when God loses, man’s victory becomes his greatest defeat. Jacob himself is a good example of what happens when human beings win their battle with God. As a result of his victory, Jacob became a cripple, carrying on his body the trophy of his victory.
How can God, the God who by the power of his word, created the world into existence, lose a fight with a mere human being? Why does God allow himself to lose his struggle with Jacob? Today I conclude my study of Jacob’s struggle with God by trying to provide an answer to this puzzling question.
In order to understand how God allowed himself to be defeated by Jacob, it is important to study what the Bible says about the creation of human beings in Genesis 1:26-28 and how God is portrayed in the creation narrative.
Genesis 1:26-27 describes the creation of human beings in God’s image: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
When people read this text, they put the emphasis on the kind of beings God created. However, in reading this text, it is also important to discover what kind of God created humans beings and what kind of God gives humans such an ability to have dominion over his creation.
If the God who created human beings in his image is a God who has power and has absolute control over his creation, then those humans who were created in God’s image also have comparable attributes. This is what it means to be a human being created in the image of God. In fact, God himself acknowledged that man had become like him (Gen. 3:22).
God created human beings in order to live in a relationship with them. This relationship is portrayed in different ways: Israel as God’s wife, Israel as God’s son, Moses as God’s friend (Exod. 33:11).
Most of the metaphors used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the relationship between God and human beings are derived from every day relational life: God as a husband, God as a father, God as a teacher, God as a friend, and many others. This relational language is used throughout the Bible to describe the God-human relationship and a thorough reading of Scriptures reveals that the relationship between God and his creation is comprehensive in its scope.
The problem in understanding this relational aspect of God’s creation is that most readers of the Bible do not take God’s relationship with humans beings seriously enough. Many Christians believe that because God is a powerful God and that he is in control of everything that happens in the world, that he also controls every aspect in the lives of individuals.
But God’s relationship with human beings is a relationship that has integrity. It is a relationship of mutuality. Walter Brueggemann, in his book Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), wrote that “the human person is a person in relation to Yahweh, who lives in an intense mutuality with Yahweh.”
If God’s relationship with his creation has integrity, what are the implications derived from this relationship? What kinds of consequences to both God and human come out of this relationship?
One of the consequences of this relationship of mutuality is that, although God has a plan for his creation, God respects the decision of every individual. So, human beings have the freedom to live by God’s law and they also have the freedom to disobey God and go their own way. This also means that God chooses to create a person and share his power with one who is not God.
Given the genuineness of this relationship with his people, there is a degree of vulnerability in God in which God allows humans to have their own way, even when at times, their way is not God’s way. By honoring the integrity of this relationship, God limits what he can do to convince people to do what needs to be done.
Writing about this divine limitation in the God-human relationship, Terence Fretheim (God and the World in the Old Testament [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005], p. 22) wrote: “God so enters into relationships that the human will can stand over against the will of God. . . .The divine will is resistible; God does not always get God’s will done in the world, most specially because of continuing human resistance.”
One good example of human resistance is found in Isaiah 30:1: “Oh, rebellious children, says the LORD, who carry out a plan, but not mine; who make an alliance, but against my will.”
Another example is found in Isaiah 65:1-3. The Lord said: “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, ‘Here I am, here I am,’ to a nation that did not call on my name. I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me to my face continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks.”
Because God is committed to this relationship, human beings may “impact Yahweh in ways that cause Yahweh to be different from the way Yahweh was prior to the contact” (Brueggemann, p. 410). The reality of the God-human relationship is seen in the power of human prayer. Because of his prayer on behalf of Israel, Moses was able to reverse a decision that God had made about the future of Israel (Exod. 32:7-14).
God’s appearance to Jacob at Peniel was a theophany. In a theophany, Yahweh reveals himself in a visible way. So, when God appeared to Jacob, God appeared in a human form. Once God decided to enter into a relationship with Jacob, God made a decision to be faithful to that relationship.
Because God was faithful to the relationship he established with Jacob, God exercised restraint in his struggle with Jacob so that the struggle became a real struggle between two men. The struggle was a fight between Jacob the man from earth and between the man from heaven, the God who appeared to Jacob as a man.
The theophany, in a sense, re-characterized God, because since God took human form, the humanity of God entails limitations that God placed upon himself on what God could do about Jacob’s resistance since God remains committed to the freedom of the human he created. This is the reason Jacob won and God lost.
The greatest theophany of God came at the time of the incarnation when the Word which was God became flesh and lived among us. God gives humans the freedom to make choices: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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