Q. Today in my Quiet Time I read in Genesis about God wrestling with Jacob. I was really puzzled where it says, “When the man saw that he could not overpower him . . .” I don’t understand how God could not overpower a human being. God took on human form, but didn’t He still have the strength God would have? What do you think it means?
Also, I know God and Jesus have taken human form before, and I was wondering, has the Holy Spirit ever done so? I don’t remember any passages where He does, but are there any?
The so-called “man” in this episode who wrestles with Jacob is just like the “angel of the LORD” who appears in other Old Testament passages, though he’s not specifically called that here. He is a “theophany” or manifestation of God on earth. Jacob recognizes this and says, “I have seen God face to face” (in human form, at least).
It’s clear that this “man” has supernatural powers available to him, because to bring the wrestling match to an end, he’s able to wrench Jacob’s hip out of its socket simply by touching it. But he has apparently chosen not to use these powers over the course of the match, in order to demonstrate something. (This is analogous to the way that Jesus, to provide an example and model for us, “emptied himself” of his divine powers such as omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence in order to live a perfect human life through obedience to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.)
So what was God trying to demonstrate in this wrestling match by limiting himself to human powers? When he blesses and renames Jacob he says, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” So he had probably been giving Jacob an opportunity to demonstrate, in a dramatic way on a single occasion, the tenacity and endurance God had seen him develop throughout 20 difficult years in exile. Those years had transformed Jacob from a conniving and grasping young man to the mature leader of a large clan who was now willing to face the brother he’d cheated and make things right with him. (In my Genesis study guide, I show how Jacob was not only reconciled with his brother Esau shortly after this, he also made restitution for much of what he’d stolen from him.)
In his reflections on “The End for Which God Created the World,” the early American theologian Jonathan Edwards observes that since God’s perfections are “in themselves excellent,” it was also “an excellent thing” for them to become known. It seems to me that in the same way, God considers it “an excellent thing” for the character qualities Jacob has developed to become known, and so he arranges (personally!) for a demonstration of them, in the form of this wrestling match. (We might similarly see some of our struggles in life as an opportunity that God is giving us to demonstrate the character we have been developing.)
We can only speculate about how the match ever got started. Perhaps the man blocked the route that Jacob wanted to take and Jacob had to try to wrestle him out of the way. Or perhaps Jacob sensed who he was from the start and grappled with him in order to obtain a blessing (just as he says at the end, “I won’t let you go until you bless me”).
But however the match began, it’s probably more significant to ask exactly what the man means when he tells Jacob, “You have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” How can a person “overcome” God? I don’t think it just means, “You wrestled God to a draw when God decided to use only human powers.”
Rather, I think it means that Jacob, in a desire to get back home from exile (something only God could make possible), determinedly worked through everything in his life that would have kept God from letting him to go back. When he was finally heading home, he testified to Laban about the honesty and integrity he had developed: “I bore the loss myself,” he said, if any of Laban’s flocks were torn by wild beasts or stolen. So we might say that Jacob was “wrestling” with God all those 20 years in exile, striving to become the kind of person God could safely send back to Canaan to continue the line of covenant promise. The wrestling match just before he got back home was a dramatic demonstration of what had been going on all along. God took on human form and limited powers in order to make that demonstration.
I’ll answer the second part of your question, about whether the Holy Spirit ever took on human form, in my next post.