Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

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?

Eugene Delacroix, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel”

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.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

15 thoughts on “Why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?”

  1. You have answered my question on what we have been asked in our Sunday School Class. Thanks for the commentary and I will also appreciate were you to develop on the Holy Spirit coming in human form also.

    1. Wow, a good piece, but another question, this has been disturbing me for quite a long time, WHY DIS GOD ALLOW JACOB STEAL ESSAU’S BLESSINGS AND MADE AWAY WITH IT, AND STILL HE CONTINUES TO BLESS HIM??????I expected that at some point, because we are dealing with an omnipotent being, God was going to reverse the blessings, but that doesnt happen, please answer

  2. Perhaps God was unable to flight Jacob in a human manifestation (on the same terms) and then had to resort to his powers to do so.

  3. God took on human form and limited powers in order to make that demonstration. To demonstrate 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 ? Instead of God took the human form and limited power as you said, I think God took the human form and very high standard HUMAN power for the wrestling. Normally Jacob will not win in wrestling against such high standard human wrestler. However he won because Jacob was so tired and frustrated escaped death from his father in law and brother, he was very mad when someone came to his way and force him to wrestling. Jacob’s energy was so high and intense with anger and God was merciful for him, did not want to kill him or hurt him bad so Jacob won. God touched his hip afterwards to show Jacob, even he can overcame a very high standard human wrestler but was nothing compared to God’ power.

    When God told Jacob that he won wrestling (struggling) with God and with men and have overcome. The ” men” including the human form that wrestled with him in addition to his father-in-law and his brother. Since that human form was actually god so he did overcame God in his struggling.

    I do not think Jacob intended to wrestle with God since apparently he did not that human was God.

    I do not think Jacob wrestled with god for the 20 years. He did not intend to disobey god during that time.

  4. Dr. Smith, thank you for your helpful explanation. Please let me know if there is fallacy in my simple take on this very interesting passage.

    I take this as an example for all of us that we can wrestle over the things of this world with our Lord (Phillippians 2:12, with a heavy emphasis on “with fear and trembling”), after all He is a personal God….HOWEVER… the touch/wrenching of the hip are a reminder that our God is in ultimate control. What say you?

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