From birth, the patriarch Jacob has been fighting against those around him. Jacob has initiated some struggles himself — he took hold of Esau (Gen. 25:24–26) and his blessing underhandedly (vv. 29–34; 27:1–29). Laban, his sneaky father-in-law, instigated Jacob’s later difficulties (29:1–30). But no matter the source of his struggles, Jacob has tended to rely on his own wits, only slowly realizing his efforts are worthless without God’s approval (31:4–16; 32:9–12).
Yet we have hope that this forefather in the faith will finally lean on God. Haran, one of Abraham’s stops on his travels from Ur to the Promised Land (11:31; 12:4; Acts 7:2–3), was located in Paddan-aram, a region roughly encompassing the Euphrates river (modern-day Iraq). In journeying from Paddan-aram to Canaan (Gen. 31:18), Jacob imitates his grandfather Abraham, encouraging us that Isaac’s son will one day trust Yahweh like Abraham did.
In today’s passage, Jacob comes ever closer to Canaan and an encounter that will make him finally submit to the Lord. The setting is the Jabbok river, a fast-moving tributary that flows into the river Jordan. Jacob is anxious over the upcoming meeting with Esau; this is plain in his willingness to cross the river at night (32:22–23). This feat would have been especially dangerous with no light to guide him, but Jacob is so unsettled that he presses ahead.
Jacob stays behind as his family crosses the Jabbok, probably to make sure everyone gets across safely. In any case, he is left alone and soon finds himself wrestling with “a man” until daybreak (v. 24). Though not apparent at first, this man is really an appearance of God Himself (v. 30), perhaps in the guise of the Angel of the Lord.
Jacob’s wrestling with the Lord will bring him great blessing (vv. 25–29); in much the same way our engaging God blesses us. John Calvin agrees that this episode is paradigmatic of our wrestling with the Lord today. When the Father tests us, we may find ourselves struggling with Him, looking for blessing in the midst of our trouble. This striving is not blasphemous; wrestling with God can prove our faith if undertaken in the right spirit (v. 28).
Jesus shows how we are to wrestle with God. In Gethsemane, our Savior thrice confessed His dread at His Father’s wrath, asking Him each time to let the cup of suffering pass. But each time this request was accompanied by a trusting resolve to do God’s will, whatever it may be (Mark 14:32–42). Like Jesus, we may freely admit our fears to the Lord, but we must also be willing to submit to Him, no matter the difficulty it might bring.