Wrestling with God

Our Scripture in church yesterday was another one of those enigmatic, yet profoundly evocative texts:  Jacob wrestling with the LORD (Genesis 32:22-30).  Pastor Douthwaite’s sermon, again, unfolded and applied it in some striking ways.  Read the whole sermon here:   St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Pentecost 21 Sermon.  I will just quote a few sentences:

We find out that God was there with Jacob. In fact, it was God who was wrestling with Jacob! God appearing in hostile form, in order to help Jacob. . . .

God lets Himself be overcome, to bless Jacob.. . .

The God who appeared hostile in the night was Jacob’s Saviour in the morning.. . .

The Son of God who, just as in His wrestling match with Jacob, allows Himself to be overcome by man on the cross, in order to bless.. . .

So that you, like Jacob and like this widow, though you must wrestle and struggle night and day, not let God go. . . .That in the struggle, you cling to Him alone. That in the struggle, though God seem like an enemy, you cling to Him as your Father.. . .

How do you cling to a God you cannot see? Where do you cling to Him? By, as St. Paul told Timothy, clinging to His Word.. . .

Know this: that the God who came to wrestle with Jacob, the God who came and struggled for you on the cross, the God who overcame sin, death, and the devil, the God who comes now and cares for you, will not let you go.

What were you made to see in this text?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    Can a lesson that offers real hope be drawn from Jacob’s wrestling with God? If it never really happened – as is said about so much else in Genesis?

  • Tom Hering

    Can a lesson that offers real hope be drawn from Jacob’s wrestling with God? If it never really happened – as is said about so much else in Genesis?

  • Dan Kempin

    I don’t know. Far be it from me to criticize another pastor’s sermon, so I won’t, but this is a text that I have always struggled with (no pun intended), and therefore hesitate to preach. There are some key questions to ask:

    Why do we assume it is a good thing that Jacob wrestled with God? Is this an example of faith or of doubt? In support I submit the evidence of Jacob’s entire previous life–grasping and wrestling to assure that which was already assured by the promise of God.

    I do certainly agree that Jacob came out of the experience a changed man, but his own analysis of events was not that he had “wrestled” a blessing from God. His own words were, “I saw God face to face and my life was spared.”

    The only reason I comment at all is because I preached on the gospel text and came to the startling conclusion that I had never really looked at it carefully. Does God really want us to pray like the widow? Or is she an example of how we often DO pray to God–as though He is a strict and stingy judge who must be persuaded only with loveless manipulation?

  • Dan Kempin

    I don’t know. Far be it from me to criticize another pastor’s sermon, so I won’t, but this is a text that I have always struggled with (no pun intended), and therefore hesitate to preach. There are some key questions to ask:

    Why do we assume it is a good thing that Jacob wrestled with God? Is this an example of faith or of doubt? In support I submit the evidence of Jacob’s entire previous life–grasping and wrestling to assure that which was already assured by the promise of God.

    I do certainly agree that Jacob came out of the experience a changed man, but his own analysis of events was not that he had “wrestled” a blessing from God. His own words were, “I saw God face to face and my life was spared.”

    The only reason I comment at all is because I preached on the gospel text and came to the startling conclusion that I had never really looked at it carefully. Does God really want us to pray like the widow? Or is she an example of how we often DO pray to God–as though He is a strict and stingy judge who must be persuaded only with loveless manipulation?

  • Bryan Lindemood

    preaching in the 1 year series currently. Isaiah 55. “Seek the Lord while He may be found.”

    But i like the idea of wrestling with both the devil and God in the night – which happens – even though we would all (well most of us would) rather sleep in quiet peace. I’ve really been finding much comfort in the Word of the Lord (especially the psalms) during some of my own restless nights. The Gospel, yes mercy, comes in the morning with the dawn of a new day (and time resting in the Word of the Lord and in prayer).

  • Bryan Lindemood

    preaching in the 1 year series currently. Isaiah 55. “Seek the Lord while He may be found.”

    But i like the idea of wrestling with both the devil and God in the night – which happens – even though we would all (well most of us would) rather sleep in quiet peace. I’ve really been finding much comfort in the Word of the Lord (especially the psalms) during some of my own restless nights. The Gospel, yes mercy, comes in the morning with the dawn of a new day (and time resting in the Word of the Lord and in prayer).

  • shell

    The prophet Hosea preached on this pericope:
    “The Lord has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us— the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord is his memorial name: ‘So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.’” Hosea 12:2-6

  • shell

    The prophet Hosea preached on this pericope:
    “The Lord has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us— the Lord, the God of hosts, the Lord is his memorial name: ‘So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.’” Hosea 12:2-6

  • http://www.hempelstudios.com Sarah in Exile

    I love that we have a lectionary. We heard the same scripture in our church all the way in Slippery Rock.

  • http://www.hempelstudios.com Sarah in Exile

    I love that we have a lectionary. We heard the same scripture in our church all the way in Slippery Rock.

  • WebMonk

    Tom, JUST to play devil’s advocate here, because I think this particular argument is one that needs a lot of sharpening…

    Jacob and his story were recorded to tell about God, not the individual characters except as they represent mankind. Jacob (including his father and grandfather in the stories) were literary vehicles to convey the information about God.

    A, I, and J may have been real people, touched by God, but whether or not they were doesn’t change the fact that God inspired the stories and they tell us about God and what He is like – he loves us, he has mercy, he is just, he is righteous, he works in the affairs of man, etc. Whether or not someone with a video camera would have seen Jacob wrestling with God that night, doesn’t change the lessons for us which is taught by the story.

    (yes, I’m slightly bored at work, I just finished a marathon meeting, and I can’t continue any work until I get some information from a coworker who isn’t here, so I suspect I’m trolling for an argument to pass the time)

  • WebMonk

    Tom, JUST to play devil’s advocate here, because I think this particular argument is one that needs a lot of sharpening…

    Jacob and his story were recorded to tell about God, not the individual characters except as they represent mankind. Jacob (including his father and grandfather in the stories) were literary vehicles to convey the information about God.

    A, I, and J may have been real people, touched by God, but whether or not they were doesn’t change the fact that God inspired the stories and they tell us about God and what He is like – he loves us, he has mercy, he is just, he is righteous, he works in the affairs of man, etc. Whether or not someone with a video camera would have seen Jacob wrestling with God that night, doesn’t change the lessons for us which is taught by the story.

    (yes, I’m slightly bored at work, I just finished a marathon meeting, and I can’t continue any work until I get some information from a coworker who isn’t here, so I suspect I’m trolling for an argument to pass the time)

  • WebMonk

    Sarah @5 – Slippery Rock, PA?

  • WebMonk

    Sarah @5 – Slippery Rock, PA?

  • wrigley peterborough

    I see that St. A’s uses the three year lectionary. Those of us who still get our bread from the pre-Vatican II lectionary heard something different from the pews on Sunday. What I like about the 1 year lectionary most are the collects that the church throughout the ages had scripted to precede (and gather thoughts around) the readings for the day. The Vatican II collects for the new three year play list don’t, to me, seem as profound (or as well written).

  • wrigley peterborough

    I see that St. A’s uses the three year lectionary. Those of us who still get our bread from the pre-Vatican II lectionary heard something different from the pews on Sunday. What I like about the 1 year lectionary most are the collects that the church throughout the ages had scripted to precede (and gather thoughts around) the readings for the day. The Vatican II collects for the new three year play list don’t, to me, seem as profound (or as well written).

  • Abby

    “. . .the God who comes now and cares for you, will not let you go.”

    I love those words. It is very comforting to hear this during my daily struggles with God. That, even though I feel like I let Him go, He struggles with me and will not let me go. It answers my question–do I still belong to Him? It helps me release doubt. And when it reemerges, I can go back and read it again.

  • Abby

    “. . .the God who comes now and cares for you, will not let you go.”

    I love those words. It is very comforting to hear this during my daily struggles with God. That, even though I feel like I let Him go, He struggles with me and will not let me go. It answers my question–do I still belong to Him? It helps me release doubt. And when it reemerges, I can go back and read it again.

  • fws

    Dan @ 2

    I read the parables as Our Lord´s own “Lecture series on Law and Gospel. ”

    Law Gospel in the Parables is usually Kingdom of Earth and Kingdom of Heaven. It is true even if those two categories are not mentioned.

    Our Lord uses earthly kingdom things that are about justice to reveal heavenly kingdom things that are about mercy, grace and goodness and… judgement.

    The goodness and mercy feel reckless and justice seems harsh in the heavenly kingdom precisely because they break the rules for what is, truly, earthly righteousness. On earth for example, righteousness is strictly about what we do and never about who we are. In the heavenly kingdom this is exactly reversed. Judgement based strictly upon who someone is feels especially harsh, unfair and even cruel.

    We often make the mistake of alegorizing to make earthly kingdom justice into heavenly kingdom stuff of faith, and we alegorize to make heavenly kingdom faith conform to earthly kingdom justice.

    Example of this is alegorizing a judge without first table faith in god or second table respect for neighbor, ie completely lawless, into the god the widow seeks justice from. so I guess then the widow must be believers? Instead let the judge and widow be completely earthly kingdom. After all, this is the perfect picture of how righeousness is done in the earthly kingdom. God produces righteousness even from all the wicked for those who have lost everything and have nothing left to do but nag (widow) . This is so that faith might be alone in the heavenly kingdom:

    How much more then, that we, who have nothing left, including being without righteousness just like that judge AND like the widow, having been stripped by the Law will receive Mercy from a Judge who is truly good!? Will faith be found when the Son of Man returns? No. Does it matter? No. The Judge will be faithful regardless of our unfaithfulness . This is Heavenly Kingdom stuff. When the Kingdom , Christ, returns.

  • fws

    Dan @ 2

    I read the parables as Our Lord´s own “Lecture series on Law and Gospel. ”

    Law Gospel in the Parables is usually Kingdom of Earth and Kingdom of Heaven. It is true even if those two categories are not mentioned.

    Our Lord uses earthly kingdom things that are about justice to reveal heavenly kingdom things that are about mercy, grace and goodness and… judgement.

    The goodness and mercy feel reckless and justice seems harsh in the heavenly kingdom precisely because they break the rules for what is, truly, earthly righteousness. On earth for example, righteousness is strictly about what we do and never about who we are. In the heavenly kingdom this is exactly reversed. Judgement based strictly upon who someone is feels especially harsh, unfair and even cruel.

    We often make the mistake of alegorizing to make earthly kingdom justice into heavenly kingdom stuff of faith, and we alegorize to make heavenly kingdom faith conform to earthly kingdom justice.

    Example of this is alegorizing a judge without first table faith in god or second table respect for neighbor, ie completely lawless, into the god the widow seeks justice from. so I guess then the widow must be believers? Instead let the judge and widow be completely earthly kingdom. After all, this is the perfect picture of how righeousness is done in the earthly kingdom. God produces righteousness even from all the wicked for those who have lost everything and have nothing left to do but nag (widow) . This is so that faith might be alone in the heavenly kingdom:

    How much more then, that we, who have nothing left, including being without righteousness just like that judge AND like the widow, having been stripped by the Law will receive Mercy from a Judge who is truly good!? Will faith be found when the Son of Man returns? No. Does it matter? No. The Judge will be faithful regardless of our unfaithfulness . This is Heavenly Kingdom stuff. When the Kingdom , Christ, returns.

  • fws

    shell @ 4

    that is a great catch from Hosea. I had never applied that to the story of Jacob before. I will need to give that some thought. Thanks!

  • fws

    shell @ 4

    that is a great catch from Hosea. I had never applied that to the story of Jacob before. I will need to give that some thought. Thanks!

  • Lutheran Loner

    My first post. Thanks for this excellent blog and Happy Birthday Dr. Veith. I just turned 50 myself.

    I may get nailed for being too “literary” with the Holy Scriptures but here goes . . .

    For me, I’d love to know what they were arguing about. Something must have been eating at Jacob for him to send everyone away and withdraw like that. Is it a “good thing” that he argued with God. This is certainly not an exact analogy, but Jesus also did something similar in the garden before his execution. Certainly his prayers were no breezy acceptance of what was to come. Is it really about doubt or, perhaps, about taking the promise seriously? Maybe doubt has a role to play in that. I don’t get that he was afraid to face things, and that would signal to me a lack of faith.

    While I really appreciate the attempt to draw out a theologia crucis in the sermon, I’m not sure it quite fits this particular text. Maybe, but I’m not sure. The whole “blessing” aspect of the story is Jacob’s idea initially. We aren’t really told what the “quarrel” is about (“quarrels with God” is an important interpretation for Jews of the name Israel). Jacob insists on being blessed (again!), but what he gets instead is a direct encounter with God. It kind of reminds me of Job – the caricature of God in the beginning of the story (I think that is what it is, in keeping with his interrogators wrongheadedness) is not exactly the actual, living God revealed to Job. I think something similar is happening here. It seems important that the name of the place given by Jacob is Peniel for “Face of God” and not some other name for “Blessed by God.”

    Now, having said all that, it might be argued that this revelatory encounter is itself a kind of blessing, the one he finally does receive. I would not disagree. It is almost as if God relents and blesses Jacob to get him to chill out. It reminds me of the way Jesus does when he heals the paralytic by forgiving his sins. This is not satisfactory to the religious expectations present so the Lord says “So that you will know the Son . . . has the power to forgive” in Mat 9 and Luke 5 “Take up you mat and walk.” In this case, it is as if God says to Jacob as he pins him to the ground “Alright, alright, calm down. Yes, you have the blessing, just like you were always told by your parents. Yes, you’re right. It is yours, and from now on your name will be Mr. Fussy Britches. Whew! You are a real piece of work, Jake. I like you!”

    Oh wow! This sounds like Jacob just went through the ideal confirmation class.

    Stephen

    PS Just so you know, if the Rangers win the pennant it is because my dad is newly joined with Jesus in heaven and pestering him.

  • Lutheran Loner

    My first post. Thanks for this excellent blog and Happy Birthday Dr. Veith. I just turned 50 myself.

    I may get nailed for being too “literary” with the Holy Scriptures but here goes . . .

    For me, I’d love to know what they were arguing about. Something must have been eating at Jacob for him to send everyone away and withdraw like that. Is it a “good thing” that he argued with God. This is certainly not an exact analogy, but Jesus also did something similar in the garden before his execution. Certainly his prayers were no breezy acceptance of what was to come. Is it really about doubt or, perhaps, about taking the promise seriously? Maybe doubt has a role to play in that. I don’t get that he was afraid to face things, and that would signal to me a lack of faith.

    While I really appreciate the attempt to draw out a theologia crucis in the sermon, I’m not sure it quite fits this particular text. Maybe, but I’m not sure. The whole “blessing” aspect of the story is Jacob’s idea initially. We aren’t really told what the “quarrel” is about (“quarrels with God” is an important interpretation for Jews of the name Israel). Jacob insists on being blessed (again!), but what he gets instead is a direct encounter with God. It kind of reminds me of Job – the caricature of God in the beginning of the story (I think that is what it is, in keeping with his interrogators wrongheadedness) is not exactly the actual, living God revealed to Job. I think something similar is happening here. It seems important that the name of the place given by Jacob is Peniel for “Face of God” and not some other name for “Blessed by God.”

    Now, having said all that, it might be argued that this revelatory encounter is itself a kind of blessing, the one he finally does receive. I would not disagree. It is almost as if God relents and blesses Jacob to get him to chill out. It reminds me of the way Jesus does when he heals the paralytic by forgiving his sins. This is not satisfactory to the religious expectations present so the Lord says “So that you will know the Son . . . has the power to forgive” in Mat 9 and Luke 5 “Take up you mat and walk.” In this case, it is as if God says to Jacob as he pins him to the ground “Alright, alright, calm down. Yes, you have the blessing, just like you were always told by your parents. Yes, you’re right. It is yours, and from now on your name will be Mr. Fussy Britches. Whew! You are a real piece of work, Jake. I like you!”

    Oh wow! This sounds like Jacob just went through the ideal confirmation class.

    Stephen

    PS Just so you know, if the Rangers win the pennant it is because my dad is newly joined with Jesus in heaven and pestering him.

  • Lutheran Loner

    It occurred to me that in my long post I did not include my answer to the question – what was I made to see in the text? An interesting question in itself. I love this story, and it has great personal importance for me, hence I could not resist my lengthy response. But here is what I’d say I hear personally . . .

    I see that it is good to take the promise of salvation, the Word of God, the Gospel, quite seriously. It might mean to withdraw perhaps, wrestle a little or a lot, and yes, “quarrel” with God if need be. Faith seeking understanding? Maybe Jacob was doing theology. God blesses such activity with his presence, revealing himself to us, even if He must “disable us” with his great love to do it. In the end, if we seek to be faithful, God, who is always faithful and abounding in steadfast love, will not fail to show himself to us. Seek his face, says the Psalmist. This is God we’re talking about, but he is not a tyrant. He is the loving Father. The promise is assured, certainly, but as we live in this sinful world, our desiring can only be fraught at times. His grace is sufficient – deep and wide enough for this very activity. Perfect love has no fear.

    So Jacob crossed the river and I think what Jacob did was an act of faith. How’s that?

    So, I guess I agree with the theological sentiment of the sermon (maybe not how he got there) in the same way that I agree with Luther that the entire scripture, ultimately, reveals Christ.

  • Lutheran Loner

    It occurred to me that in my long post I did not include my answer to the question – what was I made to see in the text? An interesting question in itself. I love this story, and it has great personal importance for me, hence I could not resist my lengthy response. But here is what I’d say I hear personally . . .

    I see that it is good to take the promise of salvation, the Word of God, the Gospel, quite seriously. It might mean to withdraw perhaps, wrestle a little or a lot, and yes, “quarrel” with God if need be. Faith seeking understanding? Maybe Jacob was doing theology. God blesses such activity with his presence, revealing himself to us, even if He must “disable us” with his great love to do it. In the end, if we seek to be faithful, God, who is always faithful and abounding in steadfast love, will not fail to show himself to us. Seek his face, says the Psalmist. This is God we’re talking about, but he is not a tyrant. He is the loving Father. The promise is assured, certainly, but as we live in this sinful world, our desiring can only be fraught at times. His grace is sufficient – deep and wide enough for this very activity. Perfect love has no fear.

    So Jacob crossed the river and I think what Jacob did was an act of faith. How’s that?

    So, I guess I agree with the theological sentiment of the sermon (maybe not how he got there) in the same way that I agree with Luther that the entire scripture, ultimately, reveals Christ.

  • George A. Marquart

    There are a number of places in the Bible where we assume that whatever is being related is good and proper, but it is not necessarily so. I suspect that the election of Matthias is one of these; I suspect that Elijah’s killing of the prophets of Baal is one of these; and I suspect that when Moses ordered the killing of three thousand people during the “Golden Calf” incident, that was also one of these.

    The story of Jacob begins with deceit. That is not God’s way. Nevertheless, God had chosen Jacob. But before the promises of God could become true, Jacob had to be purged of the evil with which he had earned the birthright. He had to become a different person. This is what happened during the night in which Jacob wrestled with “a man.” Just as we receive our names when we are baptized, so Jacob received a new name to signify the new person he had become.

    Except for the part about Baptism, this is what some Rabbis teach. But it seemed to me that to the children of the New Covenant, the implication of Baptism is obvious.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  • George A. Marquart

    There are a number of places in the Bible where we assume that whatever is being related is good and proper, but it is not necessarily so. I suspect that the election of Matthias is one of these; I suspect that Elijah’s killing of the prophets of Baal is one of these; and I suspect that when Moses ordered the killing of three thousand people during the “Golden Calf” incident, that was also one of these.

    The story of Jacob begins with deceit. That is not God’s way. Nevertheless, God had chosen Jacob. But before the promises of God could become true, Jacob had to be purged of the evil with which he had earned the birthright. He had to become a different person. This is what happened during the night in which Jacob wrestled with “a man.” Just as we receive our names when we are baptized, so Jacob received a new name to signify the new person he had become.

    Except for the part about Baptism, this is what some Rabbis teach. But it seemed to me that to the children of the New Covenant, the implication of Baptism is obvious.

    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  • kerner

    My daughter named our new grandson Israel because of this passage.

  • kerner

    My daughter named our new grandson Israel because of this passage.


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