The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
Jacob’s night with God is not a story about how Jacob defeated God in a wrestling match. Jacob did not defeat God. Rather, God defeated Jacob.
If you know anything about wrestling, then you will know that wrestling starts from the legs (including the feet and hips). Wrestling is about using your feet and hips to gain leverage over your opponent. Without the use of his hips, Jacob would have no means of gaining leverage. This left him with only one option. He could only throw his arms around God and cling to Him, not in an effort to overpower Him, for he had no means of leverage, but rather in an effort to remain in God’s presence (much in the same way Mary Magdalene would later do to Jesus near the reopened mouth of a garden tomb).
Jacob was a wrestler from the start. He wrestled while yet in the womb (Genesis 25:21-23). He wrestled at the moment of his birth, with one hand gripping the heel of his brother’s foot (Genesis 25:26). He was conceived a wrestler, he was born a wrestler, he grew up a wrestler, wrestling with everyone from God to men.
But being a wrestler meant more than just a physical activity. Jacob was also a master manipulator. He wrestled God and men in more ways than one. With his mother’s encouragement, he wrestled his brother out of the family blessing by deceiving his father (Genesis 27). He had earlier wrestled his brother out of his birthright for a bowl of soup (Genesis 25:29-34). He wrestled his uncle out of the best of his wealth (Genesis 30:25-43). He even tried to manipulate God out of a blessing with the promise of future obedience (Genesis 28:10-22). His deceptions and bargains were attempts to gain leverage over his opponent.
In this respect we are all like Jacob. Conceived in sin and born into ignorance, we spend our lives attempting to manipulate both God and men. We think to wrestle God into accepting us as righteous based upon promises of obedience. We think to bargain with Him by offering Him sacrifices of self righteousness.
But at some point along the way, like Jacob, God breaks His people’s cycle of manipulation. And at that point, we find ourselves able only to cling to His gospel, to His righteousness, to His cross.
The text says that Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed. This doesn’t mean he wrestled with God and won. Rather, it is better understood in the sense that although Jacob had spent his life wrestling with God, he now lived. God had brought him to repent of his efforts to manipulate. Although he had wasted many years trying to manipulate God, nevertheless, by the grace of God, he had now emerged from the other side of a life spent manipulating. Though he was dead, by the grace of God he now lived. By God’s grace he had prevailed.