Genesis 32 has always been a chapter dear to me. In it, Jacob comes face to face with his past. Since the start of his life, Jacob’s life was full of deceit and lies. He was the type of person that made his way in life by taking from others; he was a characteristic trickster. He was also the type that would divert responsibility to others. While his older brother Esau was out hunting, providing for his family, Jacob was home. In fact, Genesis 25:27 describes him as a “quiet man, dwelling in tents”. Suffice to say, you would not find Jacob out hunting for food, but rather spending time in the kitchen with his mother. He was a bit of a coward.
Jacob’s irresponsibility and trickery climaxed in his swindling of the birth right that belonged rightly to Esau. In fact, he did this by dressing up like his brother, and tricking his father into blessing him (Gen 27). Because of this, Esau was enraged and threatened to kill his brother (Gen 27:41), and Jacob was sent away by his mother into hiding. Jacob’s lying and scheming had made him an exile. And in fact, Jacob never returned home for fear of his brother. And as a result, that part of his life became a burden that he simply couldn’t shake. It was a sin that he had always tried to run from.
And when we arrive at Genesis 32, we find that Esau, his brother, had found where his brother Jacob was living; and, Esau desired to confront him (Gen 32:6). This reasonably made Jacob fear for his life (Gen 32:8); that all his past sins had come back to condemn him. How was Jacob going to rid himself of his past? How could he appease his angry brother?
Interestingly enough, Jacob tries to buy off his brother by giving him gifts (Gen 32:13-21). Jacob did this, thinking that just maybe, Esau would “accept [him]” (Gen 32:20). Jacob was trying to atone for his own sins against Esau by way of bribery! He was trying to satisfy Esau’s anger by providing gifts. He was trying to purchase his own redemption.
After having sent the gifts, Jacob waited anxiously for his brother’s response all night long, alone (Gen 32:24a). How much his conscience must’ve tormented him! One could picture him as wrestling with his own conscience throughout the night.
But this wasn’t the only thing he wrestled with…
As he waited in agony, Jacob was interrupted when a person began to wrestle with him. Ironically, as Jacob wrestled with his own sin, this man began to wrestle with him. Hopefully you can see the symbolism here; as Jacob was trying to subdue his own sinful past, this man was subduing him. In fact, the struggle was so real, and so hard, Jacob’s hip was immediately dislocated as result (Gen 32:24-26).
I think at this point, Jacob figured out that this man wasn’t merely human, but divine. He didn’t have normal strength, but a supernatural strength. This was God forcing Jacob into submission to his divine will (Gen 32:30). God himself tackled Jacob in order to communicate something very important: as Jacob tried to wiggle himself out of his past, God was willing to redeem him from his past. While Jacob was trying to appease his own conscience, God was willing to cleanse his conscience. And it took the pain of a dislocated hip to realize this.
Jacob came to apprehend this, and rather than simply giving in, he asked for a blessing from his divine opponent. God was pleased to do this. And it’s interesting that God not only blessed Jacob, but he renamed him. God made him into a new person. He gave him a new identity. I think that this detail cannot be overlooked. Right in the middle of a personal struggle to rid himself of his sinful past, the God of the universe struggled with Jacob to redeem and make him a new creation.
And I think we learn from this episode that Jacob had to learn to stop trying to escape, lie, or atone for his past sins and submit to justifying grace. Jacob needed to submit to the subduing grace of God for sinners.
Amazingly, the next day, Jacob felt a new courage to approach his past (Gen 33:3). And, rather than receiving condemnation from Esau (what he justly deserved), Jacob received a warm embrace (Gen 33:4). This was confirmation for Jacob that God himself had forgiven him of his sin. He says to Esau, “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me“. Jacob knew that he was accepted by God!
Is this not the same grace that God has for us all? Is it not a grace that wrestles us into a faith that trusts in God’s forgiving provision alone? It is! God wrestles with us every day to rest in the justifying love given to sinners in Christ; a justifying love that we, like Jacob, can neither buy nor work toward. It is a merit that comes through Christ’s own righteousness, and certainly, not our own.