Genesis 32:24–32 records the account where Jacob wrestled with a mysterious man who changed his life forever. This scene takes place at the Jabbok river, which is an essential detail in this narrative because it’s the boundary to the promised land. The name Jabbok is a play on words with Jacob’s name. Do you see it? “Jacob/Jabbok!” The word “Jabbok” means “wrestling” or “twisting river.” For his entire life, Jacob was the epitome of a fierce wrestler as well. He wrestled with Esau in the womb and came out grabbing his heel. Later on, he again wrestled with Esau and cheated him twice. Jacob also wrestled with his uncle Laban and tricked him. At this wrestling river called Jabbok, Jacob is about to have the ultimate wrestling match of his life. In the solitude of darkness, this mysterious man begins wrestling him, and this struggle continues with intensity all night. Right before dawn, this man touches Jacob’s hip socket and wounds him. The word used for “touch” here means a soft touch. It wasn’t a powerful torque or a punch, but simply a touch. In other words, God gently, yet powerfully, wounds Jacob’s hip and leaves him writhing in pain! As the day breaks, this mysterious man urges Jacob to let him go, but Jacob is relentless and won’t let go until he gets blessed. This is somewhat shocking. What would we expect? We would expect Jacob to be bowled over in agony because God knocked his hip out of its socket. Wouldn’t Jacob want this man to let him go so he could nurse his wound? Instead, he grabs on more tightly and won’t let go until he’s personally blessed.
This story still carries more tension as the mystery man asks Jacob for his name. Why would he need to know Jacob’s name? Was God in need of some information? In this definitive moment of truth, Jacob would have to finally admit to the living God his real identity—his identity as a deceiver. What does the name Jacob mean? Deceiver! Heel Grabber! Jacob would have to come clean and admit that he was a wicked con man and a master manipulator. You can picture it in your mind, can’t you? Jacob is dripping with sweat, writhing in pain, breathing heavily, and then he pauses—it hits him—he comes face to face with the sinister meaning of his name. In agony, he whispers “Jacob. My name is Deceiver! Heal grabber! Sinner! Unworthy wretch!” In another powerful turn of events, God changes Jacob’s name to Israel because he fought with God and won. Only the living God has the power to change Jacob’s name and his identity.
Jacob then calls the place Peniel which means “face of God.” He has seen God face to face. He wrestled with God and wasn’t annihilated. The LORD didn’t scorch him with holy fire. The LORD didn’t obliterate him into a million pieces. In mercy, God wounded Jacob, and he came out with a limp, even though the LORD spared his life. And more importantly, his name was changed. He had a new identity, Israel, which was profoundly significant. Jacob stood on the border of the promised land as the only one who wrestled with God. This new identity as Israel would serve as a foreshadowing of the life of the nation from there on out—a people that wrestled with God. For the rest of his life, Jacob walked with a limp as a daily reminder that God had touched him, changed him, wounded him, broken him.
Does this make any sense? How does God bless Jacob? By wounding him. How does God strengthen Jacob? By humbling him. How does God transform Jacob? By wrenching his hip, breaking him, and ultimately giving him a new name. Sometimes God must wound us before he can use us. Does God desire for us to live in prideful self-sufficiency where we have life all figured out? Does God prefer that we are in charge of our lives as we walk confidently in our power? Or does God will that we would walk with a limp? That we would walk in weakness and utter dependence upon him. Does this attitude describe you? A. W. Tozer said, “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” Have you been hurt deeply through enduring sufferings and trials so that God can use you mightily for his glory?