Here is a summary of a journal article that seeks to explain Jacob’s encounter with God at the crossing of the Jabbok River: http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/OTeSources/01-Genesis/Text/Articles-Books/Ross_JacobPeniel_BSac.htm
THE NATURE OF JACOB
The special significance of Jacob’s becoming Israel is the
purification of character. Peniel marks the triumph of the higher
over the lower elements of his life; but if it is a triumph for the
higher elements, it is a defeat for the lower. The outcome of the
match is a paradox. The victor (“you … have prevailed,” Gen.
350 Bibliotheca Sacra – October-December 1985
32:28) wept (Hos. 12:4) and pleaded for a blessing: once blessed he
emerged, limping on a dislocated hip. How may this be a victory
and a blessing?
The defeat of Jacob. Because Jacob was guilty, he feared his
brother and found God an adversary. Jacob prepared to meet Esau,
whom he had deceived, but the patriarch had to meet God first.
God broke Jacob’s strength before blessing him with the promise of
real strength (the emphasis is on God’s activity).
When God touched the strongest sinew of Jacob, the wrestler,
it shriveled, and with it Jacob’s persistent self-confidence.65 His
carnal weapons were lamed and useless–they failed him in his
contest with God. He had always been sure of the result only when
he helped himself, but his trust in the naked force of his own
weapons was now without value.
The victory of Jacob. What he had surmised for the past 20
years now dawned on him–he was in the hands of One against
whom it is useless to struggle. One wrestles on only when he thinks
his opponent can be beaten. With the crippling touch, Jacob’s
struggle took a new direction. With the same scrappy persistence
he clung to his Opponent for a blessing. His goal was now different.
Now crippled in his natural strength he became bold in faith.
Thus it became a show of significant courage. Jacob won a
blessing that entailed changing his name. It must be stressed that
he was not wrestling with a river demon or Esau or his alter ego,
but with One who was able to bless him.
He emerged from the encounter an altered man. After winning
God’s blessing legitimately, the danger with Esau vanished. He had
THE PROMISES TO JACOB
What, then, is the significance of this narrative within the
structure of the patriarchal history? In the encounter the empha-
sis on promise and fulfillment seems threatened. At Bethel a prom-
ise was given: at the Jabbok fulfillment seemed to be barred as God
opposed Jacob’s entrance into the land. Was there a change of
attitude with Yahweh who promised the land? Or was this simply a
In a similar but different story, Moses was met by God because
he had not complied with God’s will (Exod. 4:24). With Jacob,
however, the wrestling encounter and name changes took on a
greater significance because he was at the frontier of the land
promised to the seed of Abraham. God, the real Proprietor of the
Jacob at the Jabbok, Israel at Peniel 351
land, opposed his entering as Jacob. If it were only a matter of mere
strength, then He let Jacob know he would never enter the land.66
The narrative, then, supplies a moral judgment on the crafty
Jacob who was almost destroyed in spite of the promise. Judging
from Jacob’s clinging for a blessing, the patriarch made the same
judgment on himself.
THE DESCENDANTS OF JACOB
On the surface the story seems to be a glorification of the
physical strength and bold spirit of the ancestor of the Israelites.67
However, like so much of the patriarchal history, it is transparent
as a type of what Israel, the nation, experienced from time to time
with God.68 The story of Israel the man serves as an acted par-
able of the life of the nation, in which the nation’s entire history
with God is presented, almost prophetically, as a struggle until
the breaking of day.69 The patriarch portrays the real spirit of
the nation, engaging in the persistent struggle with God until
they emerge strong in His blessing. Consequently the nation is re-
ferred to as Jacob or Israel, depending on which characteristics
The point of the story for the nation of Israel entering the land
of promise is clear: Israel’s victory will come not by the usual ways
nations gain power, but by the power of the divine blessing. And
later in her history Israel would be reminded that the restoration to
the land would not be by might, nor by strength, but by the Spirit of
the Lord God who fights for His people (Zech. 4:6). The blessings of
God come by His gracious, powerful provisions, not by mere phys-
ical strength or craftiness. In fact there are times when God must
cripple the natural strength of His servants so that they may be
bold in faith.