For a long time, I’ve wondered about the purpose behind Jacob’s interactions with angels. There’s one story about him seeing a vision from God of the angels going up and down the ladder (Genesis 28:10-17), as well as one with him wrestling a being that we find out later was at least sent from God Himself (Genesis 32:24-32, esp. Gen. 32:28, 30).

There’s no doubt that out of all the patriarchs, Jacob enjoyed a unique relationship with the Creator – one that wasn’t marked necessarily by faith (Abraham), persecution (Joseph) or leadership (Moses). His relationship was very personal, but not in the way the others were.

A Different Type of Patriarch

For starters, Jacob obtained his blessing through deceit (Genesis 27), which means he really shouldn’t have been in this story to begin with. He is hunted down by his brother Esau for the act, who vows to kill him after the “days of mourning are past” (Genesis 27:41).

Jacob flees to his uncle Laban’s house, marries his two daughters (and their handmaidens), then finds strife with him as well. He runs for his life for a second time (Genesis 31:2), only to find himself pursued by his brother Esau and four hundred other men (Genesis 32:6-8). 

Later, Jacob would mourn the loss of Rachel (who died in childbirth – Genesis 35:16-21) and the supposed loss of Joseph (Genesis 37:18-36).

Jacob’s life was truly marked with sorrow, fear, and struggle, but rather than his persecution being external in nature like the other patriarchs, Jacob’s trials were innately personal.

A Changed Relationship

If you read the accounts of Jacob’s relationship with God, it shows evidence of a distance between him and God. For instance…

  • Genesis 28:13 – And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac…”
  • Genesis 31:42 – “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac”
  • Genesis 32:9 – “Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac”

Whether it’s God talking to Jacob or vice versa, the relationship between God and Jacob always centers around Jacob’s ancestors, such as Abraham and Isaac. Once the incident with the angel occurs, however, there’s a subtle shift in the way that Jacob addresses God from that point further.

In Genesis 32:28, the angel tells Jacob that his name will be changed as a result of the wrestling match; no longer will he be known as Jacob, but as Israel, “for he has striven with God and man and has prevailed.” Jacob responds by naming the place Peniel, or “soul.”

However, it’s not until after he reunites with Esau the next day that his fears are abated and he builds an altar to God by the name of El-Elohe-Israel, or the “Mighty God of Israel.”

Did you notice that? Previous to the struggle with the angel, Jacob had always referred to God in terms of his ancestors – the “God of Abraham” or the “God of Isaac” – but never in personal, intimate terms. Now, he calls God a name reflective of his own name change: “The Mighty God of Israel,” or in other words, “The Mighty God of Me.”

Jacob no longer internalizes God as a distant Creator of his ancestors, but as his own Father and Protector.

There’s evidence that this shift stuck. In Genesis 35:3, Jacob (Israel) wants to go to Bethel to erect another altar to God “who answered [Jacob] in the day of my distress and has been with [Jacob] wherever [Jacob] has gone.” Later, on his deathbed, Jacob would call God his “shepherd all [his] life to this day” (Genesis 48:15).

What Does This Mean For Us?

At this point, you may argue that I’m making too much of nothing. The references to God pre-match are passive, if anything, and Jacob’s dedication of the altars represents a hopeful attitude towards a new beginning in his personal life.

So be it.

But what it could also show is the reality of a faith that has become personalized. All of us, if we’re fortunate enough to have Godly parents, have had to come to the same realization that Jacob did, which is that you can’t rely on the faith of your parents anymore and have to form your own understanding of God. In short, you have to create your own “reason” for your hope apart from “it’s what my parents taught me” (1 Peter 3:15).

Usually, this faith comes about after a crisis of faith in your life. Whether it’s a huge, possibly overwhelming issue or simply an issue that seems big at the time, all of us are forced to look at our faith and ask the question: “What do I believe about God?”

Jacob had to. On the run from his family and from his in-laws and faced with a possible fight to the death with his older brother, Jacob needed to know that God was with him. The name change, the vision of the angel, the “striving with God” all formed a belief that was founded in the trust that with God’s help, he could overcome anything.

For that reason, we should not look at the trials we go through in this life as threats to our faith, but as events that sharpen our dedication to God. Once we’re forced to make our own decision about who God is, our faith becomes personalized (just like Jacob), and we’re able to march out further into the deep.

But we have to wrestle first.

Last modified: January 22, 2019