Episode #31: Did Jacob REALLY Defeat God in a Wrestling Match?! (+ Is there only ONE God according to the Bible?)
Welcome to episode #31 of the Bible Reading Podcast. Today’s passages are Esther 8, in which Esther and Mordecai save the Jews from Haman’s edict; Mark 3 and the calling together of Jesus’ 12 disciples and Romans 3, in which we learn that absolutely nobody is able to achieve God’s standards in and of themselves. Our focus passage for the day shifts back to Genesis and our old friend Jacob “The Goatman” BenIsaac, which I believe would be a pretty good wrestling name for Jacob. Genesis 32 sees God literally get a hold of Jacob, and Jacob getting a hold of God, and things get better for our ‘hero’ from there.
Wrestling was my jam when I was a kid, and I was privileged to grow up in the era of Hulkamania. You’d better believe I said my prayers and took my vitamins. Other than Hogan, my two favorites growing up were Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat and Billy Jack Haynes. I myself was a wrestler of some renown, basically a professional really, having won the 5th and 6th grade wrestling titles at my school for my weight class. My specialty move was the full nelson, which I know is illegal in real wrestling, but it was the only move I knew, which explains why I had to retire early, and never became a collegiate wrestling legend. Think of the greatest wrestling matches in history: Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage vs. Ricky The Dragon Steamboat. The Rock vs. Mankind, Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Triple H and even the best real wrestling match of my lifetime, which saw Rulon Gardner defeat Alexander Karelin, a giant of a man who hadn’t lost a wrestling match in 13 years. Go look that match up when the pod is over! But none of those matches even compare with the wrestling match we are going to read about today, because, at one point in history, a man wrestled with a Heavenly being and prevailed. Let’s read about it!
So – here’s the big question. Did Jacob actually defeat God in a wrestling match? Our answer, unfortunately, is a little complicated, because this one big question raises three other questions. #1 – Does the verb used in Genesis 32:28 “Prevailed in the CSB) indicate that Jacob WON the match? #2 Was Jacob actually wrestling God – as in YHVH the God of the Israelites and the Most High God? #3 – Did this being allow Jacob to win in order to bless him? So – let’s tackle the three questions in order:
#1 – Does the text here indicate that Jacob ‘won’ the match in the same way that, say, Rulon Gardner won against Karelin, or the Patriots beat the Rams in last year’s Super Bowl? To answer that question, we need to consider the Hebrew word “yakol ” This is a verb that occurs nearly 200 times in the Bible. Of those times, approximately 15 percent of the time, it is translated as ‘prevail,’ or something very similar to prevail. (As a refresher, ‘prevail’ means, ” prove more powerful than opposing forces; be victorious “) 15 percent is not a very high number, so this is not the normal meaning of the word. About 90 times – 40 percent of the occurrences, or so – the word is translated as “could” or “able,” both of which are far more neutral verbs that don’t necessarily indicate victory, but do indicate perseverance. Unfortunately, that is about as far as we can go. Most of the time when this Hebrew word appears, it doesn’t seem to indicate outright victory, but there are many times that it does. Unfortunately, context and grammar does not help us to definitely, beyond a doubt, establish whether or not Jacob actually wrestled God and won. The text could merely be saying that Jacob wrestled and did not give up, or he wrestled and persevered. Even if it is the less victorious meaning of the verb, it should still be acknowledged that this is something of a tremendous accomplishment – one that caused Jacob to be tremendously blessed, and changed the entire naming of the people of God. You might say that the name change to Israel proves that Jacob ‘won’ the match, but I don’t think so – Israel means to strive with God or contend with God – a meaning that doesn’t indicate victory.
#2 – Was Jacob actually wrestling with God? This is an interesting question that has an extremely long and not satisfyingly clear answer, and it will begin a discussion for us that won’t end today. The heading of my Bible on this section of Genesis 32 says “Jacob Wrestles with God,” so that settles it, correct? Well – not yet, actually. The headings in our Bibles were not inerrantly inspired by the Holy Spirit, because they were not part of the original text of the Bible. Clearly, Jacob believes that he has wrestled with God – because He names the place “Penuel” which is the Hebrew word for “face” and the Hebrew word for ‘god,’ put together. And indeed, Jacob is correct – the Hebrew of this passage and the Hebrew of a passage like Hosea 12 (which refers back to this passage) both tell us that Jacob has wrestled with an Elohim:
In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel,Hosea 12:3
and as an adult he wrestled with God.
Case closed, right?! The text says it right there – Jacob wrestled WITH GOD. Except…that word Elohim in the Hebrew is a very, very interesting word with a broader sense of meaning than we might realize. This fact will become very important as we read through the Bible, so we may as well begin to grapple with it now. (pun intended.) Consider Strong’s definition of Elohim:
אֱלֹהִים ʼĕlôhîym, el-o-heem’; plural of H433; gods in the ordinary sense; but specifically used (in the plural thus, especially with the article) of the supreme God; occasionally applied by way of deference to magistrates; and sometimes as a superlative:—angels, × exceeding, God (gods) (-dess, -ly), × (very) great, judges, × mighty.Strong’s Concordance
So – that word can mean gods (with a little ‘g’) It can mean the one supreme God and it can also be used for angels, magistrates (government leaders) and judges. Which is interesting. You might be thinking – wait a minute! There’s only one God, right?! And yes – there is only one Supreme Almighty God, and that God is Yahweh, which is the name that God gives to Moses for Himself. But, perhaps a bit confusingly, there are many Elohims. Consider Psalm 82:
God stands in the divine assembly;Psalm 82:1-7
he pronounces judgment among the gods:
2 “How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?Selah
3 Provide justice for the needy and the fatherless;
uphold the rights of the oppressed and the destitute.
4 Rescue the poor and needy;
save them from the power of the wicked.”
5 They do not know or understand;
they wander in darkness.
All the foundations of the earth are shaken.
6 I said, “You are gods;
you are all sons of the Most High.
7 However, you will die like humans
and fall like any other ruler.”
If that is not enough for you, consider these passages:
Lord, there is no one like you among the gods, and there are no works like yours.Psalm 86:8
For the Lord is great and is highly praised; he is feared above all gods.Psalm 96:4
So – what gives here? Several different Bible passages that seem to affirm that there may be more than one God? And I guess, not to be a politician or anything, but the key thing is what your definition of ‘God’ is. The Bible is quite clear that there are indeed many Elohims, but there is ONLY ONE GOD ABOVE GODS (Or, God Almighty) He is ONE in the sense that He is ABOVE ALL. Consider how these passages in Exodus Deuteronomy puts it:
Lord, who is like you among the gods?Exodus 15:11-12
Who is like you, glorious in holiness,
revered with praises, performing wonders?
For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awe-inspiring God, showing no partiality and taking no bribe.Deuteronomy 10:17
And that is the key. There are many heavenly beings (living in the ‘heavens,’ but not necessarily in Heaven,) but only ONE God who is the Creator and Master and Lord. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And that is why I am unsure that Jacob wrestled THE GOD. Maybe I haven’t convinced you, but I believe I might be able to if I tag in my partner Hosea again:
The Lord also has a dispute with Judah.Hosea 12:1-4
He is about to punish Jacob according to his conduct;
he will repay him based on his actions.
3 In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel,
and as an adult he wrestled with God.
4 Jacob struggled with the angel and prevailed;
he wept and sought his favor.
He found him at Bethel,
and there he spoke with him.
Did you catch it?! At first the text notes that Jacob wrestled with God, and then the text notes that He wrestled/struggled with the angel and prevailed. WHAT GIVES? And the answer, I believe, is that God sometimes manifests or appears as The Angel of YHVH, or the Angel of the Lord. Who is the Angel of the Lord? That is a question for another upcoming podcast, but very briefly, the Angel of the Lord first appears in Scripture in Genesis 16, when He rescues Hagar, mother of Ishmael, and sends her back to Abraham’s family. The next appearance of the Angel of the Lord is in Genesis 22, when the Angel of the Lord prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. Consider this passage and see how closely tied together the identity of the Angel of the Lord and Yahweh God are:
1But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”He replied, “Here I am.”12 Then he said, “Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it as a burnt offering in place of his son. 14 And Abraham named that place The Lord Will Provide, so today it is said: “It will be provided on the Lord’s mountain.” 15 Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn,” this is the Lord’s declaration: “Because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the city gates of their enemies. 18 And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed my command.”Genesis 22:11-18
So – did Jacob wrestle with God? I believe the answer is a somewhat weak and qualified ‘yes.’ In a sense, he did indeed wrestle with God, but it is important to recognize the mystery in a passage like this.
#3 Final question: Did The Angel of the Lord/God allow Jacob to “win.” As discussed above, it is unclear whether or not Jacob actually ‘won’ this match in the same way that we use the word ‘won.’ If there was a referee there, I do NOT believe that the ref would have held up Jacob’s hand and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, here is your winner!” I think that this being had power that dwarfed the strength and tenacity of Jacob, and yet He was obviously impressed with Jacob’s perseverance. This will be a theme we see repeated in the Bible too – spiritually and otherwise – God appears to be moved by perseverance. Jacob ‘prevailed’ in that he displayed remarkable courage and refusal to quit. God/the Angel of the Lord, could have ended this match in a nano-second (as we will soon see in other appearances of the Angel of the Lord), but I believe that this text shows, in the same way a father enjoys ‘wrestling’ with His toddler, that God/the Angel of the Lord, might also enjoy wrestling with His children.
Addendum: For those who are curious – does the view above indicate that I believe the Hebrews practiced some sort of polytheism? Not in the least! Here’s Dr. Michael Heiser with a detailed answer to that question:
The biblical writers refer to a half-dozen different entities with the word elohim. By any religious accounting, the attributes of those entities are not equal.The Unseen Realm, Dr. Michael Heiser
•Yahweh, the God of Israel (thousands of times—e.g., Gen 2:4–5; Deut 4:35)
•The members of Yahweh’s council (Psa 82:1, 6)
•Gods and goddesses of other nations (Judg 11:24; 1 Kgs 11:33)
•Demons (Hebrew: shedim—Deut 32:17)3
•The deceased Samuel (1 Sam 28:13)
•Angels or the Angel of Yahweh4 (Gen 35:7)
The importance of this list can be summarized with one question: Would any Israelite, especially a biblical writer, really believe that the deceased human dead and demons are on the same level as Yahweh? No. The usage of the term elohim by biblical writers tells us very clearly that the term is not about a set of attributes. Even though when we see “G-o-d” we think of a unique set of attributes, when a biblical writer wrote elohim, he wasn’t thinking that way. If he were, he’d never have used the term elohim to describe anything but Yahweh.
Consequently, there is no warrant for concluding that plural elohim produces a pantheon of interchangeable deities. There is no basis for concluding that the biblical writers would have viewed Yahweh as no better than another elohim. A biblical writer would not have presumed that Yahweh could be defeated on any given day by another elohim, or that another elohim (why not any of them?) had the same set of attributes.