WHY WRESTLE?: Wrestling with Scripture #2
Updated: Oct 29
Several months ago, my pastor preached on a difficult section of Scripture. He admitted that he had wrestled with the passages during the previous week and concluded by challenging us to wrestle with them in the upcoming one.
His words reminded me of the story in Genesis 32:24-30 of Jacob wrestling all night with God. The text says Jacob was alone and terrified of his upcoming confrontation with the brother he wronged twenty years earlier. I admit I’ve skimmed rather uneasily over the account since it seemed strange to me that the Creator of the universe could not easily overcome a mere man in hand-to-hand combat, finally resorting to displacing Jacob’s hip, leaving him permanently lame, in order to end the match. A closer look, time with a study Bible, and a search of several online commentaries and sermons, revealed the following:
Jacob was not the firstborn, but contrary to Jewish custom, God chose him to rule over his brother and to receive the blessings He had promised to Abraham’s descendants. Jacob means “heel-grabber” or “trickster,” and if you know Jacob’s story, he certainly lived up to that name. Jacob schemed to steal a birthright that, according to God, was already his. Later, he schemed to steal the blessing that his aging father intended for Esau, but which God had, again, already promised to Jacob. Finally, although God told him to return to his family and that He would go with him, Jacob didn’t trust God enough to protect him as he sent his flocks, servants, wives, and children ahead of him to blunt his brother’s anger. Clearly, Jacob was a man who thought he was in control of his own destiny.
After their wrestling match, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel which means “he who struggles (wrestles) with God,” and Jacob named the place Peniel which roughly means “I have seen the face of God.” Suddenly the odd contest becomes an amazing illustration of an infinitely powerful God patiently teaching the flawed Jacob (and us) that alone he is truly helpless but once “defeated” of self and pride, the new man, Israel, sees himself and his need for God more clearly. The limp, rather than a punishing disability, becomes a daily reminder of God’s presence in Jacob’s life. If getting alone to wrestle persistently with God means we will see His face, sign me up!
That’s why we shouldn’t shy from the difficult passages. It’s okay to be confused, to not understand, or to feel uneasy if a verse or section of Scripture challenges long-held beliefs. Read, study, pray, and reread. The Bible is inerrant and can stand the scrutiny. Digging deeper will take us on an amazing journey of discovery and growth, because if the only Bible we hear or read is on Sunday morning or in a quick morning devotional, we are missing out on the majority of God’s word.
Too many pastors avoid hard or controversial topics and preach mainly from the New Testament (NT)—typically avoiding Revelation—with sermons based on one or two passages or a few paragraphs at best. Much of the Old Testament (and Revelation) can be challenging to read, but it’s impossible to fully appreciate the NT, understand the unchangeable and eternal nature of God, or see the overarching sweep and themes of Scripture if you skip the first two-thirds of the Book and the ending. Imagine how unsatisfying it would be to hear only random excerpts from a favorite novel or to occasionally skim a chapter here or there in the middle without ever reading the beginning or the end.
For most, our basic knowledge of the Old Testament (OT) and its characters came from Sunday school lessons and unfortunately much of our education ended there. It’s no wonder that skeptics and even some Christians consider the major story arcs of the OT—creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, Jonah and the fish—as little more than fairy tales. I strongly suggest reading through Genesis as an adult. Focus less on the familiar characters and events and more on God—His power and authority, His plan for mankind, and His willingness to forgive, use, and equip flawed people—like you and me—to accomplish His purposes. As you read, don’t simply note what happened, but ask how and why it did.
Look for repeated themes (light/dark, blessings/curses, covenants) and images (gardens, trees, nakedness) and see how they connect the book into a beautiful metastory that extends all the way to Revelation. Only then will we see God as clearly as Jacob did.