A Battle You Can’t Afford to Win – The Story of Jacob’s Conversion

One of God’s stranger affections is the special love He had for Jacob of the Old Testament. We are reading through this story in daily Mass this week.

According to some, the name Jacob means “grabber” or “usurper.” Even while still in his mother Rebekah’s womb, Jacob wrestled with his twin brother, Esau. Although Esau was born first, Jacob came forth grabbing his brother’s heel, hence his name.

Although he was a “mama’s boy,” Jacob was also a schemer, a trickster, and an outright liar. Rebekah favored Jacob and schemed with him to steal the birthright from Esau by lying to his blind father Isaac and obtaining the blessing under false pretenses.

Esau sought to kill him for this, leading Jacob to flee north to live with Laban, an uncle who was an even greater trickster and schemer than he. For fourteen years Jacob labored for Laban, in the hopes of winning his beloved Rachel, Laban’s daughter. In a wonderful payback, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s “less attractive” sister, Leah, by hiding her appearance at the wedding. Jacob had thought he was marrying Rachel, but when the veil was pulled back … surprise! It would be seven years before Jacob would finally secure Rachel from Laban.

Frankly, Jacob deserved it. He was a schemer and was himself out-schemed by someone more devious than he.

Yet God still seemed to have a heart for Jacob. God loves sinners like you and me as well. In the story of Jacob—a hard case to say the least—God demonstrates that His love is not based on human merit. God knows and loves us long before we are born (cf Jer 1:5). His love is not the result of our merit, but the cause of it.

There came a critical moment in Jacob’s life when God’s love reached down and worked a transformation:

It was a dark and sleepless night in the desert. For reasons too lengthy to describe here, Jacob had reached a point in his life when he realized that he had to try to reconcile with his brother Esau. He understood that this would be risky and that Esau might try to kill him (he did not; they were later to be reconciled beautifully).

Perhaps this was the reason for Jacob’s troubled sleep. Perhaps, too, his desire to reconcile with his brother pleased God. Whatever the reason, though, God reached down to touch Jacob.

We pick up the story at Genesis 32:21

I.  DISTRESSED manSo the [peace] offering [to Esau] passed on before him; and he himself lodged that night in the camp. The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day (Gen 32:21-24).

Jacob is distressed and has difficulty sleeping. He has, somewhat willingly, sued for peace with his brother Esau so as to be able to return to his homeland. How his brother will react is unknown to him.

Our sins have a way of catching up with us. If we indulge them, sooner or later we are no longer able to sleep the sleep of the just, and all the promises of sin now become like overdue bills to be paid.

Now that Jacob has come to this distressed and critical place in his life, God goes to work on him, to purify and test him. On a dark and lonely night in the desert, Jacob finds himself alone and afraid, and God will meet him. Note three things about the way God works:

1.  God brings Jacob to a place of isolation – This is difficult for God to do. Oh, how we all love distraction, noise, and company. We surround ourselves with so many diversions, usually in an attempt to avoid considering who we are, what we are doing, where we are going, and who God is. So God brings Jacob to a kind of isolation on this dark and sleepless night in the desert. The text says, And Jacob was left alone. It’s time for Jacob to think, time for him to pray and look to deeper issues.

2.  God brings Jacob to a place of confrontation – Verse 24 says, and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

Who is this “man”? The Book of Hosea answers the question and also supplies other details of the event. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him—the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name (Hos 12:4-5).

Yes, it is the Lord who wrestles with, who strives with Jacob. God “mixes it up” with Jacob and shakes him up. Here is an image for the spiritual life. Too many today think that God only exists to affirm and console us. He can and does do this, but God has a way of afflicting the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. Yes, God needs to wrestle us to the ground at times, to throw us off balance in order to get us to think, to try new things, and to discover strengths we did not know we had.

3.  God brings Jacob to a place of desperation – The text says, When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him (Gen 32:25).

It is interesting to consider that God “cannot prevail” over Jacob. Though omnipotent, God will not simply overrule our human will. Thus in striving with Jacob, God can only bring him so far. But God will leave him with a lingering memory of this night and with the lesson that he must learn to lean and to trust.

Jacob is a hard case, so God disables him. By knocking out Jacob’s sciatic muscle, God leaves him in a state in which he must lean on a cane and limp for the rest of his life. Jacob must learn to lean. He will never forget this lesson because he must physically lean from now on.

Thus Jacob, a distressed man on a dark desert night, wrestles with God and learns that the answer to his distress is to strive with God, to walk with Him, to wrestle with the issues in his life. Up until this point, Jacob has not trusted and walked with God. He has schemed, manipulated, and maneuvered his way through life. Now he has learned to lean and to trust.

II.  DEPENDENT man – The text next records, Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

If “the man” is God, as the text of Hosea teaches, then it seems odd that God would ask Jacob to let him go and for Jacob respond, “I will not let you go.” As if a mere man could prevent God from doing anything!

But the request of “the man” may also be understood as a rhetorical device, drawing from Jacob the required response. So the man says, “Let me go!” God wants Jacob (and us) to come to the point at which he (and we) say, “I will not let you go.”

In saying, “I will not let you go,” Jacob is finally saying, in effect, “Don’t go; I need your blessing! Lord, you’re my only hope. I need you; without you I’m sunk!”

God needs to get all of us to this place.

This critical moment has brought Jacob to the insight that he must have God’s blessing, that he wholly depends upon God.

III.  DIFFERENT man – The text then says, And the man said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:27-28).

Here is the critical moment: Jacob finally owns his name. When his blind father Isaac had asked him his name, Jacob had lied, saying, “I am Esau.”

But after this encounter with God, Jacob finally speaks the truth: “My name is Jacob.” In this response is a kind of confession: “My name is Jacob. My name is deceiver, grabber, usurper, con artist, and shyster”

Thus Jacob makes a confession, acknowledging that all that his name implies of him has been true.

Having received this confession, God wipes the slate clean and gives Jacob a new name, Israel, a name that means, “He who wrestles or strives with God.”

Renamed, Jacob becomes a new man. He is different now; he is dependent. He will walk a new path and walk in a new way: with a humble limp, leaning on the Lord, and striving with Him rather against Him.

And thus Jacob (Israel) wins by losing! God had to break him in order to bless him, to cripple him in order to crown him. Jacob would never be the same again. He would limp for life, always remembering how God blessed him in his brokenness. Scripture says, A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Ps 51:17).

Postscript – In the Book of Hebrews, there is a kind of picture of the “new man” Jacob has become: By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph and bowed in worship, leaning on the top of his staff (Heb 11:21). Jacob limped for the rest of his life. He needed a staff to support him. He learned to lean.

Have you learned to lean?

There is a battle you can’t afford to win: the battle with God. Learn to lean and to delight in depending upon God. This is the story of Jacob’s conversion. How about yours?

10 Replies to “A Battle You Can’t Afford to Win – The Story of Jacob’s Conversion”

  1. This commentary is horrible. It ignores God’s choice, before the children were born, to love Jacob and hate Esau. The blessing belonged to Jacob. Isaac did not recognize it; Rebekah did. Imagine the commentator disparaging blessed Mary and her son as a “mama’s boy”.

    Jacob was “tam” (perfect), like Noah, like Job. He obeyed his mother, as he should have, and this prevented Isaac from mistakenly passing the blessing to a profane person, Esau. Then where would all the Gentiles be who have despised Jacob ?

    1. Heh, I thought it was pretty darn good. The Patriarch’s weren’t perfect, but learned to trust God who worked with them to accomplish His purpose despite their goof-ups.

    2. It ignores God’s choice, before the children were born, to love Jacob and hate Esau.

      So you are saying that God chose to “hate” Esau. That is, that God, who is Love, chose to act in a way contrary to love — that God, who is Truth, chose to act contrary to Himself, He chose to act in a way that is false. Are you sure you want to say that? Because it logically follows from what you said.

      Perhaps instead of this inevitable logical conundrum, it is not God who is false, but your interpretation and understanding of the scripture is faulty? Specifically, the translation of the original word as “hate” is not really all that accurate and that it actually means something other than what we understand “hate” to mean.

      In fact, the Monsignor has addressed this before. The use of the word “hate,” he said:

      is most likely an Hebraicism. The Jewish (Hebrew) language has very few comparative words such as less, more, greater, fewer etc. Hence in Hebrew I might say that I love chocolate ice cream and thus “hate” vanilla when what I really mean is that I like chocolate more. It’s a Jewish way of speaking. Thus When Jesus tells us that if we want to be his disciple we must hate our father mother, sister, children et al. he does not mean it the way we do but means that we must love him more or above all things and people.

      It may be possible to argue that God “hates” But it seems the stronger argument that God is Love and the word hate when applied to God refers to aversion or repulsion that happens when sin is in the presence of his utter holiness. In this case it may be analogous or related to his wrath. I wrote upon this here:


      Scriptural interpretation can be a tricky thing. But when we interpret scripture in such a way that is absurd or makes God out to be against Himself, then we can be sure that it is our understanding that is the error, not God, and that we should alter our interpretation.

      1. Rebekah inquired of the LORD and the LORD gave her the Word which she believed, that there were two different nations in her and that the elder would serve the younger. In fact, the Hebrew word describing Jacob is the same word used to describe Job (tam = blameless, as in “there was a blameless and upright man named Job,”)

        All references are from the USCCB Bible:

        Genesis, chapter 25

        Isaac entreated the LORD on behalf of his wife, since she was sterile. The LORD heard his entreaty, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.
        But the children jostled each other in the womb so much that she exclaimed, “If it is like this,* why go on living!” She went to consult the LORD,
        and the LORD answered her:
        Two nations are in your womb,
        two peoples are separating while still within you;
        But one will be stronger than the other,
        and the older will serve the younger.* i
        When the time of her delivery came, there were twins in her womb.j
        The first to emerge was reddish,* and his whole body was like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau.
        Next his brother came out, gripping Esau’s heel;* so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born.k
        When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country; whereas Jacob was a simple* man, who stayed among the tents.l
        Isaac preferred Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah preferred Jacob.

        Job, chapter 1:
        In the land of Uz* there was a blameless and upright man named Job,a who feared God and avoided evil.

        Romans, chapter 9:

        And not only that,i but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one husband, our father Isaac*—
        before they had yet been born or had done anything, good or bad, in order that God’s elective plan might continue,
        not by works but by his call—she was told, “The older shall serve the younger.”j
        As it is written:k
        “I loved Jacob
        but hated Esau.”*
        * What then are we to say? Is there injustice on the part of God? Of course not!l

      2. I agree with your last paragraph. I have yet to find a single occasion in the Bible where God condemns the Patriarch Jacob. Jesus Christ never maligned the Patriarch Jacob. He said many would “recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven.” He said “God of Jacob” when answering a question about the Resurrection. The name of Jacob is a blessing, not a curse. The Patriarch Jacob is blessed, not cursed.

        I find numerous other occasions where the name Jacob is honored in the Bible. I find this passage in Isaiah noteworthy for several reasons. Notice particularly the phrase “the Holy One of Jacob” which is more often seen as “the Holy One of Israel”.

        Isaiah, chapter 29:

        Therefore thus says the LORD,
        the God of the house of Jacob,
        who redeemed Abraham:*
        No longer shall Jacob be ashamed,
        no longer shall his face grow pale.r
        For when his children see
        the work of my hands in his midst,
        They shall sanctify my name;
        they shall sanctify the Holy One of Jacob,
        be in awe of the God of Israel.s
        Those who err in spirit shall acquire understanding,
        those who find fault shall receive instruction.

        1. I didn’t see this as maligning or condemning Jacob, but an insight into his journey. The Patriarchs are among the Saints, as Jesus says. But the Son is the Perfect, and Abraham ‘rejoiced to see His day; he saw it and was glad’.

      3. ….and your faulty interpretation causes you to splinter into 40,000 denominations.

  2. This does not bring me any horror. I find a greater understanding that I can draw upon in my prayers and striving. We are not puppets. Rebekah was no Blessed Mary and I don’t know why you say he and the other two were perfect. Perhaps you mean, made ripe for a certain purpose?

  3. Very important detail is the difference between “love and hate,’ when comparing the Hebrew language with our ‘English’ understanding. God Loves and Blesses obedience, but nowhere in scripture, has he ever promised the same response to sin! Sin separates us from God who loves us too much not to ‘wrestle,’ even against all odds, to save us… Thousands of years of Biblical History confirms just how far HE will reach to save us from sin! Merciful ways that often contradict what seems ‘right to us…’

    I would also like to add how wonderful it is that both Jacob and Israel are both used in the text, after re-naming Jacob. A wonderful reminder that God’s Covenant has always been established with two absolutes: a sanctified people (Adam, Jacob…) and a sanctified dwelling place (Garden, Israel…). God’s desire from our ‘Genesis’ beginning is this sanctified Holiness, which lasted for a short time in the Garden before sin! Although sin has disrupted and scattered God’s plan and people throughout history, I think we will all agree that only God can search the heart and know who belongs to him. We gratefully work with HIS mysterious ways and authority, for eternal restoration…

    May we all pray for one another, to dwell together in Shalom, restoring God’s plan, purpose and desire to have Holiness define HIS spiritual family for HIS eternal dwelling place…

    Thank you Msgr. Pope! You give us plenty of wonderful scripture to contemplate and be grateful for!

  4. just another example of the Bible recording an event (the grabbing of the inheritance) but not necessarily condoning it.

Comments are closed.