Previously, we explored Abraham and Sarah’s encounters with the angel of the LORD. Now, we learn about three visits Jacob has with the angel, including Jacob’s classic wrestling match with the pre-incarnate Christ.
The angel appears to Jacob
Isaac has blessed Jacob and sent him to find a wife from the family of Jacob’s uncle, Laban. While on his journey, Jacob stops for the night and, having fallen asleep, experiences a most remarkable dream. He sees a ladder extending from earth into heaven. Angels are moving up and down the ladder. Above it all (or perhaps beside Jacob; English translations differ) stands Yahweh, who identifies himself as “the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac” (Gen. 28:13).
The LORD promises Jacob and his offspring the land on which he sleeps. He also assures Jacob of descendants as numerous as the dust of the earth. And he promises that all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through Jacob and his descendants. Finally, the LORD tells Jacob, “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go. I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (v. 15). The description of the LORD as standing evokes images of a human-like figure, so it’s possible we are witnessing a Christophany.
Lending credence to this view is Jesus’ conversation with Philip and Nathanael in John 1:51. Jesus says to these disciples, “Truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Perhaps Jesus is urging his new followers to see him as the one who appeared to Jacob in the vision, especially as he connects the heavenly ladder with the Son of Man.
Jesus also may be depicting himself as the very bridge between heaven and earth, for he proclaims to be the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Elsewhere, Jesus says, “I am the gate” (John 10:9). He is the only access to heaven, the only way sinful people may see God and be restored to a right relationship with him (Acts 4:12). Just as Jacob sees a single ladder connecting heaven and earth, with the LORD as its focal point, so Jesus distinguishes himself as the only mediator between God and humanity (1 Tim. 2:5).
Jacob recognizes the significance of his dream, for he declares, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it” (v. 16). And he responds to his dream as one might expect after an encounter with God. Frightened, he quakes, “What an awesome place this is! This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven” (v. 17).
The next morning, Jacob takes a stone he had placed near his head the night before, sets it up as a marker, and pours oil on it. He names the place Bethel, which means “House of God.” He makes a vow:
If God will be with me and watch over me during this journey I’m making, if he provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s family, then the LORD will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a marker will be God’s house, and I will give to you a tenth of all that you give me (vv. 20-22).
There is little doubt Jacob has experienced more than a dream. He has encountered Yahweh, whose presence merits anointing a sacred stone and naming the spot “the House of God.” And there’s more. As we see in Genesis 31, “the God of Bethel” is none other than “the angel of God.”
To Jacob a second time
After his dream of the heavenly ladder, Jacob continues his journey, meets his uncle Laban, and marries Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel. God blesses Jacob with children, flocks of sheep, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys. Laban and his sons grow envious. Laban’s attitude toward Jacob changes, while Laban’s sons grumble that Jacob has become wealthy at their father’s expense. So, the LORD tells Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you” (Gen. 31:3).
Jacob summons Rachel and Leah and explains the situation. Though Laban has cheated his son-in-law, and often changed his wages, Jacob has faithfully served Laban, and the LORD has both protected and enriched Jacob. “God has taken away your father’s herds and given them to me,” Jacob tells them (Gen. 31:9).
There is the curious matter of the streaked, spotted, and speckled sheep, which always seems to favor Jacob – and clearly enrages Laban and his sons. However, it is not trickery on Jacob’s part that gives him the advantage. Rather, it is the LORD divinely engaging in genetic engineering, for Jacob explains to his wives:
When the flocks were breeding, I saw in a dream that the streaked, spotted, and speckled males were mating with the females. In that dream the angel of God said to me, “Jacob!” and I said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Look up and see: all the males that are mating with the flocks are streaked, spotted, and speckled, for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you poured oil on the stone marker and made a solemn vow to me. Get up, leave this land, and return to your native land” (Gen. 31:10-13).
Note in these verses that “the angel of God” appears to Jacob in a dream, and speaks to him. Further, take special notice that the angel identifies himself as “the God of Bethel, where you poured oil on the stone marker and made a solemn vow to me.” This passage does more than identify the angel of God as God himself. It also tells us the LORD who came to Jacob in a dream in Genesis 28 is none other than the angel of God.
To Jacob in a wrestling match
Jacob and his family have fled from Laban, only to be overtaken in the hill country of Gilead more than a week later. Laban protests the secretive nature of Jacob’s departure, and he charges Jacob’s family with stealing his household idols. A search of Jacob’s tents exonerates him, although Rachel did in fact steal the gods and hid them successfully without Jacob’s knowledge. Jacob unloads a few complaints of his own on his uncle. At last, the two make a covenant with one another and part company on good terms the next morning (Gen. 31:22-55).
Jacob and his family continue their journey. Genesis 32:1-2 notes, “God’s angels met him. When he saw them, Jacob said, ‘This is God’s camp.’ So he called that place Mahanaim [Two Camps].” Nothing further is revealed about this encounter. We are not told whether one of the angels is the angel of the LORD. However, it may be a reminder to Jacob of his previous dream in which angels ascend and descend the ladder between heaven and earth, providing encouraging confirmation the LORD is still with Jacob.
Now, Jacob further prepares to return to Canaan after twenty years in Mesopotamia. His brother Esau lives in Seir, a highland country southeast of the Dead Sea. Not knowing where he stands with his estranged brother, Jacob strategically plans to placate any hostility between the two. He cannot pass without notifying his brother and paying proper respect to him. He wants Esau to know that he is returning to his homeland and has need of nothing.
Jacob skillfully sends messengers and gifts on ahead to Esau, divides his family and his flocks, and seeks chiefly to protect his wives and children. He also beseeches God in prayer, invoking the LORD’s promise of a safe return. After a humble confession of unworthiness, Jacob’s prayer “breathes an earnest desire for deliverance from the impending danger. It was the prayer of a kind husband, an affectionate father, a firm believer in the promises.”
In a final defensive move, Jacob crosses the Jabbok stream with his family in order to put one more barrier between them and Esau. Then, he spends a restless night by himself. It is a notable evening, for Jacob has a personal encounter with God. Here is the account:
Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he could not defeat him, he struck Jacob’s hip socket as they wrestled and dislocated his hip. Then he said to Jacob, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” “What is your name?” the man asked. “Jacob,” he replied. “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” he said. “It will be Israel because you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.”
Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he answered, “Why do you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. Jacob then named the place Peniel, “For I have seen God face to face,” he said, “yet my life has been spared.” The sun shone on him as he passed by Penuel — limping because of his hip. That is why, still today, the Israelites don’t eat the thigh muscle that is at the hip socket: because he struck Jacob’s hip socket at the thigh muscle (Gen. 32:24-32; note: “Penuel” is a variant of “Peniel;” the CSB uses both).
This is a curious event. Many Bible commentators understand this to be an actual occurrence in which God in human form wrestles with Jacob. Others, including John Calvin, conclude that this was a dream or a vision, owing to Jacob’s physical exhaustion and mental anxiety. In any case, Jacob’s wrestling opponent is called “the angel” (Hos. 12:4) and “God” (Gen. 32:28, 30; Hos. 12:5). Further, Jacob names the place “Peniel,” which literally means “face of God.”
But why would God wrestle with a man and allow the man to prevail? Perhaps it’s best to see this episode as a response to Jacob’s prayer in Genesis 32:9-12. From the beginning, Jacob’s life has been a wrestling match. At birth he grabs his brother’s heel (Gen. 25:26). He finagles his brother’s birthright when Esau is at his weakest (Gen. 25:32-34). He schemes to get his father’s blessing (Gen. 27:1-29). He bargains for Rachel, but is upstaged by a more clever Laban. Jacob’s vow in Genesis 28:20-22 – “if … then” – might be one more effort to bargain with God, until God brings Jacob’s scheming to an end. God easily dislocates Jacob’s hip but lets him prevail in that he obtains a blessing from God. It’s a life-changing encounter in which God intercepts a life prone to conniving and, by breaking Jacob’s will, in a sovereign act of grace, continues the messianic line.
Later, when Jacob speaks blessings on his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh, he speaks of “the angel” as if he were God:
The God [ha-elohim] before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
the God [ha-elohim] who has been my shepherd all my life to this day,
the angel [ha-malak] who has redeemed me from all harm — may he bless these boys. And may they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they grow to be numerous within the land.Genesis 48:15-16 (emphasis added)
The verb “may he bless” is grammatically singular in the Hebrew text. In other words, God and the angel are the singular grammatical subject of the request to bless the boys. Had the writer wanted to avoid connecting God and the angel, he would have chosen a plural verb to keep them distinct. But this is not what we find in the text.
Next: Walking in the Garden
This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.