Forming Faith Blog

Wrestling with Whom? (Genesis 32)

On his way back to the brother he wronged, Jacob encounters a stranger. In this strange story, he finds himself wrestling with a…man, angel, God? What do we do when we encounter weirdness in the Bible?

A young woman looking confused, wrestling with something.
Photo by Anna Shvets on

Welcome to the third week of the Narrative Lectionary (Year 2). In case you aren’t aware, the Narrative Lectionary is a four-year cycle that follows a basic pattern. It always starts with a creation story (though Year 1 has a re-creation story in Noah’s Ark). The second week’s reading is about Abraham. The third week is about either Jacob or his son Joseph. In this Year 2, the focus is on an…odd…story from Jacob’s life.

This week also is the third and final reading within our first theme: God Creates Family. (Our products all connect with our unit themes, even if my blog posts don’t.)

The Story So Far

We last left our tour through the Bible with God fulfilling God’s promise of a child for Abraham and Sarah, the First Parents of God’s chosen people. Isaac was born to his mother’s joyful laughter. Isaac then grows up, is almost sacrificed by his father, gets married to Rebekah (it’s a shame we don’t get that story in the NL), and they have twin sons: Esau and Jacob.

Jacob is a quite interesting—though unlikeable (IMHO)—character. He’s a conniving, greedy jerk. He takes advantage of his brother’s need to steal Esau’s double portion of their inheritance. He then creates a conspiracy to deceive his father and further defraud his brother, with the help of his mother (so much for not playing favorites). He’s smart enough to know that Esau will be quite angry, so he skips town before his con can be found out.

Hiding in Haran

Jacob ran to his mother’s hometown and took refuge with his uncle, Laban. Apparently, deception runs in his mother’s family, since Laban deceives Jacob into marrying his eldest daughter Leah instead of Jacob’s beloved Rachel (the old “wedding night switcheroo” trick). Laban extorts 14 years of labor for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Jacob returns to his tricks in revenge against his uncle and defrauds Laban of many of his livestock (though “legally” this time, and in fairness, Laban tries to cheat Jacob at the same time). Knowing his uncle would be angry (I’m seeing a theme here), he escapes with his wives, children, slaves, and flocks (his wealth). After Laban catches up with Jacob and eventually reconciles with him, Jacob steels himself for what he faces as he returns home: Esau’s wrath.

Jacob’s Return Home

Ever the manipulative one, Jacob sends his flocks and family ahead of him in a complicated scheme to bribe Esau and possibly confuse him. When we get to our assigned passage, Jacob has sent his family across the Jabbok (a stream). This is when the story gets weird:

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

Genesis 32:24

Jacob was apparently a very good wrestler, evenly matched with this stranger, so neither wins until the stranger cheats (maybe, I’m not sure of the rules), at which time Jacob demands a blessing. The stranger changes Jacob’s name to Israel, hints that Jacob might have been wrestling with God, and leaves. Jacob renames the place where this happened.

Different Paths for Faith Formation

There are many directions that you can take with this passage as you teach, preach, or otherwise lead in your faith formation context. Here are three of those options (in no particular order):

Option 1: Huh? What a Weird Story

People are going to find this a very strange story—because it is. So, admit it. Embrace it. Acknowledge that some parts of the Bible are difficult to understand. We can research with different Bible resources, but sometimes we are just going to be left scratching our heads. Ask them to articulate their questions. Let your participants wonder. Encourage them to fill in the empty spaces in the story with their imaginations.

Option 2: God Shows Up in Weird Ways

There are a lot of viewpoints as to who this strange wrestler is, but one of the main interpretations is that this stranger is God or some representative of God (see verses 28 and 30). So, go with that. Explore some of the weird ways that God is described as appearing in Scripture. Just in the past two weeks, God has shown up as a sculptor (Genesis 2) and as three visitors (Genesis 18). Next week, God will appear to Moses in the form of a burning bush. And eventually, God shows up as a peasant baby (Luke 2). Challenge participants to pay attention on how God might show up in their lives.

Option 3: How Do We Wrestle?

One approach I like to take is to focus on Jacob wrestling, and ask: Who and what do we wrestle with? How do we wrestle (metaphorically)? When have we wrestled with God, Scripture, or the church? Too often, we feel like we need to have the answers, have perfect faith. There can be freedom in knowing that we all struggle. Perfect faith is impossible. And sometimes, wrestling with God can be the most faithful thing we can do.

Wrap Up

Whether you decide to take one of these suggestions or go a different way, I would HIGHLY recommend that you spend some time summarizing the story so far. If you don’t have the time (or attention span) to trace the narrative from Isaac’s birth, at least give a summary of Jacob’s life up to this point. While the wrestling bit might not make sense itself, nothing will make sense without knowing what happened between Jacob and Esau. After all, the whole purpose of the Narrative Lectionary is to increase people’s biblical literacy by teaching them the broader narrative of the Bible.

God’s blessing be upon you,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 10 to May 19), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download the activity “Create-a-Blessing” from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education resource. If you aren’t ready to jump into intergenerational classes, you can also select individual lessons to purchase!

Order Faith Formation Resources

It’s not too late to order 2023-2024 resources! Are you still looking? Order easy-to-use, theologically sound, and effective resources now for the Narrative Lectionary, as well as for the Revised Common Lectionary, and even classic Sunday school Classroom curriculum for PK-2nd and 3rd-6th (check our blog post for a special discount)!

Looking for a resource for intergenerational events, whole-church series, or even something new for Sunday school? Check out our Learning Together series! These five-lesson units are available on six different topics, one of which is FREE! The other five are quite affordable with variable pricing starting at $25 for a program with 1-10 participants. Perfect for children’s and intergenerational ministries. The unit Bible 101 is perfect for starting the year in the Narrative Lectionary!

At Spirit & Truth Publishing, we might just have exactly what you are looking for:

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