Rick Sweeney
7 min readApr 18, 2024



GENESIS 32: 22–31

Photo by Felipe Simo on Unsplash


A. Sometimes it is a mistake to take things too literally. It was mom’s day out and dad was in charge of baby care. When mom came home the baby was in bad need of a diaper change. “Why didn’t you change the baby’s diaper?” He answered, “The box said 12 to 18 pounds and there wasn’t nearly that much.”

B. If you are looking at this passage in Genesis literally, you have a problem right away. How do you identify the opponent with which Jacob wrestles? At first, we are told that Jacob wrestled with an unidentified man. It could have been his brother Esau or his uncle Laban, or a robber, or an IRS agent. Later it becomes clear that this wrestler was something more than a man. The Bible often uses ambiguous language. It does not seem to be too interested in being concise. A Bible scholar once that people in churches tend to take the Bible literally, but they do not take it seriously. In other words, it is possible to get caught up in the literal meaning of imprecise language and miss the real truth of the passage.

A. I have three cousins who wrestled in high school. I remember some of the scoring in scholastic wrestling. You get two points for a take down, two for a reversal, one for an escape. I remember a term called a predicament. I didn’t remember what that meant, It turns out it is when a wrestler is on his back and nearly pinned, but somehow manages to wrestle on. I think that is where Jacob was on the banks of the Jabok River. He was in a terrible predicament. He could not prevail, but he would not give up. And the truth of the passage is that his real predicament had very little to do with the physical match.


A. Have you ever heard of Edmund Ross? He was a Republican Senator from Kansas. He became famous or infamous in 1868. Andrew Johnson had been impeached by the Radical Republicans and was in on trial in the Senate. His opponents were sure they had the 2/3 vote to convict him. But they fell one vote short when Edmund Ross, Republican from Kansas voted not guilty. It was political suicide. He was never elected to any office again. He did it because he believed that it was in the best interest of the nation. Many people still have to rethink their allegiance to a political party and think about what is in the best interest of the country as a whole. Sometimes, in a predicament you find out who you really are.

B. That was perhaps the main thing that Jacob was wrestling with. His name had, up to this point, suited his character. Jacob means heel or cheater or liar. And that was the way he lived his life. Now, his wrestling opponent asks him the million-dollar question. “WHO ARE YOU? In one sense, Jacob was wrestling with a mirror. Have you ever been there? A middle- aged woman was looking into a mirror. She said to her husband, “Look at me. Just look at me. I am gray and wrinkled and overweight and sagging. Please say something positive about me.” Her husband said, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight.” He is expected to be out of the hospital later this week.

A. Jacob did not like what he saw in the mirror. This is the beginning of a major life change for him. People do change coming out of an honest self-examination predicament. Once, I felt that I wasn’t doing enough to help around the house. When my wife was away, I thought it would be nice if I did the dishes and made the bed, dusted, and ran the sweeper. When she came home, she said, “Who are you and what have you done with my husband?” Who are you and what have you done with Jacob?

B. By the end of Jacob’s wrestling match, it seemed clear that the opponent was God in the flesh. When you wrestle with the God of Holiness, you see how flawed you are by comparison. Do you remember the call of Isaiah? He felt doomed because he was such a sinner in the presence of God. Yet, God blessed him and sent him in spite of his flaws. Jacob would not give up. He asked God to bless him. He realizes that he can’t go on being a cheater and a liar and a heel. He was wrestling with his identity and his worth. He needed the blessing of God.


A. Jacob is becoming a new person. But the transformation is not total nor is it sudden. That’s usually the case. First, we should notice that when this wrestling match takes place, Jacob is all alone. You got to walk that lonesome valley. You got to walk it buy yourself. Nobody else can walk it for you. You’ve got to walk it by yourself. Every one of us has to do our own wrestling with who we are and whose we are. . When Jacob asks for a blessing, God gives him a new name. You are no longer Jacob the cheater. Now you will be Israel which means the one who has struggled with God. He is given a new identity.

B. God still engages us in the midst of our flawed lives. And we can still receive the blessing of a new identity. But beware, the struggle is sometimes long and difficult and demanding. Jacob leaves with a new name. but he also leaves with a limp. He will meet his brother Esau with a limp. He will go to Egypt to reclaim his family, but he will go with a limb. He will carry with him a painful reminder of that transformative wrestling match. Transformation can only occur when we are honest about who we are. Transformation as individuals or as a people often comes out of conflict and struggle. And it is often painful.

A. One of my favorite shut-in visits was with a man named Ray. He was a wonderful storyteller. He told me that as a young man he had been a jerk, his word. He had been rude and selfish and short tempered. Then came the war. Ray lost a leg in combat. I asked him if he was bitter. He said no. He came home a changed man. He said, “I was a far better person than the one who went to war.” I knew him as a kind man who never felt sorry for himself and was generous with gifts to mission causes. His story was so compelling that there were times when I almost called him Israel.


A. Do you know anybody who was changed, but acquired a limp in the process?

B. Oppenheimer. The bomb shortened the war. But he carried an enormous guilt limp the rest of his life.

C. Jeb Magruder was a high ranking official in the Nixon administration. His life was about advancement and power. But then he went to prison as part of the Watergate scandal. When he got out, he went to seminary where his life became about grace and service and faith. But he carried a limp as a felon.

D. My dad’s father was a drunk. He ruined his life and the lives of his family. He couldn’t keep a job. He abused his wife and children. The court finally removed the children, including my dad, from the home and placed them in foster homes. Dad struggled. He was bitter and angry and sad. As he worked through his predicament, He decided that he would have to build his own life. He married a good woman, started to go to church and had two kids who could not have had a better father. His life was transformed, but you could hear the limp in his voice when he spoke of his childhood.

A. I was a preacher and a pastor. But then came a divorce. I didn’t think God wanted me to be a pastor anymore. It turns out that God wanted me to be a pastor who has compassion and love for broken people, and a preacher of grace. But I still limp emotionally.

B. An honest struggle with who you are comes with a painful reminder of who you were.


A. When you get past the literal details this becomes a rich text. There are at least three great lessons here. The first is that it is futile to think that we can make it on our own. We are utterly dependent upon God’ blessing to become who we really are. Israel came to be, not because he was smart or strong or holy, or even faithful. We call it grace. No matter who we have been, God is ever ready to bless us with our true identity.

B. The second lesson is to never let go. Jacob is tenacious. He will not quit even as the sun is coming up. God is not in danger of the sunrise, but Jacob is. Sometimes you just have to know when you are overmatched. And none of us is a match for God. Jacob never stopped wrestling with God. In one way, It took him his whole life of limping to really become Israel.

C. And finally, we worship a God who is not afraid to get down in the dirt with us. When we were in New Jersey, a woman invited Prudy to a meeting of the Garden Club. My wife loves gardening. But when she came home, she was disappointed. These women did not garden. They told the staff what to plant. This was just a prestige club. Prudy said, “That’s not for me. I am a dirt under my fingernails gardener.”

D. God does not stay aloof high above the battles of our lives. God gets down in the dirt with us to remake us and redeem us and sustain us, just as God first created us from the dust. We worship a God with dirt under his fingernails.

E. Don’t be afraid to wrestle with yourself or with God or both. Don’t be afraid if you find yourself in a predicament. Those are often times of our greatest growth. Don’t be afraid to be changed. And don’t be surprised if you limp.



Rick Sweeney

The Reverend Dr. Richard Sweeney, Rick, is a retired Presbyterian pastor and author. Rick lives with his wife, Prudy, in Greensburg, PA.