Teaching series from Genesis

The Restless Wrestler

Genesis 28:1-33:9

Teaching t13916


We’ve been studying the book of Genesis, learning about the beginning of the world, the beginning of the human race, and the beginning of the separation that came between us and God. We’ve also seen the beginning of God’s plan to rescue us, to remove that separation: He promised he would send a man someday who would do something to put an end to the separation between God and man, to do away with sin and death.

As our book has unfolded, we saw that promised one would come through the family of a guy named Abraham. God promised to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation, to give him a great land and to protect and bless Abraham. Then he said that promise would also apply to Abraham’s son Isaac. Last week we met Isaac’s family, including his twin sons.

Before the twins were even born, God predicted that his promise to Abraham would pass down to Isaac’s younger son, not the older as was customary. And even in the womb the boys were fighting, struggling, wrestling with one another. The older son, Esau, whose name means “hairy”, was big, tough and hairy. The younger son was born grabbing onto Esau’s heel. They named him Jacob, which means “heel-grabber.” Sort of like our modern term “back-stabber.”

Jacob was a relentless, underhanded, manipulator, always trying to wrestle things over to his advantage. And he was pretty good at it too. He caught Esau in a state of hunger and got Esau to trade his rights as first born for a bowl of stew. Later, when his dad Isaac was old and blind, Jacob and his mom manipulated Isaac to get the blessing to Jacob instead.

We read that whole scene last week – how they put Esau’s clothes on Jacob and even strapped goat skin to Jacob’s smooth arms and neck so he’d feel hairy. We saw Isaac suspiciously ask, “Who are you?” and Jacob reply “I’m Esau.” We saw Isaac finally deliver the irrevocable blessing to Jacob. And when Esau found out what happened he was furious.

Gen 27:36, 41 – “No wonder his name is Jacob

[That heel-grabber! That deceiver! That back-stabber!]

for now he has cheated me twice. First he took my rights as the firstborn, and now he has stolen my blessing… I will kill my brother, Jacob.”

So, Jacob’s parents decide to send him away until Esau’s anger cools off. And that’s where we begin tonight’s story of the life of Jacob the wrestler.

Genesis 28

1 So Isaac called for Jacob, blessed him, and said, “You must not marry any of these Canaanite women. 2 Instead, go … and marry one of your uncle Laban’s daughters.

When Isaac needed a wife, Abraham sent a servant back to the old country to find one. Now Isaac sends Jacob back to find a good woman to marry – one of Uncle Laban’s daughters.

4 May God pass on to you and your descendants the blessings he promised to Abraham.

That promise to Abraham we keep hearing so much about. It will all go to Jacob, including the blessing and protection of God.

10 Meanwhile, Jacob left Beersheba and traveled toward Haran. 11 At sundown he arrived at a good place to set up camp and stopped there for the night. Jacob found a stone to rest his head against and lay down to sleep.

And at that point, something very strange began to happen.

12 As he slept, he dreamed of a stairway that reached from the earth up to heaven. And he saw the angels of God going up and down the stairway.

13 At the top of the stairway stood Yahweh, and he said, “I am Yahweh, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. 14 Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. 15 What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.”

16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep

And it made him wonder.

16b and said, “Surely Yahweh is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it … 17 It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!”

“Whoa! Of all the places I chose to stop for the night. I can’t believe I just happened to fall asleep right on a portal to another dimension!”

But is that what really happened? Was there something special about that place? No! God showed himself there simply because he wanted to talk with Jacob.

19 He named that place Bethel (which means “house of God”)

20 Then Jacob made this vow: “If God will indeed be with me and protect me on this journey, and if he will provide me with food and clothing, 21 and if I return safely to my father’s home, then Yahweh will certainly be my God. 22 And this memorial pillar I have set up will become a place for worshiping God, and I will present to God a tenth of everything he gives me.”

And God’s like, “Whoa! 10%. Thanks Jacob! That’s better than my 401k!”

So, on the one hand, God:But Jacob is thinking in terms of religion and magic:
  1. Came there to talk with Jacob
  2. Initiated with Jacob
  3. Promised his determination to bless Jacob no matter what
  1. That God is confined to this place
  2. That he is offering God a deal
  3. That Jacob needs to wrestle the blessings away from God (like he did with Esau, and then with Isaac)

Jacob is wrong on all three counts. And he’ll go on to live a life of restlessness, constantly wrestling (with everyone) to try to get the blessings God was already determined to give him.

Is it possible that some of us are doing the same thing? Living a life of restlessness? Trying to wrestle a blessing for ourselves? Let’s keep that in mind as we read the story of Jacob the wrestler.

Genesis 29

1 Then Jacob hurried on, finally arriving in the land of the east. 2 He saw a well in the distance…

And you know what that means. Jacob is about to meet the woman of his dreams, the woman he was destined to marry: his cousin Rachel the shepherdess.

And as soon as he sees her…

10 Jacob went over to the well and [showing off his strength] moved the stone from its mouth [normally a job for a couple guys] and watered his uncle’s flock. 11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and he wept aloud.

And she’s like, “Hello, strange weeping, kissing, watering, muscle man. Do I know you?”

12 He explained to Rachel that he was her cousin on her father’s side—the son of her aunt Rebekah. So Rachel quickly ran and told her father, Laban.

13 As soon as Laban heard that his nephew Jacob had arrived, he ran out to meet him. He embraced and kissed him and brought him home. When Jacob had told him his story, 14 Laban exclaimed, “You really are my own flesh and blood!”

And we’ll see that is true, in more ways than one. If you thought Jacob was a schemer, welcome to the big leagues.

14b After Jacob had stayed with Laban for about a month, 15 Laban said to him, “You shouldn’t work for me without pay just because we are relatives. Tell me how much your wages should be.”

“Jacob, let’s make a deal.”

16 Now Laban had two daughters. The older daughter was named Leah [which means “cow”], and the younger one was Rachel [which means “little lamb”].

17 Leah had weak eyes

What does this mean? That Leah had some sort of weird eye condition? Probably not. Some take it like: “Leah had nice eyes… but that was about all she had going for her.” I kind of like NLT: “There was no sparkle in Leah’s eyes.” Whatever it was, she was no match for her beautiful younger sister:

17b but Rachel had a beautiful figure and a lovely face.

18 Since Jacob was in love with Rachel, he told her father, “I’ll work for you for seven years if you’ll give me Rachel, your younger daughter, as my wife.”

This dowry was supposed to kept by dad as a savings account for the bride in case the husband died or left her. Jacob didn’t have any money so he agrees to have all his wages put toward the Rachel fund. He makes Laban an offer he can’t refuse.

Now, when you’re cutting a deal with a guy like Laban you have to pay careful attention to what he says.

19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.”

Notice what he doesn’t say: “Yes.” He’s intentionally ambiguous. And Jacob had no idea.

20 So Jacob worked seven years to pay for Rachel. But his love for her was so strong that it seemed to him but a few days. 21 Finally, the time came for him to marry her. “I have fulfilled my agreement,” Jacob said to Laban. “Now give me my wife so I can sleep with her.”

Jacob demands his payment from reluctant Laban, probably thinking he’s gotten the better of Laban in this deal.

22 So Laban invited everyone in the neighborhood and prepared a wedding feast. 23 But that night, when it was dark, Laban took Leah to Jacob,

And Laban sent her in.

And Jacob’s like, “Finally, my love, after all these years, tonight we make our love complete.”

And Leah’s like, “Mmmm hmmmm.”

“Rachel, why are you so quiet? Are you speechless with love?”

“Mmmm hmmmm.”

22b and he slept with her.

25 But when Jacob woke up in the morning—

With the morning light streaming into the tent, Jacob rolls over to look into Rachel’s eyes. And what does he see?

25b it was Leah!

25c “What have you done to me?” Jacob raged at Laban. “I worked seven years for Rachel! Why have you deceived me?”

Yeah Jacob. Can you believe someone would do that? Swapping siblings in the darkness to trick a man into a permanently binding decision?

Sometimes the way God deals with our sin is by opening our eyes to how we affect people. And for the first time Jacob finds himself trapped.

26 “It’s not our custom here to marry off a younger daughter ahead of the firstborn,” Laban replied. 27 “But wait until the bridal week is over, then we’ll give you Rachel, too—

So Laban generously offers Jacob what he really wanted. But he knows he’s got Jacob trapped with no room for negotiation, so he adds this clause:

27b provided you promise to work another seven years for me.”

That was our agreement, right? I mean, you wouldn’t expect to get Rachel for a lower price than Leah would you?

“Jacob, let’s make a deal.”

28 So Jacob agreed to work seven more years. A week after Jacob had married Leah, Laban gave him Rachel, too.

30 So Jacob slept with Rachel, too, and he loved her much more than Leah.

And it’s hard to imagine a worse start to a marriage.

30b He then stayed and worked for Laban the additional seven years.

The next 29 verses in Genesis cover this seven year period. This time is characterized by turmoil in Jacob’s life. Rachel, the wife he loves, can’t get pregnant. Meanwhile, Leah, the wife he doesn’t love, pops out four sons in a row. So Rachel pulls a move out of Sarah’s book and has Jacob get her handmaid pregnant with two sons. So Leah counters Rachel’s move and has Jacob get her handmaid pregnant with two sons. Then Leah buy Jacob for a couple different nights and gets pregnant with two more sons. And then Rachel finally gives birth to Jacob’s eleventh son in seven years: a baby named Joseph.

Through all this Jacob is completely passive in this hostile family environment. This is one wrestling match Jacob is not winning.

But finally, after 14 years of being pinned to the mat by Laban, Jacob has had enough…

Genesis 30

25 Jacob said to Laban, “Please release me so I can go home to my own country.

27 “Please listen to me,” Laban replied. “I have become wealthy, for I have learned by divination that Yahweh has blessed me because of you. 28 Tell me how much I owe you. Whatever it is, I’ll pay it.”

31 “What wages do you want?”

“Jacob, let’s make a deal.”

31b Jacob replied, “Don’t give me anything. Just do this one thing, and I’ll continue to tend and watch over your flocks. 32 Let me inspect your flocks today and remove all the sheep and goats that are speckled or spotted, along with all the black sheep. Give these to me as my wages.

34 “All right,” Laban replied. “It will be as you say.”

You can have all the speckled and black ones you find today. I just need to do one thing real quick.

35 But that very day Laban went out and removed the male goats that were streaked and spotted… and all the black sheep [and] took them a three-days’ journey from where Jacob was.

So Jacob is starting from scratch, receiving as his wages whatever speckled and black offspring come from a pure white flock.

But Jacob the schemer isn’t going to take this without a fight. He counters Laban with a move of his own.

37 Then Jacob took some fresh branches… and peeled off strips of bark, making white streaks on them. 38 Then he placed these peeled branches in the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink, for that was where they mated.

He says, “I know how to get some striped sheep: get them to have sex next to striped wood after drinking water that has soaked in some of the magic of the striped wood.”

Well, we now know this isn’t why white sheep give birth to striped lambs. But what is crazy is that next spring, the lambs started giving birth to striped, spotted and black lambs. And we find out later that Laban came back and changed the deal. He’s like, “Oh no, we said the spotted are mine. And the polka dot ones are yours.” And Jacob’s like, “Hey no fair.” And all of Laban’s sons are standing there like, “You got a problem with that Jake?” And Jacob’s like, “Oh yeah, now I remember.” Ten times over the next six years, Laban changed Jacob’s wages. And in spite of Laban’s treachery, we learn that:

43 Jacob became very wealthy

Genesis 31

1 But Jacob soon learned that Laban’s sons were grumbling about him… 2 And Jacob began to notice a change in Laban’s attitude toward him.

3 Then Yahweh said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your father and grandfather and to your relatives there, and I will be with you.”

4 So Jacob called Rachel and Leah out to the field where he was watching his flock. 5 He said to them, “I have noticed that your father’s attitude toward me has changed. But the God of my father has been with me.

6 You know how hard I have worked for your father, 7 but he has cheated me, changing my wages ten times. However, God has not allowed him to harm me

Jacob says that God had given him a dream. In that dream God told Jacob the real reason the right color lambs were always born. In that dream, God didn’t mention the striped wood at all. No. God says, “Do you want to know the real reason? It was because…”

12 I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel

Remember me? 20 years ago? Where you thought you found a magic place? Where you thought you were leaving me behind in my house? I’ve been with you the whole time. Trying to bless you despite your best efforts.

13b Now leave this land at once and go back to your native land.’”

14 Rachel and Leah responded, “That’s fine with us!

19 At the time they left, Laban was some distance away, shearing his sheep. Rachel stole her father’s household idols and took them with her. 20 Jacob outwitted Laban the Aramean

22 Three days later, Laban was told that Jacob had fled. 23 So he gathered a group of his relatives and set out in hot pursuit…

25 Laban caught up with Jacob as he was camped in the hill country of Gilead…

26 “What do you mean by deceiving me like this?” Laban demanded. “How dare you drag my daughters away like prisoners of war? 27 Why did you slip away secretly? Why did you deceive me? And why didn’t you say you wanted to leave? I would have given you a farewell feast, with singing and music, accompanied by tambourines and harps.

29 I could destroy you,

29b but the God of your father appeared to me last night and warned me, ‘Leave Jacob alone!’

30 I can understand your feeling that you must go, and your intense longing for your father’s home. But why have you stolen my gods?”

By the way, if someone can steal your gods, you need to find a better god.

31 “I rushed away because I was afraid,” …

32 But as for your gods, see if you can find them, and let the person who has taken them die!

33 Laban went first into Jacob’s tent to search there, then into Leah’s, and then the tents of the two servant wives—but he found nothing. Finally, he went into Rachel’s tent. 34 But Rachel had taken the household idols and hidden them in her camel saddle, and now she was sitting on them. When Laban had thoroughly searched her tent without finding them,

He went up to Rachel and said, “I need to search the camel.” And that’s when Rachel played the dirtiest trick in the history of daughters.

35 she said to her father, “Please, sir, forgive me if I don’t get up for you. I’m having my monthly period.”

36 Then Jacob became very angry, and he challenged Laban. “What’s my crime?” he demanded. “What have I done wrong to make you chase after me as though I were a criminal? 37 You have rummaged through everything I own. Now show me what you found that belongs to you! …

38 “For twenty years I have been with you, caring for your flocks. In all that time your sheep and goats never miscarried. In all those years I never used a single ram of yours for food. 39 … You made me pay for every stolen animal, whether it was taken in broad daylight or in the dark of night.

40 “I worked for you through the scorching heat of the day and through cold and sleepless nights. 41 Yes, for twenty years I slaved in your house! I worked for fourteen years earning your two daughters, and then six more years for your flock. And you changed my wages ten times! 42 In fact, if the God of my father had not been on my side—the God of Abraham and the fearsome God of Isaac—you would have sent me away empty-handed.”

Yeah. Sometimes the way God deals with our sin is by opening our eyes to see how we affect people.

And Laban says, “Fine. If you’re going to be so unreasonable… let’s make a deal Jacob.”

44 Come, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and it will be a witness to our commitment.”

And Laban said:

51 “See this pile of stones… 52 They stand between us as witnesses…”

You stay on your side. And I’ll stay on my side.

And Jacob says, “Deal.” And Laban went home.

And so, Jacob successfully runs from his relative who he ripped off who was trying to kill him… only to return to the land where 20 years ago he had fled from his relative who he had ripped off who was trying to kill him. Funny how he keeps having that effect on people close to him.

Genesis 32

3 Then Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother, Esau

4 ‘Humble greetings from your servant Jacob. Until now I have been living with Uncle Laban…

5 I have sent these messengers to inform my lord of my coming, hoping that you will be friendly to me.’”

6 After delivering the message, the messengers returned to Jacob and reported, “We met your brother, Esau,

“What did he say?”

“Um… nothing.”

6b and he is already on his way to meet you—with an army of 400 men!”

7 Jacob was terrified at the news.

Now Jacob is trapped! Esau’s army is closing in, and Laban’s army is behind him blocking his retreat. There’s no possibility of retreat. No more running. No more escape. All of the scheming Jacob has done over his whole life is now collapsing on top of him in this all-important showdown.

Things have gotten so bad in Jacob’s life that he does something that we’ve never seen him do at any point in his life up until now. It says:

9 Then Jacob prayed,

It only took twenty years! And what does he pray?

9b “O God of my grandfather Abraham, and God of my father, Isaac—Yahweh, you told me, ‘Return to your own land and to your relatives.’ And you promised me, ‘I will treat you kindly.’ 10 I am not worthy of all the unfailing love and faithfulness you have shown to me, your servant. When I left home and crossed the Jordan River, I owned nothing except a walking stick. Now my household fills two large camps! 11 Yahweh, please rescue me from the hand of my brother, Esau. I am afraid that he is coming to attack me, along with my wives and children. 12 But you promised me, ‘I will surely treat you kindly, and I will multiply your descendants until they become as numerous as the sands along the seashore.’

What a great prayer. This is the prayer of a wrestler who is breaking, but not yet broken. We know this because as soon as he says “Amen,” he comes up with another scheme. He takes 550 of his animals and sends them ahead to Esau in small groups as presents to Esau, hoping they might soften up his angry older brother.

But even that plan was little of consolation to Jacob. The sun was setting, and he knew Esau’s forces would reach his camp tomorrow. This time he wasn’t just worried about himself. He had a family now – with at least a dozen children under the age of 13!

And so Jacob begins his dark night of the soul, a night that will change Jacob forever.

22 During the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two servant wives, and his eleven sons and crossed the Jabbok River with them.

24 This left Jacob all alone in the camp,

Alone in the pitch-black darkness of ancient night. Suddenly, Jacob was attacked, by a man…

24b and a man came and wrestled with him

Who was this mysterious night-wrestler? Jacob had no idea. He knew it wasn’t Esau. The guy didn’t feel like a goat or smell like a field.

But one thing he knew was this guy was good. Jacob was strong. But this man was stronger. Jacob was quick. But this man was quicker. Jacob knew some moves. But this man seemed to know Jacob’s moves even before Jacob tried them. It’s like Jacob would get through his cleverest combo and the man would be there waiting with a brilliant reversal, putting Jacob in the very holds that he had perfected.

Jacob was in good shape, but this man seemed to be tireless. And they wrestled and wrestled and wrestled, sweaty and muddy, all through that long dark night. And finally, after only God knows how many hours…

24c until the dawn began to break.

25 When the man saw that he had not prevailed against him,

And that Jacob was still wrestling, he brings the match to an abrupt conclusion.

25b he touched Jacob’s hip


25c and wrenched it out of its socket.

Have you ever dislocated anything? Well, here Jacob’s femur pops out of his pelvis.

Which shows us—and Jacob—how much strength this night wrestler really has. Jacob was never about to win this wrestling match.

Here is the moment where Jacob realizes who he has really been wrestling. It was never Esau, or Isaac, or Laban, or any of his wives. Jacob was wrestling with God.

At this point, without the use of his leg, Jacob changes strategy: from wrestling to clinging.

26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking!”

“Haven’t you had enough?”

Hosea tells us by now Jacob was weeping [Hos 12:4], and he pleaded:

26b “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 “What is your name?” the man asked.

Remember what his name meant? God is confronting Jacob with who he was.

In fact, 20 years ago, his blind father had asked him that question on the day Jacob stole the blessing from Esau.

27b He replied, “Jacob.”

I’m the deceiver. The heel-grabber. The back-stabber. A schemer who has always been able to get by on my own and make a way for myself. And now I’m done, trapped in a vice of my own making. I can’t run anymore. I’m coming to you with empty hands: no goat skins, no striped sticks, no deals, and pleading with you for your blessing.

28 “Your name will no longer be Jacob,” the man told him. “From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.”

Receiving a new name means submitting to the authority of someone. It also means a new beginning.

What does Israel mean?

  • Jacob meant “deceiver,” but Israel means “God fights”

    • A reminder of how Jacob fought against God

    • But now you have been broken, and you will see how God will fight for you.

  • What does it mean that he has “prevailed”?

  • It’s not that he overcame God or tired him out. In reality, Jacob had lost the battle with God and with men

  • But he finally found strength and victory in surrender. And God’s power was perfected in Jacob’s weakness.

  • You see, Jacob was an iron-willed man. His strength was his biggest weakness. And God had to bring him to the end of himself.

29 “Please tell me your name,” Jacob said.

29b “Why do you want to know my name?” the man replied.

Which is God’s way of saying, “You’ve been here with me for this long and you really don’t know who I am?”

29c Then he blessed Jacob there.

God wants to change you from someone who governs your own life to someone who is blessed by him.

  • You can’t manipulate God or fend for yourself. All you can do is realize your weakness, his power and just hang on and ask for a blessing

  • And you may find what Jacob found – that what Jacob wanted from God – blessing – was what God wanted to give him the whole time. He had promised that from the beginning.

30 Jacob named the place Peniel (which means “face of God”), for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.”

And there’s a big difference between Bethel, the place of God, and Peniel, the face of God.

31 The sun was rising as he left Peniel, and he was limping because of the injury to his hip.

Genesis 33

1 Then Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming with his 400 men… 3 Then Jacob went on ahead. As he approached his brother, he bowed to the ground seven times before him.

Isaac said, “Your brothers will bow to you,” that Esau would be Jacob’s servant, but Jacob didn’t care…

Esau saw Jacob vulnerable on the ground, and it says immediately:

4 Then Esau ran to meet him

4b and embraced him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. And they both wept.

5 Then Esau looked at the women and children and asked, “Who are these people with you?”

“These are the children God has graciously given to me, your servant,” Jacob replied.

Jacob seems to be getting it now. Every good thing in his life is a gift from the God he resisted his whole life.

8 “And what were all the flocks and herds I met as I came?” Esau asked.

Jacob replied, “They are a gift, my lord, to ensure your friendship.”

9 “My brother, I have plenty,” Esau answered. “Keep what you have for yourself.”

It wasn’t Jacob’s scheming that kept him safe after all. It was the promise and the hand of God Almighty.


A lesson about new beginnings. When you receive Christ, you get a new identity. A new beginning.

A lesson about surrender. Are you ready to surrender to God? Stop struggling. Jacob drew this out way too long. Some of you have drawn this out too long as well. You’re fighting and trying so hard in your own strength. To be somebody. To accomplish something. In your way. Instead, what you need is to break. To yield to the goodness of God. To rely on his promises and learn how to let him supply the power.

A lesson about hanging on. In the midst of perhaps the greatest pain you’ve ever felt, will you give up? Or will you hang on and let God change you forever?

A lesson about faith. Not proving myself to God or wrestling him over onto my will. But receiving the blessings he is offering me and claiming the blessing he has already given me.

Other Thoughts

How God broke Jacob

  • Initiated with him

  • Showed Jacob how his sin affects others

  • Allowed decades of suffering (the cold and the sun, Laban and his wives)

  • Finally brought Jacob into a trap of his own making, with no way out but prayer