Sunday, April 10, 2022

Hebrew Word Study: āḇaq Jacob Wrestles with God

Are you a fan of wrestling? I remember watching wrestling growing up. And I remember seeing a few fights during junior high and high school where people were wrestling. What happens when people wrestle? They start fighting, and they inevitably end up on the ground, tossing up dust, spinning around, turning red, trying to do harm until one of them gives up. I remember my cousin Travis and I used to wrestle when we were kids, he was always much bigger than me, so I didn’t do too well. But I held my own.

Wrestling is a struggle of strength, but also a struggle of wits. It’s just as much physical as psychological. Which brings us to our Hebrew word for today, 'āḇaq (aw-vak) which means: “to wrestle, grapple (get dusty), bedust.”

Today we’re talking about a man who “wrestled with God” his name was Jacob. The name Jacob means “deceiver.” But we will see that one day, Jacob would receive a new name.

Jacob had manipulated and cheated his brother Esau. And he had been on the run from his brother. During his wonderings, though, God was with him, and seeking after Him.

In fact, something very special happened to Jacob one night as he traveled through the wilderness.

It says in Genesis 28:10-17 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. 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 the Lord, and he said, “I am the Lord, 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 said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!” 17 But he was also afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!”

I was reading today from 2nd Chronicles about after David had upset the Lord by calling a census, the angel of the Lord relented from destroying Jerusalem, and David was instructed to begin plans to build the first temple, at the base of a threshing floor. I wondered to myself, if this might’ve been the same place that Jacob laid down and had the dream of the staircase to heaven.

I’ve heard it said also, that though the ark of the covenant had been lost during Israel’s wanderings, some have suggested that perhaps on the hill of Calvary where Jesus bled and died for us, his blood trickled into the ground, and deep under the Earth, and dripped onto the ark of the covenant, buried and lost hundreds of years earlier. No way to prove that, but I was mystified by the suggestion.

In any case, a few chapter later we see Jacob has changed directions and he is on his way back to meet with his brother, to make amends, and to make things right. And I can only imagine how afraid he must be. The last time he saw Esau his brother Esau had desired to kill him.

Have you ever had a difficult moment in the future? An appointment that made you terribly nervous, or a disciplinary meeting with a supervisor at work, I remember I used to dread basketball camps my dad had me go to growing up, I would worry for weeks about these camps. Tossing and turning in bed, filled with fear.

So Jacob must’ve been tossing and turning, worried about this meeting with his brother. I bet he didn’t want to go.

So it says in Genesis 32:23-32 “23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

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

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[b] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel,[c] and he was limping because of his hip.”

Jacob wrestled with God. He did 'āḇaq with God. This is one of the most mysterious portions of the book of Genesis. What did it mean? Did God appear in human form and physically wrestle with Jacob? We don’t know. It may have been an angel that he wrestled with, but what was really happening here? The idea of 'āḇaq is interesting here. First it says emphatically in the Hebrew in verse 24 Jacob was alone and the Hebrew word here is in it’s piel intensive form, so it was saying he was “entirely” alone. Completely alone. 'āḇaq means to wrestle, but it also means “to get dusty.” Or even to be dust. Some Hebrew scholars believe that this phrase Jacob wrestled with a man is better rendered to say “Jacob wrestled with himself before a presence that was with him.”

Now I believe there was some sort of physical match going on here. But I believe it was also a spiritual wrestling, as Jacob battled with God and with himself, to embrace God’s will. Many times in my life I’ve had experiences where I did not want to go. And I would wrestle with God about the matter. I didn’t want to go to upper Michigan for my internship. I wrestled with God about it. And God showed me the truth, that it was His perfect will, His perfect truth, and so I submitted to him, in the dust, on my knees, after I had wrestled, on my knees, in the dust, and I yielded to Him.

Jacob wrestled, in the dust, back and forth, all night, with the angel, with a man, with himself, about God’s will for Him to go back to his brother and make things right. He probably feared his life was at stake. But he wrestled, and won the battle. But something interesting happened. The angel touched his thigh and knocked it out of joint. Very interesting. During ancient times one would touch the inner thigh of someone to swear an oath or give a blessing. It was knocked out of place. Something was out of place, in that Jacob had stolen his brothers blessing from their father.

Then God asks Jacob, what is your name? Jacob finally admits, yet, I was out of place, I stole the blessing, I’m a thief, I’m a deceiver.

God gives him a new name, Israel. Israel means He who wrestles with God. He who spins in the dust with God. Back and forth. Back and forth. And eventually learns to submit to God, and His perfect will.

In conclusion today, in what areas in your life are you wrestling with God? Don’t misunderstand here now. It is not wrong to wrestle with God. It is wise to wrestle with God. But, eventually the wrestling must end. And it can only end in one of two ways, either we wrestle and overcome, and submit to God. Or we wrestle and flee, and reject God’s way.

In what ways are you wrestling with God? What is God saying to you? You must embrace God’s way. It may feel like fire, it may feel as sharp as a razor wire, or a sword, but, you can embrace God’s way, His truth, and you will be better off for it, because you’ve wrestled with God, and learned to follow Him, even if it’s left you with a limp.