June 5, 2020

Job and Jacob


Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Chagall

I would like to clarify a point I made in the post about the book of Job yesterday.

In that piece I said, “One might say that the Book of Job ends with a stand-off.” 

A few respondents here and elsewhere have disputed that analysis and have pushed back with the more traditional understanding that in the end God asserts his sovereignty in such a way that Job is simply and roundly humbled, chastened, and put in his place by God.

God ends up the “winner” in the book, and everyone else, including the protagonist, takes their places as lowly sinners before the Almighty and Righteous One.

I have understood and taught Job that way, but this time through, with the help of some commentators like Walter Brueggemann, I saw something very different, something that I think fits with other stories in the Hebrew Bible that leave us with lessons more complex than this simple “God-centered” interpretation.

So let me clarify what I mean by the “stand-off” at the end of the book of Job.

I think the paradigm of Jacob wrestling with God (Gen. 32:22-32) is quite pertinent here.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” (32:24-28 NRSV)

In one sense, no one can wrestle with God and win. The text is clear that “the man” (later identified as “God” in the text) defeated Jacob, deeply and permanently wounding him. As day was breaking, all Jacob could do was cling to his opponent.

Yet cling he did, saying, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” It seems that God counted that an expression of faith, for God went on to declare Jacob the winner! He named him “Israel,” the one who had striven with God and humans and prevailed.

God defeated Jacob, but Jacob was declared the winner.

Jacob remained wounded his entire life, but he had won the blessing.

Job Praying, Chagall

Job Praying, Chagall

I see this same kind of “wrestling match” in the book of Job.

Chapter after chapter, Job agonizes and contends with God and his friends about the sufferings he endures. Then, in the end Yahweh overwhelms Job with a mystical vision that shows God and his ways to be beyond human explanation. One might say that God defeated Job, put him in his place, deeply and permanently wounded him.

Job was humbled in dramatic fashion. And yet the denouement of the story shows that God considered Job a “winner” — he had striven with humans and God and prevailed. God “justifies” Job — declares him to be in the right, calls him his servant. God commends Job to the others as a priest who can pray for them and restore their lives. He never once calls Job to account for his sins or casts any blame on Job. Just like Jacob, deeply wounded through a dramatic personal encounter with One mightier and more mysterious than he could imagine, Job arose and lived the rest of his days in God’s blessing.

This is what I mean by the “stand-off” at the end of the book of Job.

God defeated Job, but Job was declared the winner.

Job remained wounded his entire life, but he had won the blessing.

* * *

There is a side to the stories in the Hebrew Bible that asserts the dignity of human beings, as well as their precocious, spirited nature before God. People are characters, and I use that word in its idiomatic sense. I love what our regular commenter HUG wrote yesterday:

Job argues with Proverbs. Jacob gets his leg broken getting physical with God. Abraham haggles God down to “ten righteous men in Sodom” like a bazaar merchant. Peter & Paul have a knock-down-drag-out over whether to let the Goyim into the Church. There is just something wild and pugnacious and REAL about this.

At the risk of being misunderstood, let me say that there are times when religion can be far too “God-centered,” and we miss this delightful human, earthy dimension. In their laudable efforts to restore transcendence to the Christian faith, it is my opinion that folks of Calvinist and Reformed persuasions sometimes miss the playful humanity of the Scriptures, the parts that tell stories about characters who stand up to God and get declared winners.


  1. jeffrey rowland says

    Yes mike. …… I can see that clearly
    ….. and it fits with what many of us experience. God defeats us. WE get the benefits of the victor.

    • Sandy Brinks says

      Mike, There is one thing I don’t think that has been mentioned and that is that in the end Job say “but now my eye see Thee. To me that is probably the most important thing. Job stays with his feelings as he confronts God and then, after God has spoken, Job has gained what I would call a more intimate relationship with God and a clearer vision of Who God is.

      In the last couple of years I have been in a group with two other women and we have spent that time both reading scripture and getting in touch with deeper issues in our lives that we have not really addressed. One of the most wonderful experiences has been to experience with others someone wrestling with issues in their llives where they feel betrayed by God or unloved by Him, and not letting go of their own feelings or pretending that they don’t really feel that and without the issue going away, God has clearly communicated in a way that can’t be denied that He loves them, and we have ended up with a much deeper understanding of His love and an experience of His real presence. When that has happened I have felt awe. And we have changed how we feel about our issues.

      I don’t want to read anything into the story of Job, but I know from the text that he gains a more intimate experience with God yet God has not really given the answer we expect. I wish that I experiences these moments much more often.

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Actually, I got the idea from Rabbi Boteach’s blog a couple years ago, where the Rabbi pointed out that to Islam and Christianity, passive acceptance of whatever God says is the height of piety, where Jewish tradition is just the opposite — full of Abrahams haggling down God and Jacobs having knock-down-drag-outs with angels and Jobs ending in standoffs. A lot more lively. A lot more Story.

    Maybe Calvin and Mohammed both wanted to have the answers, to have everything figured out, to have all their theological ducks in a neat row (conforming to their own cultural assumptions and blind spots). Whereas Torah and Tanakh were the Old Stories, told as the Old Stories of their people.

    • Thanks, HUG. Your words were well put and true to the actual nature of the Scriptures. Too often, I think, we’ve lost the art of reading them as they are in favor of defending our theologies.

      • Robert F says

        Lost the art of reading them? Have many of us ever been competent in that art to begin with? I’m pretty sure I’m not.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        More and more I’ve come to believe Christians need to learn from Jews. And that Judaism has elements we need to stay in balance. Judaism has an “earthiness” to it, an emphasis on the “here and now” more than The Hereafter. An attitude not of Teen Mania and On Fire but a “keep My commandments, but LIVE YOUR LIFE!” Not “Kynge Jaymes Only” but respect and encouragement of learning and the arts.

        For example, look at what Rachel Held Evans has written regarding the Proverbs 31 Woman — to Jews, not a shape-up-or-else checklist but a song of praise from a husband, praising his wife as-she-is as a “Woman of Valor.” Or the Book of Esther, with the King as farce comedy — how this Absolute Monarch is full of “What was he thinking?” or “Have You Gone Stupid?” moments (as well as full of himself).

    • Jonathan says

      HUG, I’m delighted – though not surprised – to read that your insights came from a rabbi’s writings. For precisely the reason you describe – the liveliness of it all and the humility. Myself, I recommend Abraham Heschel’s legendary “The Prophets” and Yair Zakovitch’s new biography “Jacob.” Both scholars embrace the Scriptures lovingly, with great seriousness, to wonderful result. Each gives you good, lively, frequently profound discussion, yet without manipulating you into some theological system. The old stories about God and humanity.

    • HUG wrote, to Islam and Christianity, passive acceptance of whatever God says

      Hmm. That’s interesting. I’ve often been confused on this issue. On the one hand, much (not all, but a lot of) Christian culture suggests if you’ve prayed “X” times for something, or for “X” years, and it has not come to pass yet, it’s not God’s will for you, so stop praying and just accept God’s answer is “No.”

      OTOH, Jesus told the parable of the woman who would not leave the unjust judge alone, until he relented and listened to her (Luke 18:1-8), which seems to suggest you’re supposed to keep praying and not take a “No” for an answer.

    • HUG:

      I’m not one to fight for the label of ‘Reformed’, but I think you do Calvin a disservice in caricaturing him as this Muhammadan Fatalist. Not that he doesn’t have that interpretation and stream running through him, however, the point of Calvin is always this: look how awesome, vast, and powerful the Sovereign God is; now look how He has stooped to us. It’s like waxing eloquent about the royalty of the king, only to announce that this king has taken beggars put himself amongst commoners, to be touched, spoken to, approached, and, yes, haggled. Calvin maintains this tension constantly, other proteges and contemporaries did not necessarily do this.

      Calvin was not one who wanted to have all his ducks in a row, he left plenty of room for mystery and wonder. His institutes is not quite so dogmatic as other Reformed peoples after him.

      And just so you know: I do think Calvin was a hypocrite who was responsible for the murder of Servetus as well. Flawed giant, or clay feet, however you want to put it.


    • HUG, I am convinced we are missing so much with our Western/Reformed interpretations of scripture and missing the Hebrew paradigm. I really like what you said in that thread:

      “Job argues with Proverbs. Jacob gets his leg broken getting physical with God. Abraham haggles God down to “ten righteous men in Sodom” like a bazaar merchant. Peter & Paul have a knock-down-drag-out over whether to let the Goyim into the Church. There is just something wild and pugnacious and REAL about this.”

      ….because it brought alive what I have seen in scripture: Humans INTERACTING with God on a raw and grand scale….. and with each other about God.


  3. Rick Ro. says

    I think an examination of Jonah’s story offers a nice contrast to Job’s and Jacob’s stories and supports the notion that it’s good for us to wrestle with God, that He might actually WANT us to wrestle with Him. Think about it: instead challenging God and wrestling with Him over what He wanted, Jonah runs. Might it have been better for Jonah to face off with God and yell, “They are NINEVITES, Lord! A hideous people who’ve killed many, many Israelites, including many of my family! You want me to do WHAT?!” Might he have learned God’s will and heart with less pain and suffering if he’d challenged God from the get-go?

    Maybe it’s in the asking and the wrestling that God gives us a sense of who He is and what He wants. In the wrestling, Job and Jacob learned more about God. In his running, Jonah learned nothing.

    • Rick Ro. says

      By the way, after studying Jonah recently, I scanned the Bible for the instances where people heard the Lord tell them to do something and then QUESTIONED the call. In every instance I found, God gave these people a glimpse of His plan and His heart.

      • Joseph (the original) says

        I have concluded that Joshua missed his chance with questioning God’s will regarding the slaughter of the Canaanites during his encounter with the commander of the army of the Lord as recorded in the book of Joshua (end of chapter 5)…

        I believe the entire story would have been one of redemption rather than slaughter if Joshua had decided to question the Lord and intercede as Abraham & Moses had done. I believe God was looking for a representative of mercy to stand in for those that were objects to conquer instead of people in need of knowing the God Abraham, Isaac & Jacob (the wrestler)…

        I think there were critical encounters with Jesus (theophanies) recorded early in Israel’s history to point to the heart of mercy as it was to be represented rightly to others. What happened was this: Joshua as the human representative of the Children of Israel accepted the default notion of God as a God of wrath, destruction, genocide & something to be greatly feared. And I believe Joshua failed in this regard. God was not challenged or questioned or pleaded with. No one to stand in the gap & remind God of the innocents in the city of Jericho. No one to question the orders of the Israelites to slaughter all living things. No concern for the sanity of his own troops, let alone the destruction of helpless children, women & old folks. I think this is a critical point in human history as well as the developing history of Israel where God was not represented correctly. Joshua did not appear to have learned that lesson from Moses that happened right before the crossing of the Jordan. Seems to me to have been the object lesson of monumental proportion that prevented Moses from entering & should have had a greater impact on Joshua when he did…

        Anyway…that is how I choose to ‘wrestle’ with the entire Old Testament issue of God’s character, the Canaanite conquest & how the end result never succeeded in its original scope.

        Other theological results may vary…

  4. Marcus Johnson says

    God: A Biography by Jack Miles makes an excellent argument for this interpretation of the outcome of the book of Job. It is a very worthy read.

  5. Which Walter Brueggeman book/commentary would you recommend to start with? I have some read some of his poetry but not his commentary – really appreciate and resonate with the Jewish idea of arguing with God.

  6. Chap Mike – A truly excellent essay. God loves us so much that he gives us the freedom not to fear to tangle with him. Yet the love persists.

  7. Regarding this:
    the parts that tell stories about characters who stand up to God and get declared winners.

    Don’t forget the lady who debated Jesus and won. See Matthew chapter 15: 21 – 28.
    I tried leaving a comment here under a previous thread (about Piper and tornadoes) but it didn’t go through last night. I don’t know if it’s because I normally post as “Daisy” but last night posted under the name “DaisyFlower.” I haven’t checked to see yet if it went through.

  8. Robert F says

    The story about Jacob wrestling with God is one of those enigmatic and mysteriously deep stories that grows in power each time its read and pondered. It’s clear to me that the outcome of the struggle depicted is one in which ordinary categories of winning and losing have been transcended, and a strange, paradoxical, though very biblical reality has emerged where the binary possibilities of winning or losing are transformed into gracious bestowal of blessing and promise.

    Having said that, the textual signal that seems to me to move the determination of the outcome back to God and his sovereign intentions is that it is God who gives Jacob the name Israel, and to name in the Bible is to possess power and authority over that which is named; so even in saying that Jacob has prevailed in the struggle, God does not say that he himself has been vanquished and furthermore shows himself to be master of all that has transpired that night by naming Jacob Israel.

    But in all this, in shaping the wrestling match and its outcome, in claiming his creature for his own, God’s intention is to give a blessing,

  9. Moosemane says

    I just want to thank everyone for your writing and posts of this type on this site. I learn much and feel the Spirit move in these conversations. Your respect for God and each other just drips off the page.

  10. Thanks for your recent thoughts on Job: I’m speaking on this very book next week so it’s been extremely helpful.

    I came to the same conclusion the other day as you have here. Despite the massive power imbalance between Job and God, Job actually wins his argument. His friends have spent chapter after chapter telling him that the reason he is suffering is because of his guilt, while Job maintains his innocence.

    And yet the opening section sets the scene for us: Job is blameless. And in God’s closing remarks in 42:8 we are told that Job HAS spoken ‘what is right’ of God, unlike his friends.

    I think there might also be a parallel with Jesus’ story of the persistent widow and the judge in Luke 18. In both cases someone without power argues long and persuasively with a seemingly indifferent authority figure until justice is done.

    I totally agree that there is a parallel between Job and Jacob as well.

  11. The Peniel passage from Genesis suggests that Jacob spent the night having intercourse with God in the form of a stranger, a man. Only in such a context would it make sense for Jacob to have pressed (so to speak) the stranger for a blessing in this way. As elsewhere in the Bible, the text avoids specifically naming the naughty parts, but refers only to Jacob’s “hip.” And after “wrestling” all night long, Jacob leaves with a limp.

    How beautiful is it that the Bible not only celebrates the act of physical love between two men, but makes this the symbol of God’s self-revelation! How different would things be today if this act had been lovingly depicted in stained glass in the great cathedrals of Europe, or interpreted by rabbis as the metaphoric source of the divine seed within us! The New Testament shows traces of this symbolism, when Satan (another famous character who wrestled with God) leads Jesus into the wilderness to be tested. It’s a very intimate relationship, almost like a teacher testing a pupil.

  12. Very insightful comparison. I’d have never thought of it that way. Thank you!