Jesus and Jacob

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel - Gustave Doré (1855)
Does anyone have any thoughts on a possible connection between Jacob’s wrestling with God in Genesis 32 and the events surrounding the crucifixion? The following are some tentative suggestions. Jesus and His Father wrestle in the darkness of Good Friday before God finally reveals His face to His Son (Psalm 22:24). It is in the event of wrestling with His Father that Jesus attains to true maturity (Hebrews 5:7-9), as Jacob does through wrestling with God. Through the success of His wrestling with God Jesus inherits a new name, the name that is above every name (Philippians 2:8-11), much as Jacob becomes Israel. Jesus dies as Israel, a prince with God, the King of the Jews, and rises as the One whose name is above all other names. Prior to the wrestling, both Jacob and Jesus encounter angels (Genesis 32:1-2; Luke 22:43). Following the wrestling both Jesus and Jacob are reconciled with their brothers (Genesis 33; John 20:17).

Jacob’s story fits into the pattern, already seen in the Abraham story of encounters with God as friend (at Bethel in Genesis 28 in the case of Jacob) followed by an encounter with God as ‘enemy’ (with the command to kill Isaac in the case of Abraham). We see a similar pattern in the story of Jesus: in His Baptism and the transfiguration, God’s favourable presence is manifested to Jesus; at Calvary the heavens are darkened and Jesus cries out in dereliction. Jacob receives a leg wound in his wrestling with God; Jesus receives wounds in His hands, feet and side and His heel is bruised (cf. Genesis 3:15).

In both accounts the activity of the sun is significant. In the Jacob story the sun set as Jacob left in chapter 28. It is next mentioned as it rises on him after he has finished wrestling with God in chapter 32. The sun is darkened over Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:33). However, the sun rises at the resurrection (Mark 16:2). As in the case of the story of Jacob, the whole interim period is symbolically one of darkness.

If we can speak of Jesus’ experience as one of wrestling and prevailing with God like Jacob, we can also regard Jacob’s experience of one of death and resurrection like Jesus. The darkness to light movement lends support to this, as does the fact that Jacob’s wrestling with God leads to his attaining to new maturity. Jacob is also given the name — Israel — that will mark him out as a father of God’s people, much as Jesus is marked out as the head of the new family of God’s people by the name that He inherits. After his death-resurrection experience, Jacob soon moves from centre stage in the narrative. This happens in the case of Abraham following his encounter with God as enemy in Genesis 22. It also happens following Jesus’ resurrection; the Church takes the centre stage following the resurrection. [Interestingly, it also happens in the case of Peter in Acts 12 where — this is undoubtedly significant — Peter is struck by an angel who then ‘raises him up’ (Acts 12:7). Following this event Peter no longer occupies the centre stage that he had occupied to that point.]

It would be interesting if a parallel between Jacob and Jesus could be sustained at this point. It would give strength to the thesis that Jesus is presented as the founder of a (re)new(ed) Israel. It would also present us with a different narrative approach to help us to understand the cross, an avenue of interpretation that may not yet have been explored. I am strongly of the opinion that typology has much to teach us about the meaning of the atonement if we would only listen carefully to it. Of course, this demands that we focus on the fine details of the gospel narratives of the cross, treating the gospel narratives as theological accounts, and not merely forming our theology from isolated ‘atonement texts’. I am rapidly moving towards the position that the gospels teach us far more about the meaning of the cross than the epistles do.

Can anyone else add anything to this? Any further thoughts would be appreciated.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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7 Responses to Jesus and Jacob

  1. pduggie says:

    Jordan has done a bit with the ‘jacob leaving esau’ story as a type/form of the day of atonement. Two goats are used in the day of atonement, and Jacob cooks two goats together, and uses their skins as a ‘covering’ before going into his father to get the blessing he deserves.

    Its Jacob, though, that is driven out to thw waste (the goat for azazel?).

  2. Al says:


    Where does Jordan do this? I may have read it before and forgotten it. It is certainly an interesting aspect of the story that I had not noticed. I will have to look at that again. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  3. pduggie says:

    I recall it from his conference a while back on the topic of preterism. It was in the course of noting the biblical examples of “microchrons”, the temporal analogy of microcosms. A short period of time that contains the model/reflects/analogizes to a long period of time.

    As passover recalls the replacement of Isaac by the ram, so yom kippor recalls the replacement and expulsion of “Esau” (really jacob). There may be a BH newsletter too.

  4. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2006-2007 | Alastair's Adversaria

  5. Branka says:

    Parallels between Jacob on Jabbok and Jesus in Gethsemane

    1) Both Jacob and Jesus are alone. Jacob on Jabbok (Gen 32:4) and Jesus in Gethsemane (Many commentators connect Isa 63:3, 5 with Gethsemane; in Isa 63:1, 2 there are additional allusions to Edom and red garments).
    2) Both Jacob and Jesus are going back to their father’s house, the place they left some time ago. (Gen 31:3; Joh 13:1; 16:28)
    3) Angels appear in both stories. Angels met Jacob on his way to Canaan. (Gen 32:1) Angel appeared in Gethsemane to strengthen Jesus. (Luke 22:43)
    4) Jacob names the place Mahanaim and divides the people with him in two camps (Gen 32:7). Jesus also divides his disciples in two groups (Peter, John and James in one group and other disciples in the other one). (Mark 14:32,33)
    5) Jacob compares the beginning of his journey when he crossed Jordan with the moment near Jabbok where he has two camps. (Gen 32:10). Jesus’ mission also started on the river Jordan where he was baptized. (Mat 3:13)
    6) Before his struggle Jacob prays for his family and future seed holding onto God’s promise. (Gen 32:9,11,12). Before his struggle in Gethsemane Jesus prays for his disciples and those who will believe on him through their word. (John 17:9, 20)
    7) Jacob sends messengers to Esau and calls himself a servant. (Gen 32:18, 19) Jesus calls himself servant and washes the feet of his disciples just before he went to the garden. (John 17:4, 5)
    8) Both events happen during the night. (Gen 32:21; Mar 14:27)
    9) Jacob crosses ford Jabok with eleven sons. (Gen 32:21). Jesus also crosses the brook Kedron with eleven disciples because Juda has left him. (John 18:1)
    10) Double identity. Jacob took Esau’s identity to take the blessing. During the struggle with the stranger, he needs to answer the question about his identity. (Gen 27:22; 32:21) Jesus is God but he took on himself human nature. (Phil 2:6,7)
    11) They are both greatly distressed. (Gen 32:7; Mat 26:37)
    12) Jacob wrestles at the Jabbok. (Gen 32:24) Jesus also wrestles in the garden of Gethsemane. (Luk 22:44). Greek word “agonia” means to struggle for victory, and also gymnastic exercise, wrestling.
    13) Jacob was contended with man and God. (Gen 32:23, 28) Jesus was struggling with God about the cup he had to drink. As God he wrestled with sins of humanity that he took upon himself.
    14) They both emerged victorious. (Gen 32:28; Rev 3:21)
    15) They both got new name. (Gen 32:28; Rev 3:12, 21) Israel means “He will rule as God.” “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, (Jacob set the stone as a pillar in Bethel – house of God) and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name….
    To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
    16) They are both wounded and those wounds are a memorial forever.
    17) After struggle at the Jabbok Jacob sees Esau coming with four hundred men. (Gen 33:1). After his struggle in Gethsemane Jesus sees Juda coming to the garden with a band of men, officers and priests. Greek word for “band,”speira, means a military cohort (about 600 men – G4686). (John 18:3)
    17) Jacob and Esau meet and kiss. (Gen 33:4) Juda betrays Jesus with the kiss. (Luk 22:47, 48)

  6. Clifton Brantley says:

    When reading Romans 5, Paul talks about Jesus and Adam. That got me to thinking…Adam was God’s first “human” son, Jesus is the second. Esau was the firstborn, Jacob was second. Jacob (Israel) had 12 sons that became the 12 tribes. Jesus had 12 disciples. Israel dishonored God in the wilderness, 40 years. Jesus fasted 40 days in the wilderness and did not dishonor God. I do believe you are on to something. It’s also interesting that Esau sold his birthright to satisfy his flesh and Adam essentially did the same thing. Both first sons gave in to the fleshly desires, but Jesus did not. Jesus is like a reversal of curses and judgements.

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