The Book of Genesis records many events in the life of Jacob. Two of the most prominent are found in Genesis 28 and Genesis 32. The first describes the Lord’s appearing to the patriarch at Bethel, with angels ascending and descending on a ladder. At this time, the Lord repeats the covenant He made with Abraham. Afterwards, Jacob erects a pillar in honor of the Lord and vows to give a tenth of what he earns to Him (Gen 28:10-22).
The second event takes place at Peniel. Genesis 32 records another encounter between the Lord and Jacob. The patriarch and the Angel of the Lord wrestle through the night.1 At the conclusion of this “fight,” Jacob is permanently injured from a touch by the Lord. However, he is blessed by the Lord with a new name. That new name is Israel.
A common interpretation of the encounter at Peniel is that this is when Jacob was spiritually saved.2 In 2016 at a conservative Evangelical seminary, I was attending a class on Genesis. There were approximately twenty students in the class. This was the position of the professor, as well as every other student in the class.
At least three arguments are given for this position. The first is that one can see a great difference in Jacob in Genesis 32 as compared to when he made the vow in Genesis 28.
The second argument is that after Peniel, the reader observes a change in character in the patriarch, and this signals a change in nature. Some attribute this change in character to spiritual maturity. Jacob was already saved but learned in this encounter to trust God fully.3 Others, however, indicate that this change in character indicates the new nature that saving faith brings. In the commentary tradition, sometimes it is difficult to determine what the author thinks on this topic. Often a comment is simply made that Jacob had a change of character. Since many of these writers believe spiritual salvation brings such a change, there is at least the implication that there has been a spiritual change in Jacob at Peniel.
The third argument is that the encounter at Peniel is an accurate picture of what happens when one experiences eternal salvation. This is seen in the wrestling and the renaming of Jacob which takes place.
This article will evaluate the merits of these arguments which clearly support a Lordship Salvation view of how a person receives eternal life. In analyzing these issues, this article will also address certain themes in Genesis. These themes are found in other narratives concerning Jacob, as well as the other patriarchs and certain leaders in the OT. Finally, this article will suggest another purpose and interpretation of Jacob’s encounter at Peniel.
II. THE FIRST ARGUMENT: THE VOW
Some point out that Jacob must have been eternally saved in Genesis 32 because of the change that takes place in him. This change contrasts with how he acted in his previous encounter with God, as recorded in Genesis 28. The vow made by Jacob in Gen 28:22 demonstrates that change.
Boice is one of those who maintains that the vow in Genesis 28 paints a very negative picture of Jacob. By making this vow, Jacob shows a lack of faith. It also shows the reader that Jacob is completely self-centered. He only wants a blessing from God.4 Even though the vow is directed towards the Lord, it is also focused on Jacob and what he is willing to do. However, this willingness is dependent upon the Lord’s doing something for him. The Lord must fulfill certain promises towards Jacob. The way the vow is made shows that Jacob is not trusting in the Lord to fulfill those promises. Jacob is trying to force the Lord into an agreement between himself and the Lord.
Boice adds that the whole account in Genesis 28 shows that Jacob is deceitful. Part of the purpose of the vow is simply to preserve his life. The vow is a bargaining tactic, and the promise on Jacob’s part to give a tenth of what he earns springs from a carnal mentality.5 Jacob, in showing this lack of faith, is not sure God will bring him back to the land. In Boice’s view, this demonstrates that Jacob is an unbeliever at this point in the narrative:
…we cannot help but wonder if the revelation of God to Jacob at Bethel had made anything more than the most rudimentary impression and achieved anything more than perhaps the mere beginning of his conversion.6
Ross interprets Jacob’s vow in Genesis 28 in a much more favorable light. In fact, he flatly contradicts Boice by noting that Jacob did indeed believe what God promised. His oath was not a way to bargain with God:
Jacob’s promise to worship God at Bethel was solemnized by oath. Vows were not made to induce God to do something He was not willing to do. They were made to bind the worshiper to the performance of some acknowledged duty. Jacob made his vow on the basis of what God had guaranteed to do. So he was taking God at His word and binding himself to reciprocate with his own dedication.7
One aspect of how the vow is interpreted is the sense of the word “if” in v 20. Boice admits that the word can have the meaning of “since” and that Jacob could be saying that since God is going to fulfill His promises to Jacob, Jacob will give a tenth of his earnings. In that case, Jacob would not be bargaining with God. He would simply be stating a fact. But Boice says this is not the proper way to see the word, based upon the “mood” of the passage. Instead, Jacob did indeed have doubts about God fulfilling His promises. Even if the word is to be translated “since,” it would only reflect the idea that Jacob did not want to openly express his doubts toward God.8
This is an interesting comment when one considers Jacob’s actions in the verses leading up to the vow (vv 16-19). Boice argues that Jacob, in giving the vow, does not have faith in God. But in the passage, the reader is given several details regarding Jacob’s response to the Lord when he wakes up. He acknowledges the presence of the Lord (v 16). He responds with fear and awe (v 17). He builds a pillar for the Lord and pours oil over it in order to commemorate what happened there (v 18). All of these actions express an attitude of respect and worship. Only after these things does Jacob give the vow. S. Lewis Johnson comments:
Jacob’s vow at the conclusion of the experience has sometimes been called mere bargaining. He does vow that, if God will be with him and bless him, then the Lord will be his God. On the other hand, his response to the experience of the vision argues otherwise. He was filled with awe, which von Rad calls “a feeling of pious shuddering.”9
Johnson clearly believes that in Genesis 28, Jacob is a believer. The patriarch was not concerned about the things promised by God, but with the presence of God. The result was that Jacob worshipped God and made a covenantal pledge. In v 15, God had promised to be with Jacob wherever he went. Jacob applied that promise to a particular situation. He did not see the tithe in v 22 as a gift to God, but as giving God what belonged to Him already. One may say that Jacob was not a mature believer, but he was a believer.10
In the final analysis, it is a moot point if Jacob doubted God’s promise. Certainly, a believer can have doubts. This is seen throughout the Scriptures. Boice is reading his Lordship Salvation view of faith into this passage. For him, a “true believer” cannot doubt God.
Even if one looks at the passage in Genesis 28 to find negative aspects of Jacob’s vow, he is confronted with the fact that there is ample evidence to show that Jacob did believe God. While one might doubt the eternal salvation of Jacob in Genesis 28 on the suggestion that a believer would not bargain with God, the Bible teaches otherwise.
A. Bargaining Believers
In the broader context of Genesis 28, the reader sees that Jacob finds himself in a trying time. His brother Esau wants to kill him. He is forced to flee to a foreign land. In such a situation, believers can indeed doubt God’s care for them as they face these fears.
In the OT, examples of this include Gideon and Barak in the Book of Judges. The author of Hebrews speaks of these men as examples of godly believers and comments that they were among those who by faith subdued kingdoms, did works of righteousness, and obtained promises from God (Heb 11:32-33).11 In the case of these judges in Israel’s history, we find men who showed fear as they faced the possibility of physical death. In Judg 6:36-40, Gideon looks for reassurance from the Lord through a sign involving a fleece. Discussing this event, Chisholm comments:
When one surveys the evidence in the Book of Judges, it becomes apparent that the Spirit empowered recipients for physical conflict, but possession of the Spirit did not insulate the recipient from foolish behavior. This problem first surfaced with Gideon, who asked for a sign from God shortly after being endowed with the Spirit.12
Gideon is a man chosen by God, empowered by the Spirit, charged with leadership from God, and listed among the faithful in the Book of Hebrews. However, he still struggles with his faith. He looks for miracles from the Lord to show that God will fulfill what He has promised. The implications are obvious. For Gideon, the promise of God is not sufficient for him to act.
In the Book of Judges, another warrior of God, when faced with an obstacle, also uses bargaining tactics. Barak was facing battle and sought reassurance. In his case, he sought this assurance in a woman rather than the Lord (Judg 4:4-8). The prophetess Deborah revealed to Barak that God had commanded him to destroy the armies of the Canaanite general Sisera and that the Lord had promised to give him victory. However, Barak will not do what the Lord commanded unless Deborah joins him.
Clearly, Barak is negotiating with the prophetess: “And Barak said to her, ‘If you will go with me, then I will go: but if you will not go with me, I will not go’” (Judg 4:8).
O’Dell correctly points out the lack of faith on Barak’s part. He says that the judge saw Deborah as a good luck charm. He was hedging his bet. If God did not come through, and he lost the battle, perhaps the presence of Deborah would save his life. He relied on his own strength and cunning.13 Just as some have said concerning Jacob, Barak also is fearful and places conditions upon his obedience to what the Lord has commanded. In Barak’s case, the word “if” explicitly has this meaning.
In all three of these examples, the men involved were faced with death before their enemies. All three had been given the promise of deliverance. If Jacob is bargaining with God, he is like the other two. While one can certainly argue that these men show a lack of confidence in what God has said, there is nothing in the text that excludes them from being seen as genuine believers. In the cases of Barak and Gideon, we know them not only to be believers, but men whom the author of Hebrews commends as faithful examples for us, despite their failures.
B. Fearful Believers in Genesis
In the Book of Genesis itself, the reader sees that a believer can have doubts and fear. In fact, the book relates the story of another patriarch who experienced both doubts and fear concerning the Lord’s promise that He would return him to the Land of Promise.
Twice in the life of Abraham we see this lack of faith. In Gen 12:10-20, Abraham tells his wife to lie to the Pharaoh in Egypt about being his wife. She does so, and the king takes her as a concubine. God intervenes in the situation. When asked why he lied, Abraham says he feared for his life.
Abraham follows the same pattern in Gen 20:2-11. He tells his wife to lie to King Abimelech about being his wife. Once again God intervenes and saves both Abraham and Sarah. Abraham again admits that he lied because he feared for his life (Gen 20:11).
It is true that the account in Genesis 12 occurs prior to Gen 15:6, in which God declares Abraham righteous because he believed God. Most believe Gen 15:6 is when Abraham received eternal life.14 If that is the case, the first incident of Abraham’s fear for his life and episode of lying occurred prior to salvation. However, the parallel account in Genesis 20 clearly occurs after Abraham was spiritually saved. God had promised him that that he would die at peace at a good old age (Gen 15:15). But in Genesis 20, he doubts God will bring this about or bring him back to the land God had promised to give him.
Abraham’s son and Jacob’s father Isaac did the same thing. He had his wife Rebecca lie because he feared for his life (Gen 26:6-7, 9).
When one compares Abraham with Jacob at Bethel, the issue of protecting the patriarchs outside the Promised Land is relevant. In both Genesis 12 and 20, Abraham is outside of the land, but God remains faithful to him. At Bethel, Jacob’s fears are tied to leaving the Promised Land. The Lord promises to protect him in this situation.
God had also promised to give Abraham a son. In Gen 16:1-2, Abraham and Sarah have doubts that the Lord will fulfill this promise. By using Hagar to bear a son, Abraham and Sarah attempt to work around the Lord. Once again, the Lord fulfills His promise to the couple.
The point of interest here is that scholars do not doubt the eternal salvation of Abraham in Genesis 16 and 20, even though Abraham doubts God’s word and does things his own way. It is inconsistent that many of these same scholars question Jacob’s salvation at Bethel because he doubts God words and tries to do things his way.
Vawter sees the parallels between Jacob and Abraham’s post-salvation doubts and fears. Speaking of Jacob, he says that, “Jacob is a prime example of one who chooses to help God along rather than trusting God to keep His word.”15 If this means Jacob was not a saved individual, then neither was Abraham. However, Gen 15:6 makes this latter conclusion impossible. Believers can have doubts, fear, and lack of faith in God’s promises.
III. THE SECOND ARGUMENT: JACOB’S CHANGE OF CHARACTER
In connection with the doubts and fear demonstrated in the life of Jacob, it is common among many to see a drastic change in his character after his encounter with God at Peniel. Some see this change as a sanctification issue, while others see it as a proof of his reception of eternal life.
Those that see Jacob receiving eternal life at Peniel say that his actions prior to Genesis 32 are the actions of an unregenerate man. In addition to not trusting God, he steals the birthright from his brother Esau. He lies to his father Isaac. He does the same thing with his uncle Laban. After Peniel, it is maintained, there is a changed nature which is made evident by his actions. Howell, for example, says that after Peniel there is a “marked change in Jacob’s character” and that it comes about as a “result of wrestling with God and God’s seeing Jacob’s undeterred passion for His blessing.”16
A. Jacob’s Change in Genesis 32
Jacob’s supposed transformation is seen when he meets his brother Esau after Peniel. After seeing the face of God and surviving, he is no longer afraid to meet Esau. This lack of fear is contrasted with the doubts he has in chapter 28, as well as the fear he had at the prospect of meeting Esau in Genesis 32. Before his encounter with God, Jacob had sent gifts to Esau twice (vv 20-21). He also sent his family before him. After wrestling with God he goes before his family. This shows he no longer has the fear that characterized him before.17
However, did such a change take place? Jacob is separate from the company when he meets the Lord at Peniel. Does the reader assume that he was not planning to join the group later and then lead his family when they met his brother? That is not stated. We don’t know that meeting God face to face caused a change in his plans.
Howell says that Jacob attempted to send gifts to Esau. However, after the encounter with God and meeting Esau, he successfully gives these gifts to his brother. Jacob insists that Esau take the gifts after Esau at first refused them (Gen 33:10). This is said to show that Jacob, who had formerly stolen from his brother, now becomes one who gives and blesses. It also reminds the reader of the tithe he promised to give God if He would bring him back to the land safely (Gen 28:20-22). Jacob fulfills his promise.18
This positive spin on Jacob’s actions seems forced. There simply is no change in Jacob’s actions before and after the encounter at Peniel. In addition, we are told the reason Jacob sent the gifts to Esau. He wanted to appease his brother in the hope that Esau would receive him (Gen 32:20). Jacob seeks his brother’s favor because of Jacob’s past crimes against Esau, and this intention is restated upon their meeting after he wrestles with the Lord (33:8). The attempt to change Jacob’s motives to humility rather than self-preservation, despite no change in action and repeated statements of intention, is simply unwarranted.
Another element to this meeting is the division of Jacob’s family. First, Jacob divides his family into two groups prior to wrestling with the Lord. He repeats this action after wrestling with the Lord and right before meeting with Esau (33:1-2). Howell acknowledges this repetition, but insists the two same actions are to be interpreted differently. After the encounter with God, such actions are examples of prudence as Jacob is simply being cautious.19 Before, those same actions were sinful. Howell is suggesting he can read the mind of Jacob.
We are not left to wonder why Jacob divided the company. In Gen 32:7 it was because Jacob was “greatly afraid” and distressed. If Esau attacks his family, the first group will be lost, but at least the second company will survive. He repeats this action after his wrestling match with the Lord. If he divided them because he feared for their lives the first time, there is nothing that suggests a shift in intention after Peniel. He still fears the wrath of Esau and doubts the Lord’s protection.
After meeting Esau, Jacob seems to display another example of lack of faith in God’s promises. When he bows to the ground seven times and has his family bow as well (33:3-7), he seems to have forgotten what God had said to him in the blessing from Isaac (Gen 27:29). Esau was to bow down to him, not the other way around.
If Jacob was trusting in the Lord to fulfill His promises and protect him during his meeting with Esau, it stands in sharp contrast for him to bow down to the brother who was to bow down to him. This is after Jacob separates the family and showers Esau with gifts. None of these actions speak of a man who is confident in his protection from God. He still fears Esau.
The climax of this meeting is yet another display of deceit by Jacob. Esau seeks to travel with Jacob to Seir (33:12). Jacob agrees to meet him, coming from behind, claiming his caravan is slow due to women and children (33:14). Esau traveled to Seir, but Jacob travels to Succoth (33:16-17).
B. Jacob’s Character after Genesis 33
There seems to be no immediate or drastic change to Jacob’s character after Peniel. To argue, based on a perceived change, that Jacob was spiritually saved there is invalid. In addition, as was observed in the discussion above on Gideon and Barak, believers can continue to exhibit sinful traits. Olson plainly states this about Gideon. He says, “Before the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him, Gideon is cowardly, hesitant, and secretive. After the Spirit of the Lord has come upon him, Gideon does not change (Judg 6:11-34).”20
The same is true for Jacob. Even as Jacob matures in his faith, his actions continue to be mingled with sin. If one says that Jacob was not saved prior to Genesis 32 because he was a deceiver who lacked faith, then he was not saved later either. He remains a deceiver who lacks faith.
In Gen 34:25-29, Jacob’s sons kill Hamor and his son Shechem because of the rape of their sister Dinah. Jacob’s response to this massacre is noteworthy:
Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have troubled me by making me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me. I shall be destroyed, my household and I.” (Gen 34:30 NKJV, emphasis added)
Yet again, the patriarch expresses fear over the possibility of death for himself and his family. Of course, his family cannot be destroyed in this manner in light of God’s promises to Jacob.
In Gen 35:1-5, Jacob is told by the Lord to return to Bethel and worship Him. Jacob responds by telling his household to rid themselves of their idols in preparation for this encounter with the Lord. While certainly this is a godly action and shows growth on the part of Jacob, it does beg the question as to why there are idols still present in his household at this point. This is long past the time of the Peniel incident.21
The actions of Jacob in the Book of Genesis are full of lies, power plays, fears, lack of faith, favoritism of one wife over the others, and self-interest. If one attempts to determine, based upon Jacob’s character, the time at which Jacob received eternal life, that person will run into all kinds of obstacles. The reason for this is simple. Both in the NT and the OT, good works and change in character are never meant to prove the salvation of anyone.22 The only requirement is to believe in the One whom God has promised will come (in the case of OT believers) or the One who has come (in the case of NT believers) to give us eternal life.
IV. ARGUMENT THREE: JACOB’S ENCOUNTER AT PENIEL IS A PICTURE OF ETERNAL SALVATION
The account at Peniel is a watershed moment in Jacob’s life. It is no surprise then that some scholars come to the account at Peniel and hold to the idea that this is when Jacob received salvation. This is fleshed out through several elements of the episode. These would include Jacob’s wresting with God and his surrender, the “confession” of Jacob’s given name, and the change of that name to Israel.
A. Wrestling with God
Some argue that in the act of Jacob’s wrestling with God and his subsequent surrender to Him in asking for a blessing, the patriarch provides the reader with an illustration of the salvation experience. In this view, saving faith is pictured as the result of a broken, defeated unbeliever who submits his life to the Lord. Concerning the moment in which Jacob clings to the Angel of the Lord, Fokkelman writes:
The old Adam has been shaken off, “Jakob” stays behind on one bank of the river. A new man, steeled and marked, Israel, has developed and he continues the journey on the other bank.23
Howell interprets Jacob’s submission in a similar fashion. In that submission, “Jacob’s true heart is borne out,” and afterwards God establishes a new reality for Jacob, which includes a new name and character. God sees the commitment that Jacob makes with Him.24
This view of Jacob’s wrestling with God finds a willing partner in a popular understanding of the gospel of spiritual salvation today. In that gospel presentation, commitment and surrender are necessary components in order to experience that salvation. John MacArthur falls into this camp by his definition of saving faith. Faith is more than simply believing something is true. It also involves a turning from sin and surrendering to God.25
However, using the metaphor of surrendering in a wrestling match as a picture of receiving eternal salvation presents problems. If one says that salvation is by faith alone (Eph 2:8-9), then the metaphor requires a complex definition of faith that now includes the concept of surrender. Jacob’s grandfather Abraham received eternal life without any kind of wrestling match or struggle with God (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:1-4).
Hodges discusses the meaning of faith in the case of Abraham in Genesis 15:
Abraham’s “faith was imputed to him as righteousness.” The word rendered as is the Greek preposition eis and we could equally well render the statement: it was accounted to him for righteousness. Abraham’s faith became a substitute for the righteousness he otherwise lacked. For Paul, when “Abraham believed God,” the transaction called justification occurred in the absence of works of any kind. For this event, only faith mattered.26
In addition, if we take the metaphor at face value, God is involved in the fighting. Matthews observes that, “the idea of the Lord attacking Jacob is puzzling to commentators.”27 It would be very strange to picture the process of receiving eternal life in this manner. Instead, it is better to see this as the discipline of the Lord in Jacob’s life. God is teaching him some truth. God does this with His children (Heb 12:5-7; Rev 3:19).28
Simply put, receiving eternal life is a free gift by God’s grace through simple faith. To use the example of a wrestling match and surrender as an illustration of such a transaction is an attempt to import a gospel of works into an OT character.
B. Jacob’s “Confession”
In the account of the patriarch at Peniel, Jacob’s name plays a major role. Some have taken the use of his name as a confession. Gerhard von Rad maintains that the mention of the name is an important factor:
In the entire section which follows one must bear in mind that the ancients did not consider a name as simply sound and smoke. On the contrary, for them the name was closely linked with its bearer in such a way that the name contained something of the character of the one who bore it.29
Those who hold this view believe that Jacob’s very name is tied to sin and his status before God. The name Jacob has the basic meaning of “deceiver.” It follows then that when the Lord asks Jacob to give his name, Jacob, by complying, confessed that he is a sinner. For some this is a necessary step to receive salvation.
MacMillin is an example of this view. He says that when God asked Jacob what his name was, God already knew. But God wanted to compel Jacob to “utter its dread syllables with its awful sound.” The sinner must see the “full import of his utter sinfulness.” It is only then that the sinner can throw himself on the infinite mercy of God.30
This confession of sin, for some, also involves repenting of sin as well. Jacob wants to leave a sinful lifestyle behind. Ross takes this view even though he does not think this was a requirement for Jacob to experience eternal salvation:
When one remembers the significance of names, the point becomes clear: a well-established nature, a fixed pattern of life must be turned back radically! In giving his name, Jacob had to reveal his nature. This name, at least for the narratives, designated its owner as a crafty overreacher. Here the “heel-catcher” was caught and had to identify his true nature before he could be blessed.31
However, there is a failure to prove the idea that giving a name is a form of confession. While the meaning of names is significant in certain OT passages, there is no other account that is used to support the idea that a person’s name is a form of confession of sin. There is an unjustified attempt here to impregnate Jacob’s mention of his name with complex spiritual themes such as sin, confession, repentance, and ultimately his standing before God.
There is nothing in the passage itself that leads the reader to conclude that Jacob is confessing his sinful lifestyle when he tells the Lord his name. While Esau remarks on the meaning of Jacob’s name prior to Jacob’s flight to Laban (Gen 27:36), there has been no other reference to it since. The absence of such a connotation, especially in the Peniel episode, seems strange if the reader is expected to read repentance and sorrow into the account.
In addition, there is once again an attempt to apply unstated intent into Jacob’s actions. The text does not state that Jacob, when asked by the Lord to give his name, considered this a form of confession. Jacob simply responds by giving his name. Its purpose is to pave the way for a new name.
Lastly, even if Jacob’s name is a form of confession, this is not relevant to the issue of Jacob’s salvation. Confession of sin is something a believer does in order to be in fellowship with the Lord.32 The Bible never makes it a requirement to receive eternal life.33
Bryant rightly points out the purpose of the confession of sin. Commenting on 1 John 1:9, he states:
Who needs to confess sins? “We do!” John says, referring to himself, the other apostles, and his believing readers. Secondly, John’s Gospel was specifically written to tell us how to receive eternal life and never is confession of sins mentioned as a condition. Thirdly, Jesus taught believers to confess sins when He gave the model prayer, telling the disciples to pray, “Forgive us our sins.”34
C. Jacob’s New Name
The climax of Jacob’s encounter at Peniel is that the Lord gives him a new name—Israel. This new name is significant. Vawter says there is a consensus among scholars that the giving of the name involved more than simply obtaining a new title. Keil and Delitzsch, as well as Leupold, say it signifies a faith that Jacob did not have before the encounter.35 Curtis says the new name even proclaimed a change in how Jacob lived his life.36
Once again, to read an experience of spiritual salvation into Jacob’s new name is importing something into the text that is not there. That is not what receiving a new name signifies in Genesis. Abram receives a new name, as does Sarai (Gen 17:5, 15). Abraham was justified by faith in chapter 15, but receives a new name many years later. When the grandparents of Jacob receive their new names, it has nothing to do with eternal salvation. Wenham agrees with this assessment. The significance of Abraham’s new name involves a covenant God made with Abraham. This covenant,
…involves changing Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai’s to Sarah and the introduction of the rite of circumcision as a mark of belonging to the covenant people… Their new names, “Father of a multitude” and “Princess,” are an assurance that Isaac would indeed be born, and that Abraham would not simply become a great nation, but father of many nations.37
It is also interesting to observe how the name “Israel” is used throughout the Bible. Fairchild points out that the names Jacob and Israel are interchangeable. One would not expect this to be the case if the name Israel meant the man was spiritually saved at that point. This would be especially true if the name Jacob represented who he was prior to salvation. God refers to Jacob by that name, for example, at the burning bush (Exod 3:14-16), centuries after Peniel. It is also used that way in the NT (Matt 22:31-32).38
In the passage of the burning bush, Jacob is called Jacob. However, God tells Moses to call together the elders of “Israel.” It seems that the name Jacob is used for the individual, while in this passage the name Israel has special significance for the nation. McMillin is certainly incorrect that after Peniel the name of Jacob no longer exists.39
It seems, then, that the name Israel carries with it more of a corporate significance. There is meaning in the change of Jacob’s name for the nation at large. It is evident that when Abraham had his name changed it pointed to the impact he would have on nations. This is deserving of more study. In any case, we cannot conclude that Jacob’s receiving a new name at Peniel is an indication that this new name signified a new nature or new life for Jacob.
Many think that the account of Jacob in Genesis 32 teaches the readers about the spiritual condition of Jacob. Some say we see the man gain spiritual maturity. Others say Jacob receives eternal life in his encounter with God. This is due, in part, to the difference between the Jacob of Genesis 32 and the Jacob of Genesis 28.
However, there is reason not to see such a distinction in the two accounts. The two stories have much in common. In both, Jacob is at the border of the Promised Land. In both, he is dealing with a threat from Esau. He also meets an angel in both, and both use the same word for “encounter/meet.”40 Both occur at night, and Jacob is alone. In certain ways, Jacob comes across in a negative light in each encounter.
It seems that the two meetings Jacob has with the Lord are to be seen as a unit. This article has suggested that to focus on the issue of Jacob’s salvation or spiritual maturity is misguided. Vawter agrees, saying that the main point is that God is going to accomplish His goals even if His people (Israel) are uncooperative.41 God is going to bring the nation of Israel back to the land. This is indicated in both Genesis 28 and 32.42 This would have been very applicable to the people to whom Moses wrote the Book of Genesis.
Ross makes this point when he writes concerning Jacob’s wrestling match with God at Jabbok:
The point of the story for the nation of Israel entering the land of promise is clear: Israel’s victory will come not by the usual ways nations gain power, but by the power of the divine blessing. And later in her history Israel would be reminded that the restoration to the land would not be by might, nor by strength, but by the Spirit of the Lord God who fights for His people.43
Ross also says that the fight that Jacob engages in is a metaphor for the struggles that the nation will have both with God and with men/nations.44
The worst interpretation of Genesis 32 occurs when one tries to see in Jacob’s struggle an illustration of how a person receives eternal life. Perhaps we cannot be dogmatic about when Jacob became a believer.45 But, the exegete can be sure it did not occur when Jacob confessed his sin by stating his name. It did not occur when he gave up fighting with God and surrendered to Him. The proof of his spiritual salvation was not in a transformed life. Such arguments are an attempt to force an erroneous NT view of how a person receives eternal life back into the life of Jacob.
Instead, Jacob received spiritual salvation the same way his grandfather did. He believed in the coming Messiah for eternal life (Gen 15:6). That is what the NT teaches as well (Rom 4:1ff).
1 Hosea 12:4 says that Jacob wrestled with an angel. This angel is identified as God in Gen 32:30. This angel was probably the Angel of the Lord and the Preincarnate Christ. See Allen P. Ross, “Genesis,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Edited by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 80-81. See also Randy Rheaume, “‘Abraham Rejoiced to See My Day and Saw It’”: Jesus’ Take on Theophanies,” JOTGES (Spring 2019): 73-79.
2 Examples of those who take this position are: C. F. Keil and F. Deliztsch, Genesis, Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 1:307; Kurt Strassner, Opening Up Genesis (Leominster: Day One Publishers, 2009), 118, 129; and J. H. Walton, Genesis, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 573-74. Strassner calls Jacob a “despicable character” in Genesis 28 who is “radically changed inside and out” in Genesis 32. Walton comments that Jacob, in Genesis 28, did not have the same relationship with God that his grandfather Abraham did.
3 See, for example, Ross, “Genesis,” 80-81; and Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 446. Ross says Jacob now became “bold” in faith and crippled in his own strength as a way of life. Waltke says there is a change in Jacob’s manner of living.
4 James M. Boice, Genesis 12–36: A New Beginning (Ada, MI: Baker, 1998), 774-75.
6 Ibid., 774.
7 Allen P. Ross, “Studies in the Life of Jacob Part 1: Jacob’s Vision: The Founding of Bethel,” Bibliotheca Sacra (July 1985): 223.
8 Boice, Genesis Part 1, 775.
9 S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “Jacob’s Ladder and the Son of Man: Or, Grace Unsought, and Unforgettable,” Emmaus Journal 18:2 (Winter 2009): 146. He refers to the comment found in Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1972), 321.
10 Johnson, “Jacob’s Ladder,” 146.
11 All of Hebrews 11 gives examples of believers. See, Kenneth Yates, Hebrews: Partners with Christ (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2019), 173-87. Even if one takes the position that these men are unbelievers, it is clear that the author of Hebrews gives them as examples to follow. New Testament believers can follow the example of these men.
12 Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., “The Ethical Challenge of Jephthah’s Fulfilled Vow,” Bibliotheca Sacra (Oct, 2010): 411.
13 John L. O’Dell, “The Prophetess and the Reluctant Soldier,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal (Spring 2005): 42.
14 Some, however, based upon Heb 11:8, believe Abraham was saved when God called him from Ur of the Chaldees. This would mean Gen 15:6 is a statement of what was already true in Abraham’s case.
15 Paul Vawter, “An Exposition of Jacob’s Experience at Jabbok: Genesis 32:22-32,” Maranatha Baptist Theological Journal (Fall, 2013): 43.
16 Brian Howell, “God’s White Flag: Interpreting an Anthropomorphic Metaphor in Genesis 32,” Southeastern Theological Review (Winter 2010): 45.
17 Ibid., 43-45.
18 Ibid., 45.
19 Ibid., 46.
20 Dennis T. Olson, “The Book of Judges,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1998), 2:767.
21 Many years ago at the annual GES conference, the late Charles Ryrie made a NT parallel to this. He pointed out that in Acts 19:18-19, Luke records the fact that at Ephesus believers in Christ still had magical books and practiced the things written in them. Luke says that Paul stayed in the city for two years, so for some believers this went on for a time (Acts 19:10-19).
22 Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Significance of Man (Haysville, NC: Schoettle Publishing Co., 2006), 231.
23 Jan Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004), 222.
24 Howell, “God’s White Flag,” 46.
25 John F. MacArthur Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 31.
26 Zane C. Hodges, Romans: Deliverance from Wrath (Corinth, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2013), 114.
27 Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 11:27–50:26, the New American Commentary, vol 1B (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 559. Matthews makes an analogy with Moses in Exod 4:24-26. God comes to do battle with Moses. In the case of Moses, we see that when God struggles with a person, it is not a good illustration of spiritual salvation. Moses was already saved.
28 Yates, Hebrews, 193-97.
29 von Rad, Genesis, 321.
30 Walter F. McMillin, “Jacob at Penuel,” Bibliotheca Sacra (Jul 1934): 297-98.
31 Allen P. Ross, “Studies in the Life of Jacob Part 2: Jacob at the Jabbok, Israel at Peniel,” Bibliotheca Sacra (Oct 1985): 345.
32 Being a believer and being in fellowship with the Lord are not the same thing. Fellowship refers to intimacy. Some believers are in fellowship with the Lord; others are not.
33 While some appeal to certain verses in the NT to insist on the necessity of confession of sin for eternal life, these verses are taken out of context. One such passage is Rom 10:9-10. But these verses do not mention the confession of sin. In addition, the salvation in Romans 10 is salvation from the effects of sin, not salvation from hell. See Hodges, Romans, 298-99.
34 Bob Bryant, “Confessions of Sins in the Spirit-Filled Life,” JOTGES (Autumn 2001): 54.
35 Keil and Delitzsch, Genesis, 306-307; H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, vol 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1950), 195.
36 Edward M. Curtis, “Structure, Style and Context as a Key to Interpreting Jacob’s Encounter at Peniel,” JETS 30.2 (June 1987): 135.
37 Gordon J. Wenham, Exploring the Old Testament: A Guide to the Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 43.
38 Arthur B Fairchild, “Jacob and Israel,” Bibliotheca Sacra (Oct 1905): 698-712.
39 McMillin, “Jacob at Penuel,” 299.
40 Curtis, “Structure,” 135.
41 Vawter, “Jacob’s experience at Jabbok,” 45
42 Tremper Longman, III and David Garland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 239.
43 Ross, “Jacob Part 2,” 351.
44 Ross, “Genesis,” 81.
45 In this writer’s opinion, Jacob had believed in the coming Messiah and His kingdom when he desired the blessing of the firstborn as recorded in Genesis 25. Certainly Abraham and Isaac had passed down to Jacob the promises God had made to them. This is why Jacob valued the birthright.