As Jacob prepared to meet his estranged brother the next day, he spent the night alone. The biblical record says that he wrestled with a man all night and persisted even when his thigh was knocked out of joint. At daybreak, he told the man he would not let him go until he received a blessing. The man blessed him and changed his name to Israel (יִשְׂרָאֵל), which means “God persists or prevails.” Jacob then named the place Penuel (פְנוּאֵל), “the face of God,” because, he said, “I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:24-30).
It’s a curious story. If Jacob’s opponent was God, how could he possibly have prevailed? If it was a human being, why would he say that he had seen God face to face?
Here’s how President Russell M. Nelson paraphrases the story:
At the place Jacob named Peniel (which means “the face of God”), Jacob wrestled with a serious challenge. His agency was tested. Through this wrestle, Jacob proved what was most important to him. He demonstrated that he was willing to let God prevail in his life. In response, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, meaning “let God prevail.” God then promised Israel that all the blessings that had been pronounced upon Abraham’s head would also be his.“Let God Prevail,” General Conference, October 2020
In this interpretation, Jacob’s wrestle was not with another man, but with himself. That sounds a lot like Enos’s experience, wrestling with himself before God all day and into the night before receiving a remission of his sins (Enos 1:2-5), or like Alma’s experience, wrestling with God in mighty prayer on behalf of the people of Ammonihah (Alma 8:10).
If prayer is just saying words, it might not seem difficult, but if it is the way we align our will with God’s and open our heart to receive His blessings, that sounds like work.
I have a friend who is incarcerated. Yesterday evening, I asked him how his prayers have changed in the last few years. Before his imprisonment, he said, he had not put much effort into prayer; he had always been too busy. Now, he is pouring out his heart to God every day, and he is receiving answers and seeing miracles.
The Hebrew word translated “wrestle” in this passage—abaq (אָבָק)—actually means “dust.” This is the only place in the Bible where it appears as a verb, and translators have rendered it as “wrestle” to convey the image of two men rolling in the dirt as they contend with one another. A more literal translation would be “to bedust” or “to make dusty.” The thought of Jacob “wrestling” with himself reminds me of the repeated admonition in the Book of Mormon to humble ourselves “to the dust.” (See Mosiah 21:13, Alma 34:38, Alma 42:30.)
Today, I will wrestle before God in prayer. I will take the time and make the effort to align my will more fully with His and to open my heart to receive His blessings.