The struggle and its inconclusive outcome are highly ambiguous. Jacob’s opponent, at first an unknown man, seems to recapitulate Esau, against whom Jacob struggled in Rebekah’s womb. The opponent also echoes Isaac, against whom Jacob struggled by way of subterfuge in order to secure the patriarchal blessing.
The strange man may even evoke Laban, with whom Jacob strove to marry Rachel and gain worldly wealth. Yet, in the end the opponent blesses Jacob—as did Isaac unwittingly.
Jacob’s description of the contest uses a biblical image that is a standard trope for salvation: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (32:30). This evocation of danger and blessing, life-threatening peril and divine encounter, seems to sum up the trajectory of Jacob’s life.
Does the wrestling match set Jacob against an enemy, or does it bring Jacob into intimate contact with a friend? Is the life of the chosen a curse, or is it a blessing and gift? Does the covenant bring heavy burdens and deep suffering, or will it bring peace and prosperity?
The interpretation of Jacob’s struggle in Hos. 12:4–6 suggests a view of God as both enemy and friend. The context is a prophetic pronouncement of divine lament over the faithlessness of Israel.
In the prophecy, Jacob’s wrestling match becomes an image of Israel’s disastrous sinful struggle against God’s promised future: “He strove with the angel and prevailed” (12:4). This is not good news, for it means that faithless, prostitute Israel succeeds in shaking off her divine vocation. She will not be a willing covenant partner with the Lord.
Yet, the prophetic use of Jacob’s wrestling match does not end there. Hosea continues, portraying Jacob/Israel as weeping with regret over his unnecessary struggle with God—one that he has unfortunately won!
Jacob/Israel petitions God for favor. The sanctity and power of God’s name is invoked, and then the prophecy turns to speak to the reader, conveying the moral of the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with God: “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God” (12:6).