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How God Can Wrestle Without a Body

If God is pure spirit, with no body, then how did he wrestle all night with Jacob in the book of Genesis?

Recently, there was a Twitter thread of atheists and theists going back and forth that gained a bit of attention. An atheist asked, “Dear theists: What is the mass of God?”

A priest responded, “What is the circumference of red?” To put it another way, to demand measurements of God’s physical qualities is, in the words of the priest, “asking about a property of something that doesn’t possess that property.”

Seeing a gotcha moment in his grasp, another atheist retorted, “Then how did God wrestle with Jacob if he has no physical body?” (Gen. 32:22-32).

The priest left the conversation with, “I’m sure the Creator can figure out a temporary thing.”

Genesis 32:24 tells us about “a man” who wrestled with Jacob all night. But verse 28 seems to identify the “man” as God. The “man” tells Jacob that Jacob’s new name will be Israel because Jacob had “striven with God.” Jacob seems to believe he wrestled with God, for he says, “I have seen God face to face” (v. 30)

So how does Jacob wrestle with God if God is immaterial? Is this a gotcha moment for the atheist?

No, it’s not! There are several ways we can respond to this challenge.

One possible response is that of the priest: “I’m sure the Creator can figure out a temporary thing.” God is omnipotent, which means he can do anything that doesn’t involve a logical contradiction. Manifesting himself in a material form doesn’t involve a logical contradiction. Therefore, it could be that God temporarily manifested himself as a “man” and wrestled with Jacob.

This is not out of bounds for his omnipotence. Nor would it contradict the claim that God is immaterial.

In order for there to be a contradiction, God taking human form would have to logically entail the claim that God in his divine nature is both immaterial and material at the same time and in the same respect. But God temporarily creating a physical body that he takes on to wrestle with Jacob doesn’t entail that God’s divine nature is both immaterial and material at the same time and in the same respect.

The temporary material form that God creates and uses to manifest himself is entirely on the side of creation and has no bearing on God’s divine essence, which is immaterial. God’s divine nature is infinite being, and the body he creates and takes on is finite being. The finite can’t possibly affect the infinite. Therefore, the temporary material form that God creates and uses to wrestle Jacob doesn’t entail that God in his divine nature has mass.

St. Thomas Aquinas offers another possible take. In response to the claim that we can see the divine essence in this life, which some support with Jacob saying, “I have seen God face to face” (Gen. 32:30), Aquinas states:

A man is said in the Scriptures to see God in the sense that certain figures are formed in the senses or imagination, according to some similitude representing in part the divinity. So, when Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face,” this does not mean the divine essence, but some figure representing God (ST I:12:11 ad 1).

Aquinas then explains this event as a form of prophecy—it’s possible that Jacob didn’t actually physically wrestle with a material figure. Rather, he experienced a vision in which he wrestled with a man and he received what Aquinas calls the “prophetic current” (ST II-II:174:1 ad 3). On this reading, the “Does God have mass?” question becomes irrelevant.

But what about Jacob’s thigh that was put out of joint (v. 25)? We’re told that Jacob was “limping because of his thigh” when the sun rose (v. 31). Well, God can make Jacob’s thigh be out of joint without an actual physical wrestling match, just as he struck Zacharias dumb shortly before Jesus’ birth (Luke 1:20).

Another response that makes the “Does God have mass?” question irrelevant is that the “man” was not God, but an angel—a created intelligent being that’s pure spirit. Aquinas is sympathetic to this reading (see ST Appendix 2:3; ST Suppl. 15:3 ad 1). For support, some appeal to Hosea 12:4, which reads, “He [Jacob] strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor.”

Now, a glaring obstacle to this reading is that the passage in question (Gen. 32:22-32) identifies as God the “man” who wrestles with and speaks to Jacob. How can an angel speak in the place of God?

It’s not uncommon for the Bible to speak of an action as being performed by someone even though the action was really performed by a representative. Consider, for example, Moses’ reception of the Commandments. Moses tells the Israelites that he received the Commandments from God: “God spoke all these words saying . . .” (Exod. 20:1; cf. Deut. 5:5). Yet Paul says in Galatians 3:19 that the Law was “ordained by angels through an intermediary,” the intermediary being Moses. Stephen addresses the Jewish council as “you who received the law as delivered by angels” (Acts 7:53). The same idea is found in Hebrews 2:2 and in Josephus’s Antiquities (15, 136

The same principle is found elsewhere in the Bible, too. Stephen says Moses built the tabernacle in the wilderness (Acts 7:44), but Moses didn’t actually build it with his own hands. Other Israelites did. Similarly, Stephen says just a few verses later in the same chapter, verse 47, that Solomon built the temple, knowing that Solomon didn’t actually build it himself.

That the Bible speaks of actions being performed by someone even though those actions were really performed by a representative provides a possible explanation as to why the author of Genesis describes what the angel does as the actions of God.

There’s yet another possible response, which is very ancient: the “man” is a pre-incarnate Christ.

It differs from our first response in this article only in that it specifies God the Son as the one who acts in and through the temporary material form that he creates and manipulates to wrestle with Jacob.

Recall from above that Hosea 12:4 identifies the “man” who wrestled with Jacob as “the angel.” “Angel” translates the Hebrew word malak and the Greek word aggelos, both of which simply mean “messenger.” Since Christ is the Father’s messenger (John 8:38-42), so it’s argued, Christ can be described as an “angel” without any implications of him being a created being (as Jehovah’s Witnesses believe).

This doesn’t mean the Second Person of the Trinity permanently united to himself a human nature, as he did when he was conceived in the Blessed Virgin Mary’s womb. Theologians call such a permanent uniting the “hypostatic union”—the union of two natures, human and divine, to the one divine person, the Second Person of the Trinity. Rather, this “pre-incarnate” view states the Second Person of the Trinity simply manifested himself temporarily by creating and using a material form, without uniting the material form to his divine nature in his person.

Augustine doesn’t adopt this view, but he does indicate that it was understood this way during his time. In Sermon 72 on the New Testament, after referring to the individual whom Jacob wrestled with as “the angel” four times, he writes, “So then that angel, who is understood to be the Lord Jesus, says to Jacob.” This view has a robust pedigree.

But what about the Incarnation? Don’t we say the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity united to his person a human nature? And doesn’t that mean that God ends up having mass while also being immaterial?

Our explanation here is similar to the one above, but also a little different. It’s true that God the Son permanently made a human nature his own, such that we can say God the Son has two natures: divine and human—unlike the case above, where God creates and takes on a material form to manifest himself.

Having a human nature, God the Son can do and experience things that go with being human. And we can say such things about him—for instance, “God the Son suffered, died, and rose from the dead”—and they’ll really be true. Similarly, we can say, “God the Son has mass,” and that statement will really be true, too.

But these things are true only by virtue of the human nature that God assumed to himself, which can’t affect his divine nature any more than any other creature can affect infinite divine being. Therefore, to speak of God the Son having mass via the Incarnation doesn’t entail that God the Son is both material and not immaterial in the same respect at the same time.

Regardless of which explanation you take, each one plausibly escapes the atheist’s trap. There’s no inconsistency between what the Bible says about God and what we know from reason. Contrary to what an atheist might think, there’s no gotcha moment here.

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