Some things James Jordan has said about thorns and about Jacob make me wonder if we can glean additional insight into Paul’s enigmatic statement that “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”
First, Jacob wrestles with God, a type of prayer, bracketed by two other prayers. He prays for deliverance from his wrestling opponent, Esau; Paul prays three times for deliverance from his thorn. Second, at the time of his wrestling, Jacob has had two Christophanies, one of which is the occasion of his wound. Paul has had two Christophanies (his conversion and 2 Cor 12), the second of which is identified with his thorn. Finally, Jacob’s limp is directly connected with and signifies the blessing he receives from God; Paul’s thorn is directly connected with and signifies a blessing from God, specifically the power and strength of Christ.
So is Paul’s thorn analogous to Jacob’s wrestling, or to his limp?
If the wrestling, Paul’s thorn is a messenger (angelos), just as Jacob’s wrestling partner was the angel of Yahweh. Paul compares it to harassment, insults, persecutions. At the very time Paul mentions his thorn, he is wrestling with “super-apostles” in Corinth, just as Jacob had wrestled with Esau, Isaac and Laban. And Jordan has insightfully observed that Scripture’s constant analogy between men and plants, men and trees, gives the thorny curse of Genesis 3 a double meaning: Adam must wrestle with both thorns of the field and thorns of the flesh. Cain is the first such thorn; I wonder if we are, figuratively, the thorns Jesus bears on his crown. So perhaps Paul’s thorn is his opponents, false teachers, Judaizers.
But if Paul’s thorn is analogous to Jacob’s limp, and this seems to fit better, then it is a “foot” wound like Jacob’s, like the Messianic foot wound that Jesus shares with his people. Paul compares his thorn to weaknesses, hardships, calamities. Paul’s calling his wound a thorn establishes an interesting link between Adam’s curse and the serpent’s curse. We wrestle with thorns of all kinds in order to bear fruit, but it is in our very wrestling that we (Adam, Jacob, Israel, Jesus, Paul, Christians) receive a bruised heel. And Satan is not simply crushed, but it is precisely in Jesus’s and our wrestling with these thorns that Jesus wins victory and his kingdom is established. The curse, the way of decay and death and sacrifice, is the path to its own undoing.
In either case, Paul is a new Jacob. Both men have a name change. Both men experience fourteen years without apparent fruitfulness, but which God uses to prepare them for fruitfulness and dominion. Both men wrestle, although Paul’s wrestling does not seem to come to an end. Both are given a “foot” wound that is a sign of God’s blessing and power. And because their “bodily presence is weak,” they must both lead God’s flock with words and wisdom rather than strength.