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Exegetical Essay Jacob wrestles with God (Genesis 32:22-32) Maria Grace, Ph.D.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Introduction: The story of Jacob (Genesis 25-36) Selected passage: Jacob wrestles with a Man (Genesis 32:22-32) Setting, genre, geography, and main characters Main themes revealed in the passage a. The Manʼs Identity b. Encounter with God c. Jacob becomes Israel d. Blessing and name-giving e. Memory of the event in the following generations Conclusion Bibliography
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Introduction: The story of Jacob (Genesis 25-36) The story of Jacob, presented in chapters 25-36 of the book of Genesis, is a narrative of different episodes, tied together by itineraries or genealogical references. Written as family narratives, the individual stories betray diverse origins that leave scholars uncertain about their specificity. For the purposes of this essay, the Jacob story (Genesis 25:19-36:43) is read as a unity, and a literary entity with a life of its own. In this light, it is seen it as a story of a personʼs journey, in which the main character, Jacob, flees from Canaan to Haran and finally returns to Canaan. Within this journey, there is also a journey through the land of promise in 33:18-35:27, after the return. This itinerary presents Jacob as a person and a family in constant movement, a theme anticipating the portrayal of Israel in the book of Exodus, as a peoples journeying out of Egypt through the wilderness to the promised land.1 Israel as a nation begins with Jacob. In the story, Jacobʼs character and personality develop throughout a series of events, until he becomes Israel. Jacobʼs becoming Israel is the overriding theme in his story as it unfolds through the narratives of four main themes, namely: a) the Divine Promise for land and descendants (28:3-4, 13-14; 35:11-12), and for Godʼs presence and care for Jacob (28:15; 31:3); b) the Divine Blessing from God to Jacob (32:29; 35:9); c) Godʼs speaking to Jacob to promise (28:13-15; 31:3; 35:11-12), to command (31:3, 13; 35:1), to advise (31:12), to bless (32;29), and to name (32:28; 35:10), and; d) Conflict, which starts at the onset of the
(The New Interpreterʼs Bible, 516)
story (25:19-34) and finds its full expression in the Jacob-Esau relationship, as a result of Godʼs decision to elect one person (i.e., Jacob) over another (i.e., his brother Esau) for carrying the promise given to Abraham.
Selected passage: Jacob wrestles with a Man (Genesis 32:22-32) At first glance, the passage seems to be an interruption of the story of Jacobʼs encounter with Esau, after a 20-year separation. It describes a brief episode that happens while Jacob and his family are on their way to the land of Seir, the country of Edom, where his brother Esau lives. Jacob is seeking reconciliation with Esau, but he fears Esauʼs wrath. Jacob invokes God, claiming of the divine promises God made to him. The passage begins with restless Jacob waking up in the middle of the night and passes his entire family, servants and animals onto the other side of the river Jabbok, then crosses the river again and returns to his campsite. Left alone in the dark, he is attacked by a mysterious man, with whom he wrestles till dawn. In an effort to escape Jacob, the man hurts Jacobʼs hip. But Jacob will not let him go, unless he receives the manʼs blessing, whereupon the stranger changes Jacobʼs name to Israel, while refusing to reveal his own name. As the stranger disappears in the morning light, a limping Jacob renames the site of the encounter Paniel (i.e., “Face of God”), and a dietary restriction is instituted for the generations of Israel, in memory of Jacobʼs divine
Setting, genre, geography, and main characters The encounter happens at night, next to the river Jabbok, while a crossing is taking place. The ambience is mysterious, dark, ominous. The story is told briefly, yet with a dramatic tone. The events unfold quickly, climaxing with the rising of the sun, where the blessing and name change take place: injured Jacob becomes Israel and the stranger disappears. The river at the scene of Jacobʼs struggle with the mysterious being reminds of many folk tales of river-spirits that fight with humans seeking to cross their abodes. Travelers would have to appease the spirits through libations, sacrifices, or other rituals, in order to be granted passage. Another popular motif in folk tales is that of the demonic being who attacks humans during the night but who becomes impotent with the break of dawn. A way to prevail over those demons is to hold onto them long enough, until they lose all their power in the full light of the day. But this episode, narrated within the monotheistic Israelite context, cannot be categorized as a folk tale. The mysterious stranger does not ask for a sacrifice nor does he impede Jacobʼs passage. He meets Jacob only after everyone else has crossed the river and he wrestles with him. In contrast to folk tales, in which the demon becomes a shape-shifter during the struggle, changing guises from bird to serpent to animal, this
The New Interpreterʼs Bible, 564
stranger is presented as a non-described man. In folk tales it is the human that ends up injuring the demon. In the biblical story it is the human Jacob who is being injured by his assailant. Finally, Jacobʼs asking for his adversaryʼs blessing proves that he cannot be a demon, because the notion of eliciting blessing from a demon has no place in the biblical narrative. The similarities of the motifs seen in this passage and in popular, pre-existing folk tales lead us to assume that the latter have provided the literary model for this biblical narrative. But this narrative is free from elements found in folk tales. It has been carefully constructed to reflect the values and beliefs of monotheistic Israel, and to illuminate the larger story of Israelʼs creation into a nation as the fulfillment of Godʼs promise to Godʼs chosen ones. The geographical locale of the episode is crucial, for it takes place at the crossing of the river Jabbok. This river is mentioned in the Bible as the frontier of Israel.3 It delineates Israelʼs first victory against the kingdoms east of Jordan after it emerged from its wanderings in the desert. Even though the motive for the attack is unknown, the fact that it happens at the river Jabbok suggests that the mysterious being challenges and momentarily frustrates Jacobʼs return to his homeland. To this Jacob responds with an all-night struggle and a plea for the blessing he receives by dawn. The main human characters in the story are two, Jacob and the Man. The two secondary characters are the river Jabbok as a place of crossing, and the place of the numinous encounter, which Jacob names Paniel, meaning “the Face of God”. Jacobʼs
Num. 21:24; Deut. 2:37; 3:16; Josh. 12:2; Judg. 11:13-22.
family, his wives, children, servants and the animals leave the scene early in the episode. Jacob is left alone next to Jabbok. The name of the river Jabbok, pronounced in Hebrew Yab-boq, is phonetically close to “Jacob”, which in Hebrew is pronounced Yaʼakov. Yab-boq is also phonetically close to the Hebrew verb ye-abeq, which means “he wrestled”.4 There seems to be a close relationship between the river, Jacob, and the act of wrestling that takes place throughout the night. These words, so close in sound, evoke the imagery of the numinous encounter. Yab-boq the river, flowing through a deep ravine on a meandering course, was a dangerous passage forYaʼakov and his family to make in the middle of the night. He must have been in great hurry to advance his course and meet Esau, sooner than later. We know from the previous passage that he has sent gifts and messengers and that he has prayed to be saved from his brotherʼs anger. It appears as though he does not want to give Esau the impression that he is delaying their meeting face-to-face. Two of the four characters, (i.e., Jacob and the place of the encounter), acquire a new identity during this episode: Jacob becomes Israel. The name is given to him by the strange assailant and it is the name that Godʼs chosen nation will carry through the generations to come. Jacob as Israel becomes the father of a nation. Jacob then names the place of the encounter Peniel, “Face of God”. The locale then becomes a sacred site, where Jacob the man “saw the face of God” and his life was saved.
Hamilton, Victor: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 329
Main themes revealed in the passage a. The Manʼs Identity Many interpreters have attributed to the strange man the identity of an angel. But is he an angel? In Hebrew, malʼakh is an angel of the Lord, the bearer of the divine word. The word derves from a stem l-ʼ-k, “to send”. Mal-ʼakh, like the Greek angelos, from which the English angel is derived, means “messenger” and is used for ordinary humans (Genesis 32:4, Judges 9:31, and 1 Kings 19:2), as well as of spiritual beings. In this narrative, the stranger is not an angel. In pre-exilic literature there is little importance given to angels. They are nameless, enjoy neither individuality or free will, and there is no hierarchy among them. Their function is to be emissaries of God.5 The mysterious man who attacks Jacob as he is about to cross the future border of Israel who refuses to say his name, is referred to by Jacob as ʻelohim. The narrative does not want us to know too much about the mysterious figure. It is part of the power of the wrestling scene that we do not know the name and cannot see the face of Jacobʼs antagonist. Being too certain about the identity of the stranger would diminish the awe in the telling of the story and weaken its numinous character. We know that Jacob is going to meet his brother Esau and that he will have to contend with Esauʼs anger. But first, he must contend with God. In the dark of the night, Yahweh , identified only as “a man”, attacks Jacob and the two forms merge in a struggle that lasts till dawn. Only Jacob can see his adversaryʼs face, in the dark. Showing extraordinary strength, Jacob nonetheless is no weaker than his adversary in this combat. By dawn, he lets the man know that he wants his blessing, otherwise he
The JPS Torah Commentary, 383
wonʼt let him go. The stranger has struck him in the hollow of his hip, and caused it to dislocate. Jacob is hurt, but does not surrender. In a threatening tone that betrays his desperate craving for Godʼs blessing, Jacob warns the stranger that he wonʼt let him go unless he grants his request. It seems that only then will Jacob be delivered from his fear of Esauʼs anger and ready to meet with him. b. Encounter with God Jobʼs encounter with the mysterious man stands between Godʼs two appearances at Bethel (28:10-22; 35; 9-13). God encountered Jacob when he fled the promised land because of his brotherʼs anger. This time, God is encountering him at the point of re-entering the land, with his brotherʼs anger as the focusing point of Jacobʼs energies. In both cases, Jacob appears alone, vulnerable, and needing Godʼs care. In this encounter, God approaches Jacob in a very ambiguous way, while Jacob is alone and anxious about his upcoming encounter with Esau. Godʼs meeting with Jacob comes as an attack that lasts throughout the night. This is not an inner, mystical revelation of God. It is external, physical, it comes in the form of an unknown man, and it involves the use of a forceful attack and struggle of power, in which neither Jacob or God are willing to let go of each other through the entire night. But, intertwined with the forcefulness of the struggling activity there is also great intimacy in the physical proximity shared by the two men for all those hours. God wrestles Jacob. Jacob wrestles God. Neither one seems to win and neither one will let go of the other. At the break of dawn, the unknown man wants to leave. From the verses that follow (32:29-30) it becomes obvious that he wants to preserve his hiddenness. But the
struggle has not winner yet. Jacob has proven to be an extraordinary fighter and God cannot lose a struggle with a human being. So, he “touches”6 or “strikes”7 Jacob in the hollow of his thigh and dislocates it from the hip socket. He does not destroy Jacob. He just leaves him with a permanent limp, a memory of their extraordinary encounter and the subsequent transformation of Jacob into Israel. In verses 32:26-29 we are offered a remarkable dialogue between Jacob and God, unfolding in three exchanges. In the first exchange (v. 26), the man asks Jacob to let him go but Jacob refuses to release his grip, unless the man blesses him. In the second exchange (v. 28-29), the man replies by asking Jacobʼs name. Jacob responds and the man gives him the name Israel, for he has “striven with God and with men and ha[s] prevailed.” (v. 29) This is the only point in which the man may be alluding to his divine identity. In the third exchange, Jacob boldly asks of the stranger to say his name. Instead of giving away his name, the man gives Jacob his blessing, granting Jacob his initial request. This is his gift and this is when he departs. Or, perhaps, this is when Jacob loosens his grip and lets him go. The text is ambiguous here. 8 The sun has risen. The combat is complete. The stranger has departed, his identity having remained intact and hidden. God has remained God. But Jacob is no Jacob any longer. He has become Israel. He is blessed and given a new name by God, the moment he asked God to say His name.
c. Jacob becomes Israel
The New Interpreterʼs Bible The New Revised Standard Version 8 Bruegemann, Interpretation, Genesis, 268
Israel is a name without an exact analogue among biblical names, so its precise understanding presents some difficulty. Its use in this narrative requires a stem s-r-h, the same stem found in Hosea 12:4, and it is associated with the meaning “to strive”9. But, here, it is a name formed by a verb combined with ʻel, which means God and acts as the subject of the action indicated by the verb. Therefore, Yisraʼel should properly mean “God strives”. Hosea 12:5, in reference to this narrative, says of Jacob va-yasar, which derives from s-w-r, which further derives from s-r-r, which means “to have dominion”. This suggests that Hosea interpreted the name “Israel” to mean “He had dominion over a divine being.” Another explanation regards yisraʼel as a contraction of ish-raʼah-el, translated as “the man who saw a divine being.”10 This interpretation has been influenced by Genesis 32:31. A synonym for Israel is the poetic use of yeshurun (Jeshurun) in Deuternomy 32:15; 33:15, 26, and Isaiah 44:2. In Isaiah 40:4, yeshurun parallel “Jacob”. Since the stem y-sh-r means “to be upright, straight”, it forms the antonym of yaʼakov, which is connected with “craftiness, deceit” (Genesis 27:36; Jeremiah 9:3; Hosea 12:4.) If yisraʼel is associated with yeshurun, the change of the name would express the transformation of a character from deviousness to moral rectitude. This particular interpretation, found in the Yalkut Reubeni (Genesis 323:29), the name would mean “He who is upright with God.”
The JPS Torah Commentary, 404 The JPS Torah Commentary, 405
As Israel, Jacob has been called forth as a new being. Israel is someone who has faced God, been touched by God, prevailed, gained a blessing and been renamed. In the giving of the blessing, some of the power of God has been entrusted with Jacob. He is now ready to face his brother, changed and with new power.
d. Blessing and place name-giving In this encounter, Jacob has undergone permanent change. God met him faceto-face, and he transformed him into Israel, giving him also a permanent wound. Jacobʼs new name cannot be separated from his limping. The permanent damage to his hip is a reminder of Godʼs sovereignty and ultimate power over Jacob, which God bestowed on him as a blessing and a new name. The paradoxical nature of this encounter reveals a “Crippling Victory”11, in which Jacob has shown extraordinary boldness, yet has realized that facing God comes with a cost. Jacob, now Israel, reflects upon his encounter with God and extends the blessing he received by naming the place of the encounter Peniʼel, “Face of God”. The Hebrew expression panim-al-panim, used by Jacob in verse 31 to describe his experience with God is used only of divine-human encounters, that may be of an adversary confrontation or an experience of extraordinary intimacy. The expression, ambiguous about the true nature of Jacobʼs struggle, simultaneously alludes to its providential and perilous characteristics. In the Bible, the act of looking at Godʼs face meant subsequent death. At the burning bush, Moses hides his face “for he was afraid to look upon God” (Exodus, 3-6).
Bruegemann, Interpretation, Genesis, p. 270.
God explicitly tells Moses “Man may not see Me and live!” (Exodus, 33-20). This expresses the intensity of the individual experience with the Divine, the utterly overwhelming nature of the mysterious contact with the awesome majesty of the transcendent and immanent God. But Jacobʼs life is spared and he acknowledges this by naming the place where he saw Godʼs face, after his experience. The place now has taken on a permanent new meaning, both holy and ominous. It is permanently associated with Jacobʼs struggle with God, and his transformation into Israel. Geographically, Peniel is identified with Tulul Adh-Dhaab, a rock that stands on the Jabbok a few miles from where it flows into the Jordan. 12
e. Memory of the event in the following generations As well as Passover is remembered through certain rituals and customs involving food, Jacobʼs crossing of Jabbok after becoming Israel is also remembered by the Israelites through a custom that involves food. The last verse of this passage is written from a different chronological perspective, reflecting a present moment, eons away from Jacobʼs meeting with God. The narrator says that “the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is of the socket of the hip, since Jacobʼs hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle.” 13 Through this dietary restriction, the memory of a holy “crossing” is preserved in the generations of the Israelites that followed Jacob. By not eating the thigh muscle,
The JPS Torah Commentary, 226 The New Interpreterʼs Bible, 564
they acknowledge as holy the place where God touched Jacob before he gave him the name Israel. The moment signified Jacobʼs transformation into the father of the nation Israel, a nation chosen and loved by God unlike any other.
Conclusion This narrative urges us to reflect on Israelʼs theology through the interaction of Jacob with God. We see how Jacob/Israel penetrates the mystery of God, through a wrestling match in which his strength parallels that of Godʼs. Jacob soars in strength, but God gives him a wound that cripples them permanently. With this act God affirms that only God is God. But along with the wound, God gives Jacob a blessing. Jacob/Israel is a limping man with a blessing. He carries both a wound and special power bestowed on him by God. The same theology of weakness in power and power in weakness is found in the New Testament and in the gospel of the Cross. In verse 30, Jacob/Israel asks boldly of God to tell him his name. Israel, as the father of an entire nation, is having an intimate access to God and, through him, the generations that will follow will be blessed by this moment. Israel sees the face of God and survives this sight. He receives a permanent wound, but this is a wound that conceals new power and Godʼs blessing. Jacob has restored his moral rectitude with God, through a wound and a blessing. His wound is his permanent limp. His blessing is that he will father an entire nation. Thanks to him, Godʼs promise for the creation of Israel will be fulfilled.
BIBLIOGRAPHY AND SOURCES USED Bibleworks 7.0: Bible Software with Greek and Hebrew Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Atlanta : John Knox Press, c1982. Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979. Hamilton, Victor P. The book of Genesis : Chapters 18-50, Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans, c1994. The Harper Collins study Bible : New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books. San Francisco, Calif. : HarperSanFrancisco, c2006. The Holy Bible: The Old Testament. Revised standard version. New York, T. Nelson,1952 The JPS Torah Commentary : The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, V. I. Philadelphia : Jewish Publication Society, 1989, The New Interpreterʼs Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, V. I, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1994. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall, 1990.