Wrestling with God

An Exegetical Study of Genesis 32:22-32
Ben Wulpi Old Testament I Dr. Bergdall November 21, 2007

The Genesis story of Jacob wrestling at Peniel is shrouded in mystery. Who is this “man” that attacks Jacob and wrestles with him throughout the night? How did he cause this injury to Jacob? Why does he rename Jacob? There are many theories, but none are certain. The story, recorded in Genesis 32:22-32, is a culminating point in the life of Jacob, a central character in the book of Genesis and in the history of Israel. It is the moment of new beginnings for Jacob, a moment of transition and transformation. In this encounter, Jacob is given a new name, a blessing, and a limp. It is a story of struggle, identity, and revelation of the divine. Many generations have formed and interpreted this passage in many different ways. It is considered, like much of Biblical literature, to be a story told and retold in different places and times, changing and adapting in different circumstances. “It was in motion for centuries until it finally crystallized in the final form which it now possesses” (von Rad 319). Most would ascribe this passage to J, the Yahwist author of the Pentateuch, but some claim it was a combination of J and E, the Elohist. This event interrupts Jacob’s mission to reunite with his brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of his birthright and the blessing of their father (Gen. 25:29-34; 27:1-40). Abbot presents the cumulative story of Jacob, as recorded in Genesis, in chiastic symmetry, outlined as follows: • Growing up in Canaan 25:19-26 birth, oracle 25:27-34; 27:1-28:5 takes Esau’s birthright and blessing • 28:10-22 Jacob’s dream at Bethel • • • • 29-31 Jacob in Haran with Laban 32:1-21 preparing to return

32:22-33 Jacob wrestling at Peniel

Returning to Canaan 33 meeting Esau 35:1-15 in Bethel 35:16-28 end, birth and death

Although Jacob doesn’t actually die until chapter 49 of Genesis, this is the section that focuses on him. The story at Peniel marks a turning point in the story of his life, and also serves as a counterpart to Jacob’s dream at Bethel—God’s first appearance to him. This particular passage can be divided into three sections: vv. 22-25 are narrative, describing Jacob and his entourage’s crossing of the Jabbok River, and Jacob’s wrestling with the man. Vv. 26-29 are dialogue between Jacob and the man, which climaxes in the renaming of Jacob, and vv. 30-32 serve as etymologies, explaining the origin of the name Peniel and a certain dietary restriction (Hamilton 328). Jacob is a character who exemplifies God’s grace and patience in using humans for his purposes. His very name (yaeaqob) gives away his morally questionable character. His name is associated with eeqeb, “heel,” because Jacob took hold of Esau’s heel when he was born. When he cheated Esau out of his birthright, Esau said, “He is indeed rightly named Jacob, for he has defrauded (eaqab) me….” (Gen. 27.36). The OT associates the name “Jacob” exclusively with the root eqb, meaning “heel” as a noun and “defraud” as a verb. It may literally mean “overtake, supplant” or figuratively “deceive.” Jacob is identified as a deceiver and a self-interested supplanter who will do whatever it takes for his own gain (Zobel). The Hebrew version of chapter 32 of Genesis has one more verse than the English version. So in the Hebrew Bible, this passage is Genesis 32:23-33, but in English it is 32:22-32. For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the English verse numbers. This passage follows the narration of Jacob preparing to meet Esau after their long separation catalyzed by Jacob’s deception. Jacob has learned that Esau is on the way to meet him with 400 men in tow. The text makes clear Jacob’s anxiety: “Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed” (32:7 ESV). Jacob quickly splits up his camp into two groups in preparation for an attack, and prays to God for protection, reminding God of his promise to bless Jacob. He tries to appease his brother by sending droves of gifts and humble offerings, hoping that Esau will accept him. Jacob’s feelings of fear and anxiety set up the event that occurs next at the Jabbok. The Jabbok River, the modern Nahr es-Zerqa (Blue River), is an eastern tributary of the Jordan River about twenty miles north of the Dead Sea. It is a frontier point for the Promised Land (Gen. 3:16). In Old Testament times, river crossings or fords such as the Jabbok serve as entranceways giving access in and out of territories. They have strategic

value for armies, and serve as a symbol of power, both physical and supernatural. It is not difficult to imagine a link between Jacob’s struggle with a supernatural being at this strategic point of power by the Jabbok River (Walter 65). Verse 22-23 delineates Jacob and his entourage crossing the Jabbok. “And he rose up that night, and took his two wives and two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford of Jabbok. And he took them and sent them over the brook, and sent over all that he had” (KJV). There are two ways to interpret these verses. First, Jacob himself crossed the river (“crossed” in v. 22 is singular, not plural, so he crossed by himself first). Or second, Jacob sends his entourage across, but he himself does not cross, judging by v. 24 – “And Jacob was left alone” (Hamilton 329). It is in verse 24 that the surprise attack happens. “And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (ESV). The text simply identifies Jacob’s assailant as “a man.” Later he will be revealed to be a supernatural being, but for now, the man’s identity is unknown to Jacob and to the reader. Since it was night, Jacob would not have been able to see his face clearly. Jacob may have thought it was his brother Esau, whom he feared to go and meet. The reference to “the breaking of the day,” sometimes translated simply as “dawn,” indicates the great length of the wrestling match. Here the narrator plays with the words a bit. There is an acoustical similarity in Jacob (yaeaqob), Jabbok (yabboq), and wrestled (ye’abeq). The narrator could have used the word patal for “wrestle,” for this verb was used earlier in the Jacob stories in connection with the birth of Naphtali (30:8), but that term would not have allowed him the verbal play with Jacob that he achieved with ‘abaq. There may also be a connection between this and Jacob’s encounter with Esau in the next chapter. In Ch. 32 a man wrestles (‘abaq) Jacob (embrace for fighting), and in Ch. 33 Esau embraces (habaq) Jacob (embrace for greeting). These two rhyming verbs are chosen to describe the start of Jacob’s two encounters. Some translators interpret “wrestle” as “contend,” which would indicate verbal strife rather than physical contact. But this may be an effort by some to avoid the idea of a mortal wrestling with the divine (Hamilton 329-330). Verse 25 is where this struggle that has taken most of the night takes a climactic turn. In indefinite language, the KJV says, “and when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.” The first half of the verse is ambiguous in that it doesn’t

directly identify who “he” is who prevails not against “him.” Is it Jacob or the mysterious man who doesn’t prevail? The second half of the verse is more revealing, where the distinction is made that it was Jacob’s thigh that was touched and dislocated. There are a few key words here that must be examined. The first is the word for “touched,” nagae. Its root, nge, is found with the meaning “touch” in the Egyptian Aramaic and in Jewish Aramaic, but it occurs in the Mandaic with the meaning “strike, injure.” Did the man strike Jacob to injure him, or was there a “magical touch” that crippled him? Schwienhorst contends that in its literal usage, nagae never denotes being struck by a violent blow (204). But other translations denote the word as “struck.” Its meaning throughout the OT varies. It is used first in Genesis 3:3, meaning “to lay a finger on.” But other passages suggest something more violent than touching. Satan’s request that God “touch” all that Job has (Job 1:11; 2:5) is more than minimal physical contact. One catastrophe that happens to Job is that the wind “struck” (naga’be) the four corners of his house, that is, flattened it (Job 1:19). The idea of a supernatural being touching (naga’be) a mortal being is found in Isaiah 6:7, “he touched my mouth,” and Jeremiah 1:9, “Yahweh…touched my mouth.” It is very difficult to decide how the word in Gen. 32:25 should be translated (Hamilton 330-331). Also the phrase “hollow of his thigh” or “his hip socket” can be interpreted in different ways. Several other places in Genesis and the OT involve the thigh (yarek). Abraham had his servant place his hand under his thigh (24:2; 47:29), which may be instances of “thigh” being a euphemism meaning genitals. Exodus 1:5 refers to the seventy offspring who came forth from the “thigh of Jacob.” If yarek here is used similarly in this passage, it is possible that, in hopelessness of prevailing, one combatant strikes/touches the genitals of the other. If this is the case, it would be comparable to the situation envisioned in the law of Deuteronomy 25:11-12 in which two men are wrestling, and the wife of the losing combatant disadvantages the winning combatant by “seizing him by the private parts” (RSV). “Given the other references to ‘thigh’ in the patriarchal traditions, it is inconceivable that any later Israelite would have missed the national import of this verse. Jacob, the ancestor of Israel, had his thigh struck, and it was from that thigh that Israel came forth” (Hamilton 331). Even when injured, Jacob continues fighting. In verse 26 the man requests to be released. “Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let

you go unless you bless me’” (ESV). It is obvious from Jacob’s demand that he has realized the supernatural nature of his opponent. Jacob retains such a hold that the man cannot escape from it; Jacob alone has the power to grant his request for release. But at the same time, Jacob realizes that this man—no ordinary man—alone has the power to grant him a blessing. But why does this man, revealed now to be supernatural, request to be let go? The man seems concerned not to be revealed to Jacob by the light of day. Some interpreters claim that this is connected to the mythical tradition of nocturnal spirits who lost their power at daylight. But more accepted is the theory that instead of some kind of spirit or demon, it was God—Yahweh in human form. It was commonplace that God’s face not be seen: “No one shall see me and live” (Exod. 33:20 NRSV). God is not the one endangered by the daylight—it is Jacob, for if he sees God’s face, he will die. But it says something about Jacob in his continued grasping of God: he is willing to risk death for the sake of the divine blessing. But also this shows Jacob acknowledging that he is dealing with a superior being, because a blessing can only be granted by one superior to the one receiving the blessing (Fretheim 567). In the next verse (27), Jacob’s request for a blessing is not answered. But rather, the man asks Jacob what his name is. The reader must keep in mind that the ancients did not consider names to be arbitrary titles for people. On the contrary, “for them the name contained something of the character of the one who bore it. Thus, in giving his name, Jacob at the same time had to reveal his whole nature” (von Rad 321). In telling the man his name, yaeaqob, Jacob essentially reveals himself to be a cheat. He is being forced to make a confession of his character and to acknowledge the suitability of his name in this situation. In verse 28, the man gives Jacob a new name: “Then he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (ESV). By changing Jacob’s name, the man shows his superiority. “Name changing was also a way to exercise authority over an individual. When a suzerain put a vassal on the throne, he sometimes gave him a new name, demonstrating his power over that vassal” (Walton 65). But more importantly at stake here is Jacob’s identity. This man is telling Jacob that no longer will the stigmas of “heel” and “supplanter” be attached to him. The name

associated with lying and trickery is replaced by a new name, a name of honor. The narrative is fairly free with its translation of Israel: “for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” There is a play on sound here in yisrae’el (“Israel”) and sarita (“you have struggled”). The original meaning of “Israel” is much debated. Instead of the explanation given in the text (“you have striven”), many scholars choose to interpret Israel as “El (God) will rule (or strive),” or “Let El rule (or strive).” Zobel defines it clearly as “El reigns” or “El is supreme” (398). But others contend that it may mean “God heals” or “God judges.” The reasoning given in the text varies in different translations. The LXX says “since you have been strong against God, so you will triumph over men.” The Latin Vulgate has it as “because you have been strong against God, and in the same manner you will prevail against men with great strength.” Despite variances, the explanation focuses on what Jacob has done: he has struggled with God; he has succeeded with men. But the new name does not carry any guarantee of transformation of Jacob’s character, especially since his old name, Jacob, is still used interchangeably with his new one in later stories (Hamilton 335). Jacob has revealed his identity to this man, and received a new one from him. Jacob knows by now that this man is supernatural—whether he believes it is Yahweh at this point is not clear. Jacob’s next request is for the man’s identity: “Please tell me your name.” But the man’s reply is merely, “Why is it that you ask my name?” and then blesses Jacob. By asking the man’s name, Jacob is asking about his nature and intent. One can perceive the longing to know God that is inherent in this question. But God removes himself from Jacob’s grip and doesn’t answer the question, “for he does not permit his mystery and his freedom to be touched. But he shows his freedom by blessing Jacob, nevertheless” (von Rad 323). Jacob’s request for a blessing in verse 26 was not answered, but now here it is given. God does not answer Jacob’s request for a name, but the fact that the question is followed by a blessing suggests an indirect answer: God is a God of blessing, a deity positively disposed toward Jacob. The last three verses of this passage serve as etymologies—providing an origin for a name, characteristic or practice. Often in folklore, etiological comments are fanciful (like how the camel got its hump), while in ethnic or national traditions they tend to be legendary. Etiological comments may be fabricated, but they may preserve an accurate story of a tradition (Walton 66).

Verse 30 tells of how Jacob named that place where he had struggled all night with his assailant and come away changed Peniel. His reasoning is “for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (KJV). Even though the man refused to give an answer to the question about his identity, Jacob knew that he had just encountered the living God. Peniel literally means, “the face of El.” Jacob re-names this place before the sun comes up (cf. v. 31), so his phrase “I have seen God face to face” should not be narrowed to literal visual perception. It describes a one-on-one encounter, without the help or hindrance of an intermediary. Jacob would know that to see God would mean certain death, so he is surprised and grateful that his life has been preserved. This is the third occasion on which Jacob memorializes a site by giving it his own name. He named Bethel (28:19) and Mahanaim (32:2), each time involving Jacob’s encounter with an angel/supernatural being (Hamilton 336). Verse 31 paints a picture of Jacob with his new name, a blessing, and a physical defect. “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip” (ESV). Jacob has seen the living God face-to-face, and he is able to walk away, albeit with a limp. He has been harshly marked by his injury, but with a mark that signifies his success, not his failure or defeat. Jacob has been broken, but walks away in a certain sense of victory. It also attests to God’s graciousness in that Jacob’s life is preserved. So the mark symbolizes both who Jacob is and who God is. Interestingly, in this verse the place is named “Penuel” when it was just christened “Peniel” the verse before. Peniel is closer to the wordplay that is intended, but Penuel is the more common spelling (Fretheim 569). The final verse of the chapter explains the origin of a dietary restriction in Israel. “Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh” (ESV). Because of what the man did to Jacob and where he touched him, Jacob’s offspring do not eat what is commonly thought to be the sciatic muscle, which runs down the back of the leg. Even though the text indicates that the Israelites do not eat that part “to this day,” after this verse nothing is said in the Jacob story or in the remainder of the Old Testament about this dietary restriction (Hamilton 338). What is the meaning of this event? Many suggest that it was an answer to Jacob’s prayer to God earlier in the chapter asking for protection from his brother Esau. It seemed

like God was preparing Jacob, humbling him in order that he might reconcile with his brother. This theory is supported when one gets to the next chapter when Jacob meets with Esau and they embrace. Jacob makes the remark to Esau that, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10). Jacob had just previously witnessed the face of God, as put in his own words, and come away blessed and in awe. Now, when Jacob meets Esau and is greeted warmly and forgiven, it is likely that he feels the same rush of emotion, and thus he likens it to his encounter with God. But there is still much debate as to the identity of the man. Many people have trouble imagining Yahweh wrestling with a mortal man, let alone not being able to defeat him. Some interpretations of who the man is: o Just a bad dream – an idea propagated during the Enlightenment, a time of rationalization and reasoned thinking. o A river spirit – because this event has many similarities to ancient folklore, this interpretation was popular for a while. o An enemy – this interpretation assumes that God “wrestled with” Jacob by being on his side, rather than his adversary. o An angel – this is largely based on the text from Hosea 12:4, which recounts this event as Jacob wrestling with an angel. But in those times, “angel” could often be used interchangeably with “God,” so this is uncertain. o Esau – the two brothers wrestled in the womb, and this event happens in the context of Jacob going to meet Esau. And also the reference to seeing Esau “like seeing the face of God” supports this. o The other side of Jacob – it was simply a psychological struggle of Jacob wrestling with his own identity. o God – the one who has power over Jacob’s identity and the power to bless him. Ultimately the man’s identity may remain a mystery. But I would personally interpret the man to be God. No one else, not even any other supernatural spirits, would have the authority over Jacob’s identity that the man shows here. His explanation,

“because you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” seems to indicate that Jacob has indeed just struggled with God. The focal point of this story is identity. Jacob is humbled and wounded before a being he knows to be greater than him, but still clings on. It is at that point that God changes his name. He gives Jacob a new identity to live with, a name of honor, and one that expresses a new relationship with Yahweh. When we are broken before God and have nothing else to cling on to, God lifts us up and tells us who we are. Our identity must be found in God alone, not by the things we’ve done or what the world tells us we are. There is an ambiguity in Jacob’s new name. Literally it probably means “God strives,” indicating that it is God that initiates and engages in the struggle. But the meaning given is “the one who strives with God,” indicating that Jacob responds in kind. “God giving this name, then, has implications for God as well as Jacob. It affirms a divine commitment to stay with Jacob in the struggle. God will be caught up in this relationship, and his promise involves not a passive presence, but an active, engaged relationship” (Fretheim 569). Thus, this also has similar implications for the nation of Israel, as well as all those who follow God today. God is actively involved in the relationships with those who believe in Him. Perhaps that is just what Jacob needed before going into his confrontation with Esau—comfort that God would be with him in the struggle. And perhaps that is information that can comfort believers today. God is with us. He will strive and struggle with us through all that we go through.

Works Cited Abbot, Kirsten. “Wrestling at the Jabbok.” Gen 32:22-32 Jacob Wrestling at the Jabbok. 2004. http://www.revkirsten.org/jabbok/index.htm, November 15, 2007 Dods, Marcus. “Jacob at Peniel.” The Expositors Bible: Genesis and Exodus. Ed. W. Robertson Nicoll. New York: Armstrong and Son, 1908. Fretheim, Terence E. “Genesis 32:22-32, Jacob Wrestling With God.” The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Neil M. Alexander. Nashville: Abindgon Press, 1994. 564-570. Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995. Pennant, David F. “Genesis 32: Lighten Our Darkness, Lord, We Pray.” He Swore An Oath: Biblical Themes from Genesis 12-50. Ed. Hess, R.S., G.J Wenham, and P.E. Satterthwaite. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1884. 175-183. Schwienhorst, Munster. “nagae.” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998. 203-209. Skinner, John. The International Critical Commentary: Genesis. Ed. Driver, Samuel Rolles, Alfred Plummer, and Charles Augustus Briggs. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1930. Von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis: A Commentary. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972. Walton, John H., Victor H. Matthews & Mark W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000. Zobel, Greifswald. “yaeaqob.” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990. 185-208. Zobel, Greifswald. “yisraeel.” Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Ed. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990. 397-420.

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