Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
Genesis 32: 22-32
22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 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.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 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.
This one of the strangest and most important section of verses in the Hebrew Bible. The previous section saw Jacob send a present to Esau in an attempt to appease any anger his estranged brother might feel toward him and also to split his party into groups in the event that the present does not work and he needs to escape.
Starting with Ellicott’s Bible Commentary in Verse 22 we kind of set up the rest of the chapter before all the weirdness occurs:
(22) The ford Jabbok.—Heb., the ford of the Jabbok. This river, now called the Wady Zerba or Blue Torrent, formed afterwards the boundary between the tribes of Manasseh and Gad. It flows through a deep ravine, with so rapid a current as to make the crossing of it a matter of difficulty. Dr. Tristram (Land of Israel, p. 558) says that the water reached his horse’s girths when he rode through the ford.
(23) The brook.—Really, the ravine or valley; Arab., wady. Jacob, whose administrative powers were of a very high character, sees his wives, children, and cattle not only through the ford, but across the valley on to the high ground beyond. Staying himself to the very last, he is left alone on the south side of the torrent, but still in the ravine, across which the rest had taken their way. The definite proof that Jacob remained on the south side lies in the fact that Peniel belonged to the tribe of Gad; but, besides this, there could be no reason why he should recross the rapid river when once he had gone through it, and probably the idea has risen from taking the word brook in Genesis 32:23 in too narrow a sense. Really it is the word translated valley in Genesis 26:17, but is used only of such valleys or ravines as have been formed by the action of a mountain torrent. When Jacob had seen his wives and herds safe on the top of the southern ridge, the deep valley would be the very place for this solitary struggle. This ravine, we are told, has a width of from four to six miles.
Jabbok = יַבֹּק Yabbôq, yab-boke’; probably from H1238; pouring forth; Jabbok, a river east of the Jordan:—Jabbok.
stream/brook = נַחַל nachal, nakh’-al; or (feminine) נַחְלָה nachlâh; (Psalm 124:4), or נַחֲלָה nachălâh; (Ezekiel 47:19; Ezekiel 48:28), from H5157 in its original sense; a stream, especially a winter torrent; (by implication) a (narrow) valley (in which a brook runs); also a shaft (of a mine):—brook, flood, river, stream, valley.
Starting in verse 24… a wrestling match breaks out. From The Pulpit Commentaries:
And Jacob was left alone (probably on the north bank of the Jabbok; but vide on Genesis 32:23); and there wrestled—thus assaulting in his strong point one who had been a wrestler or heel-catcher from his youth (Murphy). The old word נֶאֱבַק, niph. of אָבַק, unused, a dehorn, from חָבַק, dust, because in wrestling the dust is raised (Aben Ezra, Gesenius), or a weakened form of חָבַק, to wind round, to embrace (Furst), obviously contains an allusion to the Jabbok (vide on Genesis 32:22)—a man—called an angel by Hosea (Genesis 12:4), and God by Jacob (verse 30); but vide infra—with him until the breaking of the day—literally, the ascending of the morning.
A man = אִישׁ ʼîysh, eesh; contracted for H582 (or perhaps rather from an unused root meaning to be extant); a man as an individual or a male person; often used as an adjunct to a more definite term (and in such cases frequently not expressed in translation):—also, another, any (man), a certain, champion, consent, each, every (one), fellow, (foot-, husband-) man, (good-, great, mighty) man, he, high (degree), him (that is), husband, man(-kind), none, one, people, person, steward, what (man) soever, whoso(-ever), worthy. Compare H802.
Ellicott says the following about this verse:
(24) There wrestled.—This verb, abak, occurs only here, and without doubt it was chosen because of its resemblance to the name Jabbok. Its probable derivation is from a word signifying dust, because wrestlers were quickly involved in a cloud of dust, or because, as was the custom in Greece, they rubbed their bodies with it.
A man.—Such he seemed to be to Jacob; but Hosea (Genesis 12:4) calls him an angel; and, in Genesis 32:30, Jacob recognises in him a manifestation of the Deity, as Hagar had done before, when an angel appeared to her (Genesis 16:13). There is no warrant for regarding the angel as an incarnation of Deity, any more than in the case of Manoah (Judges 13:22); but it was a manifestation of God mediately by His messenger, and was one of the many signs indicative of a more complete manifestation by the coming of the Word in the flesh. The opposite idea of many modern commentators, that the narrative is an allegory, is contradicted by the attendant circumstances, especially by the change of Jacob’s name, and his subsequent lameness, to which national testimony was borne by the customs of the Jews.
Ellicott’s note provides a couple of interesting point. There is a poetic quality to the original language that does not come through in the translation to English. Using a specific word for wrestle, because it resembles the earlier word Jabbok, tells us that in addition to conveying information, the author of Genesis is creating a literary work as well.
Point to brings to mind that we do not know who this figure is very well. Subsequent writers – within the Bible itself – tell us that this “man” was actually an angel.
The word here used to mean “man” is one of several words in Genesis and the Bible which mean “man.”
man = אִישׁ ʼîysh, eesh; contracted for H582 (or perhaps rather from an unused root meaning to be extant); a man as an individual or a male person; often used as an adjunct to a more definite term (and in such cases frequently not expressed in translation):—also, another, any (man), a certain, champion, consent, each, every (one), fellow, (foot-, husband-) man, (good-, great, mighty) man, he, high (degree), him (that is), husband, man(-kind), none, one, people, person, steward, what (man) soever, whoso(-ever), worthy. Compare H802.
I previously posted about several other Hebrew words which also translate as “man” HERE. I’m quite fascinated by the various possible words to convey that meaning and the fact they are used often and interchangeably throughout the text. I
It’s interesting that this word conveys with it a meaning of “champion” and “great/mighty man” as well. That might be more fitting for the more-than-human wrestling opponent that Jacob is encountering here.
Continuing on with The Pulpit Commentaries, the very aged Jacob wrestles well enough to be instructed to “let go” by his opponent. Jacob refuses absent a blessing.
And when he (the unknown wrestler) saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched—not struck (Knobel)—the hollow of his thigh (literally, the socket of the hip); and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him—literally, in his wrestling with him.
And he (the man) said, Let me go (literally, send me away; meaning that he yielded the victory to Jacob, adding as a reason for his desire to depart), for the day breaketh—literally, for the morning or the dawn ascendeth; and therefore it is time for thee to proceed to other duties (Wilet, Clarke, Murphy), e.g. to meet Esau and appease his anger (‘Speaker’s Commentary’). Perhaps also the angel was unwilling that the vision which was meant for Jacob only should be seen by others (Pererius), or even that his own glory should be beheld by Jacob (Ainsworth). Calvin thinks the language was so shaped as to lead Jacob to infer nocturna visions se divinitus fuisse edoctum. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. The words show that Jacob now clearly recognized his mysterious Antagonist to be Divine, and sought to obtain from him the blessing which he had previously stolen from his aged father by craft.
Here we have Jacob again seeking a blessing. He obtained his brother’s birthright by trading for it. He obtained his father’s blessing by (apparently) deception. Here he seeks another blessing through force.
The man/angel asks Jacob for his name after Jacob demands a blessing in exchange for letting him go. In verse 28 we find out why he asked. From Ellicott:
(28) Israel.—That is, a prince of God, or, one powerful with God. (See Note on Genesis 17:15.) Esau had given a bad meaning to the name of Jacob, nor had it been undeserved. But a change has now come over Jacob’s character, and he is henceforth no longer the crafty schemer who was ever plotting for his own advantage, but one humble and penitent, who can trust himself and all he has in God’s hands. The last words signify, for thou art a prince with God and men; or possibly, for thou hast striven with God and men.
The Pulpit Commentaries has the following note about verse 28 and the underlying meaning of the new name “Israel”:
And he said, Thy name shall be called no more (i.e. exclusively, since both he and his descendants are in Scripture sometimes after this styled) Jacob, but Israel:—יִשְׂרַאֵל, from שָׂרָה, to be chief, to fight, though, after the example of Ishmael, God hears, it might be rendered “God governs” (Kalisch), yet seems in this place to signify either Prince of El (Calvin, Ainsworth, Dathe, Murphy, Wordsworth, and others), or wrestler with God (Furst, Keil, Kurtz, Lange, et alii, rather than warrior of God (Gesenius), if indeed both ideas may not be combined in the name as the princely wrestler with God (‘Speaker’s Commentary,’ Bush), an interpretation adopted by the A.V.—for as a prince hast thou power with God—literally, for thou hast contended with Elohim [Keil, Alford, &c.), ὅτι ἐνισχυσας μετὰ θεου (LXX.), contra deumfortis fuisti (Vulgate), thou hast obtained the mastery with God (Kalisch), rather than, thou hast striven to be a prince with God (Murphy)—and with men, and but prevailed. So are the words rendered by the best authorities (Keil, Kalisch, Murphy, Wordsworth), though the translation καὶ μετὰ ἀνθρώπων δυνατὸς ἔσῃ (LXX.), quanto magis contra heroines prevalebis (Vulgate) is By some preferred (Calvin, Rosenmüller, &c.).
Continuing on with The Pulpit Commentaries at verse 29:
And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. A request indicating great boldness on the part of Jacob—the boldness of faith (Hebrews 4:16; Hebrews 10:19); and importing a desire on Jacob’s part to be acquainted, not merely with the designation, but with the mysterious character of the Divine personage with whom he had been contending. And he (the mysterious stranger) said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? Cf. Judges 13:18, where the angel gives the same reply to Manoah, adding, “seeing it is secret;” literally, wonderful, i.e. incomprehensible to mortal man; though here the words of Jacob’s antagonist may mean that his name, so far as it could be learnt by man, was already plain from the occurrence which had taken place (Murphy, ‘Speaker’s Commentary,’ Bush). And he blessed him there. After this, every vestige of doubt disappeared from the soul of Jacob.
The wrestling opponent does not give his name.
In verse 30, Jacob/Israel names the site of this divine rumble. From Ellicott:
(30) Peniel.—Elsewhere Penuel, and so probably it should be read here. It means, “the face of God.” For the rest of the verse see Note on Genesis 16:13.
Jacob clearly understand that he wrestled with someone who is divine. The word used in this verse to mean “God” is elohim.
אֱלֹהִים ʼĕlôhîym, el-o-heem’; plural of H433; gods in the ordinary sense; but specifically used (in the plural thus, especially with the article) of the supreme God; occasionally applied by way of deference to magistrates; and sometimes as a superlative:—angels, × exceeding, God (gods) (-dess, -ly), × (very) great, judges, × mighty.
As we have discussed throughout this study, elohim refers to God sometimes… but other times it does not. The word “elohim” seems to mean a disembodied spirit – and in the Hebrew Bible it is used to refer to God, lesser celestial beings, and disembodied human spirits. The trip-up for a lot of modern readers is that when we use the word “God” in modern times, we think of a specific set of attributes (omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.) but the ancient writers did not assign those attributes to the world “elohim” – they assigned those attributes specifically to the tetragrammaton (Yahweh.) As a result, Yahweh is elohim (or an elohim) but no other elohim are Yahweh.
That is a very long way of saying that the writer here – even in using elohim – could have meant an angel. Hosea uses the word angel directly when referring to this passage.
Hosea 12:4 He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with us—
The word translated “angel” in Hosea is מֲלְאָךְ mălʼâk, mal-awk’; from an unused root meaning to despatch as a deputy; a messenger; specifically, of God, i.e. an angel (also a prophet, priest or teacher):—ambassador, angel, king, messenger.
Finishing up this section, we’ll look at notes from The Pulpit Commentaries:
And as he passed over Penuel—this some suppose to have been the original name of the place, which Jacob changed by the alteration of a vowel, but it is probably nothing more than an old form of the same word—the sun rose upon him,—”there was sunshine within and sunshine without. When Judas went forth on his dark design, we read, ‘It was night,’ John 13:30” (Inglis)—and he halted upon his thigh—thus carrying with him a memorial of his conflict, as Paul afterwards bore about with him a stake in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Therefore the children of Israel cat not of the sinew which shrank,—the gid hannasheh, rendered by the LXX. τὸ νεῦρον ὅ ἐνάρκησεν, the nerve which became numb, and by the Vulgate nervus qui emarcuit, the nerve which withered, is the long tendon or sinew nervus ischiaticus (the tends Achillis of the Greeks) reaching from the spinal marrow to the ankle. The derivation of hannasheh is unknown (Gesenius), though the LXX. appear to have connected it with nashah, to dislocate, become feeble; Ainsworth with nashah, to forget (i.e. the sinew that forgot its place), and Furst with nashah, to be prolonged—which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day:—i.e. the day of Moses; though the custom continues to the present time among the Hebrews of cutting out this sinew from the beasts they kill and eat (vide Ainsworth in loco); but, according to Michaelis, eo nemo omnino mortalium, si vel nullo cognationis gradu Jacobum attingat, nemo Graecus, nemo barbarus vesci velit—because he (i.e. the angel) touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew that shrank.
This entire section is fascinating. We are prepared for a showdown between Jacob and his brother Esau and instead our expectations are subverted and we get a struggle between Jacob and God (whether in person or through a celestial intermediary.)
Professor Meira Z. Kensky writes a character profile of Jacob, “Jacob’s Struggle at Jabbok: The Limits of Strategy” for the Torah.com and I include some excerpts below:
By the end of all of these preparations, we are primed for a showdown between Jacob and Esau, but the narrative thwarts our expectations. Instead, as the story progresses, Jacob ends up alone at the ford of the Jabbok, wrestling with a stranger:
We get no introduction to this stranger, and we have had no preparation for this battle. This literally comes out of nowhere. Jacob prevails in the struggle, but he is wounded in the thigh (v. 26). The man tries to leave, but Jacob says he will not release him until the man blesses him (v. 27). This demand for a blessing makes sense when you read it in light of Jacob’s constant search for any advantage. Here is an unexpected situation where Jacob—though wounded—prevails, and Jacob intends to eke out anything he can from this situation.
Rather than giving him a blessing, though, the man asks Jacob his name, and then he gives Jacob a new name:
his is what I call a red flag moment, a signal from the narrative to pay attention. This random encounter is the moment where Jacob receives the name that will be eponymous with the nation? Who is this man, that appears at night and must leave by dawn? Jacob wants to know this too, asking for the man’s name, but the man doesn’t give it to him. Instead he asks, “why do you want to know my name?” and then he blesses Jacob (v. 30). This question is not just for Jacob but is also for us to think about. Why does Jacob want to know his name? Why would this information be meaningful to Jacob?
For an answer to the question posed in the excerpt, I recommend a reading of the entire article.
This entire section ends and it leaves one with a lot of questions:
- Who exactly did Jacob wrestle with – an angel, The Angel of the Lord, God embodied, or someone else?
- Did Jacob really win that wrestling match?
- Was all of this a metaphor?
- Why did the celestial wrestler not want to be seen after sun up?
- Is there a symbolism associated with striking Jacob’s hip socket?
I’m also looking forward to seeing whether we note a character change in Jacob/Israel from this point forward.
This passage is truly fascinating and I suspect some have written scholarly treatises and books on the topic. The wiki article on the topic provides a good launch point for what is out there and what other theories of this incident might include.