Genesis 32

This chapter contains one of the best known vignettes of the Jacob cycle, and one which I admit has fascinated me for many years; surely many thousands or tens of thousands along with me. The verses in question are twenty-five through thirty-one: the famous wrestling encounter. In it I think we find not only a pleasantly puzzling – and therefore intriguing – tall tale but one which perfectly captures our human placement vis-à-vis the divine, as well as what surely must be the proper attitude for us to take towards that.

The chapter opens with the final farewell from Laban – who noticeably kisses everyone goodbye except Jacob (verse one) – and then details the situation surrounding Jacob’s upcoming reunion with his brother Esau, the latter’s military muscle (“there are four hundred men with him”: the ending of verse seven), and the extreme vexation this causes in Jacob (verse eight and following, culminating with Jacob’s reasoning in verse 21b that: “If I [Jacob] propitiate him [Esau] with presents in advance [various types of livestock which he sends ahead as peace offerings to meet the advancing Esau], and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.”). The intensity of these preparations has led some scholars to suggest that the nighttime wrestling match which comes hereafter is a dream encounter wherein Jacob’s psyche attempts to deal with the worry and stress of finally coming into contact with Esau again after the years apart. How much of their past would the brother remember? Did he still want to kill Jacob as 27.42b reported? (In the words of their mother Rebekah, to Jacob: “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you.”) That all this might manifest itself psychologically is a reasonable and down to earth suggestion, but perhaps for that it is also somewhat unsatisfactory; particularly if we read on to verse thirty-two which has Jacob quite literally limping from an injury sustained during the exertion. The storytellers seem to be trying to teach us something a bit more concrete – yet fantastical! – through this engagement.

Another explanation common in the literature is that the wrestling episode describes a contest with an angel, noting that the opponent appears to fear the dawn (in verse 27a the other states: “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.”), and that he/it cannot reveal his/its name (using our “it” pronoun to leave interpretative room; the reference here is verse thirty: “Jacob asked, ‘Pray tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘You must not ask my name!’ And he took leave of him there.”), both of which were common elements in angel apparition narratives. This also appears to be supported by Jacob’s judgment in the following verse (31b): “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved”, as well as the prophet’s (truncated) version of these events given in Hosea 12.5a (12.4a in Christian Bibles): “He [Jacob] strove with an angel and prevailed–– / The other had to weep and implore him.” Note, however, that the place name Jacob gives to the location in remembrance is “Peniel”, which a footnote in our NJPS Tanakh explains as: “Understood as ‘face of God.’” This -el suffix is of course the same El that alternates with the Tetragrammaton throughout Genesis in reference to the divinity. (And is moreover one of the primary clues that source critics have used to differentiate the J source (Tetragrammaton employing) from the E source (El, Elohim employing).) We might then choose not to read this as an angel – i.e. a “messenger of God/‘God’” – but rather as God/“God” itself, with the writer perhaps giving us this theophanic myth to impart a lesson about the patriarch’s tenacity which was so impressive God/“God” itself could not overcome him.

This last thought may be disturbing for some from a theological point of view, but even if one does not accept the “weak” portrait of God/“God” that we have been seeking to promote (wherein divinity could or could not be existent per se, while still being existential; wherein God/“God” could “be” only that “call” pushing us towards betterment of self and society; or conversely wherein God/“God” could be Being but cannot/will not do the necessary work itself, relying on human partnership; many other options remain open as well), this need not be a lessening. God/“God” may have wanted to test Jacob and found the response impressive, reacting appropriately: forcing nothing, dealing respectfully. However we interpret this section – and realizing that today’s understanding might well not be tomorrow’s – what is wonderfully instructive is that Jacob simply does not give up. He may not be able to “defeat” (“comprehend”) God/“God”, but that is no deterrent: he keeps at it, struggling on through the dark night, and carrying the mark of his experience(s) with him ever after. The wonderful mystery these texts explore deserves nothing less; may we give it too.

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