This was my final paper for Bible Violence and Nonviolence. I loved writing it! I am sort of falling in love with the crazy, crazy book that is the Bible.
A Close Reading of Genesis 32:24-31 (Before Research)
The Basic Story:
Just after leaving his father-in-law Laban’s household and right before being reunited with his brother Esau, Jacob sent everyone away and sequestered himself in solitude. Once alone, he was confronted by a man, whom he wrestled with until daybreak. Their physical strength was well matched, for there was no clear victor in the battle. The unidentified man, upon realizing that he was unable to physically beat Jacob, resorted to cheaters tactics and struck Jacob on the hip socket. As they continued to wrestle, Jacob’s hip was put out of joint. (In remembering this story, I have often though that the man put Jacob’s hip out of place directly, but in my recent reading I have come to realize that the man only set the stage for the injury, he didn’t directly cause the injury. This is a subtle distinction, but one that is worth noting.) The man asked to be released at dawn, apparently unable to leave on his own even though Jacob was injured. Jacob, clearly in control at this point, refused to let go unless the man blessed him. This is a perplexing request. I would think Jacob would have gladly let the man go so that he could rest and care for his hip. The man responded to the request for blessing by asking Jacob’s name, which Jacob told him. This was the first time the issue of identity was raised between these two men. In an effort to take control, the man changed Jacob’s name to Israel and explained that Jacob had wrestled with God and humans, but had prevailed. At this point, I’m still unsure who the ‘man’ is. Is he God or is he human? He’s called a man, but how would he know that Jacob had wrestled with God if he wasn’t himself God? And why would a man have the power to change Jacob’s name? At this point in the story, Jacob is thinking the same thing and asks the man for his name. The man asks Jacob, in what sounds like a sarcastic tone, why Jacob would ask this question. Skipping over the second request, the man grants Jacob his first request and blesses him. Jacob then, unable to name or know the name of the man, names the place. At this point it is clear that Jacob believes the man to have been God for he says that he has seen God face-to-face and lived. The story ends with Jacob walking away into the sunrise—with a limp.
Jacob’s Personal Story:
When I read this story in it’s biblical context I see the unfolding of a family drama. Jacob refused to give Esau hospitality, but instead forced him to trade his birthright for food. Then Jacob schemed with his mother to steal his brother’s blessing. He directly and knowingly lied to his ailing father and received his blessing under false pretense. He then fled his homeland and stayed away for twenty years. Understandably, he was terrified of how Esau would react to his return. Esau, however, was capable of greater forgiveness and generosity. He came to meet Jacob in love. Jacob was unable to trust this love and did everything he could to ply Esau with gifts and send him away. In the context of the full stories of Isaac and his sons, I interpret the story of Jacob’s night of fighting in a specific way. It seems clear that Jacob was fearfully wrestling with the demons of his past behavior as he prepared to return to the land of his father.
The Universal Story:
When I read the story in isolation of it’s surrounding stories, however, I understand it in a completely different way. I see a metaphor for the spiritual life. It’s a story of two men fighting, so I initially feel left on the outside of the action. But as I focus on the issues involved in the story, I am able to move beyond the two characters and see what they represent. Which for me is humanity and the unknowable mystery of life. In the first two verses, the narrator sets up the story and gives a lot of information. We learn that Jacob is alone and suddenly wrestling with another man. The transition between these two descriptions leaves me with several questions. Where did the man come from? Who is he? Why did he attack Jacob? This odd transition filled with gaps causes me to assume that the narrator wanted me to be confused. He (I assume the narrator was male) wanted me to feel the mysterious quality of this story immediately. I believe that the mysterious facts of existence and death do come upon humans abruptly. I believe that at certain points in life, humans can become overwhelmed with confusion about the reason for and meaning of life. Just as Jacob, who in a moment of solitude was forced into a holy war of questions, everyone is blindsided with big questions at some point.
Not only is there struggle, there is injury. This is the most confusing aspect of these verses for me. The fact that injury came through deep struggle and questioning makes sense, but the cause of injury is perplexing. The man, who I view as an unknowable mystery, is losing the fight and so strikes Jacob, or humanity. This section makes me think of the Tower of Babel. As humans came too close to the heavens, the Lord scattered and confused them. It is the same here, as humanity prevails against mystery, mystery causes injury against humanity. This is difficult for me. I don’t believe humanity can understand the unknowable, so these stories of the Divine feeling threatened and needing to slow human progress make me curious. The next verse is also odd. The ‘man’ speaks and asks to be let go. Why on earth can’t he just leave as quickly and mysteriously as he arrived? What control does ‘humanity’ have over him?
At this point in the story, Jacob finally speaks. He holds the man captive and demands a blessing. Unlike the past few verses, this one makes complete sense to me. Human beings are constantly trying to hold mystery captive, to lock it down, define it and force blessings out of it. The question Jacob is asked in response to this demand is also perfect, “What is your name?” I read, “who are you? What is your essential identity? Do you know yourself?” I hear mystery asking, “if you humans want to understand life’s biggest mysteries, you should start by examining yourselves.”
Of course, as we examine ourselves in light of the world’s biggest questions, we will be unable to remain the same. We will change. Our identity and our understanding of everything will change. The man understands this and changes Jacob’s name to Israel. He makes the bold claim that Jacob has striven with God and humans and has survived. Therefore, he is no longer Jacob. His essential identity is changed. In response, Jacob (curiously not referred to as Israel until Genesis 35:21, even though God changes his name a second time to Israel in 35:10) asks for the man’s name. This verse is another that makes sense to me. All of human striving towards anything spiritual or religious is an effort to follow Jacob in this question. We want to know the unknowable name. Of course, it can’t be known and the man mocks Jacob for even asking. In the same breath, however, he seems to take pity and offers Jacob his longed for blessing.
At this point, the man disappears from the story. We are not given details as to why or how he leaves. He’s just gone. We are also not given any details about the actual blessing. The last two verses contain information from the narrator as well as a grand proclamation from Jacob. The narrator tells us that Jacob gave the place a new name, that the sun rose and that Jacob was still injured. Jacob tells us that he has seen God face to face and has survived. There is much to be gleaned from these pieces of information. Jacob imitated the man’s act of renaming, the man left before sunrise just as he said he needed to and even though Jacob received a blessing, he still walked away limping. From Jacob’s claim I assume we are to understand the man to be God. But I am still skeptical. If he had actually looked true mystery in the face, I don’t believe he could have survived. Just as the Tower of Babel was scattered and Jacob’s hip was struck, I don’t think mystery will ever allow humanity the understanding of a face to face encounter. But clearly, Jacob got close. And in the process he was injured, blessed and changed. And then the dawn broke.
A Close Reading of Genesis 32:24-31 (After Research)
In order to study Genesis 32 particularly, the character of Jacob must be studied generally. This seems unavoidable. I was drawn to one small episode in his life—his long night of wrestling—but have been pulled into his fuller story. People have been captivated by Jacob for millennia. He is a full character whose life is portrayed from birth to death in the Genesis narrative and whose name is remembered throughout almost all of scripture. A close reading of the stories of Jacob’s life reveal that he was a complex man, full of manipulation and egocentricities. Even before his birth, the Lord was making proclamations of his divisiveness. He came from the womb grasping for his brother’s heel and was given a name that means ‘he takes by the heel’, ‘he supplants’ or even ‘he’s grabby’. Jacob grabbed his brother’s heel in birth and continued to fight with him throughout adolescence. He fought with Laban for twenty years. And for one night he fought with an unidentified man.
The mysterious night angle that wrestled with Jacob is often assumed to be his own inner demons. Jacob was fighting with himself. This theory makes sense. After two decades Jacob was going home. But his brother (the one from whom he stole birthright and blessing) was coming to meet him—with four hundred men. It’s easy to believe that Jacob was terrified, racked with guilt and overcome with nightmares. Norman Cohen offers a modern day midrash on the story in which there is no mystery man. He understands the entire episode to have been a vision. This is acceptable speculation, for the Hebrew text reveals no concrete answer. In The New interpreter’s Bible, however, the speculation is removed. While Terence E. Fretheim believes that the narrator delays in identifying the assailant, he believes readers can figure it out. “Initially, he appears only as a “man” [but]…the reader gradually comes to realize that this is no ordinary assailant; it is God in human form” (NIB 565). I marvel at this sort of certainty. Throughout the various commentaries I read, it seems the people who come to this conclusion rely on two things, verses 28 and 30. The Hebrew word that is used in these verses and translated as God is ‘elohim, which “is a high concentration point of lexical ambiguity” (Alter 182). Alter claims that ‘elohim does not mean “divine messenger” but can refer to divine beings. He goes on to say that it could mean God, gods or even princes or judges (Alter 182). In this context, it seems clearly connected to divinity, but there is no way of knowing whether it is singular or plural. There is also no way of knowing whether the mysterious man is using the word to reference himself or if he’s speaking to other parts of Jacob’s life. The certainty found in The New Interpreters Bible seems a little over zealous. Fretheim claims that most ancient and modern readers would assume the man to be God from the beginning and he therefore works from that assumption throughout his commentary. I respectfully disagree and will work in my commentary from the assumption that the man remains mysterious. We will never know his identity for sure.
We do, however, know something of his actions—he injured Jacob. I am always surprised by how violent verse 25 seems considering it comes in the middle of an already violent scene—two men fighting. Exactly how the man injured Jacob is ambiguous. The man did something to Jacob’s hip, either ‘touched’ it (NIV) or ‘struck’ it (NRSV). These words have very different connotations. According to Alter “struck is unwarranted…the adversary maims Jacob with a magic touch, or, if one prefers, by skillful pressure on a pressure point” (Alter 181). According to Fretheim, however, “struck is truer to the context…though both translations are possible” (NIB 566). We are again left with uncertainty, we simply don’t know. Schneir Levin focuses on a different word dispute in his wonderings about the actual injury. The NRSV translates the beginning of verse 25 as “When the man saw that he did not prevail against him.” Levin says that the Hebrew actually reads “and when he saw that he was not able to…him” (Levin 326). He says that translators are inferring the word prevail. Levin thinks the word should be castrate. He believes that the mysterious man is none other than Esau. He writes “What else could [Jacob] dream about than Esau taking his life or the ultimate humiliation of castration?” (Levin 326). Levin quotes several doctors who all agree that Jacob’s hip could not have been put out of joint because he would not have been able to walk away from the scene:
But there is another surgical possibility, the obvious one, the common one, which in predisposed males—that is, males with a potentially open passage from the abdomen through the groin and into the scrotum—can result in a hernia in the groin, most often on the right side, and as a consequence of increased intra-abdominal pressure during the course of a worrying dream. Such a rupture, a hernia, is often sufficiently uncomfortable, when it occurs to result in a temporary limp. (Levin 327).
This is a creative and fascinating idea. Levine began this study by looking at the Hebrew word takya which is translated as “put out of joint” in the NRSV. Levin would like to see it translated as ruptured. While I admire Levin’s creativity, I would be disappointed to think of Jacob’s injury as temporary. I know that sounds harsh, but in a literary sense Jacob’s limp needs to be permanent. He was forever changed after his mysterious encounter. All of these word studies: struck/touched, put-of-joint/ruptured, prevailed/ castrated have helped me to consider this odd scene of violence in more creative, nuanced and ambiguous ways.
Verse 26 leaves the tale of the narrator and allows the two characters to use their own voices. The first utterance from each man is a demand. First the mysterious man asks to be let go because the dawn is coming. This is curious; why must he leave before daybreak? This element is a wonderful literary device that supports the mysterious quality of the story. This man must stay under the cover of darkness. In a study on the character of God in Genesis, W. Lee Humphreys asks intriguing questions about the man’s demand. He ponders four options for why he must leave before dawn. Either he can’t stand the light of day or he’s not supposed to be seen during the day. Or maybe his power is only effective during the night. Another possibility is that his power would be too overwhelming if seen in the light of day. All of these speculations are valid and lead Humphreys to the conclusion that the man must be more than a mere human (Humphreys 194). Claus Westermann, in a comprehensive reading of the man’s character in the story determines that he fits the profile of an evil spirit or demon. The man attacks suddenly and surprisingly, refuses to identify himself and must escape before he can been seen in the light (Westermann 516). The obvious parallels between the mysterious man and night spirits in fairy tales and folklore deserve to be mentioned. Several scholars raise this point. Westermann writes:
The basic narrative…bears distinct animistic traits and is not to be dissociated from the region, the ford, the river. The danger of the ford is personified in the spirit or demon who does not want to let the traveler cross the river and attacks him so as to prevent him doing so. This accords neither with the religion of Israel nor with that of the patriarchs, but with animistic belief in spirits or demons and has parallels among many people. (Westermann 515)
The story of two men wrestling in the night is more than likely an ancient folktale that has been made over and used in the Genesis account as a hinge between two sides of Jacob’s life. All of this contributes to our inability to concretely identify the man. He doesn’t want to be brought into the light. Jacob, however, doesn’t care what the man wants (and why should he, the man has attacked and injured him). Jacob’s first words in the narrative are a refusal and a demand for blessing. Walter Brueggemann reminds us that “since chapter 27, we have known [Jacob] would do anything to get a blessing [and] now he seeks a more weighty [one]” (Brueggemann 268). This is a point I hadn’t thought of, but it seems completely right. It portrays Jacob as an insecure man constantly looking for validation. It’s sadly comical to think of poor Jacob searching for blessing from a violent stranger. It seems he’ll take it wherever he can get it.
Verse 26 seems to be a transition between physical and verbal wrestling. The next three verses become solely a match of words and wit. Jacob and the man begin to struggle with issues of identity. They each ask for the other’s name. Jacob gives his quickly, but is mocked for asking the same of the man. The man, while not identifying who he is, clearly understands himself to be someone of authority. Placed in the very center of this story (and in between the two requests for names), is Jacob’s name change. I can’t imagine that the placement of this action is accidental. The name/identity change is the point of the story and there are several reasons why it’s important and unique. Abram was changed into Abraham in conjunction with his being called the ancestor of a multitude of generations and he is never again referred to as Abram. Jacob’s name was changed twice, but he continues to be called Jacob. His new name, Israel, becomes a synonym or metaphor for Jacob’s identity or role in the community. The second reference to Jacob’s new name happens in Genesis 35:10-11 and more closely resembles Abraham’s experience. The first reference, the one of concern in this essay, happens as a result of Jacob’s continued struggles. There are significant theological reasons for the change. Alter writes:
Of all the patriarchs Jacob is the one whose life is entangled in moral ambiguities. Rashi beautifully catches the resonance of the name change: ‘it will no longer be said that the blessings came to you through deviousness…but instead through lordliness…and openness.’ (Alter 182)
Jacob’s identity as the father of great nations and kings is important and was in need of transformation. It is much more attractive to be descended from someone named for godliness rather than grabbiness.
After Jacob receives his new name, the story begins to wind down. The wrestling match is coming to a close and there is no clear victor. Both men have won at various points. The man could not win physically and so injured Jacob. He couldn’t free himself before dawn, but he is never forced to reveal his identity and he has the power to change the identity of Jacob. Jacob, although taken by surprise, was able to physically dominate the man even after sustaining an injury. Jacob asks for two things throughout the battle, but is only granted one. He is not allowed to know the man’s name, but he does receive his longed for blessing; a blessing he didn’t have to lie to get.
Whoever the mystery man is—one of Jacob’s personal demons, a representation of Esau, an angel, a river spirit, God, or something else—he is able to bless Jacob. And because of this, Jacob is changed. Walter Brueggemann, working from the assumption that the man is God writes:
Something happens in this transaction that is irreversible…Power has shifted between God and humankind. Israel is the one who has faced God, been touched by God, prevailed, gained a blessing, and been renamed. There is something new underway here about the weakness of God and the strength of Israel. The encounter will not permit a neat summary of roles, as though God is strong and Jacob is weak, or as though things are reversed with Jacob strong and God weak. All of that remains unsettled. But new possibilities are open to Israel that have not been available before. In the giving of the blessing, something of the power of God has been entrusted to Israel. (Brueggemann 269)
While I disagree with Brueggemann’s assumption of the man’s identity, I am still compelled by his conception of Jacob’s transformation. Jacob is returning to a home he fled two decades ago after stealing the blessing of his brother. He is scared and guilty. Through this mysterious encounter, however, he is built up. He is given his own blessing. He still had to fight for it, ask for it and suffer for it, but it belonged to him and no one could take it away or claim that he stole it. As Brueggemann claimed above, the power dynamic had changed.
This change is not lost on Jacob. He claims a new identity for himself and the place of his transformation. The ending of this story is beautiful; Jacob felt a divine presence in a way not many people get to and he celebrates it. He claims to have seen God face to face. The Hebrew term ‘elohim is used again and it’s impossible to know for sure who Jacob thought he saw, but it was clearly someone important. Someone so powerful that Jacob is amazed to have survived it. Following in the footsteps of Hagar at the well, he renamed the place Peniel, a name that builds on panim ‘el panim which literally means face to face, he wasn’t trying to hide his experience of the mysterious encounter (Alter 183). The last verse tells us that the story is complete; the sun rose and the night was over. Alter highlights the symmetry of this ending (Alter 183). As Jacob was fleeing home twenty years ago, the sun set on him, “He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set” (Genesis 28:11). And now he walked towards home through the sunrise. “The encounter with the unfathomable Other [left] a lasting mark on [him]…and he [bore] his inward scars as he [lived] onward” (Alter 183). In other words, the man with a history now had a future. Jacob’s dark night had lifted and he was limping triumphantly towards home.
Conclusion (After Reflection and Research)
In all of my study, I never came across an interpretation of this story as a metaphor for the spiritual journey. Robert Alter referred to the mysterious man as an “embodiment of portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul” (Alter 181). But that’s as close as I got. Before beginning this study, I believed my understanding to be common, I worried I was being too obvious. But unless I missed something, this story is always read as the hinge point in the middle of Jacob’s life. It’s understood as his conversion or transformation. The identity of the mystery man is something people have dwelled on for thousands of years. He is often thought to embody Esau, but many commentators just assume the man is God and work from there. Others, refuse to solve the mystery cleanly and allow the ambiguity to stand. As I stated in my original reflection on the text, I see the story of family drama. I see the moment of fear before returning home. It’s a grand story and I understand why it has captivated so many people for so incredibly long. But I leave this work more intrigued by what appears to be lacking in scholarship on this story and what I believe to be a fruitful reading. Human beings will always want to name the unnamable. Humanity has always and more than likely always will wrestle with conceptions of divinity. In this story I find a model for the struggle. As I fight with the unknown, I suffer. I refuse to let go and I want to be blessed. Everything about who I am is called into question and I am changed, yet I am never allowed to know who or what I fight with. At various points I am injured and at others I am blessed. I carry all of this with me and in the morning sun, I am made new.
(Let me know if you would like the bibliography.)