WRESTLING AT THE JABBOK

Genesis 32:22-32 (English) / 32:23-33 (Hebrew)

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וַיָּקָם בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא וַיִּקַּח אֶת־שְׁתֵּי נָשָׁיו וְאֶת־שְׁתֵּי שִׁפְחֹתָיו וְאֶת־אַחַד עָשָׂר יְלָדָיו וַיַּעֲבֹר אֵת מַעֲבַר יַבֹּק ׃

32:22 And he got up that night and he took his two wives, and his two female slaves, and his eleven boys, and he crossed the ford of the Jabbok.

Jacob has been very busy, sending messengers and gifts of animals ahead to appease his brother Esau (Gen 32:3-21 [4-22]). Now he has stopped for the night, but cannot rest, getting up to send his family and possessions over the river.

Dinah, Leah's daughter (Gen 30:21), is omitted, which may mean that the author of this narrative didn't know about her, or, more likely, may mean that daughters were not considered important enough to count. It may be noted that Jacob's family are placed out of the picture in the first two verses of this narrative, but that does not mean they ought to be ignored (see Frolov).

Jacob is at the Jabbok river (modern Nahr ez-Zerqa), which runs through a deep ravine, and joins the Jordan river, from the east, about 40km north of the Dead Sea. When the Jabbok is mentioned at other points in the Bible, it is as a border of Israel's territory (Num 21:24; Deut 2:37; 3:16; Josh 12:2; Judg 11:13,22). There are motifs in this story of crossing boundaries, and of being at the threshold of the promised land. We may be reminded of the night-time vision that Jacob experienced at Bethel, when he fled from his brother, and left his land, all those years before (Gen 28:10-22).


וַיִּקָּחֵם וַיַּעֲבִרֵם אֶת־הַנָּחַל וַיַּעֲבֵר אֶת־אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ ׃

32:23 And he took them and sent them over the stream, and sent over his possessions.

Why did Jacob get up in the middle of the night to send his family and possessions across the river? It seems a dangerous operation to ford a river with family and animals at night. Was he crossing to get away from Esau, in fear of an attack? That seems to contradict the flow of the narrative, where the journey has been towards Esau. Was he crossing to get to Esau while he remained in a good mood from all the gifts (Sarna, 226-227)? Was Jacob leaving the promised land, running away from God's command to him? Which side of the river does Jacob end up on? It is impossible to say with certainty.

Jacob leaves four women and twelve children in an inhospitable environment at night. Is he shown trying to protect them, or hiding behind them? Frolov suggests he uses them as a human shield, which fits with his previous self-interested behaviour (e.g. Gen 32:7-8).

This verse seems to repeat the same information as the previous verse. Older interpretations used to see this as evidence that the story contained two versions that had been conflated, but that approach seems to have been abandoned now.

If we look at the setting of this narrative in terms of concrete geography, it is confusing. It may be that some information is missing from it. But perhaps it is more helpful to look at what the narrator does focus on, rather than what is left out. It is night. Jacob sends everyone and everything across the river, leaving him alone. The setting is dangerous, dark and mysterious.

וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר ׃

32:24 And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until dawn.

Why did Jacob want to be alone? Was he expecting or provoking a supernatural encounter? The story offers us no explanation.

Who is the man? This is a question that has puzzled generations of interpreters. The way we answer it depends on the assumptions we make about, and the questions we put to, the narrative. Several suggestions regarding the identity of the man are explored in some of the other pages of this website.

This story plays with three similar-sounding words in Hebrew. Jacob (ya‘aqob) must wrestle (ye’abeq) someone at the Jabbok (yabboq). The word for 'wrestle' is unusual, but chosen for this wordplay. Wenham playfully suggests paraphrasing the verse - 'And Jacob was left on his own and a man Jacobed him!' (Wenham, 295).

וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף־יְרֵכוֹ וַתֵּקַע כַּף־יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ ׃

32:25 And when he saw that he could not defeat him, then he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was dislocated as he wrestled with him.

The identity of the subject of the first verbs (i.e. it was the man who could not defeat Jacob, rather than the other way around), is not made explicit until near the end of the verse. This may work as a literary device to increase the sense of ambiguity and suspense.

Although some translate it as 'struck', the word for what the assailant does to Jacob is probably simply 'touched', and it may be a clue to the supernatural character of Jacob's opponent. However, both translations are possible (Hamilton, 330).

It is also possible that the reference to the hip or thigh could be a euphemistic reference to an injury to Jacob's genitals, and this would have implications for the promise of procreation (Smith), and indeed the fate of the whole nation.

וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ כִּי אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּנִי ׃

32:26 And he said, “Let me go, for the dawn has come.” And he said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

Although Jacob's hip has been dislocated, the man still has to ask Jacob to release him. It seems strange that the opponent who wounded Jacob, now must ask to be released. It may be that in an earlier version of the story, Jacob wounded the man, but when the man became identified with God, the story changed, because God could not be seen to be defeated by Jacob (Von Rad, 315-317).

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה־שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב ׃

32:27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

Again in verse 26, the identity of the speakers in this conversation was somewhat ambiguous, enhancing the sense of mystery for hearers. We might have assumed that it was the wounded Jacob who asked to be freed. Now, with the identification of Jacob,we can see that Jacob is still grasping after a blessing, a recurring motif in his life story.

When Jacob reveals his name, he also reveals his character - 'Grabber' / 'heel' / 'trickster' / 'over-reacher' / 'supplanter' (cf. Gen 27:36).

וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי־שָׂרִיתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל ׃

32:28 And he said, “Your name shall not be Jacob any more, but Israel,for you have striven with divine beings/God, and with men, and you have prevailed.”

The meaning of the name Israel is apparently explained here as meaning 'he struggles with God'. However, other suggested original meanings for the name include 'God strives', 'God rules', 'God heals', 'God preserves', 'the one made straight by God' and 'he saw God'. ’elohim could refer to God, to angels (although it is not the usual word for 'angel/messenger'), or to divine beings.

Although it could be argued that the 'man' indirectly identifies himself as Jacob's divine opponent here, this is not clear. His words may refer to the wrestling match, but could equally well refer to the whole course of Jacob's life, full of struggle and defying his fate.

There is a parallel scene where God renames Jacob in Gen 35:9-10, which is usually considered to be secondary to this story.

Some interpreters have seen a change of character going along with Jacob's new name, but he is still generally called Jacob, and still appears to behave in a self-serving, grabbing, manipulative manner (e.g. Gen 33:12-17). The new name is more like a summary of his past (Turner, 142-143).

וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה־נָּא שְׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ שָׁם ׃

32:29 And Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” And he said, “Why do you ask my name?” And he blessed him there.

In ancient narratives, a name reveals the character of a person. The knowledge of the name of a person sometimes has dimensions of power over that person. The mysterious wrestler refuses to give Jacob his name, yet he blesses him.

The questions of identity, revealing of names, and blessing, recall the crucial episode where Jacob seizes Esau's rightful place, by deceiving Isaac and claiming his brother's name and blessing (Gen 27). The wrestling scene replays motifs from the earlier scene of deception, but this time Jacob has revealed his true identity (Turner, 142).

וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם פְּנִיאֵל כִּי־רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי ׃

32:30 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God/a divine being face to face, and my life was saved.”

This verse provides the etiology of the name Peniel/Penuel. This verse may imply that Jacob identifies his assailiant as none other than God. Yet although Jacob believes he has had a significant encounter in this wrestling match, the precise understanding of how this encounter actually is an encounter with God (or something divine) is ambiguous. The narrator of the story does not identify the man as God or as an angel, but only as a 'man'. The identity of the 'man' is a mystery.

Jacob's words seem to reflect the common belief in the Hebrew Scriptures that a person couldn't survive seeing God's face (e.g. Exod 33:20). The divine is identified as elohim rather than YHWH, in contrast to Jacob's other encounter with God in Gen 28:13,16,21. The reference to his life being saved reminds the reader of Jacob's prayer in 32:11 [12], where he asks God to save him from Esau.

The name Peniel, 'face of God', picks up on the importance of the face to face encounter. It also highlights the relationship between this passage and its context in Jacob's meeting with Esau, where Jacob says that seeing his brother's face is like seeing the face of God (Gen 32:20; 33:10).

וַיִּזְרַח־לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת־פְּנוּאֵל וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ עַל־יְרֵכוֹ ׃

32:31 And the sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, and he was limping on his hip.

Jacob fled his home as the sun went down (Gen 28:11); now he makes a fresh start and returns to his brother at sunrise, the dawn of a new stage in his life.

Peniel is simply an alternative form of Penuel. The exact location of Penuel is uncertain, except that it was on the southern side of the Jabbok, between Mahanaim and Succoth.

Jacob is changed by his mysterious encounter. The meeting both blessed and crippled him. Now he is ready to go forward and meet his brother, which will be a meeting of grace and reconciliation.

עַל־כֵּן לֹא־יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר עַל־כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף־יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה ׃

32:32 Therefore to this day the children of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched Jacob on the hip socket at the sinew of the thigh.

This verse explains a dietary prohibition. Interestingly, this dietary restriction is not mentioned anywhere else in the Torah, or any other part of the First Testament. It may be that this part of the body was prohibited because it was associated with the reproductive organs (Westermann, 520).

The identification of the Jewish hearers of this story with their ancestor Jacob/Israel is strongly reinforced in this verse, with the first reference to the 'children of Israel', and the reference to their observance of the custom 'to this day' (Alter, 183).

(The translation is my own, but is informed by the insights of many of the works in the bibliography.)

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