The Jacob Stories
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).
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.
32:24 And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him
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!'
כִּי לֹא יָכֹל
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,
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.
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
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
When Jacob reveals his name, he also reveals his character - 'Grabber'
/ 'heel' / 'trickster' / 'over-reacher' / 'supplanter' (cf. Gen
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
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
32:29 And Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.”
And he said, “Why do you ask my name?” And he blessed
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,
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
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 , 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).
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.
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,
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,
(The translation is my own, but is informed by the
insights of many of the works in the bibliography.)
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