Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31
In Genesis 32, Jacob and his family have finally left the homestead of his father-in-law Laban who is responsible for much of Jacob’s present circumstances:
Laban had deceived him into marrying sisters, Leah and Rachel whose conflict and competition with each other resulted in dozens of children with them and with their slaves whom he dutifully impregnated upon command. (For estimates of the total number of children fathered by Jacob see Genesis 46:15 and 46:26.) Laban is also responsible for Jacob’s wealth, indirectly, he agreed to give Jacob all of his spotted and speckled livestock not knowing that Jacob would use magical means to multiply them while suppressing the fertility of the solidly colored stock (Genesis 30:32ff).
As Jacob leaves his father-in-law he crosses paths with his brother Esau. Jacob is terrified and for good reason, the last words of Esau reported to him by their mother Rebekah was that Esau intended to kill for taking his birthright. (See Genesis 27:41-45.) First Jacob sends word to his brother that he is coming, that he is quite wealthy, and that he wishes to find favor in his brother’s sight in Genesis 32:3-5. The response is swift; Esau approaches with four hundred men. Jacob is terrified, he prays for divine assistance and then takes matters into his own hands by setting aside a significant portion of his holdings and sending them ahead as a gift to appease Esau (Genesis 32:7-21).
All of this happens before our lesson begins. It is with a very real fear that Esau will kill him for taking his birthright that we encounter Jacob in Genesis 32:22-31. He has not heard back from his messengers; he does not know if Esau has accepted his gifts. He does not know if his servants are even still alive. And yet he sends his wives and children into the path of Esau and his riders — without him in verse 23. (NB: there is a discrepancy between the Hebrew and English verse numbers; I am using the English versification in the NRSV.)
Jacob has evaded his greatest fear up to that point. The danger is across the water from him. He is safe, for a while; so he thinks. A person or personage he does not know (or does not recognize) grapples him to the ground. There is a pun in verse 24: the verb “wrestle” has the same letters as a word for dust, (abaq, in Exodus 9:9; Deuteronomy 28:24; Is 5:24, etc.). Jacob gave as good as he got. There was a stalemate. And then, the person did something to Jacob’s hip and put it out of joint. Because the same verb means “touch,” “strike,” or “plague,” it is not clear if it was a great violent blow or a gentle touch with more-than-human strength and/or abilities behind it.
Jacob the Heel whose name in Hebrew, (Yaaqov), is a reminder that he came into this world with his chubby baby fist wrapped around his brother’s heel, (aqev), now finds his own heels under assault. He can no longer balance on them quite so easily. His injury and its imposition are revelatory. Jacob knows he wrestles with one whose blessing matters. The one with whom he wrestles knows that even wounded Jacob is tenacious. The mysterious wrestler reveals a concern for the coming dawn. Is the wrestler concerned about what the sunlight will reveal? Does it matter whether or not Jacob can see his assailant’s face? The wrestler demands freedom.
Jacob demands a blessing. Jacob has decided that he will not let go of the wrestler whose power he knows is more than his own and, the wrestler who wounds with a touch has neither destroyed nor rejected him. He may just get his blessings if he holds on long enough. The wrestler asks Jacob’s name and Jacob answers with no ancestors, clan or people. He wrestles alone, stands alone and names only one name, “Yaaqov — Jacob — a Heel.”
Then the wrestler grants him with a new name: “God-wrestler — Israel.” Once again Jacob asks the name of the wrestler. Once again the wrestler refuses to answer. Now the wrestler (formally) blesses him in the text. In the literary context of the scriptures, the blessing would have been spoken. Yet the whole struggling, questioning, name-changing encounter can be read as a blessing, albeit a bruising one.
The reader, like Jacob, seeks to unfold the mystery of the wrestler whose departure before the dawn breaks is not described. There are tantalizing hints with which the reader must wrestle: The text says “a person/a man” in verse 24 and the wrestler tells Jacob that he has wrestled with God in verse 28 to which Jacob assents in verse 30. Jacob says that he saw God “face to face” in verse 30. Was he granted a glimpse of the wrestler’s face in the pre-dawn light in the space between verses 29 and 30, between the blessing and the parting?
By following these clues and assembling them into a coherent picture the reader like Jacob comes to the conclusion that the wrestler is God. The injunction of Exodus 33:19, that “no one can see God and live” is either unknown or non-binding to the authors and editors of this text. God appears on earth (sometimes disguised as a messenger called “the angel of the Lord” in many translations who speaks as God in the first person and perhaps as Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18ff) frequently in Genesis. See Genesis 3:8; 11:5; 16:10-13; 17:1; 18:1; Genesis 26:2, 24. In the rest of the Torah, God will hide from the people in smoke and fire, but God will later appear to Solomon in 1 Kings 3:5 and 9:2.
In the closing verse of the lesson, Jacob limps away from site of his transformation. He will never be the same again. Each step he takes is marked by the divine touch.