Commentary on Genesis 32:22-31
Genesis 32:22-32 is a profoundly mysterious story with numerous unanswerable questions.
Its storyline—a lone human being wrestles through the night with a nameless antagonist and emerges from the night transformed—is one repeated so often in human experience that the reader scarcely realizes this is an ancient story. Because it involves the theme of human transformation, it is a familiar and compelling narrative to people of all times.
A closer look at the story …
The narrative begins with a puzzle: why does Jacob go to all the trouble of fording the Jabbok with his wives and children only to head back across it to spend the night alone? The questions only multiply as the story continues: who is this being with whom Jacob wrestles and what prompts this nightlong battle? What is significance of all the names at this end of this chapter, especially the new name Jacob receives? As the dawn breaks, we can’t help but ask what sort of blessing Jacob has received as he limps back to his family. There may be too many of these type questions to answer in a single sermon … and that’s OK.
There are some clues in the narrative and in the larger context of Genesis 32 that help open up the narrative—although they don’t necessarily provide definitive answers to all of the questions—including why Jacob is alone and vulnerable on this fateful night. Robert Alter points out that binary division (i.e., doubling) is a recurring motif in the stories of Jacob.1 Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, divide over a birthright and a blessing (25:29-34 and 27:1-40). His wives are two sisters who are divided against one another as they vie with each other for his affection (29:15-30:24). Jacob also makes a fortune dividing his flocks into multi- and parti-colored animals (30:25-43). As Jacob makes his return to his homeland and a reunion with Esau in this chapter, we find him anxious to trick or appease his brother so he desperately divides his property into two camps, hoping Esau and his men will attack one camp and not the other (verses 8-9). He then divides his tribute to his brother among not just two but into three different groups of his servants (verses 14-22). Jacob keeps dividing his property and household into smaller and smaller camps until he ends up alone. Thus, we can see that this strange departure from his family is consistent with the narratives about Jacob up to this point. His is a story of division and separation.
Jacob’s night by the river Jabbok also mirrors another dramatic night in his life: the night he fled from his brother and Canaan to Paddan-aram. In that narrative, Jacob lays his head on a stone and has a dream of angelic beings ascending and descending an immense ramp that connects heaven and earth (Genesis 29:10-22). Over the ramp, God appears and promises protection, blessing, and an eventual return to Canaan. In Genesis 32, the story begun in 29 has come full circle: the promise of the return to Canaan is being fulfilled and a potential showdown with his brother is on the horizon, and Jacob finds himself alone at night. The stage is set for another strange, supernatural encounter.
This encounter with the divine is more unsettling and mysterious than the first one. In the earlier narrative, there is no hint of conflict, and the divine being involved is clearly identified as YHWH who seeks to reassure Jacob and reaffirm the promise made to Jacob’s father and grandfather. The identity of the being in Genesis 32 is ambiguous. The narrator says only that a “man” wrestled with Jacob until the break of day. There are hints in the narrative that this “man” is not an ordinary man. He is capable of wrenching Jacob’s hip out of joint (verse 26) and appears to want to avoid the light of day like an elemental spirit common in folkloric tales (verse 27). Also, there is clearly something about the man that leads Jacob to demand of him a blessing. The closest the narrator comes to asserting anything about his identity, however, is in verses 29 and 30, where he is implicitly referred to as an elohim, but even this designation does not clarify matters much. Elohim is a fairly generic term that can refer specifically to YHWH, of course, but can also refer to divinities in a more general sense. The NRSV translates elohim as “God” in both verses, but it is by no means obvious that Jacob’s opponent is God for why should YHWH fear the light of day as this elohim seems to do, and why should YHWH need to ask Jacob his name?
The second contrast between the night of Jacob’s return to Canaan and the night in which he fled from Canaan is the significance of the divine encounter. As I said above, YHWH has a clear purpose in Genesis 29 to reassure Jacob of the divine blessing that will go with him to Paddan-aram and back again. The blessing Jacob asks for and receives from the divine being by the Jabbok is as ambiguous as the identity of the divine being.
As Jacob clings to his adversary and demands a blessing before he lets him go, he’s asked, “What is your name?” When Jacob supplies his name, the creature renames him Israel because, he says, “you have striven with elohim and with human beings and have prevailed.” The name “Jacob” was given to him at birth to mark his efforts to supplant his brother even in the womb. Now he’s given another name that matches his story of striving and overcoming all that stands in his way, including dangerous supernatural beings, and he’s given another blessing. While the details of that blessing aren’t part of the narrative, the narrator does make clear that he is blessed, and unlike the blessing stolen from his brother by trickery, this blessing he’s earned. He’s transformed. Now he’s Israel.
As he limps away, wounded and blessed, he’s amazed at the experience, and in a move that recalls his earlier experience of the divine in Genesis 29, he gives the place of his wrestling a name, Peniel (Hebrew for “the face of god/God”). Reflecting not on his injury nor on his upcoming reunion with his brother, he is quietly amazed that he survived the night as he makes his way back to his family in the early dawn. Morning finds him focused and ready for whatever is to come.
There is much that is ancient and foreign to us in this story, and yet Jacob’s experience with an unknowable assailant in the middle of the night is still a story that transcends time. Dark nights of the soul are part of the human experience, and few escape them. Whether we battle adversaries psychological or physical, the dawn does still come. The narrative of Genesis 32 promises that even a terrible, unsettling night can become a source of blessing. There is no promise that these dark nights of the soul will leave us unscathed—they test us, and we may struggle to meet the challenge. Our deep-rooted conflicts as modern, thoughtful Christians can leave scars, but there is hope that in enduring them with courage and God’s help they can transform us. As people of faith, we are summoned to greet what the new day brings with wonder and joy.
- Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1996), 178.