Genesis 32:23-33: With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle?

According to Martin Luther, "Every man holds that this text is one of the most obscure in the Old Testament." The principal issue is the identity of the man who wrestled with Jacob at the Jabbok ford all night until the dawn of the next day. Was he a mere mortal, or was he an angel? Or, still more startling, was this individual actually a preincarnate form of the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity?

Some have attempted to solve the interpretive problem by making the whole sequence a dream narrative. Josephus understood it as a dream wherein the apparition made use of words and voices (Antiquities 1.20.2). Others have been content to allegorize the story, viewing it as the fight of the soul against the passions and vices hidden within oneself (for example, Philo Legum Allegoriae 3.190). Clement of Alexandria did equate the wrestler with the Logos of John's Gospel, but he argues that the Logos remained unknown by name to Jacob because Jesus had not yet appeared in the flesh (Paedagogus 1.7.57).

Jewish literature, recognizing that there was an actual fight at the heart of the story, says that the struggle was with the prince or angel of Esau, named Samael, rather than with any theophany, much less a christophany.

Others, like Jerome, have tried to make the episode a portrayal of long and earnest prayer. Such prayer involved meditation on the divine presence, confession of sin and a deep yearning for communication with the divine.

Modern interpreters, chary of assuming any real contact of mortals with the immortal or supernatural, prefer to identify the story with the types of myth that have gods fighting with heroes. Of course this point of view would devalue the narrative into pure fiction and attribute its source not to revelation, but to literary borrowing from other polytheistic mythologies. Such a solution stands condemned under the weight of its own assertions when lined up against the claims of the biblical text itself.

The best commentary ever written on this passage is to be found in Hosea 12:3-4:

As a man [Jacob] struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor. He found him at Bethel and there [God] talked with us. (my translation)

Hosea 12:4 describes the antagonist, then, as an "angel." But since Old Testament appearances of God, or theophanies, are routinely described as involving the "angel of the Lord," it should not surprise us that the Lord of glory took the guise or form of an angel. In fact, that is exactly what God would do later on in his enfleshment, or incarnation. He would take on flesh; in his coming as a babe to Bethlehem, however, he took on human flesh forever.

But what really clinches the argument for this identification is the fact that in verse 3 of Hosea 12, the parallel clause equates this "angel" with God himself. Jacob struggled with an "angel," yes, but he also "struggled with God."

What makes this identification difficult to conceive is the fact that the encounter involved wrestling. How is it possible for the second person of the Trinity--for that is the person connected with the "angel of the Lord" so frequently--to grapple in such a physical way with a mortal?

Clearly there is a sort of punning wordplay in this story with Jacob (ya`qob), Jabbok (yabboq) and the action of wrestling (ye`abeq). These similar-sounding words attract hearers' and readers' attention to the linking of the story's key ideas. The wrestling took place at the threshold of the Promised Land. Ever since Jacob's flight from his disaffected brother Esau, Jacob had been outside the land God had deeded to him in his promise.

As a result of this wrestling, Jacob was renamed Israel and prepared for his part in fathering the nation that God had promised. In order to preserve Jacob's memory of this spiritual crisis, God left a permanent mark on his body. God touched Jacob's thigh and dislocated it; so he limped from that point onward.

Unfortunately, we cannot identify the exact nature of the wrestling. It is clear, however, that it involved more than a battle in the spiritual realm. It left Jacob with a real physical impairment. And although the narrative says only that Jacob wrestled with a "man," he was told by this individual that he had wrestled "with God" and had "overcome" (Gen 32:28); similarly, Hosea says that Jacob "overcame" an angel (Hos 12:4).

Incidentally, the touch on Jacob's thigh became the basis in postexilic times for a food taboo in the Jewish community. Jews may not eat the sinew of the nerve along the thigh joint, called the nervus ischiadicus or sciatic nerve.

It thus appears that the "man" or "angel" with whom Jacob wrestled was Jesus himself, in a temporary incarnate form prior to his permanent enfleshment when he would come to earth as a human baby. This is consistent with other places in the Old Testament where the "angel of the Lord" can be identified as the second person of the Trinity.