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Of all the strange stories recorded in the Bible, this one certainly ranks near the top of the list. Jacob—the son of Isaac, and grandson of Abraham—abruptly encounters a mysterious visitor while preparing to meet his estranged brother, Esau. Left alone for the night, a “man” appears from nowhere and proceeds to do something rather unexpected.
Genesis 32:24-32 describes the entire ordeal in dramatic fashion:
“Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ But he said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him and said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And he blessed him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, ‘I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.’ Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip.”
In this passage, Jacob encountered what Genesis calls a “man” (enosh), whom he proceeded to physically quarrel with all night until daybreak (32:24). Famously, Jacob refused to let the man go until he had received a blessing, even though he had been badly wounded. If we know one thing about Jacob, it’s that he was all about receiving a blessing. It seems that he would take one anywhere, anytime, and from anyone! As a result of his persistence, the visitor blessed Jacob and changed his name to “Israel” (32:28). This name would have everlasting significance, as it stood for God’s chosen people within the Old Testament narrative.
This is indeed a strange series of events, and there is literally no indication beforehand that such a thing would take place. However, two things really stand out after the altercation. The first is the man’s rationale behind changing Jacob’s name: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (32:28). Jacob had “striven with God?” Can that be right? Second, Jacob then institutes a name of his own, this time to the location where all this had transpired: “So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, ‘I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved’ ” (32:30). Peniel (or Penuel, probably) means something close to “face of God.”
Not surprisingly, there has always been debate about who Jacob actually faced off against. Despite what was previously said, the Bible itself does not offer full clarity on the matter. If we look at the book attributed to the prophet Hosea, there is an allusion to Jacob’s battle with Genesis’ “man.” There, however, the being is not referred to as a man, but as an angel (malak): “Yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed . . .” (Hos. 12:4). While it is difficult to imagine, the Bible refers to Jacob’s adversary (and benefactor) as a man, an angel, and even as God! Whether directly stated or just implied, all three descriptions are present.
But there is a crucial, and often overlooked, detail in this story. After having his name changed, Jacob in turn asked the man what his name was. Humorously, the man responded in an almost rhetorical way: “Why is it that you ask my name?” (32:29). The only rational interpretation of this response is that Jacob was already expected to know the answer. This seems to be the man’s way of saying, “you know full-well who I am. I AM who I AM!”
In case Jacob still had his doubts, God later erased them while meeting with him at Bethel.
“God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He called him Israel. God also said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; Be fruitful and multiply; A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, And kings shall come forth from you. The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, And I will give the land to your descendants after you” (Gen. 35:10-12).
This event very clearly echoes what had transpired after Jacob’s primitive wrestling match. Jacob’s name is changed to Israel for a second time, solidifying the transfer. But something more interesting happens this time. Here, God outright declares, “I am God Almighty.” Whereas the “man” was unwilling to directly reveal his true identity the first time around, it seems as though he may have been more direct on this occasion. Was this God’s way of ensuring that Jacob knew just who he had been dealing with all along? Personally, I believe so.
All this meshes with the idea that Jacob’s wrestling partner may have been God Himself, and some translations even label the passage with titles like “Jacob Wrestles with God.”
Still, we should admit that we do not have certainty on what to make of this character. There is no doubt a remaining air of mystery to the whole ordeal. The best explanation is probably that God really did wrestle with Jacob. However—and this is the most important part—we can be sure about what this being was not; this was not just a normal man. Whoever it was, the figure had a heavenly origin.
Of course, some very important questions remain. Why did Genesis refer to this being as a man in the first place? If this was indeed God, how could He have physically wrestled with Jacob? Wouldn’t that mean that God has a body? Is there something even deeper being revealed to us in this exchange?
I think there is definitely a bigger picture to be seen here. However, in order to do the topic justice, I will have to address that in a separate offering.
Until then, thanks for reading.
For more on these issues, and a host of other interesting phenomena, see my latest book God Made the Aliens.