Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (1980) 223-40.
Copyright © 1980 by
Studies in the Life of Jacob
Jacob at the Jabbok,
Allen P Ross
Why is it that many people of God attempt to gain the blessing
of God by their own efforts? Faced with a great opportunity or a
challenging task, believers are prone to take matters into their own
hands and use whatever means are at their disposal. In it all there
may even be a flirtation with unscrupulous and deceptive practices
--especially when things become desperate.
Jacob was much like this. All his life he managed very well. He
cleverly outwitted his stupid brother--twice, by securing the birth-
right and by securing the blessing. And he eventually bested Laban
and came away a wealthy man--surely another sign of divine
blessing. Only occasionally did he realize it was God who worked
through it all; but finally this truth was pressed on him most
graphically in the night struggle at the ford Jabbok.
By the River Jabbok Jacob wrestled with an unidentified man
till dawn and prevailed over him, and though Jacob sustained a
crippling blow, he held on to receive a blessing once he perceived
that his assailant was supernatural (Gen. 32:22-32). That blessing
was signified by God's renaming the patriarch
Jacob responded by naming the place "Peniel." But because he
limped away from the event, the "sons of
Gunkel, comparing this story with ancient myths, observes
that all the features--the attack in the night by the deity, the
Jacob at the Jabbok,
mystery involved, the location by the river, the hand-to-hand com-
bat--establish the high antiquity of the story.1 It is clear that the
unusual elements fit well with the more ancient accounts about
God's dealings with men. To be sure, something unusual has been
recorded, and the reader is struck immediately with many ques-
tions, some of which probably cannot be answered to any satisfac-
tion.2 Who was the mysterious assailant? Why was he fighting
Jacob and why was he unable to defeat the patriarch? Why did he
appear afraid of being overtaken by the dawn? Why did he strike
Jacob's thigh? Why was the dietary taboo not included in the
Mosaic Law? What is the meaning of the name "
significance of this tradition?
Von Rad warns against the false expectations of a hasty search
for "the" meaning, for he along with many others is convinced that
a long tradition was involved in forming and interpreting the
record.3 A survey of the more significant attempts to understand
the present form of the text will underscore the difficulties.
Several interpreters have suggested that this is a dream nar-
rative. Josephus understood it to be a dream in which an appari-
tion (fanta<sma) made use of voice and words.4 Roscher followed
the same basic idea, but said that it was a case of incubation,
induced by the obstruction of the organs of respiration, producing
a vivid dream of a struggle like that of mortals with Pan Ephialtes in
Others have given the story an allegorical interpretation. Philo
saw a spiritual conflict in literal terms, a fight of the soul against
one's vices and passions.6 Jacob's combatant was the Logos7; it
was his virtue that became lame for a season. This allegorical
approach was accepted in part by Clement of Alexandria; he said
that the assailant was the Logos, but understood that the Logos
remained unknown by name in the conflict because He had not yet
appeared in flesh.8
Beginning with Jerome, many have understood the passage to
portray long and earnest prayer. Schmidt relates how Umbreit,
reacting to the concept of a fight with the Almighty, expanded this
view to say it was a prayer that involved meditation in the divine
presence, confession of sin, desire for pardon and regeneration,
and yearning for spiritual communion.9
Jewish literature, however, recognizes that an actual fight is at
the heart of the story. R. Hanna b. R. Hanina said it was a real
340 Bibliotheca Sacra - October-December 1985
struggle but with the prince or angel of Esau.10 Rashi followed this
explanation, and the Zohar (170a) named the angel Samael, the
chieftain of Esau.
The passage has proved problematic for critical analysis as
well. Schmidt explains, "The usual criteria fail. Yahwe does not
occur at all, not even on the lips of the renamed hero. Elohim is
found everywhere, but in a way that would not be impossible even
to a writer usually employing the name Yahwe. The words and
phrases generally depended on by the analysis are not decisive."11
As a result there has been little agreement among critical scholars.
Knobel, Dillmann, Delitzsch, and Roscher assigned the passage to
E (Elohim sources in the documentary hypothesis). And DeWette,
Hupfeld, Kuenen, Studer, Wellhausen, Driver, Skinner, Kautzsch,
Procksch, and Eichrodt assigned it to J. Some of these, however,
gave Genesis 32:23 and 29 to E, and verse 32 to a glossator. W Max
Muller tried to explain the confusion over the sources as being due
to the disguising of the main features. He argued that the language
of verse 25a was ambiguous--the low blow should have been
struck by Jacob. The weeping in Hosea's account (12:4) should
then be referred to the angel (according to Meyer). In short, a
solution of sorts was found in the suggestion that the record had
been revised in tradition.
Gunkel attempted to muster evidence from within the nar-
rative to show that two recensions of an old story had been put
together: (1) verse 25a records that the hip was dislocated by a blow,
but verse 25b suggests that it happened accidentally in the course
of the fight; (2) verses 26-28 present the giving of the name as the
blessing, but verse 29 declares that the assailant blessed him; (3)
verse 28 has Jacob victorious, but verse 30 records that he escaped
with his life.12
Because of such tensions, and because Yahweh is not named
in the narrative, modern critical scholars have attempted to
uncover an ancient mythical story about gods fighting with heroes,
a story that could have been adapted for the Jacob narratives.
Fraser, Bennett, Gunkel, and Kittel thought that the old story
included a river god whose enemy was the sun god which dimin-
ished the river with its rays (especially in summer). In other words
the Hebrew tradition was "pure fiction" (Schmidt) based on an old
myth about a river god named Jabbok who attempted to hinder
anyone from crossing. Peniel was his shrine.13
The myth was also identified with the deity El, the God of the
Jacob at the Jabbok,
old Canaanite myth in which the "man" was at one time identified.
When Jacob became attached to the story, he argues, the
Canaanite deity so named was deliberately obscured,14 being
replaced by a mysterious being who may or may not be taken as
Yahweh. This, McKenzie suggests, was left vague because there
was a hesitancy to attribute such deeds to Yahweh. Later the role
was transferred to intermediate beings, such as the angel of Esau.
To say that the account gradually developed from some such
ancient myth greatly weakens a very important point in the history
ing a synchronic study of the text with its geopolitical significance,
provides a more constructive approach:
The passage cannot be dismissed merely as a bit of adopted or
adapted folk-lore--a contest with a nocturnal demon, river spirit, or
regional numen who opposes the river's crossing - to which "sec-
ondary" matters of cultic interest have been added, but is rather to be
understood as bearing a distinct and distinctive meaning for the
people who claim descent from their eponymous ancestor. Where,
when, and how Jacob became
indifference to the Israelite author or to his audience.15
This ancient tradition about Jacob's unusual experience was
understood to anticipate or foreshadow events in
receiving the blessing of the land in this case.
Observations. Several observations give direction to the inter-
pretation of the story. First, the geographical setting is important.
The wrestling occurred at the threshold of the land of promise.
Jacob had been outside the land ever since his flight from Esau,
from whom he wrestled the blessing.
Second, the unifying element of the story is the naming, that
is, the making of Jacob into
added to an old narrative; it is explained by it.
Third, the account is linked to a place name, Peniel. The
names Peniel (Gen. 32:30), Mahanaim (Gen. 32:1-2), and Succoth
(Gen. 33:17) are each given and etymologized by Jacob in his
Fourth, the story is linked to a dietary restriction for the sons
event, but was not part of the Law The event in the tradition both
created and explained it.
342 Bibliotheca Sacra - October-December 1985
Significance. The theme of the story is the wrestling--no one
suggests anything else. However, one cannot study the account in
isolation from the context of the Jacob cycle of stories. The connec-
tion is immediately strengthened by the plays on the names. At the
outset are bqofEya, the man, qBoya, the place, and qbexAy.eva the action. These
similar sounding words attract the reader's attention. Before, a
"Jacob" might cross the "Jabbok" to the land of blessing, he must
fight. He attempted once more to trip up his adversary, for at that
point he was met by someone wishing to have a private encounter
with him, and he was forced into the match. Fokkelman says:
Tripping his fellow-men by the heel (`qb) has for Jacob come to its
extreme consequence: a wrestling ('bq) with a "man" which to Jacob
is the most shocking experience of his life, as appears from the fact
that thereafter he proceeds through life a man changed of name, and
thus of nature, and under the new name he becomes the patriarch of
the "Israelites." (This comes out even more strongly in Jacob's own
confession in v. 31) [English v. 30].16
Ryle notes that the physical disability he suffered serves as a
memorial of the spiritual victory and a symbol of the frailty of
human strength in the crisis when God meets man face to face.17
Structure. The event recorded in the narrative gives rise to two
names: God renames Jacob "
"Peniel. " It is clear that these names reflect a new status because of
the divine blessing. Therefore everything in the record leads up to
the giving of the name "
reflects the significance of the entire encounter as it was under-
stood by Jacob. These names together provide a balanced picture
of the significant event.
In a helpful analysis of the structure of this passage, Barthes
evaluates the namings as follows:18
1. The demand of a name, _________ The response ______ The result:
from God to Jacob of Jacob name change
(v. 27) (v. 27) (v. 28)
2. The demand of a name, _________ An indirect ______ The result:
from Jacob of God response decision
(v 29) (v. 29) |
This parallel arrangement is instructive: The direct response
of Jacob to his assailant leads to his being
indirect response of the assailant leads Jacob to name the place
Jacob at the Jabbok,
"Peniel," for he realized that it was God who fought
him face to face ("Peniel"). One name is given by the Lord to Jacob;
the other name is given by Jacob in submission to the Lord.
The passage may be divided into three sections with a pro-
logue and epilogue. Of the three sections, the first (the event, vv
24b-25) prepares for the second (the blessing, vv 26-28), and the
third (the evaluation, vv 29-30) reflects the first two.
These opening verses record the crossing of the Jabbok by
Jacob and his family. Because verses 22-32 provide an interlude in
the return of Jacob to
with their parts treated accordingly. The first verse (v. 22) provides a
summary statement of the crossing of the river by the entire clan.
The crossing is then developed in verses 23-31. Verse 23 introduces
the narrative; verse 31 completes it. Between the time Jacob sent
his family across and the time he joined them, the wrestling and
Jacob's being left alone (v. 24a) is not explained. One sugges-
tion is that he intended to spend the night in prayer before meeting
Esau. This harmonizes with the allegorical view of the wrestling.
More likely, however, Jacob was anticipating an encounter with
Esau, and so at night he began crossing the river to establish his
ground in the land.20 Whether he anticipated an encounter in the
night or simply was caught alone, is difficult to say. If Jacob
remained behind to make sure everything was safely across, then
the meeting came as a complete surprise.21 When he was alone, he
was attacked by a man--he was caught in the match.
At any rate the narrative goes to great lengths to isolate Jacob
on one side of the river. The question of his plans is irrelevant to the
story. The important point is that he was alone.
THE FIGHT (32:24b-25)
Only four sentences in the Hebrew are used for the fight; no
details are given, for the fight is but the preamble to the most
important part--the dialogue. Yet the fight was real and physical.
Dillmann says the limping shows it was a physical occurrence in a
material world.22 The memory of
night that gave rise to the dietary restriction attests to the physical
reality of the event.
344 bliotheca Sacra - October-December 1985
The verb used to describe the wrestling is qbexAy.eva, "and he
wrestled. " It is rare, being found only here in verse 24 and in verse 25.
Since the word qbAxA "dust," this denominative verb perhaps
carries the idea of "get dusty" in wrestling. Spurrell suggests that it
might possibly be connected to qbaHA, or that it might be a dialectical
variant of this for a wordplay.23
Martin-Achard concludes that this very rare verb was selected
because of assonance with qBoya and bqofEya the sounds b/v and k/q
forming strong alliterations at the beginning of the Story.24 The verb
plays on the name of the river as if to say qBoya were equal to qboxEya,
meaning a "wrestling, twisting" river.25 The wordplay employs the
name of the river as a perpetual reminder of the most important
event that ever happened there.
At this spot "a man" wrestled with Jacob. The word wyxi is open
to all interpretations. It suggests a mystery but reveals nothing.26
But this is fitting, for the "man" would refuse to reveal himself
directly. The effect of the word choice is that the reader is transported
to Jacob's situation. Jacob perceived only that a male antagonist was
closing in on him. The reader learns his identity as Jacob did--by
his words and actions.
The time of the match is doubly significant. On the one hand it
is interesting that the struggle was at night. Darkness concealed the
adversary's identity. The fact that he wished to be gone by daylight
shows that he planned the night visit. As it turned out, had the
assailant come in the daytime, Jacob would have recognized the
man's special authority (v 29) and identity (v 30b). If Jacob had
perceived whom he was going to have to fight, he would never have
started the fight, let alone continued with his peculiar obstinacy.27
On the other hand the fact that the wrestling lasted till the
breaking of day suggests a long, indecisive bout. Indeed, the point is
that the assailant could not be victorious until he resorted to some-
The turning point of the long bout is clear. After a long, inde-
cisive struggle, the man "touched" Jacob. The "touch" was actually a
blow--he dislocated his hip.28 But the text uses a soft term for it,
demonstrating a supernatural activity (cf. Isa. 6:7, he "touched"
The effect of this blow is clear. The assailant gave himself an
unfair advantage over the patriarch, for he was already more than a
match for Jacob. The one who might be expected to take advantage of
the other was himself crippled by a supernatural blow from his
Jacob at the Jabbok,
assailant. In a word, like so many of his own rivals. Jacob now
came against something for which he was totally unprepared.
THE BLESSING (32:26-28)
The blow was revealing for Jacob. The true nature of the
nameless adversary began to dawn on him as the physical
darkness began to lift. He is the One who has power over the affairs
of men! He said, "Let me go, for the day breaks!" (author's trans.).
But Jacob, having been transformed from a devious fighter into a
forthright and resolute one, 29 held on for a blessing.30 He said, "I
will not let you go unless you bless me" (v. 26 ).31 Fokkelman charac-
terizes Jacob by stating that "from the most miserable situation he
wants to emerge an enriched man."32 Jacob may not have been
aware of all the implications (the narrator certainly was), but he
knew the source of blessing.
The blessing for which Jacob pleaded finds expression in a
changed name. The assailant first asked the patriarch, "What is
your name?" (v. 27)--undoubtedly a rhetorical question. The
object was to contrast the old name with the new. When one
remembers the significance of names, the point becomes clear: a
well-established nature, a fixed pattern of life must be turned back
radically! In giving his name, Jacob had to reveal his nature. This
name, at least for the narratives, designated its owner as a crafty
overreacher. Here the "heel-catcher" was caught and had to identify
his true nature before he could be blessed.33
And he said, Not Jacob shall your name be called from now
prevailed"' (v. 28, author's trans.). This renaming of Jacob is an
assertion of the assailant's authority to impart a new life and new
status (cf. 2 Kings 23:34; 24:17).
What is the meaning of the name "
and Hosea 12:3 interpret the meaning of the name with a verb "to
fight."34 The meaning of "
contends, may God contend, persist."35 Based on the context in
Genesis, the verb should be understood in the sense of fighting.
Coote analyzes Genesis 32:28b36 and concludes that (a) the
syllabic meter is 8:8; (b) the parallel pairs are sry//ykl, m//m, and
'lhym//'nsym; (c) the archaic parallelism of the suffixed and pre-
fixed conjugations is present; and (d) the arrangement is chiastic
(sry-twkl). The last word is isolated to combine the clause:
ky sryt `m 'Ihym "for you fought with God
w `m 'nsym wtwkl and with men, and you prevailed"
346 Bibliotheca Sacra - October-December 1985
Therefore the root hrAWA is used to explain the name lxerAW;yi
because it sounds the same, is derived from the very story, and is
otherwise infrequent.38 The verb lkoyA is used to explain the out-
come of hrAWA.
So the narrative signifies that the name lxerAW;yi means "God
fights." It is as if one were to say lxe hrAW;yi; the idea is similar to the
epithet tOxbAc; hvAhy;.39 But the meaning of the name involves an
interpolation of the elements: "God fights" is explained by "you
fought with God." Thus the name is but a motto and a reminder of
the seizing of the blessing which would be a pledge of victory and
success.40 Gunkel states that this explanation of the significance
of the name was affectionately and proudly employed to show the
nature of the nation to be invincible and triumphant; with God's
fight even God Himself.41
Many have been troubled by the difficulties with this explana-
tion. First, if the name means "God fights," then how is it reversed
to say Jacob fights with God? The name must be explained on the
basis of Semitic name formations. Consequently the form is an
imperfect plus a noun that is the subject, as Nestle pointed out long
ago.42 Thus any interpretation with El as object drops out of
consideration as the morphological etymology of the name.43
Second, the verb hrAWA is very rare, making a clear definition
difficult. It occurs only in connection with this incident. But the
meaning of hrAWA may be "contend" and not "fight." Since God has
no rivals, such a name is unparalleled and unthinkable.44
Third, the 'versions did not all understand the distinction
between hrAWA, "to contend," and rraWA, "to rule." The Septuagint has
has fortis fuisti. The problem may be traced to the pointing of the
verb rWay.Ava in Hosea 12:4, which seems to be from a geminate root
and commentators follow either the idea of "rule" or "contend,
Various other suggestions for the etymology of
been made.46 A. Haldar suggests that the root is isr/sr, "happy,"
and that it could possibly be connected to the Canaanite god
Asherah.47 In this view the name change would represent the
merging of the two religions.
E. Jacob connects the name with the root rwAyA, "just, right.48
He finds confirmation for this idea in the noun "Jeshurun" (NUrwuy;,
32:15; 33:5; 33:26; Isa. 44:2), a poetic designation
Jacob at the Jabbok,
as well as in the words "Book of Jashar" (rwAy.Aha rp,se), the old collec-
tion of national songs (Josh. 10:13; 2 Sam. 1:18). This could be the
Jacob.49 The major problem with this interpretation is that it
involves a change of the sibilant.
Albright takes the name from yasar "to cut, saw," with a
developed meaning of "heal": "God heals."50 He finds Arabic
wasara, "cut, saw"; Akkadian sararu, "shine" (cf. sarru, "king");
and Ethiopic saraya, "cure, heal, " to be the most plausible roots. In
connection with the root wasara, he points out that the Arabic
root nasara, "revive," could be equated due to morphological con-
tamination of I-Waw and I-Nun roots. Albright argues that the
original name was *Yasir-'el from a verbal stem rWy, with the
developed meaning of "heal" (supported by Ethiopic saraya, and
the equation/interchange in Arabic of nasara for wasara). He
states, "The fact that the stem yasar is not found in biblical Hebrew
is rather in favor of the combination, since its disappearance
would explain how the meaning of the name came to be so thor-
Coote, also using the strong letters sr (1-Yod, I-Nun, Geminate,
reduplicated, or III weak), chooses the Akkadian root wasaru and
traces a semantic development of cutting>deciding>counseling
(Arabic 'asara, "counsel" and musir, "counselor").52 He notes that
the root htk, "cut," develops to mean "decide or determine." Coote's
idea is that htk and sry are parallel in root meaning and develop-
Coote finds confirmatory evidence in Isaiah 9:6-7, where there
is confluence of sar and sry as in Genesis 32. The word for "govern-
ment" is the key there. He concludes that the name lxerAW;yi means
"El judges" and is from either ysr or sry. It has the meaning of
govern by rendering a decree or judgment (Ps. 82:1).
Noth, taking it to be from a third weak root sara, suggests the
meaning "to rule, be lord over."53 Through this, God takes action in
the world and particularly helps His own. "
will rule" or "May God rule. "
It is certainly possible that one of these Semitic roots is ety-
mologically connected to the name, and that the name meant
something like "judge" or "heal" at one time (for the name occurred
before this time, as the Eblaite material suggests).54 The popular
etymology in Genesis is giving the significance of the name.55 But
most of these other suggestions are no more compelling than the
popular etymology given in the text of Genesis. The fact that the
348 Bibliotheca Sacra - October-December 1985
word is rare should not lead to the assumption that it means
"contend" or "vie with" as a rival. The concept of God's fighting with
someone is certainly no more a problem than the passage itself.
And the reversal of the emphasis (from "God fights" to "fight with
God") in the explanation is because of the nature of popular ety-
mologies, which are satisfied with a wordplay on the sound or
meaning of the name to express its significance.
The name serves to evoke the memory of the fight. The name
("God fights") is freely interpreted to say that God is the object of
Jacob's struggle.56 Hearing the name lxerAW;yi one would recall the
incident in which Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed. These
words were full of hope to the Israelites. Dillmann says that even
after the name would tell the Israelites that when Jacob contended
successfully with God, he won the battle with man.57 Thus the
name "God fights" and the popular explanation "you prevailed"
obtain a significance for future struggles.
THE RESPONSE (32:29-30)
Jacob afterward attempted to discover his adversary's name.
The "man" had acted with full powers and spoken with authority
He had gotten to the bottom of Jacob's identity; He could not be
mortal. Thus Jacob sought to discover His name. But the answer
was cautious: "Why do you ask my name?" (author's trans.).
On the one hand it is as if He was saying to Jacob, "Think, and
you will know the answer!"58 But on the other hand He was
unwilling to release His name for Jacob to control. The divine name
cannot be had on demand nor taken in vain, for that would expose
it to the possibility of magical manipulation.59
Jacob had to be content with a visitation from a "man" whom
he realized was divine. Jacob might have recalled that Abram was
visited by "men" (Gen. 18) with such
those men in the night, and was saved alive when the sun arose
(Gen. 19). Apparently this was the manner of manifestation of the
Lord in Genesis.
Jacob named the place "Peniel" because he had seen God face
to face and had been delivered. This is the second part of the basic
structure. First, God demanded and changed his name. Here,
Jacob was not given the divine name, but named the place to
commemorate the event. He had power over that realm, but could
not overreach it. The play on the name is clear: Having seen God
"face to face" he named the place Peniel, "face of God."60
Jacob at the Jabbok,
The impact of the encounter was shocking for Jacob. Seeing
God was something no man survived (Gen. 48:16; Exod. 19:21;
24:10; Judg. 6:11, 22; Judg. 13). But this appearance of the "man"
guaranteed deliverance for the patriarch. God had come as close to
Jacob as was imaginable. Jacob exclaimed, "I have seen God face to
face and I have been delivered" (Gen. 32:30, author's trans.). The
idea is not "and yet" I have been delivered, but rather "and my life
has been delivered" (lcanA). His prayer for deliverance (vv. 9-12) was
answered by God in this face-to-face encounter and blessing.61
Meeting God "face to face" meant that he could now look Esau
directly in the eye.
Verse 31 provides the conclusion for the narrative. As the sun
rose, Jacob crossed over Peniel with a limp. Ewald says that he
limped on his thigh "as if the crookedness, which had previously
adhered to the moral nature of the wily Jacob, had now passed over
into an external physical attribute only."62
The final verse of the story is an editorial note that explains a
dietary restriction that developed on account of this event. The
wounding of the thigh of Jacob caused the
to eat of the sciatic nerve "until this day." This law does not form
part of the Sinaitic Code, and so according to some scholars may
have been a later custom in
the reference is made to Israelites rather than the "sons of Jacob,"
suggesting that the custom is post-Sinaitic.
The expression "until this day" is usually taken as a sure sign
of an etiological note. Childs concludes that in the majority of the
cases it is the expression of a personal testimony added to and
confirming a received tradition, a commentary on existing
customs.63 He concludes that this cultic practice was introduced
secondarily into the narrative. It provided a causal relation for the
THE NATURE OF JACOB
The special significance of Jacob's becoming
purification of character. Peniel marks the triumph of the higher
over the lower elements of his life; but if it is a triumph for the
higher elements, it is a defeat for the lower. The outcome of the
match is a paradox. The victor ("you ... have prevailed," Gen.
350 Bibliotheca Sacra - October-December 1985
32:28) wept (Hos. 12:4) and pleaded for a blessing: once blessed he
emerged, limping on a dislocated hip. How may this be a victory
and a blessing?
The defeat of Jacob. Because Jacob was guilty, he feared his
brother and found God an adversary. Jacob prepared to meet Esau,
whom he had deceived, but the patriarch had to meet God first.
God broke Jacob's strength before blessing him with the promise of
real strength (the emphasis is on God's activity).
When God touched the strongest sinew of Jacob, the wrestler,
it shriveled, and with it Jacob's persistent self-confidence.65 His
carnal weapons were lamed and useless--they failed him in his
contest with God. He had always been sure of the result only when
he helped himself, but his trust in the naked force of his own
weapons was now without value.
The victory of Jacob. What he had surmised for the past 20
years now dawned on him--he was in the hands of One against
whom it is useless to struggle. One wrestles on only when he thinks
his opponent can be beaten. With the crippling touch, Jacob's
struggle took a new direction. With the same scrappy persistence
he clung to his Opponent for a blessing. His goal was now different.
Now crippled in his natural strength he became bold in faith.
Thus it became a show of significant courage. Jacob won a
blessing that entailed changing his name. It must be stressed that
he was not wrestling with a river demon or Esau or his alter ego,
but with One who was able to bless him.
He emerged from the encounter an altered man. After winning
God's blessing legitimately, the danger with Esau vanished. He had
THE PROMISES TO JACOB
What, then, is the significance of this narrative within the
structure of the patriarchal history? In the encounter the empha-
sis on promise and fulfillment seems threatened. At
ise was given: at the Jabbok fulfillment seemed to be barred as God
opposed Jacob's entrance into the land. Was there a change of
attitude with Yahweh who promised the land? Or was this simply a
In a similar but different story, Moses was met by God because
he had not complied with God's will (Exod. 4:24). With Jacob,
however, the wrestling encounter and name changes took on a
greater significance because he was at the frontier of the land
promised to the seed of Abraham. God, the real Proprietor of the
Jacob at the Jabbok,
land, opposed his entering as Jacob. If it were only a matter of mere
strength, then He let Jacob know he would never enter the land.66
The narrative, then, supplies a moral judgment on the crafty
Jacob who was almost destroyed in spite of the promise. Judging
from Jacob's clinging for a blessing, the patriarch made the same
judgment on himself.
THE DESCENDANTS OF JACOB
On the surface the story seems to be a glorification of the
physical strength and bold spirit of the ancestor of the Israelites.67
However, like so much of the patriarchal history, it is transparent
as a type of what
with God.68 The story of
able of the life of the nation, in which the nation's entire history
with God is presented, almost prophetically, as a struggle until
the breaking of day.69 The patriarch portrays the real spirit of
the nation, engaging in the persistent struggle with God until
they emerge strong in His blessing. Consequently the nation is re-
ferred to as Jacob or
The point of the story for the nation of
of promise is clear:
nations gain power, but by the power of the divine blessing. And
later in her history
the land would not be by might, nor by strength, but by the Spirit of
the Lord God who fights for His people (Zech. 4:6). The blessings of
God come by His gracious, powerful provisions, not by mere phys-
ical strength or craftiness. In fact there are times when God must
cripple the natural strength of His servants so that they may be
bold in faith.
1 Hermann Gunkel, Genesis (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1917), p.
361. Gunkel understands these features to be characteristic of a certain type of
religious story in which the hero fights a god (e.g., Hercules). His observation of the
antiquity of the story must be seen in this connection.
2 Nathaniel Schmidt points out that the passage was intended to answer certain
questions about customs and traditions: yet on a closer reading many other
questions surface ("The Numen of Penuel," Journal of Biblical Literature 45
Gerhard von Rad, Genesis:
A Commentary, trans. John Marks (
Press, 1972), p. 319.
4 Josephus Antiquities 1. 331.
5 W H. Roscher, "Ephialtes," Abh. d. phil.-hist. Classe. k. sachsischen Ges. d.
352 Bibliotheca Sacra - October-December 1985
Wissenschaften 20 (1906), cited by Schmidt, "The Numen of Penuel," p. 263.
6 Philo Legum allegoriarum 3. 190.
7 Philo De mutatione nominum 87.
8 Clement of
9 Schmidt, "The Numen of Penuel," p. 263.
10 Midrash Genesis 77. 3.
11 Schrnidt, "The Numen of Penuel," p. 267.
12 On the other hand such tensions can be plausibly harmonized: verse 25b may
be the natural effect of verse 25a, the giving of the name is the token of the blessing,
and the victory involves the crippling of human devices.
13 Schmidt, "The Numen of Penuel," p. 269.
14 John L. McKenzie, "Jacob at Peniel: Gen. 32:24-32," Catholic Biblical Quar-
terly 25 (1963):73.
15 S. Gevirtz. "Of Patriarchs and Puns: Joseph at the Fountain, Jacob at the Ford.-
suggestions is helpful, his own interpretation is rather fanciful, as will be mentioned later.
16 J. Fokkelman. Narrative Art in Genesis (Assen.
1975), p. 210.
17 Herbert E. Ryle. The Book of Genesis (
1914), p. 323.
18 R. Barthes, "La Lutte avec L'Ange," in Analyse structurale et Exegese Bibli-
que, by R. Barthes, F Bovon, F J. Laeenhardt, R. Martin-Achard, and J. Starobinski,
Bibliothique Theologique (Neuchatel: Delachaux et Niestle Editeurs, 1971), p. 35.
19 Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, p. 211.
20 The River Jabbok is the Wadi ez-Zerka. "the blue," that is, a clear mountain
stream. It is on the frontier of the land.
21 Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, p. 211.
22 A. Dillmann, Genesis, Critically and Exegetically Expounded, trans. B.
Stevenson, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1897), 2:281.
G. J. Spurrell, Notes
on the Text of the Book of Genesis, 2d ed. (
Clarendon Press, 1906), p. 282.
24 R. Martin-Achard, "Un Exegete Devant Genesis 32:23-33," Analyse struc-
turale et Exegese Biblique, p. 60.
25 Gunkel says, "Ye'abeq-das Wort nur bier and 26; Anspielusig and
wisprunglich wol Erklarungs versuch des Namens Yabboq (Genesis, p. 326).
26 Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis. p. 213.
27 Von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, p. 320.
28 The verb fqayA implies a separation or dislocation. It is used figuratively in
Jeremiah 6:8 and Ezekiel 23:18. In the Hiphil it represents some form of execution,
but its precise form is uncertain. The solemn execution of the seven men in 2
Samuel 21:6 may be a hanging or impaling.
29 E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1971), p. 255.
30 Von Rad suggests that this is a basic feature of human nature. In desperation
Jacob clung to the divine for help (Genesis, p. 321).
31 It may be observed that the praying began after the fight was over. So the
fighting cannot signify intense praying.
32 Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, p. 215.
33 The name Jacob has as its probable meaning "May he protect" or in its fullest
form. Jacob-el, "may God protect" (Martin Noth, Die israelitischen Personen-
namen im Rah men dergemeinsernitischen
Na mengebung [
Christianity [Garden City. NY: Doubleday & Co., 1957], p. 237, n. 51). The protec-
tion is that of a rearguard, one who follows behind the group. In the naming of the
infant (Gen. 25), the mother selected a name that would instantly recall how the
Jacob at the Jabbok,
younger child grasped the heel of his brother (bqofEyA/bqifA) -after all, the mother had
received the oracle about the twins and so would note such unusual developments.
But the parents would in no wise name a. child "overreacher" or "deceitful." But in
his lifetime Jacob "tripped" his brother twice, prompting Esau to reinterpret his
name: "Is he not rightly called Jacob? He has deceived me these two times" (Gen.
27:36, author's trans.). After those incidents the significance of the name became
that of a deceiver, one who dogged the heels of another to trip him and take unfair advantage.
Jeremiah later would say, "Every brother is a'Jacob... (Jer. 9:4, author's trans.).
34 R. B. Coote, "Hosea XII," Vetus Testamentum 21 (1971):394.
35 Taken after the analogy of other names, lxerAW;yi maybe a jussive, "Let God fight,"
or a simple imperfect, "God fights/will fight" (G. H. Skipworth, "The Tetragrammaton:
Its Meaning and Origin," Jewish Quarterly Review 10[1897-981:666). Also note
Encyclopedia Biblica, s.v. "Personal Names," by Th. Noldeke, 3:3271-3307. 36 Robert
Coote, "The Meaning of the Name
37 Cyrus Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1965),
par. 1334. See also James L. Kugel,
The Idea of Biblical Poetry (
University Press, 1981), pp. 19-23.
38 Coote, "Hosea XII," p. 394.
Robertson Smith writes: "The very name of
(El) fighteth,' and Jehovah in the Old Testament is Iahwe cebaoth, the Jehovah of
the armies of
realized. .." (The Prophets of Israel [Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 18821, p. 36).
40 John Skinner, Genesis (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1913), p. 409.
41 Gunkel writes, "Es ist ein grossartiger and sicherlich uralter Gedanke Israels,
es sei im Stande, nicht nur die ganze Welt mit Gottes Hulfe, sondern auch, wo notig
Gott selber zu bekampfen and zu uberwinden" (Genesis, p. 328). Gunkel restated
this in the 1917 edition: "denn wen selbst die Gottheit nicht bezwingen konnte,
den wird kein Feind bawaltigen!"
42 Martin Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen, p. 208.
W F Albright, "The Names '
Etymology of Todah and Torah," Journal of Biblical Literature 46 (1927):159.
Nestle's discussion was in Die israelitischen Eigennamen. There are exceptions, of
course, such as lxel;l,.hay; in 2 Chronicles 29:12.
44 Albright, "The Names '
45 The pointing of lxeraWAyi is in itself unexpected; a shewa would be expected under
the r. Albright suggests a secondary development under the influence of the Greek
tradition (Albright follows Max Margolis, "The Pronunciation of the xvAW; according
to New Hexaplaric Material," The American Journal of Semitic Languages and
Literature [ 19091:66). When the shewa is followed by a laryngeal we have an a vowel
in Greek ( ]Israhl). So the shewa had an a coloring before the weak laryngeal in the
pre-Masoretic age. The Masoretes, under the influence of Aramaic reduced a short a
in the open syllable to shewa, except in two well-known names, lxerAW;yi and lxefemaw;yi
where it was too well-established to be eliminated
(Albright, "The Names of '
For a thorough discussion, see G. A. Danell, Studies in the Name
Old Testament (Uppsala: Appelbergs Boktryckeri, 1946), pp. 22-28.
Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible,
A. Haldar, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 2:765.
48 "El est droit on juste" (Edmond Jacob, Theologie de L'Ancient Testament
[Neuchatel: Delachaux et
translation]). Jacob says that the explanation given in Genesis is philologically
49 Ibid., p. 50.
354 Bibliotheca Sacra - October-December 1985
Albright, "The Names '
51 Ibid., p. 168. Of course the fact that a root hrAWA, meaning "fight." is rare was
taken as an objection to that meaning. Argument based on rarity loses its force.
Coote, "The Meaning of the Name
53 Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen, pp. 191. 208.
Giovanni Pettinato, The Archives of
1981), p. 249.
55 Popular etymologies are satisfied with a loose connection between the words.
Rarely are they precise etymologies such as with the explanation of Joseph in
Genesis 30:23-24 (JseOy, "may he add"). Most often they express a wish or sentiment
that is loosely connected by a wordplay For example, Seth is explained with twA', "he
appointed": Simeon with fmawA. "he heard": Ephraim with ynirap;hi, "he made me
fruitful": Levi with hv,l.Ayi "he will be attached":
occasion the popular etymology employs a completely different root. For example,
Jabez (Cbef;ya) is explained with the word: bc,fo and Reuben is explained with yyn;fAb; hxArA,
"he has looked on my affliction." Such popular etymologies are more interested in
the significance of the name than in the technical etymology
56 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 322.
57 Dillmann, Genesis, 2: 279.
58 Fokkelman. Narrative Art in Genesis, p. 218.
A. S. Herbert, Genesis 12-50:
Introduction and Commentary (
Press, 1962), p. 108.
60 Here the word is spelled lxynp, but later lxvnp (LXX has Ei#doj qeou?). The v and the
y that serve as binding
vowels are probably old case endings (see
Cowley, eds., Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar. 2d ed. [
Press, 1910], p. 254, para. 90o, and Spurrell, Notes on the Text of the Book of Genesis,
p. 284). Skinner suggests that it is not improbable that the place is named for its resemblance
to a face (Genesis, p. 410; Strabo mentions such a Phoenician promontory qeou? pro<swpon
[ 16. 2. 15-16)). The story would then be an etiological narrative designed to explain such a
phenomenon. More likely the name was used to fit the experience rather than the experience
to fit the name.
61 Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis, p. 219.
62 Heinrich Ewald. The History of Israel, trans. R. Martineau,
8 vols. (
Longmans, Green and Co., 1876), 1:358.
63 Brevard S. Childs, 'A Study of the Formula, 'Until This Day,' " Journal of
Biblical Literature 82 (1963):292.
64 Ibid., p. 288.
65 Marcus Dods, The Book of Genesis (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1892), p. 300.
66 Dillmann, Genesis 2:280.
67 The figure of Jacob is exalted in Isaiah 41:8; 44:1, 2, 21: 48:20: and 49:3.
however, the juxtaposition of Jacob and
68 Von Rad, Genesis, p. 325.
69 But the direction Gevirtz takes on this is surely extreme. He argues that the
sinew of the hip (hw,n.Aha dyGi) is an allusion to Gad and Manasseh, who had the Jabbok
as their common border. The lesson of the allusion was then that the emergence of
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