Bibliotheca Sacra 137 (1980) 223-40.

          Copyright © 1980 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.




                                     Studies in the Life of Jacob

                                                      Part 2:


                 Jacob at the Jabbok,

                             Israel at Peniel



                                                 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 "Israel," to which

Jacob responded by naming the place "Peniel." But because he

limped away from the event, the "sons of Israel" observed a dietary


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, Israel at Peniel                        339


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 "Israel"? What is the

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

land of Canaan. McKenzie suggests that the narrative followed an

Jacob at the Jabbok, Israel at Peniel                        341


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

of Israel and solves none of the tensions that exist. Gevirtz, combin-

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 Israel cannot have been matters of

indifference to the Israelite author or to his audience.15


This ancient tradition about Jacob's unusual experience was

recorded for Israel because the events of the patriarch's life were

understood to anticipate or foreshadow events in Israel's history--

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 Israel. The new name is not merely

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

return to Canaan, and so are important to the narratives.

Fourth, the story is linked to a dietary restriction for the sons

of Israel. This taboo was a custom that grew up on the basis of an

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 "Israel," and Israel names the place

"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 "Israel"; the giving of the name "Peniel"

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)                                     |

                                                                                                                   Name change:


                                                                                                                    (v. 30)

This parallel arrangement is instructive: The direct response

of Jacob to his assailant leads to his being renamed "Israel"; but the

indirect response of the assailant leads Jacob to name the place

Jacob at the Jabbok, Israel at Peniel                        343


"Peniel," for he realized that it was God who fought ("Israel") with

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.


The Narrative

PROLOGUE (32:22-24a)

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 Canaan,19 they can be understood as a unit

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

blessing occurred.

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 Israel's limping away from the

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-

thing extraordinary.

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"

Isaiah's "lips").

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, Israel at Peniel                        345


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

on, but Israel, for you have fought with God and man and have

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 "Israel"? Both Genesis 32:28

and Hosea 12:3 interpret the meaning of the name with a verb "to

fight."34 The meaning of "Israel" would then be defined as "God

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

help Israel would fight the entire world and when necessary would

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

e]ni<sxusaj, Aquila has h#rcaj, Symmachus has h@rcw, and the Vulgate

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

rraWA (Symmachus, Aquila, and Onkelos). As a result the versions

and commentators follow either the idea of "rule" or "contend,

oppose" (Josephus).45

Various other suggestions for the etymology of "Israel" have

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;,

Deut. 32:15; 33:5; 33:26; Isa. 44:2), a poetic designation of Israel,

Jacob at the Jabbok, Israel at Peniel                        347


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

book of Israel, the righteous one, the hero of God, according to E.

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-

oughly forgotten."51

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. "Israel" then means "God

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 powers. Lot also received

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, Israel at Peniel                        349


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.


EPILOGUE (32:31-32)

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 "children of Israel" not

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 Israel. This is argued from the fact that

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

customary taboo.64




The special significance of Jacob's becoming Israel is the

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

been delivered.



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 Bethel a prom-

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, Israel at Peniel                        351


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.



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 Israel, the nation, experienced from time to time

with God.68 The story of Israel the man serves as an acted par-

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 Israel, depending on which characteristics


The point of the story for the nation of Israel entering the land

of promise is clear: Israel's victory will come not by the usual ways

nations gain power, but by the power of the divine blessing. And

later in her history Israel would be reminded that the restoration to

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


3 Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, trans. John Marks (London: SCM

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 Alexandria Paedagogus 1. 7. 57.

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.-

Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975):50. While Gevirtz's reaction to these

suggestions is helpful, his own interpretation is rather fanciful, as will be mentioned later.

16 J. Fokkelman. Narrative Art in Genesis (Assen. Amsterdam: Van Gorcum,

1975), p. 210.

17 Herbert E. Ryle. The Book of Genesis (Cambridge: At the University Press,

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.

23 G. J. Spurrell, Notes on the Text of the Book of Genesis, 2d ed. (Oxford: At the

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 [Stuttgart: Verlag von

W Kohlhanmer, 1928]. pp. 177-78: also see W F Albright, From the Stone Aye to

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, Israel at Peniel                        353


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 Israel," Harvard Theological Review 65 (1972):137.

37 Cyrus Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1965),

par. 1334. See also James L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry (New Haven, CT: Yale

University Press, 1981), pp. 19-23.

38 Coote, "Hosea XII," p. 394.

39 Robertson Smith writes: "The very name of Israel is martial, and means 'God

(El) fighteth,' and Jehovah in the Old Testament is Iahwe cebaoth, the Jehovah of

the armies of Israel. It was on the battlefield that Jehovah's presence was most clearly

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.

43 W F Albright, "The Names 'Israel' and 'Judah' with an Excursus on the

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 'Israel' and 'Judah. "'

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 'Israel'

and ‘Judah,’” p. 161).

46 For a thorough discussion, see G. A. Danell, Studies in the Name Israel in the

Old Testament (Uppsala: Appelbergs Boktryckeri, 1946), pp. 22-28.

47 Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, S.V. "Israel, Name and Associations of," by

A. Haldar, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 2:765.

48 "El est droit on juste" (Edmond Jacob, Theologie de L'Ancient Testament

[Neuchatel: Delachaux et Niestle Editeurs, 19551, p. 155 [p. 203 in the English

translation]). Jacob says that the explanation given in Genesis is philologically


49 Ibid., p. 50.

354                 Bibliotheca Sacra - October-December 1985


50 Albright, "The Names 'Israel' and 'Judah. "' p. 166.

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.

52 Coote, "The Meaning of the Name Israel," p. 139.

53 Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen, pp. 191. 208.

54 Giovanni Pettinato, The Archives of Ebla (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co.,

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": Judah with hd,Ox, "I will praise." On

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.

59 A. S. Herbert, Genesis 12-50: Introduction and Commentary (London: SCM

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 E. Kautzsch and A.

E. Cowley, eds., Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar. 2d ed. [Oxford: At the Clarendon

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. (London:

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.

Compare, however, the juxtaposition of Jacob and Israel in 1 Kings 18:3 1.

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

Israel depended on the confederation of Gad and Manasseh.


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