Jacob wrestling with the angel
Jacob wrestling with the angel is described in Genesis (32:22–32; also referenced in Hosea 12:4). The "angel" in question is referred to as "man" (אִישׁ) and "God" in Genesis, while Hosea references an "angel" (מַלְאָךְ). The account includes the renaming of Jacob as Israel (etymologized as "contends-with-God").
In the Genesis narrative, Jacob spent the night alone on a riverside during his journey back to Canaan. He encounters a "man" who proceeds to wrestle with him until daybreak. In the end, Jacob is given the name "Israel" and blessed, while the "man" refuses to give his own name. Jacob then names the place where they wrestled Penuel (פְּנוּאֵל "face of God" or "facing God").
The Masoretic text reads as follows:
The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day has broken." But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, "Jacob." Then he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob's hip on the sinew of the thigh.
The account contains several plays on the meaning of Hebrew names—Peniel (or Penuel), Israel—as well as similarity to the root of Jacob's name (which sounds like the Hebrew for "heel") and its compound. The limping of Jacob (Yaʿaqob ), may mirror the name of the river, Jabbok (Yabbok יַבֹּק , sounds like "crooked" river), and Nahmanides (Deut. 2:10 of Jeshurun) gives the etymology "one who walks crookedly" for the name Jacob.
The Hebrew text states that it is a "man" (אִישׁ, LXX ἄνθρωπος, Vulgate vir) with whom Jacob wrestles, but later this "man" is identified with God (Elohim) by Jacob. Hosea 12:4 furthermore references an "angel" (malak). Following this, the Targum of Onkelos offers "because I have seen the Angel of the Lord face to face", and the Targum of Palestine gives "because I have seen the Angels of the Lord face to face".
The identity of Jacob's wrestling opponent is a matter of debate, named variously as a dream figure, a prophetic vision, an angel (such as Michael and Samael), a protective river-spirit, Jesus, or God.
In Hosea 12:4, Jacob's opponent is described as malakh "angel": "Yes, he had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication to him: he found him in Bethel, and there he spoke with us;". The relative age of the text of Genesis and of Hosea is unclear, as both are part of the Hebrew Bible as redacted in the Second Temple Period, and it has been suggested that malakh may be a late emendation of the text, and would as such represent an early Jewish interpretation of the episode.
Maimonides believed that the incident was "a vision of prophecy", while Rashi believed Jacob wrestled with the guardian angel of Esau (identified as Samael), his elder twin brother. Zvi Kolitz (1993) referred to Jacob "wrestling with God".
As a result of the hip injury Jacob suffered while wrestling, Jews are prohibited from eating the meat tendon attached to the hip socket (sciatic tendon), as mentioned in the account at Genesis 32:32.
The interpretation that "Jacob wrestled with God" (glossed in the name Isra-'el) is common in Protestant theology, endorsed by both Martin Luther and John Calvin (although Calvin believed the event was "only a vision"), as well as later writers such as Joseph Barker (1854) or Peter L. Berger (2014). Other commentaries treat the expression of Jacob's having seen "God face to face" as referencing the Angel of the Lord as the "Face of God".
The proximity of the terms "man" and "God" in the text in some Christian commentaries has also been taken as suggestive of a Christophany. J. Douglas MacMillan (1991) suggests that the angel with whom Jacob wrestles is a "pre-incarnation appearance of Christ in the form of a man."
According to one Christian commentary of the Bible incident described, "Jacob said, 'I saw God face to face'. Jacob's remark does not necessarily mean that the 'man' with whom he wrestled is God. Rather, as with other, similar statements, when one saw the 'angel of the Lord,' it was appropriate to claim to have seen the face of God."
This story is not mentioned in the Quran, but is discussed in Muslim commentaries. The commentaries employ the story in explaining other events in the Hebrew Bible that are discussed in the Quran that have parallels, like Moses being attacked by an angel, and to explain Jewish eating customs. Like some Jewish commentators, Islamic commentators described the event as punishment for Jacob failing to give tithes to God but making an offering like a tithe to Esau.
In an analysis of Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch's 1968 book Atheism in Christianity, Roland Boer says that Bloch sees the incident as falling into the category of "myth, or at least legend". Boer calls this an example of "a bloodthirsty, vengeful God ... outdone by cunning human beings keen to avoid his fury".
The wrestling incident on the bank of a stream has been compared to the Greek mythology stories of Achilles' duel with the river-god Scamander and with Menelaus wrestling with the sea-god Proteus. It is also claimed the wrestling incident, along with other Old Testament stories of the Jewish Patriarchs, is based on Akhenaten-linked Egyptian mythology, where Jacob is Osiris/Wizzer, Esau is Set, and the wrestling match is the struggle between them.
Rosemary Ellen Guiley gives this summary:
- "This dramatic scene has spurred much commentary from Judaic, Catholic, and Protestant theologians, biblical scholars, and literary critics. Does Jacob wrestle with God or with an angel? ... There is no definitive answer, but the story has been rationalized, romanticized, treated as myth, and treated symbolically."
One of the oldest visual depictions is in the illustrated manuscript the Vienna Genesis. Many artists have depicted the scene. In sculpture Jacob Wrestling with the Angel is the subject of a 1940 sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein on display at the Tate Britain. Paintings include:
Eugène Delacroix (1861)
Eugène Delacroix (1861), (detail)
Léon Bonnat (1876)
Jacob and the Angel by Gustave Moreau (1878)
Alexander Louis Leloir (1865)
Jacob struggles with the angel by Gutenberg Bible (1558)
Jacob wrestles with God, 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld
The Latin text of Genesis 32:30 'Vidi dominum facie ad faciem; et salva facta est anima mea' (I have seen the Lord face to face) was set for the third nocturn at Matins on the second Sunday of Lent and was a popular medieval telling of the story of Jacob's encounter with the angel. It is set as the tenor (upper voice) text of Machaut's multi-text-layered Motet No.15 Vidi dominum (I have seen the LORD) simultaneously with two secular French texts: "Faux semblant m'a decü" and "Amours qui ha le pouvoir." Machaut musically contrasts God's blessing in the Latin text with the disappointments of secular love in the French texts. Charles Wesley's hymn "Come, O Thou Traveller Unknown", often known as "Wrestling Jacob", is based on the passage which describes Jacob wrestling with an angel. It is traditionally sung to the tune of St Petersburg. U2's Bullet the Blue Sky, the 4th track on their 1987 album The Joshua Tree includes the lyric "Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome." The lyrics of Isaac, a song featured on Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor album, contains many allusions to the book of Genesis and references Jacob's encounter with the angel in the line "wrestle with your darkness, angels call your name". Noah Reid released his song "Jacob's Dream" as the second single of his 2020 sophomore album. The song uses the metaphor of wrestling with angels to explore that "blessings are hard to come by and they cost you something," as Reid told Indie88.
In literature and theatre
The motif of "wrestling with the angels" occurs in several novels including Hermann Hesse's Demian (1919), Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (1948), Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel (1964). In T.H. White's The Once and Future King, the Wart is described as knowing that the work of training a hawk "had been like Jacob's struggle with the angel". In poetry the theme appears in Rainer Maria Rilke's "The Man Watching" (c.1920), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Evangeline," Herman Melville's poem "Art," and Emily Dickinson's poem "A little East of Jordan" (Fr145B, 1860). In theatre, wrestling with the angel is mentioned in Tony Kushner's play Angels in America (1990); the version depicted in its miniseries adaptation is the 1865 version by Alexander Louis Leloir. Gustave Dore's image is reenacted in Jean-Luc Godard's Passion by a film extra dressed as an angel and Jerzy Radziwiłowicz. Also Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy's Wedding (1955), Stephen King's novel 11/22/63 (2011) , Sheila Heti's novel Motherhood (2018) and David Fennario's play Balconville (1979). A short story in Daniel Mallory Ortberg's collection The Merry Spinster (2018) explores a version of the narrative as told from the perspective of the angel.
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- Strong's Concordance H6439
- A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, ed. David L. Jeffrey (1992). p. 852 "WRESTLING JACOB The account of Jacob wrestling with the angel at the ford of the Jabbok River is replete with Hebrew puns (Gen. 32:24–32). Several of these relate to the root of Jacob's name, 'qb ("heel"), and its compound standing as a West Semitic diminutive of "The LORD will pursue" or "The LORD preserves"
- A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, ed. David L. Jeffrey (1992). p. 852: "Jacob was forced to answer, Yaʿaqob, perhaps mirroring the name of the river, Yabbok, but meaning'crooked' (Nahmanides, Deut. 2:10 of Jeshurun, gives this etymology for Jacob, 'one who walks crookedly'; after the thigh wound delivered ..."
- Meir Gertner, Vetus Testamentum, International Organization of Old Testament Scholars, International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament 1960. Volume 10, p. 277: "In Genesis it is a 'man' with whom Jacob wrestled. Later in the story this 'man' appears to be identified with God (Gen. xxxii 29, 31). Talmud, Targum, Syriac and Vulgate take 'God' here to be an angel."
- Anthony Hanson The Prophetic Gospel: Study of John and the Old Testament 056704064X 2006 Page 76 "The Targum of Onkelos offers 'because I have seen the Angel of the Lord face to face',14 and the Targum of Palestine 'because I have seen the Angels of the Lord face to face'.i5 No doubt this substitution was facilitated by Hosea 12.4, where
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- MacMillan, J. Douglas (1991). Wrestling with God: Lessons from the life of Jacob. Evangelical Press of Wales. p. 56.
- Ibn Kathir. "The Story of Ya'qub (Jacob)". The Stories of the Prophets. Retrieved 24 June 2017.
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- Horst Woldemar Janson, Anthony F. Janson History of Art: The Western Tradition 2004 "The Vienna Genesis ...(In the center foreground, for example, we see him wrestling with the angel, then receiving the angel's blessing.)" [full page illustration]
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- Anne Walters Robertson Guillaume De Machaut and Reims: Context and Meaning in His Musical... 2002, p. 163 "Drawn from the Genesis story of Jacob's wrestling match with the angel, Vidi dominum is a favorite phrase for ..."
- Iain Fenlon Early Music History: Studies in Medieval and Early Modern Music. 2009. [p. 25 "The text of the tenor for Machaut's motet 15 comes from the third nocturn at Matins on the second Sunday of Lent. Its biblical provenance is Genesis 32: 30. Here Jacob, after having wrestled with the angel and received both a new name (Israel) and a divine blessing, exclaims: 'Vidi dominum facie ad faciem; et salva facta est anima mea'25 (I have seen the Lord face to face; ... treatment (motetus) are opposed to Jacob's wrestling with the angel that lead to his blessing and re-naming as Israel, ..."
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- "Noah Reid on Instagram: "Wrestlin with angels. Aren't we all. Jacob's Dream is out now, link in bio as the kids say."". Instagram. Retrieved 2020-03-29.
- "Indie88 Premiere: 'Schitt's Creek' star Noah Reid shares video for single 'Jacob's Dream' | Indie88". Retrieved 2020-03-29.
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[I]n the context of the wrestling bout, the name implies that Jacob won this supremacy, linked to that of God's, by a kind of theomachy. [...] By prevailing over God, he has won the name 'God rules'(p. 22).
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