A pivotal moment in history is when Jacob wrestled with a “man” and was afterwards given the new name “Israel.” We read in Genesis 32:28-30,
“Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ 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 more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Tell me, I pray, 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 is preserved.’”
Jacob said, “yet my life is preserved” because of the belief that no one could see God’s face and live because of His Holiness in contrast to our worldliness (Exodus 33:20). This is an important part of understanding who Jacob fought. Seeing God face to face has a deeper layer of meaning in the Bible than what a reader may think at face value. Moses is understood to be the only one who saw God physically and not in a vision (Ex 33:11), which reveals an exceptionally close relationship. When God turns His face away from you, you are in trouble, but if He faces you, it means that there is no blockage between you and your Maker. For instance, Jesus said that the pure in heart will see God (Mt 5:8), and according to Revelation those who gain entrance to heaven will finally see God’s face (Rv 22:4). This is why the first commandment is to have no other gods before Yahweh.
So what did it mean when Jacob said he saw God’s face? Was it literally, or in a vision, and was it during the fight or after? Moreover, was the “man” he fought God, an angel, or an adversary from the dark side? The usual Christian understanding is that Jacob struggled with God because he named the place “face of God” (meaning of the Hebrew word “Peniel”). Additionally, the prophet Hosea had this to say,
“The LORD has an indictment against Judah, and will punish Jacob according to his ways, and requite him according to his deeds. In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. He met God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him — the LORD the God of hosts, the LORD is his name: ‘So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.’” (Hos 12:2-6),
Hosea reflects that the wrestling match was related to Jacob’s misdeeds earlier in life and his subsequent redemption. A common Jewish understanding of the struggle is that Jacob had a vision or a dream about his conflicts with Esau. This was perhaps why he wept and then “met” God—suggesting he saw the face of Yahweh after the fight. It is important to know too that the word translated as “met” has the primary meaning of “found.” Ancient Hebrew does not have punctuations so this part from Hosea could potentially read, “He strove with the angel and prevailed. He wept and sought his favor, he met/found God at Bethel, and there God spoke with him.” If so, perhaps this describes how Jacob wept and sought God’s favor, not the man’s, and then found God. In other words, the man was not God. The problem with such a reading, however, is that the Genesis account describes Jacob asking for the man’s blessing.
Hosea also makes it clear that Jacob wrestled with an angel. While most angels are good, Satan is presented in the Bible as a fallen angel of the highest order—a cherub—who has his own legion of angels (Ez 28:12-18, Mt 25:41, 2 Co 11:14, Rv 12:7). Angels are also called “sons” of Elohim and an angel can also be called a “man.” Case in point is the angel Gabriel (Dn 9:21, Lk 1:19). The word translated as “favor” regarding the angel is likely meant as a synonym to the blessing Jacob asked for in Genesis. But it can also mean “pleaded.” If so, what did Jacob plead for? If the angel represented God, it could be forgiveness for sins, yet that becomes odd if Jacob won the battle. If it was an adversary—a dark angel—he might have pleaded for him to leave him alone for good.
If Jacob fought God, why would Yahweh appear as a man to fight Jacob at night and put his hip socket out of place to win? Wouldn’t God, or one of His angels, easily win over Jacob? Instead, the man fighting with Jacob lost. Hosea said God would punish Jacob because of his ways and deeds, but did he send His angel to punish him with a fight or did he allow the adversary to go after him?
By all indications, Jacob fought a supernatural being. Perhaps the struggle itself, emphasized by the man coming at night, can be understood as Jacob’s struggle with evil. It was embodied in this man who came between him and God as an opponent. When Jacob won the fight, he conquered evil which enabled him to see Yahweh face to face.
On the other hand, if the man were an adversary, why would Jacob want his blessing, and would an enemy have the right to give Jacob a new name? An adversary of God cannot give a blessing, which is why many take this to mean that it was an angel of God who could bless him once he passed the test. Yet, then we are back to asking why God, or an angel of God, would fight Jacob and if so, how could Jacob win?
In the Bible, Satan tempts and attacks humans while God allows us to be tested. An exception is when God tested Abraham directly by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. But there are crucial differences between that and Jacob’s wrestling match. There was no middleman with Abraham, and as soon as God knew Abraham would do His will, He stopped him from performing the act. God did not stop the man wrestling with Jacob. If God sent this test and Jacob was losing would God have stopped the fight?
If it was a devious being who fought Jacob, the purpose may have been to physically kill him and deprive him of his God-given destiny. What other reason would there be for a wrestling match? God could allow it without endorsing it, meaning the “man” was not acting on God’s behalf. Though Jacob won, he did not kill his opponent because you cannot kill an otherworldly creature.
The shadow-man asked Jacob to let him go as the day was breaking, which signals that he operated only in the dark. This implies that he was malevolent, along with the fact that he did not want to reveal his identity. Jacob then asked the man to bless him. If Jacob’s victory meant he defeated evil he may have demanded that the shadow-man bless him as a way to force this opposing entity to admit defeat. In the Bible, it is not only God who pronounces a blessing. Although all that is good comes from God, it may simply mean that the subject affirms the object to be endowed with power for success and all that entails (Gn 24:60, 2 Sm 13:25). It can also have the nuanced meaning of “praise” or “salutation” (1 Sam 13:10). Though praise, salutation or an acknowledgment presents a more strained interpretation, it is at least worth considering due to the other theological questions.
It has been suggested that the shadow-man is portrayed as God in the preserved Hebrew Scriptures because scribes removed personified evil to protect monotheism. But, this is undercut by the central role Satan plays in the Book of Job (Job 1:6-12). Instead, Job may be the perfect parallel to understand that God allowed the adversary to test Jacob, just like He did with Job. Both Jacob and Job are heroes in the Bible because they prevailed.
After the shadow-man declined to reveal his name, he instead asked why Jacob wanted to know it. That is an odd question if it was a good angel and a contrast to the angel Gabriel who readily announced his name. In battle it is crucial to know who the enemy is. If Jacob fought God, whether as a test or form of punishment, it still does not make sense that he won and received a blessing because he physically beat God. Instead, the shadow-man’s anonymity, amplified by operating in the dark suggests bad intentions. Moreover, why did the man ask Jacob his name? Wouldn’t God, or an angel of God, already know it?
It seems that Jacob’s name was related to the meaning of both his old and new name. Jacob means either “supplanter” or “he who follows.” It could allude to how he stole, i.e. replaced, Esau’s birthright or how he was born second to his twin Esau. This is a reminder of a broken past and being second. No one knows for sure what Israel exactly means because it is only used here and in Hosea. It is a compound name with El (God) and the root of the name is usually translated as “striven” (Gn 32:28) but note that it is not the same word as “wrestle” (v. 24). It is also understood with the nuance “contend” or “persist.” The name change can therefore signify the internal transformation of Jacob.
The name Israel is a tribute to how Jacob prevailed in a struggle. In that sense, it was also a prophetic name for the coming kingdom and nation of Israel and the persistence it would have in the future to face obstacles and evil from outside and within. If the man gave Jacob the name Israel because he “persisted with” God, instead of “struggled with” God, the context of this battle could mean that Jacob wrestled with a dark angel, i.e. the adversary, but persisted for God and that God was with him. If so, the new name was an admission from the “man” that Jacob won and Israel signifies victory over evil with, and for, Yahweh.
Considering all this, I think it is most likely that Jacob fought the enemy of Mankind, Satan. If the meaning of Jacob’s new name was “struggling” with God and men, it could refer to how he had struggled with evil in the past and fought his own demons culminating in this clash. But if Israel means that he “persisted” with God it signals how Jacob fought to live when he battled the shadow-man. This is what I think it means. It was the ultimate fight against evil. Because Jacob overcame, he was able to see God face to face with nothing now between them. Whether he saw God directly or in a vision, the importance of winning this fight was redemption. When the shadow-man blessed Jacob it was an acknowledgment where the nameless dark entity had to admit defeat before escaping the oncoming daylight. It indicated the triumph of light over darkness, which is eternal. Jacob won the fight because he was determined to live and defeat evil. He did not give up and succeeded because he chose life and God. Yahweh was with him, not against him.