Did Jacob wrestle with an angel?

My father Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin was a very wise man. He was a rabbi in Shaarei Tfiloh Congregation in Baltimore for 31 years. I enjoyed listening to his sermons. The one I liked the best concerned his true interpretation of the incident where many mistakenly understand that Jacob wrestled with an angel. What really happened that night?

The story is told in Genesis 32:23-33. Previously, Jacob’s mother Rebekah heard that her husband Isaac intended to give their son Esau a very favorable blessing after Esau would hunt an animal and prepare it as a meal for his father. Rebekah preferred that her husband’s blessing be given to Jacob and persuaded Jacob to deceive his father Isaac who was virtually blind, say he was Esau, and take the blessing.

(To understand the story, and some other similar stories about oaths, curses, and blessings, one needs to understand that in ancient times, people believed that once a person uttered an oath, curse, or blessing, it was impossible to annul it. Thus, once Isaac gave Jacob the blessing in Genesis 27, even though it was done fraudulently, it was effective, Esau could not get it. Another example is the case of Jephthah in Judges 11, who vowed in 11:30-31 that if he is victorious in his upcoming battle, “that whatsoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace…I will offer up for a burnt offering.” Although he never expected that it would be his only child, his daughter, who greeted him, and this was clearly a mistaken vow, he was stuck, and had to offer his daughter as a sacrifice. Later, in post-biblical times, the rabbis changed the rule, and set up ways to annul vows, blessings, and curses.)

Jacob accepted his mother’s advice, deceived his father, and secured the blessing. When Esau returned with the food his father requested, he heard what Jacob did, cried, begged his father for a blessing, and was told that his father could not annul what he had done. In Genesis 27:41, Esau “said in his heart, when the days of mourning for my father arise, I will kill my brother Jacob.” Rebekah could not hear what Esau was thinking, but she saw his hatred. She advised Jacob to leave the country, go to the home of her brother Laban, and stay there until Esau’s anger cooled. Jacob did so. He stayed with Laban for about 20 years. Genesis 32:23-33 tells about an incident during his return after the 20-year absence. Expecting an encounter with Esau the next day or very soon, he organized his family and wealth to appease his brother or face his attack. Then he placed his family on one side of the Wadi Jabbok and remained alone on the other side.

The Bible tells us that he wrestled that night with a man until daybreak. The Bible does not identify who the man was. During the battle, the man strained Jacob’s thigh. He asked Jacob to release him. Jacob said he would do so if the man blessed him. The man said, “what is your name?” Jacob replied, “Jacob.” The man said, “You will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you strove with God and men and prevailed.” The Bible continues: “And he blessed him there,” without clarifying if the discussion about his name was the blessing, or the man added a blessing. Then Jacob calls the name of the place Peniel, a word meaning, “face of God,” and remarks “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” Thereafter, Jacob limped.

While the text speaks about Jacob striving with God, there is no mention of it in this chapter. Nor is there mention of Jacob striving with men, only one man. Nor is there indication other than Jacob’s statement that he saw God face to face. How should we understand these statements? Even more significantly, how should we understand the entire incident? Why did the fight occur? Who was the man? What connection does this battle have to do with Esau wanting to kill Jacob? What is the significance of Jacob limping after the battle? Do all Bible commentators agree what occurred?

There are different views on the subject.

The prophet Hosea, in 12:4-5, stated that “by his strength, he [Jacob] strove with a godlike being; he strove with an angel and prevailed. He wept and made a supplication to him.” Hosea also states that Jacob had previously held onto Esau’s foot in the womb.

Obvious, no one could know what transpired in a woman’s womb and holding his brother’s foot, like the rest of what Hosea says, is pure poetry, midrash, and hyperbole and is not meant to be taken literally.    

Rashi was convinced that both angels and demons exist. For example: Relying on the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 16a, Rashi writes in his commentary to Genesis 6:19 that Noah saved the demons in his ark along with his family and animals. Rashi was convinced that Jacob wrestled with an angel.

Maimonides, who did not believe that God needed an army of superhuman beings to accomplish the divine purposes, wrote that beings called angels do not exist; an angel is anything that accomplishes the divine purpose, such as the wind, snow, rain, and even humans that act as God wants. In his Guide of the Perplexed 3: 42, he writes that the events of Genesis 32:23-33 did not really happen; “it was entirely a prophetic vision.” He also writes that the biblical story of Balaam and the speaking ass, where an angel speaks to Balaam, this was “a prophetic vision,” and he gives other examples.

My father explained what happened. Jacob was returning home after an absence of some twenty years and was very frightened that his brother Esau would seize the opportunity to kill him. His fear affected his sleep. He dreamed that he was wrestling with a man. Would he be victorious and stay alive as he hoped in his encounter with Esau? In the dream, the man gives him confidence. The man reminds Jacob that he had been successful in the past; “you strove with God and men and prevailed.” He is not refering to the wrestling that night.

When did Jacob strive with God? It was in Genesis 28 during his flight from his home toward the home of his mother’s brother’s Laban. He was also frightened that night and had a dream. In the dream he strove/negotiated with God. He laid out five conditions and said, if these conditions are fulfilled, “then shall the Lord be my God.” They were fulfilled and just as they were fulfilled successfully, so too now, he would be successful.

When did Jacob strive with men? Many times. He did so twice with Esau, when Esau came to him hungry and when he took the blessing intended for Esau. In the later instance, he strove with his father Isaac. Then, repeatedly he strove with his father-in-law Laban. He was successful in each instance. So, he receives assurances in his dream.

My father pointed out that Don Isaac Abarbanel (also spelled Abravenel) strongly disagreed. He argued that since the Bible does not say Jacob had a dream, the wrestling with the angel was an actual event. Besides, he insisted, the Bible states that Jacob limped after the encounter; why would a person limp after a dream? Dad, who had an MA in psychology in addition to his PhD, explained that despite his wide reading, Abarbanel ignored the fact that some vivid traumatic dreams are so impactful that people feel the hurt experienced in the dream, at least for a little while, upon awaking (Zev Bar Eitan “Abravanel’s World of Torah: A Structured Interpretation,” Renaissance Torah Press, 2012).

In short, Maimonides tells us that Jacob did not fight with an angel. They do not exist. And if they did, it would have been impossible to fight one of them during an entire night and beat it.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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