The extraordinary and astonishing episode of Jacob wrestling an angel at the Wadi Jabbok raises many questions and an assortment of conflicting answers.
The wrestling episode is related in Genesis 32:25–33. Jacob had reached the Wadi Jabbok on his return home after an absence from Canaan of some twenty years. He was about to face his brother Esau who had wanted to kill him twenty years earlier as revenge for Jacob taking the blessing that their father Isaac intended to give to Esau. During the night, Jacob took his family across the Wadi Jabbok and entered Canaan. Then he returned to the other side where he was alone. While there, “a man wrestled with him until the break of day. [The man is called Elohim in verses 29 and 31, suggesting that he was an angel.]
When he [the man] saw that he could not beat him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of the thigh was uprooted as he wrestled with him.” The man begged Jacob to let him go. Jacob agreed if he would bless him. The man asked his name. He answered “Jacob.” The man said his name will no longer be Jacob but Israel, “for you wrestled with God and with men and prevailed.” He blessed Jacob. In the morning, Jacob was limping. “Therefore, the Israelites do not eat the thigh-vein… because he touched Jacob’s thigh-vein.”
The commentators disagree in interpreting the episode. The rationalist Maimonides (1138–1204) insisted that angels do not exist; they are metaphors for the natural forces of the divine. In his Guide of the Perplexed 2:42, he explains that Jacob never wrestled an angel; this was a vision.
While he does not explain the episode in detail, David Kimchi (1160–1235) and Joseph ibn Kaspi (born around 1280) do so, using Maimonides’ basic assumptions.
Jacob returned to Canaan after his long absence, frightened and agitated over his upcoming confrontation with his brother Esau, from whom he had fled twenty years earlier, fearing for his life. He carried his family across the Wadi Jabbok, the boundary into Canaan, crossing “his Rubicon,” and he returned to the other side for some moments of contemplation.
With the upcoming confrontation in his mind, he fell asleep; and nervously dreamed of a symbolic struggle with his brother. He tussled and fought but felt victorious in his dream. He awoke, as most people do even after a successful battle, with some minor injury. He rose from his bed with some assurance about his future meeting with his brother.
Jacob’s descendants remembered their ancestor’s struggle by abstaining from eating the thigh-vein. The memory gives them the strength and confidence to face and overcome their own difficulties.
The Spanish Bible commentator Don Isaac Abravanel (1437–1508) asked: if this was only a dream as Maimonides contends, how come Jacob awoke limping? He answers with a keen understanding of psychology: some people dream so realistically that they feel the consequences of the dream when they awake.
The Aramaic translation of the Bible called Targum Onkelos (composed around the year 400 C.E.) substituted a word that denotes a verbal attempt to persuade, in place of “wrestled.” The targumist reflects Maimonides’ concept since he does not portray Jacob having anthropomorphic bodily contact with a celestial angel.
Bechor Shor and Rashbam
Joseph Bechor Shor and Rashbam were born around 1080. The first was a student of Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, and the second was Rashi’s grandson, the brother of Bechor Shor’s teacher. Curiously, although they frequently interpret the text rationally, they seem to explain that Jacob actually wrestled with an angel.
Rashbam states that the angel was preventing Jacob from abandoning his resolution and fleeing Canaan because of his fear of Esau. By stopping the flight, God was able to fulfill the divine promise to Jacob that Esau would not harm him.
Jacob was hurt on his hip, according to these commentators, as a punishment for trying to avoid meeting Esau. Bechor Shor adds that the angel would have prevailed if God had not helped the patriarch.
Nachmanides and Rashi
We would have expected that Nachmanides (1195–1270) and Rashi (1040–1105) would describe a physical battle between Jacob and the angel. Remarkably, they fail to do so. They simply state what is contained in Scripture without any substantive elaboration. It is as if they are leaving it to the reader to decide whether they want to accept the story as it is literally presented. They may have realized that even if one believes in angels, it is totally irrational to suppose that one can wrestle with heavenly beings.
Midrash Genesis Rabbah
The Midrash Genesis Rabbah 77:4 (edited at the beginning of the fifth century C.E.), understands the story symbolically, but does not forbid us to believe it literally. The Midrash writes: “‘He touched all the righteous people who were destined to come from Jacob.’ Nachmanides interprets the Midrash to be referring to the persecutions of the Jews by the Romans before and after the battle of Bar Kochba in 132–135 C.E., who, like Jacob, will endure and ultimately have peace.
The Midrash also quotes the opinion of Rabbi Hama that the angel was the guardian of Esau. Needless to say, Maimonides would agree with Rabbi Hama, but would explain that Jacob had a dream encounter with Esau’s symbolic guardian. Thus, it is unclear whether the Midrash understands the story literally.
In contrast to many others, the mystic Moses Alshich (1508– about 1600) describes Jacob wrestling with the angel with many imaginative details that are not in Scripture. When Jacob brought his family across the Jabbok and later returned to its north non-Canaanite side alone, he lost, according to Alshich, the protection of the angels that were assigned protective duty in the land of Canaan. Until the crossing, angels of the diaspora accompanied Jacob and protected him. They left him when he crossed the Jabbok. When he made the crossing back to the northern side, the angels assigned the protective duty in Canaan, remained with his family on the southern side of the Jabbok.
God sent the “spiritual counterpart of Esau” to confront the unprotected Jacob because He wanted to show him that he did not need angelic assistance when he met Esau. God wanted him to battle the angel, defeat him, and realize that if he could beat an angel, he could certainly prevail over his brother.
Alshich adds the thoughts of the angel in his commentary. The angel wondered how he could beat the patriarch. Then he remembered that Jacob had married two sisters, which was forbidden centuries later in the Torah. Jacob, Alshich believed, must have observed the Torah even before it was given to Moses, for he was a righteous man. Yet he violated this Torah law.
The angel understood this and saw sexuality as Jacob’s weakness. Therefore, the angel attacked his weakest point, his sexual organ.
Alshich claims that the Jews refrained afterwards from eating the thigh vein, because this is symbolic of the male organ. The practice, according to him, reminds Jews not to be preoccupied with sex.
(This rather unusual interpretation was already attacked years before by the twelfth century rationalistic sage Abraham ibn Ezra [1089–1164]. Ibn Ezra noted in his commentary that some supposed that this body part was the focus of the attack. Ibn Ezra called the notion ridiculous.)
Alshich identifies the angel as Samael, one of the names of the devil. He explains that Samael did not want to tell Jacob who he was, because if Jacob knew he was the devil, Jacob would have hurt him badly.
Bible commentators disagree on whether Jacob physically wrestled an angel. Many are convinced that Scripture is describing a dream provoked by his understandable fear of his brother and his imminent contact with him. Others are ambiguous. However, Alshich made a clear statement that he accepted the narrative literally.
The commentators also quarrel why the Wadi Jabbok was the site of the struggle. The rationalists identify it as the border into Esau’s territory, the area where Jacob expected to encounter his brother, the place that provoked his fear and the dream. Others see it as the secluded location where Jacob fled rather than face his brother. The angel appeared to halt his flight. Still another sees the boundary as the appropriate site where God could teach the patriarch that he could prevail over his brother.
Some posit that Jacob was struck on the hip simply to show that all struggles, even those that ultimately result in success, end with some wound.
Others see it as a punishment for his attempted escape from Esau, even though God had promised that he would triumph. Another, somewhat fancifully, feels that it was a punishment for marrying two sisters.
Most agree that the Israelites refrain from eating the thigh-vein to remember the victory of their forefather and to be inspired that they will also prevail in their own travails. However, one rabbi, Alshich, contended that it reminds Jews to avoid preoccupation with sex.
All agree that Jacob was triumphant in his struggle and he was called Israel because of his success.