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Who did Jacob Truly Wrestle and Why was his Reward a Name?

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1855, by Gustave Doré

Why is the story of Jacob (Yaacov’s) preparations to meet Esav so cryptic? What really happened that night before he was confronted by Esav? And why does the text not refer to Yaacov as Yisrael after his name is changed?

The final chapter of the Yaacov and Esav rivalry begins with harrowing drama yet ends anticlimactically with a simple reconciliation. The details of that process are disjointed and confusing. The traditional explanation presents Yaacov as perpetually in lethal danger being stalked by his brother patiently awaiting his revenge. The traditional struggle is between Yaacov and Esav as contending over past grievances between them. In reality, the text paints a far different picture, one of Yaacov’s introspective turmoil and personal maturation. Concluding only when he has grown enough to reconcile with his brother as a mature adult. 

The scene begins with Yaakov returning to Canaan, the land of his youth. He sends messengers to Esav in preparation for the conflict he has avoided for 20 years. The messengers return with ambiguous, albeit disconcerting information. Esav is “approaching you with four hundred men” (Bereshit 32:7). The text leaves Esav’s intentions equivocal, however we are keenly aware of how Yaacov understands the scene. Terrified and anxious, Yaacov acts. Interpreting the news as a direct threat to himself and his family’s safety (32:8). In preparation for an impending attack, Yaacov divides his camp in order to ensure at least half survive (32:8-9). Then he prays, revealing that he has lost faith in his promise of protection granted by G-d as he feels unworthy (32:10-13). 

At this pivotal point the text uses a term for the first of three times in this short story: balayla hahoo, “during this night” (32:14). This term will represent the changes in both Yaacov’s strategy as well as his personality at that critical moment. While encamped that night Yaacov is still anxious. He worries his preparations are inadequate. Why face Esav in conflict and risk almost certain casualties? There might still be a chance to appease his brother. The text details his elaborate plan to manipulate his brother’s compassion, even providing Yaacov’s rationale. “I will atone before him with these gifts coming before me, then he will see me and maybe he will accept me” (32:14-21). Not only was this change of strategy emergent that it had to happen ‘that very night’, it also seemingly obviated his prior strategy as we see that his camp is no longer divided as he returns to sleep (32:22) “that very night” with everyone united in a single camp. However, the night is not over. 

Still anxious, he has another change of strategy ‘that very night’ (32:23). Yaacov was equally insecure in his ability to appease his brother as he has to defeat him in battle. Left without a better alternative, his only option to remain unscathed was to flee.  He gathered his most precious possessions, taking his wives and children, breaks camp in the middle of the night and hurries to get across the Yabok River (32:23). Traveling south from the land of Haran the most common road would take travelers to Damascus and then south along the way to Bashan and the Kings Highway which continued south towards Seir, the domain of Esav (32:4). However, Yaacov was looking to enter Canaan which would be easiest to enter lower on the Jordan River. Crossing the Jabbok River would hasten that process but also bring him closer to Esav approaching from the south. After crossing the Jabbok River Yaacov again has a change of heart. The text repeats the river crossing, explaining that Yaacov made his family cross back over the Jabbok going north (32:24). This leaves Yaacov alone on the southern shores of the Jabbok as Esav approaches from the south (32:25). What changed. Why did Yaacov leave himself alone, on the other side of the river to face his brother alone? And why did the text not repeat the term “that very night” with this change in strategy? 

This change was different. Yaacov no longer wanted to hide, deceive, fight or even run away. He recognized that all his life he never truly solved any problems. His instinct was to distance himself from conflict or deceive his way to success, which only made things worse. His conflicts were never resolved, with one exception; when he was chased down and forced to meet Lavan face to face at Galaed and reconcile (31:20-54). Now he had enough. He was going to face his troubles directly. So Yaacov spent the remainder of that night quarreling with a nameless man (32:25-31). An ambiguous struggle to leave but being unable to overcome. Refusing to reconcile until he is blessed and endowed with a new identity. Instead of being Yaacov, the trickster (27:36), he would become Yisrael, he who has struggled and succeeded (32:29). 

Despite the superficial appearance of a skirmish between two men, this battle was in fact the introspective deconstruction of a man within himself. When read from this perspective the text reveals Yaacov’s internal dialogue as he struggled against his own demons that compelled him to remain who he was in the face of danger. Battling through the night against his doubt and fear, anxiety for his future and the best strategy for success. It is only when he is finally ready to face his troubles directly, literally face to face with himself, that he can finally mature. Until he is finally soft, rach, symbolically represented as an injury to his thigh (yerech). Recognizing that his life and troubles up to this point had revolved around his fixation on avoiding being deprived: claiming the right of the firstborn, conniving the blessing of his father, and manipulating his way to wealth and success. Using his thighs to literally flee from his troubles. Now hamstrung, unable to resist anymore, he was forced to face his mistakes and was now pliable to an alternative. Finally he was ready to recognize that there was a price to pay and one can’t always end up on top (32:26). Broken and soft, he is ready to proceed.

Having evolved through that fortuitous night, arriving renewed into the light of a new morning. But he recognizes he can not leave without first affirming his transcendence (32:27). For change to be real it must be permanent. Departing this place must not be to flee. Who will he truly be now? Yaacov, the trickster, the coward, the thief (32:28). No, never again will he allow himself to resort to such chicanery. From now on he is Yisrael. No longer uncertain of his capacity and worth, whether striving against the physical or the spiritual struggles of life (32:29). He was truly at the crossroads of his life. Remain Yaacov or become Yisrael. He asks himself one last time, “what is your name?” And with confidence he answers, ‘do you even have to ask.’ Affirming his transcendence (32:30). He names that place Penuel, because this was where he struggled face to face and saved his soul (32:31). 

Confident and mature, Yaacov was a new man. Although still recognized by the text as Yaacov, he saw himself as Yisrael. His struggles hidden from all but himself, to the outside he was still Yaacov but he knew his real name. No longer fleeing or manipulating his way to success. He would now face his challenges directly and own up to his mistakes. For the first time in his life he presents himself honestly and respectfully. He passes before his family and presents himself first and humbly to meet his brother man to man (33:3). The brother he had wronged so many years before and had deceived and fled to avoid. A brother that in truth wanted nothing more than to simply embrace and love his estranged sibling. Esav being the first person in the Torah to cry (33:4) was the victim of this story. Although enraged in his youth by the evil of his brother (27:41), as a man he wanted nothing more than the affection and company of his twin as their mother predicted (27:44-45). Confirming that all of Yaacov’s fears and anxiety from the prior 20 years were truly in his own mind. A recognition he had only managed to realize that very morning.

About the Author
Jonathan is a physician with interests in science, philosophy and religion, with special focus on skeptical thinking and critical analysis.
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