We are reading and studying the story of Jacob wrestling with “a man” at the wadi Jabbok for Sunday, September 18. Genesis 32:22-32. It’s a famous, mysterious, and compelling story. We might think we know what it means; or, as we look at it more closely, we might decide that’s something we really need to think more about. Either way, here are a few notes on the text [with some questions, here]:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are making our way through some of the important stories of “salvation history” this quarter. We are still in Genesis, sampling some of the stories of the first covenant family – which will eventually become the nation of Israel. Which is, as we probably know, the nationality of the Messiah. [One argument for why these stories matter so much.]
So far in the Genesis saga, God has created the heavens and the earth, and humankind in God’s image. Humankind has not done well for itself. Were it not for Noah – or, we might say, for God’s forbearance – humankind would have ceased long ago. But instead, it seems God keeps looking for exceptions that make keeping humankind around worthwhile. The big one seems to be Abraham – originally Abram – and his descendants, with whom God cultivates a special relationship.
God has “called” Abraham to travel, and has made extravagant promises about land and progeny. So far, the promises have seemed often to be on the verge of failing, as the women in this family have a lot of infertility trouble, and the latest heir-apparent – Jacob – seems to be a scoundrel who’s cheated his brother, lied to his father, and absconded off to Aram [what we’d think of as modern-day Syria]. He’s almost met his scoundrel-ous match in his uncle Laban, and now is on his way back to Canaan / his father’s place / away from his uncle, after having worked for many years as a shepherd, contracted two no four marriages, and sired 11+ children. [According to v22, Jacob has 11 children. But from Genesis 30:21, we know the family also includes at least one daughter, so v22 is evidently only counting the sons named in chapter 29-30. Leah and Jacob’s daughter Dinah will become especially central in chapter 34. Rachel and Jacob’s son Benjamin will be born in chapter 35, causing his mother’s death.]
The Jabbok is described as a wadi in the text, which suggests that there are times of the year when it is mostly dry. Some great pictures at Bible Places, a nice discussion of the story by Noel Forlini Burt at Bible Odyssey, and a couple of other Jabbok-related resources there for the searching.
What “wrestling” means in this text is unspecified. This story is the only place in the Hebrew scriptures where this verb appears. That seems important.
The story appears twice in the lectionary – once in the semi-continuous series, in Year A, once in the complementary series, in Year C – paired with the story of the unjust judge, and the need “to pray always and never give up.” Like Jacob, perhaps. There is a decent chance that we’ll know this story is in the Bible just from hearing it in church.
CLOSER READING: In v22, Jacob “arises” – after dark, it seems – and “takes” the women and children and “crosses over” the ford of the Jabbok. Verse 23 repeats part of v22, and adds that he makes everything “of his” cross over. (NRSV just says “after he had …” but it reads more obsessively than that in Hebrew.)
Jacob sounds here like someone who is under major stress. Like, he’s just had his email account hacked or something. (I speak from experience.) The not being able to sleep, the taking extra precautions, and then extra extra precautions … Just saying.
The account of the wrestling match is extremely hard to follow, as a matter of fact. NRSV cleans it up a lot, by attributing words and verbs to “the man” or to “Jacob,” but in the Hebrew text, it’s nothing but “he saw,” “he touched,” “he said” “he said” “he said” …
It seems clear that Jacob’s hip is wrenched out of the socket.
And we assume Jacob is the one who says his name is Jacob. So by working backwards, we gather that the “he said” who asks “what is your name” is … the man. Continuing to work our way backwards, and applying the rule that conversations alternate speakers, we come up with the NRSV’s version of events. Which is not an unreasonable version, but which reads a whole lot clearer in NRSV English than it does in Hebrew. Or in Robert Alter.
The underlying text is more confusing and ambiguous. It makes the reader feel “wait, who … what’s going on?” More like an actual wrestling match. Maybe more like being in an actual wrestling match.
And the disorientation begins as early as v24, really, because Jacob is alone, but no, he’s not. “A man” is “with him.” Who is this “man”? We never really know, although Jacob says (v30) that he has seen God face to face. Presumably, that’s how it seemed to him, at a minimum.
The wrestling they are doing is unique. This story is the only place the verb occurs.
In v28, the struggling Jacob is said to have done with gods and men is also unique. Jacob does it here, and Hosea mentions him doing it (Hosea 12:3). The verb does, however, sound something like the noun “prince / chief” or “princess” … which might feel right, if we think princes struggle or strive with others.
In other words, the whole event feels deeply mysterious. It takes place in the dark. We feel [should feel, I think] unsure of precisely what is happening.
Blessing is at issue (vv26 and 29), and we’ll remember that blessing has been a problem for Jacob his whole life. This blessing happens against a background of Jacob’s fleeing from one enemy to the next (or, so he may think) – that is, from Esau to Laban, then from Laban towards Esau, who he probably expects to still be his enemy …
Identity is at issue: names and naming, characteristics. “Jacob” means something like “cheater” or “grabber.” While “Israel” means something like “strives with God.” It’s more of a reframe, perhaps, of a core characteristic. “Born fighting” might be a good thing, depending on the circumstances. Or the central issue could be which specific struggles this person picks, and with whom.
Life and death seem to be at issue. In v30, Jacob interprets the event – he has seen God face to face, and (fairly literally) his soul is rescued. Which is a common idiom for: he’s still alive.
There is also a fair bit of rising in the story. Jacob rises (stands up, gets up) in the middle of the night; then, there are a couple of references to the rising dawn (different verb). Finally, the sun is rising (another different verb) as Jacob crosses by the place where all this has taken place. The place he has called “The face of God.”
So the story begins with Jacob standing up, in the middle of the night. Taking some desperate actions. Experiencing something transformative. And by the end, it’s light, and he’s no longer exactly standing. Rather, limping. But, also, it seems, blessed. As himself (that is, not as an imposter). And, it seems, whether despite of or possibly because of this transformation, the outward sign of which is a kind of wound, grateful.
Images: “Torah scrolls in the Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal,” Genevieve2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Jacob Wrestles the Angel,” Mel Pekarsky / CC BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons (07-31-2020)