After being separated from his brother Esau for twenty years, Jacob prepares to meet him in Genesis 32. He is afraid because the last time they were together Esau threatened his life. Jacob sent his family ahead with gifts in an attempt to soften Esau’s heart and stayed back alone for one night at his camp. During the night Jacob wrestled with a man. The theory of who that man was has been a topic of debate for centuries. There are three very different ideas. This paper will explain each one and give a conclusion as to which is most biblically accurate.
Jacob Wrestles with Samael
In Jewish literature, there is an angel named Samael, which is another name for Satan. He is identified as Esau’s guardian angel, which implies that Esau is evil. In his book, “Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism,” H. Schwartz recognizes the man who wrestled with Jacob as Samael.1 This interpretation believes that the angel’s goal was to make Jacob weak and exhausted so when he met his brother the following day Esau could easily defeat him. Jacob wrestled with Samael all night and eventually came out victorious. Before he allowed the angel to leave, he demanded a blessing on his offspring. The author explains the angel was forced to give that blessing which would save them from times of great danger as Satan was promising not to destroy them.
Jacob Wrestles with His Doubt
Jacob had worked for many years to become prosperous when the Lord called him to return to the land of his relatives in Genesis 31:3.2 He was forced to decide between relinquishing his rightful inheritance of land while staying in a place God had not intended him to stay and listening to God, returning to his home, and facing the brother who wanted to kill him. Fred Blumenthal writes in his article entitled “Who Wrestled with Jacob?” that the fight Jacob had with an unnamed man was a symbolic representation of Jacob’s conscience struggling to make this difficult choice.3 He explained how his inner voices were conflicting, one arguing for Jacob to stay in the land he was in to enjoy the prosperity he’d secured and the other arguing for him to enter into his homeland and receive the land he was entitled to. The terms “day” and “night” as written in this story were simply allegorical words; “day” meaning determination, confidence, and self-assurance and “night” meaning indecision, fear, and hesitation. At the end of a difficult challenge, Jacob silenced his doubt and emerged with clarity on his calling. Jacob asks the “angelic wrestler” in Genesis 32:30 what his name was yet no answer was recorded. The only response was a question wondering why Jacob wanted to know. The meaning of the Hebrew expression used conveys the idea that the asker should know the answer. Genesis 32:28 records Jacob’s name as being changed, yet he will still be referred to as Jacob throughout most of Scripture. According to Blumenthal, this is because the Jacob side of him was full of doubt, but the Israel side was confident. The limp Jacob sustained from the fight was a symbolic reminder which helped him make decisions the rest of his life.
Jacob Wrestles with God
Jacob had been traveling with his family, his servants, and many animals. Finally, the night before meeting his brother he spent alone as everyone else had been sent ahead. David Guzik comments on how important it was that he quit busying himself with a thousand different tasks so that he could give his full attention to God. Guzik is confident the man who wrestled with Jacob was God Himself in the human form, a special appearance of Jesus before His incarnation in Bethlehem.4 God desired to take away Jacob’s pride, self-reliance, and scheming even if He needed to take it from Him forcefully. The wrestling match appeared to last all night and Jacob seemed to be victorious. This would have bolstered is pride, that is until in an instant the man defeated him with a single touch. At that moment Jacob knew he was standing in the presence of God. He finally understood the God he served was greater than anything else and was infinitely able to conquer all things. Jacob wrapped his arms around this man and demanded a blessing. He was grasping tightly to His Lord while being delivered and changed. God publicly accepted this change of heart with a change of name; he was no longer Jacob the cheater but now Israel meaning God rules.
While these three interpretations are very different, the only one that is biblically accurate is the one that illustrates the man wrestling with Jacob as God incarnate. This story is similar to so many in Scripture and sounds familiar even in my own life. We wrestle with God because we want to do things our way. We fight the plans He has laid out for us. We refuse to give Him control and authority. We struggle and struggle until we finally relent and allow God to win. When that finally happens the peace, joy, and blessings that come with it are incredible. In Genesis 25 God divinely elected Jacob to be the one from whom would come a great nation, yet Jacob was far from great. God had to mold and shape him into the man He needed Jacob to be.
In Genesis 32:30 Jacob named the place where the fighting took place “Peniel” because it means “I saw God face to face and yet my life was spared”. Jacob recognized that his life would never be the same again. He would fail many times going forward, but he had a new name and a limp to remind him of God’s magnificent power.
- H. Schwatrz and C. Loebel-Fried, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 359
- Unless otherwise noted all Biblical references are from the New International Version
- Fred Blumenthal, “Who Wrestled with Jacob?,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 38 (April 2010).
- David Guzik, “Study Guide for Genesis 32,” The Enduring Word Commentary, March 10, 2017