This intriguing passage concerns Jacob wrestling a mysterious stranger until the break of day. Over the centuries numerous scholars have offered various views concerning the identity of the person Jacob encountered. The famous adage two Jewish people and three opinions certainly applies here. Interestingly, the title heading of articles written on this subject usually indicates who they think Jacob wrestled with.
Rashi noted that the Rabbi’s understood this to be the prince (Esau’s guardian angel).[i] Chabad.org entitled an article on this passage ‘Jacob wrestles with the angel’ and presents the same observation Rashi made, though adds that the Zohar describes Jacob’s wrestling as representative of man struggling with his darker side.[ii]Rambam considered this to be a vision as opposed to an actual wrestling bout.[iii]Radak interprets the use of the question “What is your name” as merely a formality since rhetorical questions were asked on other occasions such as in Genesis 3:9, when God knew exactly where Adam was and in Exodus 4:2, the Lord was obviously aware that Moses held a rod in his hand.[iv]
Strikingly on reformjudaism.org, their article is entitled ‘Wrestling with Man, not angel’. The explanation given is that Jacob and Esau wrestled with the conclusion that “Esau sees Jacob as one who wrestles with beings divine and human, and Jacob sees in Esau’s face the face of God.”[v]Rabbi Sacks considers all of the above, entitles his piece ‘Jacob Wrestling’ and states “With whom was Jacob wrestling? The text itself called him a “man”. According to the prophet Hosea, it was an angel. For the sages, it was the guardian angel of Esau. Jacob himself had no doubt. It was G-d. He called the name of the place Peniel, “Because I saw G-d face to face and yet my life was spared”. The adversary himself implies as much when he gives Jacob the name Israel, “because you have struggled with G-d and with man and have overcome.”[vi]
Before attempting to identify this enigmatic character, it is necessary to succinctly outline the context from the preceding events in the life of Jacob. Afterwards the narrative will be exegeted with reference to other biblical passages. Finally application will be presented in the light of the findings.
Previously, Jacob had left Laban and was making his way towards Esau across the Jordan towards Hebron. He had split his company into two companies since he was afraid of Esau who he had previously tricked thereby obtaining his birthright by convincing him to trade his inheritance when he was exhausted and hungry following a hunting trip. This wrestling match occurred when Jacob was alone and at night and lasted until daybreak.
In many ways, Jacob was acquainted with wrestling throughout his chequered history. Even in Rachel’s womb, Jacob wrestled with Esau and grabbed Esau’s heel when they were born. Jacob wrestled Esau’s birthright from him. Jacob wrestled with Laban to obtain Rachel and to acquire a flock and to obtain his correct wages which had been altered on ten occasions. This event would be transformative not just for Jacob but would be formative for the nation of Israel.
Who was Jacob wrestling with?
The most sure and accurate means to determine this, is not to force a view from personal opinion or preference, but to let scripture interpret itself. Hosea 12:1-6 expounds this same passage. Rashi and Rabbi Sacks refer to it in their respective expositions too. Hosea 12:1-6 reads as follows.
“Ephraim feeds on
And pursues the east wind;
He daily increases lies and desolation.
Also they make a covenant with the Assyrians,
And oil is carried to Egypt.
2 “The Lord also brings a charge against Judah,
And will punish Jacob according to his ways;
According to his deeds He will recompense him.
3 He took his brother by the heel in the womb,
And in his strength he struggled with God.
4 Yes, he struggled with the Angel and prevailed;
He wept, and sought favor from Him.
He found Him in Bethel,
And there He spoke to us—
5 That is, the Lord God of hosts.
The Lord is His memorable name.
6 So you, by the help of your God, return;
Observe mercy and justice,
And wait on your God continually.
In this text we see Jacob described as in his strength struggling with God and struggling with the Angel and prevailing. Jacob found Him in Bethel and that describes Him as the Lord God of hosts from Genesis 28:10-22, which also ties in with Joshua 5:13-15, where Joshua encounters an equally mysterious guest ‘The Commander of the army of the Lord’ who as with Moses, commands him to remove his sandal since the ground was holy (Joshua 5:13-15; c.f. Exodus 3:4-6).
Interestingly in Genesis 32:25, Jacob’s hip is forced out of joint and in verse 31 he retains his sporting injury and in verse 32 the muscle that shrank is not eaten. This furthermore and conclusively eliminates the view that this event was merely a vision since Jacob had a tangible reminder of the encounter.
In verse 29, the mysterious guest doesn’t reveal His name and instead asks why Jacob asks His name. This is similar compared with Manoah’s encounter with the Angel of the Lord in Judges, when the Angel of the Lord responds to the question of what His name is with “Why do you ask My name, seeing it is wonderful?” In the messianic passage of Isaiah 9:6-7 we read about the Son, the Messiah’s name as being wonderful.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.
Noticeably Jacob called the place Peniel meaning ‘face of God’. He himself related that he was astounded to have seen God and his life was preserved! It is clear that in Exodus 33:12-23 when God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock, Moses wouldn’t be able to see His face since if he did, he would die (Exodus 33:23). For Jacob to have wrestled with and seen God, he would have had to have met Yeshua (Jesus) in His preincarnate form. Moreover, John 1:18 concurs that “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the father has beheld Him (c.f. 1 John. 4:12).”
There are other instances when individuals react to the angel of the Lord as if they have seen God Himself and are afraid that they might die (Judges 6:22-23; 13:22). Therefore if God can appear in human form to the patriarchs is it not possible that God could appear in human form in the Brit Hadasha (New Testament)?[vii]In the New Testament there is an absence of the angel of the Lord since Yeshua (Jesus), is the same person revealed.
Jacob wrestled with the Lord whilst He was alone. As he sought a blessing from God his life was changed forever and infinitely for the better. We cannot rely on the faith of our parents or with those with whom we meet to worship. We need to trust in the Lord and have a personal faith. We have to ask and respond to the question, who and what are we wrestling with or for? For Jacob, the birthright, Rachel and wealth weren’t enough, so he kept striving continually. Jacob was never satisfied until He met with God and received His blessing.
Jacob’s name change was symbolic of how God changed him from a deceitful trickster and heel-grabber to God is upright. Jacob was desperate to know the name of the visitor whose blessing he sought. He was also astonished that He met God face to face. The Bible implores us to seek God’s face meaning His character, person, ways and who He is. So how can we find God and see Him? Jeremiah tells us that “You will seek me and find Me, when you search for me with all your heart (Jeremiah 29:3).” Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:9).”
Messiah Yeshua who was walking in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. It was
Messiah Yeshua who wrestled with Jacob and spoke to Moses from the burning bush
and appeared as the Commander of the Army of the Lord to Joshua before he took
Jericho and who strengthened Gideon making him a warrior and who walked in the
fire preserving Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Babylon. Happy is he who has
the God of Jacob for his help and whose hope is in the Lord his God (Psalm
146:5). Like Jacob, those who meet Yeshua will be changed forever and their
life will be on a different course. Whoever turns to and trusts in Yeshua as
their Lord and Saviour will enter into His rest and have the assurance of sins
forgiven and eternal life.
[vii] Tony Pearce The Messiah Factor (Lighthouse Trails, Montana; 2017), p52