Jacob Wrestled with an Angel. The Consequence of Struggling with YHVH
Something odd happened when Ya’akov (Jacob) remained alone that night: Jacob wrestled with an angel until the breaking of the day. What did exactly happen when Jacob wrestle with an angel of YHVH? Was that wrestling at all?
Twenty years went by and Ya’akov left the land of Paddan Aram where he served Lavan his father-in-law (Gen 31:41). He headed for the land of Canaan with all his household, servants, and livestock.
On his way the messengers of Elohim joined Ya’akov as safeguards. This appearance of the angels must have reminded him of the vision of the ladder, on his flight from Esav his brother. That fear must have been kept deeply in Ya’akov’s memory, because he sent his messengers before him to Esav in the land of Se‛ir, in the land of Edom in order to appease him. When they returned, they told him that Esav was coming to meet you with four hundred armed men (Gen 32:1-6).
And Ya’akov was greatly afraid and distressed. To protect his people he divided them into two groups which he transferred across the Yabbok River and he remained behind alone that night. He prayed for a heavenly protection evoking the promise of YHVH to bring him back home complete, because he believed that his brother Esav would not spare the mothers with the children (Gen 32:11-12).
Prior to the “wrestling” with a messenger (angel) of YHVH, we see that Ya’akov had put everyone in front of him, as we read in Gen_32:16; all of the droves and even his family preceded him like a shield against the perceived threat of his brother. Later, however, after his encounter with the messenger, we witness Ya’akov at the forefront of his family as the leader (Gen_33:1-3). It seems like that night Ya’akov lived out something that changed his attitude towards his brother Esav and himself.
What had changed in Ya’akov’s life that night, we will examine in this study.
Jacob wrestled with an angel, as odd as it is
That night something odd happened when Ya’akov remained alone on that side of the river: a man “wrestled” with him until the breaking of the day. We read,
And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’ And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’ And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’ (Gen 32:26-29 JPS)
As odd as this whole scene is, we need to ask ourselves the question as to why there would be any need for a mighty messenger (angel) of Elohim to “wrestle” with a human being and which is even odder: he could not prevail over him. And if that was not odd enough, while Ya’akov was holding the angel in his grip, the angel was pleading for his release.
In order to understand this bizarre story, we need to see what the Hebrew text of Gen 32:26-29 says and the first word we will study is the Hebrew word behind “wrestled.” This Hebrew word is אָבַק avak, and is used also in other passage in the Tanak (the Hebrew Scripture) to mean “dust.” And this is where the challenge begins. What would dust and wrestling have in common? We read in Exo 9:8-9 JPS,
And the LORD said unto Moses and unto Aaron: ‘Take to you handfuls of soot of the furnace, and let Moses throw it heavenward in the sight of Pharaoh. And it shall become small dust over all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt.’ (Exo 9:8-9 JPS)
Unlike in Gen 32:26-29, here the word אָבַק avak, is translated by the JPS translators as “fine dust” and as it couples with the word for “ashes” in the context of the verses, it clearly means “dust.”
In another place we find the same word to couple with another word meaning “dust” as we read below, but only to make the things even more complecated.
The LORD will make the rain of thy land powder and dust; from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed. (Deu 28:24 JPS)
So, how does “dust” relate to “to wrestle?” The common understanding of the translators is that when two wrestle they roll in the dust, hence they conclude avak means to wrestle. This, however, is an argument out of silence, because nowhere in the Hebrew text of the Tanak, where this word is found (Exo_9:9, Isa_5:24, Isa_29:5, Eze_26:10, Nah_1:3, Deu_28:24), is avak used to mean “wrestling” nor does it couple with any word for “wrestling.”
In order to correctly understand the meaning of avak, we need to find a literal application of this Hebrew word which will help us better understand what Ya’akov and YHVH’s messenger were doing all night. This application of avak we find in Nah 1:3, as we read,
The LORD is long-suffering, and great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty; the LORD, in the whirlwind and in the storm is His way, and the clouds are the dust of His feet. (Nah 1:3 JPS)
What we understand from this usage is that as the clouds are like the dust under the Creator’s feet, so is everything in His creation: insignificant, too small like dust, before the Creator’s grandeur.
So, what sense can we make out of this, if Jacob wrestled with an angel, as JPS translation has rendered it, or perhaps something else happened that night? And if it was something else, what was it? And why did the messenger of YHVH have to “wrestle” with Ya’akov in the first place?
The only logical explanation that can come out of the whole context is that that was not a physical wrestling, but a heated discussion between Ya’akov and the messenger. In other words, “the wrestling” might have been an act of the messenger of persuading or attempting to persuade Ya’akov to listen to his arguments.
If we understand this to be a “wrestle”, “fight”, “strife” or “struggle” not in a physical but in a spiritual sense, we will be very close to what actually took place between them that night. And if they did argue, what did they argue about all night, so that Ya’akov even prevailed upon his opponent?
Fear that can become greater than faith
Most likely, we may suggest, the reason for the heated arguing was that Ya’akov so much feared his brother Esav that he did not believe that YHVH would protect him and bring him whole to his father Yitschak, as He promised him twenty years earlier, when Ya’akov was on his way to Paddan Aram.
Thus, we can make the connection with “dust” and the heated discussion between Ya’akov and the messenger: in his doubt either Ya’akov was diminishing the messenger’s arguments (i.e. he made them insignificant and small like dust), and/or Ya’akov’s concerns and fear were so insignificant to YHVH, that they were like dust before the Sovereign of the universe. Either way, this meaning of אָבַק avak, is agreeable and acceptable to the whole context of Genesis 32, as we will see further below.
Where was Jacob hurt when he wrestled with the angel
The other problematic translation in our verses is what the JPS translators have rendered as “the hollow of his thigh” as we read: And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
“The hollow of thigh” in Hebrew is כַּפ־יֶרֶךְ, kaf-yerek, in which phrase “thigh”, is the Hebrew word יָרֵךְ, yareich. Yareich simply means to be soft. The use of this word can be found in Exo_1:5 where the JPS translators had no other choice but to render it with its literal meaning “loins” since the context cannot permit any other rendering. We read from JPS thus:
And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls; and Joseph was in Egypt already. (Exo 1:5 JPS)
Here we can hardly translate yareich as “thighs” but as “loins,” the lower part of the abdomen or the external genital organs.
In a similar way this word is used in Num_5:21-22 and Num_5:27, in which the law of a woman suspected in adultery is given. In the immediate context of Number 5 “yareich” can only be translated as “genital organs” since a woman can fornicate by them.
But, perhaps the most convincing argument of favor of this translation can be found in the command to clothe the priests in trousers for the reason of covering their nakedness, as we read,
And make linen trousers for them, to cover their nakedness, reaching from the waist to the yareich. (Exo 28:42)
The covering of the priests’ nakedness was an essential prerequisite in the Temple service. Aharon and his sons were to cover or conceal their nakedness with short underpants, reaching from the waist to yareich.
That “loins” is the correct rendering of the Hebrew word yareich can be seen in the commentary of the Sages on Gen 24:2 where Avraham asked his servant to swear by putting his hand under Avraham’s yareich.
And Avraham said to the oldest servant of his house, who ruled over all that he had, “Please, put your hand under my thigh (yareich), … (Gen 24:2)
This is how the Sages commented the phrase “under my thigh” as found in Shev. 38:
Since one who swears must take with his hand an article related to a mitzvah (command) such as a Torah scroll or Tefillin, and circumcision was his first mitzvah, and he had fulfilled it with pain, it was dear to him; so he took it.
In other words, what the Sages say is that Avraham asked his servant to put his hand on the sign of his circumcision (the sign of the Covenant with YHVH) and swear that he would bring a wife for Yitschak from his relatives.
In all these verses if “thigh” was meant, as commonly translated, then the Hebrew word ragel (for a thigh) should have been used in stead of yareich. But that is not the case. Therefore, if we want to be consistent in our translation we should translate yareich adequately: namely, “loins” as it is used in Exo 1:5, Num 5:21-22 and Num 5:27, Exo 28:42, and Gen 24:2.
However, yareich, can also mean “side” as found in Exo_40:22, Exo_40:24, Lev_1:11, Num_3:29, Num_3:35, and 2Ki_16:14. In these instances, yareich literally refers to the sides of the Tabernacle or altar, as we read,
And he put the table in the Tent of Meeting, on the north side (yareich) of the Dwelling Place, outside the veil, (Exo 40:22)
Similar is the application of this word in other verses where it is used with its literal meaning. Therefore, we see that only by extension can the Hebrew word yareich refer to a thigh or a hip as being the side of the human body. For instance, in Jdg_3:21 we see that Ehud reached with his left hand, and took the sword from his right side (thigh, hip), where a soldier usually keeps his sword.
Or, another instance is Son 7:1, in which the author seems to describe woman’s body, as we read,
How beautiful are your feet in sandals, O daughter of a noble! The curves of your sides (thighs) are like ornaments, The work of a craftsman’s hands. (Son 7:1)
The second word which we will examine in the phrase כַּפ־יֶרֶךְ, kaf-yerek, “the hollow of thigh,” is the Hebrew word כַּף kaf. This word literaly means the hollow of hand or palm (even of the bowl of a dish or spoon); handful, any hollow.
The word kaf is also the name of the Hebrew letter kaf whose pictograph is that of a hand or palm. Hence, we may say that in the context of our verse, kaf means the scrotum, which like a pouch or palm holds man’s testis. Traditionally, this word has been translated as the “hollow” of the hip socket, that also has the shape of kaf, but it may also be applied to the scrotum, as it is used in conjunction with yarech, the abdomen.
So, we deduce from all these examples that the messenger did not dislocated Ya’akov’s hip, but his testis from the scrotum in order to cause him a severe pain.
Jacob wrestled with an angel or with God?
We may puzzle as to why the messenger would do that, but let us recall that the circumcision of the foreskin was the sign of the Covenant with Ya’akov’s fathers, but also with him and YHVH. And the dislocation of Ya’akov’s testis from the scrotum was the “gentle” way of the messenger to remind Ya’akov of the Covenant which YHVH had made with his fathers.
We should notice from the Scripture that the messengers’ missions are not to negotiate, discuss, or talk about their assignments, but to do them.
Let us also recall what happened to Zechariah the Priest, the father of Yochanan (John the Baptist), who doubted the report of Gavri’el the messenger of Elohim (Luke 1), in order to understand as to why Ya’akov was hurt in such a way; if not because he must have doubted the promise of YHVH to bring him home to his father.
That doubt, however, did not come upon him because Ya’akov had little faith in YHVH, but because the fear of his brother Esav was so extreme that it must have overcome him to the point of disbelief.
Ya’akov feared his brother’s revenge for the lost birthright; that was natural for him to feel. He prayed that night for deliverance from the hand of Esav; and that was a good thing to do. But when the messenger came to assure him of YHVH’s faithfulness to the Covenant, Ya’akov doubted, disbelieved, and even resisted any arguments of the messenger. Obviously, the messenger was very patient with Ya’akov since it took him all night to “fight” with him. At the end Ya’akov was hurt where it hurts most, physically and figuratively: at the sign of the Covenant.
And that must have been the turning point in Ya’akov’s struggle to overpower the fear of Esav; while still in a sever pain, Ya’akov did what he should have done in the very beginning: he demanded a binding commitment from the messenger. He said, “I am not letting you go until you have blessed me!” And the messenger of YHVH said, as we read from the literal translation of the verse,
Your name is no longer called Ya’akov, but Isra’el because [as a ruler] you have power with Elohim and with men, and was able. (Gen 32:28)
The new name given to our pathriach יִשְׂרָאֵל Isra’el, means “he rules with El[ohim].” It comes from the root verb שָרָה, sarah, to rule, and אֵל (God). In the Bible, when a name was given, a short description followed, and in this case we are told in the translation that Isra’el means one who has striven with Elohim and has overcome, but literally it means “one who has power with Elohim and is able.”
By his spiritual struggle with Elohim, Ya’akov entered upon a new stage in his life. That struggle began in his mother’s womb between Ya’akov and Esav, which struggle represented their personalities that would develop within the two nations that would come out from their loins.
As a sign of this, Ya’akov received a new name; a name that better reflected his nature and future course of his life. There was no wrestling that night, but a real conflict of mind. As Ya’akov felt too weak to face Esav, he prayed to Elohim for deliverance from the hand of his brother and the fulfilment of the covenant promises. The answer to his prayer was the tremendous inner battle with Elohim, in which he had to overcome the old Ya’akov (a heel-holder who protected himself from his brother’s heel) and establish a new Isra’el, one who has power with Elohim and with men.
The new name Isra’el denoted a spiritual state in a constant struggle to survive: from his mother’s womb to his struggle to be buried in the land of his fathers. His entire life was that of struggles. Nothing came easily to him. It was he who fought with Esav for the birthright and it was he who took the blessing. It was he who was in a constant struggle with Lavan, with his wives, Leah and Rachel, and his children, whose rivalry eventually brought him in Egypt.
In each of those struggles, he won, but only until the next struggle. His inner battle became a family trait; not only was Ya’akov’s new name transcended to his descendants, but his struggle too. The struggle of the nation of Israel began in Egypt and continues to this day: the struggle to survive in the hostile world around them.
After the long night of struggle with Elohim, the sun rose on him as he passed over Penu’el, and he limped on his hip, because of the severe pain in the sign of the Covenant.
And here we are told something that seems out of place:
Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein. (Gen 32:33 JPS)
In order to understand why this statement is placed right here, we need first to see who had said that and when. The hint that is given to us is found in the phrase “unto this day” in the above verse. From the immediate context of the story we can deduce that Gen 32:33 suggest a narrative, since it could have been impossible for it to refer to the eleven sons of Ya’akov.
Such hints of narrative can be found in other places in the Book of Genesis. The authorship of the Book of Genesis is attributed to Mosheh who wrote it down for us, but how could he have known what had taken place from the Creation to his birth? So, we come to the point to ask the question as to who narrated the Genesis story to Mosheh, which may help us understand the last verse in our story.
In the Apostolic Scripture, we read from Apostle Steven’s speech before the council of the Pharisees,
… who received the Torah as it was ordained by messengers, but did not watch over it. (Act 7:53)
Where do we find in the Tanak (The Hebrew Scripture) that the Torah was ordained by the messengers? Simply nowhere. The Tanak says nothing about how Torah was given to Mosheh, especially the Book of Genesis; Mosheh would not have had knowledge of how the world was created, the stories of Adam and Eve, the Flood, etc. So, how could Steven have known that Torah was ordained/enacted through a messenger unless he had knowledge of an extra-Biblical source.
In the Book of Jubilees 1:27 we read thus,
And He said to the angel of the presence: “Write for Moses from the beginning of creation till My sanctuary has been built among them for all eternity.”
And the angel of the presence spake to Mosheh according to the word of the Lord, saying : “Write the complete history of the creation, how in six days the Lord God finished all His works and all that He created, and kept Sabbath on the seventh day and hallowed it for all ages, and appointed it as a sign for all His works.” (Jubilees 2:1)
Therefore, we see that The Book of Jubilees purports to be a revelation given by Elohim to Mosheh through the medium of a messenger (“the Angel of the Presence”) and contains a history from the creation to the coming of Mosheh.
How could that help us understand the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein, because we find no command in the entire Torah and more particularly in the Book of Leviticus 11 prohibiting it.
As said above, The Book of Genesis (and more particularly Gen 32:33) being a narrative by a messenger of YHVH, has simply noted a fact that the children of Israel in their exile in Egypt had not eaten the sinew of the thigh-vein. They had not received such a command from their father, which comes to tell us that that was their custom and tradition they established in Egypt.
Why would they have established that custom, if not to remind them of what happened to their father Israel on his way to the Promised Land? Let us recall that the children of Israel were keeping in mind their father’s words that one day YHVH would take them out of Egypt and bring them to the land of the forefathers. They should have very well remembered as to why their father Ya’akov was hurt in the first place.
Therefore, we see that the custom not to eat that particular sinew was a reminder for them to keep the instruction (torah) of their father; something their children’s children did not watch over it in Egypt. For more insight on this, the reader may refer to the article “Israel’s Whoring in Egypt.”
The JPS translation of Gen 32:32 says that the children of Israel did not eat the sinew of the thigh-vein. The Hebrew word for “sinew” is גִּיד giyd, which simply means a thong and in the context of our story may refer to the large leg nerve, called the sciatic nerve, that runs from the bottom of the back, along the buttock and back side of the leg to the bottom of the foot; this is the longest nerve in the human body.
The pain caused by a compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve in the lower back may lead to limping and a pain in the testis (testicle). The opposite is also true: as this nerve is connected to the testis, a pain caused in the testis may lead to limping.
So, when the messenger hurt Ya’akov in the testis, he caused him to limp on his hip to remind him in his walk that he did not walk in faith with YHVH. Ya’akov’s sons who were with him must have noticed the change of their father’s walking and have kept it in mind.
As Israel entered the land of his fathers, we are told that,
And Ya’akov came complete to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Kena’an, when he came from Paddan Aram. (Gen 33:18)
The Hebrew word behind “complete” is shalem and comes from the root verb shalam, from which the noun shalom, completeness, wholeness, perfectness, peace, comes. Therefore, the Torah tells us that the forefather entered the land complete, whole, lacking nothing, something that YHVH had always promised him. In other words, the Torah tells us that he was completely healed from his disability, but the memory of his encounter with the messenger of YHVH remained in the minds the generations to come, as we see in the messenger’s narrative to Mosheh.
Will the Jewry have their night of “wrestling” with God?
Sadly, this whole story of how Jacob wrestled with an angel had been turned to a mere dietary law in the Rabbinical Judaism and the lesson had been lost to us.
In conclusion, what can we learn from the whole story of Ya’akov, the story that changed his name to “Israel” for the generations after him?
Ya’akov left the foreign land with all his family after twenty years of exile. Nothing was holding him back and nothing was preventing him to return to the land; he was on his way to the Promised Land. Yet, Ya’akov lost courage, when he had to meet his hostile brother Edom who was coming against him with a formidable force of four hundred armed men. The promises of YHVH that He would bring him whole in the land were not sufficient to dissipate the fear of his enemy. And he paid a price for the momentary lapse of faith.
Today, there are millions of Jews in exile (galut) who do not want to leave the comfort in the countries which they proudly call “home.” They have built houses, businesses, and careers, and it seems like they do not feel the need to fulfill the perpetual mandate to live in the land promised to Avraham, Yitschak, and Ya’akov; they do not want to leave “Babylon” in defilement of the command to flee:
In those days and at that time, declares Yehovah, the children of Israel shall come, they and the children of Yehudah together, weeping as they come, and seek Yehovah their Elohim. They shall ask the way to Tsiyon, their faces toward it, ‘Come and let us join ourselves to Yehovah, in an everlasting covenant, never to be forgotten.’ … Flee from the midst of Bavel come out of the land of the Chaldeans. And be as rams before a flock. (Jer 50:4-8)
Ya’akov was transformed over night into Israel, but today’s Jewry in exile resists any call from their brothers and sisters in Israel to return and build the country even stronger.
When will the Jewry in exile experience their night of “wrestling” with YHVH and will they experience it at all?
As Elohim of Ya’akov used Edom to transform him into Israel that night, the same way He may use the anti-Semitism in the world to force a Jew to choose to be on one side or the other.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.