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Jacob and the Angel

Jacob and the Angel: Wrestling with God


Jacob was a patriarch, or founding father, of the Jewish and Christian religions. He was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, the grandson of Abraham and Sarah, and the twin brother of Esau. He married Rachel and Leah and had twelve sons. Perhaps, however, the best known story in the Bible about him is the one of Jacob and the angel.

angel with lampThe Bible tells us that Jacob passed through the Jabbok River and, when he emerged on the other side, a man appeared, and wrestled with Jacob until early the next morning. Jacob physically overpowered the man, so, in the end, the man dislocated Jacob's hip and subdued Jacob.

Although incapacitated, Jacob refused to let this mysterious visitor go until he received a blessing. The man agreed, blessed Jacob, and changed his name.

The story is unusual and as a result, various interpretations of the story have arisen. The first theory is that Jacob wrestled with God himself. Jacob speaks of seeing God face to face following the incident and names the place Peniel which means face of God. However, many scholars had theological trouble with Jacob wrestling God (and winning!), so the second most popular theory is that he wrestled an angel. Of course, that brings with it similar problems.

The discussion over whether the visitor in the Jacob and the angel story was God or an angel wasn't terribly important to the ancient readers of Genesis. They would've seen the story as an etiology, or tale that explains the origin of something. In this case, the story explains why Jacob was called Israel, why Israelites would not eat a certain muscle in the leg, and why a place was called Peniel

The re-naming of Jacob would've been especially important. He was thus identified as a very important founder of the nation. The term Israel means "fights with God," an ironic name given Israel's later history of disobedience to God.


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