Did Jacob Really Wrestle With God?

March 25, 2021 - Nisan 12, 5781

Who Was That Man?

Genesis 32 tells us that Jacob encountered and wrestled with "a man" on the return home from Lavan. What was the identity of this man?

Genesis 32:25: And Jacob was left alone, and a man (אִישׁ֙ - ish) wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

Rashi explains that "this was the prince (guardian angel) of Esau." (Genesis Rabbah 77:3, 78:3).

However, Christians maintain that this being was actually God Himself having taken the physical form of a man, known as a "theophany."

Genesis 32:29-31 says:

And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God (עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים) and with men, and you have prevailed." And Jacob asked and said, "Now tell me your name," and he said, "Why is it that you ask for my name?" And he blessed him there. And Jacob named the place Peniel, for [he said,] "I saw an angel (אֱלֹהִים֙) face to face, and my soul was saved."

Notice that the words marked in orange above are the Hebrew words used in the Torah, which in English are translated as "angel," but which in fact say "elohim." Christians who are aware of this translation, typically Messianic Jews, often use it to claim that the Jews are nervously trying to conceal the fact that God can and did materialize in human form in the Tanakh. They claim that the rabbis have tried to hide this fact, because if the Torah says that God takes physical form then more Jews will believe that Jesus was God.

A Hint in Hosea

However, the book of Hosea gives us a clear proof that the being with whom Jacob wrestled was indeed an angel beyond any reasonable doubt.

Hosea 12:3-5 says:

Now the Lord has a contention with Judah, and to visit upon Jacob according to his ways; according to his deeds He shall recompense him.

In the womb, he seized his brother's heel, and with his strength he strove with an angel (אֱלֹהִֽים - elohim).

He strove with an angel (מַלְאָךְ֙ - malach) and prevailed; he wept and beseeched him; In Bethel he shall find Him, and there He shall speak with us.

.רִ֥יב לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה עִם־יְהוּדָ֑ה וְלִפְקֹ֚ד עַל־יַֽעֲקֹב֙ כִּדְרָכָ֔יו כְּמַֽעֲלָלָ֖יו יָשִׁ֥יב לֽוֹ

.בַּבֶּ֖טֶן עָקַ֣ב אֶת־אָחִ֑יו וּבְאוֹנ֖וֹ שָׂרָ֥ה אֶת־אֱלֹהִֽים

.וַיָּ֚שַׂר אֶל־מַלְאָךְ֙ וַיֻּכָ֔ל בָּכָ֖ה וַיִּתְחַנֶּן־ל֑וֹ בֵּֽית־אֵל֙ יִמְצָאֶ֔נּוּ וְשָׁ֖ם יְדַבֵּ֥ר עִמָּֽנוּ

In verse 4 above, the word elohim is once against used to describe the identity of this being that wrestled with Jacob. However, verse 5 explicitly refers to this same being as a malach, an angel. Now come, let us reason; in its generic context as a spiritual being, the word elohim can be used to refer to an angel, but the word "angel" (malach) cannot be used to refer to God (Elokim).

To conclude, the ambiguity present in Genesis 32:29 is not present in Hosea 12:5, and we can be sure that Jacob indeed wrestled with an actual angel and not with anything else.

Jacob, Commander over Angels

There is, however, another proof that Jacob wrestled with an angel and did not encounter a theophany. Genesis 32:4 tells us: Jacob sent angels (מַלְאָכִים֙ - malachim) ahead of him to his brother Esau, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom.

Did he send angels ahead of him, or did he send theophanies ahead of him? Rashi says that Jacob sent literal angels, i.e., that he had commanding power over angels. This is confirmed by what "the man" tells Jacob: "...because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God (עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים) and with men, and you have prevailed."

What seems relatively clear is that Jacob's angels went to Esav, and Esav's angel went to Jacob, i.e., they encountered each other's angels. This culminates in Jacob's defeat of Esav's angel, indicating that he finally gained the upper-hand over him in the spiritual realm.

To contrast, what purpose would have there been in Jacob wrestling with God? And if Jacob did wrestle with God, how is it possible for him to have beat Him? Did God let him win like a father lets his son beat him at arm-wrestling? 

No comments: