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, which is described in Genesis 32:22-31 and also referenced in Hosea 12:3-5.

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

Although incapacitated, Jacob refused to let this mysterious visitor go until he gave Jacob a blessing. The man agreed, blessed Jacob, then changed Jacob's name to "Israel."

The story is unusual and, as a result, various interpretations of it have arisen. The first theory is that Jacob wrestled with God Himself. Following the incident, Jacob speaks of seeing God face to face 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 story was God or an angel wasn't terribly important to the ancient readers of Genesis. They would have seen the story as an etiology, a 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 ("Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank," Genesis 32:32), and why a place was called Peniel.

The renaming of Jacob would have 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.


Updated 02-07-2023 by Elizabeth Craig