GENESIS 25-32. THE CONTEXT
This is the story of Jacob’s encounter with God while on a journey to see Esau after many years of estrangement (32:3-5). The story, then, has its roots in the relationship between Jacob and Esau, beginning with their birth as twins. At that time, the Lord told Rebekah:
“Two nations are in your womb.
Two peoples will be separated from your body.
The one people will be stronger than the other people.
The elder will serve the younger” (25:23).
Esau, the first to be born, “came out red all over, like a hairy garment” (25:25). Jacob, the second to be born, “came out, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel. He was named Jacob” (25:26)—that name meaning “he takes the heel” or “he supplants”—a hint of the rivalry that Jacob would later engender. Esau grew up to be a hunter, but Jacob was a quiet man (25:27). “Now Isaac loved Esau, because he ate his venison. Rebekah loved Jacob” (25:28).
As the elder son, Esau enjoyed the privileges of the firstborn—the birthright and the blessing. However, taking his birthright casually, Esau sold it to Jacob for a bowl of stew (25:29-34)—in the process losing one of his two significant advantages as the firstborn. On that occasion, Esau had only himself to blame.
However, on a later occasion, Jacob (with Rebekah’s assistance) deceived elderly Isaac into believing that Jacob was Esau. They tricked Isaac into giving Jacob Esau’s blessing (27:1-29). When Esau discovered this treachery, he was crushed (27:30-40) and he determined to kill Jacob (27:41)—no jury would have convicted him. Rebekah warned Jacob of Esau’s plan, however, and he fled in time to save his life (27:42 – 28:5).
Then Jacob experienced his first nighttime encounter with God—the famous “Jacob’s ladder” encounter at Bethel where Jacob saw angels ascending and descending on a ladder reaching into heaven (28:10-22). In that encounter, God made Jacob the one through whom God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. God said:
“I am Yahweh, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac.
The land whereon you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed.
Your seed will be as the dust of the earth,
and you will spread abroad to the west, and to the east,
and to the north, and to the south.
In you and in your seed will all the families of the earth be blessed.
Behold, I am with you, and will keep you, wherever you go,
and will bring you again into this land.
For I will not leave you,
until I have done that which I have spoken of to you” (28:13-15).
In that first nighttime encounter with God, Jacob was fleeing from Esau’s anger. In his second nighttime encounter with God (our text—32:22-31), Jacob is seeking reconciliation with Esau, but is afraid that Esau might still want to kill him because of Jacob’s earlier treachery.
Jacob met Rachel and began working for Rachel’s father, Laban, so that he might have Rachel as his wife. Laban, however, tricked Jacob, the trickster, and Jacob ended up married to Leah instead of Rachel. He then worked additional years to marry Rachel. During those years, he was estranged from his brother, Esau (29:1—30:24). Then Jacob tricked Laban, becoming rich at Laban’s expense (30:25-43). He fled from Laban and Laban’s sons (31:1-21) just as he had earlier fled from Esau. Laban pursued Jacob (31:22-42), and the two men eventually were able to make a covenant and to depart on good terms (31:43-55).
At that point, Jacob sent messengers to Esau in an attempt to reconcile (32:1-5). The messengers returned with the news that Esau was coming with four hundred men to meet Jacob (32:6). Jacob feared that Esau was coming to kill him, and sent messengers ahead with a grand gift of livestock in an attempt to appease Esau (32:7-21). He also prayed, “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he come and strike me, and the mothers with the children” (32:11).
At that point, Jacob has the encounter with God that constitutes our text (32:22-31).
GENESIS 32:22-23. HE SENT THEM OVER THE STREAM
22He rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had.
“passed over the ford of the Jabbok” (v. 22). The Jabbok River is a major tributary of the Jordan River located east of the Jordan (on the far side of the Jordan). It flows into the Jordan at a point 43 miles (69 km) south of the Sea of Galilee and 23 miles (37 km) north of the Dead Sea. The river is 50 miles (81 km) long and descends 2000 feet (609 meters) in its course, so its waters flow swiftly during the wet season. In many of its parts, it runs through a deep gorge with steep banks.
“He took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had” (v. 23). Jacob separates himself from his family, his servants, and his livestock (his wealth). While the text isn’t explicit regarding his reason for this separation, it has told us that Jacob is afraid that Esau “come and strike me, and the mothers with the children” (32:11). He has sent more than five hundred head of livestock (a veritable fortune—the equivalent of a half million dollars today) to Esau in the hope of appeasing him (32:13-21).
Whether Jacob sends his family ahead (places them between Esau and himself) or leaves them behind (places himself between Esau and his family) is not entirely clear—although it seems likely that he sends them ahead.
• If that is true (if Jacob places his family between Esau and himself), this must be another attempt to appease Esau—a shameful act that exposes his family to serious risk.
• If Jacob places himself between Esau and his family, the opposite is true. His action would be an attempt to protect his family from Esau’s wrath—a nobler gesture than we would expect from Jacob.
The one thing which we know for certain is that when Jacob finally encounters Esau, he goes ahead of his family (33:3).
GENESIS 32:24-25. JACOB WRESTLED WITH A MAN THERE
24Jacob was left alone, and wrestled with a man there until the breaking of the day. 25When he saw that he didn’t prevail against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled.
“Jacob was left alone’ (v. 24a). There is nothing lonelier than being away from home—alone—in the dark of the night—awaiting a hostile encounter. An image that comes to mind is American soldiers on landing craft off the shores of Normandy in the pre-dawn hours of D-Day. However, those soldiers weren’t alone but were surrounded by buddies. Jacob is cosmically alone—in the dark—facing danger—afraid.
“wrestled with a man there until the breaking of the day”(v. 24b). “The word ‘wrestled’ (wayye’abek) is a play on ‘Jabbok’ (yabbok, vv. 24, 26…).” (Mathews, 556).
This is not the only passage in which the Lord appears as a man. In chapter 18, three men appeared to Abraham, one of whom was identified as the Lord (18:17, 20, 27) and the other two as angels (19:1).
The “man” refuses to give Jacob his name (vv. 27-29), but Jacob will identify him as God at the end of their encounter (v. 30). However, during the wrestling match, it is dark and Jacob seems not to know his opponent’s identity. Even though he has been exceedingly afraid to meet Esau, he doesn’t allow himself to be intimidated by this opponent who accosts him in the middle of the night. He might think that his opponent is Esau (see 33:10). He wrestles with all his might—and his might is pretty mighty.
“When he saw that he didn’t prevail against him” (v. 25a). How could God not prevail against Jacob?
• It could be that Jacob is mistaken when he identifies the man as God in verse 30, but everything about this encounter suggests that the man is, indeed, God—or, at the very least, an angel sent by God. Jews tended to believe that this was an angel of God, because they could not accept that Jacob could prevail over God. We see that reflected in Hosea 12:4, which says that Jacob “struggled with the angel, and prevailed”.
• It could be that God is appearing to Jacob in an incarnational role in which God has divested himself of some of his Godly powers—but there is nothing in the text to this effect.
• Or it could be that God is wrestling as a father might wrestle with a son—unwilling to exert his full strength lest he hurt the son. In such a case, the father might be unable to prevail decisively against his son—not because his son is equal in strength, but because the father is unwilling to employ his full strength.
Jacob is accustomed to conflict. This is not his first fight. “In every confrontation (Jacob) has emerged as the victor: over Esau, over Isaac, over Laban, and even more startlingly over this ‘man’ ” (Hamilton, 334).
“he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled”(v. 25b). God ratchets up the force one notch and dislocates Jacob’s hip to end the match, a great feat of strength.
A dislocated hip is an injury both painful and disabling—although in this case it will not prove to be permanent—there is no evidence that Jacob is crippled throughout his life.
GENESIS 32:26-29. I WON’T LET YOU GO UNLESS YOU BLESS ME
26The man said, “Let me go, for the day breaks.”
Jacob said, “I won’t let you go, unless you bless me.”
27He said to him, “What is your name?”
He said, “Jacob.”
28He said, “Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
29Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”
He said, “Why is it that you ask what my name is?” He blessed him there.
“The man said, ‘Let me go, for the day breaks'” (v. 26a). It is the man, not Jacob, who calls for an end to the match. The rationale for ending the match is that the day is breaking. Later, God will tell Moses, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20), so it would appear that God wants to stop this encounter before the sun rises to reveal God’s face—thereby endangering Jacob.
“Jacob said, ‘I won’t let you go, unless you bless me'” (v. 26b). Jacob prizes blessings. As noted above, he conspired earlier with his mother to trick his father into giving him the father’s blessing (27:1-29). It is not clear that he understands himself to be in mortal danger should the sun rise and reveal God’s face, but it is clear that he has suffered a painful injury and yet refuses to yield until he receives a blessing. The fact that he wants a blessing suggests that he understands that his opponent is God.
God earlier made Jacob a series of promises much like those that he made earlier with Abraham—including the promise, “in you and in your seed will all the families of the earth be blessed” (28:14). However, Jacob wants the blessing, not just for “all the families of the world,” but for himself as well.
“He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Jacob'” (v. 27). To impart a blessing requires that the one giving the blessing know the name of the one being blessed.
Jacob’s “name is linked to Hebrew, ‘qb, from which are derived the noun ‘aqeb ‘heel’ and the verb aqab ‘to seize at the heel,’ hence ‘to beguile’ or ‘to overreach, supplant.’ The name thus can mean ‘he takes the heel’ or ‘supplants'” (Myers, 545). When Esau discovered that Jacob had cheated him out of his birthright, he said, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright. See, now he has taken away my blessing” (27:36). Thus, when Jacob reveals his name to God, he also reveals his identity and character. He is a supplanter—one who “supersedes another by force, trickery, or treachery” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
“He said, ‘Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have fought with God and with men'” (v. 28a). A name change of this sort indicates the beginning of a new chapter in the person’s life—a new way of life—a new identity—new purpose. The name Israel (Hebrew: yisra el) could mean God (El) strives, but this verse says that it means that Jacob has “fought with God and with men.” The nation that will be descended from Jacob/Israel will bear the name Israel, but no other individual will be named Israel in the Old or New Testaments.
The giving of the name Israel is, in itself, a kind of blessing, because “whenever (Israel’s) descendants (hear) this name, or (use) it to describe themselves, they (will be) reminded of its origin and of its meaning, that as their father had triumphed in his struggle with men (i.e., Esau and Laban) and with God, so they too could eventually hope to triumph” (Wenham, 297).
However, it is worth noting that the name Jacob does not disappear, but instead is used again both immediately and often as the story continues (32:29, 30, 32; 33:1, etc.)—perhaps suggesting that, in Jacob’s case, the change of identity is far from decisive.
“and have prevailed” (v. 28b). In verse 25, we heard that God could not prevail, and now we hear that Jacob did prevail—but the contest has been less decisive than that would make it seem. God did not soundly defeat Jacob (as we suspect that he could have done had he been willing to exert the necessary force), but he did put Jacob’s hip out of joint (v. 25). Jacob did not soundly defeat God, but managed only to keep the battle going throughout the night. God’s words sound like a father who wants to encourage his son.
Von Rad sees the surprise not so much in Jacob prevailing, but in God allowing “himself to be coerced in such a way by Jacob’s violence” (Von Rad, 322).
“Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ He said, ‘Why is it that you ask what my name is?’ He blessed him there” (v. 29). When Jacob asks his opponent’s name, he says “please”—almost surely understanding that his opponent is God. God deflects his question by responding with a question—”Why is it that you ask what my name is?”
Then God gives Jacob/Israel the blessing that Jacob requested in verse 26. Jacob obtained his father’s blessing by deceit, but God gives this blessing fully aware of Jacob’s identify and character.
God’s refusal to reveal his name is rooted in the biblical understanding of names, where a name “expresses the essential nature of its bearer; to know the name is to know the person” (Myers, 747).
GENESIS 32:30-31. JACOB CALLED THE PLACE PENIEL
30Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for, he said, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” 31The sun rose on him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped because of his thigh.
“Jacob called the name of the place Peniel” (v. 30a). This is the only place where this place is called Peniel. Elsewhere it is called Penuel, as in the next verse. These variant spellings mean the same in Hebrew—”the face of God.”
“for, he said, ‘I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved'” (wattinnasel—was spared) (v. 30b). Jacob will not go away from this encounter unmarked. He has a new name, Israel, implying a new identity—a new beginning. He also walks with a limp. However, he understands that seeing God’s face has put him in mortal danger (Exodus 33:20; Isaiah 6:5), and so he is grateful to be alive. Moses will later report seeing God face to face (Numbers 12:8), and Manoah will do so as well (Judges 13:22)—but that is hardly a common experience.
“The sun rose on him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped because of his thigh” (v. 31). This reference to the dawn tells us that Jacob/Israel saw God in the dim light of early dawn rather than the full light of day. Perhaps that contributed to his survival.
GENESIS 32:32. A DIETARY NOTE
32Therefore the children of Israel don’t eat the sinew of the hip, which is on the hollow of the thigh, to this day, because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip.
This verse is not included in the lectionary reading, but probably should be. There is no mention of this dietary restriction elsewhere in scripture. However, to the extent that it is observed, it will remind Israel (the nation) of this encounter of Israel (the man) with God.
After his encounter with God, Jacob will meet Esau, a surprisingly friendly encounter (33:4 ff.). In that encounter, Jacob will say, “Please take the gift that I brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough”—and Esau accepted Jacob’s gift (33:11). In that sentence, the Hebrew that is translated “gift” is a derivative of the word berakah, which means “blessing.” “This word berakah (blessing, gift) is the same word used for what Jacob originally stole from Esau in the incident with their old blind father Isaac (27:41)” (Olson, 63).
Jacob will have another encounter with God where God will change his name from Jacob to Israel, saying:
“I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply.
A nation and a company of nations will be from you,
and kings will come out of your body.
The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you,
and to your seed after you will I give the land” (35:11-12).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary, Genesis 11:27-50:26, Vol. 1b (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Olson, Dennis T. in Van Harn, Roger, E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan