With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle? The Surprising Identity of Jacob’s Angel

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Gustave Doré (1855)

This week’s parasha, Vayishlach, begins with the famous story of Jacob’s brawl with the angel. This occurred during Jacob’s return to Israel after twenty years living with his father-in-law Laban in the land of Charan. Upon his return, Jacob knows that his brother Esau is waiting for him, and looking for revenge. After all, Esau was the main reason why Jacob left the Holy Land to begin with, having heard that Esau intended to kill him for “stealing” their father’s blessing.

Now, Jacob is journeying back home and receives word that Esau is on his way with four hundred soldiers. The Torah goes on to describe how Jacob prepared for the encounter in three ways. First, he devised a battle strategy and divided his camp into two. Then, he prayed fervently to God. Finally, he sent messengers with very large gifts (over five hundred animals from his flocks) to appease Esau. This in itself is a beautiful lesson. When coming up against conflicts, we too should have these three considerations in mind: trying foremost to solve the issue peacefully, praying to God for some Heavenly assistance, and in case all else fails, carefully preparing for battle.

The Nighttime Brawl

After setting up the narrative with this introduction, the Torah goes on to state that Jacob was left alone that night, and “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). The story ends with Jacob being renamed “Israel” by his adversary. Despite the fact that most people immediately recall that this “man” was actually an angel (as Rashi comments), there is no explicit mention in the Torah that this figure was indeed an angel. The angel interpretation is derived indirectly from the fact that the adversary later says of Jacob that he “struggled with God, and with people, and prevailed” (v. 29). Furthermore, after the battle is over Jacob says that he “saw God face-to-face, and my soul was saved” (v. 32).

However, a careful reading shows that neither of these two verses suggests that he battled an angel. The first simply states that Jacob had struggled in his life both with people and in his service of God. The second verse says that Jacob saw a vision of God during the fight, and praised God for saving his soul; it does not say that he wrestled an angel!

On top of this, many more difficulties arise with the angel version. For one, how is Jacob, a mere mortal, able to physically defeat an angelic entity that is not even limited by physical dimensions? The angel surely could have “flown away” at will! Secondly, Jacob’s adversary is fearful of the coming dawn, and begs Jacob to be freed before sunrise. Third, when Jacob asks the name of his assailant, the latter does not want to divulge this information. Rashi dispels with this last problem by saying that angels don’t have permanent names. But we know that they certainly do! For example, Michael is considered the “guardian angel” of Israel, Gabriel is an angel of justice, while Raphael is described as the angel of healing. Funny enough, Rashi himself identifies these angelic names in Genesis 18:2 and 37:15!

So, if it was not an angel, with whom did Jacob do battle?

Identifying Jacob’s Adversary

After the narrative of the brawl ends, the Torah states, “And Jacob lifted his eyes and saw that Esau was coming…” (33:1).That was fast! Shortly after the “angel” is gone, Jacob only has to lift his eyes and Esau appears. Most surprising is what Jacob later tells Esau: “…I have seen your face, which is like the face of God, and you have accepted me” (v. 10). The striking parallel is impossible to miss. After battling the “angel”, Jacob says he saw the face of God (“ki ra’iti Elohim panim al panim…”) and now he tells Esau that Esau’s face is like the face of God (“ki ra’iti panecha kir’ot pnei Elohim…”) – the Hebrew wording is nearly identical! It appears that Jacob is giving us a big clue, and he is also hinting something to his brother: Jacob knows that the supposed “angel” who battled him not long before was none other than Esau himself!

This explains why the “angel” snuck up on Jacob in the darkness of the night, and feared the rising sun so that his identity would not be revealed in the light. This is why the “angel” could not reveal his name to Jacob. And this is why the “angel” gave Jacob a new name:

After Jacob took the blessing from Esau, the Torah records how Esau asked: “Is it because his name is Jacob that he has deceived me…?” (Genesis 27:36). This is a play on words in Hebrew, since Jacob is Ya’akov, and “deceived me” is ya’akveni. The root of Jacob’s name shares the root with the term for trickery and deception. Esau wondered then whether Jacob’s name alluded to his deceptive nature. Now, having battled Jacob and seen that he is truly a great and powerful man—deserving of their father’s blessing—Esau admitted that he is not at all “Jacob”, a name which denotes trickery, but rather, he is the mighty Israel, a true warrior.

One-on-One

If we can conclude that Jacob’s adversary was indeed Esau, another beautiful dimension is added to the story. We saw how Esau was racing towards Jacob with a fierce contingent of four hundred armed men, while Jacob prepared his own sons, workers, and followers into a defensive battalion. Ultimately, instead of starting a war where potentially hundreds of innocent people might perish, the two found each other at night, alone, and faced each other one-on-one, face-to-face, panim al panim. They put to rest their personal issues, ending the animosity between them, and so the next morning they embraced and wept on each other’s shoulders. The two brothers had finally made peace.

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Update (April 9, 2015): This cool video takes a similar approach to Jacob’s brawl with the angel:

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