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B'resheet/Genesis 32:25(24) And Ya'akov was left on his own and a man wrestled with him until the lifting of the dawn.
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The account of the night wrestling match between our father Ya'akov and his unknown assailant at the ford in the Jabbok river on his way back to Eretz Yisrael and the night before his big reconciliation meeting with his brother Esau, has been the subject of debate almost since the day it was written. The questions centre around what Ya'akov was doing there at night anyway and just who was this man?
The verse contains three verbs; the first and last are unremarkable, the middle is unique to this narrative sequence. The first, , is the Nif'al 3ms prefix form of the root , "to remain, to be left" (Davidson). The third, is the Qal infinitive form of the root , "to go up" and is here translated as if it were a gerund: "the lifting of". The second verb, although it appears seven times in noun form in the Tanakh usually translated 'dust', is otherwise used only in this verse and the next, where is it similarly translated 'wrestled'. Another Nif'al form, , is the Nif'al 3ms prefix form of the otherwise unused root , for which Davidson offers "to struggle" or, based on the noun forms, "to dust one another". Etymologically,Ibn Ezra explains, "the man 'had a dustup' with him; their struggle raised dust." Pointing out that the verb creates a word play with the names Jabbok and Ya'akov, Nahum Sarna and Gordon Wenham suggest that "there may have existed a popular etymology connecting the name of the river with this incident." Targum Onkelos changes the verb to the Aramaic that Drazin and Wagner explain to "denote a verbal attempt to persuade". Maimonides goes as far as suggesting that the whole episode was a prophetic dream and that no actual physical or verbal contest took place (Guide for the Perplexed 2:42).
Starting with the first question - what Ya'akov was doing there at night anyway? - the commentators offer two main ideas. Sarna sets the scene, but without actually answering the question: "He had made repeated crossings of the river until all persons and goods had been safely transported. Now utterly alone in the dead of night, with no-one to come to his aid, he must rely solely on his own resources." TheRashbam proposes that "he meant to follow behind everyone else, intending to flee rather than encounter Esau" and that the encounter with the 'man' was to "keep him from fleeing, so that he would see the fulfillment of the Holy One's promise: Esau would not harm him." David Kimchi agrees, adding that, "G-d sent this angel to strengthen Ya'akov's courage; having evercome him, he need not fear Esau." The Sforno is very definite: "without a doubt, this was the work of an angel sent by G-d ... to demonstrate that G-d will save Ya'akov and his children in all their confrontations with Esau." Bruce Waltke takes us a little further into the reasoning: "The narrative emphasises Ya'akov's aloneness. In the sequential detail of the story, Ya'akov's unprotected state functions as suspense. One whose life is in danger stands alone. In theological retrospect, Ya'akov's solitude serves an important spiritual purpose. Ya'akov must encounter G-d alone, without possessions or protection."1 Who knew what Esau would do? Why had he brought "four hundred men with him" (B'resheet 32:7, NJPS)? Would Ya'akov's gifts of appeasement work - was his life really at risk? As Elijah found when he fled to Mt. Horeb in fear of his life from Queen Jezebel after HaShem's triumph at Mt. Carmel and the slaughter of "the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who [ate] at Jezebel's table" (1 Kings 18:19), and as Yeshua put into practice when He "was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days" (Luke 4:1-2, ESV), sometimes the only way of doing business with G-d is to be alone with Him, one-on-one, away from the distractions of the world and other people, even our nearest and dearest.
In the matter of the second question, the surrounding text gives us some clues to the identity of the 'man' without whom Ya'akov wrestles. A few verses later, the 'man' tells Ya'akov that "you have striven with G-d and with men" (B'resheet 32:28, NASB), while Ya'akov himself says, "I have seen God face to face" (v. 30, ESV). Both these use the word , elohiym, normally taken as the divine name 'G-d'. The prophet tells us somewhat ambiguously that "he contended with G-d. Yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed" (Hosea 12:3-4, NASB). Richard Elliot Friedman explains that because the 'man' "names him Yisra'el, which is interpreted to mean 'struggles with G-d', this indicates that he has wrestled with G-d in human form", then backtracks and adds that "angels are material expressions of G-d's presence. When they are in front of a human, they look like a 'man', like 'people'." Wenham reports that "some Christian commentators suggest that originally this was an account of Ya'akov's encounter with a Canaanite river god. They hold this is confirmed by the man's desire to depart before dawn, a regular feature of folk tale." This would explain, he continues, "why Ya'akov was unaware of his foe's identity and indeed took him on. Had he realised that his enemy was divine, he would never have engaged him in a fight."2 Only later, according to Waltke, do Ya'akov and the reader "recognise the man as the invisible G-d. The L-rd unexpectedly initiates a match." Although Leon Kass sees some ambiguity about identity in the text, he affirms, "one thing is not ambiguous: Ya'akov's antagonist is in fact the assailant. Not Ya'akov but the man initiated the wrestling. Ya'akov did not seek, but did not decline, the contest."3
Iain Provan amplifies the importance of understanding the cultural background: "In ANE tradition, river fords were seen as gateways into the lands to which they gave entry. As such, they were believed to be guarded by the gods of their servants, just as a city, temple or palace had guards to protect it. Although it is not clear as the Jabbok narrative opens, either to the reader or to Ya'akov (who is wrestling in the dark), the 'man' with whom he wrestles is in fact the one, living G-d. He is the one who 'guards' the Jabbok ford, as He guards all other fords - since there are no other gods. It is with Yahweh, then, that Ya'akov must deal before he can cross the river."4 If we are to enter the land of our promise, perhaps we too must engage with G-d before we can cross the river.
Whilst some commentators say the 'man' is Esau's angel, some that Ya'akov is wrestling with his own conscience or his fears and some that the 'man' is a pre-incarnate appearance of Yeshua - the angel or messenger of the L-rd - Kass points out that "the struggle itself clearly remind us of the struggle in the darkness within Rebakkah's womb (for example, Ya'akov's tenacious hold); and Ya'akov's renaming appears to be a second birth." The wrestlers appear perfectly matched: "Ya'akov would seem to be a match for any man; he will learn his limitations only in contests with the divine. Taking a slightly different tack, Walter Brueggemann reiterates the point that "on the way to his brother whom he wants to appease, Ya'akov must deal with his G-d to whom he has made intercession." Ya'akov may be frightened of both G-d and his brother. But in the fray, Brueggemann says, he will hold his own with either one. "What kind of G-d is it who will be pressed to a draw by this man? And what kind of man is our father Ya'akov that he can force a draw even against heaven?"5
Finally, the question comes down to us. Who do we wrestle in the stillness of the night? When our lives are going awry, when our lives seem perfectly on track - with whom do we wrestle and engage to draw close to the larger realities? While modern evangelical Christianity talks a lot about surrender and submitting to G-d - after all, as James and Peter tell us, "Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you" (James 4:10, NASB), "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of G-d, that He may exalt you at the proper time" (1 Peter 5:6, NASB) - if we are honest with ourselves, we've all had moments of wrestling with G-d, when we are unwilling to let go of something that we hold dear, when we think that G-d isn't delivering what He promised, when we are desperate and up against the wall. Then there's the second question: can or should we prevail? Is it possible for us to 'win' or hold G-d to a draw? If Ya'akov was rewarded with a blessing - albeit with a limp to go with it - and the words, "you have striven with G-d and with men, and have prevailed" (B'resheet 32:28, ESV), is that encouragement for us - like the widow battling the corrupt judge in Yeshua's parable, who said, "because this widow is such a nudnik, I will see to it that she gets justice - otherwise, she'll keep coming and pestering me till she wears me out!" (Luke 18:5, CJB) - to hold out and fight on, even if we seem to be fighting God?
Out of Ya'akov's 'dusty' struggle with the 'man', when he gave everything and more, the whole night through, came blessing, a new name and the assurance that he had truly seen G-d. If we would see G-d and walk in His blessing, perhaps we need to be prepared to do the same, trusting that G-d will show us what is really worth fighting for and then hearing His "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:21) when we have persisted and achieved our calling.
1. - Bruce Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), page 445.
2. - Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), page 295.
3. - Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2003), pages 456-457.
4. - Iain Provan, Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), page 166.
5. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis Interpretation, (Atlanta, GA, John Knox Press, 1982), page 267.
Further Study: Luke 13:23-25; Romans 8:26-27; Hebrews 5:7
Application: Do you ever wrestle or grapple with G-d? If not, then perhaps you are missing out on an important formational step in becoming like Yeshua.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2018
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