Jacob wrestling his 'angel' is our own struggle

Jacob, the biblical patriarch, seems far from our time. But his all-night wrestling match with a strange being throws shadows across the ages, and exposes powerful elements of our own humanity. IDEAS producer Sean Foley explains how this ancient story sheds light on perennial aspects of the human condition.

Jacob's struggle is 'so intensely human' that his identity must evolve as our own should, argues Rabbi

Rembrandt's oil painting, Jacob Wrestles with the Angel, 1659. There are many interpretations of the narrative in Genesis 32, regarding the identity of Jacob's opponent, and the meaning of the encounter. (Wikimedia)

* Originally published on September 17, 2019.

Jacob remained alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.- Genesis 32:24

So  — that's it?  Well, yes, and no. 

At first glance, Jacob's struggle with a mysterious being comes off as abrupt and vague. But this ancient story sheds light on perennial aspects of the human condition: fear, dishonesty, destiny, and integrity. 

It's also much richer in the original Hebrew: there's wordplay, allusion, and vivid symbolism. Much of that is lost to those of us reading it in English. 

Jacob is a foundational figure — but that doesn't mean he's a great leader.  He's a follower, a bit of a sneak; a usurper. This is all contained just in the pronunciation of his name.

He lies to his father, Isaac. He's manipulated by his mother, Rebecca. He steals his brother Esau's blessing.

Jacob runs for his life, and then ends up under the thumb of Laban, his father in law, for a couple of decades. 

Matthias Stom's painting depicts Esau [right] selling his birthright to Jacob or The Lentil Stew, 17th century. (Wikimedia)

When it comes time to face Esau again, Jacob is desperate.

T.M. Lemos, biblical scholar and historian at Huron University College in London, Ont., admits that Jacob wasn't a very attractive figure when she first encountered him. 

"I think he's afraid. And [in his prayer] he says, '[Esau] might cut us all down, the women and children,' but then he sends the women and the children ahead of himself. So that doesn't really show a desire to protect them over his own life," Lemos told IDEAS.

The power within the light of day

Jacob has plenty of material possessions. But something is missing. He's still not really his own person. He lacks legitimacy, integrity. 

Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner, a lecturer in Bible and Biblical Exegesis at Lindenbaum College in Jerusalem, has spent years with the story of Jacob, unpacking ancient Hebrew and mining its psychological undercurrents. At every turn, he found that this age-old tale pointed to things that still keep us up at night, and into the dawn. 

"The things that you're wrestling with are the things you've relegated to darkness. You can wrestle with things in the dark, but when the rise of dawn comes, that enlightenment is the most threatening part of this," Rabbi Klitsner said.

"Our ways of prevaricating, of lying to ourselves or deceiving others don't withstand the light of day."

Jacob Wrestles with the Angel by French artist Gustave Doré. 'When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.' ⁠—  Genesis 32:24 (Wikimedia)

After he prevails in his fight with the 'angel,' and receives his desired blessing, Jacob is injured at the hip. The sun rises, and he's given a new name — Israel — which means 'he who wrestles with God.' The new name reflects his struggle, and the destiny of an entire people.

"[The story] gets at the difficulty of reaching transcendence and reaching understanding. It's not arrived at easily, " said Lemos. "And even in our moment of victory, we are just left limping toward transcendence. We are still wounded."   

Does any of this sound at all familiar? 

"This struggle of Jacob's is so intensely human," says Klitsner. "He needs his identity to evolve the same way I need my identity to evolve: Over time and through struggle."

Guests in this episode:

  • Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner is a lecturer in Bible and Biblical Exegesis at Lindenbaum College in Jerusalem, and the author of Wrestling Jacob: Deception, Identity, and Freudian Slips in Genesis (Ben Yehuda Press, 2009).
  • T.M. Lemos is an associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Huron University College in London, Ont., and the author of Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts (Oxford University Press, 2017).

** This episode was produced by Sean Foley.