Bible: Did Jacob (aka Israel) wrestle with God or an angel? (Genesis 32:24)

In Genesis 32:24 it is implied that Jacob wrestled with God and was winning until God cheated near the end.

It seems crazy that God would come on earth to wrestle some guy and then lose to that guy. But I looked and many seem to make exactly that claim.

So, which is it?

It is widely (but not universally) described by christians as being a theophany, or an appearance by Jesus before the incarnation.

If you read it in Hebrew, the narrator never describes the wrestler as anything but a man. It is Jacob who assumes he is God, albeit, the word “Israel” lends itself to this interpretation, because it means something like “There was seen G-d.”

This may not be meant literally.

What we really have here, probably, is a redaction of two stories, one where Jacob is named Jacob, and another where the same character is named Israel.

The Hebrews of the North and South have been separate for a while, and developed different traditions, and have different written scriptures. At some point, they were stitched together by someone who wanted people to get along after rejoining each other (there was an exile before the one that “lost” 10 of the 12 tribes) and have a shared tradition. A story that explained why Jacob/Israel had two names was necessary, and throwing in an explanation for the reason that Jews had to go to the trouble of removing a difficult nerve in order to make a certain cut of meat kosher was a nice bonus.

No information to add, but I would concur that if you study the early stories and how they relate to what we know from archaeology, a large impetus may have been to merge the stories from the North and those from the South.

Abraham’s journey seems to match the movements of the Amorites, who settled into Northern Israel and Syria after moving over from Iraq. Noah’s Ark seems to trace back to Northeast Iraq / bordering on Armenia and again would likely have come from the Amorites. We are told that Abraham called God by a different name than Yahweh.

Moses’ tales seem to descend from people friendly with the Kenites and Midianites, in Southern Israel. Our earliest extra-Biblical reference to the name “Yahweh” comes from the South.

The general pattern / compromise seems to have been that the North had their tales pulled in as ancient history while the South was given more recent history and the name of God. The South was dominant.

We do see that the South is where the capital was located when the two states merged.

Addendum: Other tribes/kingdoms may have been included in all of this outside of the “big two” at various points, but that would be the simple version.

Can you show us the Hebrew then? I don’t think that’s true.

The “angel” in question is referred to as “man” (אִישׁ) and “God” in Genesis, while Hosea references an “angel” (מַלְאָךְ).[1]

I was referring only to the Genesis story, not to Hosea, which is essentially commentary.

I know. My recollection is that Genesis refers to the figure as both God and a man. Wikipedia agrees with me. I doubt that the translations available to us would call him God for no reason when the Hebrew says only man. Can you tell us which Hebrew words it calls him by?

The NIV linked above fits what she said. The combatant is only implied to be God by Jacob in verse 30, and never makes the claim himself. The text itself only ever describes him as a man.

28 Then the man[a] said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with humans,[c] and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[d] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

It’s clear. He wrestles with God, so is given the name Israel which mean struggles with God. God tells him “you fought God” and then Jacob says “I saw God.”

Some people think that the activity going on here “until daybreak” was not, originally, wrestling. I don’t know about that, but vide the astonishing abruptness with which the story begins:

24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

It might as well say [REDACTED] in red ink. You can see it’s an orphan story stuck in the middle of an unrelated narrative, but even recycling and recontextualizing a story you would usually write it with a beginning. What you would expect from this kind of story about a god coming to see a man would be “God saw how very strong (or proud) Jacob was, so he decided to fight him.” Or–if it was the other way–“God saw how beautiful Jacob was, so he went to him to have sex with him.”

But yeah, Whack-a-Mole, it is bizarre to us that it once seemed reasonable to write a story where God fights a man one-on-one and loses. But it was so important to them that they had to squeeze it in there somehow! I don’t know if they loved depicting God as weak, but it provides two classic Hebrew Bible just-so stories in one slim package: the origin of Israel’s name, and the origin of a kosher practice. That kind of stuff is irresistible to these authors. They can’t help themselves! It always makes me smile.

I don’t know if “hip” is used euphemistically often as “thigh” and “feet” are–maybe RivkahChaya could help here–but damn, they say hip a lot. The writers didn’t always like to be specific about referring to the lower areas of the body. The specificity of of the description urges away from a euphemistic reading, but again, this is a just-so story. And if it’s not euphemism, some of you are in the demographic that has had a hip replacement: your doctor may have warned you that vigorous intercourse can dislocate your hip.

It’s not as clear here as when eg “Ham saw his father’s nakedness” in some of these stories, you realize “Oh, this is one of those that’s more like those Zeus stories.” It’s not clear. But ever since I was a kid, to me this is one of those strikingly, aggressively bizarre stories that demand active participation from the reader to fill in the utterly intriguing blanks.

Sounds like something that should be brought up in this thread:
Are there bible verses that Jews and Christians disagree on the translation? - General Questions - Straight Dope Message Board

This sounds like some hocus-pocus reverse engineered nonsense to cover some inconvenient gap in the bigger story. Jesus was seen before he was born? More than that…he was wrestling with people and cheating at it?

It’s standard Christian belief that Jesus is God, and that, as the Second Person of the Trinity, is eternal.

Indeed. And not only that, but Divine Wisdom (aka, Sophia) with appears in many places in the Old Testament is considered to be a manifestation of Jesus (ever since the Church Fathers referencing Paulene Epistles)

The Hebrew version never at all refers to the wresler as God. The words used have connotations of strength, and are usually used to refer to God as the ultimate strength, but not always. See e.g. Exodus 4:16 and 7:1 where it’s used to refer to Moses (in his dealings with Pharaoh).

You mean like most of the rest of the bible?

A couple of others that some say were pre-incarnation Jesus are the person Abraham was talking to when Sarah laughed and the mysterious man, Melchizedek.

I am glad that you noted that a reference to Jesus is not universal to Christians, because it is not.
The theophanic allusions are based on the wrestler refusing to give his name (which could be either the idea that knowing a person’s name gives one power over a person or its extended meaning that one may not know the name of God.

In both cases, the word translated as “God” is “Elohim”, which could mean “God” but could also be a generic term for “divine being” or “god”, including the gods of other peoples. My Jewish Bible preserves the ambiguity by translating it in those verses as “the Divine”.

The Genesis stories in general don’t seem to distinguish as clearly as we do between “angels” and “God Himself in disguise”. Similar ambiguity is seen in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and other places.

So, to reply succinctly to the OP, the Hebrew text is ambiguous, and it’s not clear that the author would have considered the distinction meaningful anyway.

I guess it’s technically true that the omniscient narrator doesn’t say he’s an angel, but the guy himself says “…for you have striven with Elohim and with humans”. I’ve never read any interpretation suggesting that he wasn’t referring to himself as “Elohim” there.

And we see exactly the same thing in the Sodom/Gomorrah story and when Sarah is informed of her impending pregnancy; there as well, clearly angelic beings are at times described simply as “ish” (“man” or “person”), and it isn’t entirely clear whether these beings are actually God or some subordinate entity.

Which actually makes sense when you think about it, because the idea of an omnipotent deity needing flunkies doesn’t quite add up. My understanding is that we picked up the idea of a whole organizational chart of angels with their own names and unique attributes during the Babylonian captivity, and the Genesis stories are much older than that.

The part about it being Jesus is most assuredly reverse-engineered nonsense, but that’s sort of beside the point. Either way, the idea of God showing up to wrassle someone, or send a deputy to do so, is definitely weird. But it’s just one example of the deep weirdness of the entire Book of Genesis.

Edited: OK, Discourse is telling me I am making too many consecutive posts, I suppose I should take the hint, but I already composed this:

A third alternative: Bereshit Rabbah, a fourth-century Talmud-adjacent commentary, says that it simply meant “we angels have no fixed names; our names change according to the mission on which we are sent”. The angel cannot be simply refusing to answer Jacob’s question, as that would be rude given that he had already asked Jacob’s name.