First, Prof P, I hope you’re feeling better. I seem to have caught it from you, I was sick all last week and I’m still coughing like crazy.
Second, my text has different verse numbering, I’m not sure what’s going on. What you cite as 31:55 from last week, appears in my text as 32:1, so all my numbers are one more than the NIV. I had prepared this in advance based on my numbering, so once I saw the difference, I’ve added square-brackets to cite NIV.
OK, to text: first story is Jacob preparing to meet his brother Esau after a 20-year absence. Jacob is worried about this meeting. Remember that Esau had threatened him, and with good cause.
He proceeds in a very natural way: he tries to get information, he imagines the worst, he prays for guidance, and he sends [del]bribes[/del] peace-offerings.
In verses 4–7 [NIV 3-6], he tries to get information about Esau’s state of mind (and strength of forces.) Esau has four hundred men; from other sources (such as I Samuel 22:2, 25:13, 30:10 and 30:17), this seems to be a standard size for militia, so becomes worrisome to Jacob. Also, of course, numerology was important back then, and 400 = 40 x 10, and 40 is the number of generational change and 10 is a number of completeness, so the number 400 bodes something. Jacob worries.
In verses 8-9 [NIV 7-8], Jacob considers the worst case scenario, conflict, and he’s outnumbered significantly. What are the options? He can’t flee because he promised Laban (Gen 31:42) not to go back. So, he tries to position his people to minimize losses in case Esau attacks.
In verses 10–13 [NIV:9-12], he prays for guidance and for help. He uses phrases from God’s promise (the ladder dream in Gen 28:13-15), and from God’s command (that he go back to the land, in Gen 31:3, which put him in this situation.) Those two interactions with God are not random, but mark the beginning and end of his 20-year exile.
In verses 14-22 [NIV: 13-21], Jacob sends gifts to Esau, to try to soothe any hostility. It’s almost a tribute, and he keeps a “distance between the droves” so the gifts come as a series of surprises. Esau admires each gift, and then the next gift arrives. Great psychological ploy!
Second story: Jacob wrestles with someone
Now we have an interlude, an interruption of the story of the reunion with Esau. Jacob has moved his family and flocks, so he is alone at night. In verses 23 – 33 [NIV 22-32] he is attacked by and wrestles with a mysterious assailant. It’s very brief, but very deep and there has been much commentary and iconography in this story.
The first question is who is the assailant? Although the NIV says “Jacob wrestles with God,” that’s not the plain meaning of the Hebrew text. The assailant is called “a person” in verse 25 [NIV 24], but in verse 31 [NIV 30] Jacob says “I have seen elohim face-to-face.” The word elohim is ambiguous; it can refer to God, or pagan gods, or to other divine beings. Hosea recounts this story and calls it an angel (Hos 12:4). We’ve seen before (Abraham being visited by three strangers) that angels can be initially perceived as humans.
Another interpretation is that the attacker is a literary symbol for Esau (obviously not Esau himself). One midrash has it that the wrestler is some sort of “guardian angel” of Esau. Since Esau will father the nation of Edom, which tries to block the Israelites from occupying the land, the wrestling here foreshadows the coming confrontation with Esau, and the later historic difficulties between Israel and Edom.
The Hebrew word “wrestled” is the stem ’-V-K, which (I think) only appears in this story. That word sort of puns on both the man Jacob and the place Jabbok (see v 23 [NIV v 22].) The place is significant, it’s later a frontier of the Israelite kingdom.
As dawn comes, the attacker tries to escape. Unable to overcome Jacob by simple strength, he delivers a “sudden, powerful blow” to Jacob’s hip, but Jacob still refuses to let go. There’s a poetic justice here: the wrestler grabs Jacob’s hip from behind, as Jacob had grabbed Esau’s heel a birth.
The being says, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking” and thus Jacob now understands that he is wrestling with something supernatural, and so asks for a blessing.
The Name Change
“What is your name?” is of course rhetorical, but is a more dramatic way of getting to the name change. Names in the bible are almost always tied to personality or destiny. This name change indicates that Jacob is no longer the trickster but one who strives with God and men. (Or with divine beings and men, the Hebrew is the ambiguous elohim.) The “men” with whom Jacob strives could mean Esau and Laban, or could be more generic.
in short, the exact etymology of “Israel” is unclear. The narrative requires the stem S-R-H and that is consistent with Hosea’s retelling. However, that root is not otherwise used in the bible, so the meaning “to strive” is derived from the context. The -el ending on names means God, as in Samuel and Michael. But then the meaning of “Israel” would “God strives” rather than “He strives with God.”
One possible meaning is “had dominion over a divine being”, again suggested in Hosea.
Another possiblitiy: the stem Y-SH-R means “to be straight” or upright, and the letter S and SH here are almost identical. So there’s a change of personality destiny: his original name Ya-akov meant to be crafty or deceitful, and his new names means “He is upright with God.”
Yet another explanation: yisra’el could be a contraction of ish ra’ah el “the man who saw a divine being” or “the man who saw God.”
Basically, we don’t understand the etymology. We do understand that Jacob is now also called “Israel.” For those believing in multiple authors, this is the E-version. The P-version of the name-change will appear in Gen 35:9-15.
Jacob’s comment about seeing elohim face-to-face is deliciously ambiguous. First ambiguity is whether this means God or a divine being. (Although we later have God telling Moses that no human can see God’s face and live.) Second ambiguity is that face-to-face can mean confrontationally, or can mean intimately.
We end with the first mention of “the children of Israel” (NIV translates “Israelites”) meaning the entire people, not just Jacob’s sons. The narrative is slowly changing from the story of one family, to the story of a people.