The Wrestler

KJV Genesis 32:22-30 reads as follows:

[22] And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.
[23] And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.
[24] And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
[25] And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.
[26] And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
[27] And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.
[28] And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
[29] And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.
[30] And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.

Whom did Jacob wrestle that night? (And no, it wasn’t Mickey Rourke.)

There is a widely repeated answer to this question from Joseph Fielding Smith, which appears in various places (including the CES OT student manual), and arguably is sort of semi-official:

‘Who wrestled with Jacob on Mount Peniel? The scriptures say it was a man. The Bible interpreters say it was an angel. More than likely it was a messenger sent to Jacob to give him the blessing. To think he wrestled and held an angel who couldn’t get away, is out of the question. The term angel as used in the scriptures, at times, refers to messengers who are sent with some important instruction. Later in this chapter when Jacob said he had beheld the Lord, that did not have reference to his wrestling.’

So one possibility is that the wrestler was not a supernatural angel, and a fortiori certainly not God himself, but a human messenger.

Andrew Skinner acknowledged JFS’s view, but had a different take [see Skinner, Andrew C., "Jacob in the Presence of God" in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Old Testament, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo and Salt Lake City: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, and Deseret Book 2005), 117-132.]:

At some point, Jacob was joined by a being who would wrestle with him for the rest of the night. The details of Jacob’s wrestle are not made clear in the biblical record, but we have enough information that we can see profound truths and patterns in this episode of the patriarch’s life.

It seems reasonable to conclude that Jacob’s wrestle was physical as well as spiritual, because the text is emphatic in its description of Jacob’s dislocated hip (see Genesis 32:25, 31-32). Perhaps that detail is mentioned precisely to show that his wrestle was a literal as well as a metaphoric occurrence. It is also reasonable to suppose that Jacob’s opponent that night was a being from the unseen world of heavenly messengers, a divine minister possessing a tangible but translated body, because he was able to wrestle all night and throw Jacob’s hip out of joint (see Genesis 32:24-25).

That the personage was merely a mortal seems unlikely, first of all, because the text takes care to point out that Jacob was left completely alone, with no other humans close by (see Genesis 32:22-24). Second, the nature of Jacob’s encounter was of special and profound consequence. The Hebrew word used to describe Jacob’s visitor is simply ”ish, meaning “man,” with no overt reference to divine status.4 Nevertheless, the same word is used elsewhere to denote divine messengers in several Old Testament passages that deal with angels or heavenly beings who are sent to convey revelation. When used in this way, the word also often connotes the operation of the principle of divine investiture of authority-the authorization that God grants to others to speak in His name, even sometimes as though they were God Himself. “Thus, the angel of Yahweh ([Hebrew] ‘mal’akh) often appears in the form of an ”ish, ‘a man.’ Either both terms are used interchangeably for an angel . . . or angels who appear at first only as men [but] afterwards speak with divine authority (Gen. 19:12ff.; Jgs. 13:3ff.; Josh. 5:15) or even as God Himself (Gen. 18:9ff.), or they act in the place of God (19:10f.; Jgs. 13:20)…Also in the prophets, the angel of God appears in the form of an ”ish.”5

As implied in Doctrine and Covenants 129:4-7, divine messengers of Jacob’s day (or any dispensation, for that matter) who had physical contact with earthly beings had to possess physical bodies themselves. The Prophet Joseph Smith “explained the difference between an angel and a ministering spirit; the one a resurrected or translated body, with its spirit ministering to embodied spirits-the other a disembodied spirit, visiting and ministering to disembodied spirits.”6 Furthermore, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith indicated that whenever divine messengers had a mission to perform among mortals, those messengers “had to have tangible bodies” and thus were translated beings.7

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that translated beings are coworkers with God to bring to pass His great plan of salvation. “Their place of habitation is that of the terrestrial order, and a place prepared for such characters He held in reserve to be ministering angels unto many planets.”8 Of Enoch, the preeminent translated personage, the Prophet said: “He is a ministering Angel to minister to those who shall be heirs of Salvation.”9

It seems very unlikely that the being involved with Jacob was Jehovah Himself, because the Lord did not yet possess a physical body. And the being could not have been a one-time mortal who was now a resurrected being because Christ was the “firstfruits” of the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20), the first of our Heavenly Father’s children on this earth to be resurrected. Therefore, one of two possibilities regarding the identity of Jacob’s night visitor is that he was a translated being who had been an inhabitant of this earth, since “there are no angels who minister to this earth but those who do belong or have belonged to it” (D&C 130:5).

Though encounters with translated beings in Jacob’s day are not explicitly recorded, those beings certainly existed. Enoch and his entire city had been translated and taken up into heaven as a result of their righteousness (see Moses 7:18-24). Melchizedek possessed that same kind of great faith. He “and his people wrought righteousness, and obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch which God had before taken” (JST Genesis 14:34). In fact, other men with that same faith and possessing the same priesthood as Melchizedek and Enoch had also been translated and taken up into heaven (see Joseph Smith Translation, Genesis 14:32).

Skinner bravely disagrees with JFS’s semi-canonical view to argue for the messenger being indeed a divine angel or messenger of some sort. But he argues against it being Jehovah himself, on the theory that Jehovah was not yet embodied and so physically could not have participated in the wrestling match.

Personally, I’ve always viewed the wrestler as God himself. That to me seems to be the plain import of the Genesis text. The new name Jacob receives from the wrestler, Israel, means El/God fights or He fights with El/God. The name Jacob gives the place is Peniel, or Face of El/God, so named he says because he had seen God face to face and lived.

JFS’s view is governed by modern assumptions–it is simply impossible that a human man could physically prevail with any sort of a divine being. AS’s view is tempered by modern LDS theology equating Jehovah with the preexistent Christ.

But Mormonism also is home to just about the most aggressive anthropomorphism anywhere within a stone’s throw of Christianity. And this is a primitive story. I think it reads more naturally, and is way cooler, if the wrestler is actually God, than if we do backflips trying to avoid that most obvious reading.

What do you think about this? What is your vote; theory 1, 2 or 3, or do you have a different view you would like to propose? My hope is that this discussion will be useful in the near future when our GD classes hit this passage and this question inevitably comes up. So please share with us your insights on the identity of The Wrestler.

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Comments

  1. I think any discussion of this subject needs to deal with this: http://www.marriedtothesea.com/012710/stop-hitting-yourself.gif

  2. “Mormonism also is home to just about the most aggressive anthropomorphism anywhere within a stone’s throw of Christianity.”

    In the context of this story, I hardly think this is terribly relevant. Better to look at anthropomorphism among ancient near eastern religions for clues. As far as my memory serves me, ancient gods in all the ancient religions with which I am familiar were capable of, and often did assume physical forms to interact with mortals. My vote is that this story means to communicate that Jacob wrestled with God (El). I prefer, however to consider this story almost strictly allegorically or mythologically, wherein truths about God and man are represented without needing so much to bear the burden of historicity.

  3. I like Origen’s interpretation (Nibley seems to follow this as well) that the divine being (I suggest it is God) wrestles with Jacob, meaning as a support. Like the angel that strengthened Christ. I suggest then that the wrestle is metaphorical (like Enos) but that the divine help was real. The weakest part of my analysis is the leg. However, this idea of touching the thigh, if I recollect correctly, is a symbol of covenant and therefore may be a symbol of covenantal healing. However, if a literal interpretation is needed, you relate it to Pres. Kimball’s wrestle that he had on being called to be an apostle. He went in to the mountains and walked around for hours. It is possible that while on this journey he damaged his leg.

  4. I like the idea that it was an angel and that they were physically wrestling.

    I thought the material provided by Skinner about ministering angels being terrestrial beings was interesting — seems a raw deal for people like Enoch to be confined to the Terrestrial Kingdom (if that is what Joseph Smith meant when he said “their place of habitation is that of the terrestrial order”), although maybe this concept contains hardwired within it the concept of progression between kingdoms. That is, once their mission in the terrestrial order is done, they can move on to their inheritance in the celestial kingdom.

  5. I’m partially in agreement with SteveS. From the text alone, I would say that Jacob wrestled with God the Father. But in terms of any Christian theology, including our own, the idea of physically wrestling God to a stalemate seems highly improbable to say the least.

    I think that there might be some ANE precursor to this story, and someone with a deeper background in such things might be able to point to one. Then, the narrative gets reworked, however incompletely, by ancient Hebrew interpreters, priests, and scribes to the version we have today. Thus some of the strange parts of the story- why does God need to leave at the break of day? Is he a vampire? What is this business with the thigh? How does this explain why Hebrews won’t eat the meat of the thigh, which appears in the last verse of the chapter?

  6. Mike Parker says:

    I agree with Kevin that the outcome of the story (Jacob’s new name and his naming of the location) makes little sense unless the being was God himself.

    We Mormons so often want to read the scriptures with our presentist goggles on. The story makes perfect sense viewed through the theological lens of ancient Hewbrews; we should be trying to see it from their point of view rather than forcing it into ours.

  7. The coolest reference to this incident, however, has to be in a U2 song:

    “In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum
    Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome
    Plant a demon seed, you raise a flower of fire
    See them burning crosses, see the flames, higher and higher”

  8. I think it reads more naturally, and is way cooler, if the wrestler is actually God, than if we do backflips trying to avoid that most obvious reading.

    I think the backflips caused the dislocated hip.

    Just sayin’.

  9. Antonio Parr says:

    Check out Frederick Buechner’s stunningly beautiful sermon “The Magnificent Defeat” for a moving reflection on the Jacob/Angel contest, the conclusion of which is found below:

    <>

  10. Antonio Parr says:

    Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, are his who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy, are only from God. And God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight-God, the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, he demands of us everything; before giving us life, he demands our lives-our selves, our wills, our treasure.

    Will we give them, you and I? I do not know. Only remember the last glimpse that we have of Jacob, limping home against the great conflagration of the dawn. Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.

  11. Whom did Jacob wrestle that night?

    Ben Linus.

    Oh, sorry. Wrong website.

  12. I think that Jacob fought either El or Yahweh. Yahweh/Jesus Christ also appeared to the Brother of Jared in a physical form. It may not have been a mortal/resurrected body, but God can obviously appear as he so chooses to, including in a physical form, even when a spirit.

    Can man out-wrestle God? Of course not. But perhaps God allowed Jacob to best him by different criteria. It was not an issue of who pinned who, but if Jacob could continue fighting throughout the night. It was an issue of endurance. God required Jacob to perform his best and not quit. In this, Jacob prevailed by enduring through the night, even when his hip was dislocated.

    Abraham’s God was Yahweh (Book of Abraham 1). Yet he was aware of El Elyon as the chief God (see my discussion here: http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com/2010/02/lds-gospel-doctrine-class-old-testament_15.html), where Melchizedek is the High Priest of El Elyon, and Abraham is the High Priest of Yahweh. Jacob would also be aware of both Gods.

    Still, with Divine Investiture, it is possible that Yahweh, or any number of divine beings (translated or not), could have represented El. After all, Enoch as Metatron sat on God’s throne and was worshiped by the angels as God’s image.

  13. Wouldnt the men/angels/Lord interaction in Gen. 18-19 be informative to the current discussion? There you have men/angels who are clearly on the Lord’s errand, and they are imbued with some sort of supernatural powers, yet appear, at least superficially, to be nothing more than men.

  14. Props to Greg (11), I think you’ve nailed it.

    I refer to the opening credits of the movie Dogma – “remember: even God has a sense of humor. Just look at the Platypus.”
    I think sometimes we sterilize God and in doing take from Him all personality. If God, like us, was formed from intelligence, it assumes he has a personality (imo). I like stories like this in the Bible where we get a glimpse of God’s personality. Perhaps he is a macho who likes to wrestle, and perhaps Jacob was a good enough person to be worthy of God’s presence. I like this interpretation, and so for me it is the correct interpretation. I have no problem with others assuming it must have been a mortal that Jacob wrestled with, but I definitely think it was God the Father. I like it better that way.

  15. The Other Bro Jones says:

    I think the only real question is what the wrestling was about. I don’t think it was a physical fight in the typical sense, but something more spiritual. Perhaps a debate. If the messenger was sent to give him a calling and describe his role, and there was some discussion and debate and struggle for understanding, or struggle to accept the call.

    The hip may be a red herring. It could have been a blessing/covenant, but not an actual dislocation. (maybe?)

  16. Maybe God is into stick-pulling, like Joseph Smith was.

  17. Greg (11) I totally disagree. Jacob was clearly wrestling with himself, from a different time line.

  18. If we are looking at the text as a literal history, then I would vote for Jacob wrestling with God, because the rest of the story seems to fit better that way. I think we could also approach the text as an allegorical foundational story that explains why Israel has struggled with other nations and with it’s own God throughout history, among other things. Or maybe it’s a little of both. Perhaps there is something to the history of this story, and then the basic story is arranged with specific literary techniques to convey messages to a Jewish reader. Isn’t there a wordplay in the Hebrew behind “Jacob”, “Wrestled”, and “Jabbok”? Is it just coincidental that Jacob touches Esau’s leg, and then El touches Jacob’s leg? If there are other layers of meaning, what might they have been to ancient Israelites? How did later canonical writers apply this story to their own time and circumstances? I am fascinated with all the possibilities.

  19. Kevin

    i Have a copy of a letter from Hugh Nibley that argues that the word for wrestle here could also mean something else. Specifically that this incident refers to an embrace between God and Jacob. The hollow of his thigh and the resulting blessings tie in of course.

  20. And as to the modern LDS theology equating Jehovah with the preexistent Christ, I personally feel that while its interesting that it is less relevant than trying to figure out what the text itself claims.

    I have always felt this is God as well.

  21. Yeah, Jacob wrestled God. Further proof that the OT is the coolest book of scripture.

  22. J.R. Knight says:

    J. Madson, the wordplay seems most reasonable to me, too. ‘Wrestled’ in Hebrew is ‘abaq’ (79) while the word for ‘embrace’ is ‘chabaq’ (2263). This word is a primary root which also means to ‘clasp hands’. It seems reasonable that Jacob received his endowment, a new name, and was brought into the Lord’s presence. The thigh could even refer to an anointing.

    I think this story falls into the same category as Noah’s drunkenness – a highly symbolic teaching of an important priesthood event. And RJH is right – OT is the coolest scripture.

  23. It is a Jewish koan. If you understand it you go directly to the highest kingdom.

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