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In the Book of Genesis (32:24ff), I get the impression that Jacob was at his wits end. He was alone in the wilderness, having sent all that he had in the world away from him. He felt his brother Esau might kill not only he (Jacob) but all of his people — including his wives and children. Then, when Jacob least expected it "a man" began wrestling with him in the middle of the desert:

Genesis 32:24-29: "Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there."

Is it reasonable to conclude that Jacob expected a blessing from the angel to protect he and all his household from Esau, or were there other that may have awaited them in the wilderness? Also, are we told whether there is special significance to the angel dislocating Jacob's thigh during this physical encounter?

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  • The question contained in your very last sentence is answered in the chapter's very last verse, 32:32.
    – Lucian
    Aug 18, 2021 at 12:44
  • @Lucian Thanks for that. I'm wondering if there is any reference to dislocating the joint (socket) of the thigh (in the sinew of the hip) from elsewhere in the O/T. In other words, is this something the Jews understood to be of significance, sort of like abstaining from things sacrificed to idols, or from blood, or from things strangled? Naturally, this could be the first time any such thing is mentioned (and set a precedent). I'm just not certain and have been unable to find any other instance.
    – Xeno
    Aug 18, 2021 at 19:17
  • It is simply a folk belief meant to explain or justify a Jewish culinary custom.
    – Lucian
    Aug 18, 2021 at 19:22
  • @Lucian Again, thanks. Ah, I just noticed that someone else asked a very similar question.
    – Xeno
    Aug 18, 2021 at 19:23

4 Answers 4

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This question is answered, in part, by the previous verses in Gen 32 -

21 So Jacob’s gifts went on before him, while he spent the night in the camp. 22 During the night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, along with all his possessions. 24So Jacob was left all alone, and there a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

All we are told is that Jacob began wrestling at some time during the night which lasted until dawn. Thus, the wrestling might have lasted anything from half an hour to perhaps several hours. We are not told how long it lasted because we do not know what part of the night it started.

We can deduce just a little more. Jacob, during the night, had his entire household cross the Jabbok which would have taken several hours with all their livestock and goods. Assuming that Jacob began this crossing process, say, two hours after dark and the crossing took another 6 hours, than the wrestling could have lasted no more than about three or four hours. It might have been less.

However, it did NOT last all night (12 hours) but something much less.

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Before the wrestling, Genesis 32:

Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, Lord, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau

This prayer was very specific and focused. There might be other dangers, like robbers, along the way, but Jacob wasn't worried about them. In fact, after Jacob reconciled with Esau in the next chapter, Genesis 33:

15 Esau said, “Then let me leave some of my men with you.”

“But why do that?” Jacob asked. “Just let me find favor in the eyes of my lord.”

Jacob was confident that he could deal with highway robbers without Esau's extra men.

Did Jacob continue wrestling all night to receive a blessing to save he and his family from Esau, or something else (Gen. 32:24-29)?

The wrestling was God's answer to Jacob's prayer to save him from the hand of Esau.

Are we told whether there is special significance to the angel dislocating Jacob's thigh during this physical encounter?

Benson explains:

This was to humble him, and make him sensible of his own weakness, that he might ascribe his victory, not to his own power, but to the grace of God, and might be encouraged to depend on that grace for the deliverance he was so much concerned to obtain. It is probable Jacob felt little or no pain from this hurt, for he did not so much as halt till the struggle was over, Genesis 32:31. If so, it evidenced itself to be a divine touch indeed, wounding and healing at the same time.

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  • This is a great answer. I don't know how I could miss the specificity of the prayer in 32:11. As for the second question, another response here offers several possibilities on the subject. Thanks! +1.
    – Xeno
    Aug 18, 2021 at 19:44
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This 'fight' could be seen symbolically as a test of Jacob's desire for the heritage/birth-right of his father (the promise given to Abraham and Isaac). This is why his name is changed at the end (after refusing to finish the fight without a blessing). It is changed from Jacob (which means a deceptive person - see the story of his birth) to IsraEl (the chosen of God - El).

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This cannot really be understood without an explanation of why the angel of the Lord initiates the wrestling match with Jacob in the first place, and what the meaning of the match, in general, was.

First, let us get clear on one thing: God seems to have initiated the match, because we read “there wrestled a man with him.” So the “man” (God) was the wrestler, and Jacob was the wrestlee, i.e., the wrestled-with; and it was the “man” who “prevailed not,” whereupon he “touched” (a word most commonly chosen to translate נָגַע or naga) Jacob’s hip to put it out of joint. The Lord was, as it were, the aggressor in the contest. Of how many of us can it be said, “God called him out”?

But why? Never mind "why wrestle all night?". You cannot answer that if you cannot first answer "why wrestle at all?" There are several constraints we can identify on an interpretation:

  1. Whatever the meaning of the contest, it must be one in which Jacob could hold his own against God; he must be able to be declared, by God, to have “prevailed” in the contest; and his prevailing must demonstrate “power with God and with men” (32:28).
  2. God must have initiated the contest.
  3. The match is significant enough as to warrant renaming Israel himself based on the event; it must be of profound importance.
  4. It results in an injury to Jacob, which God deliberately causes after God observes that Jacob will not lose the match.
  5. The injury itself must be one that Israelites wish to commemorate with a ceremonial food law, regarding something not to be eaten (see 32:31-32).
  6. Yet Jacob still demands a blessing, and gets it.
  7. The conferring of the tribal name “Israel” and the food law about the “sinew which shrank” suggest some meaning that extends beyond Jacob and his immediate family.

In short, the explanation that best fits all the above-listed constraints is that the match is for a blessing over Israel—and thus both recapitulates and anticipates the nation’s struggle with God, above all.

But what serves as the initial impetus to wrestle at just this moment (as the question suggests) is that Jacob, after being shown repeatedly to be in the Lord’s care, is still extremely frightened and has earlier that same day prayed most earnestly to God. Thus perhaps the reason the Lord wrestles with Jacob just now is to demonstrate to him his competence to face Esau: if he can hold his own and even “prevail” against the Lord, then he surely can face his murderous brother (who is no longer murderous; but Jacob does not know this).

In short, then, the Lord is literally inspiring Jacob—filling him with the spirit of God—since this third patriarch is dispirited and insufficiently courageous, especially compared to his famously brave grandfather. In other words, it seems to me that the Lord wished to inspire Jacob to greater courage so that he—and the Israelite nation—could take the actions necessary to embrace God’s promise and uphold their part of the covenant.

Still, what is the meaning of the act of wrestling with God, so that Jacob would want to win (and, indeed, contend all night long)? Of course, Jacob did not see the face of God in its full glory, nor did he, in confronting a theophany, quite literally “wrestle” with the spiritual almighty God, who is not confined to mere flesh.

It is possible that, since they were not far from their previous camp, Mahanaim, Jacob recognized this as one of the angels of that “host”—perhaps the leader. If so, then Jacob probably would have recognized this match as a friendly bout, such as allies might engage in, in a military camp. If the angel of the Lord had set upon him in an aggressive, unfriendly posture, Jacob would presumably have fallen to his face in the most abject fear and humility. So I imagine the Lord made it very clear what was happening, such as by appearing to Jacob with a smile on his face, taking a familiar wrestling stance, and saying, “Hello, friend—let’s wrestle!”

So much for the literal meaning. Is there also a figurative meaning? Perhaps, perhaps not. I think that, just as Abraham was called “friend of God” (James 2:23) because they conversed familiarly, so Isaac might be called “God’s wrestling partner.” The contest was held not to convey a recondite symbolic meaning but rather to inspire Jacob—and all of Israel—with the pride of having held his own in a friendly wrestling match against the incarnate God. This implies several things, however, which things together might be called “the meaning.” It implies: (1) God and Israel are on very familiar terms; (2) Israel has God’s respect; (3) God is on Israel’s side as a true ally; and (4) God wishes to inspire Israel (man and nation) to courage.

Those were the implications, yet another, more literal significance is that Jacob sought to win God’s blessing as the prize of the contest (as it were). This God gave, which suggests that the Lord willingly blesses those who are courageous on his behalf. That is the key to the answer to this question.

Naturally, Jacob would want a blessing, and it is God’s aim in the match to confer a blessing. But, if that is indeed God’s aim, why must Jacob extract one with such difficulty? Why wouldn’t God simply give his blessing without any (or further) effort or ceremony? It must be because the Lord wished Jacob to acknowledge the true, extreme value of the blessing. In short, both a lesson in courage, and a test of it, would require effort and struggle (thus he is given the name “Israel”).

Does this not rather interestingly resemble Jacob’s other struggles of securing blessings—first the birthright from Esau, then the blessing from Isaac, and finally his flocks from Laban? Indeed, in each case Jacob wrests what did not at first belong to him, and would not have belonged to him if he had not taken unusual measures that, again, demonstrated his awareness of and faith in the real value of the Lord’s blessing. Note that in all four cases listed here (including the final, wrested blessing), God had already declared that the blessing Jacob sought was rightfully his. Is it not interesting that he had to struggle nevertheless? We might well conclude that the Lord gave Rebekah the Gen 25:23 prophetic vision—“the elder shall serve the younger”—because he knew precisely that Jacob would so greatly value the blessing, and would struggle so hard to earn it.

Jacob persisted all night long because of he was who he was: a man who showed, over and over, how deeply he valued the Lord's blessing, and however cowardly he might be when matched against mere men, he faced God himself with the grit needed to secure that blessing for himself and his posterity.

Besides, the Lord no doubt filled Jacob with his spirit all night long. So perhaps a better explanation is simply to say that God does not do things in half measures. The contest, to be memorable, had to be epic, and to result in a humbling injury. This epic encounter with God made what Jacob had thought would be the main event—the confrontation with Esau—a minor afterthought, a mere denouement.

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