Friday, October 28, 2005

He had power over the angel, and prevailed (Gen 32)

More weirdness today in the life of Jacob; this guy just had some odd things happen to him, didn't he?

So when Jacob gets near home, he remembers that his brother wants him dead, and he starts to get nervous. He sends a few messengers ahead to tell his brother that he's coming back, and the messengers return with the news that Esau is riding out to meet Jacob with 400 men. Although the Bible doesn't say if Jacob said anything in response, I imagine if he did, it was something like, "Oh crap, I'm a dead man." He decides the thing to do is divide up everything he has (perhaps including his family) in to two equal groups, and if Esau starts attacking one of the groups, the other one is to run away quickly in hopes that they'd be spared.

Then he prays to God to save him from his brother's wrath, and comes up with another plan. He sends out a number of servants in groups with large amounts of livestock of various types, and he tells each group that when they meet Esau's party, they are to tell him that the livestock is a gift. Hoping that having these gifts go before him will make him more safe, he's willing to finally send his family at the rear, but he himself hesitates alone on the far side of the river. And here's where the really weird stuff starts.

It says Jacob is alone, but then it says, in the very same sentence, that he wrestles with another man. They fight to a standstill, and the man somehow manages to dislocate Jacob's hip, but Jacob still won't give in. The guy essentially says, "Look, we've been fighting all night, and we're not getting anywhere. Why don't you just give up?" Jacob insists on being blessed by this guy before letting go.

The guy (who may be God; Jacob seems to think so) asks Jacob his name. Whether God or not, I don't think this person is really asking for info, he's using the question as a segue into giving Jacob the new name of "Israel". Jacob asks for the man's name, but he refuses to give it. Weird.

Now, I'm not really clear on why it's a big issue (maybe it's just a little one?) but the SAB points out quite rightly that despite what verse 28 says, Jacob actually is still called Jacob by many people after this incident, including God. The reason I don't think it's an issue is because sometimes people change their names, and yet are still called by their old names. My mother, for instance, is known by many people as Mrs. Gardner because that was the surname of my stepfather, and she was married to him for a little over ten years. People who meet her for the first time after knowing me sometimes assume she is Mrs. Brucker, however, she goes by her maiden name. When she went back to her maiden name, she said she didn't want to be known as Mrs. Gardner anymore, but since so many people knew her by that name, she is still called that by many people to this day, and doesn't bother to correct them as far as I know. Jacob's name may have been changed, but it's not unreasonable to call him Jacob still, and not only do people call him that, but in the future, the nation of Israel would occasionally be called "Jacob" as well. Okay, yes, the verse actually says, "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob," but I'm just not clear on why this should disturb my confidence in the Bible.

Is this guy God, though? While Jacob says so according to the KJV and pretty much all the other translations I'm familiar with, there remains some ambiguity in this strange tale. The word translated "God" in these verses is elohim, a strange Hebrew word that, while often translated as "God", is actually plural in form. I may have mentioned it before, but here I think it's worth delving deeper into it. The KJV usually translates this word as "God", but also sometimes uses "god" or "goddess" if the context warrants it, a few times "judge", and once, "angels". Basically it's a word that expresses the concept of a powerful being. It may be possible that Jacob is wrestling with an angel, a prophet, or even some sort of demonic being. I think Jews tend to favor the idea that it's an angel, but I'm not at all certain about that. Many Christians do view this as being God, usually particularly an appearance of a pre-incarnate Christ. One might rightly wonder if indeed this is God, how is Jacob able to wrestle him to a standstill? It's a mystery to me.

Whatever the true nature of this confrontation, there is almost certainly a level at which this is all having symbolic significance. Jacob has spent his whole life, from before birth even, wrestling with his brother, his father, his father-in law, his wives, and even the occasional inanimate object, and now, he is wrestling with his fear and his faith in God. In the end, he is triumphant, and crosses the river to accept his fate and place his future in the hand of God.


Anonymous said...

you might want to check out this site for a jewish perspective on the "man" with whom Jacob wrestled.

Brucker said...

Did you mean to drop us a link?