The man is ...

an angel


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This is the oldest interpretation of the identity of Jacob's assailant, which we find in Hosea 12:3-4. Hosea was active towards the end of the eighth century BCE.

'In the womb he tried to supplant his brother,
   and in his manhood he strove with God.
He strove with the angel and prevailed,
   he wept and sought his favour;
he met him at Bethel,
   and there he spoke with him.'   Hosea 12:3-4 (NRSV)

It is not certain whether Hosea was referring to this version of the narrative, or another version of the story, now lost. There is no reference to weeping in the Genesis account. The exact relationship between the two biblical accounts, and indeed the interpretation of the verses in Hosea, are open to speculation and debate (for further discussion see Macintosh, 481-488).

In many ways, identifying the man as an angel is closely linked to the interpretation that identifies the man as God. The angel (mal’ach - a word that simply means 'messenger') of God in the Bible, often seems to signify the actual manifestation of God's presence rather than a wholly separate spiritual entity (e.g. Gen 16:7-13; 22:11-18; Exod 3:2-4). However, this idea of an angel may also represent a shift to needing to have the divine mediated through a messenger, an angel, and possibly reflects an increased sensitivity to talking about God in human terms. (See Sarna, 383-384; Kugel, 384-386)

Several of the rabbinic commentators variously identified the angel as Esau's angel, or Michael or Gabriel (Genesis Rabbah 77.3; 78.1,3). They understood angels to be servants, less important than righteous people. Both individuals and nations were thought to have guardian angels. It was suggested that the 'man' had to return to the heavenly host at dawn to praise God, hence his request for Jacob to release him.

On the positive side:-

  • This interpretation seems to fit with the earliest comments on the text, in Hosea.
  • The word 'man' refers to angels elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. Gen 18-19; Judg.6; 13).
  • This interpretation explains both the human form and the supernatural abilities of the opponent.

And yet:-

  • Genesis 32:22-33 [23-33] does not use the word 'angel' (mal’ach).
  • The understanding of specific angels (e.g. Esau's guardian angel) is anachronistic if we want to understand the story as it was originally intended - the complex angelology of the early rabbis developed some time after this ancient story.
  • To identify the angel specifically involves reading into the text somewhat.
  • Why would God's messenger attack Jacob anyway?

However, the identification that the rabbis made that connected the man with Esau is particularly interesting, as it picks up on the way this story connects with its literary context - the surrounding story of the imminent reunion of the twin brothers.



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© Kirsten Abbott 2004