The man is ...

Esau or Esau's angel


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Some early rabbinic and modern commentators suggest that the 'man' represents Esau in some way, whether Esau himself or Esau's guardian angel.

Jacob has wrestled with his twin brother in the darkness of Rebekah's womb (Gen 25:21-22), and is nervously anticipating his meeting with his brother the next day. Could it be that the man in some sense represents Esau, whether physically, spiritually, or symbolically?

Some Jewish interpretations have seen in the wrestling match a struggle between Israel and the 'celestial patron', or guardian angel, of Esau (Genesis Rabbah 77.3). As well as foreshadowing and resolving the relationship with Esau, in a wider sense this interpretation may also represent the historical antagonism between the nations of Israel and Edom (Sarna, 404). This interpretation also connects with Israel's self-understanding as a nation with a history of struggle.

Identification of the 'man' with Esau offers some wise insights:-

  • There are certainly connections between the wrestling story and the subsequent encounter with Esau, especially in Jacob exclaiming that to see Esau's face is like seeing the face of God (compare Gen 32:30[32:31] and 33:10).
  • Jacob had to face up to his relationship with his brother before the reconciliation could take place.
  • From a literary critical perspective, this interpretation takes the literary and canonical context of the story seriously.
  • The placement of the wrestling story between Jacob's fearful anticipation of meeting Esau, and the actual peaceful reunion, strongly indicates that in a mysterious way the night-time struggle resolved something about the relationship between the brothers.

Yet there are difficulties with this interpretation too:-

  • If the man is supposed to be Esau himself, it does not account for the supernatural aspects of the mysterious antagonist.
  • This identification is not explicitly made in the story itself.
  • Furthermore, it does not cohere well with Jacob's meeting with Esau in chapter 33, which is apparently the first meeting since Jacob fled many years before.
  • The identification of the man as Esau's guardian angel seems to make a rather large leap from the textual evidence.
  • It is unlikely that the people who first developed this story had the complex understanding of angels (e.g. guardian angels) that developed in later tradition.

The identification of the man tends to come out of the context and understanding of the interpreter. As we have seen, some early Jewish interpreters (as well as later literary approaches) have seen in the man a representation of Esau, and a reference to the history of the nation. Using a different approach, some early Christian interpreters placed the story in the theological context of their own understanding of salvation history, and identified the mysterious opponent as a type of Christ.


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© Kirsten Abbott 2004