Genesis 32:22-32 (English) / 32:23-33 (Hebrew)



Biblical Text
Historical Context
The Jacob Stories



One of the factors that determines how a story is interpreted is the decision that the interpreter makes about its genre. The story of Jacob wrestling the man by the river Jabbok is not easy to define.

The main part of the story is a narrative of Jacob's journey and an encounter that he has on that journey. The story contains three etiologies - that is, explanations of the origins of the names Israel (32:28 [29]) and Peniel (32:20 [21]), and of the custom of not eating the thigh muscle on the hip socket (32:32 [33]). Westermann discusses it in terms of a local narrative explaining the name Penuel or Jabbok, taken up into the itinerary narrating Jacob's return (Westermann, 514-515). Coats defines the genre of the story as an etiology for Jacob's name change to Israel, deriving from an etiological myth, with two secondary etiologies attached (Coats, 230).

Yet such discussions only account for part of the overall picture. Genesis 32:22-32 [23-33] is more than just an explanatory legend. It forms part of a cohesive, complex narrative about the patriarch Jacob. The fact that this story was retold and survived over centuries, and the vast amount of comment, theological reflection, and interpretation that has grown up around it, attest to its power as a theologically profound narrative.



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© Kirsten Abbott 2004