The man is ...

the other side of Jacob


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When considered in a modern context, a number of interpreters have related this story to our own lives with psychological interpretations. We may see Jacob's struggle with an apparently demonic figure as an ancient representation of the struggle with the unconscious self, or with one's own guilt. We can look at this in terms of the Jungian process of individuation, in which the person must engage with the Shadow, the dark side of the self, in order to become whole (see Kille; Plaut, 222-224). Thus Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok connects with the same archetypal struggles of every human to become whole.

Sanford discusses the story at length in terms of its insights into the processes of human psychological and spiritual growth. His interpretation identifies the man as initially representing Jacob's wrestling with the dark self inside him, which process leads into the encounter with the Unknown, the whole of the unconscious, where God dwells in the soul (Sanford, 37-44).

A few rabbinic interpreters picked up on this aspect of inner struggle when they identified the opponent as Jacob's own guardian angel. Wiesel develops this idea in his meditation on the mystery of this story (Wiesel, 103-135).

This kind of interpretation can be a useful approach:-

  • This approach makes the story much more accessible to modern readers.
  • It can be a useful way to communicate some thoughts about God's transforming activity in our lives, especially in a sermon or meditation.
  • It focusses on the features of the story as we have it now, rather than hypothetical layers behind it, or reading in other characters.

However, this interpretation may also have problems:-

  • We have to be careful that we do not impose anachronistic ideas on the text, when we use terminology and ideas from modern psychology to explain a story that comes from a very different thought world.
  • Such an approach may not account for the text's apparent understanding of God's intervening activity, as transcendent rather than internal, satisfactorily.

Ultimately, the story defies final interpretation. We must struggle as Jacob struggles, in the dark, holding our unanswered questions.



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© Kirsten Abbott 2004