WRESTLING AT THE JABBOK

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

wrestlers

Historical Context

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Genesis 32:22-32 [23-33] tells what seems to be a very ancient tale. When we consider the historical context out of which this story emerged, it becomes evident that, like so much of the Bible, it is not a simple matter. In contrast to most of the books and articles we read in the twenty-first century, the Bible literature is often not a simple text composed for one specific occasion and then preserved, unchanged, for ever after. Much Bible literature has been told and retold in different places and times, changing and adapting in different circumstances.

It is beyond the scope of this project to look in detail at the complexities of dating and the origins of and arguments about the different sources of the Pentateuch. However, we can simply point out some of the key suggestions made by biblical scholars regarding the historical context and development of this narrative.

Scholars have seen various layers of tradition in the story of Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok, particularly commentators with a historical critical focus. Older source criticism ascribed it to J or a combination of J and E (see, for example, Gunkel, 347-348; Skinner, 411). Most critics would not now ascribe the various parts of it to two separate sources, but would see it as a literary unit, albeit a unit that has developed and grown over time (Westermann, 514-521; Wenham, 294).

Weis suggests ways in which the story may have related to Israelite audiences in two earlier historical contexts (Weis, 107-108). First, the story may have been largely in its present form in the time of Solomon (depending on how one dates J). Considering 2 Samuel 14 - 1 Kings 2, it may reflect a context of uncertain succession from David to Solomon, a lack of clear-cut direction from God, a reversal of the claims of the first-born, and nevertheless an affirmation that God's promises could work out in mysterious ways. In a second context, the final form of the Pentateuch was reached after Judah's exile to Babylon. Everything was at risk, and God's activity was hard to discern. In this context, the audience could connect with a story of wrestling, blessing and wounding, where God encountered and blessed those who persevered through the dark night.

In a somewhat similar fashion, but with a quite different conclusion, McKay identifies a specific historical setting for the present form of the narrative. She argues that the narrative may actually have been composed in the post-exilic period, using a local folktale, a section from Jeremiah (Jer 30:1-13), and possibly the Jacob tradition from Hosea (Hos 12:2-4,12 [3-5,13]). The author created a story which, beneath the surface, deals with the tensions felt in the exilic community about the difficult journey home, fears regarding the people living there, and a desire for assurance that God would be with them.

As may be seen from the above discussion, while it is important and interesting to consider the kinds of historical context that may lie behind this story, we cannot make sweeping statements about the historical background of this text, as there is very little that we know for sure about it.

 

 

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© Kirsten Abbott 2004