WRESTLING AT THE JABBOK

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

wrestlers

Interpretations

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Genesis 32:22-32 [23-33] has been interpreted in very many different ways over the centuries. There has been a vast amount of secondary literature written on this text. This website can only give a taste of the enormous variety of interpretations that have been put forward about it over the years.

Part of this website focusses on one aspect of the story, which is one of its most puzzling mysteries - who is the man? This series of links takes you through a variety of different ways in which people have approached this story. You will see how each approach has certain reasons behind it, and may sometimes be fruitful, but also how each approach can create other problems or questions.

The 'who is the man?' series of links does not cover every approach to the text. Other interpretations also deserve consideration.

Knight, using a midrash-style approach, considers the story of Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok in the light of Jewish-Christian relationships after Auschwitz. He notices how the figure of Jacob, facing up to the brother whose birthright and name he has stolen, connects with Christians facing up to the shame of the way their own faith has often defined its identity over against the Jewish people, and the awful historical consequences of that. In the wider context, Western Christianity must face a shameful legacy of racism, sexism, and economic oppression. He finds in this story a hopeful paradigm of encounter, repentance (in the sense of a change of direction), and transformation. 'According to the story, the way forward for the estranged siblings passes through an intense encounter with fear, the past, shame, guilt, and sometimes the threat of violence, as they move toward dialogue and perhaps even toward reconciliation...The way forward is the way of this text: Jacob's journey to the Jabbok and his wrestling through the night.' (Knight, 460)

One other particularly interesting approach which should be mentioned is a structuralist reading of Genesis 32:22-32 [23-33], which is not primarily concerned with defining the identity of the opponent, but makes an interesting observation about how the assailant's mysterious identity impacts the story.

Structuralist criticism, particularly popular in the 1970s, involves (to oversimplify somewhat) discerning how the meaning of the text emerges from the ordered systems within which texts operate. Barthes looked at the story of Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok as it works with the conventions of folklore. Explaining the details of structuralist analysis is beyond the scope of this website, but one interesting insight relates to the way the identification of 'the man' may work. The Hero (Jacob) is on a Quest (return home); the Originator of the Quest is God. An Opponent (the man) obstructs the Hero. This pattern is a standard story pattern, and usually we would expect the Originator to help or send a Helper, so the the Hero can complete the Quest. However, here, against our expectations, the Originator and the Opponent are revealed to be the same character. It is this peculiarity that makes this story frightening, powerful, and confusing. (See Barthes; Barton, 116-119. NB I have relied on some of Barton's more accessible terminology and explanation to sketch out the way structuralist analysis can shed light on how this story functions.) Barthes later returned to this text from a post-structuralist perspective, examining the irreconcilable ambiguities in this text as an example of the indeterminacy which is inherent in all texts (Barton, 223-224).

 

 

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© Kirsten Abbott 2004