WRESTLING AT THE JABBOK

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

wrestlers

The Jacob Stories

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The story of Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok is, of course, part of a much larger set of stories about the patriarch Jacob. It can be illuminating to consider how this narrative fits into the larger picture.

The whole of the Jacob story (Gen 25:19-49.33) is full of strife. Jacob has been wrestling since he was in his mother's womb (Gen 25:21-26). Even his name means something like 'Grabber' - 'heel' / 'trickster' / 'over-reacher' / 'supplanter' (Brueggemann, 268). And he has kept on wrestling and striving - wresting Isaac's blessing away from Esau, grabbing whatever he could get from Laban.

Hidden identity is a recurrent theme in these stories, beginning with Jacob taking the identity of Esau and tricking his father Isaac into giving him Esau's blessing. There has been another incident of hidden identity at night, revealed in the dawn, when Jacob was himself tricked into marrying Leah (Gen 29:15-30). So it is not surprising that hidden identity, names, and the demand for a blessing are features of the wrestling narrative.

Jacob's encounter at Peniel is the counterpart to his dream at Bethel. The larger pattern of the Jacob stories is rather symmentrical, and may be outlined as follows:-

     growing up in Canaan
          25:19-26 birth, oracle
          25:27-34; 27:1-28:5 takes Esau's birthright and blessing

               28:10-22 Jacob's dream at Bethel

                    29-31 Jacob in Haran with Laban
                    32:1-21 [2-22] preparing to return

               32:22-32 [23-33] Jacob wrestling at Peniel

     returning to Canaan
          33 meeting Esau
          35:1-15 in Bethel
          35:16-28 end, birth and death     (simplified from Fokkelman, 47)

Although Jacob doesn't actually die until chapter 49, this is the section of the Genesis narratives that focusses on him. The journey to Haran and back is framed by two night-time encounters with the divine. Genesis 32:22-32 [23-33] marks a moment of completion and beginning, transition and transformation. In the encounter at the Jabbok, Jacob is given a new name, a blessing, and a limp.

And yet Jacob is not wholly transformed. He continues to love unequally (Cotter, 248). It is interesting that, whereas Abraham, for example, is never referred to as Abram after God has given him a new name, Jacob is still called Jacob, and he never really leaves behind his flawed nature. He is a lame, imperfect, but blessed, human being.

 

 

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© Kirsten Abbott 2004