The man is ...

a river spirit


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Historical criticism has tried to look behind the Genesis text as we have it today to see the ancient origins of this story in a folk tale. Some have argued that this story about Jacob is based on a very old story about a local god, river demon or spirit that must be defeated in order to cross the river. The story would not originally have been about YHWH, but has later been incorporated into the Bible narratives. It then became important when it was used as a story to explain the origins of the name Israel. A similar kind of night-demon story may lie behind Moses' antagonistic night-time encounter with God in Exodus 4:24-26. (See, for example, Westermann, 515-521; Skinner, 407-412)

Clues that this story has features in common with ancient folktales include:-

  • The story is set at night, by a river.
  • The name of the place is significant.
  • The 'man' confronts and obstructs Jacob, recalling other stories of dangerous supernatural beings that fight humans who attempt to get past them.
  • He can disable Jacob with a mere touch.
  • The 'man' must depart before sunrise, which relates to stories where the power of the demonic being is restricted to night-time, and the being cannot endure the daylight.
  • The 'man' is powerful and can offer Jacob power.



Given all these clues, it seems very likely that at least some elements of the story go back to an old folk tale. This interpretation helps us to understand how the story came to be. However, understanding something about the world behind the text only tells us part of the story.

Identifying the man as a river spirit leaves us with several unanswered questions:-

  • It does not tell us very much about how the story works as it stands now.
  • The ideas of local gods and demons are not compatible with monotheism. Although such ideas may have provided some of its literary features, they do not tell us what the story means in its monotheistic, canonical context as part of the sacred history of Israel.
  • The story is missing other features of folk tales, such as a description of the adversary, a propitiatory ceremony, and the hero wounding the demon (Sarna, 403).
  • This approach can diminish the importance of this story as describing part of the self-understanding of the Israelites.

Many interpreters have chosen to take seriously the implied identification of the assailant within the story (Gen 32:30 [31]) - namely, that the 'man' is God.



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© Kirsten Abbott 2004