The man is ...

a mystery



Interpreters have puzzled over the identity of Jacob's assailant for centuries. Although the clues may seem straightforward, the closer we look, the harder it is to be sure about this story.

Some try to find an explanation that fits with a historical incident, or relates to the mythical thought world of the ancient Near East. Others see a deep spiritual significance in the story, and contend that it expresses the most poignant human struggles with doubt and faith, with God and suffering.

But no single interpretation seems able to fit this story completely.It is a spacious, complex, and multi-faceted narrative (von Rad, 319-321). Every interpretation, while answering some questions, raises others.

  • For example, if we think the wrestler who comes in the night is God, why would God have to ask Jacob to let him go?
  • If we think the assailant is an enemy or robber, then why is there talk of blessing, and what is the significance of Jacob's new name?
  • If he is an angel, why does he want to wrestle with Jacob before allowing him to cross the river? And why does he need to flee at dawn?

Some of the possibilities for interpretation are suggested in this website - but remember, these are not the only possibilities! As Turner says, mystery and ambiguity are an essential part of the spirit of this skilfully woven story. If we were clear about the identity of the assailant, the story's power to engage us with a mysterious chill would be diminished (Brueggemann, 267). The ambiguity of the story makes the audience or readers wrestle with the text (see Weis).

The following pages discuss various suggestions for identifications of the man, and in doing so, make some comments about different ways of reading biblical texts. Although connections are made between them, they are not in a particular order of precedence or of age. Reasons are given both for and against each approach. You don't have to agree with all or any of them - and remember, there are other interpretations too. I encourage you to wrestle with all these interpretations, and to wrestle with the text itself.

In order to find a satisfactory explanation, some interpreters have begun by trying to see behind the story, back to its origins in a historical incident.



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© Kirsten Abbott 2004