An Enigmatic Encounter
The bulk of Bereshit 32 describes in great detail how Yaakov prepared for his momentous encounter with Esav. However, just before their long anticipated reunion, the narrative abruptly cuts away to recount the mysterious episode of Yaakov's struggle with an unknown assailant:
(כג) וַיָּקָם בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא וַיִּקַּח אֶת שְׁתֵּי נָשָׁיו וְאֶת שְׁתֵּי שִׁפְחֹתָיו וְאֶת אַחַד עָשָׂר יְלָדָיו וַיַּעֲבֹר אֵת מַעֲבַר יַבֹּק. (כד) וַיִּקָּחֵם וַיַּעֲבִרֵם אֶת הַנָּחַל וַיַּעֲבֵר אֶת אֲשֶׁר לוֹ. (כה) וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. (כו) וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹ וַתֵּקַע כַּף יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. (כז) וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ כִּי אִם בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. (כח) וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב. (כט) וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל. (ל) וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה נָּא שְׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ שָׁם. (בראשית ל"ב:כ"ג-ל')
(23) He rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford of the Yabbok. (24) And he took them, and sent them over the stream, and sent over that which he had. (25) And Yaakov remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rising of the dawn. (26) And when he saw that he could not overcome him, he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled. (27) And he said, "Let me go, for the day breaks." And he said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." (28) And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Yaakov". (29) And he said, "Your name will no longer be called 'Yaakov', but, 'Yisrael', for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed." (30) And Yaakov asked, and said, "Please tell me your name." And he said, "Why is it that you ask for my name?" And he blessed him there. (Bereshit 32:23-30)
Who was this anonymous "אִישׁ" character? Was he a human or an angel?1 Was he Divinely dispatched or did he come of his own initiative? Most importantly, what was the purpose of his wrestling with Yaakov, and why did he come specifically at this juncture? Is there a connection between this event and the larger story of Esav's impending arrival which envelops it, and if so, what might that be?
And the Winner is...?
It is not so simple to determine what was the bottom line of this episode. On the one hand, Yaakov appears to emerge victorious and blessed, but on the other hand, he is injured and hobbled. Did Yaakov come out with a net gain or loss from this struggle? Was the man/angel coming or sent to convey a positive or negative message to Yaakov? These are questions that the text leaves unanswered.
There are several other aspects of this story which also merit consideration:
- Why does Yaakov suddenly decide to cross the Yabbok with his family in the dead of the night? Would it not have been safer to travel with young children during daylight hours?
- How is it that Yaakov remained alone? What happened to the rest of his entourage; were they with his family or at some other location? How does this all of this relate to Yaakov's division of his camp in 32:8?
- What about the break of dawn brought the struggle to an end?
- Why did the mysterious figure touch Yaakov on his thigh? If this caused Yaakov to come up lame, how can this be reconciled with "וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ"?
- Why would Yaakov request a blessing from his adversary, and what is the meaning of the cryptic conversation in which each party asks for the other's name?
- What is the meaning of the doubling in "שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים"? With how many characters did Yaakov interact?
In the Approaches section, we will explore how various commentators understand the purpose of this encounter and examine their attempts to decipher its details.