Jacob wrestles with the angel of the Lord

Jacob wrestles with the angel of the Lord –
Notes taken in their entirety from The Navarre Bible – Pentateuch, (Scepter Publishers:
Princeton, NJ, 1999. Pages 166-168)
Genesis 32:22-29. In spite of the danger and even though he feels afraid, Jacob takes an
important decision on his journey towards the land of Canaan - to cross the river,
bringing his nearest and dearest with him. From the text we do not know which side of
the river Jacob himself was on after that decision, but he was clearly alone when God
mysteriously came out to meet him and transformed him. The account tells us that God
revealed himself to Jacob and made him Israel and gave him a blessing which extended
to all his people. The concept of God in this passage has clearly anthropomorphic
features. Jacob’s strength is highlighted: God fails to defeat him in this struggle and he
dislocates his thigh. This fact and the fact that God wants to leave before daybreak allow
Jacob to recognize God in the person he is wrestling; taking advantage of his strength and
the time constraint, he asks for a blessing. First, however, Jacob has to identify himself;
then God changes his name: now he is Israel.
In the context of the narrative the sacred writer explains what the name Israel means - “he
who has striven with God.” This shows one of the key features of the personality of the
father of the chosen people - his struggle to hold on to God, trying to discover his name
and obtain his blessing. This is also a defining feature of the religious nature of the
people of God. We discover the significance of Jacob’s attempt to discover the name of
his “rival,” and all that that implies as regards having some power over him. But God
does not identify himself. He remains shrouded in mystery, yet he does give Jacob his
blessing. This will also be a feature which should define Israel - the continuous search
for the name of God that is, for his innermost Being and his Mystery, yet realizing that
God can never be encompassed within the meaning of any name.
The features whereby the patriarch Jacob-Israel is described so apply to the people that
bear his name. The prophet Hosea will apply this episode to the way Israel resists God
over the course of its history (Hos 12:4-6). This aspect can also be seen in the patriarch’s
life: in spite of his resistance, God advances his salvific plans for his people through him
and through his life. We can see this in what Hosea has to say about the people of Israel
and about Jacob himself.
The mysterious nature of the one who wrestles with Jacob has been interpreted in many
different ways in Christian tradition. Some Fathers, such as St. Jerome and St.
Augustine, were of the view that he was a good angel, given that that was how God most
often revealed himself in the Old Testament. Origen, however, thought that he was a bad
angel, the demon. Others, such as St. Justin and St. Ambrose, suggested that he was the
Son of God, the Word, who would later become man; or an angel who prefigured Christ.
The struggle depicted here can also be taken in a spiritual sense, as standing for the
interior struggle and the efficacy of prayer, which overpowers even God (cf. Wis 10:12),
“From this account, the spiritual tradition of the Church has retained the symbol of prayer
as a battle of faith and as the triumph of perseverance (cf. Gen 32:25-31; Lk 18:1-8)”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2573).
Along these lines St. Ambrose writes: “What does fighting with God mean if not
engaging in the combat of virtue and aspiring to the highest, making oneself, above all,
an imitator of God? And because his faith and his devotion could not be overpowered,
the Lord revealed to him the secret mysteries” (De Jacob et vita beata, 2, 7, 30).
32:31. After the explanation of the meaning of the name of the place (Penuel) and the
name of the person or people (Israel), we are now told about the origin of a dietary law.
The hagiographer uses this tradition to confirm the truthfulness of the foregoing account,
offering a proof taken from the customs of the people and also providing an explanation
for that custom. Although this use of groundless folk explanation is a common device, it
does not take from the point the writer is making: he wants to show that what he is
teaching is true.