Genesis 32:22-32 recounts the nocturnal struggle of the patriarch Jacob with a mysterious opponent. Jacob is returning to the promised land after years of exile, and is anticipating a potentially dangerous reunion with the elder brother whom Jacob had tricked out of his inheritance. In the night, Jacob encounters a figure on the border of the promised land who wrestles him.
When his opponent begs to be released, Jacob demands a blessing. In response, the man re-names Jacob ‘Israel’, meaning one who has fought with God. However, the man refuses to give his own name and vanishes before dawn. In awe, Jacob declares he has seen God face to face and yet his life was spared.
There are many different themes at work in the passage. Both landscape and plot have put Jacob’s status as patriarch of God’s chosen people under threat. When Jacob triumphs over his opponent and receives the name his descendants will bear, the biblical narrative reaches a climactic point. Nonetheless, the moment is full of uncertainty. With the rising dawn, Jacob realises how close he came to death. Even the identity of the opponent is not as certain as Jacob’s own declaration of it, as the narrator is deliberately enigmatic in telling the story. The passage generates intriguing discussions about the nature of divine presence in the world, and how human beings in their search for God’s blessing must struggle with experiences that are often ambiguous or elusive.
Keywords: wrestling a mysterious stranger, a new name, twilight, fighting with God