Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Genesis 32 - Jacob's Wrestle

Jacob Wrestling With The Angel by Gustave Dore.
One of the most puzzling stories found in the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Bible) is the story related in Genesis 32: 22-30 about Jacob's contest with the "man" (איש - 'ish).

The story begins with Jacob and several of his family crossing the Jabbok River at night. Jacob  for some reason is left alone and then begins wrestling with the aforementioned man which continues until the break of dawn at which time the man bestows a new name and blessing upon the head of Jacob after realizing that he is unable to defeat him.

The identity of the "man" is not explicity stated in the text but verse 30 implies that the "man" may have been God himself since Jacob declares at the conclusion of the account that he had seen him. Other possibilities have been explored as noted by Esther Hamori in the introduction to her book When Gods Were Men where she states: "The figure defined as an 'ish who wrestles with Jacob (Genesis 32:23-33) has been identified in modern scholarship as an angel, a demon, a man, God, and various other alternatives" (1). Rabbi Louis Ginzberg's compilation of aggadah in his work the Legends of the Jews states that it was the archangel Michael who wrestled with Jacob and Josephus agrees it was an angel but does not provide a name.

Assuming the figure was a heavenly one it seems inconceivable that the wrestling match would last more than just a few seconds or that Jacob would be able to wrestle the being to a stand still. There are elements of the account that suggest there was more going on than is immediately apparent. In verse 24 the word "wrestled" is translated from אבק (abaq) the definition of which is given by Strong as "A primitive root; probably to float away (as vapor)... to bedust, that is grapple: - wrestle". The reason that the concepts of dust and vapor are linked with wrestling in Biblical Hebrew is that when two individuals wrestled they kicked up a significant amount of dust into the air and became covered in the substance themselves. The author of this account may have used this terminology to conceal what was really happening. The imagery of floating away as vapor is reminiscent of Nephi's description of being carried away in the spirit in 1 Nephi 11:1 and the description of Moses being caught away in Moses 1:1. Additionally, we learn from Moses in the Pearl of Great Price that part of Enoch's vision entailed being clothed upon with glory (see Moses 7:3-4). The imagery of being covered in dust as a result of wrestling may have been intended to invoke this idea.


In verses 27-28 of Genesis 32 after requesting a blessing from the heavenly ministrant Jacob is given the new name of Israel which can be translated as one who prevails with God. Receipt of a new name was a feature of some ancient coronation rituals. The image to the right shows two of the names for Pharaoh Tutankhamun - his birth name and his regnal name. At his birth he was named Tutankhaten (which means "living image of Aten") but subsequently changed it to Tutankhamun ("living image of Amun) on account of pressures to disavow his predecessors policy of worshipping Aten to the exclusion of the rest of the Egyptian pantheon. The cartouche on the left bears the name Tutankhamun. The cartouche on the right bears his regnal name which he assumed at his coronation at the age of nine years. His royal name was Nebkheperure ("Lord of the forms of Re).

Additionally, we know that several of the kings of Judah were given royal names upon their ascension to the throne. That list includes, but is not limited to the following:
  • Eliakim became Jehoiakim
  • Jeconiah became Jehoiachin
  • Mattaniah became Zedekiah
Therefore, Jacob's receipt of a new name may be an indication that this account is to be understood in the context of a coronation. This is reinforced by the fact that Jacob is also called a "prince" (שרה - sarah) by the heavenly messenger.

There is one last element in the account which has caused a great deal of debate among Bible scholars and that is when the man touches Jacob's thigh and it becomes disjointed. In verse 32 the Biblical writer mentions that the Israelites of his day did not eat the corresponding sinew on the animals which were used for food in commemoration of this event. The sinew was emblematic of a person's strength and vigor. Saying that the heavenly messenger put his sinew out of joint may have been a way of saying that Jacob's strength was spent by his encounter with the divine.

It is common for those who commune with divine beings to have their strength exhausted by the experience. Moses experienced this in his great theophany (see Moses 1:9-10) as did Joseph Smith in his encounter with the resurrected Moroni (see JS-H 1:48).

Another possibility is that this part of the story refers to another element of Near-eastern ritual. New Kingdom temple rituals were designed to guide the Pharaoh and other high officials through the hazards of the underworld and into the presence of Osiris. This is illustrated beautifully in the papyrus of the scribe of Hunefer found in the British Museum.


In the papyrus, the initiate (in this case Hunefer's scribe, in white) is required to answer the questions posed by numerous divine beings along the top of the papyrus. They ask questions of him to determine his worthiness to proceed along his path. In the lower portion of the image he is taken by the hand of Anubis who guides him to a scale where his heart is weighed against the feather of Maat which represents truth. Having passed the test he is brought before the partition separating him from Osiris by Horus where he enters the presence of Osiris and himself becomes an Osiris for eternity.

As the initiate passed through the partition or veil to join with Osiris he was welcomed by a ritual embrace. A representation of this is found on the back side of the holy of holies in the Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt. The picture to the left was taken by me when I visited the Karnak Temple in 1999. While it is damaged it is possible to see the ritual embrace of the initiate on the left and the deity on the right.

Clearer images of the ritual embrace can be found in Nibley's book The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, an Egyptian Endowment on page 431 (see below).  Regarding this image Nibley wrote:

"The climax and culmination of the coronation rites was a ritual embrace of father and son designated as shn, the word becoming a terminus technicus for the coronation itself... The shn-rite was taken over from the coronation into the funerary rites, but in either sphere it deals with the embracing of an otherworldly father" (430-1).

This ritual embrace may be alluded to in verse 25 of Genesis 32. Just as the initiate in Egyptian temple rituals was welcomed into the presence of deity following their successful completion of certain tests (or might we say contests?) so Jacob may have experienced something similar in his diving encounter near the Jabbok River.

The description from Nibley's book reads as follows: "Figure 136. (B) The four sides of an eleven-foot pillar, one of eight from the jubilee chapel of Senwosret, show the pharaoh being embraced by four different gods in four different ways, just as the accompanying inscriptions are similar but never the same. Thus the divine family welcomes their son back home. Senwsret I pillar, ca. 1940 B.C. Courtesy of Cairo Museum."



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