Monday, August 22, 2011

Wrestling: Who’s The Man? (Genesis 32)

With whom did Jacob wrestle? An angel (Genesis 32:24-32)

The patriarch Jacob was involved in the Bible’s most famous wrestling match (Genesis 32:24-32). Jacob, a natural heel (“bad guy” in wrestling parlance, Genesis 25:26 pun intended) was caught between a rock and a hard place as he was fleeing from his feud with his uncle Laban (Genesis 31:20) and running towards his oldest rival, his brother Esau (Genesis 27:41). Having exhausted his flight options, Jacob chose to return home and face the brother he had defrauded twenty years earlier. (The Bible knew how to build to a match). Jacob sent his family away and spent his last night before the meeting alone at the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32:22-24). A mystery man emerged (from “parts unknown”) and the two grappled throughout the night. Just before dawn (the opponent’s “time limit”), Jacob set the purse - naturally a “blessing” (Genesis 32:26). Though no falls were scored, Jacob secured his blessing (Genesis 32:29) and a permanent injury (Genesis 32:25, 31-32). Jacob was forever changed and received a new gimmick: Israel - “he who wrestles with God.” (Genesis 32:28).

The tale is shrouded in mystery and part of the puzzle is the ambiguity around who Jacob is wrestling. The text identifies the opponent as “a man” (Genesis 32:24) but in blessing Jacob the man informs him that he has “striven with God and with men” (Genesis 32:28 NASB). The fact that the opponent refuses to identify himself has been traditionally read as an indication that the nocturnal wrestler is not human. At the end of the bout, Jacob says “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved (Genesis 32:30).” (That is putting your opponent over.) From this exclamation it has been inferred that Jacob’s wrestling match is an encounter with the divine. The traditional reading of the text claims Jacob wrestled an angel (Hosea 12:4) though Genesis never refers to the assailant as anything other than a man. There are three contenders as to who was Jacob’s opponent: the natural (a human being), the supernatural (God or an emissary), and the psychological (an internal struggle within Jacob himself).

With whom did Jacob wrestle? Who is “the man”? (In keeping with wrestling jargon, the obvious answer is “Big Van Vader”.) Does the man represent an external or an internal force? With whom or what do you wrestle?

The traditional reading is that Jacob battled a supernatural opponent. Suggestions range from an angel to the pre-incarnate Christ. The most traditional view of angel is cemented in Hosea which reads “he [Jacob] wrestled with the angel and prevailed (Hosea 12:4 NASB).”

Using the supernatural reading, French literary critic, Roland Barthes (1915-1918) analyzed the story of Jacob’s wrestling through the lens of folklore’s hero cycle. The story follows a standard pattern as the Hero (Jacob) is sent on a Quest (to return home) by the Originator of the Quest (God) when an Opponent (the man) obstructs the Hero. The expectation is for the Originator to help or send a Helper so the Hero can complete the Quest. Here, however, the Originator and the Opponent are revealed to be the same character. (Barton, Reading the Old Testament: method in biblical study,116-119.)

Others opt for a more natural reading and speculate that the opponent was a human. The assault is administered by an ’iysh (Genesis 32:24), a word almost always rendered “man.” The text makes no reference to any “angel” (mal’ak). If Jacob battled a man, the most likely suspect is his own brother. Jacob and Esau were literally born wrestling (Genesis 25:26) and Esau had motive as he would be contesting his loss of the birthright/blessing (Genesis 25:28-34, 27:30-41). The man acts like Esau as like a hunter (Genesis 25:27), he is comfortable out in the woods at night and physically overpowers Jacob. The fact that “blessing” is at stake also fits their situation as Isaac’s blessing was at the heart of the enmity between the brothers. Using this interpretation, the silence of the competitor in relation to his name represents Esau’s shame as he could not force Jacob into submission. When Jacob finally meets Esau, he greets him with the suggestive words “for I see your face as one sees the face of God” (Genesis 33:10 NASB) mirroring his claim of his opponent on the previous night (Genesis 32:30). The context clearly permits the reader to identify Jacob’s attacker as Esau. In this reading, Jacob would have finally dueled his brother to a draw and legitimized his claim to Isaac’s birthright and blessing.

Many have gained insight into viewing the event as a psychological encounter. Jacob faced his dark night of the soul alone as the bout came at a time of transition in Jacob’s life in which in modern terms, he lost his job, was trying to relocate, and was preparing to face his old foes and sins. As such, it is easy to read the story as an internal battle within the overwhelmed Jacob.

Using this slant, the opponent is Jacob’s shadow side and the story brings into the open what he had experienced subconsciously. Jacob’s feeling undeserving having had to cheat to gain the birthright bubble to the surface. He knows he has deceitfully gained blessings and needed to legitimize himself in his own mind. After the match, Jacob has an inner transformation in which his personal identity and moral autonomy are changed. Jacob, the deceiver, becomes “Israel” who can now openly struggle to fulfill his divine destiny.

This battle is a picture of the human experience of wrestling with God, an opponent whom humans cannot fully understand and certainly cannot control. Joan Chittister (b. 1936) explains, “God is not a puppeteer and God is not a magic act. God is the ground of our being, the energy of life, the goodness out of which all things are intended to grow to fullness. Yet it is a struggle…How can we possibly deal with the great erupting changes of life and come away more whole because of having been through them than we would possibly have been without them? To do that takes a spirituality of struggle.” (Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope, 16)

Regardless of which interpretation the reader prefers, Jacob encountered God and is transformed by the event. Battles with family, friends, enemies, and our own demons can all result in encounters with God, or in Jacob’s terms seeing God “face to face”.

Does it matter whom Jacob fought? If so, why does Genesis fail to mention it? Why does Jacob experience this wrestling match alone? To what extent do Jacob’s experiences wrestling mirror your own encounters with God?

“To be the man, you got to beat the man!” - Wrestling great “Nature Boy” Ric Flair (b. 1949)

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