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Alexander A.

Ferencin
Prof. Benjamin Wright
REL 111
26 March 2015
Exegetical Analysis of Genesis 32:22-33
One of the five books of the Pentateuch, Genesis documents a great deal of the early
history of the people which will eventually form the nation of Israel. It covers everything
from the creation stories and the flood to Joseph in Egypt. The bulk of this book is dedicated
to what is referred to as the Patriarchal History, which tells the stories of Abraham, Isaac,
and Jacob along with his sons. At the heart of this history is an iconic story that gave Jacob
and the nation which is descended from him a new name. Nestled between the tales of Laban
and Jacob meeting Esau, this story, while only eleven verses, contains a great deal of
significance in the narrative of Jacobs life. Within these verses, questions such as the identity
of the attacker who gives Jacob his new name, the meaning and context of this new name,
and other various issues arise.
Before looking at the issues of the passage, it would help to look at the context and
the authorship of the passage. This particular passage is actually nested inside the larger
narrative of Jacob meeting with Esau, whom Jacob believes to mean to do him harm. In Gen
32:4-21, we can see Jacob making preparations, splitting up his people into two camps, and
offering a prayer for their deliverance. The story we are looking at seems to cut up the larger
narrative by having Jacob encounter a stranger while moving his people across the Jabbok.
The two wrestle all night, and upon seeing the sun about to rise, the stranger asks for a
respite, but not before Jacob demands a blessing from him. As seemingly strange and out of

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place this narrative is, Claus Westermann identifies that the basic narrative must be old.1
He, along with E.A. Speiser, go on to identify that this passage is from the Jahwist source,
although the first three verses of the chapter come from the Elohist source.23
Probably the most obvious and intriguing question posed by the passage is who or what this
person is with whom Jacob enters a wrestling match. It would seem that there is a divide in
the scholarship on this account. The word used to describe the man is elohim, which means a
divine being.4 Where the divide comes in is that this word can and has been used for several
different beings in the Bible. It is a word that is most frequently associated with God.
However, just earlier in the chapter, the same word was used for angels. Here, the irony is
that the same word is used twice in the verse: once for angels and once for God. 5
The issue with this is that there are three possibilities for the identity of the man, two of
which seem more likely than the third. The first one that comes to mind is that this
mysterious assailant is God himself. This option is presented by Gerhard von Rad. He makes
the argument that because of Jacobs naming of the place where this happens as Peniel, which
means Face of God,6 this would lend itself more to the interpretation of God over another
being. He also says that the entire narrative, going back to the well-established thought that it

1 Claus Westermann. Genesis 12 36: A Commentary. 515.


2 Claus Westermann. Genesis 12 36. 515.
3 E.A. Speiser. Genesis. 255.
4 Nahum M. Sarna. Genesis. 228.
5 Ibid. 223.
6 Ibid. 229.

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is old, paints a picture of a more primitive notion of a relationship with God, since Jacob
(quite literally living up to his name), is able to trick him into a blessing.7
The next option for the identity of the attacker is that it was a demonic spirit. This argument
is mainly made by Westermann, although Sarna entertains the idea before presenting the last
possibility, which is up next. Westermann makes the case that the animistic nature of the
rather old passage would lend itself to the attacker being a river demon, which was a very
common belief in the earlier times. He makes the case that if you think of the attack like a
robbing, then it would suit the idea of a demon the best. He argues that since a robber cannot
risk being identified in the light, this is why he needed to leave before daybreak.8 Coupled
with the fact that he had the power to give Jacob his blessing, this is a rather plausible option.
The last possibility for the identity of the attacker is an angel. As stated before, the translation
of elohim as an angel or angels is not uncommon in the Bible. Just a few verses before the
case was so. This makes for an interesting case to be made. This case is taken up by Nahum
Sarna, who argues that it should be interpreted as an angel based on Judges 13:22, where the
phrase We shall surely die for we have seen elohim.9 In the case of Judges, he says the
context clearly indicated an angel figure. Sarna also points out that on two other occasions,
man and angel were used interchangeably. Specifically, he mentions Abraham and the
three strangers, as well as the Judges verse above.10

7 Gerhard von Rad. Genesis: A Commentary. 317.


8 Claus Westermann. Genesis 12 36. 516.
9 Nahum M. Sarna. Understanding Genesis. 205.
10 Ibid. 205.

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As far as which one makes the most sense and was argued the best, I would say that von
Rads God theory wins out. There are a few reasons for this. First, all of the scholars mention
that this is a heavily edited passage. While at the beginning, Israelites were likely not
monotheistic, they did progress to that worldview. So, even if the attacker was a demon or
another spirit in the beginning, it would make more sense that they would attribute the
naming of Jacob as Israel to God himself. God changed Abram to Abraham and Jedediah to
Solomon; it would only make sense that he would be the one to change Jacobs name.
Compounded with the fact that Jacob knew to ask for a blessing from him, meant that he
knew the attacker to be a holy being; to say that this being was a demon seems to contradict
this notion. Altogether, the idea of the attacker being an angel is not as plausible either, since
the being did not identify himself to Jacob, as other angels are known to do.
The next interesting topic to look at is Jacobs new name, Israel. It is an extremely
consequential moment in the Book of Genesis. This name would identify the Hebrew people
to this day. However, there seems to be a bit of a conflict over what the name actually means,
according to the narrative. When the being is defeated, in place of giving Jacob a blessing, he
gives him a new name. The only one of the scholars that I have looked at that covered the
name of Israel was Sarna. He contended that there is an inconsistency in the meaning in the
narrative, as the literal translation as we know it today means something quite different. Sarna
says that Yisrael, therefore, should properly mean God strives, not He strives with
God.11 This directly contradicts the narrative, which states that, you have striven with

11 Nahum M. Sarna. Genesis. 405.

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beings divine and human, and have prevailed.12 It is unfortunate that Sarna, while making
note of this discrepancy, does not try to address why this is.
On the topic of naming things, Jacob, after defeating the assailant and receiveing his new
name, renames the place where the struggle took place. He calls it Peniel, meaning by the
narratives description, I have seen a divine being face-to-face, yet my life has been
preserved.13 This is another place where the narrative differs from the literal translation of
the word. Sarna gives the literal meaning of Peniel to be the Face of God.14 While this is
only a small discrepancy, much like the meaning of Israel, it should not be over looked. It is
very easy to see that the narratives meaning was framed in a way to mirror what the being
said in giving Jacob his new name. It is also worth noting with regard to Peniel, that within
the narrative, two different spellings of the name are given.15 Westermann concludes that this
discrepancy is due to editing over the years. He proposes that the second version of the name,
seen in 32:31, is a result of a subsequent alteration.16
Genesis 32:22-33 is a very interesting passage which is fully of literary intrigue. From the
identity of Jacobs attacker to the naming of a nation, this passage lies at the heart of the
Patriarchal History and centres around one of the most important figures in the entire Bible.
Whether the divine being was a demon, angel, or God himself, a new nation was started

12 Ibid. 228.
13 Ibid. 228.
14 Ibid. 228.
15 Claus Westermann. Genesis 12 36. 513
16 Claus Westermann. Genesis 12 36. 520.

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that day. This nation would ultimately change the Near-East in a permanent way, and through
a series of domino-like influences, change the course of history for the world.

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Works Cited
Rad, Gerhard von. Genesis: A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1961. Print.
Sarna, Nahum M. Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with New JPS Translation. JPS
Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989. Print.
Sarna, Nahum M. Understanding Genesis. Heritage of Biblical Israel. New York: Schocken
Books, 1978. Print.
Speiser, E. A. Genesis. Anchor Bible. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964. Print.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis 12-36: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House,
1985. Print.