Jacob’s Fight Night: It’s a Koan

Jacob wrestles with an angel
Jacob and the Angel, by Jacob Kainan, 1977, Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
-Genesis 32:22-32

Too many things about this passage just don’t add up:

  • It says “a man” wrestled with Jacob. So why do we insist on saying it was an angel?
  • Or, alternatively, if you assume that “striven with God” implies that this man is really God, why do we insist on saying it was (merely) an angel?
  • Since “the man” had put Jacob’s hip out of joint, it seems that he could have just run away have to leave as day was breaking. So why does he need to ask Jacob to let him go?
  • Why would Jacob think that someone he’d been fighting with all night would be inclined to bless him?
  • Why does the man want to know Jacob’s name?
  • It seems odd that a complete stranger would have the audacity, let alone the authority to change your name.
  • Was the man really referring to himself as God (“For you have striven with God…”) or does he just know something about Jacob’s past? And if he knows something about Jacob’s past, how?
  • Who is this man? Why is he offended that Jacob should ask. After all he had asked the same question? (And, if he was God in disguise, it doesn’t make any sense that he would need to ask Jacob’s name.)
  • Jacob seems to think that he has seen God face to face. In the person of a man. How can a man be God? Or can God be a man? (Hint: this is an intentionally leading question for people who believe that a certain other man was God, but the Christian implications of this are completely foreign to its original context, so applying Christology to this text is out of bounds.)

You can probably come up with a few more. But the main paradox to consider is:

  • Why is a story about Jacob’s finally growing up couched in a children’s fable that’s stated moral is merely to explain how the town of Peniel got its name and why Israelites don’t eat the thigh muscle?

We must remember: before the Bible and Judaism and Christianity were ever known in the west, they were Eastern religions. Even the Romans considered them as such before Constantine. These proto-historical narratives from Genesis are set in the near east, and are told of people who have within a generation of their own time-horizon just arrived from the far east. They are not identical to the other religions we think of as eastern religions today, but they do share an eastern mindset and worldview.

The story of Jacob’s growing up is like unto a koan: a story in which enlightenment is found in the contradictions, not by resolving them, but by coming to a deeper understanding of them.

I’m not going to tell you how to interpret any of these contradictions (at least, not in this post). But I will say that if you sit with them long enough, you can find enlightenment. And, preachers, if you can crack any one of these nuts before Sunday, I guarantee you any one of them will preach.