Jacob Wrestling the Angel: I'd like to know more!
May 31, 2011 9:54 AM   Subscribe

Can you lead me to any good textual analyses of the biblical story in which Jacob wrestles the angel? I have looked around but still haven't found what I'm looking for.

I am working on a piece of fiction and wonder if anyone has come across any great commentaries on this story. I'm happy to go to the library -- so whether it's in a book, or online, or anywhere, please let me know if you've read anything great! I'm open to everything -- religious interpretations, non-religious ones -- any texts that have expanded your understanding of this story. Thanks!

(I'm sorry not to be more specific about what I'm looking for; I'm assuming if it excited you, maybe it'll excite me.)
posted by Clotilde to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It's been a while since I read it, but there's a chapter on this story in How To Believe In God that I really enjoyed (although the gist of his commentary escapes my memory at the moment).
posted by dcotter at 10:12 AM on May 31, 2011

I don't know any serious analyses, but what about another piece of fiction? The play Angels in America (there's a HBO version of it too) has an interesting take on the story of Jacob.
posted by synchronia at 10:12 AM on May 31, 2011

I don't have a personal endorsement but I wanted to note my magical search term for finding a generally better class of academic writings on biblical analysis - exegesis, like so.
posted by nanojath at 10:14 AM on May 31, 2011

I agree that if you haven't seen/read Angels In America (the movie is quite good) then you should check that out.
posted by hermitosis at 10:24 AM on May 31, 2011

I have written on Jacob as a theologian, here is what I would look for:

Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses. New York. WW Norton and Co. 2004.

Bayford, Susan. Genesis, vol. one of the Septuagint Commentary Series. Leiden , Netherlands. Koninklijke Brill NV. 2007.

Gunkel, Herman. Genesis. Translated by Mark E. Biddle. Macon, US. Mercer University Press, 1997.

Westmann, Claus. Genesis: 12-36, A Constitutional Commentary. Minneapolis, US. Aubsberg Fortress Press. 1995.

Von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis: A Commentary. Santa Ana, US. Westminister Press.

Von Rad and Gunkel are required for this kind of work, Alter is a bit problematic, in terms of poetry, Bayford blew me away.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:26 AM on May 31, 2011 [5 favorites]

Check out the Genesis sermon for that chapter from Mars Hill Church. It's available for download through iTunes or on that link. There are also sermon notes.

If you email the contact address, they can point you to the best commentaries, including the ones used for that sermon.
posted by guster4lovers at 10:32 AM on May 31, 2011

Oh, and on re-reading the title of your post, I thought I'd also comment that the interpretation Mars Hill takes is that the "angel" is actually Jesus in human form (that's based on the fact that he's often referred to as "The Angel of God" throughout Genesis and the rest of the Bible).
posted by guster4lovers at 10:34 AM on May 31, 2011

Here you go. You're welcome. :)

But seriously.

For a marvelous (and varied) Jewish perspective on the story, I would seriously recommend checking out the bundle of medieval rabbinic commentaries on the story. They're combined in the volume called Mikra'ot Gedolot. You can find it in English here or here, or you can wait until Michael Carasik comes out with the Genesis volume in his series (he's so far only done Exodus and Leviticus, but they're excellent).

Alternatively, find a local rabbi and buy him lunch. I bet he'd be willing to go over some of the translations from the Hebrew with you (at least I know I would!).
posted by AngerBoy at 11:33 AM on May 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

John Calvin's commentary

posted by yoyoceramic at 11:37 AM on May 31, 2011

The most famous modern interpreter of the text is Roland Barthes, in his essay 'Wrestling with the Angel: Textual Analysis of Genesis 32: 23-32', in which Jacob's struggle with the angel is seen as reflecting the reader's struggle with the text. Barthes is particularly struck by the amphibology (grammatical ambiguity) of the story, which he sees as 'linked to a paradoxical structure of the combat', i.e. it is unclear who has actually won the wrestling match. The angel seems to have won the match by putting Jacob's thigh out of joint (which, as Barthes points out, could be construed as a form of cheating .. and there is much that could be said here about the fact that God has to cheat in order to defeat his human opponent), yet we are told at the end of the story that Jacob has prevailed.

You can find Barthes' essay in Graham Ward (ed.), The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader, with a very helpful introduction by Valentine Cunningham. You can also find an extract in David Jasper and Stephen Prickett (eds.), The Bible and Literature: A Reader, along with a selection of other texts on Jacob and the angel, including Charles Wesley's great hymn 'Come, O thou Traveller unknown', and Gerard Manley Hopkins's 'Carrion Comfort':

Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

posted by verstegan at 11:55 AM on May 31, 2011 [3 favorites]

A very non-traditional interpretation is touched on in Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa:

When in Africa in March the long rains begin after four months of hot, dry weather, the richness of growth and the freshness and fragrance everywhere are overwhelming.
But the farmer holds back his heart and dares not trust to the generosity of nature, he listens, dreading to hear a decrease in the roar of the falling rain. The water that the earth is now drinking in must bring the farm, with all the vegetable, animal and human life on it, through four rainless months to come.

It is a lovely sight when the roads of the farm have all been turned into streams of running water, and the farmer wades through the mud with a singing heart, out to the flowering and dripping coffee-fields. But it happens in the middle of the rainy season that in the evening the stars show themselves through the thinning clouds; then he stands outside his house and stares up, as if hanging himself on to the sky to milk down more rain. He cries to the sky: “Give me enough and more than enough. My heart is bared to thee now, and I will not let thee go except thou bless me. Drown me if you like, but kill me not with caprices. No coitus interruptus, heaven, heaven!”

Sometimes a cool, colourless day in the months after the rainy season calls back the time of the marka mbaya, the bad year, the time of the drought. In those days the Kikuyu used to graze their cows round my house, and a boy amongst them who had a flute, from time to time played a short tune on it. When I have heard this tune again, it has recalled in one single moment all our anguish and despair of the past. It has got the salt taste of tears in it. But at the same time I found in the tune, unexpectedly surprisingly, a vigour, a curious sweetness, a song. Had those hard times really had all these in them? There was youth in us then, a wild hope. It was during those long days that we were all of us merged into a unity, so that on another planet we shall recognise one another, and the things cry to each other, the cuckoo clock and my books to the lean-fleshed cows on the lawn and the sorrowful old Kikuyus: “You also were there. You also were part of the Ngong farm.” That bad time blessed us and went away.

The friends of the farm came to the house, and went away again. They were not the kind of people who stay for a long time in the same place. They were not the kind of people either who grow old, they died and never came back. But they had sat contented by the fire, and when the house, closing round them, said: “I will not let you go except you bless me,” they laughed and blessed it, and it let them go.

An old lady sat in a party and talked of her life. She declared that she would like to live it all over again, and held this fact to prove that she had lived wisely. I thought: Yes, her life has been the sort of life that should really be taken twice before you can say that you have had it. An arietta you can take da capo, but not a whole piece of music,—not a symphony and not a five-act tragedy either. If it is taken over again it is because it has not gone as it ought to have gone.
My life, I will not let you go except you bless me, but then I will let you go.

posted by you're a kitty! at 3:13 PM on May 31, 2011

From the Wikipedia article on Jacob wrestling the Angel (after the King James Version):

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that this story would make a lot more sense of itself and in the larger narrative of the Book of Genesis if the Angel grabbed Jacob's genitals instead of touching his thigh.

Genital grabbing is a notorious forbidden tactic to win wrestling contests, and the touch of a divine being on the organs of generation of the progenitor of the twelve tribes could be construed as a validation of their status as the chosen people. Also, the "sinew which shrank" makes much more sense to me as the cords to the testicles than it does as the sciatic nerve, since the testicles can shrink up against the body.

I looked for support on line for this view, and all I have been able to find so far is a line in an encyclopedia of martial arts suggesting the angel went for the genitals, and a page saying thigh is a euphemism for genitals here by someone who also believes "the place Peniel" is a reference to the pineal gland!
posted by jamjam at 5:39 PM on May 31, 2011

Thank you to everyone who replied to this posting! All very useful and interesting resources...
posted by Clotilde at 6:24 AM on June 1, 2011

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