The currently popular pop psychology answer is that Jacob was wrestling with himself. It's a particularly engaging thought in this age of "acknowledging our inner child," asking "who's driving our bus?" and so on. And it's easier, of course, than coming to terms with Jacob wrestling with an angel, or some incarnate form of the divine (well, most Jews won't go there, but...)
Let's just say it's the safe, least challenging interpretation for our times. I know that my many friends and colleagues who subscribe to this "self-wrestling Jacob" interpretation will protest that they have chosen to endorse that interpretation after deep and thoughtful contemplation. I am sure this may be so. Still, I find that interpretation just a little too convenient, and I am not content to embrace it as the one that is simply the hippest.
And the venerable Rashi contends that Jacob wrestled with Esau's angel. This is perhaps reinforced by Jacob's declaration upon seeing Esau that seeing his brother's face is like seeing G"d's face.
There's a slightly more radical extension of Rashi's interpretation. Perhaps Jacob wrestled with Esau. Not Esau's angel, or Esau's spirit, but Esau himself. Jacob had ferried his kin to safety on the other side of the river - an action that goes unexplained - and was alone for his encounter. Esau had a score to settle with Jacob. What better way than in private? No need for entanglement with other family members, and the two divisions of troops that we about to encounter each other. They "take it outside" and settle the score between them. Jacob stubbornly holds on to his adversary, and will not release him until he gets a blessing. Of course, this is a wrinkle in this interpretation--why would Jacob want Esau's blessing--since Jacob had already stolen it from him? On the other hand, it might provide a more direct interpretation of why at first Jacob is wrestling with an "ish," a man -- and, at the end of the struggle, he is told that he has striven with beings human and divine. Esau is human. G"d is divine. Jacob has been wrestling with G"d from the beginning of the story.
All this effort to determine with whom Jacob wrestled. What's the difference? Would it change the story, the outcome? Even G"d giving Jacob a new name couldn't really change the inner Jacob. If Jacob fought with himself, he lost. For even after this supposed denouement Jacob/Israel goes on to be the same extremely imperfect he has been all his life. Even after their reconciliation, he lies to his brother Esau, and sneaks away just as he did with Laban. His behavior when his daughter Dinah is raped, and his sons wreak bloody revenge is so disappointing. So what did Jacob really do to earn his new name? Perhaps G"d thought that by giving Jacob a new name, perhaps Jacob's behavior would change. Buzz. Wrong answer. Thank you for playing.
So why does Jacob get a new name? What makes him worthy of that? Those are far more interesting questions for me than wondering with whom Jacob wrestled. Who cares with whom Jacob wrestled? Time to turn off "Wrestlemania." Or for a more apropos analogy - time to turn off "Lost" and switch channels to "House" and get to the bottom of truly interesting, meaningful, and life-affecting mysteries. Happy wrestling.
©2006 by Adrian A. Durlester
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