Wrestling With Angels and Men

Exegetical Approaches

Overview

In interpreting this mysterious episode, commentators struggle to make sense of its mixed results for Yaakov and to determine what connection this nocturnal battle had to the following daytime encounter with Esav. Many rationalist exegetes starting with R. Shemuel b. Chofni see the outcome in a positive light, with the angel coming to bolster Yaakov's confidence before his reunion with Esav. Ramban adopts a more mystical position, claiming that the event foreshadows the course of Jewish history. He also views the outcome as more complex; there will be great national misfortunes before our ultimate triumph. Rashbam has a more negative perspective on the event, claiming that Yaakov is being punished for not trusting that Hashem will protect him from Esav. Finally, Rashi and others suggest that it is Esav's guardian angel who tries unsuccessfully to harm Yaakov, with Yaakov emerging the victor.

Reassurance

Hashem designed the encounter to give Yaakov confidence that, just as he was able to emerge victorious in this struggle, he and/or his descendants would triumph over future adversity.

Yaakov Himself

Yaakov's success in this confrontation assured him that there was no reason to fear Esav.

Biblical parallels – R. Shemuel b. Chofni notes the parallel case in Shofetim 6:11 in which an angel appears to Gidon to instill in him confidence in his own strength.
"אִישׁ" – angel or human? All of these commentators maintain that it was an angel who struggled with Yaakov.1
Reality or prophecy?
  • R. Shemuel b. Chofni, Ibn Ezra, and Shadal indicate that the angel appeared to Yaakov in flesh and blood form.
  • Radak, R. Avraham b. HaRambam, and Ralbag all explore the option that the entire incident was only a prophetic vision.2
"וַיֵּאָבֵק" – Shadal contends that the verb אבק‎3 is related to the root "חבק"‎4 and means to embrace. His understanding is that this was a friendly, athletic, wrestling match, and not a fight to the death.
"וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ" – Shadal explains that the angel feigned not being able to overcome Yaakov.
"וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹ" – This approach must grapple with why the angel injured Yaakov if his goal was to give Yaakov confidence. R. Shemuel b. Chofni proposes that "וַיִּגַּע" implies an affectionate touch,5 rather than a violent blow.6 Radak, though, claims that the injury was a punishment for Yaakov's lack of faith in Hashem7 and his excessive humbling of himself before Esav.
"כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר" – Radak suggests that the angel tells Yaakov that now that it is daylight there is no cause for further fear and his protection is no longer needed. Alternatively, now that the angel has fortified Yaakov's spirit, it is time for him to leave so that Yaakov can prepare for Esav's arrival.8
"רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים... וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי" – R. Shemuel b. Chofni reads this as Yaakov's expression of relief that he did not die from seeing an angel.9 However, it is possible that "רָאִיתִי" here means to encounter, and Yaakov is expressing that he survived the confrontation with the angel.10
Crux of the position – This approach connects the episode to its immediate context. Yaakov is about to meet Esav, and thus Hashem sends an angel or a prophetic vision to bolster Yaakov's confidence.

Future Generations

Yaakov's skirmish with and victory over the angel represented the future struggles of Israel and their ultimate salvation from their enemies.

Reality or prophecy? This approach views the encounter as a real, physical, struggle.13 According to Ramban, though, these real life events had prophetic significance and determined the course of Jewish history.14
Biblical parallels – Seforno compares our story to Elisha's command to Yoash to shoot arrows as a symbol of Israel's future triumphs over Aram.15 In both cases, a Divinely mandated action serves as a template for future victories over an enemy.
"אִישׁ" – angel or human? All of these commentators assert that Yaakov struggled with an angel. R. Chama in Bereshit Rabbah and Lekach Tov identify him as the guardian angel of Esav or Edom ("שרו של עשו" or "שרו של אדום")‎.16 As this position reads the struggle as anticipating the future struggles of the Jewish people, the identification of the angel with Edom, commonly understood to signify Rome, is a natural one.
"וַיֵּאָבֵק" – R. Berakhiah in Bereshit Rabbah and Lekach Tov suggest that the word stems from the root אבק and relates to the dust that rises during the struggle.17 Ramban raises the possibility that it is related instead to the root חבק.‎18
"וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ" – According to both Bereshit Rabbah and Seforno, the angel was not able to overcome Yaakov due to Yaakov's merits (or those of his ancestors). Ramban, though, simply suggests that the angel was given Divine orders not to subdue Yaakov but only to injure his thigh.
"וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹ" – Bereshit Rabbah, Lekach Tov and Ramban read the injury to Yaakov's thigh as metaphorically representing the suffering of his future descendants ("יֹצְאֵי יְרֵכוֹ") during periods in which enemies attempted to force them to forsake their faith.19 According to them, the encounter's message is not totally reassuring. Though the nation will ultimately prevail over its adversaries, they will first endure a period of hardship and struggle.20
"כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר" – This approach reads the timing of the entire encounter as having metaphoric value. Night represents darkness and hardship, while dawn breaking represents the coming of light and the future salvation.21
Crux of the position – This approach expands the significance of this story in particular, and Sefer Bereshit as a whole, viewing them and their details as having eternal ramifications for the people of Israel.

Corrective Punishment

Hashem orchestrated the confrontation and instructed the angel to injure Yaakov as a punishment for one of various possible misdeeds.

Present Actions

Hashem sent an angel to punish Yaakov for doubting His promise to protect him and to prevent Yaakov from running away.

"וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ" – Rashbam suggests that Yaakov was attempting to run away from Esav, as he did not sufficiently trust that Hashem would protect him. Yaakov, thus, had his family cross the river to escape under the cover of darkness. However, before he himself managed to cross, he found himself attacked by the angel.22
Biblical parallels – Rashbam brings parallels for both a nighttime escape across a river and for a person getting punished for going or not going some place against God's wishes:
  • During Avshalom's uprising, David crossed a river in the middle of the night in order to escape.23
  • Rashbam points to Moshe,24 Bilam,25 and Yonah26 as examples of others who tried to avoid fulfilling the mission assigned to them by Hashem, and who were similarly punished. Each is put into a potentially fatal situation, and Bilam also becomes lame.27
Second camp as decoy – According to this approach, it is possible that Yaakov had prepared for his family's escape by previously dividing his people into two camps (Bereshit 32:8). The first camp with the servants and hired hands stayed put awaiting Esav, and this afforded the second camp consisting of Yaakov's wives and children an opportunity to escape from danger.28
Esav's intentionsRashbamBereshit 32:7-8About R. Shemuel b. Meir maintains that Esav was coming with peaceful intentions and that the 400 men accompanying him were serving as an honor guard rather than a fighting army. This is consistent with Rashbam's understanding that Hashem wanted to prevent Yaakov from fleeing and avoiding a reconciliation with Esav.29
"אִישׁ" – angel or human? Rashbam understands the "אִישׁ" to be an angel sent by Hashem.
Reality or prophecy? According to Rashbam, the encounter was real and not part of a dream.
"וַיֵּאָבֵק" – Rashbam views the angel's wrestling as both punitive and preventative. The angel fought, in part, simply to delay Yaakov and prevent him from escaping and avoiding the reunion with Esav.30
"וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹ" – The angel wounded Yaakov's thigh in order to punish him for doubting Hashem's power and for attempting to run away.31
"כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר" – According to Rashbam, the angel needed to end the struggle by dawn so that Yaakov would be free to encounter Esav.
The blessing – For Rashbam's position, it is unclear why Yaakov should deserve a blessing after having acted against Hashem's wishes.32
"כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל" – These words, which suggest that Yaakov ultimately won the fight, present a difficulty for Rashbam. If the angel's actions are a punishment for Yaakov, how could Yaakov emerge victorious?33 Rashbam could perhaps answer that once Yaakov's thigh was wounded, his sin was atoned for, and he could then win the duel.34
"רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים... וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי" – According to this approach, Yaakov realizes that, because of his sin, he had a close call with death.35
Crux of the position – Rashbam attempts to elucidate a number of enigmatic Biblical episodes by finding their common denominator of punishment for going against God's wishes. However, this does not fit well with the general motif of Divine protection and blessing which pervades the story.

Past Actions

Hashem sent an angel to injure Yaakov as a punishment for prior transgressions.

What sin?
  • Did not tithe – Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer criticize Yaakov for not fulfilling his vow at Beit El to give a tenth of his possessions to God.36
  • Married four wives – R. Ephraim blames Yaakov for marrying four sisters.37
  • Materialism – Akeidat Yitzchak and the Keli Yekar suggest that Yaakov crossed the river alone to retrieve several small jars which he had forgotten.38 They fault him for his over attachment to his possessions and his materialistic bent.
"אִישׁ" – angel or human? All of these commentators maintain that it was an angel who struggled with Yaakov. According to the Keli Yekar, the "אִישׁ" is the guardian angel of Esav, also known as Samael.
Reality or prophecy? These commentators explain that this was happening in real life.
"וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹ" – R. Ephraim suggests that the thigh specifically was injured since Yaakov's sin of marrying too many women directly related to that limb.39
"שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר" – According to Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, the angel had to end the struggle since it was time to go back to heaven to sing Hashem's praises. Akeidat Yitzchak, on the other hand, explains that the angel wanted to give Yaakov time to prepare for his meeting with Esav.
Crux of the position – This approach is unique in that it does not posit any fundamental connection between this story and the surrounding story of the reunion with Esav. As our episode makes no mention of Esav, it is viewed as an independent unit.

Attack

Esav's advocate or guardian angel assaulted Yaakov in an effort to reclaim the birthright and blessings.

"אִישׁ" – angel or human? These commentators maintain that the "אִישׁ" who struggled with Yaakov was an angel. Rashi and Ma'asei Hashem identify him with the guardian angel of Esav. However, this position could also suggest that the "אִישׁ" was a human representative of Esav, coming to attack Yaakov on his behalf.40
Reality or prophecy? This approach asserts that the struggle was a physical one and not part of a prophetic dream.
"וַיֵּאָבֵק" – Rashi and R. Yosef Bekhor Shor both raise two possibilities as to the word's etymology, suggesting that it is either related to the root אבק meaning dust or to the Aramaic אבק/חבק which means to tie or twist, referring to the tangled, wrestling arms and legs of the fighters.41
"וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף יְרֵכוֹ" – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor understands the angel's actions simply, as an attempt to overpower Yaakov and catch him off balance. In contrast, a Tosafist manuscript relates it to the angel's desire to seek revenge for the sale of the birthright, by causing a defect in Yaakov, and rendering him unfit to offer sacrifices.42
"וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ" – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and R. D"Z Hoffmann emphasize that it was only due to Hashem's mercy and help that Yaakov was able to overcome the angel. If one posits, on the other hand, that the adversary was human, it is understandable how Yaakov might have overpowered him.
"כִּי אִם בֵּרַכְתָּנִי" – Rashi asserts that Yaakov was telling the angel that he would not let him free until he affirmed that the blessings of Yitzchak rightfully belonged to Yaakov.
Change of name – According to Rashi, the change of name represents an admission that the blessings did not belong to Yaakov due to his trickery (עקבה) but rather because he rightfully deserved them.
"לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי" – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor suggests that the angel refused to reveal his name since, generally, a defeated party does not want to publicize his identity.43
"רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים... וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי" – R. Yosef Bekhor Shor explains that Yaakov's words refer not to being saved from seeing an angel,44 but from fighting with one.45 He points out that the root ראה can also be used to refer to combat.46
"שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר" – According to Rashi, the angel needed to depart at dawn to return to heaven to sing Hashem's praises. R. Yosef Bekhor Shor, in contrast, explains that demonic powers lose their strength to harm in daylight.
"רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים" – Rashi reads this as Yaakov comparing his encounter with Esav to his meeting Esav's angel. Yaakov is cautioning Esav not to attack lest he be defeated like his guardian angel.
Crux of the position – This approach views the episode as closing the larger circle of the Yaakov and Esav stories by affirming Yaakov's birthright, as well as insuring that Esav will not be able to harm Yaakov in their immediately following meeting.
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