Tuesday of week 14 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Gen 32:23-33
We jump a few chapters in our story of Jacob and come to an experience even more strange than the vision of the ladder/staircase going up to heaven.
Jacob has been preparing to meet with his estranged brother Esau. He was not at all sure what kind of meeting it was going to be with the brother whom he had cheated out of his birth-right. Each one was now rich and powerful in his own domain.
As our reading opens we are told that Jacob takes his two wives (Rachel and Leah), his two slave-girls and his 11 children (the youngest, Benjamin, has been conceived but not born), together with all his possessions, across the River Jabbok to a safer place while he stays behind alone.
‘Jabbok’ is possibly a play on ‘Jacob’. (The author loves toying with names in this way. See below.) The river is an eastern tributary of the Jordan originating near present-day Amman. It is known today as the Wadi Zerqa and flows westwards into the Jordan about 30 km north of the Dead Sea.
Jacob is now alone and then, during the whole night until dawn, he wrestles with an unknown man. As is clear later on, this ‘man’ is a messenger of the Lord, if not the Lord himself, in human form. Is this to be seen as a ‘real’ experience or was it just another dream or some purely internal experience? “Wrestled” in Hebrew (ye’abeq) is a play on ‘Jacob’ (ya‘aqob) and ‘Jabbok’ (yabboq).
Jacob has struggled all his life to prevail, first with Esau, then with Laban, his uncle who is the father of his wife, Rachel. Now, as he is about to re-enter Canaan, he is shown that it is with God that he must “wrestle”. It is God who holds his destiny in his hands.
When the ‘man’ sees that Jacob is getting the upper hand, he strikes Jacob on the hip and dislocates it. The hip socket is the fleshy part of the thigh. There is a hint of injury to the sexual organs and, indeed, with Benjamin, his 12th and youngest son, already conceived, Jacob will have no more children. God came to him in such a form that Jacob could wrestle with him successfully, yet he also showed Jacob that he could disable him at will.
With the coming of morning the stranger says, “Let me go, for day is breaking.” But Jacob will not let the man go without receiving his blessing. He seems to suspect the divine origin of his opponent. There is also an indication that Jacob is still having problems over their father’s blessing which he got by deceit. He wants now a direct blessing from God himself.
“What is your name?” asks the stranger. “Jacob” is the reply. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have been strong against God, you shall prevail against humans.” The probable meaning of the word ‘Israel’ is “May God show his strength” but here it is understood as “He has been strong against God”. At that very moment Jacob reaches full maturity as father and patriarch, his descendants acquire their national name. Later, Israel’s encounters with God will constantly entail intense struggle, with divine and human alike. God will later confirm Jacob’s new name (Gen 35:10). The present incident, where the name Israel is alluded to, is referred to in a passage from Hosea (12:5) where the mysterious wrestler is explicitly called an angel.
Jacob then asks the stranger his name but the only answer he gets is, “Why do you ask my name?” Given that the stranger is God himself, it is wrong to ask such a question and, in any case, it cannot be answered. The name of Yahweh could not be uttered by any observant Israelite. But the man does give Jacob his blessing.
Jacob, however, is now well aware of who the stranger is: “I have seen God face to face and have survived.” In the Hebrew Testament, to look upon the face of God spells instant death, except by special privilege. So in Exodus we read, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another” (Exod 33:11). After these encounters his face shone so brightly that he had to keep it veiled when speaking to his countrymen. But God also said to Moses: “My face you cannot see, for no one sees me and still lives” (Exod 33:20). Only God’s ‘back’ or ‘feet’ or ‘form’, in a symbolic sense, were allowed to be seen.
So Jacob calls the place, where he had his experience with the stranger, Peniel, which means ‘face of God’. The word is a variant of ‘Penuel’, the name of a town on the north bank of the River Jabbok in Gilead.
Then he leaves, limping because of his damaged hip. Limping is a frequent motif in myth and legend (Oedipus, too, limps), suggesting a maturing in his relationship with God, who is the real Lord of his life. It parallels in some ways the experience of Abraham at Moriah where he was told to sacrifice his only son. Although less whole physically, he is precisely through his experience more spiritually complete. He is now Israel and not just Jacob.
And, the reading tells us, to this day Jews will not eat the sciatic nerve which is in the socket of the hip, because that is where God had struck Jacob. Although mentioned nowhere else in the Hebrew Testament, this dietary prohibition is found in the later writings of Judaism. Jacob retained in his body, and Israel retained in her dietary practice, a perpetual reminder of this fateful encounter with God.
Finally, let us hear the Jerusalem Bible commentary on this scene:
This enigmatic story, probably Yahwistic, speaks of a physical struggle, a wrestling with God from which Jacob seems to emerge victor. Jacob recognises the supernatural character of his adversary and extorts a blessing from him. The text, however, avoids using the name of Yahweh and the unknown antagonist will not give his name. The author has made use of an old story as a means of explaining the name ‘Peniel’ (‘face of God’) and the origin of the name ‘Israel’.
At the same time he gives the story a religious significance: Jacob holds fast to God and forces from him a blessing; henceforth all who bear Israel’s name will have a claim on God.
It is not surprising that this dramatic scene later served as an image of the spiritual combat and of the value of persevering prayer (e.g. St Jerome, Origen). It was advice that Jesus himself gave and also St Paul.

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