Jacob’s Wrestling and the Jewish Sages Twistings

With whom did Jacob wrestle—a man or Elohim? If with Elohim, the Father or the Son? The Jewish sages say one thing, while Christian biblical experts say something else. What does Scripture actually say? This will be a faith-confirming, gospel supporting read!

Genesis 32:24–32, Jacob Wrestling With the Messenger of YHVH. In verse 24 we read,

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled with a man [Heb. iysh] or heavenly messenger [i.e. Heb malak]. (KJV, see Hosea 12:4)

In the following passages, we see that this man was Elohim. 

You have power with Elohim and with men, and have prevailed. (verse 28, based on the KJV)

… for you have striven with the Divine [Elohim] and with man and have overcome. (verse  28, The ArtScroll Stone Edition Tanach and Chumash)

Then Jacob says that he has “seen [Elohim] face to face” (KJV, CJB and The Soncino Edition Pentateuch, Second Edition). The two standard Orthodox Jewish versions of the Torah, The ArtScroll Stone Edition Tanach and The ArtScroll Stone Edition Chumash, and Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah commentary The Pentateuch (by Judaica Press) all read, “For I have seen the Divine face to face.” Here they have translated the Hebrew word Elohim as the Divine (Heb. Elohim panim).

Which translation of the word Elohim is the correct one? Before resorting to human sources to solve this dilemma, does the Word of Elohim itself interpret this passage for us giving it clear light? Most assuredly so. In Hosea 12:2-5 we read,

[YHVH] hath also a controversy with Judah, and will punish Jacob according to his ways; according to his doings will he reward him. He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he had strove with [Elohim]. He strove with an angel [Heb malak or heavenly messenger in many instances referring to YHVH himself, as noted elsewhere in this work] and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication to him; he found him in Beth-El, and there he spoke with us; and [YHVH Elohim] of hosts; [YHVH] is his name. (based on the KJV)

The Stone Edition Tanach renders this passage as follows (starting in verse four):

In the womb he seized his brother’s heal, and with his strength he struggled with [an angel of] God; he struggled with an angel and prevailed; [the angel] wept and beseeched him: ‘In Beth-el He will find us and there He will speak with us.’ HASHEM is the God of Legions; HASHEM is His remembrance. (bracketed supplied word are in the original)

So which translation is correct? The first one indicates Jacob was wrestling with a Heavenly Messenger who was none other than YHVH Elohim, while the second translation is cast in such a light as to imply that Jacob was wrestling with merely an angel. 

Does the word Elohim mean the Divine? It is interesting to note that in the Authorised Version the word Elohim appears 2606 times in the Tanakh. It is translated as God 2346 times, god 244 times and several other words less than five times each (e.g. judge, goddess, great, mighty, angels). As in all cases with a word which can have several meanings, the context of the Scripture passage will determine its meaning and its subsequent translation from the original language into English. The word divine was not employed in the 1611 Authorized Version (KJV) in reference to Elohim anywhere in the Tanakh, since the word had a pejorative connotation (as in divination or one who divines the future). This is not the case in our modern parlance as the modern Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines divine in its primary definition as “relating to, or proceeding directly from God, being a deity, directed to deity.” All standard English (Christian )versions (NKJV, NAS, NIV, NRSV) translate this passage as “God face to face” and none use the term “the Divine face.” The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesinius Hebrew-English Lexicon defines Elohim (in those Scripture passages where it is a clear reference to deity, as opposed to a goddess or a human judge) as the true God, Yahweh is (the) God. Never does this Hebrew lexicon define Elohim as the Divine. Similarly, nowhere does the TWOT in defining the word Elohim suggest that the Divine could be an appropriate substitute for the title of YHVH, Elohim. So we must ask, why do the two Jewish translations of this passage (noted above) seem to run cross grain to a plethora of other translations, both Jewish and Christian, as well as noted lexicographers to translate it as they do? Is this a case of translation bias? Could translating Elohim panim as Elohim face to face as so many other translators do be a tacit admission that Elohim can appear as a man, hence giving credence to the Christian assertion that Yeshua was Elohim in the flesh? It is interesting to consider this. But before jumping to conclusions, let us examine other passages in the Tanakh where Elohim and man seem to come face to face. How do the Jerwish sages treat these passages? How do their commentaries explain these difficult passages?

What do some leading rabbinic commentaries say on these passages?

  • The Stone Edition Chumash (pages 176-177): This commentary states that the man with whom Jacob wrestled was an angel (no doubt based on the passage found in Hosea 12:4), yet the fact that the malak was an angel in the common meaning of the word, is an assumption, since as we have already noted malak means messenger and in this context heavenly messenger with angel being but one type of heavenly messenger. Furthermore, the Chumash refers to the malak as a Divine. What is the terminology here supposed to imply, based on the meaning of the word divine? Was the angel deity or not? At the very least, the reasons given for explaining away the idea that Jacob was wrestling with Elohim are ambiguous.
  • The Soncino Edition Pentateuch (p. 124): Here the authors state simply, “We have here another instance of ‘God’ interchanging with ‘angel of God’, as in [Genesis] 16:7 [and] 31:11” (commentary on verse 29). On verse 31 this commentary states, “The Targum [the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch made in the second-century in response to the spread of Christianity “when proponents of the new religion began to interpret certain passages to accord with their own doctrines” (The Encyclopedia of the Jewish Religion, p. 376)] translates, ‘I have seen angels of God face to face.’” One can only wonder if the Targum’s translation of this passage is not an example of the translators redacting this Torah passage in attempts to steer the reader away from the suggestion that YHVH appeared to Jacob in the form of a man (as a plain reading of the text seems to suggest)—a conclusion that could pave the way for the concept of idea that Messiah was YHVH incarnate (in the flesh).
  • The ArtScroll Bereishis/Genesis commentary postulates a total different explanation as to who Jacob wrestled with. Was it Elohim, an angel or something else. They state, “The ‘man’ who struggled with Jacob was not a human being, nor was he an ordinary angel. As Rashi comments, the ‘man’ was Samael, the guardian angel of Esau” (p. 1397) who was the angel of evil (ibid. p. 1437). The commentary goes on to say that not all Jewish sages agreed with Rashi’s assertion. Tanchuma suggests that this was the angel Michael, while R. Bachya “perceives this as symbolizing the righteous person’s inner struggle against the forces of evil.” Rambam “regards this incident as a prophetic vision (just as he regards Abraham’s vision of the three angels in [Genesis] 18:2f). Ramban … challenges this vigorously, posing man questions (for example: If Jacob’s wrestling was only a vision, why did he limp when he awoke? Abarbanel cites Ralbag who in defense of Rambam, holds that Jacob’s hip injury might have been caused by autosuggestion, an aftermath of the prophetic vision” (ibid.) and the debate between the Jewish sages continues on and on as to the nature of the angel with whom Jacob wrestled.

As these quotes have been provided (and there are more to come) to show the reader that there are some thing the Jewish sages for all their learning, brilliance, respectability and passion for Torah simply cannot figure out. Some will even contrive fantastical scenarios and explanations in attempts to explain a passage in such a way all the while leaving out some of the more plausible conclusions. 

To the sages’ credit, they have in mind the passage in Exodus 33:20, which plainly states that, “You cannot see my face, for no man shall see me and live.” This, the reader will recall, is the occasion where Moses requested to see the glory (or splendor) of YHVH Elohim (verse 18). Indeed, can the man look into the glorious face of the One who made our sun, which is the smallest of billions of suns, and expect to live? Yet is it possible for the same YHVH to place all his glory “on the proverbial shelf” so to speak and to appear to man without his glory? Can he do anything? If this is possible, then can Jacob have seen the face of Elohim temporarily without his glory and Exodus 33:20 still be valid? After all, the sages have numerous reasons, and some very creative ones to explain why Elohim is actually an angel in Genesis 32, when a simple explanation, based on the literal meaning of the text, could suffice to explain why the Being Jacob encountered really was Elohim, as the Scriptures seems to indicate so plainly.

Rashi (Shelomoh Yitzhaki, 1040–1105), considered by some to be the most notable Orthodox Jewish Torah commentary of the modern era, should have some notable comments on verses 28 and 30 (The Sapirstein Edition Rashi, The Torah) regarding Jacob’s the nature of the being with whom Jacob was wrestling. Was it Elohim, an angel, or something else? In fact, he has no comments at all in his venerable commentary (pp. 371–372). It must be noted at this point, that not only can one learn much from what the Jewish sages say, but one can learn as much by what they do not say—especially when they comment voluminously on the Biblical passages preceding and proceeding a certain troublesome verse, but say little or nothing on that particular, especially controversial, passage. 

As noted above, Rashi does cite certain rabbinic traditions equating the man Jacob wrestled with to the ministering angel of Esau (p. 370). He also notes, as further discussed below, that the phrase in verse 24, “a man wrestled” can mean, “and a man became dusted” because, according to the meaning of the Hebrew words, this phrase can literally mean, “because they raised dust with their feet through their movement” as they wrestled (p. 370).

Let us now turn our attention to the comments of noted nineteenth-century German rabbinic scholar and founder of neo-Orthodoxy, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888). On verse 30, Hirsch admits that “Jacob recognized in this opponent, something divine, something justified, appointed by God.” Then Hirsch pens a supposed conversation that Jacob and the Heavenly Messenger might have had where the Messenger states that he is a Messenger of God, created of Elohim, yet neither an ordinary angel nor deity (p. 507). This idea is similar to that expressed by other rabbinic writers that this was Samael, the guardian angel of Esau, “a man who climaxed the Patriarchal tradition” (The ArtScroll Bereishis/Genesis commentary, p. 1397)

What does another eminent Jewish Torah scholar state in his regarding who Jacob wrestled with in Genesis 32? We should like to analyze now what Jacob ben Asher (c. 1270–c. 1343) who is known as Baal HaTurim (The Davis Edition Baal HaTurim Chumash—Bereishis) says in his commentary. Virtually nothing! He simply refers to the man with whom Jacob wrestled as the angel and fails to comment on the implication in verses 28 and 30 of this individual being Elohim himself in human form. Again, we can learn much from the silence of the Jewish sages. This is the case here with Baal HaTurim (p. 307).

This sage does have some interesting comments on verse 24 of our passage, however where we read, “And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.” Here Baal HaTurim comments that the gematria (the letter-number valuation of the Hebrew letters) of the phrase, “a man wrestled” is 118, which equals that of the phrase, “the throne of glory” (The Talmud, Challin 91a). The phrase “a man wrestled” can also mean “he covered with dust” or “he raised dust” in reference to the fact that during the wrestling match the two men stirred the dust of the ground as they entangled. Baal HaTurim gives a fanciful explanation of this wording. He states that as they wrestled they raised dust heavenward to the throne of glory. This must have been some dual (ibid. p. 305).

What can we deduce from the comments of the Jewish sages on this passage of the Scriptures? They refuse to admit that Jacob was wrestling with Elohim though every indication is that the Scriptures point to the fact that this must have been the case. Additionally, the sages are prone to concoct fanciful, non-biblical explanations as to why this being was not Elohim. They state that he was an angel, some divine being, no ordinary angel, or Samael, the demon-guardian angel of Esau. They debate and argue and sometimes contradict each other and themselves as to who this being was. There is much confusion and uncertainty. But one thing upon which they can all agree: it was not Elohim in human form. On this point the honest inquirer is compelled to ask, “Why?” Is it because the sages refuse to admit what the Christians have been saying all along, that the Being with whom Jacob wrestled was a preincarante appearance of Yeshua?

Now consider this. As noted above from the Jewish sages’ own understanding of the meaning of the Hebrew text, “a man wrestled” (verse 24) can mean “a man covered with dust” or “raised dust to the throne of glory.” If Jacob saw the “face of Elohim” (verse 30), and Yeshua in the Gospels clearly states that no one has seen the face of the Father (John 1:18), how do we reconcile these two passages without breaking the Scriptures (John 10:35)? Was Jacob indeed wrestling with Yeshua in his preincarnate state? Is this preposterous? The sages have no clear answers to this difficult passage—only numerous reasons why it cannot be so, when all they lack is one good reason why it could be so, especially when confronted with the plain meaning of the Scriptures, which states that Jacob was wrestling with Elohim period. 

If this was Yeshua in his preincarnate state could the rabbinical “covered-in-dust”—a metaphor for Elohim clothed in humanity—concept lend credence to the Christian incarnation concept of Yeshua and the Christian idea that Yeshua appeared on a number of occasions in the Tanakh in human form (called theophanies or christophanies)? Could this not be a picture of Elohim condescending himself to come to earth in human form from the throne of glory covered in the clay dust of human flesh(see Phil 2:5–8) wrestling with the carnal, prideful and devious nature (of which Jacob, the heel snatcher or supplanter, was a type), breaking the stubborn will of man, wounding the flesh (Jacob left the dual wounded in the hip), and left with a new name and identity (Israel meaning “prince, power, strength and prevailer of El”)? 

Jacob left this spiritual encounter with YHVH a new, changed, humbled and wounded-in-the-flesh man ready to encounter Edom (representing the giants of the land and spiritual warfare on experiences in the wilderness of life before entering the “Promised Land” of YHVH’s kingdom) and overcome is enemies no longer in his, but YHVH’s strength. Jacob was now ready to enter Beth-el (House of El) of the Promised Land as a resurrected new man in Yeshua the resurrected God-man.

Genesis 32:24–32, A Man. This is the account of Jacob wrestling with ??? In verse 24, who does it say Jacob wrestled with? Now read Hosea 12:3–4 where it says that Jacob strove with Elohim and the angel (the word angel is the Hebrew word malak, which means “messenger” whether human, angelic or divine). In Genesis 32:30, Jacob names that spot Beth-El or House of El. Obviously, in Jacob’s mind, he had encountered Eohim, not someone or something else. 

So why does Scripture use a term for the Being with whom Jacob wrestled that can mean “a man, a messenger and Elohim”? Isn’t this ambiguous or confusing? Or, on the other hand, is there Someone that the Bible reveals who fits all three of these definitions, or stated otherwise, Who is the only One in all of Scripture that fits all three of these descriptions? So with whom did Jacob really wrestle? Who is the One who blessed Jacob and made covenants with him and with his father and grandfather? For the answer turn to Isaiah 53:1. Who is the “arm of YHVH” that now sits at the right hand of YHVH in heaven (1 Pet 3:22)? If you’re still not sure, read the rest of Isaiah 53 for the answer. It is the same one who led the children of Israel in the Wilderness (for further proof see Acts 7:37–38 and 1 Cor 10:4 cp. John 8:58).


3 thoughts on “Jacob’s Wrestling and the Jewish Sages Twistings

  1. I believe this was Yashua our Messiah, I believe God the Father has not been here since the fall of man in the garden. The scriptures tell us the Father cannot be in the presence of sin, hence a fallen world is a place He isn’t going to be. God the Son has always been the one whom the Father sent in His place. Just as all mighty Kings do. They send their ambassadors so to speak. Yashua came with only what the Father gave Him. He is the only one that has seen the Father.

  2. And so Scripture interprets Scripture. I love this clarification-its just beautiful! Thanks Natan, you made it so clear- and so we don’t listen to a voice from “leaven” but rather from heaven!

  3. This is so beautiful the ” Throne of Glory in the covering of Dust” The God Man Yeshua just makes me love more the Salvation given from the One who created us. Hallelulyah!

    Our Most High Father is the greatest of Poets bringing truth in all manner of ways for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.

    Praise Him for the mercy to grant that as a Gift to the blind and pitiful……everyone who was turned away and His Glory has brought near. Shalom FJ

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