Jacob in the Bible

Who did Jacob wrestle with and how did Jacob become Israel?

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2014.—Ed.


How did Jacob become Israel? The life of Jacob in the Bible is full of interesting episodes. Genesis 32 records that Jacob wrestled a stranger—possibly an angel or God. The stranger blesses Jacob and gives him a new name. This image by Gustave Doré is titled “Jacob Wrestles with the Angel.”

Who did Jacob wrestle with in the Bible?

Genesis 32 describes an interesting encounter from the life of Jacob. On his way to meet his twin brother Esau (for the first time after a falling out 20 years earlier), Jacob and his party approach the Jabbok River. Sending his family and servants across the river before him, Jacob stays on the other side by himself, where he meets a mysterious man: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak” (Genesis 32:24).

In the September/October 2014 issue of BAR, Phyllis Trible addresses this story in her Biblical Views column “Wrestling with Faith.” She connects this episode from the life of Jacob in the Bible to her own struggle with feminism and the Bible.

Who is this man? Who did Jacob wrestle with?

Hosea 12:4 says that the man was an angel or messenger. Rabbis content that the man was Esau, and folklorists say the man was a night demon or river demon. Modern therapists suggest that the man was none other than Jacob himself.

Theologians usually say that the man Jacob wrestled was God, and Jacob also came to this conclusion. After the wrestling match, Jacob named the place Penuel, which means “face of God”—as Jacob says, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30).

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In her column, Trible remarks that the man with whom Jacob wrestles is “not all powerful, for the coming of dawn restrains his physical aggression. He is not prevailing. So he resorts to an obscene tactic, striking Jacob at his manhood.”

Yet despite this blow, still Jacob holds onto his attacker, saying, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26).

How did Jacob become Israel? While perhaps this moment might seem like an odd time to us as modern readers for a name change or a blessing, that is exactly what happens.

After asking Jacob his name, the man says, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). Trible explains, “The stranger gives Jacob (whose name in folk etymology suggests a grasper, schemer or conniver) the new name Israel (“God rules”).”

While the man refuses to give Jacob his own name—which would definitively answer our query—he still blesses him.

Four outstanding scholars—including Phyllis Trible—look closely at a number of prominent women in the Bible and the men to whom they relate in Feminist Approaches to the Bible, published by the Biblical Archaeology Society. Learn more >>

Who did Jacob wrestle with in the Bible? An angel, man, demon or God? Support for each of these contenders can be found in different camps.

Whoever the stranger was, he departs after giving Jacob a blessing. This episode from Jacob’s life ends as the morning dawns: “The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip” (Genesis 32:31). Despite his new name and blessing, the wrestling match was not cost-free for Jacob. Wounded, he limps from the scene.

Trible uses this chapter from the life of Jacob in the Bible to illustrate the dialogue between feminism and the Bible. Blessings do not always come on our terms, but that is no reason to quit wrestling.

To find out more about more about this story from Jacob’s life and how feminism and the Bible relate, read the full column “Wrestling with Faith” by Phyllis Trible, Professor Emerita of Sacred Literature at Union Theological Seminary in New York, in the September/October 2014 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full column “Wrestling with Faith” by Phyllis Trible in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on September 1, 2014.


Learn more about feminism and the Bible in the BAS Library:

Jane Schaberg, “Are Feminists Biased About the Bible?” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.

“Wrestling with Scripture,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2006.

Marc Zvi Brettler, “My View: On Becoming a Male Feminist Bible Scholar,” Bible Review, April 1994.

Pamela J. Milne, “Feminist Interpretations of the Bible: Then and Now,” Bible Review, October 1992.

Phyllis Trible, “If The Bible’s So Patriarchal, How Come I Love It?” Bible Review, October 1992.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


Posted in Bible Interpretation, Hebrew Bible, People in the Bible.

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  • WILLIAM says

    In all cultures, by euphemism, there has been a tendency in referring to the testicles, to displace from one place to another. In reference to manhood by metonymy mention is made of the thigh not the testicles. Jacob has been wounded in the testicles, by euphemism called his thigh injury.

    Parallels abound. For the ancient Greeks for instance Pythagoras is said to have had a “golden thigh.” This meant generative power and by extension, by being gilded, godhead in some way, meaning that essentially he dwelt in eternity. Or was a god.

    Other parallels can be adduced. The important thing is that given the holiness of the procreative power, including crop fertility, reference could only be made by displacing, almost always from testes to thigh. And in antiquity patriarchal thought considered women as just vessels, empty vehicles whose sole function was receiving semen. This was due partly to sexist ideology and partly to anatomical ignorance I think.

    Conclusion: at the creek wrestling with God Jacob received an injury to his manhood, to resort to use of euphemism if you like.

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