Jacob's Wrestling Match
Was It an Angel or Esau?

by Jack Miles

In commenting on the story of Jacob and Esau, Elie Wiesel refers in passing to "the traditional teaching that portrays Esau as Jacob's implacable enemy for all time" (BR, April 1998 --Buy this issue). The relevant verse in Genesis is 27:41, which comes just after Jacob has defrauded his brother of his inheritance: Wayyistom 'esaw 'et ya'aqob 'al habberakah, translated in the King James Version "And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing."
     The tradition that defines Esau by eternal hatred remains alive to this day, not least in Israel itself, but Genesis permits more than one reading of the relationship between Jacob and Esau. Yes, after Jacob's theft of the inheritance, Esau does hate his brother, but the hatred does not last forever.
     When, after 14 years in exile, Jacob returns to the land promised him by his father, he fears a violent confrontation with the brother who has never left the land. Hoping to make amends, Jacob sends ahead lavish gifts, and his generosity seems to succeed. Initially reluctant, Esau finally accepts the gifts and even suggests that the brothers thenceforth journey together. But Jacob declines this offer. He tells Esau to journey on to Seir and promises to join him there later after resting his flocks. After Esau departs, Jacob, unsurprisingly, sets out for Shechem instead.
     What Esau proposes is that the two brothers share the land as a single, merged, nomadic clan. What Jacob chooses by his action is a separation of the two clans in two different parts of the land.
     Esau's basic willingness to be reconciled with his brother Jacob rests, however, on an earlier, much more dramatic, rarely recognized encounter with him.
     The night before the two were to meet, Jacob, fearing for his life, had divided his company and sent both divisions on before him. He, however, remained behind, spending the last night before his anticipated encounter with his brother alone at the Jabbok gorge. There, in the darkness, which he thought to be safe, he was assaulted by an 'is{h} (where s{h} is the letter "s" with a "hachek" accent mark on it), a word elsewhere almost always rendered "man." Although this episode is traditionally referred to as Jacob's "wrestling with an angel," the text makes no mention of any mal'ak, the usual word for angel in Hebrew. The identity of Jacob's opponent has been inferred from the fact that at the end of their wrestling, Jacob's opponent blesses him: "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men [or gods and men] and have prevailed" (Genesis 32:28). Who but God could give such a blessing?
     The truth is, of course, that human beings are perfectly capable of blessing one another. Indeed, a human blessing, Isaac's blessing, lay at the heart of the enmity between Jacob and Esau. Jacob had every reason to want Esau to ratify their father's blessing by adding to it a brotherly blessing of his own. The context easily permits us to identify Jacob's attacker as Esau!
     Just before dawn, Jacob demands his opponent's name and is told "You must not ask my name," another statement traditionally read as an indication that the nocturnal wrestler is no human being. However, if the visitor was indeed Esau, and if he had been wrestled to a draw by the twin he had thought to best easily, he might well have been loath to speak his own name aloud. This is a story, from beginning to end, of disguises, masquerades, trickery and double meaning. Jacob and Esau were quite literally born wrestling (Genesis 25:26).
     Jacob, now renamed Israel by his brother, names the place of his encounter with the 'is{h}, "Peniel, meaning, 'I have seen God face-to-face, and yet my life has been spared,'" (Genesis 32:40). In ways that the reader of Genesis knows and Esau can only guess at, Jacob has indeed striven with God, and irony has ever been one of his weapons. Hours later, when Jacob finally meets Esau face-to-face, Jacob greets his brother with the altogether exceptional statement: "To see your face is like seeing the face of God" (Genesis 33:10). The wordplay in these two verses--on "the face of God" ('el)," "the face of God" ('elohim), and "God ('elohim) face-to-face"--is extremely suggestive, especially if we recall that these lines, spoken half-tauntingly to Esau, are also spoken in the hearing of God.
     In other words, when Jacob finally meets Esau in broad daylight after 14 years or more of separation, the younger twin (Jacob) tells the elder (Esau) in code that he knows who it was who attacked him by night, that they both know now that the erstwhile mama's boy, the mild and smooth-skinned stay-at-home Jacob (Genesis 25:27, 27:11) has wrestled the hairy hunter, Esau, to a draw, and that Esau is now bound by his own words of blessing as much as by Isaac's.
     So then, Esau does not hate Jacob forever. Recall, however, that before the fateful wrestling match, Esau had already had some of the fight taken out of him by lavish and unexpected gifts from his brother. And even after winning, Jacob judges it wiser to divide the land than to merge his clan with his brother's and hold it in common. He has fought his brother to a draw, even a grudging surrender, but it is best not to push for more. After all, father Isaac has blessed Esau too, concluding (did Jacob perhaps know this?):

You shall serve your brother,
But when you grow restive,
You shall break his yoke from your neck.

Genesis 27:40 (JPS)

     The blessing referred to in the words immediately following--"And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing"--would appear to be this blessing rather than Isaac's earlier blessing of Jacob. And its conclusion may be translated either "When you grow restive, you shall break his yoke ...," or "When you grow restive, break his yoke ...," a possibility that casts a new light on the line "Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing." The text is provocatively ambiguous. Was Isaac merely predicting or was he in fact licensing and virtually commanding his favorite son to go to war with his twin? Prudence dictated that Jacob not try too hard to find out.
     Esau's story does not end at this point. He too becomes the father of a nation, the Edomites. His shrine and memorial, in a way, is the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple built by that most famous son of Esau, Herod the Idumean, Herod the Edomite, as a place where his brother's offspring and his own could offer sacrifice together to their God.

Jack Miles is the author of God: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995).