Story of Jacob and his Stolen Blessing

We decided to go to the Hebrew Scriptures for Bible study but instead of reading entire books we are focusing on a story each week. First one is the story of Jacob (which oddly enough takes up the entire second half of Genesis!). I tried to put some thoughts together on the account. The OT is not my strong suit. Any glaring errors, oversights or constructive thoughts would be appreciated.

I often channel my inner Marcion but if you only watch bad news all day you might think there is no good in the world. I am trying to reread portions of the OT and I was very pleased with the story of Jacob, because how I interpreted it in lieu of my readings, just screams God’s grace and love. There are certainly some hang ups and cultural things that shock my modern sensibilities but I think I have come to appreciate this story and its place in scripture. I read a couple of commentaries and a book, the Hidden Story of Jacob, which I will quote quite a bit. I did not have time in a week to read that and a host of commentaries on the OT. I also have zero interest in the question of “did this happen in history.” My focus is from a narrative perspective: what does this mean and how do we apply it today and also what did it mean to its audience (possibly original and final redaction during the exile).


In her commentary on Genesis, In the beginning , Karen Armstrong wrote: “The example of Jacob makes it clear that God does not choose one person over another because of his moral virtue.” Jacob is very much a perplexing individual and we can rightly be miffed by God choosing Jacob when he tricks his dying father and steals his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing. Is this the type or individual that serves to Father a nation? He is clearly no Abraham. Why does God hate Esau but love Jacob? Jacob also, in a bout of cowardice, flees from his justifiably upset older brother after robbing him. Later he has a wife who feels so unloved God mut intervene. Modern sensibilities can certainly be troubled by some other details in the narrative. Namely, Jacob’s wives, who are sisters, and his cousins, having a child-bearing contest to see who can produce him more offspring. They even provide him with their own servants as additional wives to use as a proxy to increase their own respective offspring tallies. We have come a long way from the notion of women being viewed as the possessions of men whose major purpose is giving them children. Rachel was mortified at first when she was barren. She blamed Jacob as if it was his fault: “Give me children or I will die.” The NJBC wrties, “Sterility is a profound grief for the Israelite woman; cf. 1 Sam 1:5-8. 3-6. In her dire situation, Rachel acts as Sarah did (Gen 16:2), giving Jacob her maid Bilhah, that a son may be born.”

At one point Leah tells Jacob he must sleep with her that night as she “hired” him with her son’s mandrakes in a deal with Rachel. Esau also had his own issues. Karen Armstrong wrote, “It was clear that Esau was not a suitable person to establish a dynasty. He was a slave of appetite, swayed by the hunger of the moment.” His appetite was so ravenous at the time he couldn’t even pronounce the name of the stew his brother used to get him give up his birthright. Esau also married two local Hittite women raising complications for his parents. These two brothers began fighting in the womb. What do we make of these characters? Jacob and Esau both initially strike us as very odd and even God initially appears to behave in a manner strange to our moral sensibilities.

Some Common Themes in Genesis: it is of note that there is a barren womb and younger brother motif peppered throughout Genesis. The barren womb is found in Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Rachel/Leah. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg wrote, in The Hidden Story of Jacob , “The narrative that establishes the origins of Jacob’s family begins with barrenness, just as was the case with Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah. He opened up Leah’s womb, but closed the womb of Rachel. The text says very clearly that this was so because “the LORD saw that Leah was unloved” (Gen. 29:31).” There is also a younger Brother Motif in the text. Some examples:

  • · Cain and Abel
  • · Isaac and Ishmael
  • · Jacob and Esau
  • · Joseph and Brothers
  • · Ephraim and Manasseh (who Jacob gives the larger portion of the Land)
  • · Joseph and Judah (youngest sons) outshine Rueben, Jacob’s firstborn.

God has regard for Abel’s offering but none for Cain. No explanation is given. God will favor whom He will favor (e.g. Jacob I loved but Esau I hated). God generally shows some love to both brothers in these stories as even Cain is granted God’s protection after the murder of his brother (the mark on his head). The first born was granted superior privileges in the ANE and the younger brother was often more vulnerable. In some sense these accounts may be about depicting God’s concern and love for the weaker members of society. The fragile and vulnerable, the poor. In many societies the rich and powerful often trample on the rights and freedoms of the poor and weak (David and Uriah, Ahab and Naboth, and the poor and rich in Amos). God may be depicted as showing favor to the younger brother. Is there a “blessed are the poor” vibe from this or as Psalm 35:10 says : “My whole being will exclaim, “Who is like you, Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”

The final redaction of the material may have even been finalized during the Babylonian exile or at a time when Israel was surrounded by and overshadowed/oppressed by much stronger nations. At that time, being in power and “good” things happening to you were general a sign of divine blessing and vice versa. The weaker brother is Israel and they are raised up by God to be his true firstborn. All of these stories share a common motif and in its simplest terms, it is probably about depicting God’s love for Israel despite their status in the world. If status quo and outward appearances were all that really mattered, Israel would still be in bondage in Egypt!

Esau I hated, Jacob I loved:

This OT passage from Malachi is quoted in the New Testament by Paul but it should be obvious from the story that God did not actually hate Esau. He prospered as did his offspring the Edomites. The literal rendering in modern English obscures the true meaning of this idiomatic phrase. Did Jesus tell us that we should hate our parents? Of course not. We are commanded to honor our parents by the Father and we are told to love our neighbors and even our enemies. How odd if Jesus meant we should literally love our enemies but also literally hate our parents. Rather, like Jesus’s saying, this is a Hebraism meaning “love less.“ Lizorkin-Eyzenberg wrote, “The phraseology expresses the idea of intensity of feeling in comparison. In other words, “Jacob I loved… Esau I hated” (Mal. 1:2-3) is rendered quite literally in our modern terms. Translated from ancient Hebrew and interpreted into our modern way of speaking it could arguably mean something like “Esau I loved, but Jacob I favored with my great covenantal love.” The blessings of being the father of Israel went through Jacob, not because he earned it or God saw that we was a man of high moral character, but simply because God in his sovereignty chose him. Jacob can screw up repeatedly and seemingly endanger this blessing but God’s will, as expected, triumphs in the end.

What Goes Around Comes Around .

Jacob went from clever manipulator and trickster to being manipulated and tricked. With a dose of cold calculus, he conned his brother out of his inheritance and deceived his father, but during his exile the roles were reversed. His uncle Laban deceived him in giving him Leah, his eldest daughter instead of Rachel, on whom the bargain was struck. Jacob ended up being cheated after working for 7 years and he needed to work another 7 years for Laban in order to marry Rachel. He was also tricked later by his sons into thinking Joseph was killed by a wild animal when in fact they had sold him into slavery (Genesis 37).

The Actual Blessings:

What I originally missed in reading the Jacob story is that there appear to be two different blessings altogether. The one meant for Jacob by God (which does come true) and his father’s blessing that he stole from his brother (which does not come to pass). There is actually some friction in the text if we equivocate the two blessings. The Lord tells Rebekah in Genesis 25:23: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” Is God referring to nations or brothers here? Its seems the former as that is what the brothers represent and Esau never serves Jacob. Quite the opposite in fact. Jacob actually bows before Esau and calls him Lord!

God was blessing Jacob in a covenantal sense. His offspring would be many and would become a great nation. The promise to Abraham was being fulfilled through Jacob’s lineage, not Esau’s. Isaac’s blessing is about getting rich, having things easy and having power over one’s siblings. Genesis 27:28-29 reads: May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

Jacob did not have it easy. He was exiled for decades, worked hard as a servant, was tricked by his uncle, wrestled with God, mourned his son Joseph and towards the end of Genesis when questioned by pharaoh he says, “Few and hard have been the years of my life…” (Gen.47:9). Jacob’s struggles also clearly represent the struggles of Israel over time. Large swathes of Israelites history certainly were not easy or glamorous. For times when Israel was in bondage or surrounded by mire powerful enemies, the story of Jacob could provide hope. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg wrote, “None of the stolen blessings came true in the life of Jacob (especially those having to do with power and domination, but more about this later). In the end it was Jacob who called Esau “his lord” to his face and prostrated before him seven times, thereby acknowledging his fault in stealing his brother’s blessing. Contrary to expectations, Esau is blessed with a good and successful life, free of his brother’s unconditional superiority and domination (Gen. 27:39-40).”

Jacob actually lives out the blessing that was indeed intended by Isaac for him from the beginning. It is this second blessing that Isaac gave him that actually comes true in his lifetime. God promised to bless Jacob with the blessing of Abraham and grant him the perpetual inheritance of the Promised Land and children (Gen. 28:3-4). While Jacob stole the blessing of wealth and domination, it was the blessing of the land and posterity that God had in mind for him.” It is comforting that God did not actually honor the stolen blessing.


To some it seems as if a fearful Jacob tries to bribe Esau with gifts. The account does say he was fearful and distressed. He was worried his brother would kill them all (see Genesis 32:9-12). But fear is only natural in this instance and it certainly does not negate the possibility off genuine repentance. Some Jewish commentators actually think the distress Jacob felt could have stemmed from the thought that he might have actually killed Esau if his brother had attacked one of his camps. He was certainly fearful of losing his family and distraught by the prospect of fighting and killing his brother (see Gen 27:45). He was also grateful for what God had given him and said in his prayer, “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant. . .”. I think this narrative also shows a repentant Jacob. He knew what it was like to deceive and be deceived at this point in his life. He lived a hard life filled with struggling. His brother was certainly well off but Jacob is in essence, publicly negating or returning the blessings he had stolen years before. He prostrates himself before his brother seven times when he finally meets and calls him Lord. Before this he refers to himself as his servant several times. This is his way of negating and returning the dominance aspect of the blessing he stole (“Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you”). He is asking Esau for forgiveness. The ratio of males to females in the livestock gifts are not coincidental but will allow for an exponential growth of wealth (the dew of heaven and fatness of the earth). Lizorkin-Eyzenberg wrote, “Jacob has learned, over time and through many struggles, to listen both to God and to the cries of those around him. As he struggled with the insecurities of both Leah and Rachel, Jacob became a different man. He would no longer “walk over corpses” to get what he needed. He now understands the deep human need for justice and righteousness. He has learned that love without justice is not sufficient. Those less-loved must be treated with honor and dignity; with sensitivity and care. Jacob has learned what Israel will later be commanded to learn – to listen (Shema).”


I initially found God choosing to bless Jacob problematic. He certainly did not deserve it. When I came to think of it, I don’t deserve the blessings God has given me either. I don’t deserve them nor do I think I have earned God’s love out of my own personal awesomeness and high moral character. Like Jacob, I am wonderfully blessed by God’s grace which shines clearly all throughout the Old Testament. Jacob like Israel and myself, are indebted to God’s love. The stories of Israel’s formation are brutally honest. They show flawed human beings and God choosing to love them none the less. God is present in the lives of his people and he follows them everywhere they go He is not limited to a specific region like some of the other “gods” at the time. Jacob is protected wherever he goes.

“The story of the birthright bought and the blessing stolen by Jacob, as well as the stories of manipulation by Leah and Rachel, show that the origins of Israel as a family were far from perfect. Jacob’s family was very much like Jacob himself, flawed. Yet the wonder of it all is that the narrator, far from hiding these facts, parades them to the readers/hearers instead. This is the point. The people in these stories are imperfect, but God who chose to do His will through them, He is perfect! They do not “deserve” the benefits of His commitment and covenantal love, but the LORD God enters into covenant relations with these imperfect sons and daughters of Adam. There is hope. All these stories are really not about these characters, but about the character of God.”

When I was younger I thought the Old Testament was more about rules and legalism where the New Testament gets things right. But the truth is that the Hebrew Scriptures present as clear a picture of the sinfulness of man and his need for God’s grace as does any letter of Paul in the Christian scriptures.

Wrestling With God

The story of Jacob continues on through Joseph his son but we shall take a look at one final incident and stop our journey here. Jacob wrestles with God before going to meet his brother. What do we make of it? Obviously God could beat Jacob in a wrestling match so it seems that it may be that Jacob was having doubts or that God needed to test him. The NJBC says, “Jacob is truly a man of blessing, but this time he wrestles for it and receives it from God (in contrast to his cheating Esau in order to receive Isaac’s blessing.” Jacob has just prayed to God and laid his thoughts bare. Now he has wrestled with him and won. Now Jacob is ready to become the father of Israel. As Orual asked in C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, Till we have faces, “How can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?” Also, “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?’” Jacob now has a face and is ready to become the father of a great nation. First he must make things right with his own brother. Jacob may have been struck by earnest doubts in the face of possible bloodshed and death but this meeting was too important for covenantal history. God had to intervene. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg wrote:

“But why did this unexpected meeting happen right before the meeting with Esau? The basic answer in my view is that the founder of Israel as a nation could not have been a thief, a liar and a coward. We must remember that the Book of Genesis is a prelude to the Book of Exodus, which was written for Israelites who departed from Egypt and were on their way to Canaan. Jacob needed to become Israel. It took twenty-two years of exile to accomplish this. He had now changed and was ready. He possessed the blessing of Abraham (land and children), but he needed to return the blessing he had stolen which was not his own (power and wealth). This reconciliation with Esau was not simply a personal family affair, as it must surely have seemed to Jacob and Esau. It was an event of global significance, for the very identity of the future nation of Israel was at stake.

As a result, God’s struggle with His own chosen people appears to be a major theme. We can recall other times when God just would not let something happen. For example, Jonah tried to evade the Nineveh mission, but God pursued him and compelled him to accomplish the task. Balaam, on the way to cursing Israel was literally stopped by the Angel of the LORD (Num. 22:21-35). The examples are numerous, and they seem to form a pattern. When something vitally important, in a covenantal sense, is imminent, God intervenes to ensure it happens.”

I really think one dimensions of this incident is a hermeneutical key to all of Genesis and quite possibly the entire Bible and God’s relationship to humankind. Interpretations are multi-dimensional. We can glean so much from this account. God is constantly wrestling with us. God must put up with our imperfections, our selfishness, our bad habits, our doubts, our deafness, our complacency and a litany of our other sins. The actual etymology of “Israel” is not known but its meaning here as told in this context seems clear. The wrestling match account also seems to serve as an explanation for a Jewish dietary practice not otherwise found in the Law (Exod 32:32). We can look at the stories of many Biblical characters who faced adversity and struggled in following God’s commands. Abraham was tested (Genesis 22) and asked to sacrifice his only son Isaac on the altar. He had to wrestle with God and decide if he would obey him or not. This is an impossible request for most! Israel may have seen itself in the same type of struggle with God as Abraham, Jacob and so many others. Doubt and uncertainty is certainly a problem that plagues many of us. Like Jacob and Israel, we must all wrestle with God. In some ways Jacob represents all of us when trying to understand God, scripture and our place in this world in our sinful condition. We must be resolute, strong and hold fast in our convictions. We must fight tirelessly as Jacob did. Strive to enters as Jesus says. We are not guaranteed an easy road. In fact, we should probably expect the opposite. Yet we are given a blessing, we are given hope. Karen Armstrong wrote, “Genesis has been one of the sacred books that have enabled millions of men and women to know at some profound level that human life has an eternal dimension, even though they may not always been able to express this insight in logical, rational form. Like any scripture, Genesis points to a reality that must essentially transcend it. . . . The biblical authors force us to make an imaginative effort. They imply that it is a hard struggle to discern a sacred reality in the flawed and tragic conditions in which we live and that our experience will often be disconcerting or contradictory. Like Jacob, we will have to wrestle in the dark, denied the consolations of fine certitude and experiencing at best only transient, elusive blessing. We may find the we have been wounded in the course of our struggle.”



Thanks for sharing this, Vinnie! I’m also quite interested in this part of Genesis, partly because I’m currently working on a young-adult novelization of the Jacob and Esau story.

I like how you developed this as meaning a deeper expression of love to one rather than hate for the other. And even then, this is a statement that comes out of later reflection on the story rather than being within Genesis itself. Both Hagar and Esau have these later texts that seem to really put them down, but within Genesis they get surprisingly positive roles. Hagar sees God and names God. Esau reflects God’s mercy to Jacob (33:10). They are so much more than outsiders.

His words about wanting to “feed on that red red” are doing a lot in that scene. They portray him as governed by his appetites, and make a punny connection to Edom (the Hebrew word for red). Maybe those words also set up the trick in what happens next. Esau later says he was tricked twice, so he came to view this encounter as deceptive. That isn’t obvious in the initial telling, though.

He’s been hunting, seemingly unsuccessfully, and is famished. He sees that Jacob has a red stew. Red typically indicates meat. Back then, meals with meat were special. So he thinks he’s making the trade for some meaty stew, but after he seals the deal, the narrator reveals that it’s just lentils! Not only does he pay a ridiculously high price, but the goods are cheaper than he expected. It’s Jacob’s first deception.

Right – Cain gets God’s protection even though Abel didn’t. While Abel’s earthly life seemingly amounts to nothing (and even his name means “vapour” or “meaningless”), his brother goes on to have a long life with a large family and basically become the father of civilization. He founds the first city, and his descendendants bring about metalworking, the arts and farming. In fact, everyone who participates in those civilized activities is said to descend from his offspring. Not a bad legacy!

In many ways, Jacob retreads Cain’s story more than Abel’s. No reason is given for God’s preference of Abel’s offering, and it seems similarly meaningless that Esau would receive twice the privilege for beating his twin by a few seconds. Jacob’s the one who takes matters into his own hands to reverse that initial bias, even when it means stepping on others. And yet, God blesses him despite his many flaws.

That turnabout is really direct. In both cases, a son’s clothing is mixed with the flesh of a goat to trick the father into recognizing that son.

I’m not sure where we should see the text telling us this clearly, though it does definitely happen. I don’t see it in the prophecy to Rebecca. The Abrahamic covenant included that he would be the father of many nations, so two nations in Rebecca’s womb is quite compatible with both brothers sharing that blessing. Obviously all of Jacob’s sons will share that blessing, so it doesn’t have to narrow each generation. Isaac isn’t told it will narrow to one son the way Abraham was.

It may be because of the way Abraham sent Ishmael away and cut him off from this blessing that Isaac felt the need to bless Jacob when he prepared to leave home. Isaac’s intent might not be cut Esau off (who was still his favourite), but to show that Jacob isn’t being cut off. But since this blessing is never restated for Esau, even though he remains at home, he does end up outside of it.

That’s an intriguing reading!

Yes, I think that’s a key point Genesis wants us to get from Jacob’s story. So much more than hiding Jacob’s flaws and then presenting him as a moral exemplar.

Glad you asked! :slight_smile: I’ve been convinced by an extreme minority reading. I don’t think Jacob wrestled God, though he thinks he did (and much later Hosea seems to think so too). The narrator just tells us he wrestled a man, and a few chapters later we’ll get another story where Yahweh unambiguously renames Jacob to Israel. In this story, the trickster is again tricked through a mistaken identity.

Rather than cloaking his identity through goatskin, this man is cloaked by darkness. In fact, he flees like a troll at daybreak to avoid the light. This is not a typical portrait of the God! As Jacob waited restlessly to meet his twin that he hadn’t seen for decades, he assumes he’s the only one furtively snooping between their camps that night. But there’s another person who may have been just as curious about how Jacob has changed as Jacob was curious about Esau.

After Esau confirms that it’s indeed Jacob he’s wrestling, he renames him Israel because “you have striven with God and with man, and have prevailed.” This isn’t just a statement about their wrestling match. He knows that Jacob has long struggled with God and with people. But while Esau once said that he was well-named Jacob, deceiver, he now calls him Israel, God-striver. Before he thought his twin was defined by his tricks, his cons, his sneaky grabs for power. Now he sees him defined by how he struggles until he succeeds. Even when injured by what seems to have been a sneaky move, Jacob struggles on for a blessing rather than trying to deceive.

After Esau retreats in the twilight, Jacob reveals that he’s sure he saw God face to face. He passes down his story to his family, teaching them to not eat part of the hip socket because of how God spared his life. But the narrator never confirms that it was God.

Later in the day, when both brothers are back with their household camps, they meet again. Jacob humbles himself to Esau, and they reconcile. Esau forgives. And Jacob tells his brother, “truly to see your face is to see the face of God.” Jacob recognizes that Esau bears the image of God, both through his gracious actions and, perhaps, his strangely familiar appearance.

Anyway, I know it’s a minority reading. But for me, it really takes the whole narrative up a notch. The wrestlers in the womb have a rematch! It’s just a better story this way, in my opinion.


That is a fascinating reading. It definitely ties some stuff together quite nicely. How do you reconcile the hip touching with that interpretation? I get the sense of a supernatural touch here that knocks the hip out of socket. I know Alter’s commentary suggests an alternative:

“26. he touched his hip socket. The inclination of modern translations to render the verb here as “struck” is unwarranted, being influenced either by the context or by the cognate noun neg’a, which means “plague” or “affliction.” But the verb nag a in the qal conjugation always means “to touch,” even “barely touch,” and only in the pi’el conjugation can it mean “to afflict.” The adversary maims Jacob with a magic touch, or, if one prefers, by skillful pressure on a pressure point.”

If his hip is out of socket via just a touch, I am finding that latter suggestion a bit questionable. This is a supernatural touch. Alter also brings up Esau in his interpretation a few times here:

“27. Let me go, for dawn is breaking. The folkloric character of this haunting episode becomes especially clear at this point. The notion of a night spirit that loses its power or is not permitted to go about in daylight is common to many folk traditions, as is the troll or guardian figure who blocks access to a ford or bridge. This temporal limitation of activity suggests that the “man” is certainly not God Himself and probably not an angel in the ordinary sense. It has led Claus Westermann to conclude that the nameless wrestler must be thought of as some sort of demon. Nahum Sarna, following the Midrash, flatly identifies the wrestler as the tutelary spirit (sar) of Esau. But the real point, as Jacob’s adversary himself suggests when he refuses to reveal his name, is that he resists identification. Appearing to Jacob in the dark of the night, before the morning when Esau will be reconciled with Jacob, he is the embodiment of portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul. He is obviously in some sense a doubling of Esau as adversary, but he is also a doubling of all with whom Jacob has had to contend, and he may equally well be an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle with within himself. A powerful physical metaphor is intimated by the story of wrestling: Jacob, whose name can be construed as “he who acts crookedly,” is bent, permanently lamed, by his nameless adversary in order to be made straight before his reunion with Esau.”

It is definitely a mystery as to who Jacob actually wrestles with in this scene. I think I didn’t appreciate that question as much as I do now. It makes the story even more intriguing. Westermann, in his commentary on Genesis, also thinks it was a spirit:

“The text of 32:22-32 is a single literary unit, but the brackets mark several secondary additions. All exegetes agree that the basic narra-tive is very ancient; it displays animistic traits and is inseparable from its setting, the river and the ford. It is a typical local tale, in which the danger of a ford is personified in a spirit or demon that will not permit the traveler to cross. Such narratives are associated with many places. It must have been recounted in the vicinity of the Jabbok ford, as the wordplay in verse 24 shows. This ancient local tale was associated with Jacob by means of the itinerary in verses 22, 23, 31a, which traces Jacob’s route after his break with Laban and before his meeting with Esau.”

So what do you make of the hip incident?

Thanks for your detailed and helpful comments overall! Gives me a lot to chew on!


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Yes, the hip displacement and especially the verb used for it is the biggest issue for that reading.

For the verb, I know a microscopic amount of Hebrew compared to Alter, but I wonder why he thinks it specifically means a light touch. It’s commonly used in legal texts to say how people become unclean by touching the wrong things. Those texts don’t just forbid light touches as if rough handling of forbidden matter was okay! It just seems to be a general word for touch – any kind of contact, light or hard, brief or sustained.

Given how the man does this move after a long time wrestling without being able to get the advantage, I think we’re supposed to read it as some kind of underhanded move, maybe even a trick. Last time Jacob grabbed his heel; this time he hits Jacob’s hip. (Perhaps he sets Jacob up to lunge at him, then pivots to push his hip, throwing Jacob off-balance as his lunge sends him crashing down on his [other?] hip.) The text seems to describe a two-part sequence of Jacob’s hip first being touched, then dislocated in the tussle.

Anyway, the text is so spare it’s all just guesses, and I can’t speak to the Hebrew. I do agree that a magic touch of some sort would also fit, which would suggest at least an angelic combatant. But since the reason for the move is to get away before daybreak, I really don’t think this fits for God (or even an angel). I can see why some suggest a demon, but that doesn’t fit so many other details.

As far as what makes the story the most dramatic and what best develops the themes already in play, I think the twins wrestling far eclipses other readings. In particular, any readings where his opponent is just playing around rather than using his full strength really deflate the energy of the story. If he could win at any time, then like any deus ex machina, it’s a bit of a letdown.

Needless to say, I can’t help you there! He explained some of his thoughts but there are a LOT of commentaries in addition to Alter’s that use the word touch. Of course, he is the only one I’ve seen thus far that justifies his reasoning.

NJBC uses touch and asks about magic(?)
Westermann’s commentary uses touch.
Atler uses touch and explains why.

Wenham in the Word Biblical commentary uses touch:

Genesis Beginning and Blessing by Hughes uses touch:

This reading is strongly attested to for sure. My knowledge base is far too small here to offer any thoughts. I can only read multiple commentaries and translations and form an opinion from there.

Arnold in the New Cambridge commentary seems to use struck:

I think the narrative itself suggests a divine being but truth is this story is ancient and was probably told and retold for hundreds of years, Possibly written and rewritten as well. Evolving over time could help explain some of its odd features.

It is a mystery on so many levels.


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This is from the New Cambridge commentary by Arnold that you quoted:

Whatever the precise nature of the wound, Jacob is able to continue the fight, and the reader is left to marvel at Jacob’s nearly superhuman strength, especially once we know the identity of this adversary as God.

That’s partly why I resist seeing God as Jacob’s opponent. That reading ends up making Jacob look semi-divine. He held his own against God! Even after God injured his hip, he kept holding on! And a few hours later, he walks to meet Esau with no mention of a limp. The children slow him down, not his bad hip (33:14). What a guy.

I have no doubt that Jacob could have thought that the man he wrestled and couldn’t overpower must have been God. But then, he also thought his fancy trick with striped branches changed the genetics of Laban’s livestock (and the Genesis narrator seems to agree!). Jacob tends to overestimate his ability to take on every power and turn it to his own advantage. Perhaps as later readers with the benefit of a more developed understanding of both genetics and God, we can see where God’s hand was and wasn’t more clearly than he did.

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Obviously one would have to claim it was a limited manifestation of God but that would not seem to do the details of the story justice. I believe other parts of the OT suggests it was an angel. Personally, I am leaning towards an old folk tale with a night spirit that Jacob called God. I think in a sense Jacob was wrestling with God and man here, just not literally God in human form. One commentary does call Jacob rolling away the large stone covering the well “homeric” so supernatural strength here seems very plausible.

Also, I see no signs the narrator rejects the “man” changing Jacob’s name to Israel. I think that is one of the central points of the incident. Seems odd to wrestle your brother and he changes your name from Jacob to Israel. That seems like something the divine would do. Then Jacob unknowingly wrestles a blessing out of Esau who attacked him, whom he already stole one from and who he shortly returns the stolen blessing to. Esau was all too ready to forgive his brother. I am not sure him wrestling with him in the dark makes sense. Or why either one, who are very fearful, are out scouting the other camps. They would, presumably, have people for that. Jacob already dispatched many messengers. But there are so many oddities in this whole account, who really knows what exactly was meant.

I don’t think the details need to make perfect sense as if it was historical exactly as written. How on earth does Jacob not know he spent the night with Leah instead of Rachel? Was he just super drunk? I wouldn’t over-press any of the details.

Just one other comment on the “touch”: I really don’t think it can be limited to a light touch, even in the qal. In Job 1:19, a great wind comes and touches the four corners of a house, and it falls to the ground. It’s also used euphemistically to refer to sex (e.g. Proverbs 6:29). If a mere touch can knock down a house or get someone pregnant, maybe it can put out a hip too. :wink: Perhaps this is a good word if you want to avoid graphic detail about the contact and just show causation towards an outcome (whether destruction or pregnancy or injury).

Perhaps. But it also might just be a feature of accounts that use simple words even for big actions. No special words are used to show how difficult or unusual that “rolling” was (29:2–3, 10).

Earlier in Genesis, how did Cain kill Abel? He “rose up” against him. Does that mean he used his fists, a weapon, a push, demonic strength? The description is too vague to insist on any particulars. In general, the Old Testament eschews fancy words. An understated description doesn’t have to mean a superhuman force is at work.

Since Esau was the one who had earlier said Jacob deserved his original name (27:36), it does fit. It shows he views him differently now, anticipating their reunion. And Yahweh does rename Jacob as well (35:10). Yet even after two renamings, the new name doesn’t stick the same way it did for Abraham and Sarah. He still is often called Jacob. (Compare how “sticky” the new name Abraham is in Genesis 17 to Israel in Genesis 32–33 and 35.)

We can say that. But Jacob didn’t know that (32:6–11), and the reader hasn’t been told that prior to their reunion.

I don’t think a story about two servants wrestling in the dark would have endured nearly as well. It doesn’t contribute to the overall plot if it doesn’t include the principal characters (whether God–Jacob or Esau–Jacob).

I agree that we shouldn’t over-press the details to what makes historical sense. We also need to look for what made the story so compelling that it endured. Perhaps the intractable ambiguity in this encounter is a big part of that.

Correct. Thus your addition of an explanation that “God will favor whom He will favor” implying that God does things arbitrarily without reason is an addition to the text. Other people imagine other reasons which are also not in the text, such as, “no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.” Personally, I look to what is in the text for God’s reasons. What is in the text is the situation which follows where Cain must struggle with temptation, and it seems reasonable that this is the reason why God did what He did, precisely so that Cain would confront this situation. But as always, God’s hope is that we can conquer sin and thereby gain the “tree of life,” not be hurt by the second death, have a place in the book of life, etc… (Rev 2-3).

This is something we see God doing all the time in both the Bible and in Christian life, presenting us with challenges, which can transform our life for the better if we can overcome them.

There is very little in the text to support such a thesis that this is what these stories are “really about.” Though naturally, they are consistent with God’s concern about such things.

I see this description of Jacob often and it puzzles me. We know Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for some food. Not only do I see far less admirable behavior in Esau, but cleverness is often used in history for the defeat of evil, and I don’t see why it should embarrass us. But the curious parallel I find with the story of Cain is how it enrages Esau against Jacob. But this time, it is overcome by Jacob’s effort to placate his brother. It very much seems to me a victory of God over the power of sin.

Never said any such thing. That is your addition to what I wrote. Our inability to comprehend things from God’s perspective and always understand why He does certain things only serves to underscore that we are not God, He is. His reasons can sometimes be beyond our understanding. This does not mean they are arbitrary or random from his perspective. From ours they might as well be if we can’t figure them out.

The key word here is imagination. Let us not forget you are imagining what a fictitious story means, despite it not making its meaning explicit, when it stems from many thousand of years ago, in a worldview and culture very different from your own. It is okay to do this. We all do this when we read the Bible. You also appear to be claiming God purposefully liked Abel’s offering just to goad Cain. That is just speculation. It is intriguing but there is no need to try to critique such a claim since it has no real foundation and is largely unfalsifiable to begin with. I could equally assert God just liked Abel’s offering more and Cain became jealous. Sibling rivalry is extremely common today and throughout world history. This story is meant to illustrate that. Of course it could be multidimensional and show both.

That is correct but it hardly necessitate all texts and situations must be interpreted this way. There are other options for the Cain and Abel story. When a woman gets raped should we say God put a beautiful woman in the man’s path to have him struggle with the temptation of not raping her? Your interpretation is generic and leads to some questionable things in my view.

Hence my “may be about.” It seems clear to me that a younger brother motif is found in Genesis. If you don’t disagree with that, do you have an explanation for it you would like to share?

If you consider duping your famished brother out of his birthright appropriate behavior then we will have to agree to disagree.

If you think Jacob lying to his aged and feeble father so that he could steal his brother’s blessing is appropriate then we will have to agree to disagree.

If you think it is clever for a person to say “give me your birthright” to a famished brother over some lentils then we will also have to agree to disagree. I’d prefer shady to clever. One can be very stupid and still require something in exchange for a bowl of soup. Rebekah and Jacob were clever in deceiving Isaac. This is not a good thing. Their behavior was unethical. Being clever can be used for good or bad. A person who comes up with clever schemes to rob old people out of their social security might be ingenious, but that person is still a piece of fecal matter.

Also, I agree we should not be embarrassed by the story of Jacob. Why would we be? It is certainly odd in the beginning why God utilizes some of these people but I’d guess that is just us being jealous and selfish. We are channeling our inner Cain.


You may remind us that YOU think it is a fictitious story. I think nothing of the kind.

I don’t see any way in which Jacob was “duping” Esau. Esau didn’t value the birthright, counting it as nothing, while Jacob did value it. And let us remember that God was telling their mother that Jacob should inherit and so it was her idea that Jacob should take Esau’s place in getting the blessing.

Yes. Just as God seems to be purposefully goading Esau in the latter story. Otherwise, if he wanted Jacob to inherit then why didn’t God just tell Isaac to give the blessing to Jacob.

Laming Jacob with a touch brings to mind “I am not left handed!” in The Princess Bride. Jacob is thinking that he’s doing pretty well in the wrestling and suddenly finds out his opponent has been holding back all the time.

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