The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “What’s Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that was published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere. This week’s essay is from VAYISHLACH (Chapters 32:4–36:43).
Did Jacob Struggle With An Angel?
One of the Bible’s most famous narratives is found in chapter 32: Jacob’s wrestling with a stranger (Genesis 32:25–33). The Torah is unclear whether this stranger is a human, an angel, or part of a dream. He is identified as “a man” in verse 25. Yet, in verses 29 and 31, Scripture calls him Elohim, which could denote an angel, as in Judges 13:22, or a powerful human or person of some distinction, as in Exodus 22:7.
Genesis Rabbah and Hosea 12:4–5 contend that the stranger was an angel, the celestial patron of Esau. If so, then the angel’s blessing at the end of the battle could be understood as Esau’s acknowledgement of Jacob’s right to his father’s blessing and to the promised land of Israel. The Aramaic translations Neophyti and Pseudo-Jonathan identify the man as an angel and state he was called a man because he had the appearance of a man. While sages such as Rashi and Nachmanides accept this somewhat mystical notion, Maimonides rejects it out of hand.
The Aramaic Targum Pseudo-Jonathan has the angel criticizing Jacob for not fulfilling his promise made in 28:23 to give a tenth of everything he acquired to God: he had twelve sons and did not dedicate one to God. The Targum continues with a curious calculation which makes Levi, Jacob’s third son, to be the tenth son, to be dedicated to God. Whereupon, the angel Michael, who is not the angel wrestling with Jacob, confirms the choice by saying, “Master of the world, this one (Levi and his descendants, who served God in the Sanctuary and Temples), is Your lot.”
A rational approach
What happened here? Whether the stranger was an angel or a man, was this a dream just like the dream that Jacob had before he came to Laban’s house, and both expressed his fear? If so, what caused his fear? Is it possible that Jacob’s conscience was bothering him because, just before meeting his brother Esau, he recalled how he obtained Isaac’s blessing through trickery (Genesis 25, 27)? Or, perhaps, he was concerned about the possible upcoming battle with his brother?
Maimonides recognized that it is impossible to wrestle with an angel, and explained the encounter as a dream.
Abrabanel, in the fifteenth century, criticized Maimonides. He wrote that the Torah said that the angel hit Jacob and he limped when he awoke. If this was just a dream, Abrabanel claimed, Jacob shouldn’t have limped.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, my father, explained in a sermon that Maimonides’s interpretation is reasonable. Psychology has recognized that some dreams can be so traumatic that the dreamer can feel its affects after waking. Also, he continued, the Torah does not say that Jacob limped for the rest of his life.