Did Jacob Have A Cosmic Wrestling Match With God?

Donate To Discover The Truth

Tafsir al-Kitab al-Muqaddas, Critical Notes and Commentary on Selected Passages of the Old Testament by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

jacob wrestle.jpg

Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks.”

But he said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!”

So He said to him, “What is your name?”

He said, “Jacob.”

And He said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel;[b] for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asked, saying, “Tell me Your name, I pray.”

And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” And He blessed him there.

So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel:[c] “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

(Genesis 32:24-30; NKJV)

To the Trinitarian Christian, the above excerpt from Genesis 32 is proof that Jacob met Jesus and struggled with him in a wrestling match. At a glance, it does seem to be the case that Jacob was truly and physically caught in a wrestling match with God, but upon further inspection many questions arise that would put doubt in the Christian Trinitarian interpretation and finally show that other alternative interpretations that do exist have a stronger case against the Trinitarian view.

The most obvious problem with the Trinitarian view that posits Jesus as Jacob’s wrestling opponent is that Jesus Christ is nowhere mentioned in the passage. In fact, we know for a fact that Jesus is not mentioned anywhere in the entire Old Testament. Of course, there are “prophecies” that supposedly point to the arrival of a messiah that may seem to fit Jesus, the Son of Mary as depicted in the New Testament, but those have little to do with the passage above and even in those “prophecies”, there are various views that suggest different interpretations than the one commonly forwarded by Trinitarians in their excitement to prove the messiahship of Jesus from the Old Testament. Be that as it may, we may all concur that Jesus is nowhere to be found in the passage. A second obstacle that the Trinitarian has to traverse is the fact that the verse clearly identifies the assailant as “a man.” The verse says, “Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.” (v. 24) The Trinitarian’s lenses tend to focus on verses 28 and 30, but they conveniently forget or ignore verse 24 that when considered, immediately weakens their Jesus interpretation.The verse in the Hebrew is rather clear:

ויותר יעקב לבדו ויאבק איש עמו עד עלות השחר

The key word here is איש (aleph yod shin) which is synonymous to ‘Adam meaning ‘man.’ To understand the struggle as being between Jacob and a man makes the story more sensible than one where Jacob struggles with God, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth and thereafter overpowers Him and comes to equal bargaining terms with Him.

Further more, standard Christian theology dictates that the Word, the second person of the Trinity came into the world in a unique event called the incarnation (John 1). Being a unique event, it could only have taken place once in history; therefore, the flesh and blood man that wrestled with Jacob could not have been another incarnation of Jesus before 2000 years ago. Trinitarian theologian Roger Haight writes:

“…there can be only one incarnation of the Logos. The incarnation of the Son in Jesus could happen only once, and it is thus the absolute fulfillment of God’s saving will toward which all other experiences of grace in history are oriented as to their climactic realization.” [1]

So, unless Trinitarians are going to tell us now that Jesus incarnated again and again throughout history then they need to reassess their view that Jacob actually wrestled with Jesus in Genesis 32. In fact, the Catholics would be at a loss if they argue that Genesis 32 has the incarnated Jesus because that will undermine the ‘mater dei’ concept that is so fundamental to their belief, i.e., Jesus received his humanity from his mother, thus making her the “Mother of God.”

At this juncture, the Trinitarian may drop the proposition that it was Jesus who struggled with Jacob, but will continue to insist that Jacob did indeed wrestle with God Almighty. They point to the fact that Jacob said, “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel:[c] “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” (Gen. 32:30) It is common knowledge for those who know scripture that one’s life is forfeited upon seeing the face of God. This understanding comes from a clear and vivid reading of, “But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20) Here, God clearly tells Moses that the moment that a person sees the face of God, he shall perish. So, the Trinitarian argument is that since Jacob’s “life was preserved despite seeing the face of God”, he must truly have beheld God’s countenance. Never mind the fact that granting the Trinitarian interpretation creates a clear contradiction between Exodus 33 and Genesis 32, the scriptures elsewhere seem adamant in the theological belief that seeing God’s face will result in one’s destruction and that it is an impossibility:

“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18)

“(God) who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.” (1 Timothy 6:16)

To avoid creating a contradiction between these verses, one must consider an alternative interpretation than the meaning that is conveyed by the Genesis 32:30’s facade.

In the story, Jacob is interested to know the assailant’s name and in reply he receives this response, “And He said, “Why is it that you ask about My name?” (v. 29) If one were to open up Bible commentaries, one may find that this verse is cross references to Judges 13:18. Cross referencing is when an interpreter thinks that the verses are related to each other. So, in Judges 13:18, we see Manoah, Samson’s father, asking the angel for his name and the angel gives a similar response to that given by the individual in Genesis 32:29,” The angel of the LORD answered him, “Why are you asking this about my name? It’s ‘Wonderful.’” It is possible then to interpret Genesis 32 as featuring the same being as the one in Judges 13, i.e., that he is in fact the angel of God. Commenting on Genesis 32, Victor Hamilton writes:

“The man’s question is: “Why is it that you inquire about my name? It is a question which Jacob is not given the opportunity to respond, or perhaps he chooses not to respond. The scene is much like the one between the angel of Yahweh and Samson’s father Manoah: “And Manoah said to the angel of Yahweh, ‘What is your name, so that… we may honor you?’ And the angel of Yahweh said to him, ‘Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?’” (Judg. 13:17-18). Both the man (Gen. 32) and the angel (Judg. 13) ask the same question: lamma zeh tis’al lishmi.” [2]

The clever Christian might ask, “Just now you said that it was a man, flesh and blood, that wrestled with Jacob and now you’re saying it was an angel. Was it a man or an angel? Aren’t you contradicting yourself too?” Well, it is only a contradiction if you think that angels cannot appear as men or that their appearance as a man is restricted to only one particular instance as is Jesus’ in his incarnation according to standard Trinitarian theology that we have delineated above. But according to the scriptures, angels do appear as men and this happens many times (e.g., In Genesis 18, angels appeared as men and stayed with Abraham; Genesis 19 has two angels appearing as men and stayed with Lot; See John Kitto in A Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature, p. 149, “…angels always appeared in the human form…”).

It is indeed an impossibility to perceive God’s face according to what we have discussed above and perhaps none other is more emphatic on this point than the Trinitarian theologian R. R. Reno who writes, “To shift from “struggled” to “seen” as the fundamental root in Jacob’s new name can seem wildly divergent, but a closer look shows otherwise. It is a biblical truism that one cannot see God and live, so much that Job views his encounter with God in the whirlwind as an overwhelming, unaccountable honor (Job 42:1-6). A lasting vision of God is not a worldly possibility; it is reserved for the age to come, when the creature is purified of all defect and can enter into fellowship with God in all his holiness. St. Paul’s famous dictum depends upon this eschatological limit:”For now we see through a glass, darkly: but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12 AV). Thus, the church fathers read the name “Israel” as “he who has seen God,” because they took the name to give precision to the blessing already promised to Abraham.” [3]

And so in Reno’s view, the name “Israel”* which replaces “Jacob” is understood to mean “he who has seen God” because it encapsulates the blessing that God had given Abraham that is now also given to Jacob. The “seeing of God’s face” then is interpreted not in the literal sense but in the sense that God’s promise comes to fulfillment. The “seeing of God’s face” is a metaphor for “seeing the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham.”

And right in the next chapter, we find a clear example where Jacob utilises the exact same Hebraism or phraseology which in this instance shows that it may not necessarily mean a literal perception of God’s appearance:

“And Jacob said,”No, please, if I have now found favour in your sight, then receive my present from my hand, inasmuch as I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me.” (Genesis 33:10)

In the above verse, Jacob equates seeing his brother, Esau’s face, as seeing the “face of God”. Unless the Christian Trinitarian is going to deify Esau and make him part of the Trinity, they have to strongly reconsider their literal interpretation of the phrase in question.

Finally, we know that the wrestling match was between Jacob and a man (an angel) and not God, the Creator, because Hosea gives us the definitive interpretation of the assailant’s identity:

“Jacob struggled with the Angel and prevailed; he wept and sought His favor. He found him at Bethel, and there He spoke with him. ” (Hosea 12:4, HCSB)

I chose to use the rendering by Holman Christian Standard Bible because it identifies the pronoun as Jacob which diminishes any doubts that may arise concerning which incident the verse is referring to. The verse is evidently speaking of Jacob’s wrestling incident as narrated in Genesis 32 and the identity of the opponent is clearly revealed as that of an angel. But how can an angel be referred to as “God” comes the next Christian question. Biblically, we know for a fact that there are many instances where angels are described as “elohim” which is the Hebrew word for “God”.

“The word Elohim points to the discussion of angels proper, commencing in II:6 by the explication of the propriety of the term elohim as the biblical designation for angels. Since elohim can refer to “judges,” it is an apt characterization of both God and the angels in the sense that they both govern that which lies below them.” [4]

“The writer seizes on the fact that the word for “God” (‘elohim) can also be used for angels. When, therefore, he finds the word in a place such as Ps 32:1, he is able to explain the passage as referring not to God himself but to the angel Melchizedek.” [5]

“In Jub 4:21 (‘He was, moreover, with God’s angels’) the author of Jubilees understands the Elohim אלהים of Gen 5:22, 24 (‘Enoch walked with God’) as a reference to his stay with angels. Also in Jub 2:2, he shows that he understands Elohim (of Gen 1:2) as meaning ‘angels’.” [6]

“It is disputed whether the term Elohim אלהים is ever applied to angels, but the inquiry belongs to aother place [ELOHIM]. It may suffice here to observe that both in Ps. viii. 5, and xcvii. 7, the word is rendered by angels in the Septuagint and other ancient versions;” [7]

In the reference above, John Kitto suggests that there are disputes among scholars whether “elohim” may refer to angels, but he then provides clear biblical evidences in the Septuagint that show that the word “elohim” is understood as angels too in certain instances.

“The word Elohim also refers to the Angels of the Presence.” [8]

The conservative Bible commentator, Albert Barnes writes:

“The word ‘gods’ — Elohim is rendered by the word angels — but the word may have that sense. Thus it is rendered by the Lxx.; in Job xx. 15; and in Psalm viii. 6; cxxxviii. 1. It is well known that the word Elohim may denote kings and magistrates, because of their rank and dignity; and is there anything improbable in the supposition that, for a similar reason, the word may be given also to angels? The fair interpretation of the passage then would be, to refer it to angelic beings — and the command in Ps. xcvii. is for them to do homage to the being there referred to.” [9]

And finally, we refer to the Rabbinical interpretation of the verse which has always been interpreted by Rabbis in light of Hosea 12:4 and as such they understand the man as an angel of God and not God Himself.

“The Sages have explained that the angel that Yaakov wrestled with that night was the guardian angel of Eisav. [10]

Citing Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno and Rabbi Rashi, Rabbi Nosson Scherman identifies the man who wrestled with Jacob as God’s angel:

25-32. The struggle with the angel. The confrontation between Jacob and a “man” was one of the cosmic events in Jewish history. The Rabbis explained that this man was the guardian angel of Esau (Rashi), in the guise of a man.

— And a man wrestled with him ויאבק איש עמו
God dispatched the angel to pave the way for the ultimate salvation of Jacob and his descendants. [11]

In sum, it does not befit the majesty of the Supreme God, the Creator of the universe to enter into a wrestling match, with his created being that is intrinsically weak and contingent on God’s mercy for his sustenance and continued existence, only to lose and come to equal bargaining terms with the said creature. It is beyond the propriety of monotheistic theology to demean God’s Majestic Supremacy and His status as Supreme Overlord of the universe to be defeated by a maggot (how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot…” Job 25:6). We therefore reject this most unusual and unsavoury depiction of the divine. It would behoove the Christian Trinitarian to replace their crude interpretation in favour of an affirmation of God’s Supremacy and in His Power that has no equal. We submit that it is far more appropriate to view Genesis 32 as showing Jacob in a struggle with a man or even an angelic being than with God and we have offered plentiful of scriptural and rational reasoning to that effect.


Several German authorities may also be adduced that show that Jacob was not wrestling with God Almighty, but His representative who was an angel. Ancient artifacts, classical paintings and other archaic works of art magnificently depict the understanding that Jacob wrestled with an angel and not with God Almighty.

Director of the Art Gallery of the Royal Museum of Berlin (Director der Gemaldegallerie des konigl. Museums zu Berlin), Dr. Gustav Friedrich Waagen writes:

“Der gewohnliche Engel fehlt, doch sicht man den Widder. b. Jacob ringt mit dem Engel, welcher, mit am oberen Ende goldenen Purpurschwingen, ubermachtig und gewaltig, ihm ein Bein sehr stark emporhebt, wodurch das Verrenken der Hufte sehr anschaulich gemacht ist.” [12]

One of the objects on display at the museum has “Jacob ringt mit dem Engel” which means “Jacob wrestling with the angel” and the angels have purple wings with encrusted gold at the top showing it to be superior in strength and powerful. And the spraining of his leg (by Jacob) is depicted clearly.

In an even older depiction dated 1659, we may see Jacob wrestling with the angel. This was painted by the great painter Rembrandt.

“In Rembrandts beruhmtem Gemalde <<Jakob ringt mit dem Engel>> (um 1659, Berlin) ist << Jakov seinem Gegner im Ringen uberlegen…, den er hebt ihn in die Luft wie Herkules den Antaus. Aber der Besiegte zeigt durch seinen hoheitsvollen, zugleich gutigen Blick auf den starken Mann, das er kein Wesen von dieser Welt ist, sondern Gott, der bereit ist, seinen Uberwinder zu segnen.” [13]

The description given above says that in Rembrandt’s famous painting of the incident (dated 1659 in Berlin) shows Jacob struggling with the angel. The painting shows Jacob to be superior to the angel to the extent that he lifts the angel into the air like Hercules lifting the Libyan giant Antaeus. Jacob vanquishes the angel and it is not a being of this world, but is God (in the metaphorical sense or that he represents God as His Shaliach), and is ready to bless his conqueror, Jacob.

The biblical scholar Wilhelm Smidt-Biggemann writes:

“Der Engel, mit dem Jakob ringt, heist Peliel. Er bringt Jakob im nachtlichen Kampf bei, dass er, Jacob, nicht der Messias sei.” [14]

And Johann Heinrich Fussli, just before writing “David als Ueberwinder Goliaths” (David as conqueror of Goliath), mentions clearly that “Jacob ringt mit dem Engel” [15] which means “Jacob wrestled with the angel”.


  1. Haight, R. (2003). Jesus Christ and Religious Pluralism. In Tatha Wiley (Ed.), Thinking of Christ: Proclamation, Explanation, Meaning. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. p. 95
  2. Hamilton, V. P. (1995). The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. pp. 335-336
  3. Reno, R. R. (2010). Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Genesis. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press. pp. 249-250
  4. Diamond, J. A. (2002). Maimonides and the Hermeneutics of Concealment: Deciphering Scripture and Midrash in the Guide of the Perplexed. New York: State University of New York Press. p. 110
  5. VanderKam, J. C. (1994). The Dead Sea Scrolls Today. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p.74
  6. Van Ruiten, J. T. A. G. M (2000). Primaeval History Interpreted: The Rewriting of Genesis 1-11 in the book of Jubilees. Leiden: Brill. p. 25
  7. Kitto, J. (1851). A Cyclopaedia of Biblical Literature. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black. p. 148
  8. Webster. R. (2009). Encyclopedia of Angels. Minnesota: Llwellyn Pubications. p. 55
  9. Barnes, A. (1846). Notes, Explanatory and Practical, on the Epistle to the Hebrews. New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 35
  10. Anon. (2006). Illuminations: Talmudic Insights into the Chumash, Bereishis [1] Parshios, Toldos – Vayechi. Jerusalem, Israel: Feldheim Publishers. p. 85
  11. Scherman, N. ( 2000). Genesis. In Nosson Scherman & Meir Zlotowitz (Eds.), The Torah: Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings. New YorkL Mesorah Publications, ltd. pp. 174-175   * Israel — According to Genesis 32:28, God, through His angel, promises Jacob that, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel.” Some might see this as a minor issue, but it is nevertheless a problem that Christians need to resolve. In the verse, God proclaims that Jacob’s name ceases to be Jacob and is replaced by Israel. It would appear that the unknown redactionists of Genesis forgot that they included this declaration and repeated the same promise in Genesis 35:10, “God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob; your name will be Israel.” So he named him Israel.” Between Genesis 32:28 and Genesis 35:10, Jacob is persistently called Jacob and is never really called Israel by anyone. It is only after the second redundant declaration in Genesis 35:10 that Jacob begins to be addressed as Israel (Gen. 35:21, 22), but then again this new name of his is interchangeably used alongside Jacob, in a way that makes it seem like the redactionists or author of Genesis is confused as to whether to use the old name Jacob or to simply ditch that name and replace it with Israel.
  12. Waagen, G. F. (1839). Kunstwerke und Kunstler in England und Paris. Berlin: In Der Nicolaischen Buchhandlung. p. 210
  13. Dietrich, W. (2001). Jakobs Kampf Am Jabbok (Gen 32,23-33). In Jean-Daniel Macchi & Thomas Romer (Eds.), Jacob, Commentaire a plusieurs voix de Ein mehrstimmiger Kommentar zu A Plural Commentary of Gen 25-36: Melanges offerts a Albert de Pury. Geneve, Labor et Fides. p. 210 fn. 48
  14. Schmidt-Biggemann, W. (2010). Traditionskonkurrenzen. Eine Kreditgeschichte offenbarter Urprungsgeschichten. In Andreas B. Kilcher, Constructing Tradition: Means and Myths of Transmission in Western Esotericism. The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV. p. 367
  15. Fussli, J. H. (1809). Allgemeines Kunstlerlexikon: oder : Kurze Nachricht von dem Leben und den Werken der Maler, Bildhauer, Baumeister, Kupferstecher, Kunstgiesser, Stahlschneider x. x. : Nebst angehangten Verzeichnissen der Lehrmeister und Schüler, auch der Bildnisse, der in diesem Lexicon enthaltenen Kunstler. Zurich: Fusli und Compagnie. p. 1344 jacob-angel1.png


Tagged as: , , , , ,

4 Responses »

  1. Assalamu’alaikum,
    Thank you for sharing the article at this excellent website Eric Kisam. Jazakumullah khair.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: