Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” (Genesis 32.25)
The identity of this “man” is one of our great Biblical mysteries. One famous midrash identifies him as Esau’s guardian angel; cultural anthropologists claim he bears striking similarities to the river demons of the ancient Near East. As for me, I sometimes feel as if this need to unmask the mysterious night wrestler sort of misses the point.
I’ve often been struck by the artful way the text blurs the identities of both Jacob and the “man.” It’s almost as if the language itself blends their personae together as they wrestle into the night:
Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” (32:27-28)
Upon first reading of these verses, it’s not immediately clear who is who – only after we go back and more carefully parse the verses are we able to deduce who is actually saying what. And maybe that’s just it: perhaps the wrestlers are, in a sense, mythic mirror images of each other. And perhaps the precise identity of the man is less important than the transformation that occurs to Jacob during the struggle itself.
I’m also struck by Jacob’s need to be blessed by the other before he will let him go. Why this demand? After all, didn’t Jacob already receive his father’s deathbed blessing? True, but Jacob received this particular blessing while consciously wearing the identity of another. On some level, perhaps Jacob knew he would never truly be blessed until he confronted the true divine image within himself honestly – face to face. (Why else would he name the site of this struggle Peniel – “Face of God?”)
More than anyone else in the book of Genesis, Jacob is a struggler. He’s born grasping at another’s heel and he spends more than half his life in masquerade – posing as another, deceiving others, deceiving himself. Finally, on this dark riverbank, he strips away his masks, his deception, his subterfuge. He uncovers his true identity and receives his true blessing. The poignant irony, of course, is that it appears that this blessing was within him all along.
But isn’t that the case for us all? We carry our true blessings, our true identities deep within – but alas, more often than not, they won’t reveal themselves without a fight…