- Echoes of Gilgamesh in the Jacob Story
It was popular for some time to seek apparent Near Eastern parallels to biblical narratives. The methodology employed was at times problematic, and conclusions were often overstated, as similarities between texts explicable in any number of ways were attributed to direct relationship.1 For some biblical texts, of course, there is stronger evidence for Near Eastern influence. I propose that this is the case in regard to one text for which a Near Eastern counterpart has not previously been suggested: the story of Jacob's wrestling match in Gen 32:23-33 (Eng. 32:22-32). There is reason to believe that the Israelite author knew some form of Gilgamesh, and particularly the scene of the wrestling match between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.2
The case presented here is not simply one of a shared motif or logical grouping of elements, but one of an unexpected and striking series of correspondences [End Page 625] between two texts. The two stories in question share several elements that are each highly unusual and that bear no inherent relation to one another. Moreover, these features occur in the same order in the two texts. This is not to suggest that the author of the Israelite text sat looking at a copy of Gilgamesh. However, the unlikely cluster of correspondences, with the same sequence of uncommon elements, implies the author's familiarity with the story. I will argue here that the Israelite author utilized—and skillfully subverted—the framework familiar from Gilgamesh in composing the story of Jacob's wrestling match, and that this use sheds light on the aim of the Genesis passage.
While the larger stories of Jacob and Gilgamesh are very different, each includes a critical scene featuring a type of unarmed combat notably distinct from representations of fighting found in other ancient Near Eastern literature. Many significant elements of the wrestling scenes are shared by the two stories, including the manner, purpose, and outcome of the fight; each of these elements stands out from common portrayals of fighting found elsewhere in the Near East. The text with the relevant material is found already in the Old Babylonian version of the Gilgamesh Epic (Pennsylvania tablet [P] 200-239).3
The wrestling match performs a pivotal function in each story. The story of Jacob is characterized by the search, or even struggle, for blessing. This theme reaches its climax in the wrestling scene. Here Jacob is blessed directly by a divine agent and is given his name, his title as the father of Israel. After this scene (setting aside the P addition of the text in ch. 35, which combines material from chs. 28 and 32), the adventures of Jacob come to a close and the character retreats to a secondary role. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, before the fight Gilgamesh's rule is harsh and his people are distraught; after it, the formerly unbearable ruler stops tormenting the people of Uruk and directs his attention toward more worthwhile endeavors. In the fight he meets his match, the man who will tame him, and through it he gains his most loyal companion, around whom much of the epic revolves. The function of the two wrestling scenes is not the same—in the Jacob cycle it provides resolution close to the end of the hero's story, and in Gilgamesh the conflict and resolution lay the foundation for the continuation of the story. The reason for this difference lies in the particular perspective of the Israelite text.
I. Parallels between the Wrestling Scenes
Many intriguing parallels stand out between the fight scenes. In each story the hero is met at night by his opponent, who begins the fight. The antagonist is [End Page 626] divine or divinely created for this very purpose. This aggressor is not known by the hero at the time of the attack. The hero, however, is known to him. The aggressor provokes the hero to unarmed combat. They wrestle, though in neither case is the bout intended to be a fight to the death. Rather, in both stories the match functions as a rite of passage. In neither case is...