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16 SHOFAR Winter 1993 Vol. 11, No.2 THE IDENTIlY OF JACOB'S OPPONENT: WRESTLING WITH AMBIGUIlY IN GEN. 32:22-32 by Steven Molen Steven Molen, a gifted undergraduate English major at Indiana University at Bloomington, rediscovered the Bible during the last semester of his senior year. Under his professors James Ackerman, Herb Marks, and Luke Johnson , Steven wrote this stunning paper on Jacob's struggle with an angel of God. Two days after handing it· in, he went to the aid of a woman being attacked by her former boyfriend. Steven wrestled with his assailant, who shot him in ,the leg. Five days later, Steven died. In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed, he wept and sought his favor. Hosea 12:3-4 Who is the "man" Jacob wrestles at the ford of the Jabbok? Critical exegesis has traditionally identified him as an angel, with reliance upon ample evidence in the text: he appears out 'of nowhere and just as mysteriously disappears; he dislocates Jacob's hip at a touch; and Jacob himself, at the end of the episode, identifies his opponent as divine: "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved" (Genesis 32:30).1 Then why is this angel called a "man" not once but throughout the entire narrated part of the passage? Even what Jacob calls "the face of God" proves less clear than one might first expect. Before the wrestling match at night, Jacob in the larger narrative anticipates seeing the face of his 'All textual references cited from the Revised Standard Version ofthe Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962). The Identity ofJacob's Opponent 17 brother Esau whom he has cheated of birthright and blessing. When Jacob actually encounters Esau the next morning, his response echoes the exclamation quoted above: "to see your face is like seeing the face of God, with such favor have you received me" (33:10). Doubtless the opponent at the Jabbok has shapedJacob's conception of his brother; but on a closer reading, the text seems also to suggest that the man at the river has himself been shaped byJacob's prior apprehension about meeting Esau. In orderto identifY and understand Jacob's opponent, attention must be paid both to the passage at hand and to the larger narrative it interrupts. As I hope I have already shown, the placement of the conflict in a chapter otherwise dedicated to the reunion of the brothers is not accidental, the work of a clumsy redactor patching together unrelated tales. If the inclusion of verses 22-32 disrupts the narrative flow, the disruption is purposeful, calculated to create a fuller awareness ofJacob's relations with both Esau and God. Likewise, if the verses themselves appear confusing (how can the man both foreshadow Esau and manifest the divine?), this confusion could be intentional, a fusion of separate personalities drawn from the larger narrative. However connected to the rest of the Jacob cycle, verses 22-32 will be our proper focus of study; references to other parts of Genesis will be made insofar as they relate to the conflict at the river. Our passage begins with difficulties. Significant on their own, these difficulties also anticipate the more resonant ambiguities to come: 22. The SaJlle night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the ]abbok. 23. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. In his reading of the passage, Roland Barthes has pointed out that it is unclear which side of the river Jacob is on at the end of verse 23.2 V. 22, he argues, reads as though Jacob crosses together with his family and possessions, while v. 23 leads one to think that he remains behind. For Barthes, the v. 23 reading casts the passage in a "folkloric" light in which Jacob must confront and overcome the mythological guardian of the river before crossing; the v. 22 reading depicts Jacob as the patriarch who has already crossed...


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