Encounter at the Jabbok (Gen 32:22-32)
by Noel Forlini Burt
By the time we journey with Jacob to the Jabbok in Gen 32, we have borne witness to an unfolding drama involving Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The stories about these patriarchs intertwine family conflict, deception, and unscrupulous behavior, alongside the repeated promises of God to make of Israel a great nation. Among the patriarchs, none appears more crooked than Jacob. Aptly living up to a name which means “deceiver,” “usurper,” “heel-grabber,” or “crooked,” by the time Jacob arrives at the Jabbok River, he has swindled his brother Esau out of both birthright and fatherly blessing (Gen 25:29-34; Gen 27:1-40). On the way to meet Esau for the first time in twenty years, Jacob has a strange encounter at night by the Jabbok River.
Leading Question: Who Does Jacob Encounter?
In just ten verses, Gen 32:22-32 raises a number of questions. Among them, none has proven more intriguing than the identity of Jacob’s attacker. Referred to as a “man” by the narrator (Gen 32:24-25, Gen 32:28) but recognized by Jacob as Elohim (“God,” “a divine being”) (Gen 32:30), the figure is also referred to as an “angel” in other biblical traditions (Hos 12:2-4). The narrative itself raises one final possibility—a supernatural visitation of Esau prior to their encounter the next morning (Gen 33:10). Commentators have offered many possibilities for the assailant’s identity and, among some Christian interpreters, an assertion of the preincarnate Christ. Like the identity of Jacob’s attacker, the story itself can be interpreted in diverse ways.
Leading Question: What is the Purpose of the Story?
Every biblical story we read performs some kind of work for the community who produced it and received it. Biblical stories are written to answer some question, explain some reality, or grapple with some theological truth. Therefore, biblical stories function on more than one level.
On one level, the work of the Jabbok story is political. Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, meaning “to struggle with God.” The story functions as a kind of folktale, as generation after generation recount how the nation gets its name. The realities of political rivalry between two brothers and the nations they represent, Israel and Edom, also simmer below the narrative surface, with Esau and his descendants cast as unworthy and expendable (Gen 25:19-24; Gen 26:34-35; Gen 27:1-46; Gen 28:6-9; Gen 32:1-31; Gen 33:1-17; Gen 36:1-43; Num 20:14-21; Mal 1:4; Ps 137:7; Lam 4:21-22; Rom 9:13). On another level, Jacob’s story is about exile and return, a reality experienced by the Israelies during their exile to Babylon in the sixth century BCE and their troubled return back to the land. Jacob’s story provides one way that the Israelites worked out in narrative form the existential angst wrought by this national crisis. Finally, because all biblical stories are ultimately about God, the Jabbok story also works on a theological level. Jacob comes face to face with a God who both wounds and blesses, surely representative of Israel’s own understanding and experiennce with God.
Beyond its immediate historical context, the Jabbok story continues to speak to generations of faithful people. The story testifies that all of life is lived with God—in places where we are home and reconciled with those we love—and in places of exile and pain. While Jacob is a mirror for human brokenness, the story nevertheless depicts God not as a disinterested bystander but as One faithful to covenant.
Noel Forlini Burt holds a PhD in Biblical Studies and Early Christianity from Drew University. She is a lecturer in the department of religion at Baylor University, where she teaches courses in biblical studies and Hebrew. Forlini Burt believes the Old Testament is a deep well from which Jewish and Christian readers can draw in their own spiritual formation. She has a particular interest in bridging the church and the academy, helping both to encounter God through the biblical story. She is currently pursuing certification in spiritual formation through the Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation and certification in spiritual direction through Truett Seminary. Her book, Encounters in the Dark: Identity Formation in the Jacob Story has been published through Semeia Studies (SBL Press, 2020).
Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).
general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity
People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.
A written, spoken, or recorded story.
Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.
1Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him;2and when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God's camp!” So he called that place Mahanaim.Jacob Sends Presen ... View more
Esau Sells His Birthright
29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30 Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of th ... View more
Isaac Blesses Jacob
1When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, ... View more
Jacob Wrestles at Peniel
22The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.23He took ... View more
24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; ... View more
28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
The Long History of Rebellion
2 The Lord has an indictment against Judah,
and will punish Jacob according to his ways,
and repay him according to his d ... View more
10 Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you h ... View more
19 These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bet ... View more
34 When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite; 35 and they made life bitter for I ... View more
27 When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” 2 He ... View more
6 Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, and that as he blessed him he charged him, “You shall no ... View more
32 Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him; 2 and when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God’s camp!” So he called that place Mahanaim.[a]
Jacob Send ... View more
33 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2 He put the maid ... View more
1These are the descendants of Esau (that is, Edom).2Esau took his wives from the Canaanites: Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite, Oholibamah da ... View more
Passage through Edom Refused
14Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom, “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the adversity that has befall ... View more
4 If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says: They may build, but I will tear down, until they are called the wicked ... View more
7Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem's fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
Rejoice and be glad, O daughter Edom,
you that live in the land of Uz;
but to you also the cup shall pass;
you shall become drunk and strip yourself ba ... View more
13As it is written,
“I have loved Jacob,
but I have hated Esau.”