Jacob’s Struggle at Jabbok: The Limits of Strategy
Jacob the Strategist
From the very beginning of his life, Jacob’s story is marked by struggle. Even before birth, he and Esau struggle in the womb (Gen 25:22), leading Rebecca to seek oracular assistance. At birth, Jacob grabs hold of Esau’s heel, struggling to emerge first from the womb:
בראשׁית כה:כה וַיֵּצֵא הָרִאשׁוֹן אַדְמוֹנִי כֻּלּוֹ כְּאַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר וַיִּקְרְאוּ שְׁמוֹ עֵשָׂו. כה:כו וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָצָא אָחִיו וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב....
Gen 25:25 The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. 25:26 Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob….
Jacob the heel-grabber—an idea reflected in his name—is consistently grabbing at heels, trying to make it in a world that seems not to be in his favor.
Growing up, Jacob emerges as a keen strategist, a thinker, always planning a way to get ahead, to seek the advantage. This is apparent when he buys Esau’s birthright when Esau returns home one day from the hunt. Exhausted and hungry, Esau asks for a bowl of stew, and Jacob uses the opportunity to trade the stew for Esau’s birthright (vv. 29–33). The Torah sides with Jacob on this one, characterizing Esau as having “wasted” (ב.ז.ה/י) his birthright (v. 34).
When the time comes for Isaac to bless his first born, Rebecca and Jacob conspire to deceive Isaac into blessing him (Gen 27). This trick leads Esau to give a second etymology of Jacob’s name as “deceiver.” Jacob is forced to flee to Paddan-Aram to escape his brother’s wrath (27:42–45).
Bargaining with YHWH at Bethel
On his way, Jacob finds himself at “the place” (Gen 28:11), where he dreams of a stairway to heaven; God appears to him and tells him that God will be with him wherever he goes and will bring him back to the land (vv. 13–15). Jacob wakes up and understands clearly that he has encountered YHWH (v. 16), so he marks the territory as God’s (vv. 18–19).
What Jacob does next reveals Jacob’s character. Rather than simply thanking YHWH for his blessing, Jacob recognizes an opportunity and responds strategically by placing conditions on his acceptance of God’s promise:
בראשׁית כח:כ וַיִּדַּר יַעֲקֹב נֶדֶר לֵאמֹר אִם יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ וְנָתַן לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ. כח:כא וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם אֶל בֵּית אָבִי וְהָיָה יְ־הוָה לִי לֵאלֹהִים. כח:כב וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה יִהְיֶה בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן לִי עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ.
Gen 28:20 Jacob made a vow: “If God will be with me, and will guard me on the road that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothes to wear, 28:21 so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then YHWH will be to me as God [or: will be my God], 28:22 and this stone, which I placed as a pillar, shall be the house of God, and of everything that you give me, I will surely give a tenth to you.”
The text’s presentation of this as a “vow” underscores the chutzpah of Jacob’s pledge. If YHWH does what YHWH promises—and Jacob adds the conditions of food, clothing, and a return to his father’s house—then Jacob will take YHWH as his God. For Jacob, alone and exiled, this is an opportunity to seek a competitive advantage.
Getting the Better of Laban
Jacob’s struggles continue in Paddan-Aram with his uncle Laban, who tricks Jacob into marrying both of his daughters and serving in his house for fourteen years (29:15–30). Jacob’s strategic impulse again is evident when he negotiates the speckled and spotted animals of Laban’s flocks as his wages (30:25–34). Laban attempts to deprive him of these animals by removing them from his flock (30:35), but Jacob demonstrates his abilities in strategic animal husbandry, producing a strong, large, spotted and striped brood (30:37–43).
Jacob’s actions have led some to label him, sometimes pejoratively, a “trickster,” using deception to outsmart his family members and achieve his goals. Some scholars are troubled by what they see as dishonest maneuvers. but Tikva Frymer-Kensky reminds us that deception is a necessary tool of the powerless: “The biblical world valued cunning in the underdog. Only the powerful value honesty at all costs.” Jacob must use everything he has at his disposal to succeed when the odds seem stacked against him.
Preparing for Esau
After escaping the house of Laban (Gen 31), Jacob prepares to encounter Esau. Anticipating that Esau is still angry with him over the stolen birthright and blessing, he first sends envoys to Edom with a flattering message in which he names himself as עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב, “your servant Jacob,” mentions the wealth he has accrued, and insists that he hopes to find favor in Esau’s eyes (32:4–6).
When the envoys return, saying that Esau is coming to meet him with a contingent of 400 men (v. 7), Jacob takes steps to prepare for what he clearly expects to be a hostile meeting. The Torah gives us Jacob’s internal monologue and thinking about his plans, so that readers can see Jacob’s mind at work and follow the logic of his multi-pronged strategy:
- Jacob divides his camp into two groups, reasoning that if Esau attacks one group, the other may escape (vv. 8–9).
- Jacob selects a massive gift of livestock to win Esau’s favor, sending the animals off in at least four separate companies, with space between them, each one with the message that the animals are a gift from Jacob, Esau’s servant (vv. 17–21). Once again, readers are privy to Jacob’s logic here, and how he is hoping to pacify Esau through these gifts before Jacob faces him directly (32:20).Though it is not explicitly stated, Jacob hopes to wear Esau down with each subsequent gift, thus diffusing the tension.
But I skipped a step here. Because in addition to these material preparations, Jacob also engages in a critical tactic:
- He prays to God to save him from Esau’s hand (vv. 10–13).
Jacob’s prayer, undertaken at a moment in which he perceives himself and his company to be in grave peril, is not only a prayer for aid, but a strategically worded argument for God to live up to the promises God made him at Bethel.
A Closer Look at Jacob’s Prayer
The prayer begins with a double invocation and a reminder of what God had promised him:
בראשׁית לב:י וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אַבְרָהָם וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי יִצְחָק יְ־הוָה הָאֹמֵר אֵלַי שׁוּב לְאַרְצְךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתְּךָ וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּךְ.
Gen 32:10 Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O YHWH, who said to me: ‘Return to your land and your country, and I will do well by you.’”
This reminder frames what follows: Jacob is arguing that God has to live up to God’s promises.
The prayer continues with Jacob acknowledging what God has already done for him, apparently humbling himself before God:
בראשׁית לב:יא קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי בְמַקְלִי עָבַרְתִּי אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת. לב:יב הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו כִּי יָרֵא אָנֹכִי אֹתוֹ פֶּן יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי אֵם עַל בָּנִים.
Gen 32: 11 “I am unworthy of the cheseds and the truth which you have demonstrated with your servant, for with [just] my rod I crossed the Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 32:12 Please save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, mother and children.
Jacob acknowledges what God has done for him and pleads for deliverance. Though Jacob seems to be humbling himself before God, Jacob is framing this deliverance as being in God’s self-interest: God needs to protect what God has done. Jacob is insinuating that Esau threatens to undo God’s chesed.
לב:יג וְאַתָּה אָמַרְתָּ הֵיטֵב אֵיטִיב עִמָּךְ וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּחוֹל הַיָּם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹב.
32:13 And you said, ‘I will surely do well by you, and place your seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their magnitude.’”
Jacob frames the prayer by beginning and ending with a variation on God’s own words, וְאֵיטִיבָה עִמָּךְ “I will do well by you.” This is not just a prayer for deliverance, it is a reminder to God—and thus an argument to God—that God needs to live up to God’s own words and protect Jacob.
Now that Jacob is in trouble, he conveniently leaves out his attempt to negotiate additional conditions with God at Bethel, instead putting the responsibility of keeping the covenant squarely on God’s non-anthropomorphic shoulders. This prayer, placed between Jacob’s other strategic maneuvers, is linked to the overall plan. It is a central part of Jacob’s strategy to stave off a confrontation with Esau, not an afterthought or something tacked on.
The Struggle at Jabbok
By the end of all of these preparations, we are primed for a showdown between Jacob and Esau, but the narrative thwarts our expectations. Instead, as the story progresses, Jacob ends up alone at the ford of the Jabbok, wrestling with a stranger:
בראשׁית לב:כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.
32:25 Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until daybreak.
We get no introduction to this stranger, and we have had no preparation for this battle. This literally comes out of nowhere. Jacob prevails in the struggle, but he is wounded in the thigh (v. 26). The man tries to leave, but Jacob says he will not release him until the man blesses him (v. 27). This demand for a blessing makes sense when you read it in light of Jacob’s constant search for any advantage. Here is an unexpected situation where Jacob—though wounded—prevails, and Jacob intends to eke out anything he can from this situation.
Rather than giving him a blessing, though, the man asks Jacob his name, and then he gives Jacob a new name:
בראשׁית לב:כט וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי שָׂרִיתָ עִם אֱלֹהִים וְעִם אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל.
Gen 32:29 He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with god and with men, and you prevailed.”
This is what I call a red flag moment, a signal from the narrative to pay attention. This random encounter is the moment where Jacob receives the name that will be eponymous with the nation? Who is this man, that appears at night and must leave by dawn? Jacob wants to know this too, asking for the man’s name, but the man doesn’t give it to him. Instead he asks, “why do you want to know my name?” and then he blesses Jacob (v. 30). This question is not just for Jacob but is also for us to think about. Why does Jacob want to know his name? Why would this information be meaningful to Jacob?
Naming, Defining, Controlling
Jacob’s desire to know the man’s name is not only about knowing the identity of the opponent; it is really a desire to understand what has happened, which in turn reflects a deeper need—to control the situation. At several points in this episode, Jacob attempts to exert control over this encounter. First, as the man tries to leave, Jacob says he will not let him go until he blesses him. The desire for a blessing, as noted above, is a desire for an advantage. But it is also part of the desire for control. Jacob exhorts the man to tell him his name, הַגִּידָה-נָּא, with the enclitic adding to the pathos here. Jacob really, really wants to know his name. Jacob wants to put what has happened to him into categories he can understand. If he can understand and conceptualize his encounter with this man, he can learn from it. Though he could not control it while it was happening, and could not prepare for it, he can control it after the fact.
Jacob does put this episode into categories that he understands: he decides that the man is God, for he names the place Peniel:
בראשׁית לב:לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם פְּנִיאֵל כִּי רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי.
Gen 32:31 So Jacob named the place Peniel, “for I have seen God face-to-face, and my life was saved.”
We are here getting Jacob’s interpretation, not one confirmed by the text itself. In understanding the event this way, Jacob has made a hermeneutical choice. The man’s statement that Jacob has struggled with God(s) and men and prevailed is ambiguous on its face. The man does not say which one Jacob has done in this instance, but Jacob chooses to draw this particular conclusion. He thus closes the door to other interpretations, firmly placing this episode in his mind in a concrete category. Did Jacob wrestle with God at the Jabbok? Did he really prevail against God? He has made the decision to think so.
To Know and to Control
By not telling us for sure what has happened, and by highlighting Jacob’s desire to figure out what has happened, the narrator invites us to think about our desires to know and to control. Ralph Klein of Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology connects this to other narratives in which characters seem to have enigmatic encounters with God. Building on Samuel Terrien’s concept of the “elusive presence” of God, Klein writes: “The presence of God is elusive because it resists all attempts to make it routine, predictable, or controllable.”
Here at the Jabbok, Jacob tries to control the situation, just as he did at Bethel when he tried to bargain with God. He goes for the blessing, and he goes for the man’s name. He gets one but not the other. He cannot fully control the situation or explain what has happened, and the narrative doesn’t try either.
Manoah Also Asks an Angel for His Name
Many scholars note the similarity between this story and that of Manoah, who asks for the name of the angel who has brought his wife the news of her impending birth of a son (Judg 13). In response to Manoah’s question, the angel says: “why do you ask my name? And it is wonderful” (וְהוּא פֶלִאי) (v. 18). The similarity between the responses of the two figures leads Klein to argue: “Just as the angel refused to disclose its name to Manoah, Samson’s father, so the divine figure here asserts that God is not someone to be controlled, manipulated, or pushed around—even by a strong ancestor figure.”
But even more significantly, Jacob is not the only one who is not allowed to control the situation. The readers are also not allowed to put the mysterious Jabbok encounter into a box labeled “divine combat” or even “theophany.” In the story in Judges, the narrator explicitly marks the figure as the angel of YHWH over and over again (13:3, 13, 15–21), and the text explicitly tells us that God listened to Manoah’s entreaty (v. 9). Judges clearly identifies this encounter—however elusive—as one with an angel of YHWH. In Genesis, we don’t get that at all.
Connecting the Past and the Present with an Etiology
The narrator ends the episode with an etiology by breaking the fourth wall, relating the later custom of not eating an animal’s thigh muscle to the injury Jacob received wrestling with the unnamed man (Gen 32:26):
בראשׁית לב:לג עַל כֵּן לֹא יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר עַל כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה.
Gen 32:33 For this reason to this day the children of Israel do not eat the sinew of the tendon which is on the socket of the thigh, because he struck Jacob on the sinew of the tendon on the socket of the thigh.
The combination of all of these red flag elements—the critical place at the ford of the Jabbok, Jacob’s hyper-symbolic renaming as Israel, the naming of the place as Peniel (also called Penuel in subsequent chapters), and the etiology, takes readers out of the narrative and into the present day—marking this episode as particularly fraught with meaning. Stephen Geller writes that “There is surely no other place in Genesis where the reader is more attuned to a resonance of past and future than Gen. 32.” Readers are asked to sit up straight; even the protagonist recognizes this inside the narrative, first demanding a blessing and then trying to get the man’s name in an attempt to figure out what just happened.
The Showdown with Esau That Never Happens
Immediately following the etiological comment, the story takes us out of the mysterious encounter and back into the reality for which Jacob was making all of his preparations:
בראשׁית לג:א וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה עֵשָׂו בָּא וְעִמּוֹ אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ....
Gen 33:1 Jacob lifted up his eyes and look, Esau was coming, and four hundred men with him….
The great anticipated showdown comes to nothing, as Esau embraces Jacob and doesn’t even want the gift Jacob prepared for him (vv. 4, 8–9). All of Jacob’s strategy is unnecessary.
The Limitations of Strategizing
The juxtaposition of these two events—the highly anticipated showdown with Esau that fizzles out, and the totally unanticipated and yet critical struggle at the Jabbok River—invite us to think about the limitations of human strategizing. For all of his planning and preparations, Jacob finds himself alone at a critical moment, having to fend for himself against a surprise attack in the night. He doesn’t anticipate the encounter, and he can’t control it; he just has to act in the moment. He can’t bargain his way out of it; he doesn’t even really get closure on it. He just has to deal with it as it happens. And he prevails anyway—but not without loss.
Strategy has its limits; control is impossible. Does Jacob prevail because God is with him? If so, perhaps God here provides his answer to Jacob’s conditional vow at Bethel (28:20–21)—it is God, not humans, who sets the parameters for deliverance and loyalty. Not for nothing is this story effectively the end of the Jacob saga. From this point on, the narrative shifts to focus on Jacob’s children, who become the primary actors and shapers of the story (for better or for worse—usually for worse). Jacob, whose story began in struggle with Esau, ends without a struggle with Esau.
Jacob’s future seems set—returning to the land from which he had been exiled, Jacob settles in Shechem, buying a plot of land from Hamor, Shechem’s father (33:19). But it is not to be; Jacob’s children basically ruin his careful planning, and much of the rest of his life is marked by tragedy.
A life of strategizing and planning—though necessary in a challenging world—can only take you so far. By juxtaposing these two battles, interrupting the highly anticipated reunion of the long-separated brothers, the narrative throws this into relief.
Jacob and Israel
Since Jacob gets renamed Israel in this narrative, it is critical to think about what this story is saying about Israel as a whole. This nighttime encounter takes place at the ford of the Jabbok, the eastern frontier of Canaan. The Jabbok is elsewhere marked by the Bible as a political boundary (cf. Num 21:24, Deut 3:16) and becomes one of the boundaries of Israelite territory (Judges 11:13-22). Crossing this river, therefore, Jacob, representing Israel, crosses from exile to promised land, a crossing that is fraught with danger.
River crossings always leave the forders particularly vulnerable; this reality is heightened here when the narrative strands Jacob there alone, without servants or supporters at his flank. With Jacob representing the people of Israel, the narrative highlights how dangerous Israel’s coming to Canaan was; how vulnerable to attack they were, and how no one was there to support them.
Additionally, the naming of this place as “Peniel” (also called “Penuel”), brings us further into the story of the people of Israel and also to the story of the Northern Kingdom (also called “Israel” or the “House of Jacob”). According to 1 Kings, Jeroboam builds up Penuel after successfully seceding from the South following the death of Solomon in 932 B.C.E. (1 Kgs 12:25). Peniel is thus a place, like others in the Jacob narratives, including Bethel and Shechem, of particular importance to the Northern Kingdom and associated with its very founding.
Together, the Jabbok and Peniel/Penuel are thus places that evoke battle, upheaval, and transition. It is not an accident that this is where Jacob receives his permanent—but not fatal—wound (Gen 32:32). Jacob prevails in this battle, and emerges on the other side of it, but is permanently scarred and weakened. Just so, we are led to understand, Israel—both the nation as a whole crossing into Canaan, and the Northern Kingdom, seceding from the House of David—prevailed, but was scarred by all those it lost in their attempts to establish themselves in new terrain.
The Struggle of a Small Nation
All of this remind us that the Jacob narrative stands in for the plight of Israel: Israel must negotiate what it means to be a small nation surrounded by larger, more powerful nations. This means using its wits and seeking every opportunity to survive and come out on the other side.
At the same time, Jacob must learn that his success comes about not only because of strategy but because of God. Jacob, standing in for all of Israel, has needed to think and strategize his way through a difficult life, but ultimately he cannot control his fate, either at the Jabbok or beyond. The unanticipated, fraught encounter at the Jabbok, with its ambiguity and unresolvedness, forces its audience—Israelite or contemporary—to confront the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of reality, and to trust themselves and forces beyond their control.
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November 18, 2021
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Prof. Meira Z. Kensky is currently the Joseph E. McCabe Associate Professor of Religion at Coe College. Kensky received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Biblical Studies (New Testament) from the University of Chicago. Her first book was Trying Man, Trying God: The Divine Courtroom in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Mohr Siebeck 2010). Currently, she is working on her second book, an examination of the figure of Timothy in Early Christian literature, and a book on the Apocalypse of Peter and Early Christian tours of Hell. She currently serves on the Society of Biblical Literature's Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, and on editorial boards for SBL Press and E. J. Brill.
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