Hebrew In Israel | Theology Through Translation, The Case of Genesis 32:24-31 – Learn Torah

Hebrew In Israel | Theology Through Translation, The Case of Genesis 32:24-31 – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi 2 comments

In this article I will demonstrate that the common understanding throughout the history of commentary on Genesis 32:24-31 has been that the “man” who struggled with Ya’aqov was not God. This is evident from the XXL through to the Midrashim. This article is mostly a collection of sources and not an in-depth discussion on theology. 

A common issue with the biblical text is the specific use of words in context. When translators dealt with questions of specific words which also had a theological connotation, they would have to make specific decisions. One of the questions which was raised by many is “Who is the man Ya’aqov fought”? We find that the man in Gen 32:24 is also referred to as Elohim in verses 28 and 30. Because of the double description we find in the text, many come to the conclusion that the man was actually God. 

This dilemma also appears in the Greek translation and versions of vs. 27 (Hebrew 28).

23 καὶ ἔλαβεν αὐτοὺς καὶ διέβη τὸν χειμάρρουν καὶ διεβίβασεν πάντα τὰ αὐτοῦ.  And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him till the morning.    He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  וַיִּקָּחֵם וַיַּעֲבִרֵם אֶת־הַנָּחַל וַיַּעֲבֵר אֶת־אֲשֶׁר־לֹו׃  24
24 ὑπελείφθη δὲ Ιακωβ μόνος, καὶ ἐπάλαιεν ἄνθρωπος μετ’ αὐτοῦ ἕως πρωί.  And he saw that he prevailed not against him; and he touched the broad part of his thigh, and the broad part of Jacob’s thigh was benumbed in his wrestling with him.    And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדֹּו וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמֹּו עַד עֲלֹות הַשָּׁחַר׃  25
25 εἶδεν δὲ ὅτι οὐ δύναται πρὸς αὐτόν, καὶ ἥψατο τοῦ πλάτους τοῦ μηροῦ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐνάρκησεν τὸ πλάτος τοῦ μηροῦ Ιακωβ ἐν τῷ παλαίειν αὐτὸν μετ’ αὐτοῦ.  And he said to him, Let me go, for the day has dawned; but he said, I will not let you go, except you bless me.    When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לֹו וַיִּגַּע בְּכַף־יְרֵכֹו וַתֵּקַע כַּף־יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּהֵאָבְקֹו עִמֹּו׃  26
26 καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Ἀπόστειλόν με· ἀνέβη γὰρ ὁ ὄρθρος. ὁ δὲ εἶπεν Οὐ μή σε ἀποστείλω, ἐὰν μή με εὐλογήσῃς.  And he said to him, What is your name? and he answered, Jacob.    Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ כִּי אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּנִי׃  27
27 εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ Τί τὸ ὄνομά σού ἐστιν; ὁ δὲ εἶπεν Ιακωβ.  And he said to him, Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name; for you have prevailed with God, and shall be mighty with men.    And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו מַה־שְּׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב׃  28
28 εἶπεν δὲ αὐτῷ Οὐ κληθήσεται ἔτι τὸ ὄνομά σου Ιακωβ, ἀλλὰ Ισραηλ ἔσται τὸ ὄνομά σου, ὅτι ἐνίσχυσας μετὰ θεοῦ καὶ μετὰ ἀνθρώπων δυνατός.  And Jacob asked and said, Tell me your name; and he said, Why do you ask after my name? and he blessed him there.    Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”  וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עֹוד שִׁמְךָ כִּי אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵל כִּי־שָׂרִיתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁים וַתּוּכָל׃  29
29 ἠρώτησεν δὲ Ιακωβ καὶ εἶπεν Ἀνάγγειλόν μοι τὸ ὄνομά σου. καὶ εἶπεν Ἵνα τί τοῦτο ἐρωτᾷς τὸ ὄνομά μου; καὶ ηὐλόγησεν αὐτὸν ἐκεῖ.  And Jacob called the name of that place, the Face of God; for, [said he, I have seen God face to face, and my life was preserved.    Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה־נָּא שְׁמֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתֹו שָׁם׃  30
30 καὶ ἐκάλεσεν Ιακωβ τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ τόπου ἐκείνου Εἶδος θεοῦ· εἶδον γὰρ θεὸν πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον, καὶ ἐσώθη μου ἡ ψυχή.  And the sun rose upon him, when he passed the Face of God; and he halted upon his thigh.    So Jacob called the name of the place Peni’el, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקֹום פְּנִיאֵל כִּי־רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל־פָּנִים וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי׃

It is clear that the Greek uses the common word for Elohim θεὸν which is used throughout the Biblical Text. 

Other versions of the Greek such as the NETS add an “a” before God to make sure the text is not speaking of God YHWH but some lower entity. Can this mean that we actually have two versions of the story? Could it be that some Greek readers felt having God himself appear in the story to be a problem?

The same issue arises from the work of Moshe Zipor in his rendition of the verses. Instead of the Hebrew אלהים he renders the text as אלוה. Zipor also states that the word θεὸν in verse 31 does not appear with the definite marker (ó θεὸν) making it “a God” and not “The God” such as Gen 1:1

᾿Εν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν

Zipor also points out that Symmachus and other translations add the word πρóς (in front) to make the text mean that he fought before God and not with God.  (Zipor, Septuagint pp.410-413)

The same issue appears in Josephus who states:

When Jacob had made these appointments all the day, and night came on, he moved on with his company; and, as they were gone over a certain river called Jabboc, Jacob was left behind; and meeting with an angel, he wrestled with him, the angel beginning to struggle: but he prevailed over the angel, who used a voice, and spoke to him in words, exhorting him to be pleased with what had happened to him, and not to suppose that his victory was a small one, but he had overcome a divine angel, and to esteem the victory as a sign of great blessings that should come to him, and that the offspring should never fall, and that no man should be too hard for his power, He also commanded him to be called Israel, which in the Hebrew tongue signifies one that struggled with the divine angel

Antiquities, I:20 331-334

Later on, Midrash Rabbah (Circa.500) interprets the text in a similar manner:

רַבִּי חָמָא בְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא אָמַר שָׂרוֹ שֶׁל עֵשָׂו הָיָה, הוּא דַּהֲוָה אָמַר לֵיהּ (בראשית לג, י): כִּי עַל כֵּן רָאִיתִי פָנֶיךָ כִּרְאֹת פְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים וַתִּרְצֵנִי, מָשָׁל לְאַתְּלֵיטוֹס שֶׁהוּא עוֹמֵד וּמִתְגּוֹשֵׁשׁ עִם בְּנוֹ שֶׁל מֶלֶךְ, תָּלָה עֵינָיו וְרָאָה אֶת הַמֶּלֶךְ עוֹמֵד עַל גַּבָּיו וְהִרְפִּישׁ עַצְמוֹ לְפָנָיו, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (בראשית לב, כו): וַיַּרְא כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, אָמַר רַבִּי לֵוִי וַיַּרְא בַּשְּׁכִינָה כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ. אָמַר רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה אֵין אָנוּ יוֹדְעִים מִי נָצַח אִם מַלְאָךְ אִם יַעֲקֹב, וּמִן מַה דִּכְתִיב (בראשית לב, כה): וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, הֱוֵי מִי נִתְמַלֵּא אָבָק הָאִישׁ שֶׁעִמּוֹ.

Rabbi Chama bar Chanina said, “He was the ministering angel of Esav. And that is [what he meant] when he said to him, ‘For this have I seen your face as I saw the face of God and you have accepted me’ (Genesis 33:10). There is a parable about an athlete that got up and wrestled with the son of the king. He lifted his eyes and he saw that the king was standing behind him and [so] he fell to the ground in front of [the son]. This is what [is meant by that which] is written, ‘and he saw that he could not overcome him.'” Rabbi Levi said, “‘And he saw’ the Divine Presence ‘and he could not overcome him.'” Said Rabbi Berachia, “We do not know who won, whether it was the angel or whether it was Yakov. And from that which it is written, ‘and a man wrestled (vayitabek, the root of which contains the letters that spell dust) with him,’ prove who was covered in dust – the man that was with him.’ 

MR 77:3

All of this fits the words of Hosea 12:4-5 (Greek 3-4) who states:

3 ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ ἐπτέρνισεν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐν κόποις αὐτοῦ ἐνίσχυσεν πρὸς θεὸν  He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and in his labours he had power with God.    In the womb he took his brother by the heel, 
and in his manhood he strove with God.
בַּבֶּטֶן עָקַב אֶת־אָחִיו וּבְאֹונֹו שָׂרָה אֶת־אֱלֹהִים׃  4
4 καὶ ἐνίσχυσεν μετὰ ἀγγέλου καὶ ἠδυνάσθη· ἔκλαυσαν καὶ ἐδεήθησάν μου, ἐν τῷ οἴκῳ Ων εὕροσάν με, καὶ ἐκεῖ ἐλαλήθη πρὸς αὐτόν.  And he prevailed with the angel and was strong: they wept, and intreated me: they found me in the house of On, and there [a word was spoken to them.    He strove with the angel and prevailed, 
he wept and sought his favor. 
He met God at Bethel, 
and there God spoke with him –
וָיָּשַׂר אֶל־מַלְאָךְ וַיֻּכָל 
בָּכָה וַיִּתְחַןֶּן־לֹו בֵּית־אֵל יִמְצָאֶנּוּ וְשָׁם יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ

As can be seen, Hosea is clearly creating a parallel between the word Elohim and Malakh (angel) and specifically uses the word וישר which is the same verb for שרית in Gen 32:29 (Greek 32:27). 

It is clear that many traditions understood that the “man” was never God, but an angel of some sort. It is noteworthy that some have pointed to the idea that in the Greek world it was common belief that spirits such as nymphs would live near water. Hence it is possible that the same idea existed in the ANE and would have automatically been understood that this was not God but a spirit. 


Jackson Snyder

December 13, 2019 at 5:39 am

Thank you. So very good.


December 16, 2019 at 9:01 am

So many opinions.

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