The Torah and Bible story of the prophet Jacob wrestling with a man of supernatural strength has captured readers' attention for many centuries. Who is the mysterious man who struggles with Jacob all night and finally blesses him?
Some believe that archangel Phanuel is the man the passage describes, but other scholars say that the man is actually the Angel of the Lord, a manifestation of God Himself before his incarnation later in history.
Wrestling for a Blessing
Jacob is on his way to visit his estranged brother Esau and hoping to reconcile with him when he encounters the mysterious man on a riverbank at night, the Bible and Torah's Book of Genesis says in chapter 32.
Verses 24 through 28 describe the wrestling match between Jacob and the man, in which Jacob ultimately prevails: "So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, 'Let me go, for it is daybreak.' But Jacob replied, 'I will not let you go unless you bless me.' The man asked him, 'What is your name?' 'Jacob,' he answered. Then the man said, 'Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.'"
Asking for His Name
After the man gives Jacob a new name, Jacob asks the man to reveal his own name. Verses 29 through 32 show that the man doesn't really answer, but Jacob identifies the place of their encounter with a name that reflects its meaning: "Jacob said, 'Please tell me your name.' But he replied, 'Why do you ask my name?' Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, 'It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.' The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon."
Another Cryptic Description
Later, in the Book of Hosea, the Bible and the Torah mention Jacob's wrestling again. However, the way Hosea 12:3-4 refers to the event is just as unclear, because in verse 3 it says that Jacob "struggled with God" and in verse 4 it says that Jacob "struggled with the angel."
Is it Archangel Phanuel?
Some people identify Archangel Phanuel as the man who wrestles with Jacob because of the connection between Phanuel's name and the name "Peniel" that Jacob gave to the place where he struggled with the man.
In his book Of Scribes And Sages: Early Jewish Interpretation And Transmission Of Scripture, Volume 2, Craig A. Evans writes: "In Gen. 32:31, Jacob names the place of his wrestling with God as 'Peniel' -- the Face of God. Scholars believe that the angelic name 'Phanuel' and the place 'Peniel' are etymologically connected."
Morton Smith writes in his book Christianity, Judaism and Other Greco-Roman Cults that the earliest existing manuscripts indicate that Jacob was wrestling with God in angelic form, while later versions say that Jacob wrestled with an archangel. "According to this biblical text, the happy ending of Jacob's wrestle with a mysterious opponent, the patriarch called the site of the encounter Peniel/Penuel (Phanuel). Pointing initially to his divine adversary, the name was in time attached to an angelic substitute."
Is it the Angel of the Lord?
Some people say that the man who wrestles with Jacob is the Angel of the Lord (God's Son Jesus Christ appearing in angelic form prior to his incarnation later in history).
"So who is the 'man' who wrestles with Jacob on the riverbank and finally blesses him with a new name? God ... the Angel of the Lord Himself," writes Larry L. Lichtenwalter in his book Wrestling with Angels: In the Grip of Jacob’s God.
In her book The Messenger of the Lord in Early Jewish Interpretations of Genesis, Camilla Hélena von Heijne writes: "Jacob's naming of the place and the word 'face' in verse 30 is a key word. It denotes personal presence, in this case, divine presence. To seek God’s face is to seek His presence.
This famous story about Jacob can inspire all of us to wrestle with God and angels in our lives to strengthen our faith, Lichtenwalter writes in Wrestling with Angels: "Interestingly, with God, when we lose, we win. Hosea tells us Jacob beat God. In spite of the limp and the surrender, he won! When Jacob surrendered and God threw him, he won. Jacob took the gold because God took the heart. Whenever we give in to the grip of Jacob’s God, we too, will win. ... As with Jacob, God promises the ministry of angels to every one of us and our families. We may not dream about them, see them, or wrestle with them as Jacob did. Nevertheless, they are there, behind the scenes of our lives, involved in all our existential wrestlings as individuals and family. Sometimes, as did Jacob, we unwittingly wrestle with them as they minister in our behalf, whether by way of protection or prompting us to do what is right."