Notes on Genesis (xvi)

‘Then Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of day.’ (Gen 32:24)

After an absence of many years Jacob, accompanied by his two wives, two maidservants and the eleven sons these four women had by then given him, headed off to meet his estranged brother Esau. (The daughter Dinah, mentioned at 30:21, seems to have been forgotten.) On the way he wrestled by night with a stranger. Despite his antagonist dislocating his hip, Jacob did well in the struggle, and refused to let the other go until he blessed him. The stranger told Jacob that he would thereafter be called Israel, for he had prevailed with God and men. He refused to tell Jacob his own name, but blessed him, whereupon Jacob called the place Peniel (‘face of God’; the Septuagint ‘eidos Theou’ seems less precise), saying ‘I saw God face to face, and my soul was saved.’ The sun rose.

This is a perplexing narrative. The image of wrestling is recurrent in the narrative of Jacob, who was born hanging onto the heel of his brother in something like a wrestling hold (25:26) and one of whose wives saw herself as wrestling with the other (30:8). The giving of a new name recalls Abram receiving the name Abraham (17:5) and Sarai that of Sarah (17:15), and for that matter Simon becoming Peter and Saul Paul, but whereas in the other cases the new names stuck Jacob continues to be called by his old name. 

Patristic commentary on this passage is complicated by the Greek translation, the Septuagint, diverging from that into Latin, the Vulgate, which seems closer to what Jerome called ‘hebraica veritas’. It’s worth remembering that the translations of the Old Testament the Fathers worked with have their oddities. An etymological pun in Hebrew that can be beautifully expressed in English (‘she shall be called woman because she was taken out of man’ Gen 2:23) finds tolerable expression in Latin (she shall be called virago because she was taken out of vir) but fails completely in Greek (she shall be called gune because she was taken out of aner), a rendering in which the word ‘because’ has become very lame. A story in the book of Judges hinges on someone mispronouncing the word shibboleth as sibboleth (12:6). The story is easy to tell in English, but difficult in Greek and Latin, which lack the sound ‘sh’, leaving them unable to represent the distinction between the true and false pronunciations. The translations into these languages deal with the problem in different ways. The Greek translates the key word into that language and paraphrases (‘Say the word “stachys.” If he was unable to repeat the word in the same way…’) The Vulgate, on the other hand, provides plenty of help. It translates the word, offers different forms of it, and explains the point (‘Say therefore “sebboleth”, which means “ear of grain.” He replied with “tebboleth”, being unable to say “ear of grain” using the same letter.’)

But the different traditions concur that Jacob, no less than his grandfather Abraham by the oak tree, had received a theophany, an appearance of God. Having made this point, John Chrysostom appositely quotes a version of Hosea: ‘I multiplied visions and took various likenesses in the works of the inspired authors.’ (cf Hos 10:13).

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