Jacob and the Angel: Terror and Divine Providence

Article excerpt

Jacob's welcome in the house of his father-in-law, Laban, had worn thin. Yet returning to Canaan with his family and livestock, he now faced an inevitable confrontation with Esau, the vengeful brother he had fled 21 years before. Praying for Divine providence, he nevertheless planned for the worst.

As he drew near, he sent gifts of great value and conveyed his subservience, veneration and obeisance. This was especially important since it was the birthright that was the brothers' main bone of contention. Nevertheless, he knew it would be hard to appease his violent brother.

Reports of Esau's approach with 400 men only exacerbated Jacob's anxiety. In a desperate attempt to stave off the looming disaster, Jacob divided his family and possessions in the hope that, while half might be attacked, the other half would be able to flee. On the eve of their encounter, Jacob moved his camp across the Wadi Jabbok. Leaving his family, the agitated Jacob returned to the near side of the stream. Alone in the dread of night, he wrestled till dawn with a powerful enigmatic figure. Many take the battle to be with an angel, a theophany. (1) Others suggest he was merely a mortal emissary from Esau, or a nightmare born of his own terror. (2) We have, after all, only the sparse details of the biblical narrative.

Traditional commentaries, following the last half of And Jacob's thigh was strained as he wrestled with him (Gen. 32:26), believe that in the course of Jacob's life-and-death struggle, the mysterious stranger grasped his thigh, leaving him disabled. (3) Signaling the significance of this incident to our people and not just to Jacob, the Halakhah forbids the eating of the gid ha-nasheh, the sciatic nerve of kosher land animals (Gen. 32:33). Careful reading of the biblical description in the first half of verse 26, however, reveals that the adversary touched his thigh only after he realized that he was unable to defeat Jacob: And when he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh. This took place after the fight was over.

What then was the significance of this touch? I suggest that it was an act of submission and fealty, sealing a sacred oath to preserve him and his family. Just as Eliezer had done before setting out to find Isaac a wife: And Abraham said to his servant ... 'put your hand under my thigh' (Gen. 24:2), so did Joseph before Jacob's death: If I have found favor in your sight, put your hand under my thigh ... bury me not, I pray, in Egypt (Gen. 47:29)--and so did the mysterious stranger after his failure to defeat Jacob. Each of these incidents relates to a solemn pledge concerning the continuity of our people and its spirituality. Isaac is to be the next stage in establishing the Jewish nation, and Joseph's mission is to strengthen the bond with the Promised Land even in Egypt.

Chief Rabbi Hertz on Genesis 24:2 believes that the "thigh" refers to one's progeny who spring from the father's loins. (4) Thus it is the sons who are the ultimate guarantors of the father's solemn pledge. Taking hold of the "thigh" (probably a euphemism for the genitals) (5) actually represents, like today's more mundane handshake, sealing a pact of supreme trust between the two parties, especially where the welfare of one's progeny is at stake. …