Reading the Bible with the Fathers

How do you read Genesis 32:22-32? Today I want to return to an issue I mentioned in our post about the vigorous conversation over reading the Bible theologically. In that post I mentioned Frances Young’s wonderful book, Brokenness and Blessing: Towards a Biblical Spirituality and in today’s I want to explore how she uses Jacob’s wrestling with God to illustrate how the fathers read the Bible.

First, the text:

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 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. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.30 So Jacob called the place Peniel [“face of God”], saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” 31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 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

The historical-critical and historical-grammatical method ask questions like these: What were the ancient near eastern parallels and sources for this folkloric story of a human wrestling with a river spirit or a demon or a god or with God himself? What did that text/story mean in its day? What did this story attempt to say about the origins of the name “Jabbok” (the stream), the meaning of “Israel,” the place-name “Peniel,” and the origin of the a good taboo — not eating the thigh muscle of the hip-socket.

How do you read this text? What’s it about? What are your limits? What do you think of the fathers’ readings?

The fathers, however, read the story in other ways. Frances Young illustrates three:

First, some read it as a “theophany” (a manifestation of God — Eusebius) or a “christophany” (a manifestation of Christ – Justin). That is, God appears in human form. In this view, the wrestling disappears and what we hear about is the manifestation of God in human form or the preexistence of Christ.

Second, some find an “exemplary” reading. Clement of Alexandria sees God in this text as the “pedagogue” (instructor) who instructs through the “Word” (Christ). Origen sees here the struggle of humans — not against God but “with” God in order to resist temptation and find moral development. Jerome sees Jacob being strengthened by God and the thigh refers to Jacob’s chastity (asceticism). Augustine said we have to struggle to love our enemy.

Third, there were “dispensational” readings: Jacob is the church and Esau the Jews (according to Augustine).

How about us? Frances Young explains that the story of the text shaped these interpretations: the wrestling, a mysterious Being in human form, and a new name given to Jacob. How about us then?

1. She suggests we see atheism’s and modernity’s struggle with God.
2. She examines religious language and the ‘otherness’ of God.
3. She dips into “creature and creator” — creation giving way to the creator.
4. She discusses spiritual growth occurring through being disabled.

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  • RJS

    Young’s fourth suggestion seems to be a reading of issues and context of today into the text.
    What is meant in the first suggestion – I assume a word or so is missing?

  • Your Name

    I don’t think that spiritual growth is necessariy the result of being “disabled”.
    It depends on how ones views God in the world.
    If one views God as personal and he controls events through direct intervention or through allowing circumstances, then there will be a more ‘submissive” stance toward circumstances…it was what the ancient’s understood as “fate” and was re-interpreted by Christians as “God’s will”.
    But, if you do not believe the “God is fatalistic” (ordains, predestines, god’s will, etc.) then you look for the culprit. This is what lawsuits are made from, as in our culture, we must respect the other’s right to freely choose. “Disablement” through contolling events, is not only unethical, but immoral. Scriptures develop “moral” understanding. In the N.T., Jesus allows choice. But, those who want to theologize the Scripture will always have a predispostion upon what the text means, and therefore superimpose their understanding as “God’s will and purpose or plan”….

  • Thelemite

    I would say it looks like Jacob was only wrestling with a human man. The character he wrestled with never did anything god-like nor did he refer to himself as God. There is no reason to believe that when he says “…you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome” that he is not the “man” referred to, so it seems Jacob was either jumping to conclusions or speaking metaphorically when he said he saw God face-to-face.
    I’ll leave the non-literal interpretations to the Christian commentors.

  • I don’t really like any of these four readings — certainly not any reading that Jacob represents atheism or the world. I’ve always understood this story as a parable of the believer’s spiritual struggle — along the lines of Paul’s “who will rescue me from this body of death”. Lately I’ve also come to understand it as a metaphor for the ways in which God invites and requires us to wrestle with Himself and His word. Often when I find myself asking “why did God make so many things so hard to understand,” I think of this story of Jacob’s wrestling with God. Somehow God knows we need to wrestle and even be wounded sometimes before we’re ready to be who He asks us to become.

  • Your Name

    Like some of the Fathers,this is a theophany, one initiated by God. And it rings true to experience. If one has “wrestled” with the true and living God, not a principle, precept or an idea;if you’ve really had had it out with God and been addressed by God head-on and done the same at the core of your being, you will not come out of this encounter the same person. You will be changed! You will be humbled and strengthened at the same time:you will come to understand your creaturehood and the diving love and mercy experientially. I can testify to this!!!!

  • Paul D.

    Many rabbis saw the figure with whom Jacob wrestled as Esau. For, in the next chapter Jacob says to his brother, “[T]ruly to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10)

  • JKG

    This is a marvelous text. Any and all of the interpretations offered here are worthy of hours of dialogue. That may be what makes it so marvelous.
    In that spirit, could the story itself be a meta-story? We (Jacob) are struggling with the story itself, and seeking a blessing from it?
    Just a thought (one I’m sure that others wiser than I have offered before).
    Blessings to all!

  • Your Name

    I heard Frances just a few months ago and found her to be a very provocative thinker that roused many different emotions within the room. Her third talk of the day was how the Fathers read the Bible. What she was suggesting in the lecture, to me sounded not unlike what John had done in his Revelation, as he re-read many OT themes into his prophesy for the early church.

  • I agree with responder #5, this is in refernece to a theophany.
    Keep up the great work!
    Jim Richardson

  • Rdy

    I find comments 1 & 2, by RJS and “Your Name” very interesting. I have been thinking quite a bit about whether all “reading into” the text is to be taken as a negative. Let me begin by saying that there are some ways of “reading into” that I find quite problematic.
    Several years ago I heard Nicholas Wolterstorff speak about the experiences and stories that comprise us as we reach certain points in life (He was talking about Christian academics not being merely thinking/talking heads without their own stories and experiences and even locations). He did not open the issue of dis-ability or different-abilities himself, but by opening room for us to each bring our stories and experiences to both new experiences and texts did open the way for learning from disability. Having worked and worshipped with developmentally disabled people for several years, I am confident that not only is their worship much valued by God, but that there is much deep truth that we can learn from them.
    Eugene Peterson’s latest book “Tell it Slant” offers another perspective on “reading into.” He speaks of Jesus telling stories that invite people to read themselves into them. He goes so far as to suggest that he uses parables this way in order to avoid offending those who don’t read themselves into or “find themselves in” the story.

  • Rebeccat

    I second (third) the idea that this is about wrestling with God in our spiritual walk. We do come away both wounded and changed. God doesn’t just give things away – we are not worthy or ready for His gifts until we go through some wrestling and work. They would likely destroy us or wind up being evil in our lives if they were given to us straight-away.

  • Your Name

    YHWH is tricky; most “theophanies” come under the guise of the things in our lives. The greatest theophany was and is the Incarnation,which was a stumbling black, both a revelation and an obscuring of preconceived notions about YHWH. YHWH reveals himself on his terms only.
    Just as Jacob was afraid of Esau, since he has tricked him,the figure (theophany) was ambiguous so that it went to Jacob’s fears and moral struggles.
    One of my friends told me that the only time in his life God had “spoken” to him was in regards to a coworker, a man of horrible ethics, whose personal motto was caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”). When my friend left the job where this man worked for better employment, this man secured employment at the same place. As my friend moved on again, this man followed him to each new place of employment. Exasperated, he had a “pugilistic” moment with YHWH, asking him why this crooked SOB kept prospering and he followed him wherever he went. YHWH answered him. He told him that until he learned to love this man, this pattern would continue. YHWH was using this gentleman to teach him how to truly love.

  • “Third, there were “dispensational” readings: Jacob is the church and Esau the Jews (according to Augustine).”
    I am a big fan of St. Augustine, but I have become leary of many of his readings of the Old Testament. His interpretation of Judges 6 insists that the wool that is dry is Judaism, and when it is wet, it is God’s grace upon which there is Christianity. I see that no where in the text; I could see Gideon as a proto-Christ figure, like Jacob and Moses,Gideon pointing to the Messiah, but not any supersessionism.