Did Jacob wrestle with a man—or an angel?


by Shawn Brasseaux

Once, a teacher confidently asserted, “The Bible says that Jacob wrestled with a ‘man.’ It was not an ‘angel’ as some people assume and claim.” Is this so? Was it a man? Or an angel? Why are these two different positions taken? “For what saith the Scriptures?”

In Genesis chapter 32, we read: “[24] And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. [25] And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. [26] And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. [27] And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. [28] And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. [29] And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. [30] And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. [31] And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh. [32] Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew that shrank.”

After this brawl, the Bible says in verse 28 that Jacob is renamed “Israel,” Hebrew for “the prince that prevails with God.” Verse 24 indeed says Jacob wrestled with “a man.” The word “angel” indeed does not appear in the Scriptures here. However, look closely at verse 30—do not read it quickly. Jacob claims, “I have seen God face to face.” It was no ordinary man that Jacob fought. No mortal man would be called “God.” What is going on here?

The Bible abounds with a literary feature known as “subsequent narrative.” Scripture may withhold information about a particular idea for centuries. Moses, when writing Genesis, reported that Jacob wrestled with a “man.” However, when we go to the Book of Hosea, something the Holy Spirit wrote about 700 years after Genesis was written, we learn more about Jacob’s encounter here.

Hosea chapter 12: “[2] The LORD hath also a controversy with Judah, and will punish Jacob according to his ways; according to his doings will he recompense him. [3] He took his brother by the heel in the womb, and by his strength he had power with God: [4] Yea, he had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication unto him: he found him in Bethel, and there he spake with us;….”

Verse 2 occurred in Genesis 25:20-26, some nine centuries prior to Hosea. Isaac’s wife Rebecca gave birth to twins—Esau followed by Jacob. Jacob grabbed Esau’s heel as Esau was being delivered. Jacob, not Esau, would give rise to the nation Israel started with Abraham and Isaac. The Jews to whom Hosea is preaching and writing are the very descendants of Jacob. Hosea 12:4 says Jacob “had power over the angel, and prevailed.” Genesis 32:28 again, “And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” Jacob’s encounter with the angel here is their national history—when they gained the name of “Israel.” (This is why the Jews are also called “the children of Israel,” with “Israel” being the new name God gave Jacob.) But, why did Genesis say the “angel” was a “man?”

Through various other passages of Scripture, we understand that when God’s angels appeared to people, they assume the form of men (never women!). Remember the two men in Jesus’ tomb on resurrection morning? Luke 24:4 says, “And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:….” Two men appeared at His ascension in Acts 1:10: “And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;….” These were angels. Gabriel the Angel appeared as a man to the prophet Daniel. Daniel 9:21 documents: “Yea, whiles I was speaking in prayer, even the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, touched me about the time of the evening oblation.”

Angels are repeatedly referred to as “he” in the Bible. Zechariah 5:5-11, for example: “[5] Then the angel that talked with me went forth, and said unto me, Lift up now thine eyes, and see what is this that goeth forth. [6] And I said, What is it? And he said, This is an ephah that goeth forth. He said moreover, This is their resemblance through all the earth.… [8] And he said, This is wickedness. And he cast it into the midst of the ephah; and he cast the weight of lead upon the mouth thereof. … [10] Then said I to the angel that talked with me, Whither do these bear the ephah? [11] And he said unto me,….” Also, Revelation 19:10 speaks of an angel that the Apostle John desired to worship: “And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, See thou do it not: I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

We say all that to show that the argument that Jacob fought with a man rather than an angel is trivial and actually specious. The Bible says an angel fought with Jacob and a man fought with Jacob. Using common sense, we conclude that an angel took on the form of a man there. The angel was God’s representative, and this being may have been the angel of the LORD. That “angel of the LORD” sometimes seems to be God Himself (Jesus Christ pre-incarnate), which explains why Jacob said he “saw God face to face” (and thus named the place “Peniel”—Genesis 32:30). Jacob encountered a man (in appearance) but it was not a normal man. It was an angel, a supernatural being of some kind. There is no need to get confused. We simply read the Bible, believe what we read in the Bible, and not worry about the opinions and baseless claims of preachers and teachers.

Also see:
» Did Pharaoh die in the Red Sea?
» Are angels women?
» Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated?