The story in question is found in Genesis 32 and goes like this: Jacob was a scoundrel from birth. The second-born twin, Jacob’s birth came at the heels of his brother—Jacob was literally grasping Esau’s foot as the two were born. Esau grew to become a great hunter, while Jacob apparently became a skilled cook. With scheming and treachery Jacob traded a bowl of lentil soup for his brother’s birthright, that is, the family inheritance (Genesis 25). Later, when Father Isaac lay on his death bed, he called for his oldest so he could bless him with a final blessing. However, Jacob and his mother schemed once again and tricked Isaac into blessing Jacob instead, crushing Esau’s heart (Genesis 27). With this act, Jacob had to flee for his life and he hid out at his Uncle Laban’s for many years where he finally got his comeuppance (he was swindled in a marriage contract). In the end, though, Jacob prospered and became a wealthy man while under the employ of his uncle.
In due time, God indicates that Jacob should return to his homeland. Still fearing for his life, Jacob sets out with his family and his flocks. As he travels along he makes plans on how to appease an angry brother. The day before his arrival, he sends flocks of sheep, goats, cattle, camels, and donkeys as gifts ahead to his brother to soften him up. Then he divides his flocks, servants, and family, and sends them on ahead of him as well while he spends the night alone.
And here is where the story of Jacob’s wrestling with God is inserted. Without a word of explanation, without a word of warning, Jacob is confronted by a “man” who wrestles with him all night long. At daybreak, Jacob has held out and the man touches Jacob’s hip which is immediately disjointed and then demands to be released. Jacob, who must be in some pain, demands a blessing from his opponent and the “man” asks, “What is your name?” Jacob answers and then he is told, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome” (Genesis 32.28). Apparently unsure whether this is a blessing or not, Jacob inquires of his opponent’s name and instead of an answer gets a blessing that is satisfactory. When Jacob releases his rival, Jacob exclaims, “I have seen God face to face and have lived” (32.30). And then, as abruptly as the story begins, it ends with Jacob limping off into the sunrise and the narrator explaining that this is the reason the Israelites do not eat the meat of the tendon attached to the hip socket (even though there is no tendon attached to the hip socket).
So, what’s this story all about?
To some, the obvious meaning revolves around Jacob’s limp. Before this point in his life, Jacob has been a trickster, a scoundrel, and was dependent on his own devices to secure his good fortune. However, after this story, Jacob lives a fairly sedentary and quiet life and seems to be a more godly man. The conclusion by some is that this event marks a turning point in Jacob’s life and that through his weakness, Jacob learned to depend on God.
However, there is another possible answer to the question of the story’s origins. Many stories in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, are etiologies, that is, stories told to answer the question “why.” In this case, we have two possible etiological origins for the story. The first answers the question, “Why are we called Israel?” The name Israel means “Struggles with God,” and in the context of the story it is clear why Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, was renamed (never mind that the story of the Hebrew nation and the longer history of Israel itself has been one long struggle with God).
The second possible etiology revolves around the dietary custom of the “tendon” attached to the hip. The problem with this particular notion is that there are no tendons attached to the hip socket—ligaments, yes; tendons, no. However, to clear up the matter, according to the rabbis this passage is actually prohibiting the consumption of the sciatic nerve which is contained in the muscles of the thigh and must be removed for the meat to be kosher.
In any event, the story of Jacob wrestling with
God seems to be a parenthetical story. The renaming
of Jacob occurs again in Genesis 35.9-15 under different
circumstances and takes place in a different location,
and the prohibition against the hip socket tendon
is found nowhere else. So, is the story there
to resolve questions about names and meat, or to
teach about dependence on God? The answer is
that those are good questions that we may never get
satisfactory answers to. We may have to leave
it as one of the questions for heaven.