The conflict between the Bible’s Jacob and Esau is usually interpreted as a struggle between good and evil. Though Jacob seems to be evil (or at least underhanded and manipulative), the ancient commentators work very hard to explain that Jacob is actually good—and that Esau is the evil twin. When Esau loves to hunt, the Rabbis explain that he has little respect for life and kills indiscriminately. When Jacob stays in the tent, the Rabbis explain that he is studying holy texts. When Jacob fools his father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for Esau, the Rabbis explain that Jacob is a much better choice for religious leadership and that the ruse saves blind Isaac and the tribe from a terrible mistake.
Such commentators seem to be trying to exonerate an ancestor from ignoble behavior, but the Rabbis’ efforts might not have been so self-serving. Though the Bible seems to paint a negative picture of Jacob, it also says that God chooses him to be the Patriarch. Though Isaac might be fooled, God is not fooled — nor is God constrained by Isaac’s words. God is a free agent, and God freely chooses Jacob. In other words, the Rabbis are stuck with God’s curious choice and try to explain it.
Their predicament is based on the belief that Biblical heroes are always heroic — that what seem to be misdeeds must be re-examined for secret goodness. There is, however, another way of looking at the text, one in which the Bible’s characters are normal human beings, capable of good and evil and improvement. In this light, one can admit that Jacob’s start is not very impressive — that he is underhanded and dishonest. However, once he learns the evil of his ways and repents, he grows into the Patriarch God hopes he will be.
Jacob’s Patriarchal stature is realized in his famous wrestling match, the one from which he emerges with the name Israel. This transformative moment leads to many teachings, and some derive from the mysterious identity of Jacob/Israel’s wrestling opponent.
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The first mention of the wrestler identifies him as a man. Could this be symbolic of the wrestling we do in human society? Each of us has a vision of goodness and righteousness, but sometimes other people have different visions, and the path to improving our world often involves wrestling with them and their ideas.
A later verse says that Israel means “one who has wrestled with God and with humans and has prevailed,” suggesting that Jacob wrestled with God. With God?! Perhaps Jacob was engaging in the same kind of struggle other humans experience as we try to understand God and God’s intentions for us. Such an intellectual and spiritual wrestling match with the Divine is a continuing part of the religious life. We must never let go of God and of godly aspirations.
The mystery suggests to others that Jacob’s struggle is internal — that the story represents wrestling of our good and evil inclinations within each of us. In this conflict, there is no permanent victory (or defeat!), for nothing is permanent except God’s charge to be holy. The struggle to be good and do good is our continuing challenge, and we pray for God’s help. May we, the spiritual Children of Israel, be up to the task. May we hold on tight and never let go.