Jacob Wrestling the Angel by Eugene Delacroix, detail, 1861
Jacob stood at the edge of the water, waiting. A hot breeze blew through the desert night, drawing water from the Jabbok, making the air strangely wet and heavy. For a moment, Jacob wondered if this was what it was like to drown. The moon shone down, one bright, impassive eye in the heavens.
In his mind, he replayed every detail. The gifts would arrive: first the goats, then the sheep, then the camels, then the bulls, then the donkeys, each sent with the same message, “These belong to your servant, Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau. And he is coming after us.” He smiled. The mind that stole the birthright and spotted Laban’s flocks knew that one gift, no matter how rich, might be rejected out of anger. But few men could reject gift after gift, each more valuable than the last.
Jacob heard – or more accurately felt – a sound. Just below the range of hearing, thunder rolled. He turned his head, glancing back at the visitor with a smirk. “Who are you, Esau’s angel?”
“Why do you want to know?” The stranger asked. The voice seemed to speak within Jacob’s mind, yet echo off every hill in Canaan.
Jacob turned fully to face him. This stranger was no man, clearly. The moonlight seemed to dance across his body, as if buoyed by a greater source. “What do you want?”
The stranger merely tilted his head and smiled. Perhaps he was not Esau’s angel. Perhaps he was one of the small gods the Canaanites worshiped, Ba’al or Dagon or some such. He did not look like the house idols, but why should he?
“Are you simple?” Jacob said, his neck tensing, his hands closing into fists, “Or did you just come to stare, to gawk at the mortal whose own brother may kill him tomorrow?” He stepped forward, fear and frustration boiling into a rage that pushed past all reason, a rage that might drive him to attack a god. “Answer me!”
The stranger sank into his knees, just a little, and spread his hands wide.
Jacob grinned, mirroring his stance. “Wrestling, then?” He said, “Good. I’ve been doing that since I was formed in the womb.”
Jacob hit the stranger with all his strength, crouching low, trying to pull him off-balance. But the shining man sidestepped, shaking off the hold.
“Don’t laugh at me!” Jacob snarled, shouldering into the visitor wildly. At the last moment, he slipped his foot behind the stranger’s calf, tripping him. Momentary surprise flashed across the stranger’s face. Then they hit the hard, stony ground, with Jacob solidly on top.
Jacob struggled to pin the stranger, tossing one leg across his chest. The visitor locked arms with him, shoving back with a strength even Esau never equaled. Jacob’s arms burned with the effort, while his lungs labored against the Jabbok river mist. The stranger, of course, seemed not the least bit tired.
“Submit,” Jacob said, “you’re beaten.”
The stranger bucked like an unbroken mare, tossing Jacob to the ground. Jacob’s fingers clenched and squeezed painfully, struggling to keep hold on the stranger’s, then failing. Jacob scrambled to cover his adversary, but the visitor was too quick, and rolled out of reach.
Both men scrambled to their feet in the fading moonlight. Jacob stared, trying to formulate a plan between ragged, painful breaths. But the stranger gave him no time, hitting him like a raging bull, bearing them both to the ground. It was all Jacob could do to keep conscious. By luck or miracle, his head missed a jutting rock that would have certainly broken his neck. The outcropping grazed the strangers head, stunning him momentarily.
Jacob tried to escape, but by the time he regained control of his body, the stranger had as well. Knowing his adversary’s inhuman strength, Jacob held tight, his rage flagging to fear. He no longer cared if he won or lost, no longer dared to think he could bow this being’s head in defeat. He only hoped he could occupy the stranger’s hands so he could not strike him.
Jacob imagined the shining visitor rising above him, raining blows upon his head like fire on Sodom, leaving him as dead as that cursed city. That thought, that fear, gave him strength, and he locked up the stranger’s arms with his own, pulling him tight against his chest, too close to strike or even slap. Jacob held tight, his fear giving him endurance almost beyond measure, until the silver moonlight had gone, replaced by the faintest orange glow of the morning sun.
“Let me go!” The stranger cried out, “The day is coming!”
“No,” Jacob said. All his plans seemed like desperate grasping. Esau might forgive him, but his life could still end here.
The stranger moved his hand downward, twisting against Jacob’s grip, until his fingertips rested against the mortal’s hip. Jacob’s eyes grew wide and he screamed as the muscles in his thigh ripped apart. His face turned pale, and cold sweat drenched him, but his arms only clenched tighter.
“I said let me go.”
“No,” Jacob gasped, breath ragged, “Not until you bless me.”
“What is your name?” The stranger asked.
The stranger smiled. “No longer. You shall be called Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with man, and have prevailed.”
Jacob released his grip and lay back, his breath coming in shallow, ragged gasps. The pain in his thigh had subsided, but its memory alone was enough to set him shuddering. “You – you could have done that all along.”
The stranger nodded.
“You could have done that to my neck,” Jacob whispered, slowly pushing himself up to a sitting position, his breath slowly returning to normal, “You could have killed me with a touch.”
Once again, the stranger nodded.
“But you did not.”
The stranger smiled gently, then touched Jacob’s forehead, offering a blessing greater than the one Isaac had offered, greater by far than the one that had set this enmity in motion.
“Who are you?” Jacob said, his voice small and awestruck, “You are not one of Laban’s idols. Are you a servant of my father’s God, or are you -”
“Why do you want to know?” The man said, rising to his feet. “Go, Israel, and be blessed among nations.” And in a moment he was gone.
Jacob rose slowly, hope rising in his heart like the warm light of the morning sun. “I will call this place Peniel,” he said, “for I have seen God face to face, and I live. And I will live.”