You Have Prevailed



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Restoration Quarterly 23 (1980) 225-31.

Copyright © 1980 by Restoration Quarterly, cited with permission.



"You Have Prevailed"

The Function of Jacob's Encounter

at Peniel in the Jacob Cycle
STEVE McKENZIE

Cambridge, Massachusetts


Although the passage in Genesis 32:23-331 has been frequently

treated by scholars using a variety of analytical tools,2 the question

of the function of the passage in the context of the Jacob cycle has not

received the attention which it merits. This article deals primarily with

that question and proposes a more comprehensive solution to it, a

solution which demonstrates the intimate relationship of the tradition

history of the passage, its theology; and its purpose in the Jacob cycle.

Scholars are generally agreed that this passage has had a long,

complex tradition history. However, there is a wide divergence of

opinion about the point in the history of the tradition at which

different elements of its present form entered. The parallels cited

by Gunkel to various elements of the story have established to


1 Genesis 32:22-32 in English Bibles. The verses in Hebrew are always one ahead of

the verses in English in Genesis 32. The verse enumeration in this article corresponds

to that of the Hebrew Bible.

2 For bibliography on this passage see F. van Trigt, "La Signification de la Lutte

de Jacob pros du Yabboq Gen. xxxii 23-33," OTS 12 (1958), 280, and Robert

Martin-Achard, "An Exegete Confronting Genesis 32:23-33," Structural Analysis and

Biblical Exegesis, ed. by R. Barthes et. al., trans. by Alfred M. Johnson (Pittsburgh:

Pickwick, 1974), pp. 34f. Bibliography not given in these two articles includes:

Michael Fishbane, "Composition and Structure in the Jacob Cycle (Gen. 25:19-35:22),"

JJS 26 (1975), 15-38; K. Luke, Studies in the Book of Genesis (Alwaye, India: Pontifical

Institute of Theology and Philosophy, 1975); J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in


Genesis (Assen, Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1975); Martin Noth, A History of

Pentateuchal Traditions, trans. by B. W. Anderson (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:

Prentice-Hall, 1972); Walter Rast, Tradition History and the Old Testament

(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), pp. 47ff.; Wolfgang Roth, "The Text Is the Medium: An

Interpretation of the Jacob Stories in Genesis,"' Encounter with the Text, ed. by Martin

J. Buss (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), pp. 103-115; Thomas L. Thompson, "Conflict

Themes in the Jacob Narratives," Semeia 15 (1979), 5-23; Gene M. Tucker, Form



Criticism and the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), pp. 41-54.
225

226 Restoration Quarterly

a relative degree of certainty that those elements are ancient.3 The

parallels include: 1) the attack by a deity, often a river god, upon

a man; 2) the victory by the human hero over the deity and the extortion

from the deity of some blessing or gift; 3) the fact that the deity

roams only at night and must disappear at daybreak; 4) the reluctance

of the deity to give his name as a result of the belief that to know a

name is to have power over its bearer. It has been argued that the

story was originally a Canaanite myth not associated with Jacob and

probably not associated with Peniel.4 Although the story pattern is

certainly ancient, the Israelite tradition cannot begin any earlier

than the point at which Jacob is identified as the hero. There is little

possibility of precise reconstruction earlier than this point. It is also

relatively certain that the final element of the passage, the aetiology

in verse 33, is late. It stands outside of the inclusio which encloses

the story and adds no essential information to the story in terms of

its purpose in the Jacob cycle as a whole. The earliest and latest

elements of the passage, then, have been established to a relative

degree of certainty. Scholars have proposed a number of reconstructions

detailing the points at which the remaining elements of the present

tradition entered. No one reconstruction is completely accepted, and

it would be difficult to propose a reconstruction that is particularly

new or convincing.

Scholars have also pointed out a large number of the literary devices,

especially word plays, contained within Genesis 32:23-33 and its

immediate context.5 The words mahaneh, "camp," and minhah,

"gift,” are important words in Genesis 32. The story of the place

name, Mahanayim in 32:2f. anticipates the events narrated in the

chapter. The reference to "two camps" seems to be deliberately

ambiguous. Are the two camps Jacob's and Yahweh's, Jacob's and

Esau's, or the two divisions of Jacob's caravan'?6 The verb 'abar,

"to cross," also occurs frequently in this context (32:11, 17, 22, 23, 24;

33:3, 14), and statements using the verb form an inclusio around the

narrative of Jacob's encounter with the 'elohim. The names ya’aqob

and yabboq form a lovely word play with the verb ye’aqeb, "he

wrestles," in verse 25. In fact, the two uses of the verb 'abaq with

3 Gunkel, HKAT, p. 361.

4 Luke, pp. 121ff.; McKenzie, CBQ, 25, p. 73.

5 See especially, Schildenberger, Miscellanea Biblica B. Ubach, p. 80.

6 See the discussion of Fokkeiman, pp. 199ff.

McKenzie: "You Have Prevailed" 227


immo, "with him," form a framework around the narration of the

wrestling match itself in verses 25f. The noun panim, "face," occurs

five times in verses 21f. and twice in 33:10, aside from its use in the

Penuel/Peniel (vss. 31f.). Finally, the root nsl "to deliver," found

in verse 31 is the same verb used in Jacob's prayer in verse 12. It is

obvious that Genesis 32:23-33 represents a sophisticated literary piece

with intricate connections with the passages which surround it.

Some scholars have argued that the story in Genesis 32:23-33 is

completely out of place, that it has nothing to do with the meeting of

Jacob and Esau. Thus the passage is nothing more than a collection of

aetiologies about the names Israel and Penuel/Peniel and the Israelite

tradition against eating the sinew of the thigh. Noth is representative:

... the Penuel episode (Gen. 32:23-33 [J]), which is bound very firmly to a

specific place, was inserted still later in a rather loose fashion and

intrinsically has nothing at all to do with the narrative theme "Jacob and

Esau." Rather, it is a distinctly separate narrative which originally was

concerned with cultic matters and all sorts of etiological secondary

interests.7

Elsewhere Noth refers to the passage as having an "infelicitous

place in the midst of the story of Jacob's encounter with Esau."8

Others have argued that the narrative functions as an answer to

Jacob's prayer in 32:10ff.9 Jacob knows that Esau will not harm him,

because he has prevailed over a stronger opponent, the ‘elohim, from

whom he has also extracted a blessing (vs. 29). Thus Jacob compares

seeing the face of Esau, who has received Jacob favorably, with

seeing the face of 'elohim (33:10). This understanding of the function

of Genesis 32:23-33 is good as far as it goes, but it does not take into

account the entire Jacob cycle and the significance of the story of

Jacob's encounter at the Jabbok in relation to the themes which

run throughout the Jacob cycle.

Fishbane has attempted to deal with the entire Jacob cycle.10 He

argues that the Jacob cycle (Gen. 25:19-35:22 according to Fishbane)

consists of a chiasm. In general, Fishbane's scheme is quite correct,

especially with regard to the narratives in Genesis 27-33. Genesis 27:1-


7 Noth, p. 95.

8 Noth, p. 7.

9 See especially Fokkelman, p. 220, who argues that the use of the root nsl in

vs. 31 is a direct reference back to Jacob's prayer for deliverance in vs. 12, where


nsl has been used.

'° Fishbane, JJS, 28, pp. 15-38.

228 Restoration Quarterly
28:9 contains traditions about the competition between Jacob and

Esau. Jacob's encounter with God and his angels is told in 28:10-22.

In chapter 29 Jacob meets with Laban and is deceived by him, and

30:1-24 contains an interlude about the birth of Jacob's children. The

material which then follows in 30:25---33:20 corresponds in reverse

order to the material in 27:1---30:24. In 30:25-31:55, Jacob and

Laban again rival one another. Chapter 32 tells of two encounters of

Jacob with supernatural beings and of Jacob's preparations to meet

Esau. The next chapter contains Jacob's meeting with Esau.

The chiastic structure of the Jacob cycle is significant in terms of the

theme and purpose of the cycle as a whole. At the structural center of

the chiasm lies the story of the birth of Jacob's children, the founders

and namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel. As various scholars have

observed, the individuals, Esau and Laban, here represent the

political entities of Edom and Aram, respectively. The Jacob cycle

tells how the nation of Israel, represented in its ancestors Jacob and

his sons, contends with Edom and Aram, represented in their ancestors

Esau and Laban. It further describes how Jacob/Israel prevailed over

all opponents and gained control of the land. The specifying of the

children of Jacob, the fathers of the tribes of Israel, lies at the center

of the narrative both structurally and functionally. The Jacob cycle is

the story of the perseverance and prevalence of Israel.

The narrative in Genesis 32:23-33 corresponds to the theophany in

28:10-22 thus filling a needed link in the chiastic structure. But it also

serves a much more important function. Throughout the Jacob cycle

three themes predominate: strife, deception, and blessing. Before their

birth, Jacob and Esau struggle within the womb of their mother

(Gen. 25:22). Jacob is born holding onto the heel of Esau (25:26). His

name, "Jacob," characterizes him both as a fighter ("heel-grabber")

and as a deceiver ("supplanter"; cf. 27:36). Jacob deceives Esau into

trading his birthright (bekorah, 25:29ff.) and then deceives his father,

Isaac, into granting the blessing (berekah) to him instead of Esau

(27:5-45). Jacob's dealings with Laban are also seen as a struggle.

Laban strikes first, deceiving Jacob by giving him Leah instead of

Rachel (29:15-30).11 Yahweh blesses Laban on Jacob's account so
11 The irony here deserves comment. In the case of Jacob and Esau, the younger

brother is favored, and the older serves the younger. Now, Jacob is appropriately

deceived into marrying the older sister, Leah, first rather than the younger, Rachel,

for whom he has worked.

McKenzie: "You Have Prevailed" 229
that Laban is reluctant to release Jacob (30:27). Jacob reciprocates

by deceiving Laban (30:27-31:16). Again, God blesses Jacob so that

he becomes wealthy in spite of Laban's deceptions (31:5ff.). Laban

accuses Jacob of deceiving (31:27). He comes apparently to fight with

Jacob, but God protects Jacob and warns Laban against doing him

harm (31:24, 29ff.). Even Rachel deceives her father by stealing the

household gods (31:33ff.). Jacob responds to Laban's accusations with

his own complaints that Laban has deceived him by changing his

wages numerous times, but God has thwarted Laban's attempts by

blessing Jacob and protecting him (31:36-42). Finally, the encounter

with Esau is feared by Jacob because of Esau's superior strength in

battle (32:7). Even here Jacob acts craftily in the arrangement of his

caravan and in sending a train of gifts to Esau (32:7, 14ff.). The

Jacob cycle ends with a reiteration of the promise of blessing for

Jacob (35:9-15).

These themes of strife, deceit, and blessing come to a climax in the

narrative of Genesis 32:23-33. Jacob now faces the most difficult

conflict of his life, because his opponent is no longer simply a man,

but ‘elohim. Deception is involved in the struggle when the opponent

apparently employs a trick of fighting to put Jacob's thigh out of

joint.12 Jacob receives the most important blessing of his life in the

change of his name to Israel. The climactic verse is verse 29. Jacob's

name is changed to Israel, because he has prevailed in his struggles

with human as well as divine. The narrative which follows about

Jacob's meeting with Esau helps to fill out the chiastic structure of the

Jacob cycle, but it is clearly anticlimactic. Jacob has persevered.

Assuredly, he will not come to harm or defeat at the hands of Esau.

He has prevailed and is supremely blessed.

It is important to recall at this point that the Jacob cycle, according

to those who follow standard source analysis, is really the story of

12 Gunkel, HKAT, p. 361, argued that the original story had Jacob using a trick of

fighting to injure the opponent. This would be better in line with the comparative

material in which the human tricks the deity into defeat. It also fits well the character

of Jacob as a deceiver in the Jacob cycle. But it is difficult to see why the original story

would be altered at this point, unless the change came about merely by confusion (note

the confusing use of pronouns in vs. 25a to denote subjects and objects). At any

rate, if such a confusion did occur, it clearly took place before the incorporation of

the story into the Yahwistic Epic and thus does not alter the Yahwist's theology or

the importance which he gives to the story.

230 Restoration Quarterly

the nation Israel.13 The point made by the writer is that the nation of

Israel has prevailed, prevailed over all opponents, not just Edom and

Aram. This theological point indicates that the Jacob cycle in its

present form stems largely from a time when the nation of Israel could

identify with the patriarch as having come out of all its struggles as

victor. This notion accords well with the conditions of Israel during the

Davidic and early Solomonic age, the era in which the Yahwistic Epic

is usually dated.14 Most of the Jacob cycle is, in fact, attributed to

the Yahwist.15 Thus, the Yahwist, writing during the era of Israel's

greatest supremacy, describes the nation through the life story of the

patriarch Jacob/Israel. The Yahwist describes his nation, like its

ancestor, as having acquired the blessing of Yahweh, as a result of

which they have endured against all their opponents, and have become

preeminent.16 Yahweh's covenant with Abraham and his promise to

bless the patriarch, linked in Yahwistic material with, Yahweh's

13 Despite the lack of scholarly consensus in regard to details, Wellhausen's classical

formulation of the documentary hypothesis remains the standard approach to the

Tetrateuch (Genesis-Numbers). Brevard Childs has observed: "Of more influence-on

the history of scholarship was the work of scholars who continued to operate within

Wellhausen's general framework but sought further to refine the sources. In the course

of the refinement important weaknesses emerged which often unintentionally began to

dissolve the reigning consensus. . . Long after the early confidence in the classic

documentary theory had disappeared, critical scholars continued to work with Wellhausen's

source analysis largely because of the lack of any new consensus by which to replace

it." Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979)

p. 114. F. M. Cross has offered a significant modification of the documentary hypothesis.

He prefers to speak of J and E as variant prose forms of a single, older Epic cycle. He

also holds that P was never a separate source, but only the post-exilic editor of the Epic

traditions. Cross' view is important for understanding the purpose of the story in

Gen. 32:23-33 in the various levels of tradition. See Cross' discussion in his Canaanite

Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979), pp. 293-325.

14 F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth, pp. ix, 124, 263ff., 293.

15 Most of the Jacob cycle is J material. There are sections which can only be

characterized as Epic material, that is, J and E combined. P material exists in the

Jacob cycle, but it is not common. Material generally attributed to P is: 25:19f.; 26:34f.;

27:46-28:9; 31:18b; 35:9-13, 15, 22b-29.


16 I have referred to Jacob's opponent throughout simply as 'elohim. It is a common

notion among scholars that the Yahwist identified the opponent with Yahweh, but I am

not convinced that this was the case. The name Yahweh is never mentioned in

32:23-33. It also seems unlikely that J would have accepted the idea that Yahweh was

defeated by a human. It seems more likely that J has inherited a tradition about

Jacob defeating a minor deity and that J has remained faithful to the language of the

older tradition, though he may not have understood it (cf. Hos. 12:4f., where the

opponent is seen as an angel, and 'elohim and mal’ak, "angel," are found in parallel.

The el element in the names 'Israel' and 'Peniel' can clearly be used as a generic

appellative (see Cross, Canaanite Myth, pp. 45ff.).

McKenzie: "You Have Prevailed" 231

covenant with and blessing of David, has been observed and discussed

by various scholars.17 In the Jacob story the Yahwist provides a

similar link between the patriarchs, especially Jacob, and the Davidic

kingdom. The blessing of Yahweh over Jacob brings about his

prevalence over all opponents, his safe return to Canaan, and his

establishment in the land. The blessing of Yahweh over the nation

of Israel results in their successful return to Canaan from Egypt

and, under David, their victory over all enemies and hegemony

over the entire land promised to the patriarchs. For the Yahwist,

Israel's blessing under David is foreshadowed in Yahweh's blessing

of Jacob.

In editing the Epic sources, J and E, the Priestly tradent(s)

attached another meaning to the Jacob cycle, one that communicated

a message relevant to the Israel of his time. The P school probably

edited the Epic sources in the Tetrateuch in the sixth century B.C.,

when Israel was in Babylonian exile.18 The present chiastic arrangement

of the narratives in the Jacob cycle is possibly the result of the

editorial work of P. At any rate, for the Priestly tradent(s) also the

nation of Israel was embodied in the patriarch Jacob. The major

importance of the Jacob story for P was in the return of Jacob to the

land of Canaan. In Jacob, P saw the hope that exiled Israel would

also return to the land of their heritage and again prevail over

their opponents.19

17 Cross, pp. 323ff3 and Ronald E. Clements, Abraham and David (Naperville, Indiana:

Alec R. Allenson, 1967), pp. 47-60.



18 See Cross, pp. 293-325.

19 For P, this tradition must have posed difficult theological problems. Since P was

monotheistic, Jacob's opponent could not have been another deity. The opponent

could have been understood as an angel of Yahweh, but for P, e1 consistently refers to

Yahweh (Cross, p. 46). Also, for P, this tradition about Jacob's struggle with God

and particularly the name `Israel' were truly representative of the nation's character

and history. Israel's continual struggles with God had resulted in their exile in Babylon.

Thus, in contrast to J, P took a negative view of the tenacity common to the

patriarch and the nation of Israel. Yahweh's blessing of Jacob and returning him to

Canaan in spite of himself furnished P's hope that God would deal similarly with

Jacob's descendants.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Restoration Quarterly Corporation

P. O. Box 28227

Abilene, TX 79699-8227



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