On his journey back to Canaan, Jacob passes through the territory controlled by Esau. Jacob seeks reconciliation with his brother, and sends gifts ahead, hoping to fend off a hostile confrontation. Jacob divides his family into two camps and sends them over the river to safety. Jacob spends the night on the other side of the river – alone.
During the night, a “man” comes to Jacob and wrestles with him until dawn. When the “man” realizes that he will not prevail, he wrenches Jacob’s thigh, but Jacob will not release him. Jacob demands a blessing from the “man.” The “man” gives Jacob a new name – Israel, which means, “one who struggles with God.”
Although the text states that Jacob wrestled with a man that night, all the commentators agree that it was no ordinary human being. Rambam and Ramban differ as to the exact nature of the struggle. Was it an actual event in the real world sense, or was it an internal struggle? Of more importance, what did the struggle accomplish?
The event tested and changed Jacob. It tested his strength; he prevailed, showing the strength that would be required for future events (The Anchor Bible by Speiser, p. 257). Through this event, we learn what it takes to remake one’s own character – the ability to hold on. Jacob refuses to let go and he wrestles the stranger throughout the night. Only in the morning does Jacob agree to let go, and then only after receiving a new name, a renewed identity.
The struggle of Jacob and the mysterious man leaves its mark on Jacob, who limps away with a wounded thigh. Our struggles in life, with others and with ourselves, leave scars. But they also produce growth and change. Jacob is no longer the wily, shrewd person he once was. Instead, through the process of introspection, remorse, and a commitment to confront his own failings, Jacob is able to remake himself.