God’s White Flag: Interpreting an Anthropomorphic Metaphor in Genesis 32 -- By: Brian Howell

Journal: Southeastern Theological Review
Volume: STR 01:1 (Winter 2010)
Article: God’s White Flag: Interpreting an Anthropomorphic Metaphor in Genesis 32
Author: Brian Howell

God’s White Flag: Interpreting an
Anthropomorphic Metaphor in Genesis 32

Brian Howell

Oak Hill College


Fording his family across the river in two companies, Jacob remains on the other side of the Jabbok. Here, he becomes locked in conflict with a mysterious attacker till daybreak, at which point the stranger “sees” he does not prevail over Jacob. After an entire night of grueling physical combat, he suddenly exhibits divine power and prerogative in wounding and then blessing Jacob. This development is as enigmatic as it is astounding. What can it mean for an apparently divine being to “see that he did not prevail” over a mere mortal? Could a mere mortal have pinned the Almighty, or subdued him through unexpected tenacity?

The fact that biblical texts unapologetically describe divinity in such language creates an exegetical quandary. As Kenneth Matthews succinctly summarizes,

Much ancient Jewish and Christian speculation arose from this fascinating encounter of Jacob and the “man.” Targumic and rabbinic interpretations identified his assailant as an angel in the appearance of a man, not a theophany, and sometimes recognized the angel by name (Michael and Sariel). That a man could wrestle and prevail over God created a theological tension in Jewish interpretation, resulting in the substitute of an angel (e.g. Gen. Rab. 78.1). Philo’s allegorical reading transformed the wrestling’s meaning into the human soul that prevails over the human passions and wickedness (leg. 3.58.190). Augustine’s City of God (16:39) represented the popular interpretation that the angel was a type of Christ. The blessing bestowed on Jacob was meant for his descendants, who would believe in Christ.1

As can be seen, interpreters typically lean toward one of two approaches. As with the Targumic and rabbinic sources, texts are sometimes reinterpreted to exempt the divine from such base implications. We also find this tendency in more modern

commentators such as Gunkel, who sees in the mysterious wrestler analogies to semi-divine beings in the ANE.2

A second approach, similar to Philo, is to dismiss these anthropomorphic assertions as “poetic flourish” – as language which either cannot make, or is not intended to make, truth-conditional statements regarding the deity. Rather, this language is used for “heightened emotional impact” or occasionally to give human worshipers access to a transcendent deity by making him appear “personal.” Or, they represent ...

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