When Jacob was journeying to the land of his father and kinsmen, he met the “angels of god” in a place called Mahanaim. When he was informed that this brother Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed,” for there was past enmity between Jacob and his brother. He sent his people and their retinue ahead. On the night when he passed over the ford Jabbok, he sent his wife, his servants and his eleven sons to cross over the brook and remained alone (KJ Gen., 32:2 and 7).
Then Jacob “wrestled” with a man until the “breaking of the day.” The man did not prevail against him, but touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh and caused it to come out of joint. Still Jacob persisted, until at the first sight of dawn, the man asked to be released from their struggle. And Jacob said: “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” (KJ Gen., 32:24-26).
The man replied: “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” Jacob received the blessing from the strange man, for “he blessed him there.” Only then did he realize he had wrestled with an angel: “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” He called the place Penuel, and as he passed from it “the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh” (KJ Gen., 32: 28-31).
What lessons can be learned from the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel?
- The presence of the angel signals a disturbance, or the disturbance—dare we call it of the soul?—creates the vision of the angel. Even Mary, when spoken to by Gabriel during the Annunciation, was “troubled at his saying,” forcing the Archangel to calm her misgivings: “Fear not” (KJ Luke, 1:29-30).
- There follows a brawl, an altercation in the “womb of consciousness” (R.L. Stevenson) between the human being and the angel, between the inherited persona and the new revelation the angel brings. Thus Mary, not quite the entirely obedient handmaiden of Christian lore, questions Gabriel: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (KJ Luke, 1:33). And Jacob, on the eve of his fateful reunion with his estranged brother, wrestles with his angel until the break of day.
When Jacob first left the land of his father, he laid down to sleep at night, and in a dream (like Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew) beheld “the angels of God ascending and descending” on a ladder (KJ Gen., 28:12). It is reasonable to assume that his wrestling match with the angel at night also occurred during a dream. Who among us has not woken up beaten and exhausted after a night of disturbing dreams?
3. The struggle with the angel produces an incision, a wound in the persona that will make room for a heightened consciousness, for a new understanding of the world and our place in it. From the fateful night of his wrestling match, Jacob “halted upon his thigh” as he walked; Mary fled in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country and lived with her for three months. The holy man Simeon prophesied to Mary, at the presentation of Jesus in the temple, that “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (KJ Gen, Luke 2:35).
4. The wrestling with the angel also produces a blessing—a new perception, a reconsideration of values and behavior, a new world order for the one who experiences the vision. Jacob’s name becomes Israel, is no longer an exile, but rather a prince of power with God and men, and the sun rises as he walks; Mary pronounces a canticle before her cousin Elizabeth: “Henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (KJ Luke, 1:48).
Jorge Luis Borges has marveled at the survival of the angel throughout imaginative history (see our post “History of Angels”) in spite of the fact that hordes of monsters (“tritons, hippogriffs, chimeras, sea serpents, unicorns, devils, dragons, werewolves, cyclopes, fauns, basilisks, demigods, leviathans and a legion of others”) have summarily disappeared.
Borges also warns us not to misuse our angels, lest they fly away. I don’t believe there is a danger of that. Angels readily visit us in dreams and prayers bringing messages from beyond, if only we become aware of them, and are willing to wrestle nobly with them for their blessings.
 Jorge Luis Borges, “History of Angels” in Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger, trans. Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine and Eliot Weinberger (New York: Viking, 1999), 16-19.