Who did Jacob really wrestle with in the Bible?

Q. I’m confused about who wrestled with Jacob the night before he was to meet with his brother Esau. My NIV bible states it was GOD himself. My Chumash (Sages commentary) states it may have been Satan that wrestled with Jacob. If it was Satan why did he give Jacob the name Israel and why would Jacob ask Satan to bless him? If it was GOD, what was the purpose for the confrontation?

A. Good question.

Without a doubt, this section is indeed one of the most difficult to understand in the Bible.

The identity of Jacob’s assailant has been the subject of over 2000 years of speculation. Jacob didn’t know who ambushed him. He assumed it was a man; from Jacob’s view, his assailant could have been anyone — maybe even Esau himself! As the wrestling match continued, Jacob finally realized that he was fighting with an angel. The Midrash identifies the mysterious assailant as the guardian spirit of Esau.

The battle between Jacob and the angel represents the archetypal struggle between good and evil. Some of the Hellenistic Judaic thinkers suggest this entire episode reflected an inner struggle within Jacob’s own soul, and may have even occurred in a dream or vision. Given the surreal nature of the narrative I think this clearly was the case. Jacob’s struggle with the angel in has the qualities of a visionary experience.

God wanted Jacob to know that Esau was not his real enemy, rather, Jacob’s himself! The angelic being Jacob wrestled was really a symbolization of himself. Once he learned to resolve his inner conflict, dealing with Esau would prove quite easy.

When the Sages described the mysterious assailant as Satan, they wished to convey an important symbolic lesson. In the Tanakh, Satan is not an enemy of God, nor is he a “fallen angel” — such a notion is a Christian myth. God uses Satan to test the moral caliber of a man, and in this case,

Again, let me reiterate that God uses Satan to help Jacob realize that his real enemy is none other than himself!

Sun Tzu (6th–5th century BCE.) may have expressed this idea best in his Art of War, (ch. 3, Axiom:):

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel