Jacob’s fight with the angel is one of the best known and most frequently interpreted narratives of the Torah. Most modern commentators consider it to be an allegory, reading psychological interpretations into it. They see it as reflecting Jacob’s fears and apprehensions as he prepares to meet Esau, the brother he had not seen for over twenty years, whom he cheated and who had threatened to kill him. The struggle with the angel symbolises Jacob’s internal conflict.
Ancient and medieval commentators did not have an awareness of psychology or a knowledge of psychoanalytic theory. They took the text at face value, imposing upon it the beliefs and assumptions of their own times, ideas in which they had as much faith as we have in the science of our own age.
The most popular medieval interpretations are based on the comment of Rabbi Hama bar Rabbi Hanina (in Bereshit Rabbah 77,3) that Jacob’s opponent was Esau’s ‘prince’, his guardian angel and the protector of the nation of Edom, who will descend from Esau.
The belief that each of the world’s 70 nations had its own heavenly guardian goes back to the apocalyptic literature, a genre of mystical texts mainly written between 200 BCE and 100 CE. Israel’s heavenly guardian was of course God. Every other nation had to make do with an angel.
Even if we were to accept for a moment that angels exist and that each nation has its own dedicated guardian, there are still problems in interpreting the passage in this way. Presumably a nation’s angel reflects the characteristics of the people he is charged with protecting. We would expect Esau’s guardian to be a rough, thuggish character, much like Esau himself, as angry with Jacob as was his ward. If so, why at the end of the fight does he suddenly turn benevolent, blessing Jacob and changing his name to Israel?
Rabbi Hama bar Hanina, lived in Roman occupied Palestine. Influenced by the culture of his surroundings, he envisaged Jacob and the angel as two athletes engaged in a gladiatorial contest. The weaker combatant was the king’s son. The stronger athlete was on the point of defeating the king’s son, when he looked up and saw the monarch standing there. He immediately relinquished his hold. The contest was declared a draw.
Esau’s angel, according to this understanding may have wanted to defeat Jacob, but he knew his place. As soon as he saw that God was watching the struggle he capitulated and became as pleasant as only an angel can be. “Let me go” he cried to Jacob in Rashi’s interpretation (based on Hullin 91b) “for it is time to sing the morning praise to the Almighty.”
We may consider this interpretation fanciful. It is certainly imaginative. But it was not fanciful to ancient or medieval thinkers, it reflectsthe plain meaning of the text far more accurately than any modern psychological interpretation. It was an interpretation rooted in the beliefs and knowledge of its times, just as contemporary interpretations are rooted in the knowledge and science of our age. And who can honestly argue that future generations might not look upon our own methods of bible interpretation and consider them to be just as fanciful as we regard the ancient explanations to be?
Bible interpretation, or Midrash, is the imaginative soul of Judaism. It invests the Jewish way of life with vibrancy, values and ideas. Like all Judaism, it is dynamic, it speaks to different generations in the language of their own times. It doesn’t really matter whether Jacob’s opponent was his conscience of Esau’s guardian angel. What matters is that, unlike the literalists of history, the Karaites, Sadducees and even the founders of Christian Protestantism, rabbinic Judaism regards the bible as far more than just the words on the page.
The ancient rabbis spoke of seventy levels of interpretation. The are no right or wrong ways of interpreting the bible text; what is important is to recognise what it means to us, and try to uncover the depths that it conceals.