Why the Angel Asks Jacob His Name

By asking Jacob his name, his wrestling adversary challenges him to examine himself.

Commentary on Parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob sends messengers ahead to his estranged brother Esau, who has a large assembly of men coming toward Jacob and his family. The night before he meets his brother, Jacob wrestles with the angel who changes his name to Israel. The meeting with Esau goes peacefully. When Jacob and his family arrive at the town of Shechem, his daughter Dinah is sexually assaulted by the prince of the town, and Jacob’s sons go on a violent rampage in retribution. Both Rachel and Isaac die and are buried. The Torah portion ends with a review of all of Isaac’s descendants.

In Focus

“Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ He [Jacob] replied: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He answered, ‘Jacob.’ He said ‘No longer will your name be Jacob, but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.'” (Genesis 32:26-28)


All alone on the night before he is to finally meet up again with his estranged brother Esau, Jacob is approached by a mysterious stranger, who wrestles with him until the dawn. The text says this figure is a “man,” but most of the commentators assume it was some kind of angel or a holy vision. Jacob holds on until he can reach some understanding of the moment; at the end of the struggle, the mystery wrestler announces that Jacob, like his grandfather Abraham, will receive a new name.


There have been many, many interpretations of Jacob’s “God-wrestling.” (A term coined by Arthur Waskow, I believe.) Some commentators, as noted above, understand this as an encounter with an angel, and some, especially Rambam, understand Jacob as experiencing some kind of holy vision, rather than an actual wrestling match.

While most of the commentators focus on the homiletical meaning of Jacob’s change of name, they tend to gloss over the passage before it, presumably assuming that it’s just a rhetorical setup for the announcing of the name Yisrael. By asking Jacob’s name, and getting the reply “Jacob,” the messenger can more dramatically announce the new name by which Jacob will be known.

Along these lines, Radak (R. David Kimchi, a 12th century French commentator) seems to explain the angel’s question as just a formality:

This question is an opening to the conversation, like “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) and “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2), and other similar places, because he knew his name when he was sent to him.

The first example Radak offers of a rhetorical question is from story of the Garden of Eden. After the man and woman eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they become self-conscious of their nakedness, and attempt to hide from God in the Garden. God asks–knowing full well the answer!–“where are you?”

Radak’s second example comes from Moses’ experience at the burning bush. When Moses doubts that the people will believe that God has sent him, God turns Moses’ staff into a snake, prefacing the miracle with the question “what is in your hand.” Again, both Moses and God knew exactly what was in Moses’ hand, just as the wrestler knew Jacob’s name.

What’s going on here? We might say that God was just striking up a good conversation, but Torah stories of encounters with the Divine tend to be terse and focused. In each of the three stories Radak offers as an example of a rhetorical question, the main character is about to begin a new chapter in life —  Adam is about to leave the Garden, Jacob is about to meet his long-estranged brother, and Moses is about to confront Pharaoh.

Perhaps the question is not merely a conversation-opener, but the main point of the conversation. In the case of Jacob, the messenger seems to want Jacob to think deeply about the meaning of his name, which we learned at his birth would represent the depth of his troubled relationship with his brother. (Cf. Genesis 25:25-27 and 27:35-37.)

The messenger knows not just Jacob’s name, but his history — he’s asking if Jacob has wrestled sufficiently with his own identity. “What is your name?” in this context, can be understood as, “Are you still Jacob, the deceiver, or are you ready to become Israel, the person of conscience?”

What’s so striking about our passage is that Jacob receives a question in response to his demand for a blessing — it seems to me that the question itself is the blessing he receives.

The right question, at the right time, from the right person, can change a person’s life, enabling them to see and understand themselves in an entirely new light. When God asks a question, it’s not for the sake of an answer, but for the sake of an inner response, a change in the person.

Who am I? What is the name I have made for myself, and what is the name I am capable of achieving? Just to ask the question can move us towards a better answer — just to ask the question, and thus demonstrate our capacity for growth and introspection, is one of the greatest blessings we have as human beings.

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

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