Like a Roiling Sea

Having, with all his family and animals and slaves and whatnot, *escaped his Uncle Laban* in Haran, Jacob’s worries weren’t over because he still had to contend with his fearsome brother Esau in Canaan, to where Jacob was headed.

To butter Esau up, Jacob sent messengers ahead to seek Esau out and to give him the following message, “My lord, your servant Jacob says, I have been living with Laban and have stayed there till now. I have oxen, donkeys, and sheep, and male and female slaves, and I have sent to tell you this, my lord, so that I may win your favour.”

When the messengers returned, Jacob asked them if they’d managed to find Esau.

“We did, sire. We also gave him your message” said the messengers.


“Your brother said nothing at first. Then his face came over all demoniacal-like, and he laughed.”


“He laughed, but it wasn’t like how a normal man laughs.”

“How’s a normal man supposed to laugh?”

“Your brother laughed like how a madman laughs. It was a loud shrieking laugh that just kept going on and on. It fair gave us the shivers, sire.”

“Did he stop laughing eventually?”

“Eventually, yes, he did, sire. Then he said he was getting together four-hundred men to come after you.”


“That’s what it sounded like, sire.”


The news about the four hundred men that Esau was sending after him, and about Esau’s demoniacal laughter, re-ignited Jacob’s old terror of his brother. He began trembling all over, and the inside of his tummy felt like a roiling sea. He had to go into the bushes and evacuate the aftermath of the roiling.

That done, Jacob turned his mind to what he should do now. What if Esau and his four hundred men should ambush him? To cut possible losses, Jacob divided his entourage into two groups, so that should Esau and his men find and destroy one group, there would at least be a group left over. Beyond that, Jacob couldn’t think of what else to do other than to have a quiet word with God, who Jacob always knew wanted him to return to his kindred in Canaan.

“Even though I don’t feel worthy of all the true and steadfast love you’ve shown me, O God” said Jacob, “I’m nonetheless asking You to save me from my brother Esau who I’m afraid may come and destroy me, sparing neither mother nor child. It hasn’t been easy for me having such a brother. But, because I feel I’m so unworthy, a brother like Esau is what I deserve. So I’m not blaming You for him, O God.”

Although, based on his demoniacal laughter, Esau was likely now a madman, Jacob thought nothing would be lost by continuing to butter Esau up. Jacob reasoned that were he to give Esau some animals from his herds and flocks, this would put Esau in a good mood and make him forget his threat to tear Jacob’s throat out *and throw his body to the wild animals*.

Jacob picked out from his livestock, in no particular order, two-hundred female goats, twenty male goats, two-hundred ewes, twenty rams, thirty female camels and their young, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty female donkeys, and ten male donkeys. Taking into account the unspecified young of the thirty female camels, this made for at least six hundred animals in all. This was indeed a lot of animals for Jacob to give to a brother just to stop him tearing his throat out and throwing his body to the wild animals.

On the assumption that recipients of gifts prefer getting several small gifts rather than one large one, Jacob arranged that the livestock for Esau be divided up into several smaller herds, with each herd under the control of a separate drover, with longish gaps between the herds. Jacob told each drover that when, with his herd, he met Esau, he was to say, ”These animals are from your dear brother Jacob. They are his gift to you, and he will be coming to see you shortly.”


After the herds with their drovers had left, Jacob prepared to spend the night where he was camped, together with Rachel and Leah, their two slave girls Bilhah and Zilpah, and his eleven sons. During this night he rose and led his wives, their slave girls, and his sons across the ford at Jabbok, and sent them on to Canaan. While Jacob was standing there alone, and waving goodbye to his family, a young athletic-looking man appeared in front of him.

“Would you like to wrestle?” said the young man.

“Would I what? Who are you and where did you come from?”

“It doesn’t matter who I am and where I came from. Do you want to wrestle?”

“Of course I don’t want to wrestle. I’ve other things on my mind right now.”

However, the young man put a headlock on Jacob, who now had no option than to wrestle. Throughout the rest of the night Jacob and the young man wordlessly wrestled in the darkness. The only sounds were their panting, grunts, and occasional exclamations of pain. Because they wrestled for so long, they could not but help perform, albeit unconsciously, well-nigh all the wrestling holds and manoeuvres that are the common currency of wrestling today. What we today know as half-nelsons, full-nelsons, chinlocks, reverse chinlocks, front facelocks, inverted facelocks, neck scissors, standing headscissors, thumb choke holds, Tonga death grips, bear hugs, Boston crabs, ankle locks, Argentine leglocks, Damascus head-leglocks, armpit claws, stepover toeholds, aeroplane spins, sunset flips, and fireman’s carry slams – Jacob and the young man did them all throughout the long hours that they wrestled.


As dawn approached, the young man suggested they stop. He’d had enough, he said.

“Not on your life” said Jacob, “I’m beginning to enjoy this. Anyway you started it, so you can’t just stop when you feel like it. In for a cowry-shell in for a copper-ingot, has always been my motto.”

The young man kicked Jacob in the hollow of his thigh so hard that the hip became dislocated.

“Ow ow ow” cried out Jacob, “There was no call for that.”

“Let me go and I’ll harm you no further.”

Despite the excruciating pain, Jacob would not let go. So the young man sunk his teeth into Jacob’s right ear, biting off a small piece of it.

“Ow ow ow” shouted Jacob as he finally let go.

The young man, after spitting out the piece of Jacob’s ear, said, “You were a tough opponent, I’ll give you that. I’m God, by the way.”

“God? You mean you’re………” said Jacob pointing to the sky.

“The very same” said the young man.

“I…….I……I don’t understand” said Jacob as he applied a leaf to his bleeding ear.

“I suppose I should apologise. I can be thoughtless, even though I’m God. You see, I get bored sometimes. The last time I got really bored I created the heaven and the earth and mankind and all the living creatures to alleviate the boredom. Now that I’ve done that, I have to find other things to do to stop going mad with boredom, and wrestling is one of them.”

“I should really bow down right now and worship You since you’re God. But my hipbone is hurting like……well…….Hell. And my ear too.”

“Think nothing of it. By the way I’m going to change your name from Jacob to Israel, because you wrestled so well with me. I think you might even beat Esau at wrestling should he ever try to tear your throat out and throw your body to the wild animals. You just need to believe in yourself more.”

“It’s nice of You to say so, God. I’m feeling more confident already, although I don’t know how long it will last. As to now being called ‘Israel’ instead of ‘Jacob’, while ‘Israel’ is a very nice name, I still like the name ‘Jacob’. Would it be alright if I could have both names, so that I could choose which one I want to use in my daily life? The thing is, all my family and friends know me as ‘Jacob’, and they might not like it if I told them to call me ‘Israel’.”

“I do understand” said God. “You have my permission to be called either ‘Jacob’ or ‘Israel’ as you wish.”

Whereupon God vanished.

Jacob, awed at this encounter with God, named the place where he’d wrestled God, “Penuel”, which means “Face of God.”


As the sun rose, Jacob resumed his journey to Canaan, despite limping because of the dislocated hip.

A legacy of this wrestling match is that, because God had kicked the sinew of the nerve in Jacob’s thigh in the course of dislocating the hip, the people of Israel even today when they sit down to eat human thigh for dinner, will avoid eating the sinew of the nerve in the hollow of the thigh.

Source: Genesis 32

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12 Responses to Like a Roiling Sea

  1. dafna says:

    Philippe this is brilliant! We thank you so much!
    I’m sharing this with the Rabbi, really.

    My Jacob asked me if he was allowed to read the little paragraph he has written and then just read yours 🙂

    I said no, he must only use yours for inspiration. My favorite part is the wrestling. Jacob/Israel wrestled so much he earned himself a WrestMania pseudonym.

    I also really enjoyed God’s boredom, it reminds me of a song by the group crash test dummy called “God Shuffled His Feet”.

    This was also educational for me. It’s all fresh in my son’s head from Sunday school, but I actually googled “Penuel”. Vowels are actually omitted from the old testament so “P,N” are the first two consonants of the word for “face” and “E,L” (actually the “eh” is below a silent consonant) make up the first two consonants of the word “God”.

    A little etymology, which by the looks of it you know better than I.

    Let the comments, i.e. extra midrash commence.

  2. Richard says:

    Dafna’s right, Philippe. This is a masterpiece.

    It takes me right back to the raw impact these stories had at Sunday School. Thank you.

  3. Philippe says:

    @Dafna – “…..i’m sharing this with the Rabbi…….”

    Poor Rabbi!!!

    About Penuel. I merely regurgitated what there was about in in the New English Bible. So, what you said about Penuel was educational for me. I know little of etymology.

    @Richard – I wish I could say that what I learned at Sunday School when a child had the same impact on me as it did on you.

    Thank you both for your kind words.

  4. jenny says:


    Dafna is right to share your story with the Rabbi. This is the best part of being Jewish–that we talk about these stories, really talk about them without worrying about reverence. At least, in my corner of the Jewish world, it works that way.

    Changing names appeals to me. I feel the ambivalence about abandoning a name too. I think (odd connection to the story of Jacob, maybe) of the movie “Muriel’s Wedding” and how hopeless Muriel becomes Mariel and everything turns around. It’s a movie for girls, but a really good one.

  5. dafna says:

    We share stories here also Jenny –

    I was hoping that this crazy bunch of readers would share some stories/interpretations in the comment section. It gives my Jacob more “material” to work with.

    the theme of “what’s in a name” is a great thing for my jacob to explore!

    right now he’s thinking about “was (biblical) Jacob worrying too much”, who was the “man” he wrestled with, was it his guilty conscience?

    and, unfortunately, besides “welcome” and “thanks for coming”, the above are the only two sentence my Jacob’s written for his commentary.

    It would be fun if the Rabbi turned up here!

    thank you so very much again, philippe – we were very touched by this post.

  6. Philippe says:

    @Jenny – “……we talk about these stories, really talk about them without worrying about reverence…….”

    While people of the Jewish faith might not worry about reverence, I’m not sure about people of the Christian faith, in particular the hard-line Protestants, who seem a solemn bunch.

    @Dafna – An obvious interpretation of wrestling episode is a Jungian one, where Jacob is wrestling with his “shadow self “, or his inner demons. In Christianity, the shadow self is often the devil who enters the dreams of the pious when they sleep at night, and whom the pious must wrestle.

    My interpretation in the posting, though, is equally plausible, don’t you think?!!

  7. dafna says:

    Oh, I very much like your interpretation!

    Wrestling in a dream or with an inner demon is most certainly a suggested interpret by the Rabbi’s – I guess that is what is so curious about stories, they can have many meanings.

    Especially when there are no vowels and the consonants can form many different words.

    you might be interested? one interpretation goes that Jacob was losing courage and was about to flee his brother – hence the wrestling match to take or slow him down a peg. now he is humbled and walking with a limp when he meets his brother, maybe even capable of true remorse instead of simple fear.

    my jacob shares your imagination, but has the discipline… well, of a twelve year old. i heard him read a first draft today, which i hadn’t heard before. my Jacob explains to the congregation that the portion is about biblical Jacob collecting gifts for his brother whom he hadn’t seen in a long time. my Jacob says, “now, if it were me i might have opened a bag of microwave popcorn, but then I didn’t steal my brothers birth-right, so you can see why (bible) Jacob might be worried”.

    i told him my Jacob he should add this back into his speech. BTW, you have been Rabbi approved 🙂

  8. Man of Roma says:

    Wonderfully written and entertaining. Your talent stood out especially when I compared your post with the original.
    Happy to learn the Jews can be more irreverent than the Christians. One can die of humourlessness.

  9. Philippe says:

    @MoR – Thank you for dropping by.

    Yes, nothing like spicing up an original a bit on the drab side. Those who wrote the original didn’t have 21st century readers in mind, and why should they have?

    So I’m trying to fill this gap, and in so doing, I may be an instrument of a new world-wide appreciation of the Old Testament!!!

    I note with concern that your own foray into the English past via the person of Manius, seems to have come to a halt. May I assume you are simply taking a breather, and will continue when the tank of your creative energies is re-filled? Your readers are waiting, you know!!

  10. Man of Roma says:

    Certainly they didn’t have 21st century readers in mind! Filling the gap – it seems a great idea, and promising too in the sense that could interest some publisher.
    By the way, I am much less a tank than I seem lol. As I wrote over at Richard’s and Andreas’, as soon as I received a serious proposal from an Italian publisher to make a book out of it (making it better, of course) my imagination totally froze. I felt depressed for a while because of this absurd incapability of mine, but now I am ok. I guess I want to be free from ‘work’ in this period of my life. This will though give more time for the Man of Roma blog, that was bleeding a bit because of Manius.

  11. dafna says:

    i’m disappointed cheri didn’t comment on this.

    looking forward to the next installment in my email at your leisure. i’d love to send you a copy of jacob’s speech, if you’s like, so you can see your influence on it.

    i’m not clever enough to find your contact button. if you have one.

  12. Philippe says:

    @Dafna – I’ve just sent you a message with an e-mail address to send Jacob’s speech.

    I’ll be interested to read it.

    Now, it’s about time I began my next installment………..

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