This section of scripture has always been one of my favorites, because no matter which interpretation you choose to accept you cannot deny the determination of Jacob. Throughout most of my research there were only two real camps of thought; the first being that he was actually wrestling God himself, or he was mere wrestling an angel. The majority of commentators agree that the man who Jacob wrestled with was God, showing up in a theophany.
Only one commentator made a concise argument for why he believed the man could have simply been an angel. John Walton in his commentary says, “Who is this stranger? The narrator refers to him throughout the episode as “a man” (Heb. Is), which is as noncommittal as our referring to “an individual” who wrestles with Jacob. At the end of the episode, Jacob designates the individual as elohim (32:30). This word usually is a designation for deity but can be use for any supernatural being. The clearest statement comes in Hosea 12:4, where the prophet indicates that Jacob struggled with an angel. Since an angel can be legitimately referred to either as and is or as elohim, Hosea does not contradict either of the statements of Genesis, so it offers the most acceptable solution.” (Walton 2001, 606) So according to Walton the use of either of these words could refer simply to an angel; and that is why he believes that Jacob probably wrestled with an angel. My concern is how could a mere angel have authority to change his name, and bless him the way this one did?
On the other hand both John MacArthur and Bruce Waltke agree that the man with whom Jacob wrestled was God himself. In his commentary John MacArthur says this, “The site name, Peniel, or “face of God,” given by Jacob (v.30) and the commentary given by Hosea (Hos. 12:4) identifies this Man with whom Jacob wrestled as the Angel of the Lord who is also indentified as God, a preincarnate appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (MacArthur 2005, 59) So as we can see both MacArthur and Walton reference the verse in Hosea 12:4 and each of them have a different understanding of the verse.
Bruce Waltke in his commentary keeps his point very concise, he says, “The nondescript statement heightens the story’s tension. Who has come to struggle with Jacob? Only later does the reader recognize the man as the invisible God.” (Waltke 2001, 445) Waltke makes this statement because of verse thirty where Jacob names the place Peniel. If Jacob had thought he met a mere angel, then I believe he would have chosen a more appropriate name for that area.
My conclusion of this subject is the man the Jacob wrestled with that night was none other than God himself. God came upon Jacob at a time when he needed to be shown who he truly was as the barer of the covenant that was made with his grandfather years ago. Yes, God could have over taken him at any time and I believe that is why he merely chose to displace his hip and not kill him. Also only one who is greater than you could change your name, just like Jesus did to Peter, he also did to Jacob that night.
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2005.
Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis- A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.
Walton, John H. The NIV Application Commentary on Genesis. Grand Rapids,MI: Zondervan, 2001.