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LESSON 10: THE FOUR SENSES OF MATTHEW 1:2b: "And Isaac begot Jacob"

by John F. McCarthy
(June 1999)

        61. The literal sense of Matt 1:2b. The literal meaning of Matt 1:2b is that Isaac physically and historically begot Jacob. The begetting and the birth of Jacob are recorded in Genesis 25:21-25 in the following words: "21And Isaac besought the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and he heard him and made Rebecca conceive. 22But the children struggled in her womb, and she said: If it is to be so with me, what reason was there to conceive? And she went to consult the Lord. 23And he, answering, said: Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be divided out of your womb, and one people shall overcome the other, and the elder shall serve the younger. 24And when her time was come to be delivered, behold twins were found in her womb. 25He that came forth first was red and hairy like a skin, and they called his name Esau. The other, in coming forth immediately after, held his brother's foot in his hand, and, therefore, they called his name Jacob."

        62. Gunkel's interpretation. Form-critics tend to deny all or most of the historical truth of this account. Hermann Gunkel, the founder of form-criticism, claimed that many of the narratives in what he called the "patriarchal legends" of Genesis were originally made up by non-Israelite religious dreamers and later recast by Israelite story-tellers to fit their national and cultural purposes: "As beautiful stories, they must have long been in circulation and will have originated as pure products of the imagination."1  Thus, he affirmed, the unknown figures Jacob and Esau of some original account were taken over by Hebrew raconteurs and made out to be the founders of Israel and Edom.2  He did not think that the names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob originated as figures in stories of pagan gods, since "scholars have begun to see the basic form of account in the 'fairy tale' that focuses on people."3  Gunkel conjectures that the three separate stories from which the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were fashioned were fitted into some earlier story about the pagan gods. "There was - it must be assumed - an original account, perhaps the one concerning the three gods visiting an old man, that, in the fashion of such accounts (which did not differ from modern 'fairy tales'), mentioned a name popular at the time. Other, appropriate materials were attributed to this 'Abraham' figure. ... The original Jacob may have been the sly shepherd Jacob who deceived the hunter Esau." And, he concludes, these persons are "literary figures" having no historical value in themselves, but whose historical truth consists only "in the historicity of the circumstances in their legends," while their religioethical value consists only in "the ideas which these accounts express."4

        63. The error of Gunkel's interpretation. There never was any real historical basis for Gunkel's disparaging evaluation of the patriarchal accounts in Genesis as having been based upon imaginary stories; his interpretation is based solely on the rationalist presupposition that there is no real action of the one true God in human history and on the modernist presupposition that the sacred writers were not disposed to record true historical facts. Not only were these presuppositions unreasonable in themselves, but, later in the twentieth century, the impressive archaeological findings of William Foxwell Albright and others confirmed the real historical existence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and their having lived in the very kinds of circumstances with which they are surrounded in the Genesis accounts.5  Edmund Sutcliffe upholds the historicity of "the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, where he says: Given the relatively small amount of material and its vivid, graphic character, there is no difficulty in admitting its faithful oral transmission aided by constant repetition."6 And Bruce Vawter, while he wavers as a form-critic in his exegesis of the text, nevertheless, having consulted the archaeological discoveries and sound reasoning of Albright, feels able to assert that "older opinions that regarded the stories of the Patriarchs as disguised myths or the fictitious accounts of eponymous7  ancestors can no longer critically be held." And he goes on to say: "While it is true to say that the narratives have picked up many popular traits in the centuries of their telling and bear witness to the art of their transmitters, there can be no doubt that they perform the proper function of history, to put us in authentic contact with the past."8

        64. The literal meaning of the names Esau and Jacob. It would seem that the name "Esau" means "hairy," since "he that came forth first was red and hairy like a skin, and they called his name Esau" (Gen 25:25), and that is its probable meaning, although there is no obvious root-word of the name in biblical Hebrew. In the time of Isaac and Rebecca it was related to some word in their language that probably disappeared over the succeeding centuries, and it is a tribute to the oral tradition that the narrators retained the name exactly as it was, even after the play on words was no longer evident.9  The meaning of the name Jacob is more obvious; it is derived from the Hebrew word for "heel" and it is intended to mean "he grabs the heel." Some commentators have seen this scene as representing a pursuer holding back a fleeing or emerging person, but the more likely image is that of two wrestlers. In fact, it is a wrestler's trick to grab or otherwise immobilize a heel of his opponent and then push him over.

        65. The figurative meaning of Jacob. Rebecca felt the two infants struggling in her womb (literally, they "were crushing one another"), and she saw this as a portent of something momentous. As the Charles Thomson translation of the Septuagint renders verse 22: "If it is to be so with me, what does this portend?" The struggling was seen by her to portend something, and she was told by the Lord that two peoples were in her womb, that one people would overcome the other, and that the elder would serve the younger (v. 23). On the merely historical level, the struggle in the womb and the grabbing of the heel foretold that Esau would become the Father of the Edomites and Jacob would become the Father of the Israelites. Patristic tradition sees this episode as a prefigurement of Christ and his Church. By the power of his divinity, Jesus frequently cast out demons during his public life, while in his humanity Jesus was the wrestler who struggled with the Devil and, in meekness, patience, and obedience to God the Father, outwitted and overthrew him by his Passion, Death, and Resurrection from the dead. Jesus is also the Spiritual Father of the Christian people, who, in their meekness, patience, and obedience to his teaching, overthrow the children of this world and will reign forever in Heaven. Tropologically, every Christian is called to wrestle against the power of the world, the flesh, and the Devil, but above all against the Devil. "Put on the armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the deceits of the Devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spirit-powers of wickedness in the high places" (Eph 6:11f.).10

        66. The literal meaning of the name Israel. When he was well along in life, Jacob had occasion to wrestle with an angel (Gen 32:24-32). Commentators over the centuries have been unsure of the literal meaning of the words in this episode. The text says that a "man" (ish) wrestled with Jacob in the latter part of a night until the break of day (v. 24), but Hosea (Osee) 12:3-4 tells us regarding Jacob: "In the womb he supplanted his brother, and by his strength he had success with an angel. / And he prevailed over the angel and was strengthened, he wept and made supplication to him."

        (a) Origen suggested that the "man" who wrestled with Jacob was a demon in bodily form, and for this reason he said to Jacob "Let me go, for it is break of day," since demons work at night and fear the daylight. In this interpretation, verse 28 would seem to read: "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with gods and with men and have prevailed." Now, the El in Israel is short for Elohim, which, in the vast majority of cases in the Old Testament stands for the one true God, but can mean any supernatural being, such as also an angel or even a departed soul (cf. 1 Kg 28:13), but this angel blessed Jacob (v. 29), which a demon would not have done. If, nevertheless, the "man" who wrestled with Jacob in this episode was a demon, the name Israel could have the literal meaning of "prevailing over a god," that is, over an evil angel, and verse 30 would read: "I have seen [and wrestled with] a god [that is, with an evil angel] face to face and my life has been spared." But this reading is unlikely.

        (b) Some Fathers of the Church understood the "man" to be the appearance in human form of a good angel sent by God.11  According to this reading, in verse 28 the angel says to Jacob: "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God [that is, with an angel representing God] and with men and have prevailed." In the match the angel did not prevail over Jacob, even though he was able simply by "touching" Jacob's thigh to "put it out of joint" (Gen 32:25). In this reading, the name Israel could have the literal meaning of "prevailing over a god," [that is, over a good angel] or even of "prevailing over God" in the sense that, for mystical reasons, God brought it about that Jacob prevailed over a good angel who had been sent by God.12  Bruce Vawter agrees with this opinion where he says: "The name Israel is of uncertain etymology, but here it is made to mean "strive with God (and prevail)."13  Thomas Aquinas read this episode to convey that Jacob struggled late in the night either against a vision of God or against an appearance in bodily form of an angel, and that this struggle was principally one of prayer in the sense that Jacob prayed so fervently throughout the match that God was won over and had the angel yield to him, bearing out the point in the expression "God cannot deny the entreaties of his friends." And Jacob's injured hip was the evidence of the reality of this struggle. St. Thomas, following Jerome, considered the name Israel to mean "a prince with God," or "strong with God,"14  that is, being a strong prince like God, and he understood Gen 32:28 to mean "if you have been strong against God by the strength of your detaining prayers and your insistent embraces so as to bend God's rigor, how much the more shall you prevail over men?"15

        (c) Many of the Fathers of the Church say that the "man" who wrestled with Jacob was a prophetic apparition of the Divine Word as the God-Man who would come later to give his life for the redemption of mankind.16  Thus, the name Israel could mean "prevailing against a vision of the God-Man Jesus Christ, both as a personal grace from the Rock that was to follow him in time and as a prefigurement of the self-surrender of Jesus to his adversaries for the sake of their salvation.

        (d) Augustine and some others are of the opinion that the name Israel relates to verse 30 and means "a man seeing God."17  This reading supposes that the "is" in Israel was originally pronounced like "ish" ("man") or at least meant the same as "ish."

        67. From a neo-Patristic perspective and in accordance with Catholic exegetical tradition, the literal sense of this encounter of Jacob illustrates especially the greatness of divine mercy and the power of prayer. The purpose of this "wrestling match" does not seem to have been to prepare Jacob for battle with Esau, as some have conjectured. In fact, Jacob was not noted in his life for strength of body or for prowess in battle; he was rather a wily individual who lived by his wits, and he did not have to struggle with Esau after his match with the angel. "Esau ran to meet his brother and embraced him and, clasping him fast about the neck and kissing him, wept" (Gen 33:4). And Jacob went on to bring his descendants into four hundred years of slavery in Egypt. But Jacob had stayed behind to spend this night in prayer, and thus he prayed: "O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac ... deliver me from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am greatly afraid of him. ... You did say to me that you would do me good and multiply my seed like the sand of the sea ...." But Jacob said also in this prayer: "I am not worthy of the least of all your mercies and of your truth ...." (Gen 32:9-12). And this fact is important. As Cyprian says: "No one can be strong or secure in his own strength." And Our Lady sang in her Magnificat: "He has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble. ... He has received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever" (Luke 1:52ff.). Hence, Jacob seems to have received two special blessings from his prayer during that night: Esau's heart was turned from animosity to love for him and he was given the promise of salvation in Christ who was to come. That Jacob received a wound whereby he limped for the rest of his life indicates that in his new vocation he had to carry the Cross of Jesus, the Rock who was to follow him in time.

        68. The allegorical meaning of the name Israel. With the obscurity of the literal meaning of the name Israel and of the whole nocturnal encounter goes somewhat differing opinion as to the figurative meaning of the same. St. Thomas sees the apparition as representing the humanity of Christ, who came at the end of the night of the Old Testament to challenge people to follow Him and to accept his grace. On the level of the Allegory of Christ and of His Church, the apparition prophetically represents the God-Man Jesus, as the Redeemer of mankind and the Head of his Mystical Body, while Jacob represents both his own carnal descendants and also the whole of mankind called to grace by Jesus. In the encounter, Jacob, as figuring all mankind, prophetically prevails briefly over Jesus by putting Him to death, and the blessing that he receives is universal Redemption and the grace of salvation inasmuch as he cooperates with that grace, since immediately thereafter the sun of justice rises in the Resurrection of Jesus. Because of Jacob's fervent and persistent prayer, his name is changed to Israel, representing the conversion of carnal persons by the grace of Christ, whether those of Jacob's own physical descendants who would be converted to Christ, or other descendants of Adam and Eve. The obtaining of this grace requires the imitation of Jesus in humility and prayer. Thus, when Israel says in Gen 32:30 "my life has been spared," he means also "my soul has been saved."

        69. The tropological meaning of the name Israel. Several Greek and Latin Fathers saw this episode as signifying figuratively in the tropological sense the soul of the believer in an encounter of love with divine grace to the effect that God, in his infinite mercy and love, gives in to the entreaties of his elect. This interpretation pictures the soul contending with God and not "letting Him go" until He blesses the soul with grace (cf.Matt 11:12: "the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent bear it away"). No creature can contend with God and win by his own strength, but the soul that is a temple of the Holy Spirit has the Spirit, who is the one true God, to strengthen it, and thus it can prevail. Yet, the sanctified soul must be disposed to carry the Cross of Jesus, and this suffering is prefigured by Israel's disjointed hip.18  And, as St. Thomas points out, the sanctified soul must triumph also over its own bodily concupiscence, signified by spiritually walking with the handicap of an injured hip.

        70. The anagogical sense of the names Jacob and Israel. Israel's statement, "I have seen God and my life has been spared" (Gen 32:30) refers also anagogically to the blessed soul in Heaven, who can say: "I am able to see God and my life goes on," since the supernatural elevation of the mind to the level of beatific vision together with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit enables the blessed souls to witness the divine life of the Most Blessed Trinity without being annihilated in the process. The names Jacob and Israel may also reflect the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity in a vague and imperfect way. The name Jacob, as the one who "grabs the heel," reflects the infinite dynamism of Trinitary life in which neither the Father nor the Son overwhelms the other, because both Persons have the infinite power of divinity in being the one true God, and they are eternally joined together in the love of the Holy Spirit. The name Israel, as the one who "contends with God and prevails," represents the Mystical Body of Jesus, united to its Head by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in a dynamism of supernatural love. And so, when Christians speak of themselves as the "new Israel," for instance in praying the Psalms, they do so as members of the Mystical Body of Christ and as Temples of the Holy Spirit, who are able to overcome by the grace that is within them; they speak as sanctified persons who are "strong with God," who "rule with God," and who one day, if they persevere in grace, will "see God face to face" in Heaven.


1. Cf. Hermann Gunkel, Genesis, English ed., p. xxiii.

2. Gunkel, ibid.

3. Gunkel, op.cit., p. lxvii.

4. Gunkel, op. cit., p. lxix.

5. See the quotations from W.F. Albright in footnotes 2 and 3 of Lesson 9 above.

6. E.F. Sutcliffe, "Genesis," in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, p. 180A.

7. By "eponymous" is meant "giving one's name to a place, institution, syndrome, or disease" (Webster's).

8. B. Vawter, "Genesis," in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, p. 168B.

9. Sutcliffe suggests that the original pronunciation of Esau "was Eshau, meaning 'hairy' (CCHS, p. 197A). Cornelius a Lapide avers that the original name was Asui, meaning "complete," i.e., completely furnished with hair.

10. Cf. the commentary of Thomas Aquinas on Genesis, as taken down by Petrus Johannis Olivi, in Roberto Busa, S. Thomae Aquinatis Opera Omnia, vol. 7, p. 530A.

11. Among those who understood the "man" to be a good angel were Jerome, Josephus, Eusebius, Augustine, and Rupert. See Cornelius a Lapide, Great Commenary, at Gen 32:24ff.

12. Cf. Cornelius a Lapide, ibid.

13. Vawter, in NCCHS, p. 200A.

14. To these etymological readings of the name Israel by Jerome and Aquinas compare "ruling with God (Young's Analytical Concordance to the Holy Bible) and "he will be prince with God" (Cruden's Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments). Albright suggested the root meaning "God heals," basing his conclusion on philological comparison with other cognate languages (cf. W.F. Albright, "The Names Israel and Judah (etc.)," in the Journal of Biblical Literature (1927), p. 168).

15. Cf. Aquinas, Commentary on Genesis, in Busa, op. cit., vol. 7, pp. 530A-530B.

16. Among the Fathers who saw in this episode an appearance of the future God-Man Jesus Christ were Theodoretus, Justine, Tertullian, Hilary, Ambrose, and Cyril. See Cornelius a Lapide, Great Commentary, at Gen 32:24.

17. Thus Augustine, The City of God, bk. 16, chap. 39. Also Philo, Gregory Nazianzan, Hilary, Eusebius, and Prosper. See a Lapide, ibid., at Gen 32:28.

18. Cf. Gregory the Great, Homily 14 on Ezechiel. See also a Lapide, ibid., at Gen 32:28.

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