The Hebrew Meaning of the Word Angel: With Whom Did Jacob Wrestle?

Yesterday’s Parasha {פרשה} (weekly Torah portion) was ‘Va-Yishlach’ {וישלח} (Hebrew for ‘and he sent’). This is the eighth weekly Torah portion in the Book of Genesis and can be found in Genesis 32:4–36:43.

The name of the weekly Torah portion comes from the first word (in the original Hebrew) of the opening verse:

“And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the country of Edom.” (Genesis 32:3)

In the original Hebrew, the word for ‘messengers’ is ‘Mala’chim’ {מלאכים} and it is also the Hebrew word for ‘angels.’ The reason is the Hebrew perception that sees the angels as messengers of God and therefore the emphasis is on the ‘mission’ or ‘work’ they were sent to carry out.

And that is why it is no surprise to find out that the Hebrew word for ‘work’ or ‘labor’ – ‘Melachah'{מלאכה}  – is derived from the same root as ‘Mala’ch’ {מלאך} (‘angel’).

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855 illustration by Gustave Doré)

The double meaning of this fascinating Hebrew word has caused ‘difficulties’ for the Hebrew Bible translators. In theory, each time the Hebrew word ‘Mala’ch’ appears in the Bible it can refer to the ‘divine creature’ (‘angel’) OR simply to a ‘flesh and blood messenger.’

However, and surprisingly enough, the double meaning of this word works also the other way around. Which means one can find references
in the Hebrew Bible which speak about a ‘man’ but actually refer to an

We do not need to go through the entire Hebrew Bible to look for examples, because in the weekly Torah portion, only a couple of verses after the opening of the ‘Parasha’ we can find the story of Jacob wrestles with the angel:

“And Jacob was left alone. And a MAN wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” (Genesis 32:24)