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Wrestling With the Subconscious

A Personal Perspective: How a Bible story can enhance our self-understanding.

Key points

  • Functional physical symptoms have no identifiable organic cause.
  • Functional symptoms may arise from the subconscious to resolve psychological conflicts.
  • The subconscious may serve as a conduit to spiritual information from outside of ourselves.
Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock
Source: Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock

The Bible provides a rich canvas for study with a psychological perspective. In this light, I have been fascinated by a curious story told in the book of Genesis about Jacob wrestling at night with a being of unclear origin.

To put this event into context, we need to keep in mind that as a young adult, Jacob tricked his aging, blind father Isaac to give him the blessing of the first born. Isaac intended to give the blessing to Jacob’s twin, Esau, since Esau was born just before Jacob. Esau became vengeful after the blessing was misappropriated, and Jacob ended up escaping Esau’s wrath by running away to live with his uncle. On the way there, God told Jacob that he and his multitude of descendants would inherit a vast land.

After 20 years of living with his uncle, Jacob decided to return to his original home, where he would again meet Esau. Jacob was accompanied by his large family including two wives, two concubines, and 12 children. He planned to give Esau many animals as a gift to make up for what had happened in the past. But Jacob became anxious that Esau would seek revenge when he heard that he was coming towards him in the company of 400 men.

Who Was the Opponent?

This brings us up to the time of the wrestling event (Genesis 32:35-32). The Bible first states that Jacob wrestled a man, but later it said that he wrestled Elohim, which can be translated as either God or a heavenly being, such as an angel. There were a number of unusual features during the nighttime wrestling:

  • When Jacob’s opponent could not defeat him, he injured Jacob’s thigh, which later caused Jacob to limp (verse 26).
  • Jacob would not let the opponent leave at daybreak unless he blessed Jacob (verse 27).
  • The opponent asked for Jacob’s name and then renamed him Israel. He explained that this name was appropriate because Jacob had prevailed against Elohim and men (verses 28-29). Note that in Hebrew isra, the first part of Israel, can be translated as to prevail. The second part, el, stands for Elohim.
  • When Jacob asked for his opponent’s name, he was asked why he wanted to know, and was not given an answer (verse 30).

In a long-standing debate regarding the identity of the being with whom Jacob wrestled, some Rabbis have proposed that Jacob actually wrestled his conscience, which led to a very restless sleep. This interpretation makes a lot of sense to me given what I have learned about the subconscious. Jacob might have been wrestling with his subconscious because he was conflicted and perhaps distressed about the trickery in which he had engaged, ambivalent about the prospect of meeting up with Esau again, and anxious about the outcome of their reunion, especially as it impacted the safety of his family. Further, since Jacob was aware of his role as a Jewish patriarch based on what he was told by God, he would have recognized that his interactions with Esau would influence the entire future of the Jewish people. This likely would have led to further inner turmoil.

Five Questions

If the wrestling represented a battle within Jacob how can we explain:

  • The thigh injury?
  • Jacob’s request for a blessing before he released his inner self?
  • Why his opponent did not appear to know Jacob’s name?
  • Why he would rename himself Israel?
  • The lack of an answer regarding his opponent’s name?

I propose that the injured thigh represented a functional symptom, which can be defined as a physical symptom that has no identifiable organic cause. Based on my work with my patients, I believe that such symptoms arise from the subconscious as a form of “body talk” in which symptoms provide a way to express or resolve psychological conflicts. Perhaps in Jacob’s case, his inability to walk thereafter without a limp represented a self-punishment for his misdeeds? Alternatively, such an injury placed Esau in a position of power over Jacob, which could help Jacob elicit his brother’s sympathy rather than anger regarding the hurtful deceit.

Jacob’s demand for a blessing from his own subconscious might be a form of positive self-talk, and a convincing way of telling himself that he would be okay.

Alternatively, based on interviews with my patients, I have come to believe that the subconscious may serve as a conduit to spiritual information from outside of ourselves. This conduit may overlap with the part of our brains that transmits prayers, and be related to Carl Jung’s description of being able to access the collective unconscious. Thus, Jacob could have believed that his blessing came from God and transmitted through his subconscious.

At first blush, it may seem unusual for someone to rename themself. However, this is a common occurrence intended to help establish a new identity. For example, popes and members of royal families often rename themselves when they ascend to their positions. People often take their spouse’s surname. Renaming also is common when people transition genders. An immediate benefit of Jacob’s subconscious apparently powerful renaming as Israel could have been to help bolster his confidence in preparation for the meeting with Esau. However, perhaps Jacob realized some of the long-term implications of this renaming including that the Jewish people will come to identify themselves as members of the nation of Israel.

Finally, why did Jacob’s opponent ask for Jacob’s name and fail to provide his own name? Wouldn’t his subconscious (or God for that matter) know Jacob’s name? I think this represents the wit I have often observed during interactions with the subconscious.

The subconscious appears to be helping solidify Jacob’s self-understanding through the very deliberately executed renaming process. It then appears to imply that Jacob is not yet ready to understand that the being with whom he wrestled was also named Jacob.


The meeting with Esau took place on the day after the wrestling Main Event. Esau proved to be very friendly to Jacob and offered to help him resettle in his original home.

A Final Note

My hope is that analyzing this biblical story in detail helps readers better appreciate the potential power of the subconscious within each of us.

For example, in my own life I’ve wrestled with my subconscious. Three weeks after I graduated from medical school in 1983 I found myself as the sole pediatrician in charge of the Pediatric Emergency Room at a large Boston hospital. (In those days, ERs were not staffed by veteran physicians as they are now.) I did not feel like much of a doctor, as I was only days removed from having been a medical student. It was a bit of a shock to recognize that my orders would now be followed. In a way, my name was changed with the addition of “Doctor” to my surname, which did give me a bit of extra confidence.

However, as a result of my anxiety I developed an unsettled stomach, which thus represented a functional rather than a physical problem. The “body talk” in this case might have said, “I don’t think I can stomach this experience.” I wrestled with the idea that I was not ready to be a physician, but my subconscious assured me that I could succeed. It told me that with experience I would do well. I’m happy to report that it was right.


Examples of how functional symptoms can impact patients is available in the 2021 book "Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center," by Ran D. Anbar. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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