Jacob, Across the Jabbok
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Genesis these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
Last week, I shared one reading of what Jacob’s growth and journey might have looked like. Here’s another.
Jacob was afraid.
The last time he had seen his brother Esau, it was when Jacob had betrayed him—had stolen his blessing from right underneath his nose, done a vicious, greedy cosplay in order to deceive their father into thinking that he, himself, was the elder, the hunter, the truly entitled.
Of course Esau was furious. Of course Esau had wanted to kill him.
Of course Jacob ran off—went slinking away, in search of more auspicious environs, new people who didn’t yet fully know who he was, what kind of person he was, or could be.
But Esau knew. And Jacob knew that Esau knew.
And so, all these years later, as he and his large family, and all that he brought with him, headed back in the direction of home, he passed to the edge of Esau’s land, Seir, he was worried about how this would go.
He readied offerings, gifts, to pacify a brother who, he could only imagine, still broiled with rage—justifiably, perhaps, Jacob thought, down in the place where the shame lived, buried under the bravado.
The terror positively radiates off of the page (or the parchment, if you will) in these verses (We’re in Genesis 32:4-25):
Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, and instructed them as follows, “Thus shall you say, ‘To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: I stayed with Laban and remained until now; I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female servants; and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.’”
The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.”
Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”
It’s right there in the plain meaning of the verses.
The Jacob we see here is certainly much less self-centered than the one we saw when he was setting out for Haran—here, we see more humility, more concern for his spouses, children, others in his camps—but still, it’s concern for himself, his people. We still don’t see the accountability for his past actions to Esau and bravely facing his brother’s probable rage that one might hope at this juncture.
He’s still just trying to get through this situation, get out of it.
There’s still this resistance to facing the source of his shame, here.
Even alone, even in prayer. Even when talking to God about this stressful situation, he can’t name clearly how this, uh, situation came to be—or who was truly responsible:
Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O God, who said to me, ‘Return to your native land and I will deal bountifully with you’! I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’”
After spending the night there, he selected from what was at hand these presents for his brother Esau: 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses. These he put in the charge of his servants, drove by drove, and he told his servants, “Go on ahead, and keep a distance between droves.” He instructed the one in front as follows, “When my brother Esau meets you and asks you, ‘Whose man are you? Where are you going? And whose [animals] are these ahead of you?’ you shall answer, ‘Your servant Jacob’s; they are a gift sent to my lord Esau; and [Jacob] himself is right behind us.’”
He gave similar instructions to the second one, and the third, and all the others who followed the droves, namely, “Thus and so shall you say to Esau when you reach him. And you shall add, ‘And your servant Jacob himself is right behind us.’” For he reasoned, “If I propitiate him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor.”
And so the gift went on ahead, while he remained in camp that night.
No naming, even in prayer, what he has done. No owning of responsibility. Just trying to butter up his brother and get out of there.
Though: how often is this any of us?
How often do we run from facing the harm that we have caused, struggle to name—even alone, even in the quiet moments when no other human being is there to hear it—what we have actually done?
Jacob isn’t the first person to find accountability difficult.
We all do.
And so, on this difficult, anxious evening, we see Jacob trying to figure out how to save people, pacify his presumably angry brother. And then the numbers get whittled down, and down again:
That same night he arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok.
After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions.
Jacob was left alone.
Jacob was left alone.
All his plans, all his attempts to try to game the system, to outrun or outsmart, or to avoid hearing the guilty noises calling for attention deep inside him. And in the end: Jacob was left alone.
For the first time in how long?
After all, this is a man with two wives, and at least two enslaved-women, all of whose reproductive lives are tied to his activities. A man who has many children, who is often busy with the work of tending flocks and herds. Who may not have been alone, not really, since the last time he was on the road, on the run from Esau, on his way to all of these people that he had not yet met.
But here, now, Jacob was left alone.
Except he wasn’t.
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.
When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.
So much going on here. The text uses a very human word to describe this wrestling partner—the person with whom Jacob struggled, if you want to be literal. Ish, it says in the Hebrew: “Man.”
And yet, later on, Jacob names the place Peniel because he has “seen God face to face and remained alive.” (The literal translation of this is, in fact, that he saw God, but sometimes that line gets rendered as “divine being” because it’s more convenient for the wrestled-with-an-angel interpretation.)
And sure, though it’s not in the Hebrew, our guys (the Jews) go with the angel thing sometimes, too—a number of commentaries have no problem reading this mysterious sparring partner as angelic. The 18th c. Moroccan commentator Chaim ibn Attar’s (also known as the Or HaChayim)’s attitude can be summed up as, like, “sure, Jacob had met angels before, that was no big deal, but he hadn’t confronted them, that was new.” One midrash (Genesis Rabbah 77:3) suggests that this was Esau’s guardian angel—not more is said about it in the midrash, but presumably one who had come to wrest from Jacob all the crises of conscience that he has been holding.
The 11th-12th c. commentator and Tosafist Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (known as the Rashbam) claims it was an angel who came to prevent Jacob from running away from his upcoming brotherly reunion-slash-moment of actually being held accountable from his actions. (That one actually would make sense, honestly.)
Maimonides doesn’t really care if it’s a person or an angel; whatever, he says, it was all a dream, or a vision:
“We have already shown that the appearance or speech of an angel mentioned in Scripture took place in a vision or dream; it makes no difference whether this is expressly stated or not, as we have explained above. This is a point of considerable importance. In some cases the account begins by stating that the prophet saw an angel; in others, the account apparently introduces a human being, who ultimately is shown to be an angel; but it makes no difference, for if the fact that an angel has been heard is only mentioned at the end, you may rest satisfied that the whole account from the beginning describes a prophetic vision.” (Guide To The Perplexed, Part 2, Chapter 42)
Read to the end and come back to this one, maybe.
Back into the Torah text. So Jacob meets… well, somebody. There’s wrestling.
Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”
Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.”
Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and human beings, and have prevailed.”
Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” (Genesis 32:25-31)
In any case, the plain meaning of the Torah text here indicates that he was, perhaps, wrestling/ struggling with God—Israel means, literally, the one who struggles with God, who wrestles with God—the I is part of the conjugation, sr is the root around struggle, and El is one of God’s names. And then, in the end, the renaming of the place—again, names, renaming!—reflects and respects the divine presence, there.
There’s a reason that Jews—the people Israel, the descendants of this ancestral line (notably am Yisrael, the people Israel, was a thing many, many, many, many many many centuries before the founding of the modern nation-state; the choosing of the name of the modern nation-state has to do with the identity of the people, not the other way around)—refer to ourselves sometimes as God-wrestlers, the people who struggle with God.
It’s OK to be in the struggle, in the wrestling. It’s OK not to be in a set and settled place with regards to God and God-related things. It’s certainly OK not to have all the answers, for pete’s sake. The beauty is in the wrestling.
We all struggle, and the struggle is holy.
Wrestling, grappling with God is sacred.
For those who note, harkening back to my earlier post about name changes and deadnames, that this is one character for whom the Torah goes back and forth between this new name and his former name (unlike Abraham and Sarah), you’re not the only one. Sforno, the 16th c. Italian commentator, claims that “No longer will your name be Jacob” refers to a time in the future when the Jews have survived all of the non-Jews trying to destroy them, a heralding of the World to Come.
Back to the identity of Jacob’s wrestling partner: Some modern commentators suggest that Jacob was not wrestling with a person, human or celestial, or even with the divine, but with himself, his own shadow side, his own guilt, his own darkness, his own understanding of what he had done and not yet repaired. With the knowledge of who he really was.
That perhaps it is this:
Jacob wrestled with a man. Jacob is a man. Jacob was left alone, and then he finally began to face himself, began to struggle, began to grapple with all of the realities about who he is, who he has been, what he has done, who he has harmed—to finally look at that cauldron of shame instead of pushing it down, down, down yet again. To bring it up to the moonlight. To face it, at long last. To give it access to air.
He could not give himself permission to relent until he had finally reached the place where he was able to finally, finally, bless himself. Offer himself something true. Give himself a new name, after so many years of buried self-loathing. To find a new way to see himself, a new possibility for entering old dynamics. Even if he didn’t emerge from the grappling unscathed.
For this, too, is a way of facing God.
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