Jacob is on the run. After twenty years of servitude to his father-in-law Laban, Jacob and his huge new family — 11 sons, 1 daughter, his wives Rachel and Leah, plus their maidservants and everyone else in the entourage — are making haste back to the Land of Canaan. It was not what we might consider a clean getaway. Laban is chasing them from behind, and up ahead is Esau, Jacob’s estranged brother, with an army waiting to greet them. In the middle — a mysterious being waiting to wrestle Jacob through a long night. The third Jewish patriarch is in the midst of a hero’s journey home, one fraught with danger, but, if he can make it, the beginning of the rest of Jewish history awaits.
After twenty years of indentured servitude to Laban, it’s time for Jacob and his family to head back to Canaan. But negotiations over his severance package aren’t going well, and God finally tells Jacob to run — fast. So, like me at a party, Jacob and his family leave without saying goodbye, and it’s three days before Laban notices. He chases after them with the intention of bringing Jacob back into servitude but God warns Laban not to make the attempt.
When Laban catches up to Jacob, they have a huge fight, with Laban insisting that Jacob’s entire family — wives and children — belong to him, Laban. But scared of God’s warning, Laban agrees to part ways amicably, and the two build a stone altar to mark a border which neither shall cross again. Thus Jacob completes one leg of the hero’s journey home.
But now Jacob has another problem: his brother, Esau. The last time he saw his brother was when he stole his birthright and blessing from their father, and Esau had sworn to kill Jacob the first chance he got. Now Jacob learns that Esau is up ahead with an army waiting for him. Jacob sends forward his family and flocks, leaving himself alone in the wilderness for the second time in his life.
That night Jacob finds himself wrestling with a man, drawing him to a stalemate by dawn. It’s unclear the nature of this man — just a man, or an angel, or God? But at the end of the night, in Chapter 32, verse 29 of the Book of Genesis, we get introduced to a name that will be with us for the next three thousand years: Israel. The man tells Jacob that from this point forward he will be called “Israel”, because he has wrestled with both God and men, and has prevailed.
The next day, Jacob encounters Esau, bowing down to him as Esau cries and embraces him. It is a rare moment of reconciliation between siblings in the Torah. But it is short-lived, as the brothers go their separate ways. Jacob and his family continue on to Canaan, where God instructs him to build an altar at a place called Bethel. Once completed, God repeats yet again the covenant, promising that “the land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac I assign to you and your offspring to come.”
But then tragedy strikes. Rachel goes into labor with her second child, Jacob’s 13th. A boy is born, but Rachel is dying from the pain of labor, and as she takes her last breath she names the child Benoni — which means “child of sorrow” or perhaps “child of pain”, expressing the fact that she knew she was about to die. But Jacob didn’t want to think about her death every time he looked at their son, and he wanted their son to remind him of Rachel’s love and positive attributes, so in a tribute to her he renames the boy Benjamin, which means “child of strength.”
Jacob buries Rachel on the side of the road at the spot where she died, marking her grave with a stone pillar. Rachel’s Tomb is still there — just outside Bethlehem, and is considered the third holiest site in Judaism.
Jacob/Israel: a man much matured after 20 years of servitude, he leads his family on the journey home to Canaan. He shrugs off his past, makes peace with his estranged brother, and earns a new name for himself: Israel.
Laban: after appearing in the Torah as an oft-foil for the Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs, Laban is finally bested by Jacob.
God: wrestles with Jacob as an unidentified man or being, bestows the name “Israel” on Jacob and repeats again the covenant that was made with Abraham and Isaac.
Esau: the wronged older brother who once declared his intent to kill Jacob is overcome with relief upon meeting him again. He eschews the opportunity for revenge and instead embraces Jacob.
Rachel: Jacob’s favorite and much-loved wife, she dies after giving birth to Jacob’s 13th son, whom he names Benjamin. She is buried in a tomb in Bethlehem.
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, calls Laban the first anti-Semite in history. Rabbi Sacks’ position is that Laban’s behavior towards Jacob mirrors that of later nations towards the Jews, in first exploiting, then resenting, and finally oppressing the Jewish minority. In this way, Jacob serves as the archetype of freedom and the eternal paradigm of the human capacity to survive hatred. In refusing to define himself as a slave, and to submit to the will of Laban’s capricious envy, Jacob sets an example for the Jewish People — and all other minorities — for perseverance and human dignity.
- Although the being with whom Jacob is wrestling with isn’t identified, the common interpretation is that the being is God. This ambiguity can suggest that Jacob is wrestling with his inner self — since all of us humans are created in the image of God. If Jacob’s dream of the stairway to heaven (in the last episode) was the beginning of his transition from deceitful boy to one of the great Jewish heroes, then wrestling with God, or himself, completes the transformation. For the first time Jacob chooses not to run from a struggle; instead he embraces it, and by prevailing through the confrontation does he earn his new name.
- Jewish sages for the last couple thousand years have not been shy about interpreting this story as a metaphor for the Jewish people, as well. The journey Jacob takes in life is one that all humans take — one filled with missteps, steep learning curves, fear and ambiguity, spiritual encounters, a longing to live free, struggles that we win and others that we lose. That’s why we are called the “Israelites”. The idea of wrestling — whether with God or our inner selves — is an essential part of Jewish identity.
- Altars appear often throughout the Torah. An altar is built to demonstrate respect to God, and as a site for worship; to epitomize the singularity of God. The Land of Canaan is pagan, like most of the world is at this point in history. These altars have the effect of supplanting pagan land for a site that is now associated with God, in effect claiming that site as a new kind of sacred space.
- Jacob and Esau meet just once more, to bury their father, Isaac, in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. We don’t know what becomes of Esau, though the Torah records that he produces descendants of his own.
- According to Jewish tradition, whenever the Jews have been exiled from Jerusalem they have marched past Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. It was an act of consolation, for although she lies alone in a solitary grave, the Jews would take comfort in her eternal love for her people.
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© Jason Harris 2017