Judy E. Gross, 29 November 1996
The past several weekly Torah portions have been stories of Jacob -- and Jacob's actions, except with respect to Rachel, have ranged from the ethically questionable to the unquestionably unethical. What we know about Jacob is that he wants a blessing, but he apparently doesn't know any better than we do what the blessing is or how to get it.
First, he thinks that property is the important thing, so he bargains with Esau to exchange a bowl of soup for a double portion of an anticipated large inheritance from Isaac. His mother, Rebecca, then convinces Jacob that what he really needs is a paternal blessing, so Jacob impersonates Esau to get the first-born blessing from Isaac. When he must then flee from Esau's justifiable wrath, Jacob, as part of his dream of angels on a ladder to heaven, dreams that God has blessed him. However, Jacob discounts this blessing and tries to bargain with God for safety and property. He then seems to confuse the blessing with marital bliss. After his uncle Laban cheats him over Rachel and Leah, and over his share of the livestock herds, we arrive at this weeks parsha.
Jacob is heading home, with his two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, one daughter, and vast herds for which Jacob had out-cheated Laban. He is returning to meet Esau, but neither Jacob's nor Esau's motives are clear. Why is Jacob hunting for Esau? Is he looking for trouble, as Rashi criticized him for doing? Does he want to make up? Is he instead hoping that Esau won't really be there? Does he long for a family reunion?
In any case, Jacob sends messengers to look for Esau. They return, reporting that Esau is coming to meet Jacob, and is accompanied by four hundred men. Although the commentators are unanimous that this constitutes a threat, the text is intentionally ambiguous. Was Esau hunting for his brother to get even, or to give him protection, or was Esau hunting for something else entirely? After all, Esau had originally threatened harm to Jacob after Isaac's death -- and the text does not indicate that Isaac had died.
Jacob assumes the worst of Esau. He takes defensive measures with his camp, prays to God for protection, and then takes action to propitiate his bother. He prepares a large gift of 550 valuable animals from his flocks and sends them in groups one after the other in a manner reminiscent of Puss in Boots. Jacob says (in Everett Fox's translation):
I will wipe (the anger from) his face
with the gift that goes ahead of my face.
Afterward, when I see his face,
perhaps he will lift up my face? (Gen. 32:21)
Then he discovers that the blessing he seeks has nothing to do with saving face.
So what happened? Jacob's earlier interaction, especially with Esau, Isaac, and Laban, can all be seen as wrestling matches. Jacob literally wrestles with Esau in the womb, and he figuratively wrestles with Esau over the birthright, with Isaac over the paternal blessing, with Laban over his wives and herds, and with God in his dream, bargaining that if God will give him stuff, he will believe in God.
Then Jacob spends the archetypical long, dark night of the soul. Alone at night, he wrestles with a man. Again, the text is intentionally ambiguous. Is the man really a man, an angel (either good or bad, and maybe even Esau's evil spirit), God, or even Jacob himself? Commentators have chosen all of these interpretations and more, but then most commentators have also described the struggle as more violent than a literal reading of the story seems to support.
Jacob wrestles all night. We know that. We also know that when he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his thigh. Again, the pronouns are ambiguous. However, we have no reason to believe that this is a life or death struggle. One of the beings called he says Let me go for dawn is coming up. One demands a blessing to release the other. The man then asks Jacob his name and changes it to Israel for you have fought with God and with man and have prevailed. (Gen.32:29) To me, this suggests a possibility that Jacob struggled simultaneously against God and a man. That man could have been Jacob.
Jacob asks his opponents name, which the man refuses to answer. Nevertheless, he blesses Jacob. Who blessed Jacob? Why don't we take Jacob at his word? Jacob names the spot Face of God (Peniel) and states, I have seen God face to face and my life has been saved. So Jacob believed he had wrestled with God. I do, too. I also believe that both contestants prevailed.
Jacob was desperately uncertain of his relationship with his brother, himself, and God, so he struggled all night to figure out these relationships. His struggle was with both God and himself. Perhaps these can be called his conscience. When they wrestled, the man asked Jacob, Who are you? - a question reminiscent of Gods query of Adam and Eve, Where are you? and of Cain, Where is your brother?. Did Jacob know who he was? He had lied to his father, saying he was Esau. After a night of wrestling, he knew he was Jacob, but the struggle transformed him. His name was changed to Israel, creating us, a people who must wrestle with God and ourselves to determine our blessing, the meaning of our covenant.
Some commentators object that Jacob could not actually have wrestled God. They are concerned, first, with the corporeal image of God. But we don't have to take it quite so literally. To borrow Steinsaltz's comment on descriptions of angels: any such description must tend to be anthropomorphic because they are ways of representing an abstract formless spiritual reality in the vocabulary of human language. (The Thirteen Petaled Rose, Adin Steinsaltz, pp. 13-14) Second, they are troubled that Jacob defeats the man because the man only won by crippling Jacob. If it were God, how could Jacob have come so close to defeating Him? But this issue presents an interesting issue of translation. According to Fox and some others, the man did not strike Jacob on the thigh but only touched him. (See, e.g., Genesis, Robert Alter, p. 8, n. 6.) To me this sounds suspiciously like a little joke: I could have beaten you with my little finger. The point is clear: God could have destroyed Jacob at any time. He didn't.
And what about the line, "Let me go for dawn is breaking? The traditional interpretation is that demons lose their power in the light, so the man was some sort of angel or demon that could become powerless. But let's turn it around. If Jacob was wrestling God, it had to be in the dark because Jacob would have died if he had seen God's face in the light. So, rather than pleading, this is a warning. Jacob got his blessing, not by pinning his opponent. He earned the blessing by proving that the blessing was worth his life (in contrast to Esau's indifference to it) and by the struggle with himself and God to understand his relationship to God. After receiving the blessing, Jacob asks his opponent's name. Does he hope to control God with His name, or merely end his own confusion? The response is similar to a similar request from Moses, when God answered Moses: I will be what I will be. (Exo. 3:14). No name can contain God's attributes or essence.
Jacob now has God's blessing in two distinct manners: first, he was chosen (before birth) to receive the blessing and carry on the covenant and, second, he earned it by his struggle at Peniel. His guile did not win him the blessing. He still may not have understood the blessing, but at least he had learned that it does not relate to inheritance of property. Where the day before Jacob sent a gift to propitiate Esau, I believe that he now goes a step further to show he is worthy of Gods blessing. I believe that Jacob actually returned Esau's birthright. The substantial gift of property is restitution for the taking of Esau's right to property. In addition, Jacob approaches Esau, calling him my lord and prostrating himself seven times before Esau. The bowing restores Esau's seniority.
Instead of assuming, as many have, that Jacob's servility is merely to ward off an attack, lets assume that one of the things Jacob recognized while wrestling with God and his conscience was that he needed Gods blessing. He did not need Esau's birthright or paternal blessing. Jacob, in fact, acts out a reversal of Isaac's blessing: the younger serves the older. Esau recognizes this for what it is; he runs to meet Jacob and embraces him, although many translations have both embracing each other. With just a touch of irony, Esau tells Jacob to keep what is Jacob's -- but Esau does accept the gifts and the bows, presumably those things that rightfully were Esau's. Esau has gotten all he was ever interested in, his birthright and his father's blessing. And Jacob - Jacob urges Esau to accept the gifts because Jacob has (depending on the translation) enough or everything. He has the blessing from God, which he had learned is what he always had sought.
Esau, then, has reason to forgive Jacob. They embrace, they weep, and Jacob says that looking at Esau was like looking into the face of God. I am fascinated by this remark. Most commentators have decided that this is merely excessively fulsome praise in keeping with Jacob's servility to Esau. But if it is merely extravagant praise, it at least borders on blasphemy. Robert Alter relates it to the themes of Jacob's wrestling scene (including hoping to survive looking at Esau's face like he survived seeing God's face wrestling) (Genesis, Alter, p. 186, n. 10), but I believe that it goes back to the first story of Jacob and Esau wrestling - in the womb. In both cases, Jacob wrestles in the dark to grab a birthright or a blessing. Jacob could not win either struggle in those terms. He had been chosen in the womb to be born second; paradoxically, if he had won the struggle, he would have no longer been chosen for the blessing. When he wrestled with God, he clearly could not defeat God; one touch crippled him. When wrestling with himself and his conscience, Jacob could only win by surrendering to Esau Esau's property and lesser blessings. Jacob did not need to bargain with or deceive either Esau or God to get the blessing. He merely had to face the consequences of his own actions.
Jacob looked at Esau in the same way that he looked into the face of God during his wrestling match -- praying to survive but in the dark about Esau's or God's intentions in the past or for the future and filled with uncertainty, shame, guilt, fear, jealousy, and love. Jacob's whole history (and ours) was bound up in God and Esau - in his lifelong struggle with God for a blessing and with Esau for his birthright - as was his whole future, by genes and family to Esau and to God by his life and by creation of a nation from his progeny.
But Esau got what he wanted and forgave Jacob. Instead of Esau killing Jacob upon Isaac's death, the two sons (with Esau named first, showing that he had regained his birthright), although living apart from each other, together bury Isaac when he died old and satisfied in days. (Gen. 35:29) Their continuing bond is stressed by the immediately following chapter, which is entirely the genealogy of Esau. Esau was not chosen for God's blessing, and his family did not become Israel, but he and Jacob remained tied. They are brothers.
So Jacob learned from the experience, but he did not become a different person. He doesn't quite trust Esau and lies to ensure that Esau would go away and leave Jacob and his family. Similarly, he doesn't quite trust God's blessing, with the covenant to make him a great nation. But there is one major change in Jacob that I am at a loss to explain. After Jacob wrestles at Peniel, or possibly after he and Esau embrace (Rashi points out that wrestling means the same as embracing), Jacob never wrestles again. Jacob, the one who always had a plan and the will and guile to bring it to fruition, becomes passive. When Jacob's daughter, Dinah, is raped, Jacob hears but does nothing. When his sons plan and carry out their revenge on the rapist and his town, although Jacob later berates them, he does nothing at the time to remonstrate with them or to stop them.
Even his beloved Rachel suffers from this change. God tells Jacob to go to Bethel and remain there. Jacob goes but immediately moves his whole family on, which apparently contributed to Rachel's death during childbirth - and only the midwife, not Jacob, is with her when she dies. Immediately after her death, Jacob's son Ruben sleeps with Jacob's concubine; Jacob is silent. And in the Joseph stories, Jacob remains passive, not even bothering to look for Joseph's body when the sons suggest that animals killed his favorite son. And when Jacob is reunited with Joseph after many years, Joseph embraces Jacob; Jacob does not embrace Joseph.
I cannot now explain why Jacob quit wrestling. It becomes even more remarkable because it is clear that this portion presents wrestling with God as our model for working out and understanding our relationship with God, in other words, our blessing, the covenant. Sometimes the wrestling requires arguing with God; sometimes it requires facing our own misdeeds. Sometimes it ends with us embracing our brothers and sisters. But we all wrestle in the dark; that is the only way that we can look into the face of God.