Genesis 32:4 to 36:41
Jacob wrestles with an angel and receives a new name – Israel – “One who wrestled with God and man and prevailed”…. But, a look at Jacob’s life shows that this change is not a benefit for Jacob.
After twenty years, Jacob is returning home to Canaan. He knows he will meet Esau, his brother… but, he is concerned about how he will be received. This is how the parsha begins: “Jacob now sent messengers ahead of him to his brother, Esau, in the land of Seir, in the countryside of Edom…..” (Gen. 32:4) The scouts return with news that Esau is approaching with four hundred men.
Jacob plans for the worst…. An attack by Esau.
Jacob is truly fearful for himself and his group. The night before the brothers are to meet, Jacob leaves the group and crosses a ford of the Jabbok River (a tributary of the Jordan River). He is alone. — Many commentators note that crossing a river is also a metaphor for a major change of a person’s character.
While Jacob is alone, he encounters a “man” whom he wrestles through the night. Jacob’s hip socket is wrenched during the fight. At daybreak the “man” asks Jacob to let him go. Jacob replies: “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” (Gen. 12:27) The man then tells Jacob, “No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel… for you have struggle with God and with human beings, and you have prevailed.” (Gen. 12:29)
Now, like Abraham, Jacob now has a new name – Israel…. But unlike Abraham, whose new name is the only one used after the change, Jacob/Israel is presented with both names. Two changes seem to occur after the name change…. First, Jacob – the trickster, seems to have disappeared. He is now a more serious, thoughtful person.
Second, the name change is not consistent. Jacob is still used in many places after the change. It seems that “Israel” is used when a spiritual issue is involved. “Jacob” is used during secular occurrences.
As we continue through the parsha, many other events occur – Jacob meets Esau in a friendly meeting … Esau asks Jacob to live in peace within his community …. Jacob refuses and goes his own way …. Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is raped by a local resident of the area named Shechem. (Or maybe consensual relations actually took place. The reader will never know because the story is never told from Dinah’s view.) Shechem’s father approaches Jacob with an offer of marriage for Dinah and Shechem. Jacob, with advice from his sons, agrees as long as the community agrees to be circumcised…..
Then, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, take swords and kill every male, including Shechem and his father, in response to the rape of their sister….. Jacob’s only response: “You have made trouble for me by making me odious to the land’s inhabitants – the Canaanites and the Pertizites. Since I am few in number, they will gather themselves against me and strike at me, and I and my household will be destroyed. But (Simeon and Levi) said, ‘Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?” (Gen 34:30-31)
Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, and Deborah, her nurse, both die and are buried. We wonder if Rachel’s death is the result of an action by Jacob. When Rachel’s father was searching for an idol which Rachel took as she left her father’s home, Jacob made a vow that the one who took the idols would not live.
We have a parsha that is filled with many differing events. As in the past, I always try to find a common message in each parsha….. In this week’s text, there is a dominant theme…. The change in Jacob’s personality and his outlook toward the world around him.
After Jacob wrestles the “man” there is a personality change. The “trickster” is gone. But what we find in its place is a self-centered man who is very displeased with his life situation. Examples include the following: Jacob declines his brother’s invitation to live alongside him – in peace and decides to take his own way and live alone…. Whether his daughter was raped or had consensual relations, we will never know. But, the marriage never happens and an entire village is destroyed. Jacob’s only reaction was self-pity. Jacob, in his own mind, seems the ultimate loser in this story. In the large picture of the parsha, Dinah is not a major character. The result of this event on her is never told. We only learn the effect upon Jacob. If fact, the only other mention of Dinah in future text is a single listing telling us that she was among the people who journeyed to Egypt with Jacob. (Gen. 46:15)…. Jacob’s favorite wife dies. And there is no mention of Leah. Jacob is truly saddened…. In future weeks we will read of Jacob’s loss of his favorite son, Joseph…. When Jacob meets Egypt’s leader, he summarizes his life: “The span of the years of my life time has been 130; few and miserable have been the days of the years of my life…” (Gen. 47:9) ….. Altogether, the events come together to show that Jacob does indeed change after his encounter with the “man.” …. But the change is not for the better. Jacob’s life changes from that of a trickster to a bitter, self-centered man. The promise of “Israel” – one who wrestled with God and man and prevailed, never is fulfilled to Jacob’s benefit.