Jacob makes Torah’s first vow to the Eternal…. One would expect a vow that is deeply reverent; but, Jacob offers a conditional vow filled with doubt. Torah scholars question this lack of faith and offer possible explanations.
This week’s text starts immediately after the events of last week’s parsha. Jacob has just fled his home to escape the anger of his brother Esau resulting from Jacob’s deception to obtain his father’s deathbed blessing.
The parsha continues to tell of the time Jacob spent in the home of his relative, Laban.. Then, while in the employ of Laban, he marries Labin’s two daughters, Leah and Rachel and has twelve children by them and their servants – eleven boys and one girl. After his favorite wife finally has her first son, Joseph, Jacob decides to return to the home of his parents, Isaac and Rebekah. So, after twenty years in Laban’s home and under Laban’s employ, Jacob gathers his family, livestock, and possessions and ventures to his homeland. Laban pursues them. When they meet, they decide to part in peace.
A long story… with lots of interesting plot twists. But rather than going into all the details, I would like to focus on an event that took place at the very start of this journey.
On what could have been his first night away from home, Jacob finds a spot to lie down for the night. During the night he has a dream where he sees angels coming down and going up a stairway. The Eternal, God of Abraham and God of Isaac, stood above the stairway.
God tells Jacob that Jacob, like his father and grandfather, that his descendents will inherit the land he is on. They shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth. Through you, Jacob, and your descendents all the families of the earth will find blessing. The Eternal went on to say that “I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.” (Gen. 26:l-15)
Jacob awoke and said, “Truly, the Eternal is in this place, and I did not know it!” (Gen. 26:16) Jacob also places a stone on the spot to serve as a monument commemorating this time and place.
Then Jacob makes a vow to God … actually the first vow recorded in Torah. But, the vow is conditional … It uses “If” before each of the promises Jacob makes… This has troubled students of Torah through the ages. It appears that Jacob is not sure of the promises God made in the dream.
Jacob’s vow is as follows: “If God is with me and watches over me on this path that I am taking and gives me bread to eat, and clothes to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house, then will the Eternal be my God, and this stone that I have set up as a monument shall be a house of God. And all that you give me, I will dedicate a tenth to You.” (Gen. 28:19-22)
The wording of the vow raises a number of questions.
If God … watches over me….
If God provides the necessities of life…
If I return to my father’s home …
Then, will the Eternal be my God.
This wording seems to question the authenticity of God’s generous offer made in the dream when God says that “I will watch over you wherever you go….”
Is Jacob questioning God’s covenant? … or adding conditions? Is Jacob considering acceptance of another god? Torah commentators have been puzzled as to why the vow is conditional. Jacob should have complete faith in God…. or did he see God’s actions as the deceiver/trickster that had been Jacob’s way of life?
Many explanations have been given by Torah scholars through the ages to make Jacob appear more respectful of the Eternal.
Several sages have suggested that what Jacob meant was that if he returned to his father’s home, he would build the monument and take the Eternal as his God…. But, if he didn’t return, he couldn’t build the monument as promised. It was all conditional upon his return.
R. Aibu and R. Jonathan state that the conditional vow may be the result of transposed passages of Torah. The vow may have been made before the dream and promises of God. (Bereshit Rabbah – as quoted in Nehama Liebowitz, New Studies in Bereshit/Genesis, p. 308)
Ramban (Nahmanides, 1194-1270) sees the conditional “Ifs” as the result of Jacob’s concerns about his own behavior. Jacob did not doubt God’s word… But, doubted his own ability to keep faith in the Eternal over the many years away from his home. He was afraid that he would succumb to the heathen influences surrounding him. And, as a result he would be unworthy of the kindness promised him by God. He didn’t doubt God… but, he doubted his own capacity to withstand temptation. (Nehama Liebowitz, New Studies in Bereshit/Genesis, p. 309) Maybe we are supposed to question God covenant…. After all, the covenant is a contract between two parties, man and the Eternal. If mankind doesn’t keep their portion of the covenant, the end results may not be as promised. So in order for the covenant to be fulfilled, both parties must act. So maybe Jacob is saying: “I don’t act… the promises will not be fulfilled.” Maybe the same applies to us.
As I read this parsha, I wondered about this issue…. I found these answers interesting. But, like many other questions raised in Torah, the text does not provide an answer. Any answers are just the speculation of the students of Torah.