Jacob returns to the home of his parents after 20 years. He is fearful of the future and the reactions of his brother. However, after a mysterious encounter with “a man,” a new Jacob emerges with a new name – Israel, greater confidence, and the ability to lead his large household.
Last week’s text stated that at the beginning of Jacob’s twenty year journey away from home he encountered the Eternal. God repeated the covenant he had made to Abraham and Isaac in which he promised Jacob’s descendents would be plentiful and influential. But for Jacob, God added a promise of protection and a safe return to the land on which he was standing. (Gen. 28:10-15)
Jacob responded with a conditional vow. “If God is with me and watches over me on this path that I am taking … and if I return safely to my father’s house, then will the Eternal be my God; and this stone that have set up as a monument which shall be a house of God…” He named the place Beth El… the house of God. (Gen. 28:19-22)
This week’s parsha opens as Jacob is about to return to his father’s house. Remembering how he stole his brother’s birthright twenty years earlier, Jacob is afraid of what would happen when he encounters the brother who threatened to kill him. As the title of this week’s text notes… Jacob sends messengers ahead of the large group to offer a message of peace and gifts for Esau. The messengers return without actually meeting Esau. But, they inform Jacob that Esau is traveling with a large party of 400 men.
Jacob is terrified. He splits his camp into two groups for safety and plans a strategy for the meeting. Before sunset he leads his camp across a ford of the Jabbok river, a tributary of the Jordan river.
Jacob crosses back to the other side of the Jabbok. “Now Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn. When the man saw that he could not overcome him, he struck Jacob’s hip socket, so that Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched as the man wrestled with him. Then the man said ‘Let me go’ dawn is breaking.’
But Jacob said ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ The man said to him, ‘What is your name? And he replied ‘Jacob.’ ‘No more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel,’ said the other, ‘for you have struggled with God and with human beings and you have prevailed….” (Gen. 32:25-30)
We don’t actually know who “the man” was. Commentators have thought it may have been an angel of God, a guardian angel of Esau, or a just a character from the imagination of Jacob. Even though we really don’t know, we do know that Jacob is now a new person… with a new name – Israel. He has the courage to meet his brother. But, he is also physically changed because of a limp caused by the injured hip.
This is a major event in Jacob’s life … and a significant factor in the continuing story of the Patriarchs. It is one that would not be forgotten by the reader. Yet, a few verses latter Jacob is again renamed. This time by the Eternal.
“God now said to Jacob, ‘Get up, go up to; Beth El and settle there; erect an altar there to God who appeared to you when you fled from the presence of your brother Esau.’” Jacob then spoke to his household saying; ‘Get rid of the foreign gods in your midst; purify yourselves and change your clothing. Let us get moving and go up to Beth El, that I may build an altar there to the God who responds to me in my time of distress, who has been with me on the road that I have traveled.’” (Gen. 35:1-3)
Jacob and his camp traveled to Beth El where Jacob built the monument he had vowed twenty years earlier. God appeared to Jacob again and said: “Jacob is your name, but Jacob are you called no more, for Israel is your name! … I am El Shaddai; be fruitful and multiply. A people and a host of peoples shall come from you, and kings shall go forth from your loins. And the land that I gave to Abraham and to Isaac I will give to you; and to your descendents after you will I give the land.” (Gen. 35:9-12)
God fulfills his commitment to Jacob by protecting him throughout his journeys. Even at the end when a mysterious man appears as Jacob is most troubled and full of doubts regarding his meeting with Esau. After wrestling “the man” all night, Jacob emerges with a new name and greater self-confidence. This is the first step toward a new Jacob… Israel.
God reminds Jacob of Beth El. Jacob tells the people to get rid of foreign gods, purify themselves, dress in clean clothing. Jacob and his entire household are about to encounter the Eternal. Jacob is truly returning to worship the Eternal (Teshuvah/return). He realizes that God was his protector and accepts him as his God and builds a monument as he had promised in his vow. In the spirit of Tushuvah, we see that Jacob changes his ways. He is no longer the trickster, the deceiver…. He is Israel.
The two encounters at Beth El “bookmark” a section of Jacob’s life. Before Beth El, Jacob was a child under the influence of his mother. After Beth El, Jacob/Israel is a more confident, serious person. He is leader of a family… Decisions he makes will impact the future nation of Israel. Jacob is now a leader.
However, to reach this new chapter in his life he must “wrestle with God and with people.” Through his ‘wrestling” he makes the great decisions of his life. He isn’t commanded by God… he formulates his own path. This is one of the major contributions Jacob adds to the Jewish tradition. Torah provides the law. Then, it is interpreted through the ages (Almost like an academic wrestling match). Judaism is a living tradition… always changing to fit the needs and the time. This is the way of Jacob.
Now the story is about to shift. Next week the text will tell us more about the next generation and how they react to a changing world.
Image, Change Is Possible, courtesy of Stuart Miles on FreeDigitalPhotos.net