The God-Wrestler: Track II Diplomacy
Parashat Vayishlach Genesis 32:4−36:43
We know, at least if the reading of the Torah that I adopt has any relevance, that Jacob is a schizophrenic individual – one who is born a Yeshiva bűcher, one destined to be a scholar lost in reading, reflection and thought, but one born clinging to the heel of the first-born twin, Esau, the hunter, a man of skills in acquiring the material goods of the world, a man who belongs in that physical world and disdains abstraction and reflection. Jacob grows up envious of his brother’s practicality and superiority in mastering the ways of the world, his sheer physicality.
Rebekah, Jacob’s mother, recognizes not only his otherworldliness, but the necessity of gaining mastery in this world if one is to survive and prosper. While Jacob could on his own easily and without much effort get Esau, who disdained relying on another for his success in the world, to trade his birthright for a bowl of hot soup, the abstract victory was meaningless unless Jacob knew what to do with it. Jacob still had to actually learn to be Machiavellian, to learn cunning, to learn the ways of the world. In fact, unlike Esau, he would have to be cunning to survive.
Rebekah thought she could teach him the cunning needed to succeed and contrived a scheme to win Isaac’s blessing as well as the birthright which he had obtained on his own. She would have Jacob trick his father by pretending to be Esau. But Isaac, though he was also a man of reflection, a man of tents rather than a practical survivor, who survived and became who he was only because God intervened and prevented his being sacrificed, was a man of irony, who perceived the world with a wry eye, who saw through the ruse, but went along with it.
So Jacob wins both the entitlement and his father’s blessing to have a rich and successful life in this world. Would he lose his own soul in the trade off? After all, in dealing with his father-in-law, Laban, he had to use trickery in the end to really outwit the old man, the father of his beloved. But it really took him two decades to learn the lesson, to acquire the wealth and learn how to keep it.
In the encounter that takes place in this portion of the tale, he meets his third test – the one that would complete his winning the birthright and his father’s blessing. It was to be a test in the real world and bring him back to his birth clinging to the heel of his brother. The outcome of the encounter is adumbrated in the section when Jacob wrestles with “ish” in that very enigmatic tale and then in his actual encounter and meeting with Esau after a separation of twenty years.
But the section has two other stories in addition to the tale of Jacob wrestling with “ish” and Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. First, there is the awful bloodthirsty and morally repugnant story of Dinah, the murder of all the men of Hamor’s tribe when they were incapacitated by Simeon and Levi, the rape and the revenge extracted under the leadership of Reuben, the eldest brother. Then there is the story of the birth of Benjamin and the death of Jacob’s truly beloved, Rachel, in childbirth. In order to understand and unravel the meaning of the first puzzling story of Jacob’s wrestling match, and Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau, I want to work backwards from the meaning of the birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel.
“Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labour. When her labour was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, ‘Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.’ But as she breathed her last — for she was dying — she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath — now Bethlehem.” (Genesis 16-19.”
Thus, the four following tales will be discussed in reverse order:
- What does it mean for Jacob to wrestle with “ish”?
- The Meeting of Jacob and Esau
- The Rape of Dinah and the Sack of Shechem
- Birth of Benjamin.
I have already told my readers that the latest book of my daughter, aptly named Rachel, just came out. An inscribed copy just arrived in the mail several days ago. Chapter 9 of The Female Ruse: Women’s Deception & Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible is entitled, “’Passing Strange’; Gender Crossing in the Story of Joseph and Esther.” In her book, Rachel argued, as illustrated in the case of Rebekah teaching Jacob how to win his father’s blessing intended for Esau concerning his future prosperity, about the central role of the feminine ruse to history and realpolitik.
Rachel begins the chapter with a quote from Act 1, scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Othello:
My story being done
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That heaven had made her such a man.
It is the story of how Desdemona became so enchanted by Othello. She came again and again, driven by a prayer of her earnest heart, to hear Othello’s story of his pilgrimage through an adventurous life of a military commander, tales which Othello used to “beguile her of her tears” as he told of his painful encounters as a youth and a man who achieved greatness in the world. Desdemona confessed that, “’twas strange, ‘twas passing strange, ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful” as she expressed her envy and admiration for such an adventurous life.
Rachel (my daughter, not the biblical one) in the previous chapters of her book argued that deceit was a particularly feminine art of subterfuge, an art that allows the weaker “sex” to seize the reins of power from her counterpart. Jacob was an effeminate man who had to learn from his mother, Rebekah, the wiles of women in order to win power and wealth in this world. In the construct of sexual politics, Jacob:Esau = woman:man. He was passive but incorporeal, emotional but also calculating. Rachel’s chapter is about both Joseph and Esther, the descendent of Jacob’s last-born son, Benjamin, as feminine figures, a story which began in the internal struggle between Jacob’s feminine and his masculine side.
Rachel outlines all the parallels between the two stories of Esther and Joseph:
- In a hierarchy of political power, both are “other,” strangers in a foreign court;
- Both aim to please;
- Both use the art of discretion to hide their identities to save their people;
- In the process, the feminine side molts into the masculine as it once did with Jacob.
Both are stories of subterfuge, as has been and continues to be the tale of Jacob. Just as Isaac, as I interpreted the text, “saw” through the subterfuge of his son, Jacob, Jacob too would adumbrate the character of Joseph who could resist the entreaties of the wife of his boss, Potiphar. I do not intend to go through the parallels that Rachel draws out. (Read the book yourself.) Suffice it to say that Esther must not only use her feminine insights to unveil Haman’s ambitions and destructive behaviour, and thereby save her people, she also has to construct the revelation such that Haman will destroy himself and all the power that accrued to his retinue and family. She needed total victory. For she was in a battle with absolute evil.
As a true child of her forefather, Isaac, the book of Esther is weighed down in ironies. For it is a tale of how a Barbie doll became the power behind the Persian throne just as the story of Joseph was about how a dandy became the power behind first the Egyptian throne and then the onward success of Israel. But that whole process depends on the self-transformation of Jacob into Israel and the lesson that will be transmitted from parent to child through the descendents of Benjamin (or Benjamim, spirit man), the youngest son of Jacob. But how did Jacob learn that lesson and what was the lesson?
Before we move back to the story of Jacob’s wrestling and his meeting once again after a long absence with his brother Esau, we take up the story of sex and extreme violence that follows. Dinah, like Desdemona, is enthralled by adventure. She is more akin to her Aunt Rachel than even her own mother. At a very young age, she leaves the safety and security of her father’s home to travel to the land of Canaan, not to find a boyfriend, a man like Othello, but “to see the daughters of the land.” (Genesis 35: 16-19) But instead of seeing the daughters of the land, she meets up with Shechem, the son of Prince Hamor the Hittite, who “saw her, took her and lay with her, and violated her.”
In the Shabat morning study with our rabbi, I have had to revise my interpretation of the story. Rabbi Splansky suggested that it might not have been a rape. The word itself can be translated simply as “diminished”. Further, there is no mention that Dinah did not participate willingly. Further, she remained in Shechem’s house and did not return to tell her family. We are not told how Jacob came to learn of what happened to his daughter, but hear he did. Shechem says he loved her, not a usual feeling towards the victim of a rape. The sexual intercourse may have been consensual. But she may have been underage. Further, given the norms, Shechem should have asked permission from her father first.
What we do know definitively is that Shechem fell in love with Dinah, wanted to marry her. That, after all, was the honourable thing to do at the time, but especially true if he loved her. But when Hamor asks Jacob to allow his son to marry his daughter, Jacob asks for time to think about it and talk to his sons. We do not know how he actually responded to the request.
The sons, particularly her two full brothers, Simeon and Levi, are enraged that their sister was supposedly raped or even perhaps seduced by a tribe not approved by the Hebrew elders. But they agree to make a marriage contract. It seems clear that the contract was made in bad faith. It contained a very strange and unusual condition – that Hamor, his son Shechem, and all the men in that tribe, be circumcised prior to the marriage. Hamor and Shechem agree. They are circumcised as are all the men of the tribe of Hamor. And when they are circumcised and incapacitated by the pain of an adult circumcision, all the men are slain by Reuben’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, the latter the very one from whom the tribe responsible for maintaining the Temple would descend. Talk about tricks! This was the ultimate in subterfuge. But the substance is much worse – men who convert to the precursor of Judaism are all slain when they are helpless. Revenge is meted out, not just to Shechem. Genocide is committed against the whole tribe of Hamor, presumably by the argument that it takes a village to produce a rapist. Talk about punishing the innocent! Talk about collective punishment for the purported misdeed of one!
And how terrible a misdeed was it. Dinah was young. She was a virgin. He did not obtain her father’s permission first. But he clearly wanted to make amends and to share the lands of his tribe with Jacob’s tribe and all the herds and flock he had brought with him. As far as one can read, the offer seemed sincere, as evidenced by adult males being willing to undergo a painful circumcision.
This is a tale of deceit, negotiating in bad faith, a tale of guile that, even if it was rape, would not justify the response and especially the cowardly way it was carried out. All the other brothers – Jacob is not mentioned – participate in the pillage and seize the spoils of “war”. Not only the flocks and herds, but the sons of Jacob took the women captive and raped them. God never reproves their behaviour. This is in spite of the fact that it was also a deep misuse of the covenant central to Judaism. To use the brit milah, so sacred and central to the whole religion, to perpetuate this horrific act of revenge, turns the whole tale into a triple evil, evil of the worst kind of deceit, evil of the worst kinds of acts – murder, abduction and rape – and evil of the greatest betrayal of one’s relationship to God, a misuse of the central covenant linking Jews to their God. And Simeon and Levi would be punished.
Just before he died, Jacob blessed each of his sons in turn. However, he cursed Simeon and Levi together rather than singly.
49:5 Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.
49:6 O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall.
49:7 Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.
And scattered they were. They were the only two tribes that did not get their own land. Just before he cursed them and denied them their own land, he had cursed Reuben, not for instigating and masterminding the atrocity, but for sleeping with his concubine Bilhah.
49:3 Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: 49:4 Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.
Reuben was more like his uncle, Esau, but with a greater sense of his own honour as well as strength. But he did not know how to manage it, how to control it, how to direct it. He was like Michael Corleone’s eldest brother in The Godfather, Santino (Sonny) Corleone. Just after they perpetrate their great crime, Jacob admonishes his sons, but it is not for the evil they perpetrated, but for spoiling his reputation as a man of integrity and honour. “Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land.” This suggests Jacob’s motives in the whole affair. Shechem, the rapist hopelessly in love and losing all his defences, turns into the ultimate victim. This tale of treachery, deceit, cruelty and evil is hard to stomach. And it is not clear whether Jacob is much better for he seems only to care about how he is regarded by others.
But as we will learn from the stories of Joseph and Esther, how one appears to others is critical to political success, critical to having your way in the world. So there are two sides to Jacob’s reaction, his seeming indifference at the time to crime was committed to the enormity of the evil, though this is misleading for at the end of his life he reveals the second side and clearly seems to comprehend how evil their actions were.
Dinah means judgement. Is there any possible way such horrific judgment can be justified? Right-wingers might do so, arguing that when facing evil, and rape is an evil and a rape culture is an even greater evil, then you have to get your hands dirty. I accept the need to get your hands dirty. But not that way. Further, it is the brothers who consider what happened as tantamount to rape. So why does God not reprove the perpetrators of this crime?
Put the story that follows, the birth of Benjamin, with this one. Benjamin is no Benjamin Netanyahu. Benjamin is the only son of Jacob actually born in Canaan and not Aram, and the only one of his children who remained innocent and without sin. Benoni means “child of my pain” and refers to the pain Rachel suffered in giving birth, the pain so grat that she died in giving birth, the pain of not being able to see her second son grow up, and the pain her death inflicted on Jacob at the loss of his beloved Rachel when she died in giving birth to Benjamin. However, the name that stuck, the name that meant “son of the right (south) side,” a son both born in Canaan and a child that was not to be sinister (from the left side), indicated that Benjamin was an individual of extraordinary virtue.
So we go from the bottom of the pit of evil to the pinnacle of purity that will lead to Esther who has to be able to offer just the right combination of cunning and innocence to pull off the most magnificent example of espionage in Jewish history if not the history of the world. Esther is not obsequious even as she conforms to the outward practices of obeisance to the Persian ruler. She operates with subterfuge in a way that the lesson was learned traced back through Jacob and Rebekah. But the tale of Benjamin follows from members of his own family, Benjamin’s brothers committing a heinous crime in the name of the proverb used by zealots against doves; “He who makes himself a sheep will be devoured by the wolves.” Esther won her victory by using her beauty, by using her wiles, to allow Haman to destroy himself.
Now we can return to the tale of Jacob wrestling with “ish” and meeting up with his brother, Esau, after a separation of twenty years.
Jacob has left the land of his father-in-law with an abundance of sheep and goats, four wives, eleven sons and a daughter and servants galore. He has learned how to get what he needed in the material world from his scheming father-in-law. But when Laban chased him, God had to intervene to save him from Laban’s wrath at being bested by this son-in-law that he regarded as a schlemiel. Now he has to meet up once again with his twin brother who vowed to murder him for the theft of his blessing. As it turns out, Esau did not really need it. He had grown wealthy as well.
Once again, when Jacob camps beside the Jabbok River before crossing, he prays for God’s intervention to save him from Esau as he was rescued from the wrath of Laban. “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’” (Genesis 32: 12-13) Instead he is accosted by a stranger, the mysterious “ish,” often referred to as an angel. But before he does so, in his new cunning, he sends his twin brother “200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 16 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses.” Esau had to be overwhelmed, not only that his shmedrick of a brother had become so wealthy that he could give away that many animals as gifts, but that they were the best of the best. They were “select” class. But he did not send them all at once. He sent them in a series of droves to build up his brother from being just impressed to being in awe, telling each drover in turn to tell his brother that Jacob was just behind. In any Machiavellian maneuover, the mode of delivery is as important as the substance.
Then he sent his wives, his concubines and all his children across the river and he returned to remain on the far side from his brother all alone. Why alone? In fear of Esau attacking him? Was it a self-protection measure of a coward? Did he intend to desert as the Rashbam, Shmuel be Meir, the grandson of Rashi, argued? We are not told. What we are told is that when Jacob was alone,
a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. 27 Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 28 Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” 30 Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. 31 So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” 32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. 33 That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle. Genesis 32: 26-33)
Had the cunning he acquired deserted him when he had to come face-to-face once again with a brother bent on revenge? Is he unable to escape this trap? Where is the God that promised to save him? He does come face-to-face with God. Unlike in the ladder or ramp dream, God may no longer stand beside him, but he can directly confront God. The other reality: he is on his own this time. He confronts the other side of himself who no longer recognizes the other whom he has become. Has he lost being Jacob, the man of the book, and become Esau, but only on the surface, a poor replica without Esau’s skill and daring and at the cost of his original scholarly instincts?
He wrestles with his alter ego and comes to a stalemate, but not before that alter ego, that spirit of Esau that he had incorporated within himself over the years, injures him in the hip, crippling him and ensuring that he will definitely not be able to take Esau on physically, but also that he will never be able to run again. At the same time, God is not present to intervene to save him. Instead, Jacob had learned to wrestle with the divine spirit within, with the contradictions that can incapacitate, and to carry the wound from the fight physically just as he is healed spiritually. In the morning, even crippled, he is now ready to fight Esau if he has to. He is now Israel, one who wrestles with God rather than one who simply follows God and depends on divine intervention for survival. He becomes the God-wrestler.
He divides his group in two phalanxes. The text and interpreters suggest he did it to allow a remnant to escape (Nachmanides). But he is no longer the coward he once was. He is now Israel. He is now an intelligent military commander. If he has to fight Esau, he will do so using a pincer movement, the very same traditional military maneuover that Paul Kagame used to win victories over and over again against the extremist genocidaires in 1994 in Rwanda, the very way an inferior equipped and manned army can defeat a stronger and better gunned enemy. This is a military maneuover not inconsistent with saving a remnant if that becomes necessary. But it seems clear that he is expecting a battle. Going to battle and planning one half of your side to escape if the battle ensues, seems moronic.
Precisely because he is willing to fight, he does not have to. His brother hugs him on their reunion. There will be no final battle between the twins. They are reconciled. And Esau asks Jacob to share the land between them.
But the new Israel is still also Jacob and not simply Esau. He was able to foresee that this would mean trouble. And he neither wanted to nor could wrestle with his brother again – for wealth, for a birthright, for a blessing. The only way he could remain Israel, the one who was both Jacob and Esau, was by clearly saying that he could not keep up with Esau on the physical front. So he agrees to follow Esau, but falls behind.
“And [Esau] said, ‘Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.’ But he said to him, ‘My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.’” (Genesis 33: 14-15)
Esau is Lord. Jacob refers to himself as his servant. Is this an act of distasteful obsequiousness? Or is it rather a way of avoiding an unnecessary future confrontation, For Jacob now knows he is Israel, the progenitor of a great nation, and does not need to win any victories over Esau. The servant will eventually become master of his own realm without the necessity of defeating the other, without the necessity of squashing Shechem and his tribe, without the necessity of becoming a regional or certainly a world power. As Joseph and Esther eventually do, he will live by his wits, by his intelligence and be quite happy to serve the masters of the physical universe, to live in booths when necessary, to celebrate Succot, so long as the nation is preserved. He will have learned the basic lesson of diplomacy, discretion and keeping some things hidden.