Jacob’s Character – Part A

And Jacob Fought the Angel – Part A

by

Howard Adelman

To repeat. the relevant verses from Chapter 32 of Genesis are:

כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. 25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’
כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. 28 And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’
ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there.
לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל: כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’
לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ. 32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh.
לג עַל-כֵּן לֹא-יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר עַל-כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה: כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה. 33 Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein.

“And Jacob Fought the Angel” is the name of Elie Wiesel’s chapter on Jacob in his book, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends in which he deals with Jacob’s struggle. What is Wiesel’s portrait of Jacob? Wiesel places the event of wrestling with the “angel” in the context of the anticipated meeting with his long estranged brother the next day. When Jacob should have been preparing for that meeting, for Wiesel, he was in fact embarking on a radically different course. As you will see, I interpret the struggle very differently, as a proof text of his character rather than a radical departure from it.

How does Wiesel characterize the wrestling match? Silence. Absurd. Opaque. No reason is offered for why the struggle took place. Was it deliberate or accidental? Only Wiesel, without any justification, characterizes the stranger, the angel, as the assailant, as the aggressor. But how can he make such an assertion when the text is a blank? The only words uttered by the stranger at dawn are, “Let me go, for the day breaketh.”

Wiesel characterizes Jacob’s response as belligerent. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob set conditions. That is uncontroversial. Wiesel also inserts the claim that the angel demurred. Certainly, the angel did not offer a blessing right off the bat. But then Wiesel adds another action not in the text: “they clutched each other once more.” I assume that what Wiesel means to say is that they continued to grapple with and hold onto one another. (See Karen Schmidt’s sculpture, “Jacob Wrestling With the Angel”) Jacob did not let go and then grab the angel once again. Further, Wiesel wrote that, after the awesome fight, “in the end they had to give up, neither being able to proclaim victory.” But the clear and unambiguous text reads that the angel conceded that Jacob had prevailed. The “angel” had to give up when Jacob would not. This may not mean victory. It could mean simply that Jacob won because he was willing and able to continue the fight, but after dawn, the angel was not willing to do so. There is no explanation for this unwillingness except that it had to do with the dawning of a new day. Was it the angel of death and darkness that had visited Jacob and Jacob prevailed simply by surviving the battle?

Wiesel claims that Jacob was not the only one injured. So was the angel, but not physically. His sense of self and morale were injured. Again, there is nothing in the text suggesting such a result, but Elie Wiesel’s interpretation entails reading into the blanks and filling out the narrative sketch. Wiesel writes that the two parted friends or at least accomplices. Jacob let the angel go (again called the aggressor by Wiesel) and the angel responded by giving Jacob a new name – Israel. Though there is controversy about the meaning of the name, it is generally taken to mean “he who prevails with God.” “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.”

Who was the man with whom Jacob fought? For he is named as a man, as “ish”? Was he just a stranger, any stranger, a human-all-too-human? Or was he a messenger of God, an angel? Or was he God Himself as Jacob appeared to declare? Was he Jacob’s imaginary construct of the battle he expected in meeting up with his brother? Or was he really struggling with himself projected as another? When Jacob asked the stranger who he was, the answer was not forthcoming. Perhaps no answer could be offered because part of the struggle entails determining who Jacob’s opponent was in the short tale.

Then there is the problem of the new name. What was wrong with the old one? Why that new one? And why does Jacob continue to be called Jacob and not Israel after the battle? When Abram becomes Abraham, the old name disappears. Jacob keeps both his old and his new name. Wiesel says about this that it is not just a puzzle but unlike the previous questions, with this renaming we are left in total darkness. We do not know who Jacob’s opponent was, why they engaged in a personal struggle or why the outcome was the renaming of Jacob. An enigma within a larger puzzle!

Wiesel then reviews Jacob’s character as it has been revealed in his life narrative up until this point. “Jacob is the least interesting [of the patriarchs] up to this point.” Interesting! His life lacked greatness until this point. His problems were interpersonal and did not rise to a larger-than-life level. Abraham had been a pioneer. Isaac had been an inspired poet. Both had charisma whereas Jacob was an introvert, shy, easily manipulated, fearful, a mediocrity at best even as he accumulated wives, concubines, children and wealth on a far larger scale than either Abraham or Isaac. He was like a very rich man whom adventurers and artists demean, not to mention intellectuals. There is no puzzle about why Isaac preferred his brother Esau. He had neither majesty nor a sense of real tragedy. Nothing controversial in any of this.

Then the surprise. “The portrait as drawn in the Bible – before Peniel – is striking in its pallor. It depicts a man straightforward but unimaginative, honest, but anxious to avoid risks. An introverted, frustrated man given to fits of temper, leading a marginal life. A weakling, manipulated by others. Everyone made him do things – and he obeyed. Such was his nature. Incapable of initiative, he could never make up his mind. His mother – Rebecca – gave him the idea of disguising himself as Esau…He cried but he obeyed. And it was Rebecca who, once the act was played, advised him to go away for awhile, to take refuge with his uncle Laban, and again, it was she who gave him his instructions for the journey, including whom not to marry. Naturally [why naturally???], he promptly fell in love with the first girl he met – Rachel – and blushing like a shy adolescent, wanted to marry her on the spot. Yet somehow he ended up marrying her sister. Doubly unhappy, he loved someone he could not marry and was loved by someone he had married without love. He did not complain about it, not too much.”

Some of this is recognizable. An innocent abroad, manipulated and manipulatable. But guileless? After how he dealt with Laban? But Wiesel’s response might be that the affair with the streaked, the spotted and the mottled sheep was God’s idea, not Jacob’s. But where is the evidence to say he was unimaginative? Is this not a Nobel-Prize-winning writer’s condescension? And, most of all, why honest? Is Wiesel suggesting that Jacob was just a tabula rasa corrupted by others? But surely even one who abets a fraud, let alone is the instrument for perpetrating it, is neither honest nor innocent.

Further, Jacob could not be compared to Lot, generally considered the epitome of the average man. There is no indication that Jacob, though an acquisitor on a grand scale, had a taste for luxury, comfort or pleasure as Lot did. And if Lot is the closest comparable, why does Jacob forgo what seemed to be Lot’s greatest virtue – his hospitality, his sense of decency when he met strangers? Lot invited them in to share his food. Jacob fought with the stranger. Lot was courageous, willing to risk himself to protect his entourage. Jacob held back behind the lines with half his troops when Esau approached with 400 men. If Lot was redeemed by his courage, his indecisiveness, his faint-hearted character, his angst, why would Jacob, who is reborn as Israel, remain risk-averse and reliant on Plan B if Plan A failed?

Look at Jacob compared to Abraham, a coward if there ever was one, saying his beautiful wife was his sister lest he be killed by the nobility he encountered. Instead, he delivered Sarah up, not once but twice. And look at his own father, who played the same game with Abimelach, king of the Philistines. Talk about someone who obeys blindly! Abraham was willing to sacrifice his long-wished-for son simply because God told him to do so. Kierkegaard may have celebrated this act as a profound expression of faith, but I read the story as an expression of Abraham’s supine character that makes Jacob comparatively look like a warrior. And Kierkegaard himself, unlike Jacob, was a coward of the worst order, an ugly man offered the most beautiful woman in Denmark who then breaks his engagement and confesses, “Had I faith, I would have married Regina.” Jacob, unlike Kierkegaard, was not a faithless man, but one who, once he declared his love, was determined to see it through whatever it took. And this is key!

Let’s go back. Who are the main characters in this brief drama? There is Jacob. It is important to get his character right at this point if we are to understand what is going on. Compare Jacob with his father, Isaac. He was not a little child when Abraham took him up the mountain to be sacrificed. He carried the wood for the fire. And he was not an innocent abroad. He had to know what it was all about. He asked where was the animal to be sacrificed. And it is Isaac who in his old age is so easily tricked that rabbinical commentators will twist and turn and go to great lengths to insist he had to be in on the gimmick. But Isaac was the archetypal naïve, passive and submissive son. Jacob was the wily one, determined not to be like his father, but also not to follow in the footsteps of his brother who was the exemplar of a strong warrior son. Jacob was a romantic.

Look at how Isaac gained a wife. A servant did all the work for him in advance. Jacob fell for Rachel when he saw her. It was love at first sight – in contrast to Wiesel’s scepticism about such a process. That was simply the foolish infatuation of a young inexperienced man, according to Wiesel. But if so, why did Jacob love Rachel his whole life? He had another wife. He had two concubines. Rachel took the longest time to conceive. But he loved her without qualification. His love was unstinting. And unlike his father, he never paid a bride price. He worked to gain what he loved. Why does Wiesel ignore this magnificent trait of Jacob’s?

Let us review Jacob’s life and character and spot where Wiesel makes some outlandish claims. Like Sarah before her, Isaac had to plea with Elohim so that Rebecca could conceive. Indeed, she had twins. And the Lord said, “Two nations are in your womb. Two separate peoples shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other. And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23) Before we know anything about each child’s character, we know their destinies. Each shall father a different nation. Jacob’s children, unlike the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will remain united, one out of many. Though it is often interpreted that the nation founded by Jacob will be the mightier, I think the test tells us the opposite. It is Esau’s nation that will be the mightier in the double sense – it will be much larger, much stronger, but also in the sense that it will be ruled, not by law, no matter how much law will be integral to its success, but by the principle that might is right.

But the nation of Esau will serve the nation of Jacob. In what sense? This is the real mystery of that story. How will the weaker and far less numerous of the two peoples be a ruler over the other? Why will might serve what issues from Jacob? Jacob is indeed, as Wiesel portrayed him, an introvert, a mild-mannered male, a mother’s boy rather than a sports-loving outdoorsman. TheNadvantage there is the first exchange between them. And it is an exchange. And it is not one initiated by his mother. When Esau came in from the outdoors and Jacob was cooking a stew (a male cooking stew!!!) and asked for some because he was famished, Jacob said, “Sure, but trade me your birthright for the stew.”

There is guile. There is initiative. You are desperate. I will take advantage of your desperation. Further, he does not ask in exchange for a bowl of stew the gift of the next animal that Esau slays. Jacob asks for Esau’s birthright. What is a birthright, a bekhorah, in the Torah? It is what is due to the firstborn. For Jacob, though a twin, was born clinging to the heel of Esau. Instead of the double inheritance, Esau was being asked to give up half of his inheritance and transfer it to Jacob. What chutzpah to ask for such an exchange in return only for a bowl of lentil stew and a small loaf of bread! But a birthright implies more than a material inheritance. It implies a right to become the spiritual leader of a people, Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son, was bestowed that honour even though it was later transferred by God to the children of Levi.

Does this suggest that Jacob was only a passive manipulated character? He was calculating but not tricky. He did not trick Esau into giving up his birthright. He just revealed that Esau with his impetuosity, with his focus on the immediate rather than the long game, was incapable of founding a nation based on the rule of law, the foundation of which was a tort or contract, a willing exchange made between two mature individuals. Already, Jacob revealed he was a keen reader of another’s character. As I indicated in an earlier blog, this is not only a story of the second-born displacing the first-born as the spiritual head of a people, but the character of the second-born intended to rule over the first-born, for civilians to rule over warriors, for intellect and careful and calculated thought to rule over the impetuous, for diplomacy to rule over the resort to war whenever possible. That is also the meaning of the encounter between Jacob and Esau when they come together after twenty years of estrangement.

Look at Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s interpretation. (Gunther, who witnessed my marriage to my wife in exchange for my helping him on his report on refugees, was the editor of the Torah and commentary used worldwide by Reform congregations.) He found Jacob’s actions in this case to be morally reprehensible. I did not. Machiavellianism is integral to political success. In myself, I found I was inadequate to such a task. Not because I was not a good bargainer, but because I could not make the bargain that would so benefit my self and the future look trivial. To be Machiavellian requires that one be such a magician that the observers do not even know you are playing a trick. Jacob was already shown to be brilliant in this way even when he was quite young.

Then comes the story of Jacob’s tricking his father out of the blessing intended for Esau, coached in doing so by his own mother, Rebecca, and obedient in spite of his reluctance, not because of the trickery, but by the fear of being caught by so simple and clumsy a ruse as wearing an animal skin to seem hairy to his blind father. Rebecca urges him on. “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them [two lambs] for me,” so that I can prepare a tasty dish that your father loves. And anyone who loves bagels as much as I do does not find it hard to understand why Isaac fell for the trick. Set aside your doubts. Just eat the bagel you were offered.

So what becomes of this mediocrity that Wiesel tries to put forth as an accurate description of Jacob’s character? It evaporates into a mist. It isn’t his adventure at Mount Peniel that makes Jacob. It is who he is that allows him to prevail at Mount Peniel. He doesn’t gain majesty there; he is already majestic. The only question is why when on the surface he appears to be so ordinary.

That revelation comes in the story of his marriages to Leah and Rachel. There is character. There is to be found wisdom. There is to be found decisiveness and commitment. And it will not be based on a cold calculation, but on true love for another. The core of the story of Jacob is his romance with Rachel, his refusal to set aside her older sister Leah even though he was tricked into marrying her, and, most of all, precisely his surrender to the will of women rather than the will of man. Jacob was a mother’s boy. That is his great virtue. He did allow Rachel and Leah to work out between them who would sleep with him each night, one of them or one of the concubines. But nothing, absolutely nothing, diminished his love and commitment to Rachel. This did not make him an infatuated nebbish as Wiesel suggests, but made him worthy of becoming the father of a great nation, the nation of Israel and deserving of the name, Israel.

Jacob was steadfast in his love, but always recognized that it was women who would, and should, determine the future. It was women who laboured in childbirth and were the initiators of what would be, not simply of what could be made through technological progress. Though women certainly have proved to be just as capable in that realm. But it is because of the pact between Leah and Rachel that Jacob’s sons stayed together as one nation. Isaac’s sons never did so, Abraham’s sons certainly failed to do so. Only Jacob had the wisdom and foresight to understand where real power is to be found. It is in family. It is the ones who hold the family together.

So who is the stranger with whom Jacob wrestled?

To Be Continued

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