Jacob and Esau: Part II What’s In A Name?

Jacob [J] fled from his home to Aram, not because he felt guilty about stealing the blessing intended for his older brother, Esau [E], but because his mother told him that she overheard E say that he would kill J. (Genesis 27:41-42) There are a number of possible interpretations for the flight; many are not mutually exclusive:

  1. Rebekah [R] heard the threat and thought it was real and dangerous, but since E was a man who lived in the immediate, a man of impulse, she presumed the resentment and anger of her older twin son would subside, so J was urged to flee temporarily for his own safety;
  2. In context, the threat was an expression of understandable anger – I’m going to kill him – rather than of intent, but R wanted to err on the side of caution;
  3. R wanted J to flee even though she knew E would not kill J; after all, E was a hunter only for food and not for sport. E was not a killer. E had shown no inclination to kill his brother when J stole his birthright;

We could go on. The various interpretations suggest different motives and different human characteristics for each of the protagonists when they separate and when they get together again. J and Laban had not parted on good terms for his return trip either. In fact, Laban drew a line in the sand – in actuality, he built a pillar as a territorial marker. If J ever returned and crossed that line with any hostile intent, God would have to render judgement between them.

On route from Aran, J then entered Jordan and encountered God’s angels at a place he named Mahanaim, God’s camp. Why Mahanaim (מַחֲנָיִם)? Mahanaim means “two camps.” There will be two places to pass through, Mahanaim and Peniel. But neither will be the end point of the trip. Jacob will also divide his entourage into two camps in preparation for his meeting with E. There are also two brothers, each with his own camp. The divisions between all the sets are significant. The division between the two place names is one between a place of God versus a place for building an altar to God, though it is somewhat strange that J would not build an altar where he had met and been accompanied by angels.

What were the real feelings between the two brothers and what do they say about the character of each when J is just about to meet up with his brother two decades later. Again, there are several possible interpretations about the motives impelling the return. It could be a moment of reconciliation initiated by one of the twins. In the excellent movie directed by Peter Farrelly, Green Book, which we saw last evening, the issue of the reconciliation of estranged brothers is mentioned. Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a renowned black classical pianist on a concert tour through the Midwest and the South of the USA, is sitting in the back seat. He finally reveals a bit about himself to Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen), a working-class Italian-American who had agreed to be Dr. Shirley’s driver and bodyguard on the tour. Shirley tells Tony that he has one relative, an estranged brother. Tony advises Shirley that he should seek a reconciliation and that will only happen if someone takes the initiative to have a meeting. You have to start somewhere.

In the movie, nothing comes of the advice. It is simply a moment to help reveal Dr. Shirley’s profound loneliness. In Genesis, there is estrangement, but when Jacob initiates a meeting after over twenty years, it becomes clear that J does not want a reconciliation; he just wants to live without threat in his homeland.

ד  וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם. 4 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom.
ה  וַיְצַו אֹתָם, לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תֹאמְרוּן, לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו:  כֹּה אָמַר, עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב, עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, וָאֵחַר עַד-עָתָּה. 5 And he commanded them, saying: ‘Thus shall ye say unto my lord Esau: Thus saith thy servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now.
ו  וַיְהִי-לִי שׁוֹר וַחֲמוֹר, צֹאן וְעֶבֶד וְשִׁפְחָה; וָאֶשְׁלְחָה לְהַגִּיד לַאדֹנִי, לִמְצֹא-חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ. 6 And I have oxen, and asses and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favour in thy sight.’

Certainly, J is portrayed as fearing the return. On the one hand, he had to flee Aram and the clutches of Laban if he wanted to establish his own dynasty. However, the prospect of return did not seem promising either. Would E still hold a grudge? Would E still want to kill him? J, ever the innovator and dissembler, becomes as proactive in meeting up with E as he was in leaving Laban. He sent a message ahead to E about his return with the instruction for the servant to say where he had been – with his uncle Laban – and to send “oxen, and asses and flocks, and men-servants and maid-servants” and to tell E, whom he addressed as his Lord, that these gifts were intended so that J “may find favour in thy sight.”

No queries about their parents. No asking about whether E was married and had children. No request about how his health was. Nothing is said that J missed E. They were twins after all. And certainly no mention of affection or even apology for what J had done. Just an echo of Genesis 6:8 when Noah “found favour with the Lord” after God despaired about his decision to create humans and about the wicked consequence of that decision. In deep and profound regret, God vowed to destroy the world. Except Noah. J effectively sent his brother material goods and asked that he would himself find favour with E just as Noah had with God.

Recall that J’s mother told him that she would let him know when he could come back safely. She never did. Was this because E’s anger never subsided? Or was it because J had become so busy and so ambitious (and so in love) that his memory of his family had faded? The messenger returns and tells J that E is coming out to meet him with 400 men. The messenger does not say they were armed. Isn’t it reasonable to assume E was out to get him? If E just wanted to welcome J back, E could have come alone or with a servant or two. He did not have to bring 400 men.

Perhaps there was another motive for bringing the 400. E may have wanted to show that, contrary to the blessing that J received, E was more than blessed himself. He could command an army of 400. “I have grown very strong,” E wanted to convey to J.

J, a transactional diplomat to the end, does not send forth his men, either armed or unarmed. He sends forth his womenfolk and servants in two waves with gifts from his flocks, while he, cautious as ever, adopts a backup plan and takes up a defensive position so he can escape if needed.

בראשית לב:ח…וַיַּחַץ אֶת הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ וְאֶת הַצֹּאן וְאֶת הַבָּקָר וְהַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת.לב:ט וַיֹּאמֶר אִם יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה. Gen 32:8…He divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps,32:9 thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.”

But if he wanted to escape, why did J not just send sufficient animals and servants to show how prosperous he had become? Why divide his forces in two equal parts? It seems that he really feared E and may have wanted to send enough of too much to prove his prosperity without risking everything. At the same time, he wanted to hold back sufficient so that he could remain rich.

בראשית לב: וְיַעֲקֹב הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ בוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים. לב:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא מַחֲנָיִם. Gen 32:2 Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him.

32:3 When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim.

At Mahanaim, God was named אֵל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (El-god-of-Israel), or possibly El (is) my God. Not YHWH. Not Adonai. But El. God becomes Jacob’s ruler. God becomes his God. Not a family god let alone a god for all of humanity.

The famous section now makes its appearance. J had sent all his family, all his servants, all his children across the river Jabbok and remained alone. J wrestles with the man or with an angel or with God or with his own inner demons or with E in his imagination immediately before their reunion.

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.

In the above verses, Jacob becomes Israel. He is renamed after wrestling all night with a “man” who was unable to pin J down. That “man” wrenched J’s hip. It was dislocated. The “man” asked to stop the match. It was daybreak. They had been wrestling all night. Jacob agreed, but only if the “man” blessed him. The man asked after his name. “Jacob,” he said. No longer. The man renamed him Israel, but refused to disclose his own name when asked by J. J named the place, Peniel for J declared that he had come face-to-face with the divine. We recall that upon meeting E, J said that it was like coming face-to-face with God.


The hip is where the thorax and abdomen connect with the legs that allow humans to move forward. The hip is key to locomotion. With a dislocated hip, J was forced to slow down, to stop calculating and pushing towards the future and to stop and think and consider before he went on. Look what happens at Peniel. J arrives there limping from the injury he suffered during his wrestling match. J builds his altar. At Peniel, God gives J instructions. The point of this trip, God tells J, is not to build altars to me, whether at Mahanaim or Peniel, but that J must return to Beth-El where J saw the ladder to heaven. That is where the altar should be built. Why Beth-El versus Mahanaim or Peniel?

Because J and God had a deal. God promised to bring J back to the land; J promised to make God his El, his leader. That was a promise made at Beth-El and it is to Beth-El that J must return to ensure the fulfillment of the promise. Eternal return here has a different meaning. To the place where you had your real beginning, where your destiny was clearly set forth for you, to that place shall you return. And though there are places where God is present and places where one thanks and worships God, the key place is where promises are made and promises are kept to ensure the future of a nation.

J then finally meets up with his estranged twin, E. embraces J. My former colleague, Marty Lockshin, in his commentary, “Esau Hates Jacob: But is Antisemitism a Halakha?” notes that, “Esau kisses Jacob upon the latter’s return from Haran.” There is no conflict. Esau is overwhelmed at the sight of his younger brother. He hugs him. While he wept and raged when J stole his blessing, he is now just as emotional with happiness with the reunion. Famously, in the Torah scroll, the word kiss is dotted (puncta extraordinaria), implying not that “a kiss is but a kiss,” but that this kiss was something more.

What are we to make of the reunion? Rashbam, against the general consensus, argues that E had only friendly and not hostile intentions. Jacob projected Laban onto E who, unlike Laban, was simply overjoyed to see his brother. J misunderstood E’s friendly intentions. E had always been direct with his emotions. He neither strategized nor lived for the long haul. J, in contrast with E, had remained as suspicious and devious as ever. However, when he saw how E had responded to their reunion, J insisted that E accept his gifts for “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Genesis 33:10) Was this just fake flattery for Jacob insisted on returning separately and without accepting E’s offer of men to guard his entourage?

Let me now try to put the various pieces together to sort out the meaning of the narrative and specifically of the two names of Jacob. As I indicated above, in the geographical underpinnings, there are borders – between Jacob and Laban, between potentially hostile forces. Good fences make good neighbours. There is the place where God promises to protect you and the place where you thank God for the protection offered and build an altar. But the key place is neither, but Beth-El, the place where there is to be found a ladder or stairway to heaven, the place where promises on both sides are fulfilled. The ladder to heaven is the stairway – not roadway – of the future of a people.

The story is about the future, about destiny, about what it will take to make a nation. As good hearted, as strong, as close to his feelings as E was, in spite of his being the older brother, he did not have the “stuff” to build a nation. As an older brother, he was a fighter pilot but not the calculating strategist needed for long term survival. The text reads more like Machiavelli’s Prince than as a moral tale or, alternatively, a tale of hard realism. Jacob becomes Israel, not because he is a moral character or because he is able to fight for his life, but because he knows when to stay and craft a victory over time but flee when necessary to survive. He is neither a feelie nor a wheelie, but steely, with a two-sided character that is at once focused on the self, on the nation he would found, while keeping his eye on the long range future.

You may disagree with this as an interpretation. You may also reject the message. These are two different decisions to make.






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