Joseph

Joseph – Parsha Vayeishev (Genesis 37)

by

Howard Adelman

This parsha is but the first of four (Miketz, Vayigash and Vayeh as well) telling the story of Joseph, a story which Andrew Lloyd Weber told in one musical evening in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. That was not quite the interpretation of the story I would tell. My version is told in the shadow of Jacob wrestling with the stranger, perhaps the same stranger who would redirect Joseph’s search for his brothers from Shechem to Dotham. It is also the story told against the much fainter shadow of the treatment of Dinah, someone also effectively cast out by her brothers. And it is a story that, after this parsha, will be interrupted by the tale of Tamar and Judah.

“This, then, is the line of Jacob,” begins the parsha. But verse 2 which effectively ends the period of the three patriarchs, though Jacob would live many more years after Joseph was sold off to slavery in Egypt, does not, in fact, tell us about the entire lineage of Jacob, only of his twelve sons, including the late-born Benjamin who arrived after Jacob’s return from his uncle Laban. For in addition to the twelve sons that headed the twelve tribes of Israel, there was Dinah. Dinah was the seventh child of Leah after she gave birth to six sons. She was still young, probably a teenager, when the family returned and likely the youngest sibling except for Benjamin. She was probably just a year or two younger than Joseph who was seventeen when this week’s parsha begins.

Further, we are told that Jacob favoured Joseph. Not Benjamin who was indeed the youngest, but also the one Jacob may have partially resented for his beloved wife, Rachel, died in giving birth to him. Not Dinah who was about the same age as Joseph and Jacob’s only daughter. And why not? Don’t fathers usually dote on their daughters? Is it not strange that Jacob does not?

Dinah is clearly adventurous and perhaps a fun-loving teenager. Perhaps she was in search of a father figure. In Shechem, she goes out “to visit the women of the region.” Curiousity? To make friends her own age and get away from the stodgy old adults she felt suffocated her? Or, perhaps, even to get into some hanky-panky, where visiting the women of the region becomes an association with prostitutes rather than the wives and daughters of the local inhabitants. She goes out alone, unchaperoned. That was both dangerous and certainly contrary to standard practice. “Girls out alone are looking for trouble.” So the saying goes, however untrue.

Further, in the next portion, Tamar as a widow plays the role of a prostitute in order to get her father-in-law to sleep with her so she can conceive a child in his line. She does it when he went off to shear his sheep. Tamar is a widow. Judah is a widower. Thus, there is nothing wrong with their having sex. Tamar does not engage in intercourse for money, for bargaining for an ewe in return for sexual favours was a ruse, not the intention of making herself available. The only point here is that Dinah was never an adulteress – adultery was strictly forbidden. Nor was she a prostitute simply for “wanting to have some fun.” She would only have been a prostitute if she exchanged her sexual favours for money.

Dinah finds the “fun” she is looking for in Shechem. The spoiled local prince, used to having his way, espies her. Presumably he tries to woo her. Perhaps she resists. He rapes her. Or did he? The text reads that he took Dinah by force. But the precise Hebrew is that Shechem “saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.” (34:2) The force follows taking (as in taking a bride) and lying with her – וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ. The text does not say he forcefully took her. Further, the root,עָנָה , does not suggest coercion, but a response, a reaction, reciprocity and not that Dinah was taken by force. It suggests that she possibly responded and acceded to Shechem’s seduction.

Shechem was smitten. He not only wanted Dinah sexually. He fell in love with her and wanted to wed. He asked his father, Hamor, to pay the bridal price. Jacob heard that his daughter had been defiled, meaning, perhaps only that she had lost her virginity and not that she had been raped, but she had lost it to a man who was not a member of the tribe. To be defiled is something different than being a prostitute. This is explicitly made clear in reference to the High Priest. He (the high priest) “shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or one divorced, or a woman who has been defiled, or a harlot, these he shall not marry; but he shall take to wife a virgin of his own people, that he may not profane his children among his people; for I am the Lord who sanctifies him.” (Leviticus 20:13) Jacob learns that his daughter had lost her virginity to a man who was not a member of the tribe, presumably at the same time as he learned that the supposed “rapist” wanted to marry his daughter, a situation which usually allowed a perpetrator of rape to get off free of any reprimand.

Jacob, ever the cautious calculator, bides his time until his sons return from their shepherding duties. He is then told that the brothers were incensed. Perhaps they adored their little sister. Perhaps they felt guilty that she had been allowed to go off visiting by herself. Perhaps they had adopted a new moral dictum that rape was never forgivable, even if the rapist offered to marry the girl. After all, the text says that Shechem “had committed an outrage in Israel (my italics) by lying with Jacob’s daughter – a thing not to be done.” (Genesis 34:7) The new moral seemed to state that not only is rape a crime, but even sleeping with a shegetz is a crime, and then not just for a High Priest. A shegetz, from the Hebrew, sheketz, applies its connotations of detestable and abominable to non-Jewish young men.

For this transgression, which Shechem and his father probably did not know, not only Shechem, but his father and ALL the males of the tribe were slain. Not only slain. But murdered en mass after they had welcomed the Israelites to share their land, their women and their resources. The men of Shechem even went further. They agreed to be circumcised, but the text does not say that they agreed to adopt the God of Israel as their God. Hamor and Shechem convinced all the men of the city to go along with the deal. And when they were in terrible pain recovering from an adult circumcision, Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, full brothers of Dinah, “took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males.” (34:25) Even worse, the rest of Jacob’s sons, presumably including Joseph, unless the reference was only to full brothers, plundered the town, took all the women and children captive and appropriated all the herds and property.

Jacob was bothered by the action, not because it was heinous, but because his tribe was still relatively small and the local population could unite against the Israelites and destroy them. Jacob did not think of Dinah’s humiliation, which could in part have been redeemed if he had allowed her to marry Shechem. He did not say anything about the deceit and the horror of the crime his sons had committed. His only thought was to remonstrate his sons for putting them all in danger. Jacob had not changed character one whit since he had wrestled with the stranger. And then the brothers offered their lame excuse: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” (v. 31) even though Hamor’s and Shechem’s offer made it unequivocally clear that she would not be treated like a prostitute. Further, there was never any question until they utter this phrase that their sister had offered herself for money. She was at most taken by force, but more likely cooperated in the seduction.

The plunder and looting never bothered Jacob. Uncalculated murder, mayhem and warfare did. On his death bed, after he had remonstrated Reuben for sleeping with his concubine, Reuben, “unstable as water,” was the one who disgraced his father, the same Reuben who prevented his brothers from murdering Joseph with the intention of saving him before he was sold to slave traders. Jacob did not seem to know or understand who Reuben was and the sense of responsibility he carried. Simeon and Levi were chastised for using weapons as tools of lawlessness and allowing anger to determine their actions, including the murder of men. Those two sons were cursed and were to be “scattered in Israel.” (Genesis 49: 4-6)

What does the Dinah tale have to do with the Joseph story that virtually monopolizes the Torah portion this week and for a month after? I will not repeat the full story. It is all-too-familiar. What I want to first do is set key elements of the story against the backdrop of the “rape” of Dinah.

First, Joseph is portrayed as a snitch. He tells his father that the four sons of his concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, were engaged in evil, but we do not know what that evil was. Was Joseph, so much an expression of his creative imagination rather than rational calculation, making this accusation up? He is portrayed as a dreamer, not an exaggerator. But even then, was he not a whistle blower? There is no reason offered why he had to inform his father of his brothers’ behavior. But he is not quite the whistle blower, though he took enormous risks in informing on his brothers. Perhaps “snitch” is more accurate. We also learn that Joseph’s brothers despised him, presumably because he was his father’s favourite. They also treated him uncivilly, but this might have been more because he was a dandy and wore a coat of many colours. As Jacob was to Esau, so Joseph was to all his brothers. But also a snitch. A dandy. And his father’s favourite. We know where the detestation and rude treatment of Joseph by his brothers, however itself detestable, came from.

The brothers’ treatment of Joseph was adumbrated in their treatment of Dinah. Though the deplorable act of her two natural brothers killing all the men of Shechem and Haror’s town enormously overshadowed their treatment of Dinah, the way they thought of, discussed and referred to Dinah was horrific, though not nearly as great a crime as mass murder. Admittedly, they did not engage in honour killing just as they decided to fake Joseph’s death and instead sold him into slavery. The fact remains, Dinah, like Joseph, also had been terribly mistreated. Not only was she called a whore by her brothers, presumably attempting to defend their own honour more than hers. They never asked what Dinah wanted. They never gave any consideration of her feelings, her wishes, her desires or her persona.

They were not nice guys. And they became even worse.

There was a big difference between Dinah and Joseph. Dinah was an adventurer. Joseph was a dreamer, a dreamer who easily surpassed the reputation of his father’s. But Joseph as a youth lacked his father’s diplomacy. Tell it as it is without conniving or manipulation. Hence his dream of the sheaves in which the sheaves of his brothers bow down to those of Joseph. Joseph even had the gall to tell his brothers his dream. They despised the arrogant snitch and dandy even more. Even more troubling, he had a second dream of eleven stars, the sun and the moon all bowing down to him no longer disguised as a sheaf of wheat. Even his father and mother would eventually bow down to him. Can you imagine Jacob dreaming not only that Esau prostrated himself before him, but so did Isaac and Rebecca? That suggests how outlandish and inconsiderate Joseph’s behaviour was in telling both his father and his brothers of his dream.

Israel, not called Jacob here, sent Joseph to go out and look at how his brothers were taking care of his father’s sheep in Shechem. We know that something momentous is about to happen when Joseph responds to his father’s request with the phrase, “Hineni,” here I am. Jacob then adds: יד וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, לֶךְ-נָא רְאֵה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם אַחֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלוֹם הַצֹּאן, וַהֲשִׁבֵנִי, דָּבָר “Go now, see whether it is well with thy brethren, and well with the flock.” His first instruction is to report back on how they were fulfilling their responsibilities. Perhaps, remembering his favourite son’s reputation as a snitch, his follow up instruction, as if it was a second thought, was to report back also on the well-being of his brothers.

Was Joseph responding like his great-grandfather, Abraham, and stating that he was offering himself to the other, God in Abraham’s case, in complete dedication and commitment? If so, why would he have a dream where the sun, the symbol of his father, prostrates before him? The daylight of reason and calculation bows down to the night of dreams and fantasies, whereas, in the case of his mother, were she alive, the light of the night would bow down to the bright shine of the day. Joseph stood before Jacob in a very different way than Abraham stood before his God.

When Joseph went out to report on his brothers – one might ask why he was not out in the fields tending the sheep himself – he meets a stranger. He does not wrestle with him until dawn. Instead, the stranger – the man – asks him what or whom he was looking for since Joseph seemed lost. Not lost in the sense of not knowing where he was. But lost in the sense of bewildered when he could not find his brothers where they were supposed to be. They were not in the place where Abraham offered his sacrifice, where Joseph’s half-brothers killed all the adult males and conquered the city, but in a city nearby occupied by the Habiru who did not attack the Israelites, as Jacob feared, when the latter ravished Shechem, for the Habiru had always stood in rebellion against the overlordship of Shechem and his father.

Did Jacob send Joseph out to espy on his brothers because he feared their insensitivity to others and was worried that his sons might arouse the local populace because they resented the Israelites feeding their flocks on the rich pastures not rightfully belonging to them? For when Joseph told the stranger of his mission, the stranger told him that his brothers were not in Shechem, but were now in Dothan (דתין or דתן). They were not where they were supposed to be, but in the lush vale in Dothan. They were halfway between Shechem, now a holy place conquered by the Israelites, and Megiddo, that ancient fortress. Dothan was halfway between the symbol of both betrayal and promise and the fortress standing for the rule of might. Did its inhabitants fear the Israelites who had a powerful god or were they eager to prove they were bolder and stronger than these recent intruders who were now trespassing on their pasture land?

The brothers spied Joseph coming after them. They knew Joseph was a snitch and they were not where they had been told to be. So they conspired to kill their brother whom they always resented. Why then? Why there? Why were the brothers not in Shechem? Did it matter that they were not? Shechem is the first city Abraham entered when he reached the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:6) and where God proclaimed his promise to give the land to Abraham and his descendants. Jacob, when he returned from his uncle Laban in Padan-Aram, stopped in Shechem. Shechem is where he wrestled with the stranger or the angel. Shechem is where Jacob was renamed Israel. Shechem is the place where the rape or seduction of Dinah took place. So Shechem is both a very holy place as well as a place of defilement.

דת (dat), the first letters of Dothan, is a feminine noun. It means edict. It means law. It also means elect. Joseph was elected to lead his brothers. Israelites were elected to be a light unto the nations. “Dat” also refers to both a doorway and well, an entry point and a rich source of the abundance of the earth. It is the turning point where the Israelites will fulfill the promise made to Abraham and go down to Egypt, to the wealth of Egypt, where they would eventually become slaves and then gain their freedom and acquire their Torah and book of laws in their return to Canaan. Jacob was placed in the pit by his brothers when Reuben, the eldest, told his younger siblings not to get blood on their hands, but leave Jacob to be killed by the wild animals thereabout, though Reuben, carrying the responsibilities of the eldest, planned to come back and rescue Joseph.

The land, that will be Israel, was never forgotten as a promise. Although his brothers did not kill him and sold him as a slave to a group of Ishmaelite traders on route to Egypt, Joseph never forgot the land that he was promised to inherit and rule and, in his will, instructed that his bones be carried back and buried in that land. (Genesis 50:25) And it would be at Shechem that God repeated the promise and ordered Israel to return, both blessing and cursing the narrative of the nation’s tribulations. So Joshua split the nation, just as Jacob had once done, placing half in front of Mount Gerizim and half before Mount Ebal to confirm that, on the one hand, they would be blessed if they obeyed the law, and the other half to confirm that they would be cursed if they did not. Thus, Shechem, which was such a symbol of treachery and betrayal to both the goyim and by Jacob’s sons even their own father, was the place that finally and ironically would lead a cluster of rivalling tribes of one family into becoming a nation under the rule of law. But the Israelites were not yet ready. They had to be sent down to Egypt via Gothan for 400 years.

What role did Joseph’s dreams play in that trajectory and what role did the earlier treatment of Dinah? Though Joseph is carried off to Egypt in slavery, the crux of the narrative turns around the polarity of loyalty versus treachery. Shechem was where the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, buried the bones of their father on the very spot that Jacob bought initially from the family of Hamor. And Shechem became not only a symbol of both loyalty and betrayal, but a city that would stand for the rule of law. Further, it became, like Philadelphia, a city of brotherly love, a city of refuge, a city to which refugees from tyranny and the miscarriages of justice could flee and receive protection. However, it was at Gothan that Joseph was cast out as a refugee, placed into slavery and taken to Egypt.

In the process, a version of the trick that Jacob played on his father, Isaac, would be played on him. But instead of Jacob wearing the skin of a goat on his arm to appear hairy like Esau, his sons had soaked Joseph’s many-coloured coat in goat’s blood, suggesting that he was killed and eaten by wild animals. Dinah will disappear from history, the fate of an adventurer taking risks in an unknown land. Joseph will loom even larger in history than even Jacob as he becomes the vehicle for saving both the Egyptians and the Israelites from famine. For Jacob bends and uses his fantasies and dreams rather than deceit and manipulation to assume and wield power. Joseph is the progenitor of a very different kind of politics than the politics of might is right or the calculating politics of a Kissinger (Jacob) who uses positions of power to advance self-interests. Joseph will lead because he is a visionary of a global political landscape where helping one’s own and helping the other are synergistic and not oppositional. Joseph, the hero of the story, stands in contrast to Dinah who was treated as a prostitute by her brothers.

But it is well not to forget that Jacob was a whistleblower or a snitch, with all the problems of discerning whether what is leaked is false news or profound revelations.

With the help of Alex Zysman

Genesis Chapter 37 בְּרֵאשִׁית
א וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב, בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו–בְּאֶרֶץ, כְּנָעַן. 1 And Jacob dwelt in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.
ב אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב, יוֹסֵף בֶּן-שְׁבַע-עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת-אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן, וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת-בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת-בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו; וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת-דִּבָּתָם רָעָה, אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם. 2 These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren, being still a lad even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought evil report of them unto their father.
ג וְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אָהַב אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִכָּל-בָּנָיו–כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים הוּא, לוֹ; וְעָשָׂה לוֹ, כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colours.
ד וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו, כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו–וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ, אֹתוֹ; וְלֹא יָכְלוּ, דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם. 4 And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.
ה וַיַּחֲלֹם יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם, וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶחָיו; וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד, שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ. 5 And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren; and they hated him yet the more.
ו וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲלֵיהֶם: שִׁמְעוּ-נָא, הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתִּי. 6 And he said unto them: ‘Hear, I pray you, this dream which I have dreamed:
ז וְהִנֵּה אֲנַחְנוּ מְאַלְּמִים אֲלֻמִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַשָּׂדֶה, וְהִנֵּה קָמָה אֲלֻמָּתִי, וְגַם-נִצָּבָה; וְהִנֵּה תְסֻבֶּינָה אֲלֻמֹּתֵיכֶם, וַתִּשְׁתַּחֲוֶיןָ לַאֲלֻמָּתִי. 7 for, behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and, lo, my sheaf arose, and also stood upright; and, behold, your sheaves came round about, and bowed down to my sheaf.’
ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ, אֶחָיו, הֲמָלֹךְ תִּמְלֹךְ עָלֵינוּ, אִם-מָשׁוֹל תִּמְשֹׁל בָּנוּ; וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ, עַל-חֲלֹמֹתָיו וְעַל-דְּבָרָיו. 8 And his brethren said to him: ‘Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?’ And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words.
ט וַיַּחֲלֹם עוֹד חֲלוֹם אַחֵר, וַיְסַפֵּר אֹתוֹ לְאֶחָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּה חָלַמְתִּי חֲלוֹם עוֹד, וְהִנֵּה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְאַחַד עָשָׂר כּוֹכָבִים, מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לִי. 9 And he dreamed yet another dream, and told it to his brethren, and said: ‘Behold, I have dreamed yet a dream: and, behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.’
י וַיְסַפֵּר אֶל-אָבִיו, וְאֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיִּגְעַר-בּוֹ אָבִיו, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ: הֲבוֹא נָבוֹא, אֲנִי וְאִמְּךָ וְאַחֶיךָ, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת לְךָ, אָרְצָה. 10 And he told it to his father, and to his brethren; and his father rebuked him, and said unto him: ‘What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down to thee to the earth?’
יא וַיְקַנְאוּ-בוֹ, אֶחָיו; וְאָבִיו, שָׁמַר אֶת-הַדָּבָר. 11 And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind.
יב וַיֵּלְכוּ, אֶחָיו, לִרְעוֹת אֶת-צֹאן אֲבִיהֶם, בִּשְׁכֶם. 12 And his brethren went to feed their father’s flock in Shechem.
יג וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-יוֹסֵף, הֲלוֹא אַחֶיךָ רֹעִים בִּשְׁכֶם–לְכָה, וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֲלֵיהֶם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, הִנֵּנִי. 13 And Israel said unto Joseph: ‘Do not thy brethren feed the flock in Shechem? come, and I will send thee unto them.’ And he said to him: ‘Here am I.’
יד וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, לֶךְ-נָא רְאֵה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם אַחֶיךָ וְאֶת-שְׁלוֹם הַצֹּאן, וַהֲשִׁבֵנִי, דָּבָר; וַיִּשְׁלָחֵהוּ מֵעֵמֶק חֶבְרוֹן, וַיָּבֹא שְׁכֶמָה. 14 And he said to him: ‘Go now, see whether it is well with thy brethren, and well with the flock; and bring me back word.’ So he sent him out of the vale of Hebron, and he came to Shechem.
טו וַיִּמְצָאֵהוּ אִישׁ, וְהִנֵּה תֹעֶה בַּשָּׂדֶה; וַיִּשְׁאָלֵהוּ הָאִישׁ לֵאמֹר, מַה-תְּבַקֵּשׁ. 15 And a certain man found him, and, behold, he was wandering in the field. And the man asked him, saying: ‘What seekest thou?’
טז וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶת-אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ; הַגִּידָה-נָּא לִי, אֵיפֹה הֵם רֹעִים. 16 And he said: ‘I seek my brethren. Tell me, I pray thee, where they are feeding the flock.’
יז וַיֹּאמֶר הָאִישׁ, נָסְעוּ מִזֶּה–כִּי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֹמְרִים, נֵלְכָה דֹּתָיְנָה; וַיֵּלֶךְ יוֹסֵף אַחַר אֶחָיו, וַיִּמְצָאֵם בְּדֹתָן. 17 And the man said: ‘They are departed hence; for I heard them say: Let us go to Dothan.’ And Joseph went after his brethren, and found them in Dothan.
יח וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק; וּבְטֶרֶם יִקְרַב אֲלֵיהֶם, וַיִּתְנַכְּלוּ אֹתוֹ לַהֲמִיתוֹ. 18 And they saw him afar off, and before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him.
יט וַיֹּאמְרוּ, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו: הִנֵּה, בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת הַלָּזֶה–בָּא. 19 And they said one to another: ‘Behold, this dreamer cometh.
כ וְעַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ, וְנַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הַבֹּרוֹת, וְאָמַרְנוּ, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ; וְנִרְאֶה, מַה-יִּהְיוּ חֲלֹמֹתָיו. 20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say: An evil beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’
כא וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ. 21 And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his life.’
כב וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן, אַל-תִּשְׁפְּכוּ-דָם–הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְיָד אַל-תִּשְׁלְחוּ-בוֹ: לְמַעַן, הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, אֶל-אָבִיו. 22 And Reuben said unto them: ‘Shed no blood; cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him’–that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father.
כג וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר-בָּא יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו; וַיַּפְשִׁיטוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף אֶת-כֻּתָּנְתּוֹ, אֶת-כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו. 23 And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colours that was on him;
כד וַיִּקָּחֻהוּ–וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ, הַבֹּרָה; וְהַבּוֹר רֵק, אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם. 24 and they took him, and cast him into the pit–and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.
כה וַיֵּשְׁבוּ, לֶאֱכָל-לֶחֶם, וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ, וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד; וּגְמַלֵּיהֶם נֹשְׂאִים, נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט–הוֹלְכִים, לְהוֹרִיד מִצְרָיְמָה. 25 And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt.
כו וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה, אֶל-אֶחָיו: מַה-בֶּצַע, כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת-אָחִינוּ, וְכִסִּינוּ, אֶת-דָּמוֹ. 26 And Judah said unto his brethren: ‘What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?
כז לְכוּ וְנִמְכְּרֶנּוּ לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, וְיָדֵנוּ אַל-תְּהִי-בוֹ, כִּי-אָחִינוּ בְשָׂרֵנוּ, הוּא; וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ, אֶחָיו. 27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brethren hearkened unto him.
כח וַיַּעַבְרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִדְיָנִים סֹחֲרִים, וַיִּמְשְׁכוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִן-הַבּוֹר, וַיִּמְכְּרוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף לַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, בְּעֶשְׂרִים כָּסֶף; וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת-יוֹסֵף, מִצְרָיְמָה. 28 And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt.
כט וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל-הַבּוֹר, וְהִנֵּה אֵין-יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר; וַיִּקְרַע, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו. 29 And Reuben returned unto the pit; and, behold, Joseph was not in the pit; and he rent his clothes.
ל וַיָּשָׁב אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיֹּאמַר: הַיֶּלֶד אֵינֶנּוּ, וַאֲנִי אָנָה אֲנִי-בָא. 30 And he returned unto his brethren, and said: ‘The child is not; and as for me, whither shall I go?’
לא וַיִּקְחוּ, אֶת-כְּתֹנֶת יוֹסֵף; וַיִּשְׁחֲטוּ שְׂעִיר עִזִּים, וַיִּטְבְּלוּ אֶת-הַכֻּתֹּנֶת בַּדָּם. 31 And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a he-goat, and dipped the coat in the blood;
לב וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֶת-כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים, וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, זֹאת מָצָאנוּ: הַכֶּר-נָא, הַכְּתֹנֶת בִּנְךָ הִוא–אִם-לֹא. 32 and they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said: ‘This have we found. Know now whether it is thy son’s coat or not.’
לג וַיַּכִּירָהּ וַיֹּאמֶר כְּתֹנֶת בְּנִי, חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ; טָרֹף טֹרַף, יוֹסֵף. 33 And he knew it, and said: ‘It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn in pieces.’
לד וַיִּקְרַע יַעֲקֹב שִׂמְלֹתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם שַׂק בְּמָתְנָיו; וַיִּתְאַבֵּל עַל-בְּנוֹ, יָמִים רַבִּים. 34 And Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.
לה וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל-בָּנָיו וְכָל-בְּנֹתָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ, וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם, וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֵרֵד אֶל-בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה; וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ, אָבִיו. 35 And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said: ‘Nay, but I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.’ And his father wept for him.
לו וְהַמְּדָנִים–מָכְרוּ אֹתוֹ, אֶל-מִצְרָיִם: לְפוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה, שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים. {פ} 36 And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard. {P}

The God-Wrestler

The God-Wrestler: Track II Diplomacy

Parashat Vayishlach Genesis 32:4−36:43

by

Howard Adelman

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:

  1. What does it mean for Jacob to wrestle with “ish”?
  2. The Meeting of Jacob and Esau
  3. The Rape of Dinah and the Sack of Shechem
  4. 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.