Jacob’s Dreams – Part II
Before I begin my interpretation of Jacob’s two experiences with the divine referred to in my last blog, I want to introduce a third dream of Jacob’s that he had between the two already described, the first when he left his father’s house on route to his uncle’s, and the second upon his return and prior to his encounter once again with his brother Esau.
י וַיְהִי, בְּעֵת יַחֵם הַצֹּאן, וָאֶשָּׂא עֵינַי וָאֵרֶא, בַּחֲלוֹם; וְהִנֵּה הָעַתֻּדִים הָעֹלִים עַל-הַצֹּאן, עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים וּבְרֻדִּים. 10 And it came to pass at the time that the flock conceived, that I lifted up mine eyes, and saw in a dream, and, behold, the he-goats which leaped upon the flock were streaked, speckled, and grizzled.
יא וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי מַלְאַךְ הָאֱלֹהִים, בַּחֲלוֹם–יַעֲקֹב; וָאֹמַר, הִנֵּנִי. 11 And the angel of God said unto me in the dream: Jacob; and I said: Here am I.
יב וַיֹּאמֶר, שָׂא-נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה כָּל-הָעַתֻּדִים הָעֹלִים עַל-הַצֹּאן, עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים, וּבְרֻדִּים: כִּי רָאִיתִי, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר לָבָן עֹשֶׂה לָּךְ. 12 And he said: Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the he-goats which leap upon the flock are streaked, speckled, and grizzled; for I have seen all that Laban doeth unto thee.
יג אָנֹכִי הָאֵל, בֵּית-אֵל, אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁחְתָּ שָּׁם מַצֵּבָה, אֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לִּי שָׁם נֶדֶר; עַתָּה, קוּם צֵא מִן-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, וְשׁוּב, אֶל-אֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֶּךָ. 13 I am the God of Beth-el, where thou didst anoint a pillar, where thou didst vow a vow unto Me. Now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy nativity.’
Prior to the telling of this dream, Laban’s sons, the brothers-in-law of Jacob, were jealous at the wealth that Jacob had accumulated and were “kvetching” that what Jacob had, rightfully belonged to their father and should be part of their inheritance. Further, Laban’s attitude had also shifted; presumably, he was no longer as trusting of Jacob. At this time, Jacob received the message from his God instructing him to return “to the land of your fathers where you were born.” (verse 3) God promises that he will be with Jacob on the return journey and in the dream, also seems to justify Jacob’s taking ALL the sheep in his care, not just the speckled and the streaked, but the mottled as well.
Jacob then meets with Leah and Rachel, explains his misgivings about the changed attitude in Laban’s household and, then seemingly in contradiction of a claim of change, says that their father has always cheated him, changing his wages time and again. First he was promised that he could keep all the speckled sheep. But when all the baby sheep were speckled, Laban changed gears and said that Jacob could keep all the streaked young. Then all the newly born were streaked. As Jacob interpreted it, God meant him to have all of Laban’s newly born. The meaning of the plain text seems clear enough and Jacob interprets the dream as one of entitlement.
Both Leah and Rachel reinforce Jacob’s interpretation and believe that it is now time to leave the land of Laban and head to Jacob’s home. “Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the dark, not telling him that he was fleeing, and fled with all that he had.” (Genesis 31; 20-21) When Jacob had a two-day lead, Laban discovered that Jacob had fled. For seven days, with all his kinsmen, Laban rode after Jacob. Then Laban had a dream in which God warned him not to do anything either good or bad to Jacob. And when Laban met up with Jacob, Laban did not remonstrate him for taking al the sheep, but for leaving without a proper good-bye. Though Laban had the power to hurt Jacob, Laban told Jacob of his dream, but then asked Jacob why he stole his (Laban’s) idols.
Jacob explained that he fled lest Laban not allow his daughters to go, but swore he never took the idols and promised, not knowing that Rachel had stolen them, that, “anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” Rachel gets away without Laban finding the idols because Rachel was sitting on them and requested that she not have to stand up because she was in her menstruation period. Rabbinical commentators often argue that Rachel died in childbirth with Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin, because of Jacob’s reckless promise that the one found with the idols would not “remain alive.”
Though this would make the Hebrew text akin to a Greek tragedy, it does not quite fit. For Jacob had said that if a person had Laban’s gods, that person would die. Laban did not find anyone with his gods. Further, why would God punish Rachel for stealing idols? There is a possible reason she was punished – because Rachel believed that Laban was empowered by those gods, and she wanted to take away his power. God perhaps punished Rachel for still believing that the idols had power. But perhaps Rachel did not believe this, but simply that Laban believed it; Rachel considered it important that her father not have such a crutch to lean on lest he should attack Jacob. But even this is an exemplification of a lack of trust in God who had promised that He would take care of Jacob. So the punishment was probably not because she stole the idols and not even because she believed the idols had powers, but because she did not have enough trust in God’s power and His promise of protection. Rachel, a much more becoming character than Jacob, is nevertheless a foil to Jacob’s superiority on the spiritual plain.
I turn now to Jacob’s three dreams or encounters with the divine. All three reinforce a specific characterization of Jacob, a characterization established when Jacob first got Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of porridge. In all three tales, Jacob comes across as a gutsy guy with lots of chutzpah. It is not as if he started out bold as brass and then matured. He always seemed willing to play high stakes poker with a determination to win. Secondly, in all three cases, when he fled from Esau, when he fled from Laban twenty years later and when he anticipated his meeting with Esau once again after all those years, he is unequivocally frightened.
…הִנֵּה עֵשָׂו אָחִיךָ מִתְנַחֵם לְךָ לְהָרְגֶךָ: וְעַתָּה בְנִי שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי וְקוּם בְּרַח לְךָ אֶל לָבָן אָחִי חָרָנָה: וְיָשַׁבְתָּ עִמּוֹ יָמִים אֲחָדִים עַד אֲשֶׁר תָּשׁוּב חֲמַת אָחִיךָ: עַד שׁוּב אַף אָחִיךָ מִמְּךָ וְשָׁכַח אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ וְשָׁלַחְתִּי וּלְקַחְתִּיךָ מִשָּׁם: “Your brother Esau is consoling himself by planning to kill you. 43Now, my son, listen to me. Flee at once to Haran, to my brother Laban. 44Stay with him a while, until your brother’s fury subsides— 45until your brother’s anger against you subsides—and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will fetch you from there.”
So, although he is gutsy, he is not fearless. Thirdly, in all three encounters, he carries with him a sense of entitlement, to Esau’s blessing, then to Laban’s sheep, and, finally, to all that he had accumulated when he was away. Finally, all three occasions are marked by splits – with Esau first, with Laban and then with Esau once again even though Esau was overjoyed at the reunion. Jacob was not a trusting guy. And he was justified in the case of Laban but not in the case of his brother.
However, look at the differences in the three occasions:
Event Ladder Dream Sheep Dream Wrestling “Dream”
Divinities Angels up and down Angel of God An “angel” as another man
Status & Location God beside & Angel is God God = Angel = Man
of Deities & addresses Jacob addresses Jacob
Relationship No contact Side by side Intertwined
God’s vows Protection Material wealth Pronounced that Jacob
Progeny Blessing had prevailed
Progeny Blessing Promise of Return
Letting Go God tells Jacob to Go and return to Jacob refuses to
let go of clinging to home home to let God-Man go
Consequence Travel into the unknown Travel home with Blessing – a divine one
wealth – his own and authentically his
Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, had promised him that he could return home in reasonably short order (certainly not twenty years) when Esau’s anger subsided. She promised to fetch Jacob. Though Rebekah presses him to leave, it is God who says he should return. In the first, the Torah says that Jacob slept. In the second, he also slept. But in the third, Jacob stayed up all night fighting. In the first, the spatial imagery is vertical with angels running up and down a staircase. By the third, the “man” appears beside him as a stranger who turns out to be God.
In all three cases, in spite of the radical differences between the encounters, Jacob is fearful. In all three cases, he was left alone with only himself for company. In each case, a vision or a man appears. And on each occasion, he comes away from each of these experiences as a different man, but different in distinctly alternative ways. In the first, his fear and insecurities are replaced by confidence – he so clearly was not a confident self-assured man prior to the dream. Before he went to sleep, Jacob did not know God dwelt where he slept. Afterwards he did. He was awestruck. Further, he saw the place as holy, as a gateway to heaven, and literally as a gateway to heaven on earth for God stood beside him and promised him – the thief who stole the blessing – that he would inherit the land all around where he had slept, he and his descendants, and God would be with him and protect him “and bring you back to this land”, never leaving him until he delivered on his promise.
On the first occasion, what was Jacob’s vow? It was a conditional one. “If God remains with me,” if God delivers on his promise, if he is his literal saviour, then “the lord shall be my God.” In the third encounter, there is no clear recognition of the person who stands beside him. Only later does Jacob conclude that he had wrestled with God. Further, instead of being given a promise of protection, he is reborn, not because he learned to have unconditional faith in God, not because God had delivered on His promises, but because his life had been preserved because he, Jacob, had prevailed. Jacob had become an independent agent in his own right prepared to face Esau once again using the wile he had already put in place, but no longer full of fear and trembling.
I suggest that the story is not about the progression from rash and confident immaturity to a more doubtful mature adult, but a religious trip in which Jacob moves closer and closer to God until the two become intertwined and Jacob learns that he must let go of God and not cling to God for protection and material goodies. Rather, what he stole before the first story – his father’s blessing – he now earns back on his own and it is the Lord’s blessing. A birthright is what one gets based on a natural order of birth. But a blessing is earned, in Jacob’s case, first by deceit, and later by deceit dressed up as Machiavellian calculation for self-preservation.
It is this spiritual development, the descent of God onto earth and Jacob’s recognition that he is imbibed with the divine spirit, that is the thread running through the three encounters.