Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

Jacob (Part 2)

Jacob wrestles wih GodAs we pick up in part 2, Jacob and Laban part company on tense terms. Jacob, after 20 years away, heads home realizing that after all this time he will have to deal with Esau, and what has changed, if anything, with their relationship during his absence. For a complete discussion on that see Esau and Jacob, for this treatise let’s leave it at things went better for Jacob than he thought, and the two of them reconciled their differences.

In the midst of his journey Jacob takes his wives and children and sends them across a brook, staying behind for the night where he has his wrestling match with God. There have been a lot of discussions and conjectures about this story. Was there really a wrestling match, or was this another of Jacob’s dreams? If you believe the latter, or just like looking for similarities between the Old and New Testaments, then we can look at the similarity between this and Jesus at Gethsemane. Jacob leaves his wives and children behind; Jesus leaves His disciples behind. Jacob wrestles long into the night with God; Jesus wrestles long into the night with God. God strikes Jacob in the hip dealing a major blow in their battle; God tells Jesus that He must undergo the crucifixion.

Dawn arrives, Jacob’s struggle ends, and God gives Jacob his new name – Isra’el, because he fought with God. A little etymology here that might help with Biblical (and modern) names. It was common practice to combine a noun and a verb to create a person’s name. Here yisra (fight, struggle) is combined with El (God) to give Jacob the name Isra’el. Another example, Micah is the question “who is like?” is combined with El to give us the name of the Archangel Micha’el – Who is like God? When thinking of this, remember that Micah is a question, not a statement. It is not saying Micha’el is like God, it is asking the theological question, “who can be like God?” or “Can there be another God?”

Israel meets up with Easu, a topic covered earlier, then continues on to Shechem to meet up with Hamor’s sons to buy some land. The land he names El-El’ohe-Isra’el (God, the God of Isra’el), and this is where he and his family settle. From here we enter into a difficult passage, the rape of Isra’el’s daughter Dinah, and the revenge of her brothers.

Beyond the facts itself, this tale of Dinah gives us insight into the culture of the time, especially how women are viewed in Eastern culture. Much has been said of how women in the Middle Eastern culture are considered worthless, mere objects. But this is a judgement of one culture by another; from the Middle Eastern view, we in the west treat women as worthless by not protecting them and revenging them when they have been dishonored, and by allowing them to do whatever they want (sexually).

Intercultural relationships are sensitive things, and we in the west (especially Americans) are very poor at it. Rather than trying to understand about other cultures we make the assumption that they should be just like we are, and so we try to impose our culture on them. A good example was when Warner Brothers tried to introduce the film Batman to China, they couldn’t understand why it was such a dismal failure. It took months before they understood that Batman translated into Chinese as “flying mouse”, hardly the image it conjures up in Western minds. So, as we look at the story of the rape of Dinah, let’s try to put away Western concepts and attempt to see it as they would.

We are told that Dinah, while they are still new to Shechem, goes into town to meet up with some of the local women, to introduce herself to them. Now, while this may sound completely innocent, there are problems with the story straight from the start. Women in the culture and times didn’t go anywhere by themselves, this was just asking for trouble, a woman alone was sending a dangerous message, there were no Zena’s. Sure enough, along comes the local rich boy, spoiled and probably figuring he could get away with anything – who is going to say anything against the son of the city’s founder? Hamor sees Dinah alone, likes what he sees, and takes action (raping her). While I don’t think he felt remorse, I think he did realize that he had done something wrong, and feared retribution. So, like any spoiled rich kid he asks daddy to make things right by securing her for his wife.

Jacob hears of it, while he is alone, and before doing anything he waits for his sons to return. Jacob, wealthy and powerful in his own right, is up there in age, and taking on the local authority by himself would not have been wise. Jacob’s sons hear of what happened and return home majorly pissed, arriving about the same time as Shechem and Hamor. Shechem, not wanting a war to start, offers a deal: let the two marry, and let the families merge (allowing intermarrying of the two tribes). The sons of Jacob see their opportunity to avenge their sister, they agree on one condition: the entire tribe of Shechem must convert to worshiping the God of Abraham, which means circumcision of all males, regardless of age. Shechem must have really feared war because he immediately agrees to the arrangement.

On the third day after the mass circumcision, while Shechem’s tribe is still recovering from the ritual, Simeon and Levi strike. Taking up arms they invade the town and slaughter all of the men, including Shechem and Hamor. They then make off with everything that belonged to Shechem – women, children, livestock. Jacob, apparently unaware of what was going on, is angry with his sons when they return. Like any youth, hot blooded and ignorant in the ways of the world, they hadn’t considered the consequences. Jacob lays it out, the boys have now angered all the other Canaanite tribes, and while they could handle Shechem, the combined might of Canaan is too much, so they flee back to Beth’el. God sees to it that the Canaanite tribes don’t pursue Jacob by sending an unspecified problem to keep them busy. Once at Beth’el Jacob builds an altar and offers thanks to God for rescuing them, it is at this point that God renames Jacob (a second time) to Israel.

They leave Beth’el for Ephrath, still fleeing the Canaanites, when Rachel, pregnant, gives birth. This is her second and final son for Israel – Benjamin – for she dies in childbirth. So, we now have the twelve children of Israel (ten of the twelve tribes, remember that the other two are names for Joseph’s children):

  • Leah:
    1. Reuben
    2. Simeon
    3. Levi*
    4. Judah
    5. Is’sachar
    6. Zeb’ulun
  • Rachel:
    1. Joseph*
    2. Benjamin
  • Bilah (Rachel’s maid):
    1. Dan
    2. Naph’tali
  • Zilpah (Leah’s maid):
    1. Gad
    2. Asher

This finishes the story of Jacob, next we look into the drama of Joseph and his brothers, and the first meeting of Israel and Egypt.

tribemap* The twelve tribes are an odd lot. Levi is counted by some, but not by others. The basis for this is that Levi was the priestly tribe, and as such was not given any land. For those who count Levi among the twelve tribes, Joseph is included in the count. When Levi is not counted as one of the twelve Joseph is broken into his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. If you look at the map of the land given to the tribes, Manasseh and Ephraim border each other, allowing the two to be combined into a single tribe – Joseph.

At this time I will bring in a recent theory concerning the creation of Israel. Some postulate that the body of Israel was composed of the eight sons of Leah and Rachel, and that the four sons of their “handmaids” were unrelated tribes that occupied adjoining lands when the Israelite’s settled into the area after leaving Egypt. These four tribes (Dan, Naph’tali, Gad, and Ahser) joined the Israelite alliance, hence why they are not “sons” of Leah and Rachel.


Comments on: "Jacob (Part 2)" (5)

    • Thanks. There are some “New Calendar” Orthodox who follow the western traditions as well. Personally, I hope the “fixed date” people don’t win. If everyone wants to settle on a single date, then I, personally, feel the west needs to go back to the proper calculations. It should coincide with Passover, not March 21st.


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