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Jacob at Bethel and Penuel: the polarity of Divine encounter.

OF THE BIBLICAL PATRIARCHS, JACOB IS the most enigmatic. Possessing neither the awesome faith of an Abraham nor the stoic equanimity of an Isaac, Jacob is, nevertheless, chosen to be the bearer of Divine blessing and the eponymic father of Israel. His character emerges through a series of deceptions, intrigues and conflicts which cast serious doubt on the wisdom and appropriateness of Divine election. A casual reading of the text would indicate that God, Himself, is rather wary of being too intimately involved in Jacob's schemes and machinations. God, who was Abraham's constant companion and guide, now appears to be standing on the sidelines, carefully weighing when and where to make an appearance. Moreover, the immediate revelations and promises which defined God's relationship to Abraham are now replaced by ambiguous dreams and night encounters shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. With Jacob we seem to be dealing no longer with the life of man in the presence of God, but, rather, with a cacophony of all too human events and conflicts where God's presence is conspicuously, perhaps judiciously, absent.

Structurally, the Jacob narrative (Genesis 25-35) moves along two distinct, dramatic lines: a horizontal one of human-profane activity and a vertical one of Divine-human encounter. In contrast to the Abraham cycle, where the profane and sacred are so closely intertwined as to be inseparable, here, with Jacob, they are experienced as two separate dimensions. Furthermore, in a quantitative sense, profane time now takes precedence over sacred time, as major segments of Jacob's life are played out with no reference whatsoever to Divine intervention or direction. And, yet, from a thematic perspective, the entire narrative draws its intensity from the sacred dimension of Divine-human encounter. God's revelations at Bethel (Genesis 28:11-22) and Penuel (Genesis 32:24-32) serve as the pillars upon which the entire narrative rests, and provide a theological gestalt which infuses the story with the concerns and fulfillments of Divine promise. These visitations disclose the stamp of God's purpose in history and the enigmatic way in which that purpose is often realized, in directions which run quite contrary to human expectation and manipulation.

The Jacob cycle occupies a pivotal position in the Biblical narrative, and serves a dual function. On the one hand, it provides, de facto, a bridge between the Patriarchs and the people -- a transition from the individual lives of the Patriarchs to the history of the people. Abraham is the father of Israel; Jacob is Israel. On the other hand, the Jacob cycle is "fraught with background," and can be seen as a continuation and resolution of prior events and motifs of the Biblical narrative. Jacob's life is related thematically and functionally to events and theological concerns of primeval history (Genesis 3-11), and serves as its dramatic and theological culmination. "God created worlds and destroyed them, till Jacob came. The world was then completed and was no more destroyed."(1)

The Bethel/Penuel revelations place the Jacob narrative within a continuum of events beginning with man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden and ending with Israel's entrance into the land of Canaan. Vis-a-vis the past, Jacob represents the working out of God's promises to Abraham, and the resolution of various problems of humanity posed in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Vis-a-vis the future, Jacob presents a paradigmatic overview of the history of the people of Israel and of the ambiguous, sometimes threatening, relationship of God to His people. The last of the Patriarchs, Jacob stands at a crucial juncture in the Biblical narrative: a closure and consummation of the past; an opening and prophetic glance into the future.

Thematically, Genesis 1-11 describes a progressive deterioration of the original unity and harmony of creation -- the chronicle of humanity's undoing of Divine creation. Abraham and Jacob are the two individuals chosen by God to reverse this process of de-creation and reinstate God's original blessing to mankind. In this context, Isaac is of minor importance. Although he is blessed by God, the text clearly indicates that Isaac's blessing is granted neither on his behalf nor on grounds of his own merits but "for my servant Abraham's sake" (Genesis 26:24). Isaac serves as a link between the generations, the transmitter of Divine blessing from Abraham, the father, to Jacob, the son. Isaac, as it were, preserves the spark of Divine blessing, which will now be rekindled in all its intensity and ambiguity in the life of Jacob.(2)

Abraham and Jacob are the the cornerstones of God's plan for world redemption. Jacob, not Isaac, is the dramatic and theological heir of the promise/blessing enterprise which originated with Abraham. After an interval of stasis, man's journey with God, which began with Abraham at Haran, is now resumed with Jacob at Bethel. Both Patriarchs are set on a road that reverses the series of aimless wanderings which have characterized human existence since the expulsion from Eden. Men are still on the move, but the centrifugal direction of these earlier peregrinations is now arrested by the centripetal movement of humanity back to God through Abraham and Jacob.

From a typological perspective, Abraham's journey from Haran to Canaan is the model and archetype for Jacob's journey from Bethel to Haran to Canaan. By retracing Abraham's footsteps, Jacob returns to the place of origin (Haran) and, thereby, re-establishes God's original blessing to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). This reinstatement is anticipated in the epiphanic speech at Bethel, which reaffirms the original promise of offspring and land in the context of a teleological concern which is almost identical with that of Abraham's call at Haran, "By you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves" (Genesis 28:14). Jacob moves in the footsteps of his ancestor, but his journey is no mere repetition or re-enactment. The journey from Haran to Canaan is no longer that of a childless individual moving towards an unknown destination, but that of a family, a people in miniature, returning to its parental home.

Thematically and structurally, the Abraham/Jacob narratives project an image of unity and continuity. Both narratives are supported, at the beginning and the end, by theophanic encounters which disclose a deep religious, literary coherence. God's revelations to Jacob at Bethel and Penuel are prefigured by His revelations to Abraham at Haran and Moriah. Each pair of visitations provides the theological frame wherein the protagonists work out their relationship to God and to humanity. The Haran/Bethel correspondence is significant in revealing the salient fact that God's initial encounter with His chosen one takes place at the start of a journey. God and man meet as travelers on a road which moves away from the static, familiar confines of the past towards the unknown and uncertain horizon of the future. The journey, itself, begins with a command (Abraham) or a crisis (Jacob). Present reality has become untenable, and demands a struggle and a search for a solution, a "way out" -- an ex-odus. The journey is made with the conscious awareness of being sought out and encountered by God, and requires an openness and obedience to the unconditional Divine claim on the totality of one's existence.(3)

The encounters at Haran and Bethel can be seen as rites of passage in a geographical and spiritual sense. Like Abraham, Jacob is not only leaving the domain of the parental past, but also entering a new phase of identity as bearer of Divine blessing. This process of election and transformation involves both an outer and inner journey. The outer journey is the plot and moves through time and space; the inner journey provides the meaning, and moves towards a deeper understanding of one's true identity and being.

Man's journey with God is predicated upon an act of separation: removing oneself from the natural bonds of the past, from the kindred and parental ties which bind one to a specific place, a home. Separation from the static, human past is the necessary prerequisite for moving on to the dynamic, God-given future. Abraham and Jacob become "homeless" in order to set out for their God-appointed home. Jacob's journey from Be'er-Sheva signifies a new beginning, as he now enters a realm of being whose parameters will be determined by the will and word of God.(4)

Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back, to this land: for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you (Genesis 28:15).

At the moment of greatest vulnerability, divested of all personal ties and possessions, Jacob acquires a Divine benefactor, and begins a relationship with God which will transform his entire being. This breaking away from the past drastically changes Jacob's prior identity as a "dweller in tents." At Bethel, Jacob is transformed from homo stasis to homo viator -- from a man who dwells securely in his tent to one who sets out on an uncertain, precarious journey with God.

According to the story line, Jacob's departure from Be'er-Sheva is motivated by fear of Esau and parental anxiety -- human concerns which stand in sharp contrast to Abraham's God-initiated departure from Haran. This distinction, however, is more apparent than real. The sequence of events from the deception to the departure scene points to the underlying connection between human actions and Divine intentions -- between a God who has a plan for human history, and the individuals who participate in the unfolding of this plan but with a limited and incomplete understanding of its scope. Paradoxically, the way in which God's will is effected leads through situations where God has apparently forgotten the human participants. But, in the end, it is precisely the deceptions and intrigues which prove to be the inevitable way in which God's scheme develops. Human actors perform their independent roles, but God is the transcendent force Who shapes history and incorporates seemingly divergent and discordant events into His overall plan for humanity. God is the subtle power behind the scenes, the Deus ex Machina, whose providence is seen in retrospect.

In reality, Jacob's departure from Be'er-Sheva is as much a part of God's will and design as Abraham's departure from Haran. Both are necessary for the implementation of God's promise-fulfillment enterprise. Jacob could no more receive God's blessing while dwelling in his father's home than Abraham could have in Haran. Despite the fact that the parental home is now the promised home, Jacob, like Abraham, must undertake a long and arduous journey of separation and transformation before he can return to reclaim the land of his forefathers. Our protagonist must, of necessity, leave his natural home as Jacob-the-fugitive in order to return as Jacob/Israel-the-chosen, thereby transforming his natural home into the Promised Home. Jacob must learn that possession of the Promised Land is not a natural right, acquired through birth, inheritance or marriage, but a free-will gift of God that is granted to His chosen one at the chosen time.

For Jacob, the appointed time occurs immediately upon his flight from Be'er-Sheva. The event takes place suddenly and unexpectedly. It happens "between places," at an unfamiliar site where everything is risky and uncertain -- a "non-place" which is transformed by the appearance of God into a holy place. The text prosaically describes how Jacob comes upon an unknown stopping place, where he beds for the night as the sun goes down. Both literally and figuratively, the sun has set upon Jacob. This most inauspicious time and place turns out to be the moment that God has chosen to appear and acknowledge Jacob as the bearer of Divine blessing and promise. The suddenness and unexpectedness of the revelation underscore the freedom and mystery of Divine election. Election is understood not as being merited or earned, but as the free choice of God, granted for reasons known only to Himself. Jacob is no Abraham, and election is his not because of any intrinsic goodness or righteousness but, rather, as it would appear, despite the deviousness of Jacob's ways, because of the will and purpose of God.

The election scene at Bethel reaffirms God's threefold promise to Abraham at Haran: posterity, land and blessing. Yet, a careful reading of the texts reveals that, although the promise components in both narratives are identical, the thematic thrust is quite different. Theologically, the Abraham cycle is shaped by a strong emphasis on the posterity motif, while the Jacob narrative focuses primarily on the land component. The underlying concern which permeates the entire Abraham cycle is the problem of an heir and, more precisely, the question, "Will Abraham have a son-heir?"

The posterity theme functions as the subject of the binary opposites of fertility/barrenness. God's promise, "I will make of you a great nation" (Genesis 12:3), has already been severely limited and compromised by the previously disclosed fact that "Sarah was barren, she had no child" (Genesis 11:30). This contrast sets up a dialectic tension between the posterity promise of God and the problem of maintaining faith in the promise because of Abraham's lack of a son. This tension is presented throughout the entire narrative by a series of crises which threaten to nullify the posterity promise.

The contrastive pair of fertility/barrenness lies at the heart of Abraham and Sarah's personal anxieties, and projects Sarah as the person to be protected whenever her role as ancestress is being compromised (the Egypt and Gerar episodes). Ironically, the supreme threat to the posterity promise, the command to sacrifice Isaac, comes not from a human agent but from God, Himself, the originator of the entire promise enterprise. The final irony is that even when God has fulfilled His promise with the birth of a son to Sarah, the fulfillment is only temporary, for the fertility/barrenness contrast re-emerges in the Isaac-Rebecca relationship and, subsequently, with Rachel.

Turning to the Jacob narrative, we see that a similar pattern of dialectic tension structures the entire cycle. The difference is that the dominant concern is no longer the birth of a son-heir, but the return to the ancestral home.(5) It is the land promise which shapes the Jacob narrative and provides its theological coherence. God's first words to Jacob focus on the land motif: "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants" (Genesis 28:13). Moreover, God's accompanying commitment comes as a guarantee of Jacob's safe return to his parental home: "Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you" (Genesis 28:15).

Following the dialectic pattern of the Abraham narrative, God's land promise to Jacob functions in relation to the binary opposites, home/exile. Once again, at the very outset, God's promise is severely compromised by existing conditions: at the exact moment when the land blessing is being articulated, Jacob is a fugitive, fleeing from his home and going into exile. Both at Haran and Bethel, God's promises point away from the objective reality in which they are expressed, towards the, as yet, unrealized future which they announce. This dissonance between present reality and future expectation indicates that promise fulfillment does not develop out of possibilities inherent in the present, but arises from that which is possible to the God of promise. God's word announces the coming of a reality which does not yet exist, and even stands in contradiction to the reality which is presently experienced. In both instances, the probability of promise fulfillment appears extremely doubtful, given present limitations: a son for a man whose wife is barren; a homeland for a man who is going into exile.

In both narratives, promise announcement and fulfillment extend over a period of time: Abraham waits twenty five years until the birth of Isaac; Jacob waits twenty years until his return to Canaan. This delay in realization creates an interval of tension and raises serious doubt as to the feasibility of the entire promise enterprise (Genesis 17:17-18, 32:9-12). Tension is further heightened by the insertion of a number of obstacles on the way to promise fulfillment. Once again, there is a clear parallel between the Abraham and Jacob cycles, as promise realization is threatened by both inner and outer forces. With Jacob, the major family adversaries are, again, a brother and a kinsman.(6)

Regarding the external threat, the person in need of God's protection is no longer Sarah, the endangered ancestress whose purity is threatened, but .Jacob, the endangered ancestor whose safety is jeopardized -- in the Shechem episode and by the hostility of the neighboring peoples (Genesis 34:30, 35:5). Ironically, the major threat to promise fulfillment comes, as before, from God, Himself, who engages Jacob in a life and death struggle at the Jabbok. The final irony is that fulfillment, as in the case of Abraham, remains partial and temporary. Although Jacob returns to the ancestral home, the narrative ends with both Jacob and his sons in Egypt, the land of exile and suffering. God's promise remains intact, but the home/exile dialectic is unresolved, and is left open for future engagement and elaboration.

The promise/fulfillment theme which dominates the Abraham and Jacob narratives illustrates how posterity and land, the dual components of Divine blessing, are removed from the normal constructs of human activity and are placed under God's direct authority and control. With Abraham, the natural genealogies of the past are replaced by a "Divine genealogy," where the birth of a son-heir is no longer dependent upon the natural constraints of age and fertility. With Jacob, the acquistion of land is no longer determined by human action or natural rights of primogeniture and inheritence. Land and progeny have become exclusively Divine prerogatives, to be bestowed upon the chosen individual according to God's will and design.

God's revelation at Bethel provides the theological grounding for the entire Jacob cycle, and opens the narrative to a past and a future. It positions Jacob within a continuum of events, and projects him as an "anti-type" to various themes and protagonists of the past. Beginning with the initial sin at Eden, humankind has turned away from God in disobedience and violence, thereby forfeiting its right to Divine blessing: "in pain you shall bring forth children" and "in the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread." Through the actions of Adam and Eve, womb and earth are cursed, and humanity is exiled from sacred space. God's double blessing to Jacob at Bethel, "the land on which you lie, I shall give to you ... and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth," moderates the curse of exile and painful childbirth and presents the hope of a new home and fertile generation. The process of restoration, initiated with Abraham at Haran (Genesis 12:1-3), finds it theological continuation with Jacob at Bethel.

At Bethel, God and man are reconciled; avenues of communication, heretofore blocked, are now reopened. Genesis 1-11 chronicles humanity's growing alienation from God, culminating in the arrogant plan to erect a tower to the heavens. The building of a tower symbolizes man's endless desire to replace God as the center of human life by acquiring a security and power in separation from God. This "invasion" of heaven is frustrated by God, who brings in its stead the very confusion and dispersion which the builders hoped to avoid. The ascension vision at Bethel is the counterpoint and answer to the tower of Babel. At Bethel, God freely grants to Jacob the security and "name" which the generation at Babel arrogantly and vainly attempted to achieve. Bethel is where heaven and earth meet. It is an axis mundi, a place of the incursion of the sacred into the profane world; a bridge between heaven and earth which is initiated, not by human hubris, but by Divine love.(7)

At Babel, humanity sought security and permanence, and acquired confusion and dispersion. At Bethel, the moment of extreme vulnerability and uncertainty, Jacob attains reconciliation and harmony with God. Paradoxically, it would appear that attainment of Divine protection and security is predicated upon the abandonment of earthly stability and security. Jacob's attempts to achieve personal homeostasis, through the acquisition of the birthright and the paternal blessing, have failed, and brought, in their stead, conflict and flight. In the midst of human chaos and confusion, Jacob finds security with God; in the midst of flight and exile, he finds stability and direction. The Biblical teaching is clear: man's independent drive for earthly security and permanence is counterproductive and results in exile and confusion, on the individual (Jacob) as well as the corporate (generation at Babel) level. The paradox inherent in mankind's endless quest for earthly security is described by the philosopher, Gabriel Marcel:

Perhaps a stable order can only be established on earth if man always remains acutely conscious that his condition is that of a traveler, that is to say, if he perpetually reminds himself that he is required to cut himself a dangerous path across the unsteady blocks of a universe which has collapsed and seems to be crumbling in every direction. This path leads to a world more firmly established in Being, a world whose changing and uncertain gleams are all that we can discern here below. Does not everything happen as though this ruined universe turned relentlessly upon whomever claimed that he could settle down in it, to the extent of erecting a permanent dwelling there for himself?(8)

The Divine-human encounter at Bethel constitutes Jacob's investiture as bearer of Divine blessing, with the promise of land and descendants, Divine protection and guidance. Bethel is the sacred place that Jacob has come upon unknowingly, and he leaves it with a new identity and destiny. The theophany at Bethel constitutes a new beginning for Jacob: as he moves from Be'er-Sheva to Haran, he crosses over into a new state of being. He is now the chosen one, the recipient of Divine blessing and promise.

The sun rises and Jacob renews his journey from Bethel to Haran: from the sacred to the profane, from harmony and conciliation with God to strife and contention with his fellow beings. The scene and actors have changed, but past motifs re-emerge as Jacob is again enmeshed in family conflict and filial jealousy. And, once again, the Divine presence appears to be conspicuously absent. Yet, God does not forget Jacob or His promise of progeny and protection. The twenty years in Haran mark a period of material and familial growth, as Jacob, who arrived as a destitute fugitive, becomes a man of means and substance, the head of a large household. The acquisition of family and fortune, however, arouses the jealousy of Laban and his sons. With, perhaps, a bit of tongue in cheek, the narrator relates how "Jacob saw that Laban did not regard him with favor as before" (Genesis 31:2). The time has now come to move on, to return to the parental home. At this point, God re-enters the scene, "Then the Lord said to Jacob, 'Return to the land of your father and to your kindred; and I will be with you'" (Genesis 31:3).

Again the past repeats itself, as Jacob -- despite his wealth and possessions -- leaves Haran as he left Be'er-Sheva, in flight and fear. He remains the fugitive, now moving in fear of an uncle who pursues and a brother who approaches. Ironically, he does not realize that the encounters which he dreads the most will end in reconciliation, whereas a totally unexpected confrontation at the Jabbok river will be the most threatening event in his life. Paradoxically, the God whom Jacob relies upon for protection and deliverance from his human adversaries becomes the source of greatest danger to his survival.

At Penuel, the Jacob narrative reaches its theological climax in a Divine-human encounter which parallels the earlier theophany at Bethel. Both encounters are arranged symmetrically, at Jacob's departure from Canaan and upon his return, and can be seen as rites of passage in a physical and spiritual sense: Jacob is crossing over the threshold of the ancestral land and, at the same time, acquiring a new identity. At Bethel, Jacob is recognized as the bearer of promise and secures a special relationship with God, his Divine benefactor. At Penuel, Jacob receives his new name and new identity as "Israel." Both theophanies project an atmosphere of mystery and inscrutability. They occur unexpectedly, in the darkness of night when Jacob is alone, a frightened and vulnerable individual.

But here the similarity ends. Theologically, Bethel and Penuel present two diametrically opposite images of God. The portrayal of God as adversary/enemy (Penuel) shatters and subverts our previous conception of God as protector/benefactor (Bethel). At Bethel and at Penuel, heaven and earth meet. But, whereas the first meeting projects an image of conciliation and bonding, the second involves a violent physical attack. Jacob's wrestling with God reveals the ambivalent, even contradictory, nature of Divine-human encounter. "God the enemy" is never far away from "God the friend."(9)

The polarity of God as benefactor and God as adversary permeates the Biblical narrative: at Eden, God curses the individuals whom He has blessed; at the flood, God destroys the world that He has created; at Moriah, God endangers the promise that He has granted; at a strange night encounter, God attacks Jacob whom He has chosen; and, at Sinai, God almost wipes out the people whom He has redeemed. Throughout the Bible, the God who blesses and creates is the same God who threatens and destroys.

Jacob's enigmatic struggle in the darkness at Jabbok depicts the terror and dread which are a part of Divine-human encounter. At Penuel, man and God are locked in mortal combat. The mysterious adversary, whose identity at first is unknown, is, in the course of the struggle, recognized by Jacob as God Himself, seen "face to face" (Gen. 32:31). Beyond the objective personification of his inner fear and guilt, Jacob experiences the presence of God. Jacob is not merely struggling for inner purification and moral rehabilitation; he is engaged in a death struggle with the Giver of Lite who transcends man's own self-centeredness. The theophany at Penuel provides a limit experience which dramatically communicates the essence of the human condition: the realization that lite is not unlimited, the prerogative of man. Life and death lie in the hands of God, elements in a unitary reality which confirms man's position as creature, and his total dependence on God the Creator.

Penuel is the theological counterpart to Moriah. Both are events of existential rebirth which are preceded by existential death. Abraham and Jacob are engaged in acts which threaten not only the survival of the bearer of blessing, but, also, the entire promise enterprise. Abraham in sacrifice and Jacob in combat stand on the threshold of "nonbeing" prior to entering a new state of Divine-human communion. Each stands alone, facing a challenge which demands a total immersion of the self in an act of Divine-human confrontation. Ronald Hendel, in commenting on Jacob's mysterious night encounter, writes:

It seems that the dangerous encounter with the deity is a necessary element in the life of the hero. The hero has a bond with the deity, yet the bond is fraught with danger. The God-hero relationship is extreme both in promise and in threat. It seems that the final test, the test of death, is determinant for the hero; if he survives this rite of passage, his stature is certain.(10)

At Penuel, God violently and unexpectedly bursts upon the scene in a way which shatters the accepted structures of human existence and jolts the human consciousness into an awareness of its contingency, perishability and insecurity. The encounter at Penuel re-emphasizes the futility of man's quest for earthly security and his absolute dependence upon a God who is not satisfied with a part of man's life but lays claim to the entire individual.

Penuel is Jacob's moment of truth. Twenty years previously he had fled his brother Esau's avenging anger. Now he goes to meet the same brother, and he is overwhelmed with fear. He turns to God for protection, "Deliver me, I pray Thee from the hand of Esau," reminding God of His promise: "Thou dids't say, 'I will do you good.'" According to the narrative, Jacob has spent much of his life using other people to serve his own ends. In the darkness and terror of Penuel, he learns that God is not to be so used. God cannot be reduced to human dimensions, to a useful tool for the achievement of man-made goals. God always remains beyond human control and manipulation; His presence cannot be made into a possession. As Jacob comes to realize the presence of God, as he comes to recognize Him, God has already disappeared. Perhaps the very ambiguity of Jacob's opponent, in whom God is concealed and from whom He emerges, is the narrative's way of expressing man's uncertainty about the Divine presence, which always remains beyond man's grasp and control.

This theme of non-possession is described by the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke:

Oh God, do not lose thy balance. Even he who loves Thee, and recognizes Thy countenance in the dark when it flickers like a light in Thy breadth, does not possess Thee. Even when someone seizes Thee in the night making Thee enter into his prayer, Thou art the guest Who later goes on His way.(11)

Jacob leaves Penuel both victor and vanquished. He is both more and less than he was before the encounter: more, because he has acquired a new name and blessing; and less, because he now bears a mark of infirmity. Jacob is blessed but also maimed. Although the Divine opponent cannot defeat Jacob, and yields to the request for a blessing, he, nevertheless, preserves his superiority. Jacob receives the blessing, but the latter is not the result of dominance and victory: it is the free gift of God. The narrative strikes a delicate balance between the possibilities of human achievement and man's limitations in relation to God. Jacob is granted the blessing -- yet, he is denied the knowledge of the name of God. God remains God; His transcendence remains intact. But Jacob is no longer Jacob; he is now Israel.

Penuel and Moriah are survival stories which present an ambiguous, even contradictory, message. On the one hand, they reveal the extreme vulnerability and contingency of human life when confronted with the threatening command and act of God. On the other hand, they provide an opening for the future and the possibility of Divine-human reconciliation. Man and God, who initially face one another as irreconcilable opponents, are eventually reunited in common purpose and design. For the briefest of moments, man crosses the insurmountable barrier which separates God from man, heaven and earth, Creator from creature. Abraham, in yielding, and Jacob, in struggling, enter a unique state of Divine-human communion where God sees man --"So Abraham called the name of that place 'The Lord will see'" (Genesis 22:14), and man sees God -- "So Jacob called the name of the place 'Penuel' saying, 'For I have seen God face to face'" (Genesis 32:30).

Abraham and Jacob are the two individuals chosen by God to reverse the disorder and chaos of primeval history through the fathering of a people which will bring blessing to humanity. Moriah and Penuel are core experiences which enable the people of Israel to understand its existence and its unique relationship to God. Abraham is the father of Israel; Jacob is Israel. Abraham symbolizes the ideal Israel: the Israel of obedience, faith and perfection, the Israel which never existed as a reality. Abraham serves as the paradigmatic model, always to be striven for, yet never to be achieved. Jacob is the real Israel: the Israel of flesh and blood which, like its eponymic father, will travel an uneven and difficult road with God. Abraham walks before God (Genesis 17:2); Jacob and Israel limp before God.

The people of Israel is of the same essence as the man Israel. In the realistic portrayal of the character of Jacob, Israel sees itself portrayed, and is reminded that its election by God is not ethically and morally merited. Like its eponymic father, Israel neither deserves nor merits God's love.

Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess the land (Deut. 9:5).

Election always remains the free gift of God, Who retains the rights of disposal over His creatures and His creation.

Behold, to the Lord our God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth and all that is in it; yet the Lord set His heart in love upon your fathers and chose their descendants after them, you above all peoples (Deut. 10:14-15).

The Jacob narrative provides a prophetic overview of the ambivalent relationship between God and Israel. Both Jacob and Israel are formed out of struggle and conflict. Divine election vouchsafes no "safe haven," no earthly security, but an uncertain and perilous journey, a life of struggle and conflict with man and God. The pronouncement of Divine promise and blessing is never far removed from the threat of rejection and discontinuity.

And yet, the Jacob story holds out hope that man, despite his weaknesses and deceits, can live together with God. A reconciliation of opposites can be achieved; imperfect man and God can travel a common road through history. For Jacob's life and journey are part of a larger plan of God which will be revealed in the life and history of the people of Israel. This and more, for Abraham's departure from Haran, Jacob's departure from Be'er-Sheva, and Israel's departure from Egypt, are all part of God's overall plan for humankind. Jacob stands at the midpoint: the reaffirmation of past promise, and the prefiguration of future struggle and reconciliation.

BERNARD OCH is Director of the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation at Technion and the Haifa University.


1. "Gott schuf Welten und zerstorte sie, bis Jakob kam. Da ward die Welt volkommen und werde nicht mehr zerstort." Micha Joseph Bin Goriun, Die Sagen Dern Juden (Schocken Verlag, Berlin, 1935), p. 395.

2. Benno Jacob, Genesis -- The First Book of the Bible (Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1974), p. 166.

3. John Navone boldly characterizes the entire Bible as "a book of travel stories about God and His chosen ones. It is the chronicle of humanity's ongoing, seemingly endless, journey from the garden of unfulfilled promise to the land of future promise." Towards a Theology of Story (Slough: St. Paul Publications, 1977), pp. 153-156.

4. Interestingly, the verse "Jacob left Be'er-Sheva and went to Haran" (Genesis 28:10) marks a new section (parasha) in the Hebrew text, an indication that Jacob's journey to Haran is recognized as a new beginning, a break with the past.

5. The barrenness motif which resurfaces in the Jacob cycle is of secondary importance, and functions mainly as a reason for the delay in Jacob's departure from Haran. With the birth of twelve sons and one daughter, it would appear that the barrenness/fertility dialectic has been effectively resolved.

6. In this context, Esau and Laban correspond to Ishmael and Lot. The Laban/Lot correlation is of special interest: both are men of means who are driven by selfish motives. They prosper as a result of contact with the bearer of God's blessing, and are finally deceived by their daughters, who deprive them of their manhood/authority.

7. In the Midrash, the site of Bethel is elevated to a position of cosmic importance. "What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He placed His right foot on the pillar, and sank the stone to the bottom of the depths and made it the keystone of the earth. Therefore, it is called the foundation stone (Eben Shetiyah), for there is the navel of the earth, and therefrom was all the earth evolved, and upon it the Sanctuary of God stands." Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (Hermon Press, 1965), p. 266.

8. Gabriel Marcel, Homo Viator -- Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope (Henry Regnery Co., 1951), pp. 153-154.

9. S.H. Blank, "Men Against God: The Promethean Element in Biblical Prayer," Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 72(1953): 1-13. In a much broader sense, Mircea Eliade writes, "The ambivalence of the divinity is a theme constant to the whole religious history of humanity. The gods (sic) reveal themselves (sic) as at once benevolent and terrible." The Two and the One (University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 91.

10. Ronald S. Hendel, The Epic of the Patriarchs, The Jacob Cycle and the Narrative Traditions of Canaan and Israel (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), p. 161.

11. Quoted by Gabriel Marcel, Op cit., p. 233.
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Author:Och, Bernard
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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