It would be easy to see this portion as detailing one of the high points of Jacob’s life. God appears to him and says to him: ‘you whose name is Jacob shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name’. He is told that ‘a nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you,’ and that ‘the land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac I assign to you.’
Both the promises of land and descendants had been made to Jacob in an earlier encounter with God, when Jacob dreamed of the ladder to heaven, but the name of Israel was new. The meaning of ‘Israel’ is connected with ‘wrestler with God’ and is a surprising choice in that Jacob does not engage in much of that activity in a spiritual rather than physical way. In fact his life reflects his original name more accurately. ‘Jacob’ is connected with deception, and we can see this deception taking place when Jacob supplants Esau’s birthright. Rebekkah arranges everything, and Jacob carries it out without demur, only being concerned about the practical likelihood of success. He even goes so far as bare-faced lies: Isaac asks him ‘Are you really my son Esau? and Jacob replies ‘I am’. In this week’s sidra, Jacob approaches Esau with diplomatic wiles, and continues with deception when he avoids following his brother to Seir.
Why was Jacob given a new name at this stage?
Perhaps he was beginning to realise that there are consequences to deception. He had not received the material birthright that he had sought: he fled from Esau, leaving behind the flocks and herds. Laban deceived him about Rachel, originally giving him Leah instead, and made trouble when Jacob sought to leave with his new wealth. By the time he meets Esau, he is well- aware that he deserves Esau’s wrath. He treats his brother with the concern due to one whom he had almost unforgivably undermined, and does his utmost to make the meeting as short as possible.
He has also been physically damaged by his wrestling bout. Some commentators have seen his opponent as Esau’s Guardian Angel, who was fighting for the honour of his charge, but in any event Jacob emerges from the night of fighting with a limp, and meets Esau as a weaker man. This limp may not be just physical but also psychological.
He still suffers from the same character deficiency which almost inexorably leads him to deceive. It is not so easy to change even when one recognises the need to do so. It is the first time that he comes off worst, and this perhaps indicates a chink in the self-confidence that had carried him through so far. The Jabbok was a personal Rubicon for Jacob.
After the wrestling, this weakness is shown as he becomes less assertive, and his sons begin to take centre-stage. He also begins to suffer from the deception of his own kin, almost as a form of poetic justice. Dinah, his daughter, is raped by Shechem. Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, deceive Shechem and Hamor his father, into being circumcised, promising that they will be reconciled thereby, but then slaughter all the males of the town whilst they are recovering from the operation. Jacob is more concerned about the possible retribution he will suffer than the deception itself, and thus reveals yet again the weakness that led him to obey his mother Rebekkah and deceive Esau years before.
His son Reuben lies with Bilhah, the concubine that Rachel gave to him. The verse ends with ‘and Israel found out’. So Jacob begins to experience first-hand what it is like when deceived by blood-relatives, those whom one needs to fundamentally trust.
The rest of Jacob’s story contains much deception of this sort, with his sons for example pretending that Joseph had been killed by wild animals, and Joseph pretending that Benjamin had taken a valuable goblet.
So Jacob is in many ways a tragic man who reaped what he sowed. It is extraordinary that a Patriarch should be a man from whom one can learn so much not to do, but of course neither Abraham nor Isaac were faultless.
In many ways the wrestling match by the Jabbok came too late for Jacob. By that stage, his enmity with Esau was entrenched. He was bringing up his sons and his largely unreformed character has been imprinted on his children. Rachel dies during Benjamin’s birth, and this removes one of the best influences his children had. Rachel herself was the mother of Benjamin and Joseph, and these children brought blessings into Jacob’s life in a way that his other sons did not; this perhaps reflects the qualities that attracted Jacob to her in the first place. If Jacob had undergone a period of self-examination earlier his sons might not have inherited so many of his bad qualities, and he would not have suffered so much poetic justice as a consequence.
But despite his personal flaws, Jacob is still used as a chain which leads to the fulfilment of God’s promises to make ‘a nation, yea an assembly of nations, ….. descend from you,’ and assign ‘the land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac … to you.’ There is an important strand in Judaism which recognises the importance of community over individual, that we have responsibility for each other and our misdeeds, that the whole takes priority over the part. Jacob is only a part of a greater whole and a greater purpose, and it is through that whole in the form of his family that he ultimately finds the reconciliation he seeks, when he finally meets Joseph in Egypt. Jacob says to Joseph, ‘Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive’. The deception that has dogged his life has not claimed the life of his favourite son: it has not dealt the final blow, and he can die in peace.