Islam And Judaism On Jacob’s Struggle With God And Men – OpEd


Professor Meira Z. Kensky of Coe Collage in a very insightful article in the Times of Israel (November 18, 2021) alerts us to how Prophet Jacob makes a series of strategic preparations in anticipation of meeting his long estranged and often violent brother Esau. Instead of the expected confrontation, we get a totally unexpected, unanticipated, and unprepared for wrestling match between Jacob and a mysterious man at the ford of Jabbok.

The Torah states: “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (Genesis 32:25)

We get no introduction to this man, and we have had no preparation for this battle. This struggle  literally comes out of nowhere. Jacob prevails in the hours-long struggle, but he is wounded in the thigh (verse 26). The man tries to leave, but Jacob says he will not release him until the man blesses him (verse 27). Here is another unexpected situation where Jacob—though wounded—prevails, and Jacob intends to learn what it all means.

Rather than giving him a blessing, the man asks Jacob his name, and then he gives Jacob a new name (Genesis 32:29) “He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and you prevailed.”

This is what Professor Meira Z. Kensky calls a red flag moment, a signal from the Torah to pay very close attention. This encounter is the moment where Prophet Jacob receives the name that will become the name of the Jewish nation for the next 3,500 years. 

This is the name used by both the Christian New Testament and the Muslim Qur’an. 

It also is a name which includes a shocking concept; “…for you have striven with God and with men, and you have prevailed.”

Since Jacob gets renamed Israel in this narrative, it is critical to think about what this narrative is saying about the People of Israel as a whole; as well as the Holy-land of Israel in particular. This nighttime encounter takes place at the ford of the Jabbok river, the eastern frontier of Canaan. 

The Jabbok is elsewhere marked by the Bible as a political boundary (Torah Numbers 21:24, Torah Deuteronomy 3:16) and becomes one of the boundaries of Israelite territory (Bible Judges 11:13-22). 

By crossing this river, Jacob, representing Israel, crosses from outside into a promised land, and most crossings are fraught with danger. River crossings always leave those who cross over particularly vulnerable; this reality is heightened here when the narrative strands Jacob there alone, without servants or supporters. With Jacob representing the people of Israel, the narrative highlights how dangerous Israel’s coming to Canaan was; how vulnerable to attack they were, and how no one was there to support them.

“So when he (Prophet Abraham) turned away from them (his homeland’s idol worshippers) and from those whom they worship besides God, We gave him Isaac and Jacob and each one of them We made a prophet.” (Quran 19:49) “And We bestowed upon him Isaac and a grandson Jacob, and made each of them righteous.” (Quran 21:72)

“… and of the descendants of Abraham and Israel, and of those whom We guided and chose.  When the verses of the Most Merciful were recited to them, they fell down prostrating and weeping.” (Quran 19:58)

In the Hebrew Bible, Prophet Abraham is the first person to be called a “Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13). The term Hebrew comes from the verb ‘to go over a boundary’— like the Euphrates or Jordan river— or ‘to be an immigrant.’ The first thing God told Prophet Abraham in the Biblical account was: 

“Leave your country, your kindred, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name (Israel) great, so that you will be a blessing….” (Bible, Genesis 12:1-2)

So Prophet Abraham was what we can call the first ‘Islamic Hebrew’ or the first ‘Muslim Hebrew,’as the Qur’an indicates: “He (Abraham) was not Yahuudiyyaan, “a Jew”, nor Nasraaniyyaan, ‘a Christian,’ but rather a Haniifaan, ‘a submitter to God,’… (Quran, 3:67) i.e. ‘a monotheistic Hebrew believer submitting (Islam) to the one imageless God’ who created all space and time; and who made Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew’s descendants through Prophets Isaac and Jacob (Israel) into a great multitude of monotheists called the Children of Israel  —B’nai Israel in Hebrew and Banu Israel in Arabic (Genesis 14:13).

Professor Kensky maintains that all of this reminds us that the Jacob narrative stands in for the plight of Israel: the Jewish People must negotiate what it always has meant to be a small nation surrounded by larger, more powerful nations. This means using its wits and seeking every opportunity to survive and come out on the other side.

At the same time, Jacob must learn that his success comes about not only because of being clever; but because of God. Jacob, standing in for all of Israel, has needed to be flexible and  strategize his way through a difficult life, but ultimately he cannot by himself control his fate, either at the Jabbok or beyond. 

The unanticipated, fraught encounter at the Jabbok, with its ambiguity and unresolvedness, forces its audience—Israelite or contemporary—to confront the unpredictable nature of reality, and yet to trust in themselves and also to trust that with God’s help Israel will prevail. As the Qur’an states: “And remember Our servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, (all) owners of strength (to struggle) and (gain more) of religious understanding.” (Quran 38:45)

References to Jacob appear in the early part of the chapter 12 in the book of Prophet Hosea:
(Hosea 12:4) “In the womb he tried to supplant his brother; grown to manhood, he strove with a divine being. 12:5 He strove with an angel and prevailed—the other One had to weep and implore him. At Bethel [Jacob] he met him, there to commune with him. 12:6 And YHWH, God of Hosts, YHWH is his name.”

Later in the chapter, Prophet Jacob appears again: Prophet Hosea states (12:13): “And Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard [sheep]”.

In Genesis Prophet Jacob prevails over a divine being (Genesis 32:26); And the divine being asks to be let go (Genesis 32:27) Prophet Hosea refers to the divine being as both ʾelohim, God, and malʾach, angel, while the same character is referred to as an ʾish, man, in Genesis 32:25.

Religious teachers and students should always rejoice in the many different lessons that can be drawn from God’s words. Rabbis, even the most Orthodox, always taught that every verse of  Sacred Scripture has as many as 70 different interpretations. 

An excellent example of the advantage of plural insights in Judaism is the following verse: “He (Jacob) had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” (Genesis 28:12)  

Jacob saw a ladder not an escalator. You have to exert yourself to reach heaven. Rising doesn’t come without effort. No strain, no gain.

Jacob saw a ladder not a whip. You can’t be forced to rise up to heaven. 

Jacob saw a ladder not a leader. Teachers, sages and holy men can help, but you have to do your own climbing. A loving wife, husband or parent is often the best ladder.

A human must either climb up or climb down. If you are not adding you are subtracting. 

Jacob’s dream is unusual because no interpretation of the dream is given in the Bible. This teaches us that if we want to connect to heaven, Sacred Scripture is our ladder and we have to ascend to heaven by our own efforts i.e. study of the text. This is why the angels first ascend and then descend. 

The ladder represents the congregation’s service. When our prayers are sung together our words ascend to heaven. When a Sacred Scripture is read to the congregation God’s inspired words descend to earth.

The rabbis said the ladder represents Sinai. Moses, Aaron and 70 of the elders of Israel ascend Sinai and experience God (Exodus 24:9-11). Before that God descended on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:20) and was revealed. Only at Sinai does God act first. Now we are like the angels who have to ascend first.

Another interpretation. God showed Jacob the giving of the Torah at Sinai and told him: If your descendants observe the Torah they will ascend, otherwise they will decline.

The ladder symbolizes Israel. When Jewish people are filled with Torah and Mitsvot they rise. When they are filled with self righteousness and selfishness they sink.

The ladder represented Jacob himself according to Rabbi Yannai. Jacob had ups and downs; strengths and failures all his life. Now he learned that even flawed, he could still receive God’s blessing and be in God’s presence even if he didn’t yet  know it. 

The ladder represents the future generations of Jacob’s children-the Jewish people. They will reach great heights and descend to the depths, live in times of prosperity as well as times of persecution, and through all this they will maintain their ladder. 

The ladder represents the future generations of Israel, each generation adding to the growth of the Jewish tradition. The descending angels represent those who prune the tradition, for those who prune for the sake of heaven; also add. 

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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