There is a long line of biblical stories of God working through the “underdog”, the powerless, and the flawed.
In Genesis, Jacob, the younger tent-dwelling son, becomes the namesake of the people Israel, not his elder, warrior brother Esau. In fact, it was his mother Rebekah, not his father Isaac, who favored Jacob and successfully pressed for his advancement, despite living in a society in which men’s wishes were afforded greater attention.
Other examples abound in the Bible: Gideon is the youngest son of a small family when he is chosen by the angel to be a leader (Judges 6:15); Jephthah is the son not of his father’s wife but of a harlot (בֶּן אִשָּׁה זוֹנָה), who had been exiled by his brothers (Judges 11:1–2); David was the youngest son of Jesse, a small boy compared to his tall oldest brother, when Samuel chooses him as the next leader (1 Samuel 16:6–12); Solomon is the son of the woman with whom David committed adultery, and he is not David’s oldest son.
Again and again, God chooses unlikely human instruments, either flipping systems of social power or making it supremely clear that the true power belongs to God alone.
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 prepared for meeting his long estranged and perhaps violent brother Esau. Then Jacob gets a totally unexpected, unanticipated, and unprepared for, hours long wrestling match with a mysterious man. The Torah states: Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (Genesis 32:25)
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). Jacob—though wounded—prevails, and Jacob intends to learn what it all means.
Rather than giving him a blessing, though, 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 Kensky calls 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 also the name used by both the Christian New Testament and the Muslim Qur’an.
It 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 border of Canaan. The Jabbok is elsewhere marked by the Bible as a political boundary (Numbers 21:24, Deuteronomy 3:16) and becomes one of the boundaries of Israelite territory (Judges 11:13-22).
By returning to the Land of Israel and crossing this river, Jacob, representing Israel, crosses from outside into a promised land. 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 return 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 worshipped 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 great, so that you will be a blessing….” (Bible, Genesis 12:1-2)
So Prophet Abraham was what we can call 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.
The root of the Hebrew verb hodah [to thank, acknowledge, recognize, admit] is yad from the basic word “hand”. The word “Yehudah” has the meaning of “throw your hands up in praise”. When Judah was born to Leah (Genesis 29:35) she said “I will yadah Yahweh.” I will thank, acknowledge, recognize God’s gifts with praising upright hands. “Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD” (134:2) and “Thus will I bless You while I live: I will lift up my hands in Your name.” (Psalm 63:4) This is what Judaism advocates for Jews and all people.
Prophet Abraham and Prophetess Sarah were not only the parents of the Hebrew People to be, they were also the recruiters of hundreds of other non-Hebrew people who came along with them when they left Ur their homeland to go to the promised-land according to Rashi, the most influential Bible commentator. Genesis 14:14 mentions Abraham’s 318 male retainers and the Qur’an refers to Prophet Abraham as a community or nation: “Abraham was a nation/community [Ummah]; dutiful to God, a monotheist [hanif], not one of the polytheists.” (16:120)
Altars were erected by Abraham (Genesis 12:7; 13:4; 22:9), by Isaac (Genesis 26:25), by Jacob (33:20; 35:1–3), and by Moses (Exodus 17:15). The word altar appears 13 times in the Book of Genesis, and we are told that someone built an altar seven times, but in only three of those times had the person given the altar a name: Genesis 12:8 Abram builds an altar to YHVH, Genesis 26:24 Isaac builds an altar to YHVH “, and Genesis 33:20 Jacob builds an altar and called it El-Elohay Israel.
Prophets Abraham and Isaac build an altar to YHVH, but Prophet Jacob is different. Jacob builds an altar to the God of Israel’s descendants; the People of Israel. Prophet Abraham is the beginning of Hebrew and Ishmaelite Monotheism. Jacob is the beginning of the nation called the Descendants of Israel —B’nai Israel in Hebrew and Banu Israel in Arabic. The Hebrew People become the Israelite People with the Exodus from Egypt.
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, canniness and craft, as well as 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.
The unanticipated fraught encounter, 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.
Prophet Jacob is best known for being courageous, cunning and crafty and we can learn a great deal from his life long spiritual struggles and their complex growth outcomes. “And remember Our servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, (all) owners of strength (to struggle) and (gain more) of religious understanding.” (Quran 38:45) Since the Jacob narrative stands in for the plight of Israel: the Jewish People must always negotiate what it means to be a small monotheistic nation surrounded by larger, more powerful nations.
This connection is also mentioned in the Qur’an itself, although it is only now in the light of events over the last 120 years, that we can begin to see the full meaning of the Qur’an’s words.
Qur’an 17:4-8 states: 4. “We conveyed to the Children of Israel in the (Hebrew) Scripture that, “You will surely cause corruption on the earth twice, and you will surely reach [a degree of] great haughtiness. 5. So when the (exile) promise came for the first of them, We sent against you servants of Ours – those of great military might (pagan Babylon), and they probed [even] into the homes, and it was an (exile) promise fulfilled. 6. Then We gave back to you a return victory over them (Persia defeated Babylonia and God’s non-Jewish agent Messiah King Cyrus helped Jews return to Israel). And We reinforced you with wealth and sons and made you more numerous in manpower (in your diaspora).
7. (So), “If you do good, you do good for yourselves; and if you do evil, (it is) to yourselves.” Then when the second (exile) promise came, (Rome) to sadden your faces, and to enter the Temple in Jerusalem (in 70 CE) as they (Babylonia) entered it the first time (in 587 BCE) and to destroy what they (Rome) had taken over with great destruction. 8. (Allah said), “It is expected, (if you repent), your Lord will have mercy upon you. But if you return (to idolatry), We will return [to punishment]. And We have made Hell, for the disbelievers (in general)”. (Qur’an 17:4-8)
But in accordance with God’s words to Prophet Amos 3:7 “Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” and Amos 3:2 states “Only you (Israel) have I known from all the families on earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” a prison-bed (of two exiles).”
When peace comes to the Near East many things will change, including how Jews think and feel. There are few, if any modern non-Orthodox Jews, who feel much loss because a hereditary, male only priesthood no longer offers animals on the sacred alter of a Temple in Jerusalem; so the Temple will never be rebuilt by us humans.
All the other defeated and exiled nations of ancient days have disappeared: only the Jews have
survived to the present. Even the great empires of Babylonia. Persia and Rome are gone. Yet as the Qur’an states: “We (God) told the Israelites after this (exit from Egypt) to settle in the (holy) land until Our second (Rome caused exile) promise will come true. We would then (long after the two exiles) gather them all together (in the Holy Land).” (Muhammad Sarwar translation 17:104).
The five decades preceding WW1 were decades of rising nationalism in Europe, India and the Near East and it is unlikely that the origins of the Arab-Israel conflict could have been avoided. But it is not too late for the three Abrahamic religions to contribute to the peaceful end of this tragic cousins conflict.
Now in our own generation we have seen the dramatic fulfillment of Prophet Isaiah’s words from God: “I will bring your offspring from the East (India) and gather you from the (European) West. To the North (Russia) I will say ‘give them up’ and to the South (Ethiopia) ‘do not hold them’. Bring my sons from far away, my daughters from the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 43:5-6)
And soon God willing, there may be peace in the Near East for, “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance.”…(Isaiah 19:23-5)