Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Mistakes of Moses Expanded Universe: Genesis 32

In this installment Jacob meets some heavenly messengers on a camping trip to earth. He comes up with a plan to handle his approaching brother only to later abandon it. Finally, he has a nocturnal romp with a divine being resulting in a limp, a name change, and a whole lot of interpretive difficulty. Did you think the story in the last installment was a little difficult for conservative Bible expositors to wrestle with? Well, LET'S GET READY TO RUM....hold on a sec....I don't want to have to send a fat check to Michael Buffer. Let's just get started.

Genesis 32:1-2
Jacob parts ways with his uncle Laban and continues on his journey back into Canaan. The narrative abruptly relates a meeting with the "angels of God." Jacob sees them and exclaims, "This is the camp of Elohim!" So, exactly who or what are these beings? Well, the construction "messengers of god(s)" or "mal'akhey elohim" occurs in the Old Testament only here and back in 28:12 in the description of Jacob's vision of the celestial staircase. Presumably the same beings that were going up and down those stairs between earth and heaven are now encamped nearby and came out to meet him. Why they decided to take this terrestrial camping trip is left unanswered. It doesn't matter. The abrupt intrusion in the narrative probably has a real simple explanation.

It seems its purpose is merely to insert an etymology for the name of this place, Mahanaim or "two camps." The implication being that Jacob and his party were sharing a space with the encampment of the messengers of Elohim. This place would later be designated a priestly Levite town. It was, perhaps, a cult center for the region of Jabesh Gilead. Saul's general, Abner, takes one of Saul's surviving sons there during the bloody game of thrones that follows Saul's death and attempts to quickly anoint him king to rival David. Presumably this would have been to demonstrate the blessings of the deity via the priestly class. Song of Songs alludes to a "dance of Mahanaim" that incorporated gazing. This could have been a ritual dance associated with the shrine there which perhaps involved gazing on a sacred object of some kind.

Meeting with the encamped messengers of Elohim is one of our author's explanations for how this place got the name "two camps." As we've seen previously, one etymology isn't always enough. There's another one that follows. Read the next passage and see if you can figure out that author's explanation for how this place came to be called "two camps."

Genesis 32:3-8
Did you see it? Yep. Jacob sends ambassadors to his brother, making mention of a giant bribe to buy off his anger. These messengers return with the news that Esau is coming out to meet him along with four-hundred of his he-man macho hunter buddies. News of this reception understandably freaks Jacob out. Verse 7 may as well say that Jacob pissed himself. Employing the risk management technique of separation, he splits his traveling party into....wait for it....two camps. What a coincidence! Why, he just named this place "two camps."

It seems this was the Yahwist author's explanation for how the place came to get its name. The Elohist had the one from verses 1 & 2. Our editors have, once again, preserved both for us. Neither is the truth, of course. Recall that the Elohist is from the Northern Kingdom. This place is in his territory. His etymology makes it sound all awesome and special. Angels were camped there! The Yahwist from the Southern Kingdom doesn't have the goal of making places up North seem particularly special. His etymology commemorates Jacob's act of fear and desperation and his begging Yahweh for help.

What makes both of these etymologies stand out is how forced they are. The first interrupts the flow the of the narrative and has nothing whatsoever to do with the events that follow and the second becomes completely superfluous because of the later details of the narrative. What we'll see later on is that Jacob seemingly abandons this whole "two camps" strategy, preferring to employ a couple of variations on the theme. One involves dividing up his herds into multiple groups to go on before the family and another involves dividing up the family into three groups with him going on ahead.

Genesis 32:9-12
Afraid and seemingly out of options, Jacob asks Yahweh for help. Several English translations will begin verse 9 with something like, "Jacob prayed..." Properly speaking, he is talking to a deity here so it can be thought of as praying in that sense. However, using the word "prayed" perhaps makes this into something the text doesn't. Remember, the Yahwist has a deity that is on a personal basis with the Patriarchs. He sits down and has meals with them and stuff. Plus, there is a word for "pray" in Hebrew that the writer could've used. He didn't. Jacob is having a conversation in which he calls upon the suzerain deity to save him.

This is the Yahwist's Jacob. The conniving trickster is now reduced to cowardice and grovelling before the deity. The southern Yahwist doesn't hold his Jacob in as high regard as the northern Elohist. His god and his heroes are often flawed. Remember it was the Yahwist's Jacob that tricked his brother out of his birthright and caused all of this conflict in the first place. It's the Yahwist that has to account for all this political turmoil with the neighboring Edomites. The Elohist has a virtually blameless Jacob who doesn't even need to have complex interactions with the Edomite patriarch, so his Jacob has no reason to be pants-shittingly terrified at this point.

Genesis 32:13-21
Jacob further divides up his party into various herds and puts together a tribute package for his slightly older brother to appease him. It's probably not a coincidence that the word for "tribute" is used here because this likely reflects some of the political realities of the writer's day. This looks a lot like a subject paying tribute to his lord...or perhaps a group of reluctant Judahites facing down the hordes of some really pissed off Edomites that have recently cast off their subjugation and are coming down out of the hills for their pound of flesh. Hey, there's no shame in buying those guys off. You do what you gotta do to save you and yours. It's what good rulers do sometimes, right?

Genesis 32:22-25
Having fled to a foreign land and acquired wealth and wives, Jacob is about to cross the return threshold of the Jabbok stream back into his homeland. At nightfall he gets his family and all his possessions safely across, but while alone, he encounters a man who wrestles with him. The narrative doesn't give us any details about how exactly this went down. Did the guy just jump him like a brigand? Did he stand before Jacob like Gandalf and exclaim, "You shall not pass!"? Did he grab the mic from Vince McMahon and hurl insults at him? Did he walk up in a blond flat-top with sweat-glistened, roided-out, protruding pectorals and mutter, "I must break you" in a thick Russian accent? The entire account is disjointed and woefully bereft of detail. This is odd for the simple fact of how pivotal and dramatic this scene would have been. And yet our writer gives us this rather vague account that has been left open to all kinds of fill-in-the-blanks expository guesswork, with each expositor claiming to have some sort of interpretive keys or framework to justify their view.

Jacob, who you'll recall is now nearly a hundred years old, manages to hold his own until daybreak because he's such a badass. When the man realizes the dawn star is rising and he can't defeat Jacob, he strikes (typically translated "touches") his "hip socket" and dislocates it. Of note is that the word used here is often employed euphemistically as a substitute for the groin. One can't help but wonder if an earlier telling of this story involved a cheap shot.

As we move through this passage there are already some questions. Why the big to do about the dawn star rising? Was striking/touching Jacob's hip socket something akin to cheating and that's why the man hadn't done it before? Was it an act of underhanded desperation on his part? Was he relying on magic or just violating the wrestling rules? Jacob still has a hold of the man and the text later implies Jacob won, so what exactly did the move accomplish other than making Jacob limp? Oh yeah. One other big question: who, or perhaps more importantly, what is this man?

Genesis 32:26-28
The man tells Jacob to let him go because the dawn star is rising, marking the second time in the narrative that this detail is brought up. Oh, did I mention the Hebrew word used here for dawn, shahar, just happens to be the name of a Canaanite deity associated with the planet Venus? That little detail might be significant. Anyway, Jacob refuses to let go until he receives the man's blessing. The man asks Jacob his name and when he tells him, the man pronounces that his name will no longer be Jacob but Israel. The name "Israel", like many Semitic proper names, contains "El" within it (Daniel, Gabriel, Elizabeth, Elihu, Elijah, Michael, Samuel). El was the name of the Canaanite high god, but it could also refer simply to a god, a ruler, a demigod or even a false god, depending on the context.The first part of the name, ysr, means to have power, to rule, or to contend with. The name "Israel" would've typically been understood to mean "El rules" or "El will prevail." However, the man wrestling with Jacob turns the meaning around to imply that it is the nation's founding patriarch who has contended with the gods and prevailed.

This is a major clue in the narrative that Jacob has not been wrestling with a mortal. The story is being narrated from Jacob's perspective and Jacob has to this point recognized this being as a man. Even when Jacob demands a blessing, it doesn't necessarily provide confirmation that this was a supernatural being because, as we've seen in prior narratives, certain powerful men could grant special blessings. Through this reference the man has suggested that he was, in fact, a god of some kind. Note that nowhere in the text is this person referred to as an angel (mal'ak), and it's not like this writer hasn't made use of that word when appropriate.

"And he said unto him, 'What is thy name?' But before Jacob could reply he interrupted and said,
'It doesn't matter what thy name is!'"

Genesis 32:29-30
Jacob then asks this being for its name. The being responds by asking Jacob why he wants to know. We get no answer. Like the reference to Shahar, this is another one of those broken joints where the audience has to fill in the missing information. The being then blesses Jacob. Jacob responds by naming the place Peniel (face of El), saying, "I have seen Elohim face to face and my life has been preserved." Incidentally, this place would serve as the Transjordan capital of the Northern Kingdom under Jeroboam I, possibly after Egyptian incursions into the Levant. It's perhaps significant that here we have a story about how Jacob came to be named "El will rule" at the very place where a Northern king established his capital.

It's important to point out that we just saw in the first two verses of this chapter how Jacob had a meeting with the "angels of Elohim." While he did mark the occasion and make note of how exceptional it was, he didn't come away from that meeting thankful he had survived a face-to-face meeting. This is a markedly different encounter. This was a bigger deal. Seeing this face was different to this writer. It was something other biblical writers with higher theology would've said Jacob should not have survived.

Hosea's reference to this encounter uses poetic parallelism to try to soften this by first calling it a struggle with Elohim and then substituting the word "angel" in the verse that follows. The suggestion is that seeing the angel of Elohim could be in some way thought of as seeing Elohim himself. Lots of extra-biblical writers seize upon this notion because they have good reason to be uncomfortable with this tale. That's their spin, though. The text in Genesis never uses the word "angel" when the writer clearly had it in his vocabulary. Oddly enough, as fantastic as this encounter is, Hosea is the only other biblical writer that ever makes reference to this incident. One wonders if this little story caused consternation or even embarrassment for biblical authors familiar with it and that's why they avoided making reference to it. It certainly doesn't comport well with the expectations of the more developed theology of many of the other writers, particularly those who think it's impossible to see God and live. Yet here Jacob is, naming the place "Face of God."

By all appearances, even the writer that incorporated this story into the text was uncomfortable with some of its original elements and that's why we have this broken, disjointed narrative that leaves us with so many questions and available interpretations. What if the story was so ingrained in the minds of his contemporaries that he (or a later editor) felt compelled to incorporate this into his narrative? It may have been a bit embarrassing to his view of God, but he may have felt he had no other choice. Words like "Jabbok" and "Jacob" or "Peniel" and "Israel" form obvious wordplay that would've made this story difficult to wipe from the collective cultural memory.

What if this supernatural being started out as just another folkloric threshold guardian that some legendary figure had encountered and then limped away from? Threshold guardians are all over the place in ancient folklore. These characters sprang from legends about supernatural beings that guarded things like passages and river crossings. They typically came out or grew powerful at night and lost power at dawn. Considering these crossings were often territorial boundaries, it makes sense that people would've constructed superstitions about supernatural beings guarding them. It would be one more deterrent that might make people think twice before encroaching on someone else's territory. Plus, crossing a river was often hazardous for real, especially at night. Adding a supernatural element to that helps account for the "bad luck" one might encounter.

These supernatural threshold guardians were often incorporated into mythic storytelling to serve as challenges for a hero to overcome before, well, crossing an important threshold. You know, like the Jabbok ford, a crossing that would've symbolized the hero Jacob's return to his homeland. I'm sure you can think of a few examples of threshold guardians in other tales. Sometimes it's creatures like the scorpion men that stood guard at the gates of the sun god in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Sometimes it's creatures like Cerberus the three-headed dog guarding the underworld. Often it's a troll. Sometimes it's the keeper of the Bridge of Death who asks questions about the Assyrian capital and the velocity of unladen swallows.

In these stories, the hero would be left with little option other than to take up the challenge presented by the guardian. It would be a display of power or cunning as the hero would typically have to rely on either his wits, skill or brute strength to overcome the threshold guardian. The Princess Bride, for example, at one point has three threshold guardians and the hero must employ a different technique on each before crossing a fire swamp. This biblical writer has his hero, Jacob, rely on brute strength to attempt to force a stalemate and hold out until the dawn rises and the guardian's power fades. He then uses his wits to press his advantage at the right moment and secure a supernatural blessing.
"And the man said unto Jacob, 'Stop hitting yourself, butthead!' But he could not, for he was hitting him with his own hands."
Gustave DorĂ©Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (1855)
The idea of a major deity disguising itself in the form of a mortal at a river crossing is certainly not foreign to ancient myth. While Jason is crossing the Anauros River, Hera disguises herself as a drowning woman and Jason saves her to prove his worth. In an interesting parallel, he loses a sandal in that encounter and this detail later becomes important to the story. It's not a limp, but he does walk differently after his encounter with the disguised deity.

Now, maybe that all sounds like a stretch. Maybe you don't buy those comparisons. Maybe you can't accept this mythic, folkloric interpretation of this Bible story. Maybe you're inclined to think Jacob really did have a wrestling match with a pre-incarnate Jesus Christ like so many Christian expositors say. Maybe it was Esau's angel or even Esau himself, like some Jewish interpreters say. Maybe it was just an angel who was teaching Jacob some kind of lesson. Maybe it was an alien from outer space. People have tried to make the case for all of those. My question is, why aren't any of these things more obvious? Why all the need for additional interpretation? If it was the Angel of the LORD or a pre-incarnate Christ, how does this story even make sense, given that Jacob won?

Did you get that? He won. He wrestled with this being and won. What does this story say about a supposed pre-incarnate Christ? That he engages in wrestling matches in which he has to cheat and use magic? That he guards river crossings like a troll? That his power begins to subside when the planet Venus becomes visible just before sunrise? That if he gives up his true name like Rumpelstiltskin, Jacob will have power over him? Was he just toying with Jacob and giving him the impression that he could actually win, thereby misrepresenting his nature once again? Why does this story play into the expectations of ancient myths? There are so many questions to get around. I'm waiting for a Christian interpretation that directly and satisfactorily answers them in a way that extends beyond trite, pastoral sayings like, "If you wrestle with God, he'll change your walk." Fittingly, very few Christian expositors seem willing to seriously wrestle (pun intended) with the implications of this text. I'm left to wonder why. Could it have something to do with just how ridiculous this story makes their god look in the face of the modern, monotheistic expectations of their systematic theologies?

Apparently the post-Exilic Priestly writer disliked this story so much that he created a completely different account of Jacob's name change to Israel, which ends up being set at Beth El rather than Peniel. We'll discuss that problem in greater detail when we get to chapter 35. What seems clear is that at least one biblical writer within the same book did not particularly care for this story at all. Not only does he ignore it like every other writer with the single exception of Hosea, but he goes so far as to craft an alternate version. Thankfully, the final redactor saw fit to incorporate them both so we could watch later conservative Christian expositors try to squirm around or gloss over all these interpretive difficulties to make sense of things within their theological systems. You know, guys, a lot of these problems just evaporate when you let go of the notion of a single author with monolithic theological underpinnings and accept the Bible for what it so obviously appears to be. But I suppose when you think the entirety of your faith rests on certain presuppositions about the text, well, I guess you have no other choice. Have fun with that.

Genesis 32:31-32
I have to hand it to the writer here. Verse 31 is some pretty cool imagery. Jacob, having overcome the threshold guardian and received his magical blessing after surviving that perilous overnight encounter, is portrayed by the writer fording the Jabbok at daybreak like a badass while the sun shines on him as a symbol of divine favor. There may as well be explosions going off behind him as he limps away with his staff in hand, doubtless wearing his tattered, blood-stained clothes as the hero returns to his homeland.

After giving us that majestic picture, the narrative interrupts with a parenthetical remark explaining that the reason why Hebrews remove the sciatic nerve of animals during food preparation is because Jacob walked with a limp after his divine wrestling match. I suppose this was so that when people asked why they had to painstakingly remove this particular part of an animal they could respond with, "Because our founding father walked with a limp...after wrestling with a god!" That sounds cool and all, but I have my own hypothesis about this.

The superstitions surrounding practices often arise for good reason. However, the person being warned in the superstition often wouldn't care as much about the real reason. I'll give you some examples. A couple of contemporary ones involve pools. The first is that you shouldn't go swimming until at least thirty minutes after eating, lest you get a cramp and drown. That ain't gonna happen. What might happen, though, is you might barf in someone's pool and that's nasty. Now, you may not care, but the person who would have to clean that nastiness up or swim around it might. Another myth would be one you probably heard as a kid about public pools putting in a special chemical that turns red and follows you around if you pee in it. Also complete bullshit. However, it's a great little myth to perpetuate if you want to keep people from peeing in your pool.

Let's back up a few centuries to mirrors and ladders. The nobility could afford mirrors back in the day, but the good ones were super expensive. Well, how do you get your servants to treat them with care so you don't have to constantly make costly replacements? You attach a superstition of seven years of bad luck. How do you keep inconsiderate morons from walking underneath your ladder and causing you to fall? You make it bad luck. How do you keep those same idiots from opening an umbrella in your foyer and knocking over that priceless antique vase? You guessed it.

We could turn our attention back to the Ancient Near East. How do you keep people from cutting down shady oasis trees in the middle of the desert to use for firewood or construction so that you and all the other nomads can preserve and continue to enjoy those trees? You make them sacred shrines.

Now, what if you're a member of the privileged, literate ruling or priestly class in a civilization. Or maybe you're a rich nomad with flocks and herds. You get to have meat from time to time, unlike those poor peons who have to mostly eat grain. However, there's this part of the meat you don't like that's chewy and full of gristle. It sucks. Anyone who has ever ordered a sirloin and encountered this thing knows what I'm talking about. You don't like it, but it's a real pain in the ass for whoever does the food preparation to remove it for you. It's so much of a pain that the servants or women (redundant?) who have to remove this thing on a regular basis complain about it. How do you convince them that there's a good reason for this extra work? Well, do you remember that story about Jacob wrestling a god at the Jabbok and how he limped afterward because the god touched his thigh? Well, there you go.

Does that seem a bit oversimplified? Maybe. Is it at least less ridiculous than the notion of a pre-incarnate Jesus Christ engaging in an all-night wrestling match and losing to a hundred-year-old man?


  1. Do you have an email address I can contact you at?


  2. Brilliant.
    (On a side note, that same picture of Jacob wrestling the angel is one of the reasons I started working out at a young age. Impressive biceps, man! ;)

    1. They are indeed impressive, especially for someone who's nearly a hundred years old.

  3. Reading these actually makes me impressed that the Bible has as good a continuity as it does. I've read plenty of series that have worse continuity errors. Then again, the people compiling it got to pick their canon, kind of like Disney is doing with Star Wars. And like Disney, they still need to include some continuity errors in order to make sure they don't leave out all the cool parts.
    - Anonymous from last time

  4. Thanks for the insights and the laughs - especially the laughs. Any thoughts on returning to the series?