“Jacob’s ladder” and “Jacob wrestling with an angel” are two images, which – long ago – found their way into popular culture due, almost directly, to a Christian literal interpretation of the Jacob narrative. That assumed familiarity has blinded most of us to the importance of the lessons contained within this ancient text.
Both Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity have largely overlooked the pearls hidden in this strange story but for two totally different reasons – Judaism because of its notions of racial superiority and Christianity because of its literal interpretation of the text.
In last week’s blog, “The Importance of Being Jacob”, we discussed the historical context of the Jacob story and touched on its historicity. If you haven’t read that blog yet, make sure you read it now, before diving into this essay – as it is necessary background information.
In today’s blog, we will explore the text and its importance in correctly understanding the teachings of the Jesus of History (Q-Source).
Jacob’s ladder: Genesis 28:11
“And he arrived at the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep.”
The first clue we have, that this story is not meant to be literal, is found in the story of Jacob’s use of a rock as a pillow. It is true that we have archaeological evidence that the Egyptians used head supports for sleeping but this was used to protect elaborate hair decoration, as was the case in China and Japan – hardly the case for a Hebrew nomad.
Some Christian sources explain it as a way of keeping away from bugs but bugs are good at climbing on rocks.
The only other mention of pillows in the Tanakh specifically mentions that they were made with goat’s hair. (1 Samuel 19:13 and 19:16).
At the end of this story, the cultic reason for mentioning the stone becomes obvious.
“And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.”
We know from the archaeology that standing stones were used extensively in the Southern Levant at least through the 6th to the 3rd Millennia BCE for cultic and ritual purposes. By including this image into the story (middle of the 1st Millennia BCE), the writer could validate his narrative in the mind of his audience because they would have been familiar with existing sacred stones.
The other important point that I need you to remember is the fact that Jacob offered oil to the stone. He did not make an animal sacrifice.
The story continues:
“He dreamed, and behold, there was a stairway set earthward, with its top touching the heavens. And behold, messengers of Elohim were ascending and descending on it.”
This story, although heavily redacted, was originally part of an Elohist source. We know that because Elohim (God) is discarnate and omnipresent. He only communicates with humans through messengers (Mlaki Strong’s 4397) and in dreams.
The important thing to notice here is that the messengers of God are first ascending not descending. This would imply that they are first taking something up to heaven.
The rest of the story re-enforces the idea of Jacob as the father of the Hebrew people, a people who enjoy the unique blessing of God. The socio-political reasons for its inclusion are obvious and are not relevant to this discussion. The language of the text echoes other covenant narratives.
What is interesting however, is the intimate spiritual tie that this story inculcates with the land and with our inner life. Is this evidence of a pre-urban phase of Hebrew culture?
Jacob Wrestles with Whom?
In Genesis 32:12, we find Jacob having to face the terrible way that he had treated his brother.
“Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children.”
Long story short, after sending his servants ahead to his brother with gifts to appease him, Jacob is left alone.
“And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.”
The line establishes that Jacob is alone but then – out of nowhere – Jacob is in a fight. The text includes the strange use of the redundant word Aish or man – as the text already implies that fact it is unnecessary.
This line recalls the words of Rabbi Hillel’s statement in “The Sayings of the Fathers”:
“In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”
To understand this statement, we need to go to Exodus and the stories of Moses. (Read this article for more information)
“It came to be in those days when Moses had grown up that he went forth to his brothers and saw their burdens. He also saw an Egyptian man smiting a Hebrew man, one of his brothers.”
The word “Man” here is referring to a moral rectitude that demands we take ownership of a situation. At the time Moses believed himself to be an Egyptian and had no reason to identify with the slave. This implies that Moses was waiting for someone, Hebrew or Egyptian, to stand against this injustice.
The redundant use of “Man” implies being “Upright” or “Straight” – we will see the importance of this later.
The next line of Jacob’s narrative is also strange. In the Hebrew it is not clear who is doing what.
“Then He saw that He did not prevail against him. He touched the palm of his thighbone; and the palm of Jacob’s thighbone was strained in his wrestling– with Him.”
Having read this line in the context of the first, it is evident from the text that Jacob is fighting himself and the reference to “Man” in Hebrew shows that he is wrestling with the guilt for the evil he did to his brother.
As dawn ascends, the crisis ends and Jacob becomes a new man and takes a new name:
“And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.”
The word Israel is a compound word made up of the Hebrew word Sarah (Stong’s 8280) which means to persist, exert and El – the name of God. Notice that the text does not name Jacob “Israel” for just wrestling with God (which would be absurd) but for striving with both God and Man.
There is also an implied connection to the word Yashar (Strong’s 3477) which means to be “Upright” or “Straight” although that is not what is written in the Masoretic text, nor is the word Lacham (Strong’s 3898) or to “fight” included.
Finally Jacob explains the whole narrative:
“Jacob called the name of the place Peniel (Face of God) For I have seen Elohim face to face, and my soul was rescued.”
In the text, Jacob has no idea who he is wrestling, so it is evident that this line at the end of the narrative is not to be taken literally – as God has no form.
Now when we read the words of the Jesus of History we can put them into their true context of Abrahamic belief.
“Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you, for there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.”
Luke 12:2, Mark 4:22, Thomas 5
We can see that there is a direct synergy between the Abrahamic faith of the Elohist source and the teachings of the Jesus of History as contained in the Q-Source. Both express an emphasis on our inner life and behavior as an expression of our relationship with the Eternal via the world around us (The land).
This life affirming altruism is surely the antithesis of the later Middle-Eastern Dualistic cults that gave rise to twin horrors of the Christian Cult and Judean supremacism.