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Home » Daily Readings

Jacob Becomes Israel

Submitted by on Tuesday, 7 July 2009No Comment


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We jump several episodes to get to the present narrative. Jacob has amassed wealth working for Laban. He has now children from his two wives, Rachel and Leah. And now he returns to Beersheba, to the paternal home. At one of the stops in the journey, something happened that changed the life of Jacob forever. The story is told as if it were about why the Israelites would not eat the thigh muscle of an animal. But it is about more than that: the changing of Jacob’s name to Israel.

God changes the birth names of certain people as a sign that these have been chosen for a special role in salvation history. In Genesis 32:23-33, we have the account of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel. Jacob prevailed over the angel but he walked away from the struggle limping. Anyone who has struggled with gods and men do not leave unchanged. As a sort of prize for winning the match, the heavenly wrestler gives Jacob a new name, Israel. It is by that name that the nation that will proceed from his sons will be named.

The story teller tells us that Jacob had wrestled with God; that Jacob knew at the end that he had seen God’s face but did not die. So he also calls the place Penuel.

It is interesting to note that just before this episode, the narrator tells us that Jacob was afraid when he received a message that his brother Esau is going to meet him with four hundred men. He even prepared himself and his group for the worst (Genesis 32:6-8). Was the wrestling with the man at Penuel an externalization of what was happening in Jacob’s heart, of a struggle with his fears and anxiety on the eve of his meeting with Esau? Or was the wrestling match a preview of what his tribe — the Israelites — will undergo in the future? After all, Esau is said to be the father of the Edomites, a traditional enemy of the Israelites. It was the king of Edom that refused the Israelites passage when these were about to enter the Promised Land. see Numbers 20:19. The Edomites also helped the Babylonians plunder Jerusalem, see Obadiah 1:11-14, Psalm 137:7. See also Isaiah 34:5-8; Jeremiah 49:7-22, etc. In fact, descendants from Israelite and Moabite unions up to the fourth generation were not accepted in Jewish congregations.

In Jewish mythology, it is said that it was Esau’s guardian angel Samael who wrestles with Jacob in the hope of weakening him and therefore to prepare for Esau’s conquest of Jacob’s caravan. Jacob prevailed over Samael and as a prize was able to get from him a blessing that guaranteed protection for his descendants. A Polish rabbi — Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira — even said that because of Samael’s blessing, the Exodus was made possible1 .

Genesis 32:23-33
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23And when all things were brought over that belonged to him,
24He remained alone: and behold a man wrestled with him till morning.
25And when he saw that he could not overcome him, he touched the sinew of his thigh, and forthwith it shrank.
26And he said to him: Let me go, for it is break of day. He answered: I will not let thee go except thou bless me.
27And he said: What is thy name? He answered: Jacob.
28But he said: Thy name shall not be called Jacob, but Israel: for if thou hast been strong against God, how much more shalt thou prevail against men?
29Jacob asked him, Tell me by what name art thou called? He answered: Why dost thou ask my name? And he blessed him in the same place.
30And Jacob called the name of the place Phanuel, saying: I have seen God face to face, and my soul has been saved.
31And immediately the sun rose upon him, after he was past Phanuel; but he halted on his foot.
32Therefore the children of Israel, unto this day, eat not the sinew, that shrank in Jacob's thigh: because he touched the sinew of his thigh and it shrank.
Genesis 32:6-8
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6And the messengers returned to Jacob, saying: We came to Esau thy brother, and behold he cometh with speed to meet thee with four hundred men.
7Then Jacob was greatly afraid; and in his fear divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and the sheep, and the oxen, and the camels, into two companies,
8Saying: If Esau come to one company and destroy it, the other company that is left shall escape.
Numbers 20:19
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19And the children of Israel said: We will go by the beaten way: and if we and our cattle drink of thy waters, we will give thee what is just: there shall be no difficulty in the price, only let us pass speedily.
Obadiah 1:11-14
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11In the day when thou stoodest against him, when strangers carried away his army captive, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem: thou also wast as one of them.
12But thou shalt not look on in the day of thy brother, in the day of his leaving his country: and thou shalt not rejoice over the children of Juda, in the day of their destruction: and thou shalt not magnify thy mouth in the day of distress.
13Neither shalt thou enter into the gate of my people in the day of their ruin: neither shalt thou also look on in his evils in the day of his calamity: and thou shalt not be sent out against his army in the day of his desolation.
14Neither shalt thou stand in the crossways to kill them that flee: and thou shalt not shut up them that remain of him in the day of tribulation.
Psalm 137:7
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7Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem: Who say: Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
Isaiah 34:5-8
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5For my sword is inebriated in heaven: behold it shall come down upon Idumea, and upon the people of my slaughter unto judgment.
6The sword of the Lord is filled with blood, it is made thick with the blood of lambs and buck goats, with the blood of rams full of marrow: for there is a victim of the Lord in Bosra and a great slaughter in the land of Edom.
7And the unicorns shall go down with them, and the bulls with the mighty: their land shall be soaked with blood, and their ground with the fat of fat ones.
8For it is the day of the vengeance of the Lord, the year of recompenses of the judgment of Sion.
Jeremiah 49:7-22
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7Against Edom. Thus saith the Lord of hosts: Is wisdom no more in Theman? counsel is perished from her children: their wisdom is become unprofitable.
8Flee and turn your backs, go down into the deep hole, ye inhabitants of Dedan: for I have brought the destruction of Esau upon him, the time of his visitation.
9If grapegatherers had come to thee, would they not have left a bunch? if thieves in the night, they would have taken what was enough for them.
10But I have made Esau bare, I have revealed his secrets, and he cannot be hid: his seed is laid waste, and his brethren, and his neighbours, and he shall not be.
11Leave thy fatherless children: I will make them live: and thy widows shall hope in me.
12For thus saith the Lord: Behold they whose judgment was not to drink of the cup, shall certainly drink: and shalt thou come off as innocent? thou shalt not come off as innocent, but drinking thou shalt drink.
13For I have sworn by myself, saith the Lord, that Bosra shall become a desolation, and a reproach, and a desert, and a curse: and all her cities shall be everlasting wastes.
14I have heard a rumour from the Lord, and an ambassador is sent to the nations: Gather yourselves together, and come against her, and let us rise up to battle.
15For behold I have made thee a little one among the nations, despicable among men.
16Thy arrogancy hath deceived thee, and the pride of thy heart: O thou that dwellest in the clefts of the rock, and endeavourest to lay hold on the height of the hill: but though thou shouldst make thy nest as high as an eagle, I will bring thee down from thence, saith the Lord.
17And Edom shall be desolate: every one that shall pass by it, shall be astonished, and shall hiss at all its plagues.
18As Sodom was overthrown and Gomorrha, and the neighbours thereof, saith the Lord: there shall not a man dwell there, and there shall no son of man inhabit it.
19Behold one shall come up as a lion from the swelling of the Jordan, against the strong and beautiful: for I will make him run suddenly upon her: and who shall be the chosen one whom I may appoint over her? for who is like to me? and who shall abide me? and who is that shepherd that can withstand my countenance?
20Therefore hear ye the counsel of the Lord, which he hath taken concerning Edom: and his thoughts which he hath thought concerning the inhabitants of Theman: surely the little ones of the flock shall cast them down, of a truth they shall destroy them with their habitation.
21The earth is moved at the noise of their fall: the cry of their voice is heard in the Red Sea.
22Behold he shall come up as an eagle, and fly: and he shall spread his wings over Bosra: and in that day the heart of the valiant ones of Edom shall be as the heart of a woman in labour.

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  1. see Schwartz Howard, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, p. 360. Oxford Press, 2004. Google Books []

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