A Parasha Pregnant with the Past, Present, and Future of Israel's Protagonists
Parashat Vayetzei is packed—“pregnant” is perhaps a better word—with crucial elements of the Torah’s overarching narrative. Most centrally, it tells the story of the births of the main human protagonists of the Bible: the Children of Israel. The parasha can be read as a single continuous story, but in fact, it has several stories in it that correspond to other sections of the Torah and the Bible. I will highlight three of these stories and Jacob’s central role in each of them.
Vayetzei’s main story is Jacob’s escape to and life in Haran—a story of his encounters with the people who become his family. But the parasha is encased by two major incidents, unrelated to the main story in it. Both are related to each other since they tell about encounters with God. Right from the start the parasha invites us to think hard about the first, and consequently also the second, encounter.
Vayetzei, meaning “and he went out,” poses a riddle: At the end of the previous parasha, Toledot, we read Isaac “sent” Jacob to Laban, that he indeed left his parents’ home and went there (Gen 28:5–7). Why then does the next parasha begin again with Jacob “going out” and not with telling us about Jacob’s arrival in Haran or the goings on at Laban’s home?Repeating the message that Jacob is leaving Canaan seems redundant, unless the Torah wants to prepare us for something major that is to happen on the way.
Jacob’s Encounters with God
In the first two verses of the parasha, we read that Jacob “went out” (ויצא) of Beersheba and “lighted upon” (ויפגע) a “certain place” (Gen 28:11). Jacob goes on to name this place Beth El, “House of God,” recognizing it as the site of his dream and covenant with God (Gen 28:16–19).
In the last two verses of the parasha, we read that Jacob “went on his way” and that the angels of God “encountered him” (ויפגעו בו) (Gen 32:2). Here again, a key term, ויפגעו/ויפגע, “he/they encountered,” connects two stories. Jacob names the second place of encounter with God Mahanaim, “Camp (of God’s Host),” an etymology that is conceptually similar to Beth El (Gen 32:3). The pattern here is worth noting: Jacob encounters God and names the place of the encounter in order to commemorate the event. Famously, in the next parasha, after fighting with the angel of God, Jacob names the site of the occurrence Peni’el/Penu’el, “face of God” (Gen. 32:31-32).
The Blessing: Jacob and Abraham
The ensuing verses describe Jacob’s dream, which involves God’s revelation to Jacob and Jacob’s covenant with God (Gen 28:12–15). God’s promises to Jacob are very similar, almost verbatim, to his promises to Abraham: the land, a multitude of children (“and your seed shall be as the dust of the earth”), and divine protection (Gen 12:2–3, 7; 13:14–17; 17:1–8). Jacob is in such awe that he declares the place the House of God and the gate of heaven (Gen 28:16–19).
Here we find hints of a kind of “competition” between Jacob and Abraham traditions. Abraham leaves Haran and eventually comes to Beersheba, and his covenant with God is made upon entering the land of Canaan. Jacob leaves Beersheba, and his covenant with God occurs when he is about to leave the land. Both Abraham and Jacob encounter danger in their travels and return with great wealth. And Abraham, like Jacob, goes down to Egypt, prefiguring the exodus story.
Beth El vs. Jerusalem
An even more striking, even blatant, competition hides within this text. The name “House of God,” (Gen. 28:19) which Jacob gives to the site of his dream, is reserved for only one location: the Jerusalem Temple. The book of Kings repeatedly insists that that is the only place where God resides. Two incidents involving Abraham hint that the site of the Temple is the House of God. The first is when Abraham visits Melchizedek, King of Shalem (the future Jerusalem), who is described as the “priest of most high God” (El Elion), recognized by Abraham as the “creator of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:18-20). The second instance is the binding of Isaac on Mt. Moriah. However, here we have Jacob naming a place other than Jerusalem as the House of God.
The Significance of the Competition: Israel vs. Judah
The competition between Abraham and Jacob, and the two Houses of God associated with them, hints at the future competition between Israel and Judah. Abraham’s story is that of the southern kingdom of Judah, whose main tribe was Judah, whose main patriarch was Abraham, and whose God dwelled in Jerusalem. Jacob’s story is the story of the kingdom of Israel, whose main tribe was Ephraim, son of Joseph, whose main patriarch was Jacob (Israel), and whose God (“El”) dwelled in Beth El.
Both Abraham and Jacob are Chosen
The hidden competition between Abraham and Jacob is not resolved by naming a specific victor. Instead, the Torah stitches their stories together and connects them. Both become patriarchs of the Children of Israel. However, each ends up with different advantages. Abraham is the founding father of the Children of Israel, but only one of his sons is chosen. Jacob, though not the first patriarch, gives his name, Israel, to the new people, and, as we we eventually learn later in the Torah, all twelve of his sons are “chosen” as members.
The Birth of the Children of Israel: They Are All Chosen
Following the theft of the birthright and the blessing from his brother, Esau, Jacob must run away. His parents send him to Haran, to the home of his uncle, Rebecca’s brother, Laban. Jacob makes his way to Haran, where he finds his uncle and works for him for many years in return for his daughters, Leah and Rachel. It is during this period that eleven of his sons and his daughter, Dinah, are born. The last son, Benjamin, will be born later, in the Land of Canaan.
Competition between Mothers
The series of births reads like a race between the mothers (Rachel and Leah and their handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah), pregnancy after pregnancy. The competition between Rachel and Leah is so intense that it seems to go wild, and Jacob ends up with no fewer than twelve sons. This number presents us with a major break from the previous stories about families central to the biblical narrative: Adam and Eve have two sons; Abraham and Isaac also have two children each.
Abraham and Isaac’s Sons: Competition for Divine Blessing
The circumstances around the births of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael and Isaac, and the story of the birth of Isaac’s children, Jacob and Esau, are enveloped within an account of a harsh and bitter competition for recognition and divine blessing, a theme that goes back to the story of Cain and Abel and their competition over proper sacrifice. In the Abraham story, Ishmael is born to Hagar after Sarah gives up on the possibility of giving birth to a son of her own to Abraham. When Isaac is finally born, Hagar and Ishmael are banished. Jacob and Esau fight already in the womb; Esau wins, but Jacob ends up stealing his brother’s blessing. Both Ishmael and Esau receive only a “secondary” or lesser divine blessing after they have been stripped of their rights as firstborn.
Jacob’s Sons: A Shared Chosenness
In the story of the birth of Jacob’s twelve sons, none seems poised to receive a special divine blessing. Nor does anything in the circumstances of their births suggest future competition for divine blessing. It seems that the biblical authors want us to focus on the fact that Jacob has many sons simply because his wives compete for his attention and love. If the issue of “chosenness” (in the eyes of God) is involved in any way in this story, it can only be assigned to Joseph, the first son of Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel. But, notwithstanding Joseph’s special leadership role, all of Jacob’s sons—unlike Ishmael and Esau—are considered members of the Children of Israel.
Escaping Haran and the Exodus from Egypt
The story of Jacob’s departure from Haran reads like a precursor of the exodus from Egypt and evidently foretells it. We can see this through a number of parallels between the two stories.
Expansion and Increase in Wealth
The key terms that betray the connection between the two stories are ויפרץ, “and he increased,” and to a lesser extent the expression מאד מאד, “exceedingly.” The following comparison between the usages in the Jacob story to the exodus story is instructive:
בראשית ל:מג וַיִּפְרֹץ הָאִישׁ מְאֹד מְאֹד וַיְהִי לוֹ צֹאן רַבּוֹת וּשְׁפָחוֹת וַעֲבָדִים וּגְמַלִּים וַחֲמֹרִים.
Gen 30:43 So the man grew exceedingly prosperous, and came to own large flocks, maidservants and manservants, camels and asses.
שמות א:ז וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל פָּרוּ וַיִּשְׁרְצוּ וַיִּרְבּוּ וַיַּעַצְמוּ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ אֹתָם… א:יב וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ…
Exod 1:7 But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased exceedingly, so that the land was filled with them… 1:12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and prospered…
The Host Turns against the Guest
Jacob’s increase in wealth, and possibly power, alarms Laban’s sons, who fear that this expansion might lead to a takeover of their father’s riches. Laban himself changes his mind about Jacob: his “countenance toward him” was “not as before” (Gen 31:2).
In Egypt, Joseph has a similar experience to that of his father in Haran. He arrives in Egypt because of problems with his brothers, gains power and wealth, and marries to the daughter of an important local official, Potophera the priest of On.
Egypt’s attitude toward Israel is transformed in a manner that is similar to Laban’s change in attitude toward Jacob. The growth of the Children of Israel alarms the Egyptians and causes a change in Egypt’s policy toward its once-accepted guests. A Pharaoh comes to the throne “who did not know Joseph” and enslaves the Children of Israel (Exod 1:8–11).
Servitude and Trickery
Jacob is not technically a slave of Laban; they always have a contractual relationship, and the Torah discusses each contract in detail. Nevertheless, in Jacob’s description of his servitude, he sounds as if he felt like a slave, trapped, as it were, in Laban’s unfair deals. He accuses Laban of changing the deal on him over and over again (Gen 31:7). (The first, and most famous, change occurs when Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel.)
Similarly, the new Pharaoh declares that he would like to “outsmart” the Israelites (הבה נתחכמה לו, Exod 1:10) and undermines the deal that his predecessor made with Jacob’s sons, which allowed them to live peacefully in the land of Goshen. And when Pharaoh sends the midwives to kill all the Israelite boys, one imagines that they are supposed to do so through trickery. (They could hardly have been meant to announce that they were coming to kill the baby; why would the Israelites continue to use their services?)
Departure and Spoils
The departure scenes are also similar in the two stories. Again, although Jacob is not technically a slave, he still feels the need to escape (ב.ר.ח) from Laban without notice (Gen 31:21). We find here more foreshadowing of the exodus story. Jacob is described leaving with all his children, people, and cattle (Gen 31:18), much as the Children of Israel are described leaving Egypt (Exod 12:37–38). In both stories, the “master” is told about the escape after the fact:
Jacob Story (Gen 31:22)
וַיֻּגַּד לְלָבָן בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי כִּי בָרַח יַעֲקֹב
On the third day, Laban was told that Jacob had fled.
Exodus Story (Exod 14:5)
וַיֻּגַּד לְמֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם כִּי בָרַח הָעָם
The king of Egypt was told that the people had fled
The story about Rachel stealing her father’s objects of worship (teraphim; Gen 31:19) hints at the articles the Children of Israel take from their Egyptian neighbors (Exod 12:35–36).
Pursuit after Three Days and Divine Intervention
Laban pursues Jacob after his escape (Gen 31:23), just as Pharaoh pursues the Children of Israel (Exod 14:8). Moreover, Laban hears of the escape three days after Jacob’s flight (Gen 13:22). In other words, Jacob was three days away when Laban began to pursue him. This may be seen as foreshadowing the three days in the wilderness that Moses requests from Pharaoh (Exod 8:23).
Laban intercepts the escapees and God intervenes (31:24–29), as he does in the Egypt story, but here the two narratives diverge. Whereas Pharaoh and his army are destroyed in the sea (Exod 14:28), Laban and Jacob make another deal and withdraw from each other peacefully (Gen 31:44–54). Nonetheless, it is fair to say that Vayetzei is “pregnant” with the story of the Exodus.
Intertwining the Themes
Underneath many of the elements in this parashah lie arguments and counter-arguments about chosenness and connection with God: who is Israel’s proper ancestor: Jacob or Abraham? Where does God dwell, Bethel or Jerusalem? But perhaps the most dominant theme in Vayetzei is the dual role of Jacob as man and prophet. In this regard, Vayetzei’sJacob is the ultimate patriarch: at once very human and yet connected to the divine.
Jacob of this parashah is very human: he runs away, he shows off his physical strength, he falls in love, he has many business dealings with Laban, and above all, he produces many children without any divine intervention. At the same time, this human saga is encased by two accounts of Jacob as prophet, who sees God and God’s angels. In fact, his encounter with God in Beth El provides us with a key message: divine protection is not limited only to the Land of Canaan. This idea underscores both the story of Jacob’s escape from Haran and the larger story it foreshadows, the exodus from Egypt. In fact, Jacob’s descendants have relied on this promise for millennia, perhaps forever.
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December 8, 2016
June 27, 2020
Prof. Zvi Ben-Dor Benite is Professor of History, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at NYU. He holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. He is the author of The Dao of Muhammad: A Cultural History of Muslims in Late Imperial China and The Ten Lost Tribes: A World History and is working on a new monograph, Crescent China: Islam and the Nation After Empire.
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