Jacob’s Deal with God
One of the great challenges for those raised reading biblical texts with classical commentaries is to relearn how to read them without those filters. The need to relearn that reading skill is twofold. First, most classical commentaries are responding to textual issues or difficulties, so they cannot be appreciated properly without a deep and nuanced reading of the primary text.
Nechama Leibowitz in particular highlighted that why one commentary would take one position and a different one disagree is only comprehensible from a place of appreciation of the challenges they are trying to solve. The other need for learning to read all over again is for its own sake. What is the biblical text itself trying to say? How can we train our ears to hear its voice? In the following essay, I will try to do just that.
Fleeing from his brother Esau, Jacob finds a place to lay his head. His sleep, however, is disturbed by a dream with mysterious and powerful images and a promise from God.
בראשית כח:טו וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם עָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ׃
Gen 28:15 And behold, I am with you and I will protect you wherever you go, and I will return you to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you (translation mine).
In the morning, Jacob awakes and makes a vow, and that vow is the subject of intense controversy among the commentators. Two issues are at the center of that controversy, one philosophical and the other technical.
On the philosophical side, the debate revolves around the fact that Jacob seems to make his promise to God conditional. If God does X then Jacob will do Y. That, in itself, is only mildly problematic until we look closely and discover that the condition Jacob lays down is precisely the same thing God had promised him during the night—that God would be with him. It seems that Jacob is questioning whether or not God will fulfill God’s own promise, an idea which many classical commentaries could not accept.
On the technical side, Jacob’s vow presents a significant grammatical problem that is not easily resolved. In English, vows are typically in an “if…then…” form. Hebrew, however, does not, in such cases, have a word for then, and thus it is often unclear exactly when the “then” part begins, especially in cases like ours, which present a series of statements connected by the letter vav. That letter can be understood either as “and” or as “then,” rendering the following complex ambiguous pronouncement:
בראשית כח:כ אִם יִהְיֶה אֱלֹהִים עִמָּדִי
Gen 28:20 If God will be with me
וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ
and will protect me on this path which I am traveling upon,
וְנָתַן לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ.
and will provide me with food to eat and clothing to wear,
כח:כא וְשַׁבְתִּי בְשָׁלוֹם אֶל בֵּית אָבִי
28:21 and/then I will peacefully return home to my father’s house,
וְהָיָה יְ־הוָה לִי לֵאלֹהִים.
and/then the Eternal One will be for me a God,
כח:כב וְהָאֶבֶן הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי מַצֵּבָה יִהְיֶה בֵּית אֱלֹהִים
28:22 and/then this stone which I set as a monument will be a house of God,
וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּתֶּן לִי עַשֵּׂר אֲעַשְּׂרֶנּוּ לָךְ.
and/then from all which You will give me I will give back to You a tenth.
The determination of the turning point in Jacob’s pronouncement yields dramatic differences in both what Jacob’s expectations of God are and what he is offering to God in return. Minimally, Jacob expects only that God will fulfill the promise from the previous night, in return for which Jacob will come back to his ancestral land, adopt the Lord as his God, build God a house, and tithe everything which God provides. Maximally, Jacob expects that God will return him home, show Jacob special Divine protection, and visibly demonstrate that Jacob’s dedications have been accepted – only then will Jacob agree to give a tenth of everything back to God.
It is worthwhile, however, to take a step back and reexamine the events of that evening in a broader narrative context.
Jacob’s State of Mind
Jacob’s involvement in deceiving his father and stealing his brother’s blessing changes his life forever. Jacob is exiled from his home, forced to flee empty-handed from his brother’s wrath. He has lost everything – his beloved mother’s protection, his father’s trust, his brother, and possibly even his future inheritance.
Emotionally exhausted from his ordeal and physically depleted from his flight, Jacob puts his head down for the night. He surrounds his head with rocks – ostensibly to protect himself from animals – and falls asleep.
Following Jacob’s vision of the ladder with the divine messengers, God appears to Jacob and promises to bless him with the Abrahamic blessing. This was necessary because it is not clear that the purloined blessing is meaningful. That first message is a long-term one establishing Jacob’s status as the heir to the covenant. But God adds another promise, a short-term one, assuring Jacob that he will receive divine protection until the round-trip to Haran is complete.
At that point Jacob awakens, in the middle of the night, in terror. Was he sleeping in a sacred place, the house of God, the very gateway to heaven? It seems from the verses that he goes back to sleep, despite this apprehension, and awakens at the crack of dawn (see 28:18). At that point, Jacob sets up and anoints a monument, names the place Beit El, and makes his vow.
Dream or Prophecy?
This careful reading changes our understanding. Much like someone startled awake by a fearful dream, Jacob woke in the middle of the night. In the morning, however, it is not at all clear whether the dream is true or not. The immediate terror is gone, but there are lingering questions. Did God really come to him in the middle of the night or was it just a dream?
There is no indication earlier in the text of Jacob having any kind of encounter with the Divine; this was probably his first. And so, like Samuel (1 Sam 3), he is uncertain about the nature of that dream. Was it a product of his own imagination, reflecting his fears and hopes, or was it real?
With lingering doubts, Jacob erects his monument, anoints it, and issues his conditional vow. The meaning of that vow should now be clear. If God indeed does the things Jacob heard in the dream then it will have been clear that the dream was not a product of his own doing, but that it was, indeed, God who came to him in a prophetic vision. That is why Jacob’s condition addressed precisely those things he heard promised to him.
This becomes the key to resolving the ambiguity of where Jacob’s condition ends and his action begins. All the reader needs to do is to match up God’s nocturnal promises with Jacob’s early morning vow. Those things which God promised, and only those, are part of Jacob’s condition. Everything else is what Jacob vows to do for God.
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November 5, 2013
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Rabbi Zvi Grumet is a senior staff member at The Lookstein Center for Jewish Education where he is the editor of Jewish Educational Leadership. He is coordinator of the Tanakh Department at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi , and is faculty at Pardes Institute and at Hebrew College (Boston). Grumet was ordained by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and holds an Ed.D. from Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School. His newest book is called Moses and the Path to Leadership.
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