WWE: Jacob Yahweh Smackdown

Jacob goes on his way back to Canaan, per God’s instructions, and starts to worry about encountering Esau. They parted on less than favorable terms when Jacob swindled him out of his birthright and Esau vowed to destroy him. It’s been about twenty years, but the rage of a goatman is slow to abate.

Jacob sends messengers ahead of his convoy to flatter his brother and determine whether his rage has subsided. When the messengers come back with a report that Esau has four hundred men with him, Jacob “feareth exceedingly” and “shitteth his britches.” I must say, I don’t see the significance of the birthright, since they both seem to have done well for themselves, regardless of which blessing the old man gave them before he croaked. We’ve never heard about any special benefits conferred upon Jacob for getting the prime blessing, nor any disadvantages suffered by Esau from getting the backup blessing. Jacob is rich in cows and slave-women, but Esau has a small army devoted to him.

Jacob divides his booty into two camps so if Esau destroys one of them, he’ll survive with half his goats and bang-maids intact. Jacob cries like a bitch for a few verses while he worries about his brother killing him, and he reminds God (whom he calls the god of his fathers, not his God) of the various covenants for babies and wealth that God made, and that it was God’s idea for Jacob to go back to Canaan. At least he realizes God needs to be constantly reminded of his covenants. The big man has a less-than-stellar track record of remembering or fulfilling promises.

Jacob hatches a plan to but his safety, bribing his brother with

14 she-goats two hundred, and he-goats twenty, ewes two hundred, and rams twenty,

15 suckling camels and their young ones thirty, cows forty, and bullocks ten, she-asses twenty, and foals ten;

And fucking partridges in a pear tree.

He escorts his wives, bang-maids, children, and dragon’s hoard a safe distance away. Probably not because he realizes his treacherous, deceptive ways have caught up with him, so much as he probably plans some further act of treachery and wants to make sure his shit is safe and sound until then.

Then it gets weird. Left alone in the middle of the night, we suddenly find him in the midst of a bizarre, random wrestling match with some entity:

24 And Jacob is left alone, and one wrestleth with him till the ascending of the dawn;

25 and he seeth that he is not able for him, and he cometh against the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh is disjointed in his wrestling with him;

26 and he saith, `Send me away, for the dawn hath ascended:’ and he saith, `I send thee not away, except thou hast blessed me.’

27 And he saith unto him, `What [is] thy name?’ and he saith, `Jacob.’

28 And he saith, `Thy name is no more called Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast been a prince with God and with men, and dost prevail.’

29 And Jacob asketh, and saith, `Declare, I pray thee, thy name;’ and he saith, `Why [is] this, thou askest for My name?’ and He blesseth him there.

The caption of this story in the NIV and other translations is “Jacob wrestles with God” although I don’t see much support for that in the passage, and it makes no sense besides. The other wrestler is never named or described, and is consistently referred to with lower-case designations like “one” “he” and “him.” The only reference to God is that Jacob “has been a prince with God and with men,” which is equally susceptible to this wrestler being a man. Moreover, if this entity is God, then God can be bested by a human who is scared of his own brother, and can be bullied by this little scared pussy into doling out blessings, which makes God a pretty pathetic character indeed. Why would God wrestle with Jacob? How would Jacob mistake him for a mortal man? How would Jacob best God in this homoerotic feat of strength? Why would Jacob have to force a blessing out of God, especially a blessing that he had already been given? WHY THE FUCK IS THIS ASSHOLE SO OBSESSED WITH BLESSINGS? I remember this story being full of meaning and import, like Ingmar Bergman’s chess match, an existential struggle between man and god, but reading it again now, it’s just fucking stupid.

To me, it’s fairly obvious that this story is metaphorical, but the metaphor is not really for anything interesting or theologically significant, but just to explain some quirks of the culture that produced this part of the Bible. The last two verses say

31 he is halting on his thigh;

32 therefore the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew which shrank, which [is] on the hollow of the thigh, unto this day, because He came against the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, against the sinew which shrank.

which is basically the definition of etiological. Kugel talks at length about the etiological elements of the story:

Jacob’s wrestling (ye’abeq) with the “man” is meant to connect with the name of the place, the Jabbok (yabboq) ford. The wound to Jacob’s hip also has an etiological resonance, explained later on: “That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh” (Gen. 32:32). To this day, the laws of kosher food require that sciatic nerve (that is, the “thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip”) be removed from the body of any animal other than a bird before it can be deemed fit for consumption. Then, as seen earlier (Chapter 7), Jacob’s change of name is connected to this same struggle. Instead of explaining his new name, Israel (yisra’el) as “God Rules,” the narrative suggests that it comes from a homonymous root meaning struggle: “you have struggled (sarita) with God and with men and have prevailed.” Finally, the place itself was called Peniel/Penuel to commemorate this face-to-face (panim) combat with God (‘el) that took place.

Also, Jacob/Israel’s descendants can feel like badasses because their ancestor bested God in a feat of strength. It makes them not only passive recipients of a blessing, but the descendants of someone who earned their special place by taking on God himself. They “earned” it.

My discovery of the concept of etiological significance to the Bible has completely transformed the book. It adds another layer that actually makes sense, where the text on its face –with its discontinuity, contradictions, and questionable moral values–seems devoid of theological or philosophical merit. If you think of the Bible as people’s efforts to rationalize and explain their contemporary traditions and beliefs, rather than the magical, infallible foundation of those beliefs, it makes a lot more sense. I don’t like it any more, obviously, but at least I’m beginning to understand it, on an anthropological level.

GENESIS 32

And Jacob hath gone on his way, and messengers of God come upon him;

and Jacob saith, when he hath seen them, `This [is] the camp of God;’ and he calleth the name of that place `Two Camps.’

And Jacob sendeth messengers before him unto Esau his brother, towards the land of Seir, the field of Edom,

and commandeth them, saying, `Thus do ye say to my lord, to Esau: Thus said thy servant Jacob, With Laban I have sojourned, and I tarry until now;

and I have ox, and ass, flock, and man-servant, and maid-servant, and I send to declare to my lord, to find grace in his eyes.’

And the messengers turn back unto Jacob, saying, `We came in unto thy brother, unto Esau, and he also is coming to meet thee, and four hundred men with him;’

and Jacob feareth exceedingly, and is distressed, and he divideth the people who [are] with him, and the flock, and the herd, and the camels, into two camps,

and saith, `If Esau come in unto the one camp, and have smitten it — then the camp which is left hath been for an escape.’

And Jacob saith, `God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, Jehovah who saith unto me, Turn back to thy land, and to thy kindred, and I do good with thee:

10 I have been unworthy of all the kind acts, and of all the truth which Thou hast done with thy servant — for, with my staff I passed over this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.

11 `Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I am fearing him, less he come and have smitten me — mother beside sons;

12 and Thou — Thou hast said, I certainly do good with thee, and have set thy seed as the sand of the sea, which is not numbered because of the multitude.’

13 And he lodgeth there during that night, and taketh from that which is coming into his hand, a present for Esau his brother:

14 she-goats two hundred, and he-goats twenty, ewes two hundred, and rams twenty,

15 suckling camels and their young ones thirty, cows forty, and bullocks ten, she-asses twenty, and foals ten;

16 and he giveth into the hand of his servants, every drove by itself, and saith unto his servants, `Pass over before me, and a space ye do put between drove and drove.’

17 And he commandeth the first, saying, `When Esau my brother meeteth thee, and hath asked thee, saying, Whose [art] thou? and whither goest thou? and whose [are] these before thee?

18 then thou hast said, Thy servant Jacob’s: it [is] a present sent to my lord, to Esau; and lo, he also [is] behind us.’

19 And he commandeth also the second, also the third, also all who are going after the droves, saying, `According to this manner do ye speak unto Esau in your finding him,

20 and ye have said also, Lo, thy servant Jacob [is] behind us;’ for he said, `I pacify his face with the present which is going before me, and afterwards I see his face; it may be he lifteth up my face;’

21 and the present passeth over before his face, and he hath lodged during that night in the camp.

22 And he riseth in that night, and taketh his two wives, and his two maid-servants, and his eleven children, and passeth over the passage of Jabbok;

23 and he taketh them, and causeth them to pass over the brook, and he causeth that which he hath to pass over.

24 And Jacob is left alone, and one wrestleth with him till the ascending of the dawn;

25 and he seeth that he is not able for him, and he cometh against the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh is disjointed in his wrestling with him;

26 and he saith, `Send me away, for the dawn hath ascended:’ and he saith, `I send thee not away, except thou hast blessed me.’

27 And he saith unto him, `What [is] thy name?’ and he saith, `Jacob.’

28 And he saith, `Thy name is no more called Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast been a prince with God and with men, and dost prevail.’

29 And Jacob asketh, and saith, `Declare, I pray thee, thy name;’ and he saith, `Why [is] this, thou askest for My name?’ and He blesseth him there.

30 And Jacob calleth the name of the place Peniel: for `I have seen God face unto face, and my life is delivered;’

31 and the sun riseth on him when he hath passed over Penuel, and he is halting on his thigh;

32 therefore the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew which shrank, which [is] on the hollow of the thigh, unto this day, because He came against the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, against the sinew which shrank.

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