In Essays

Parsha Vayishlach | The Birth of an Israel

Jacob wrestles with an angel of God.
Photo by Bob Fisher on Unsplash

Explore Jewish heritage with an amateur Jew’s commentary on Parsha Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 – 36:43. Click here to read last week’s, Parsha Vayetzei.

Jacob, having been in hiding from his blood lustful brother Esau, is on his way home. He sends messengers ahead to give word to his brother that, besides cattle and asses, he’s also acquired male and female slaves during his time away. It’s just a casual reminder of how prominent slavery is among our ancestors. Swell.

Jacob’s messengers return with a message of their own: Esau is heading their way to meet his brother and has brought along four-hundred men.

“Jacob was greatly frightened,” which is Torah for “Jacob shat himself.”

Biblical Wrestling

You’d think the messengers would’ve have gotten the gist of whether or not Esau was still looking to kill his brother. Nonetheless, Jacob jumps into action, deciding to split his camp into two so that one can survive if Esau still isn’t over Jacob sneakily taking away his birthright and their father’s blessing.

One night, after splitting up, Jacob is left alone when suddenly “a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”

After a while (it’s not clear how long), Jacob’s challenger is getting tired of this Biblical WWE.

“Let me go,” he says to Jacob,” for dawn is breaking.”

Man, trash talk is weak in the Torah. What was this guy going to say next?

“Let me go, for I have grumbles in my tummy! I must breakfast.”

It amazes me how quickly iconic Biblical stories come and go. The story of Cain and Abel is a prime example of this. So too is Jacob’s wrestling with, apparently, an angel. After a couple of lines dedicated to the wrestling, Jacob demands a blessing from the angel. Otherwise, he won’t let the angel go.

“What is your name?” the angel asks, to which Jacob answers, “Jacob.”

“Your name shall no longer be Jacob,” declares the angel losing the fight, ” but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”

Okay, that’s a pretty cool backstory for a name. Indeed, this story is often cited as a source of Jewish inquisitiveness. The name of the modern Jewish nation and Jacob’s descendants means “to wrestle with God” and there’s plenty one can delineate from that. It’s also arguably the genesis (no pun intended) of the classic “two Jews, three opinions” quip.

Torah and the Rape of Dinah

After the tussle, Jacob and Esau are reunited. As it happens, Esau wasn’t looking to kill his brother anymore. Instead, he embraced him, kissed him, and they wept. Jacob then arrives in the city of Shechem in the land of Canaan.

(If my brother is reading this, I hope we can just stick with the quick, two-pat hug.)

Torah, thus far, is rough with its treatment of women, to say the least. No amount of justification––it was written thousands of years ago!––makes it any easier for me to read or admit that this is the book of my people. And this Parsha is especially challenging to read when referencing women.

Let’s just jump right into it: Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, is raped by Shechem, the chief of the country. When Jacob and Dina’s brothers find out, they’re pissed. At least the Torah is finally acknowledging rape as “a thing not to be done.” I mean, the authors could’ve used harsher language. God knows they had the vocabulary based on how they described, well, God’s actions earlier in the Torah.

Now here’s the most nauseating part, as if what’s gone down isn’t sick enough. Hamor, Shechem’s father, tries to negotiate with Jacob and the brothers.

“My son Shechem longs for your daughter. Please give her to him in marriage. Intermarry with us: give your daughters to us, and take our daughters for yourselves: You will dwell among us, and the land will be open before you; settle, move about, and acquire holdings in it.”

Oh, wait. There’s more.

“Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me. Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife.”

Holy. Shit.

This guy’s kid rapes a woman and he’s trying to pay off the offended family. I mean, wow. That… Well, wait. That actually does seem like a pretty relevant story in our modern age.

But where Torah manages to really outdo itself is in the next few lines. At first, Jacob and the brothers are disgusted by the offer. Not for the reason you’re thinking, but because Biblical R. Kelly isn’t circumcised.

“We cannot do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us.” But they continue:

“Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you will become like us in that every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred.”

Could you imagine being the victim of a sex crime, Biblical era or not, and finding out that the way it was settled is that you’re going to marry the criminal and your families will become one?

Of course, Hamor and Shechem go for it, and they set off circumcising their people.

These days, there are some offering feminist commentary to this story. On an episode of Parsha In Progress, co-host Abigail Pogrebin references feminist takes that suggest Dinah did have agency and wanted to be with Shechem. The story gets written the way it does in the Torah because the writers didn’t like Dinah going after a non-Jewish man.

Whatever you think of that commentary, it’s certainly better than how some rabbis––including the much-adored Rashi––have historically blamed Dinah for her own rape because she, in modern parlance, put herself in that situation.

“Complex Individuals”

Finally, Dina’s brother Simeon and Levi actually stick up for their sister. It’s written in the Torah that “they were in pain.” So, they arm themselves with a sword, went into town, “and slew all the males” in pink Women’s March beanies. Holding up Hamor and Shechem by the sword, they grab Dinah and take her away. Then Jacob’s other sons get in on the action, slaying and plundering the town “because their sister had been defiled.”

Jacob, whos’ not winning “Father of the Year” anytime soon, says to his sons “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land…”

Yikes, Jacob. A slinky has more of a backbone than this guy.

This feels like a good time to remind readers (and more importantly, myself) that Torah figures aren’t meant to be exemplary individuals. I think this is something people who weren’t raised in religion get wrong about organized religion, with its very many real faults.

Growing up, I just assumed that everyone in the Bible was supposed to be great, grand, and wonderful. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because of generally omnipresent Christian messaging in the U.S. that “God and Jesus love you.” So whenever I was made aware of some asshole in the Bible, I’d completely dismiss the usefulness of such texts or that they could be interesting with or without a belief in a higher power.

Rabbi Justin Goldstein reminds us that “One reason the figures in Torah are so compelling is that they are not paragons of perfection; quite to the contrary they are complex individuals who struggle with the human condition. He continues, writing “And no figure in Torah embodies this dichotomy more than Jacob. He is, truly, a broken man, his struggle for self-discovery marred by what might be described as a split personality.”

Besides my heritage, maybe this is why I’ve found Torah and Jewish texts more interesting than I have the Christian variety. Jesus always struck me as the Superman of the Biblical world. He resurrects, for Christ’s sake! How’s that relatable? He is, for lack of a better description, nearly perfect. Romans are his kryptonite.

Torah figures, on the other hand, are like Batman––always my preference in the comic book world. They’re more obviously flawed, and coincidentally, Christian Bale has played both Batman and Moses. Jesus rises from the dead, but Moses dies looking at the Promised Land from a distance without having ever reached it.

Though the extent to which some Torah figures are flawed seems a bit much for me at times. I like to think that if my hypothetical daughter were raped, I wouldn’t go to her father, haggling for some foreskin and land.

From Your Loins

God, always with His finger on the pulse of what’s important, tells Jacob to go up to Bethel and to build an altar “to the God who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.” That’s a roundabout way of saying “build me an altar.” It’s like when your grandmother gets you a birthday card and calls you the next day, “Sure would be nice to get, I don’t know, some kind of acknowledgment for that birthday card.”

While Jacob and his people are on their trip to Bethel, it’s written that “a terror from God fell on the cities round about, so that they did not pursue the sons of Jacob.”

It seems that messy business with Hamor and Shechem is suddenly and conveniently settled. Except Dina’s voice remains nonexistent in the text. But that’s fine! She was just raped and almost sold off to the man who raped her. No big deal! Besides, MORE STUFF IS HAPPENING TO JACOB! PAY ATTENTION TO JACOB!

“God appeared again to Jacbon on his arrival from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him.” Like the angel Jacob wrestled with, God proclaims Jacob is now Israel. It’s also the first time God refers to Himself as “El Shaddai,” which is one of the many names God makes up for Himself. It’s roughly translated to “God Almighty” but its original meaning (as far as I can Google) seems to be lost.

Though to be fair, I’d make up baller names for myself, too, if I were God.

In God’s blessing, he gives Jacob/Israel now-familiar instructions:

“Be fertile and increase;
A nation, yea an assembly of nations,
Shall descend from you.
Kings shall issue from your loins.
The land that I assigned to Abraham and Isaac
I assign to you;
And to your offspring to come
Will I assign the land.”

The Line of Esau

The week’s Parsha ends focusing on Esau’s line after we learn of the death of Isaac. Like Isaac and Ishmael before them, Jacob and Esau buried their father together.

This thirty-sixth chapter runs through the clans and offspring of Esau’s different wives and children. Like earlier portions of the Torah where the text speeds through different ancestries, it’s almost impossible to follow all of the outdated Biblical names. Here’s a taste from the beginning of the chapter that instantly proves my point:

“Esau took his wives from among the Canaanite women––Adah daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Oholibamah daughter of Anah daughter of Zibeon the Hivite…” and so on.

Next week, we get the line of Jacob.

Onward with Parsha Vayeshev.

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