WHO IS GOD? Part 12 (Israel)
Persistent readers of this blog will recognize that this is another installment in a continuing series. Earlier installments can be found lower down on the website scroll.
Our dialogue with Anaiah, an educated Jew from the 500’s B.C., continues.
SBB: We have been talking about the origin of sin, evil, and death, but our original topic was to learn about how God is depicted in your sacred writings, what we call the Old Testament. We saw that Abraham was called by God to bring a blessing to all people, and we saw that God is looking for obedience, loyalty, and sacrifice, as exemplified in the instruction to sacrifice Isaac, the child of promise. Where should we look next?
Anaiah: Isaac had two children, twins, Esau and Jacob. Esau was born first, but by a series of rather devious actions Jacob got himself recognized as the heir to Isaac. As a consequence, Jacob had to flee from Esau’s fury and the two brothers were parted.
SBB: Did this really happen?
Anaiah: You asked the same question about Abraham. My answer is the same: we are entitled to believe that Abraham, Isaac, Esau, and Jacob were real people, though over time some legendary elements may have entered their stories. In this case, it is not obvious why this somewhat sordid story would be told if it were not true. But again, our focus is on how God is depicted.
SBB: So what happened to Jacob after he fled from Esau?
Anaiah: He had some remarkable adventures (Genesis chapters 28-31), but the most remarkable was this: while sleeping in a certain place, he had a dream.
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” Genesis 28:12-14.
SBB: That sounds like a renewal of the promise made to Abraham.
Anaiah: Exactly. Notice that the vision of God includes a ladder between the earth and heaven. God does not live in the sky, of course. We know from the creation story that he made the sky. But it is ancient literary device to picture God in the sky, where he can survey all the earth at once. The point here is that God is allowing a connection between the heavenly realm and the earthly one. This story tells us, perhaps with legendary additions, of a personal encounter between a human man, Jacob, and the divine Creator.
SBB: There are lots of stories through history of such divine encounters.
Anaiah: Yes, and one common feature is the narrator’s inability to describe in concrete terms what he or she experienced, leading to common reliance on picture and metaphor. We see this again in the even more intimate encounter to follow.
SBB: What do you mean?
Anaiah: Jacob eventually wanted to go home, and that meant a meeting with Esau. Afraid that Esau and his followers might attack, Jacob sent rich presents ahead, along with this growing family and group of servants, and stayed behind alone, waiting to see if his brother was willing to be reconciled. What happened next is interesting:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel [meaning “strives with God”], for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”
SBB: That is a vivid story. What does it mean?
Anaiah: Its deepest meaning is a mystery, which is only to be expected when we are dealing with the transcendent Creator of the universe. But I see the following. First, we have God’s somewhat scandalous choice of Jacob, the devious brother, for favor and intimacy. Second, we have the interesting combination of Jacob’s struggle against the mysterious man, and at the same time his refusal to let him go. The history of our people has been one of resistance to God mixed with clinging to him. God appears as both an adversary and a source of blessing. Reflecting on this story, I have concluded that it represents an important truth. When we do not surrender ourselves to God’s priorities, he can appear to us as an adversary, frustrating our plans for power and independence. But when we cling to God, we get a blessing that we did not expect. For this reason, our people have often called themselves the “children of Israel,” thinking of the blessing and the struggle.
SBB: Did Jacob ever reconcile with Esau?
Anaiah: Yes, it turned out that his fears were not realized. Jacob lived on and prospered, with many children, who form the basis for the next story I will tell you.