Genesis 32:4 - 36:43  Notes Lesson 8
Torah Portion  Vayishiah


I. Read Genesis 32: 3-13. 

A. The portion begins with Jacob sending "messengers" to Esau to report on his recent doings, including acquisitions, and seeking Esau's favor.  Note the idea of "sending messengers" at this place. Does this remind you of anything? (This is where he had dreamed and prayed 20 years ago, dreaming with angels going up and down a ladder. Recall our conversation that these angels going up were as if conveying his prayers of anxiety and need and hope.)

The Hebrew word for angels in the last portion was malachay. Would it surprise you that the Hebrew word for messengers here is Malachim? Explain the basis for the similarity in both experiences.  (Jacob is anxious in both times of supplication or prayer, seeking help and hope, offering gifts, and he does so through messengers.)

He prays to God again. Is the prayer different? (Yes. He does recall God's promise and prays to God to fulfill it through help. But there is no note of conditionality. There also seems to be humility in his profession of unworthiness of all God's bountiful blessings. Thus, there clearly is evidence in this prayer of growth,  as contrasted with the first one.)

II. After taking steps to prepare a gift for Esau as well as to organize his family for what might be a conflict with Esau and his men, Jacob reaches a "crossing," and then we read 32:25 - 32. This is one of the most significant scenes in the Bible. Let's look at it closely. 

A. First, what's the significance that this encounter take place at a "crossing," especially the crossing of a river?  (Must we not come to and cross a boundary before we can effect a major change and be transformed, whether it's a sort of atonement and/or reconciliation?)

B. While one can prepare for a big encounter (with a foe/feared nemesis/one with whom we've been alienated) with offense (such as gifts) and defense (organizing one's group for a possible attack), doesn't the encounter really almost always begin when we're alone? Or, at some level or at least in part, does the encounter take place in our own head or soul? (Yes, and yes. Discuss.)

C. Who wrestles with Jacob? And what's the consequence of it?

1. (Ish! It appears at first to be a man. Who is this man? Jacob, himself as if in an internal struggle or a dream? Esau? Or an imagined version of Esau?  Does it affect your answer that the first thing that happens after this amazing and mysterious nocturnal experience (in 33:1) is, looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming? Or has the encounter been with a being that prepares Jacob  to reconcile with Esau? Or is it significant that the wrestler can't be clearly identified?

2. Well - lest we think we now have full understanding, we must ask: is the wrestling partner not (at least entirely or perhaps initially) a man, but rather a divine being? (The "other" says Jacob's name is no longer Jacob but rather Israel because he has striven with beings divine AND human, and has prevailed. Jacob says in 31, "I have seen a divine being face to face,..." Is the other being an angel? A guardian angel of Esau? God? A combination? One, and then another, maybe God or one of God's angels, preparing for Esau?)

3. Was this encounter physical? Spiritual? Both? Wrestling in part or in whole with his conscience or within his soul? Some - a minority - say so. No longer able to run or lie...he confronts and overcomes what's been off the mark in himself, which either effects reconciliation through some sort of struggle with Esau, OR at least prepares him to. 

Rashbam (Rashi's grandson) offers this account: God thought Jacob would flee again because of his fears and  problems so he sent an angel to prevent him from doing so and it was through their wrestling that Jacob came out changed and ready to confront his problem. 

KEY HEBREW INSIGHT that helps us reconcile all these possibilities of identity:

A.  Look at 32:21. When Jacob was planning to send a gift to propitiate Esau, he makes an important statement.  Read it. What other translations?

Literally: "I will wipe the anger from his face with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face perhaps he will lift up my face." The word for face, a variant of panim, is used 4 times!

B. Now read 32:31. After Jacob is given the name Israel and the other does not offer his name, Jacob (Hey, I thought he was re-named Israel! More on that later!) names the place Peniel meaning, "I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved."

 C. We'll get to a fuller discussion of Chapter 33, but read 33:10. Jacob implores Esau to accept his gift, "for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably."

So, does this open up a new set of possibilities? What's this business of seeing the face of the other? ( Is seeing God face to face tantamount to seeing Esau face to face? Is this yet another lesson of God's creating humankind in the Divine image? In other words, we see God when we truly see the other, we experience God when we truly experience with the other, we wrestle to be right with God when we wrestle to be right with our fellow, especially when we have been wrong with him/her, when we did not see the other  face to face. 


This ethic is beautifully expressed by the remarkable 20th century Jewish theologian and philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. Levinas wrote compellingly of the grounding of religious meaning and purpose in our duty to the other.

At the core of his thought, he saw the creation as God's coming out toward the world; he saw God's revelation as God's coming forward to humankind in love; and he saw redemption coming when, in response to God's love, man comes forth toward other men in the world. We do this by calling forth the "thou" in the personhood of others. 

At the heart of the intimacy of the identification of the me with the oneself, there is the rupture of imminence; the Other passes before the Same. "Please, after you, sir!" 

This doesn't happen easily. There is often a crossing over and even struggle, but isn't this the effect of the mysterious nocturnal encounter and the morning reconciliation in our story?


Some of you have come up to me after class and said in different ways, "Sandy, you always seem to say that the lesson of our study basically most often comes down to the importance of love or loving kindness." We'll - it's true. I do. 

I hope there is no presumption in my saying this. But it's my own thought that it's not by accident or mistake that when pressed to look for the deepest meaning in the Bible, Jesus (and Rabbi Akiba and the sages of Pirke Avot, for that matter) turn first to love and acts of loving kindness. 

So, yes, among other lessons in the teaching and learning, I will emphasize milestones of love along our path each week. We've hit one today for sure. 

4. Let's return to the text. What precedes the name change? What does the man/angel/God ask Jacob in 28? (What is your name?) What does this remind us of?!  (Remember when Isaac asked him, "who are you?" Then Jacob was deceptive, etc. Here he is himself, has come much closer to his true self after all this time and effort, and  says, "Jacob," as if to say openly and honestly that he is who is, and thus is ready. He now understands and accepts his true self by seeing the other face to face and understanding face to face God's expectations of him. 

5. What's the meaning of the deep injury to Jacob but the notion as well that Jacob prevailed? (Can it be that this dramatic change, this prevailing while having the yoke thrown off, this earning a blessing that had previously been received under false pretense, this turning and reconciliation can succeed but not without an enduring "injury?". We can have bad experiences and failures, times when we either did wrong or had real pain or both, and yet can, though injured from it all, prevail and carry on. In fact, isn't this what really happens when we have transformative experience? Who's done this without pain or injury?)

6. What's the significance of the name change? Is it as if the blessing is finally or at least initially and truly fulfilled? And what does Israel mean?  (Does all this mean that Jacob finally earns the blessing and birthright that he had earlier taken through deception, and is now Israel? Conventionally, Israel has been interpreted as one who struggled with God. This is based on the general notion that Israel was like Sarah El, or  akin to sarita (you struggled). BUT this word could very well mean God is superior!! Or El struggles against my enemies. Or it could be based on yashar-el, one whom God makes straight? Which is it? Maybe all?)

Do note from now on that the patriarch continues to be called Jacob about half the time his name is mentioned. There's been great study about why. Some say it's Jacob when the matter is physical or material, and Israel when it's his spiritual side. Maybe. Put your radar up, and think about it on your own when we confront the use of both names. III. Let's close out the story by finishing reading Chapter 33. 

A. Recall Isaac's blessing of Esau. Does it now come true? Isaac said that when "tarid," you will break his yoke of your neck. Tarid can mean: you exercise dominion, subdue, grow restless, maybe even see Jacob sinning and be aggrieved, rule, mount up complaints, increase power. Has any or all that now happened, and that while the "older shall serve the younger," the yoke is thrown off, perhaps in the wrestling?

B. Let's look at different pieces here to get to the answer. 1. What do you make of the bowing and  deference Jacob shows Esau? Real or feigned? Is it political, ritualized, or true, perhaps a natural gesture flowing out of growth over the years as well as the pain of the wrestling experience? Doesn't this gesture tend to be helpful in creating a more hopeful and open response from the other, even if apparently ritualized?

2. With the kiss in 1-4, has Isaac's blessing been fulfilled? Has there been a reconciliation, partial or complete? What's been accomplished? How much growth, do we believe? 

3. Take note of 11. Jacob offers Esau his blessing and gifts. Is this a sort of restitution? It's certainly a peace offering at the least. 

4. Do we give Esau enough credit for his contribution to reconciliation through a significant dose of forgiveness on his part, etc.?

IV. The Rape of Dinah

We do not have the time to do justice to this complex and troubling story.  But I do want you to note three things about it:

1) It shows once again that life doesn't turn all sweet and easy, even after the most remarkable advances in our living true to God's expectations. There are challenges and difficulties ahead down the road. Plus consequences of the past continue to play out in life, and new wrongs (including the old one of trickery) will generate new consequences for the future. It is stark  how abrupt this reality hits us in Chapter 34 right on the heals of the loveliness of Chapter 33, though we realize on another level that many years have passed from one episode to the next. 

2) We begin to see stories that reveal important information on the sons whose tribes take on their own character later in the history. For example, look at 34:25 and 30. Recall Levi joins with Simeon in leading the way to slay all the males in Shechem's family even after they agreed to the most severe terms to make right what he had done. Simeon's tribe virtually disappears. But, Levi and his family will one day play a very significant, though landless, role among the tribes in their ritual life. But how he and they get there from this ignoble start is a matter worthy for you to put  on your radar screen as you read ahead. 

3) Finally, note, ironically, that Jacob shows in his rather passive and weak action in this story that he has just now passed his peak. The Jacob of action and direction and virility is no more. We are now on the downward trajectory of his life. And the tone of the story is decidedly somber to the end of the portion. 

We might ask why and how Jacob became this way. Was it the exhaustion of a parent who had to raise all these children and deal with their many trials and tribulations?! We'll have to leave the matter for you to ponder. 

V. The Remainder of the Portion - transitional material, mostly. 

A. God instructs Jacob to build an altar where He appeared to him as he fled Esau. God has fulfilled Jacob's needs from back at that time to the present. God's steady presence is hugely important, especially the reality that it endured throughout, and in the midst of the pain and problems. 

B. A re-statement of the covenant to Jacob (Israel). 

C. Because Benjamin will be a major player in the narrative, let's look at his naming. His birth  occasions the death of Rachel. 35:18-19. She calls the son, Ben-Oni. This could be son of my vigor or son of my sorrow, or both. The tribe of Benjamin later will be famous for its martial powers. 

Jacob calls him Benjamin. This is the only re-naming by a father, suggesting that it was important to the father that the boy have a different self-image and outward-meaning name for his life. Maybe it means son of strength, or son of the right hand, i.e., a favored son, or son of yamin, of old age or long life.  The name clearly could have some or all these meanings. 

D. Reuben lays with Jacob's concubine. Israel heard. As we'll see, there's a loss of confidence in Reuben and his birthright. 

E. Isaac dies (29) and Esau and Jacob bury him. (Note the order of the names!). We see the extensive genealogy of the lines of both Jacob and Esau. 


God is in the transitions, as well as in the high and the low moments. Names change signifying the past and the future. Jacob/past; Israel/future.  Ben-Oni becomes Benjamin.  Isaac dies, having lived a rich and full life, doing all he could to create a future for both sons and hope for the future. The Text honors him by showing both sons there to mourn and bury him and with a long list of full genealogies of both sons. 

The era of Joseph is just ahead. You can't miss that! See you next Sunday. 

Torah Portion  Vayishiah       Genesis 32:4 - 36:43  

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