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Stealing the Blessing
How & Why Jacob Became the Hero of the Hebrew Bible
The first, more esoteric part of this essay, “The Space Where Nothing Never Happens: The Fall of Man & God’s Moment of Doubt,” is for paid subscribers only.
The first in a new series, Jobcast: Interrogations with God, is coming this Saturday, and is called “Wrestling in the Mud.” It is with Yoshi Matsumoto, whose substack in called “Holy is He Who Wrestles”—a reference to the story of Jacob, later called Israel, who wrestled with an Angel (maybe) in Genesis.
The story of Jacob encapsulates, better than perhaps any other Biblical story, the relentless quest for validation from God/the Father/Existence that seems to be the lot of so many men (not so much women, for whom the father’s blessing isn’t nearly so essential to their sense of worth).
Jacob’s striving is so primal it starts in the womb. He wrestles with his twin brother Esau to beat him to life, as if already aware that only the first-born gets the Blessing.
Unable to beat Esau through the Gate, Jacob grabs his brother’s heel and is pulled (or pushed) out with him. Hence he became known as “heel-clutcher” (Jacob).
(In Spanish-speaking countries, I go by Jacobo, since there’s no equivalent of Jasun, and since Jake is short for Jasun as well as Jacob.)
As a young man, Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s hunger and exhaustion after a hard day’s work and gets Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup.
Most infamously, following their mother Rebecca’s instructions, Jacob tricks their father Isaac on his death-bed into blessing him, Jacob, instead of Esau, by disguising himself as Esau and taking advantage of Isaac’s infirmity and blindness.
Lastly, most significantly, Jacob wrestles with the nameless man/angel/God to get another Blessing, and receives his new designation of Israel, father of the twelve tribes.
Was ever a protagonist so desperately driven by a thirst for approval as Jacob? Jacob is a striver; he wants ever more, and there seems no peace in him (he also waits, and toils, for 14 years to marry Rachel, the woman he loves, who becomes the mother of Joseph).
Somehow, despite all this, Jacob becomes effectively—arguably even over Moses—the hero of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible.
When “Dave” (Oshana, on an island retreat, I don’t know if he ever said it any other time) told us that, if we wanted enlightenment, we had to steal it from him, what exactly did he mean? Was he referring to the “Jacob principle”? Does God bless with extended life those who strive most fervently for it? (One must have life force to struggle for more.)
But there is a strange paradox in the story of Jacob. If the father’s blessing is given in error, and Jacob only receives it by pretending to be someone he is not, is it a true Blessing?
Put differently, isn’t the value of a blessing commensurate with the respect its receiver has for the one doing the blessing? If Jacob respects his father so little that he has no qualms about tricking him on his death-bed, why does he care so much about his blessing?
The inference is that the blessing has some intrinsic, objective value, independent of sentimentality, or even whether it is merited.
Clearly, Jacob (and Rebecca) believes Jacob deserves the Blessing, however, so much so that it doesn’t matter how he gets it.
Eventually, it could be argued that Jacob does prove worthy of it, though this is somewhat circular, because if Jacob hadn’t connived to secure those first blessings, he might never have become the man who could wrestle that final blessing from an angel.
It is as if Jacob knows something his father, the angel, and Yahweh do not: that he is the rightful recipient of divine favor, and the destined father of the Jews. This is despite (or is it because?) he himself seems less than taken in by his forefathers’ faith. (He refers to Yahweh on Isaac’s death-bed as “your God.”)
Overtly, what Yahweh says is, “Fear me, obey me, worship me, and I will bless you.” But what Yahweh does is closer to rewarding whoever has the cojones to take him on, and thereby prove they have what it takes to hold their own against angels.
Stealing enlightenment for me meant bypassing “Dave”—taking him out of the equation—and going straight to God/the soul/the life force to receive my blessing. My experience—though I don’t imagine or need it to be objectively true—was that Dave’s light decreased, so that my own light could increase.
I stole the blessing.
What the Book of Job hints at is similar: one serves God best by having the cojones to challenge God, to demand to face Him as an equal, absurd as that is, precisely because we are Nothing. Without God, all human endeavor is absurd; but doesn’t that include our ideas about God. At the end of that day, aren’t they the most absurd thing of all?
The mystery and paradox of the Book of Job (as part of the Hebrew Bible) is that, for Job, to be authentic was to challenge orthodoxy, even to challenge God; or so at least it appeared to those around him, who weren’t engaged in a living struggle with hassatan, the devil, the accuser, God’s left-hand-man.
And even Job was unable to grasp that it was his “goodness,” and not his sinfulness, that singled him out for tribulation. At the same time, the implication seems to be that his “eschewing evil”—being a refusal to see the dark side of God—was what landed him squarely in Satan’s sights.
“It is Job’s very ‘eschewing of evil’ that provokes his crisis. He suffers because of his refusal to acknowledge the creativity of evil” (Northrop Frye, citing William Blake).
Or should that be the destructiveness of good?
Just this morning, right before posting this, I read (in Dimensions of Job, ed: Nahum N. Glatzer) that the Zohar (“Book of Splendor,” written in Spain by Moses de Leon in the 13th century):
makes Job the symbol of the man who failed to be “cognizant of both good and evil. . . . As Job kept evil separate from good and failed to fuse them, he was judged accordingly: first he experienced good, then what was evil, then again good. For man should be cognizant of both good and evil, and turn evil itself into good. This is the deep tenet of faith” (p. 23).
According to Jack Miles, the famous line in Job, “Though he slay me, yet I will trust him,” has been mistranslated over the centuries. Miles (after Mitchell) opts for an alternative translation: “He may well slay me, I may have no hope. Yet I will argue my case before Him.”
I don’t read Hebrew, so I can’t say with any confidence which is the more faithful translation. But it seems to me that the second reading fits better with the overall tone of the Book of Job, having a boldness—a chuzpah—to it that is absent from the more common translation.
“Even if He kills me for it, I will stand my ground before God!” Isn’t that exactly the sort of mettle God should be looking for in His servants? The guts to take on angels?
Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Yeah, alright, I get that. But, if we are not just nothing without God but also nothing if not God, surely fearlessness must be wisdom’s end?
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