Yaakov’s is a life filled with fraternal conflict and deception. His given name, which plays on the word “heel,” points to this aspect of his character. At birth he holds on to his older brother’s heel as they transit the womb; later on, he uses trickery to obtain both the firstborn-right and the ancestral blessing belonging to Esav. This leads his brother to understand the name “Yaakov” as “heel-sneak” (Gen. 27:36).
This week’s reading, spanning four chapters of Genesis (28-31), continues the motif of deception, telling a story of multiple thefts. It recounts Yaakov’s stressful sojourn in Aram (Syria) at the house of his uncle Lavan. For twenty years, he has to struggle with the devious behavior of this wily uncle, who had switched Yaakov’s brides on his wedding night and so managed to trick him into fourteen years’ labor. Despite Yaakov’s success at beating Lavan at his own game–he emerges from his ordeal with four wives, a dozen children, and innumerable sheep–his struggles can be seen as a kind of payback for his youthful deeds.
Central to the narrative, especially as Yaakov prepares to journey home in chapter 31, is the use of the Bible’s technique of verbal repetition through references to theft. First, Rahel commits the serious offense of “stealing” her father’s idol figurines (v. 19), clearly to support her husband’s break with her father Lavan. When Lavan runs after the fleeing party, he accuses his son-in-law of “stealing his wits” and kidnapping his daughters (v. 26) by “secretly stealing away” (v. 27). Yaakov, unaware that his wife had stolen the idols, is infuriated by the accusations of theft, and passionately argues that he has been nothing but a faithful worker all these years. He maintains that he always zealously guarded the flocks entrusted to him: “none torn-by-beasts have I ever brought you– / I would make good the loss…, / stolen by day or stolen by night”) (v. 39).
Despite Yaakov’s protestations, there are additional words for theft in our text beside “steal” (Heb. ganav). Yaakov attributes his wealth increase to God, with the phrase, “God has snatched away (Heb. hitzil, v. 9) your father’s livestock and given them to me,” while Lavan’s sons angrily use the same verb in v. 16: “all the riches that God has snatched away from our father.” They had already accused Yaakov of “taking away” (Heb. lakach) their father’s wealth as the chapter opened (v. 1). And Yaakov expresses the fear that his father-in-law will “rob” him (Heb. gazal) of his wives (v. 31).
The repeated use of this vocabulary of theft brings to mind an earlier scene in Genesis: the stealing of Esav’s blessing in the presence of their blind father Yitzhak. Upon discovering his younger son’s trickery, the trembling Yitzhak tells Esav in 27:35 that “Your brother came with deceit and took away your blessing,” once again using a verb from our storehouse of “steal”-words. The specter of this stolen blessing hovers over Yaakov’s twenty years in Harran, tainting his spectacular success story there. The narrative is surely crying out for a resolution of this family conflict.
This will come in next week’s reading, where Yaakov will have to face past and present squarely. Alone at night, he will be tested by having to wrestle a mysterious “man” before meeting Esav the next day. He will come to understand that this is no ordinary struggle, but one for his very soul, confronting the deceptive behavior of his youth. And he will realize that his opponent is no ordinary mortal, but rather some kind of divine stand-in, undoubtedly for his brother. Victory in the struggle will lead to Yaakov’s name being changed–the very name that Esav had cursed as “heel-sneak.” The spell cast by Yaakov’s old acts of theft has at last been broken–he has literally faced his demons–and he will now go forward in life as Yisrael, a man who has fought with both a divine being and himself, and won.