Israel Drazin

More items we don’t know about Jacob, the third patriarch

Recently, I listed over a dozen obscure items about Jacob in the Torah. This is good because the Torah wants us to think about esoteric subjects. We enjoy them and learn much from our thoughts when we think about them. The following are more than a dozen additional examples of the obscure items.

  • Why did the Masorites of the second half of the first millennium CE place dots over the biblical word that means that Esau “kissed” Jacob? Are they suggesting that this was an error in scripture? We do not know. Many rabbis and scholars believe that the dots placed here and, in other biblical words, indicate that the text is erroneous. Many people today agree with Maimonides’ statement in his essay Chelek that the Torah in our hands today is precisely what God gave Moses. This is not true. It is what Maimonides called an “essential truth.” These supposed facts are taught to uneducated folks who need to believe them. An example is that God becomes angry when we misbehave. Most people must think this is true even though the all-powerful deity does not become angry as humans do. They need to believe this so that they behave correctly.
  • Whether the Torah was handed to Mosesby God or not, rabbis recognized that our version of the Torah was changed using Tekunei Soferim. Tekunei Soferim is translated as “corrections by the scribes” and refers to at least eighteen changes, and probably many more found in the original wording of the Hebrew Bible during the second temple period, perhaps sometime between 450 and 350 BCE. Most of these changes were to enhance the honor due to God, to avoid a problem, or to use less harsh words.
  • Some sources suppose that Ezra the Scribe and/or the Men of the Great Assembly made these changes. We do not know when Ezra lived, but he probably lived around 450 BCE. We also do not know with any degree of certainty the function of a scribe nor why people called Ezra a scribe.
  • The following is an example of the changes: In Genesis 18:22, the original text stated, “God was still standing before Abraham,” which was changed to “Abraham was still standing before God.” The former is debasingly anthropomorphic; it depicts God in a somewhat servile manner, waiting upon Abraham.
  • Jacob’s name is changed to Israel twice in the Torah, in Genesis 32:29 and 35:10. Why is he still called Jacob after the change? All other biblical figures use the new name when their name is changed. Why is Jacob different? We do not know.
  • One of the Bible’s most famous narratives about Jacob is his wrestling with a stranger (Genesis 32:25–33). The Torah is unclear whether this stranger is a human, an angel, or part of a dream. His identification is “a man” in verse 25. Yet, in verses 29 and 31, Scripture calls him Elohim, which could denote an angel, as in Judges 13:22, or a human of some distinction, as in Exodus 22:7. Hosea 12:4–5, Genesis Rabbah, the Aramaic translations Neophyti and Pseudo-Jonathan identify the man as an angel with the appearance of a man. What happened here? We will never know.
  • Maimonides recognizes that it is impossible to wrestle with an angel and explains the encounter as a dream. I think this is the best explanation. However, in the fifteenth century, the sage Abarbanel criticized Maimonides. He says that the Torah notes that the angel hit Jacob, and he limped when he awoke. Abarbanel claims Jacob should not have limped if this was just a dream. My father, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin, explained that psychology has recognized that dreams can be so traumatic that the dreamer can feel the effects after waking. Also, the Torah does not say Jacob limped for the rest of his life.
  • In Genesis 28:20-21, Jacob makes two vows while leaving home. He was sleeping during the journey to his uncle’s house and dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. The first vow is very puzzling. Also, there is no indication that he kept the second vow. In the first, he vowed when he awakened from the dream: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in the way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiments to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God.” In addition to making y-h-v-h his God only if He does certain favorable things for him, Jacob added a second vow that if the conditions are fulfilled, he will give God a tenth of all he acquires. But there is no indication of Jacob ever giving God a tenth of all he received. Does it make sense that Jacob would accept God only if God fulfilled certain conditions? Can/should we do the same? Why is the Torah silent about the giving of the tenth?
  • One Aramaic translation of the Five Books of Moses is Pseudo Jonathan, in which the author or authors translated the Hebrew into Aramaic and added comments. The translation criticized Jacob for not keeping his promise of giving God a tenth of all he acquired. Specifically, the author(s) condemned Jacob, who had more than ten children, for not devoting one of them (Levi) to be a priest. The absence of information about fulfilling the promise of giving a tenth is one of the many biblical obscurities. Is it fair or even logical for the targumist to criticize Jacob for biblical obscurity, an argument based on silence? I think it is. Obscurities make us think and learn from our thinking.
  • Pseudo Jonathan was not unique in disapproving of a patriarch based on biblical silence. When Abraham and his wife went to Egypt for food because of the famine in Canaan, Abraham feared the Egyptians would kill him and take his beautiful wife, Sarah. The Torah gives no other information about Abraham’s thinking regarding this act. For example, it does not tell us that Abraham was sure that the Egyptians would take his wife, was unconcerned about her safety, and only feared his death. His lack of feeling about his wife is an instance of obscurity.
  • This is not all. Nachmanides disparaged Abraham for having fear. He wrote that Abraham should have had faith that God would have protected him and Sarah. Wasn’t Nachmanides’ idea incorrect? Judaism teaches Jews not to be passive, sit back, and rely on God doing things for them. The Torah stresses active behavior. The notion of relying on faith was an invention of Paul in the New Testament when he taught that non-Jews could become Jews without observing biblical commands such as circumcision and eating only kosher food, as long as they had faith in Jesus.
  • In 35:3-4, Jacob tells his family that because God “answered me in the day of my distress and was with me in the way I went,” he and the family are now going to Beth-el where he will build an altar to God, and bury all the family idols that they have with them. Is this a fulfillment of his conditional vow in 28:20-21 that if God takes care of him while he is away from home, “then shall the Lord be my God”? Did Jacob and his family worship the idols he was now burying during the past twenty years he lived with his mother’s brother Laban? If it is not because of his vow, why was it only now that he is collecting the idols from his family and burying them? Why is he burying them instead of destroying them? Burial is a respectful way of handling items you no longer respect entirely but still think to have some sanctity.
  • This episode concludes with verse 8, which states, “And Deborah Rebekah’s nurse died, and she was buried below Beth-el under the oak, and the name of it was called “Allon-bacuth,” the oak of weeping. Why does the Torah tell us this? The nurse is not mentioned earlier or later in scripture? More significantly, why bury her under the oak? James G. Frazer tells us in his book The Golden Bough that the ancients worshipped trees. Was the oak a place of worship for Jacob? Or was it a place of worship for Jacob because he buried Deborah there out of respect for or love for her? We have no way of knowing.
  • There is some support in this chapter for Jacob holding pillars and trees as sacred items. In verse 19, we learn that Rachael died and was buried in Bethlehem. In verse 20, we are told, “And Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave, the same is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.”
  • Why did Jacob not take the relatively short trip to the burial site of Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and Rebekah? Is it because the idea that the Cave of Machpelah, where the patriarchs and most matriarchs other than Rachel are buried, is sacred ground is an idea developed after Jacob’s death?
  • Another strange, unclear event mentioned is a single sentence in chapter 35. Verse 22 states, “And it came to pass, while Israel dwelt in that land that Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine; and Israel heard of it.” There is no reason given in the Torah for this act. Is it mentioned to explain why the preference did not go to Reuben as first-born but instead to Judah? Or is it said to excuse Jacob’s berating of him in 49:3-4?
  • When Jacob comes to Egypt and his son Joseph introduces him to pharaoh, the king asks him in Genesis 47:8, “How old are you?” Isn’t this bad taste? Why did the king do so? Jacob responds, “I am 130 years old. These years of my life were few and evil. I have not reached the age of my ancestors when they wandered about.” Why is he complaining to the king? Is he hinting that he wants something from him? What is he implying? This is another obscurity.
  • Remarkably, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob followed the practice of not giving the preferred blessing to a first-born son, even though Isaac tried to give the blessing to the older son Esau. In Jacob’s case, Jacob stole the preferred blessing his father wanted to give to his firstborn, resulting in his exile from home for twenty years. Despite Joseph’s protest, he continued the practice on his deathbed when he gave a preferred blessing to Joseph’s second son, Ephraim. Why does the Bible prefer a younger son to a firstborn in all three cases? Are scholars correct in maintaining that this was a biblical rejection of the practice still in England until the recent past, known as primogenitor? This was the right of succession belonging to the firstborn son and included the rule that the father’s real estate passed to the eldest son.
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.