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Vayishlach: Jacob Builds a House

This week – still in the story of Jacob – I have some comments and a question. What I don’t have is an answer to the question.

Toward the end of Genesis 33 we read of Jacob’s long-dreaded reunion with his brother Esau. At the end of their encounter, ostensibly, they are reconciled. Esau then suggests that Jacob and he journey together, but Jacob protests that he cannot move at the pace of Esau and his 400 men. Esau offers to leave some of his men with Jacob, but Jacob politely declines this offer of “protection” and tells Esau to go on ahead. Jacob, meanwhile, burdened by his animals and his children, will proceed at a slower pace “to come to my lord [Esau] in Seir.” Calling Esau “my lord” is the equivalent of saying “your obedient servant,” both a mark of politeness and an admission that Esau has the right to call the shots.

It is not obvious to us exactly where Jacob is going, since at the beginning of this week’s reading, three verses after parting with Laban at the beginning of Genesis 32, as soon as he comes back from Aram, Jacob immediately sends messengers to Esau to alert him he has returned. He deliberately leaves Esau with the impression that he will follow him to Seir, but once Esau starts home, Jacob instead travels to Succoth.

It’s not impossible that Jacob really is actually following Esau. Succoth is thought to have been at the modern site of Deir ‘Alla, due east of Nablus on the east side of the Jordan River, about 50 km northwest of Amman. (It’s where the famous 8th-century BCE inscription mentioning the biblical Balaam was found.)

One could certainly keep walking south from Succoth and eventually reach Seir, which is a region in Edom, south of the Dead Sea and east of the Arava. Why do I say that Jacob travels to Succoth instead of going to join Esau? Several reasons:

  • He has rather insistently made sure that neither Esau nor any of Esau’s men would accompany him.
  • The grammar (subject first, וְיַעֲקֹב֙ נָסַ֣ע rather than verb first, ויסע יעקב*) points to a contrast, not a continuation.
  • Oh, yes. When Jacob gets to Succoth, he builds a house.

Here is the whole verse:

But Jacob traveled to Succoth. He built himself a house, but for his livestock he made sukkot [“booths”]. That is why the the place was named Succoth.

The verse actually tells us how Succoth got its name: because Jacob built sheds for his cattle there. In the very next verse, though, Jacob “arrived, whole, at the city of Shechem” (near Nablus on today’s maps). When he gets there, he buys some land and pitches a tent.

To me, this leaves Gen 33:17 as a mystery. Most of the actual building of “houses” you’ll find in the Bible is done by kings building what we would call in English palaces and temples. So the fact that Jacob built himself a house is actually quite unusual. What his father and grandfather would have done, and what they actually did, is what Jacob himself does in v. 19: pitch a tent. Why would he build a house that he immediately leaves?

Rashi explains how Jewish tradition understands this verse:

He stayed there for 18 months—a summer, a winter, and a second summer, as the verse indicates: first in “Succoth” (shelters, during the warm weather), then in a cold-weather “house,” and then again in “Succoth.”

And here is Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah commentary for the book of Genesis:

This act signifies an intentionally prolonged stay at this place before crossing the Jordan into Canaan. Jewish tradition fixes the period at eighteen months [as Rashi explained]. Jacob’s purpose may have been to utilize the natural resources of this fertile valley in order to recoup what he gave away to Esau.

If either of these bits of information – that Jacob stayed at Succoth for a year and a half, and that he wanted to regain his previous level of wealth – were part of the story the Torah itself wanted to tell us, I imagine we would be reading them out loud this Sabbath. Yet they are not there.

Secular scholarship seems mostly (though not universally) to think the last three verses of Genesis 33 are a way to link the Jacob-Esau stories to the story of Dinah in Genesis 34. But that transition would work so much more smoothly without v. 17:

16 That day, Esau went on his way to Seir, 18 and Jacob arrived in Shechem.

One way secular scholarship treats such “ungrammaticalities” in the text is simply to insist that the compiler of the Torah had to include all the material in his possession. As a university-trained scholar, I too believe that the text of the Torah has a back story. But I am also a writer, and elsewhere in the Bible I find that earlier sources are quite carefully combined. Why not here?

Someone who is shuffling index cards might have Jacob build a house (on land he apparently does not own) and then immediately abandon it to buy land elsewhere and pitch a tent. But this is not something I would expect a writer to create, even by combining earlier texts.

From my perspective, both of the standard approaches are missing something. For the traditionalist, the Torah states it and it therefore must be both correct and important; for secular scholarship, the compiler was a traditionalist who made that same (but erroneous) assumption. In other words, traditionalists explain it, but don’t integrate it into the story; secularists think they have explained why it’s not integrated into the story. I’m rejecting both of those approaches.

I think there is a reason for this verse to be there, even though I don’t yet know what the reason is. I once heard a rabbi describe being discouraged by a seminary professor from doing a PhD in Bible because “We already know everything about the Bible we are ever going to know.” I, by contrast, believe with perfect faith what Rashi himself admitted to his grandson: New truths about the Bible are coming to light every day. This one, I’m afraid, is still in our future.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at torahtalk.substack.com and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis 1 at michaelcarasik.substack.com.
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