Only that which is utterly intangible, matters. The contact, the spark of exchange. That which can never be fastened upon, for ever gone, for ever coming, never to be detained: the spark of contact. Like the evening star, which it is neither night nor day. Like the evening star, between the sun and the moon, and swayed by neither of them. The flashing intermediary, the evening star that is seen only at the dividing of the day and night, but then is more wonderful than either.
D.H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico
It’s been a while, but back to the moment at hand.
As we ended last time, Jacob stands on the cusp of the Promised Land. He has struck a deal with his calculating uncle/father-in-law2 (yeah, ancient families were weird), and now turned south to, somehow, deal with his long-estranged brother . . . and his army. Though he doesn’t know it, Jacob bears the future of a nation, his every step and word will come down to us steeped in symbolic significance. As the evening star rises in the sky and darkness falls near the fords of the Jabbok River, Jacob–and Israel’s–story perches precariously on the edge of a knife: darkness or light, chaos or order, the abyss or ascendancy each possible outcomes.
The polarity we see later in Israel’s history finds its roots, of course, in Jacob. The actions of the fathers are a sign for the children.
“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse– . . .” (Deut. 11:26).
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live. . .” (Deut. 30:19).
“This is what the LORD says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’ But you said, ‘We will not walk in it’ (Jer. 6:16).
Jacob’s life has heretofore been alternately dominated by darkness and light, by great gifts and terrible failures.
By the trickster and visionary archetypes.
Twice cheated brother Esau, his father Isaac, and his uncle/father-in-law2 Laban.
Yet he has also been visited by heavenly visions and displayed a heart sensitive to the presence of the Divine.
By the urge to flee at the first sign of trouble and to stick it out for the long-haul.
He flees his brother by running north, then his uncle/father-in-law2 (I just like writing that) by heading back south.
But he also chooses to stay for years of labor when he is consistently cheated and manipulated by Laban and, as we’ll see, stays to fight when it matters most.
The resonances of Jacob’s inner splintering go beyond himself, extending to his family. Jacob is estranged at some point from virtually every member of his family, and we see the same pattern continue in his sons’ relationships, but we see this perhaps most explicitly in the story of Jacob and Esau. From the beginning these two were at odds, jostling within Rebekah’s womb, Jacob grasping his brother’s heel as they were born–a harbinger of things to come. For peace to reign within Jacob and his family, it would take a morning star-moment, something to separate the light from the darkness, bringing balance to these warring factions.
The Kabbalists saw this story as primarily a battle between Jacob, the archetype of tikkun (spirit and order), and Esau, who represents tohu (raw, material power). In their cosmic conceptions, tohu is required for the world to be created, but without tikkun the unchecked power of tohu would consume itself itself and the worlds it creates.1 This innate contention combined with inseparable connection is an essential ingredient in the rising tension that leads to Jacob’s midnight contest in Genesis 32, since it was quite possibly Esau who fought him.
Or maybe it was some other man, a henchman or assassin (The original text is purposefully vague, merely calling the attacker “a man”).
Or maybe it was the elder brother’s guardian angel, Samael, the very incarnation of evil (cf. Bereshith Rabbah 77; Rashi; Zohar).
Or a holy angel, pointing toward Jacob’s–and Israel’s–continual struggle with the Divine (cf. Targum Yonathan; Tanchuma).
Or maybe it was God.2
Or Jacob himself.
It seems that identifying his attacker is a Rorschach test for the interpreter. And perhaps we’re not meant to know. Replete with ambiguity, the text bends over backwards to signal the reader that Jacob truly encountered the Divine that night, yet it leaves the vessel for that Divinity hidden in the shadows, making his escape before the dawn could reveal his true identity.
Embracing such ambiguities in the text is one of the primary ways I have shifted in my own thinking when I approach the Bible.
I find each option as likely as the next, and for different reasons, and perhaps they’re all true. Perhaps it was Jacob fighting his own inner man, his own inner angels and demons, (meta)physicalized into real men and spirits. This story dwells in that liminal space ruled by the evening star, where it is both dark and light and both may be true and good; that textual Bermuda Triangle where the waters of Fact, Truth, and Myth wash over one another.
Beyond Jacob’s situation, I do not believe we are called to search for the absolute, one and only possible meaning hidden within a text, as though there were some hidden gem called the “inviolate word of God” buried beneath the encrusted exterior. As if we only had the proper tools and adequate time, our best exegetical miners could unearth the gem and all our doubts and dilemmas would pass away to a new dawn of dogmatic certitude.
For Jacob (and Israel), the dawn does not reveal his attacker’s identity, rather a new way of seeing the world.
And a new name.
1. This fantastic article puts Jacob and Esau’s life into an extended analogy of this Tikkun and Tohu life, explaining how such a great divide as matter and spirit, though intended to coexist in unitive wholeness, takes more than a single lifetime to overcome. This is the basis of the mystical myth of the shattered vessels, which gives the great Jewish call to shalom-bringing and world-healing known as tikkun olam.↩
2. A situation Stephen Geller, in his book Sacred Enigmas, describes as an “intolerable paradox”: “The more divine Jacob’s assailant, the less likely his victory; but the less divine, the less significant the name Israel.”↩