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Jacob and Esau – Blessings and a Birthright and the Issue of Jewish Power


The Biblical forefathers lived in a world in which possession of power was vitally important.  In the absence of warlike capabilities a tribe or nation left itself open to subservience.  The ancients perceived the elements of nature as being continually in conflict with each other.   In the myths of Mesopotamia, the gods were involved in mortal power struggles.  It followed, therefore, that humanity should also function in this way, since this was the natural way of the world.  


How, therefore, should Abraham’s descendants view military power?  Would they even be able to survive without it?  This question pervades the Jacob and Esau stories.  


The Jacob and Esau stories are frequently interpreted in a midrashic way, and these explanations are the ones with which many Jewish people are familiar.  Midrash is the store of Rabbinic commentaries, many of which have been handed down by tradition.  Nevertheless, these explanations frequently slant the text in a direction that fails to do justice to its literal meaning.  In this essay, I will discuss both midrashic and literal explanations, and show how the plain meaning adds new dimensions of understanding to the Torah.


A Hunter Dripping in Blood


Rebecca and Isaac had been infertile for many years.  They prayed to God for a child, and Rebecca eventually conceived.  Her pregnancy, however, seemed unusual:

“And the children agitated within her, and she said, “If so, why am I thus?” And she went to inquire of God (YKVK). And God (YKVK) said to her: “Two nations are in your womb: two peoples from your insides shall be separated: and one people will be mightier than the other (יֶאֱמָץ וּלְאֹםמִלְאֹם), and the older/greater (rav) shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:22-23)


The usual translation “and one people will be mightier than the other” does not do full justice to the Hebrew.  More correct is “the power will go from one people to the other”.  As the Medieval Biblical commentator Rashi and the 19th century Biblical commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch point out, this is a prophecy about cyclical transfers of power from one nation to the other.  Moreover, to maintain the symmetry of the verse, the end of the prophecy is often translated as “the older (rav) shall serve the younger.”  Yet the Hebrew “rav” does not mean older, but greater in number.  Hence the meaning is - the more numerous will become subservient to the younger people.  


On a basic level, the stories about Jacob and Esau are about the relationship between two very dissimilar brothers.  However, the Torah makes very clear in this prophecy, that there is more to these stories than just the relationship between two brothers.  These stories are also about the balance of power between two neighbors Judea and Edom.  The Jewish sages take this even further and suggest that they are also about the power relationship between the Jewish people and Rome and subsequently to Christianity.


But what did this prophecy mean?  Was it designed to provide enlightenment and perhaps comfort to Rebecca, or was it a call to her to ensure that her elder son did indeed become subservient to the younger one?   If the former, did she overstep her limits by navigating Isaac’s blessing for Jacob?  This is not at all clear from the wording of the Bible.  


The delivery of the twins is described in a passage full of word plays:


“When her term to bear grew full, then behold -  twins in her womb. The first one emerged red (admoni) (אַדְמוֹנִי), all of him was like a hairy mantle (seir) (שֵׂעָר), so they called his name Esau.  After that his brother emerged with his hand grasping onto the heel of Esau; and he called his name Jacob (יַעֲקֹב): Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.” (Genesis 25:24-26)


The name Esau comes from the root a-s-ah, he made.  Because of his ruddiness and hairiness, the newborn Esau already looked “ready made” and like a mature person.  But there is additional meaning to his redness and hairiness.  Esau is the progenitor of the nation Edom (which means red), and he will live in the land of Seir, which is the same word as hairiness.  Jacob, on the other hand, is so named because he emerges from the womb grasping the heel (ekev) of his older brother.  As will become clear as the story progresses, this name also has the connotation of “to trick”.   


What is the significance of these wordplays?  It may be that the Torah is pointing out that the characteristics and destiny of these twins were already determined prenatally, and that an inexorable momentum is about to be played out as they mature into adulthood. 


The theme of “redness” continues in the next episode.  Why does the Torah place such emphasis on the word “red” in these early episodes?  One reason already mentioned is because Esau will become the nation of Edom.  However, the midrash, and the commentator Rashi will also follow this interpretation, see an illusion here to his murderous nature.1  This is not at all far-fetched.  Esau will become a hunter.  In the compensatory blessing he receives from Isaac he is told that he will live by the sword.  These early stories about Esau are dripping with allusions to the blood he and his progeny will later spill.   


The narrative continues:

“The lads grew up and Esau was a man who knew trapping, a man of the field; but Jacob was a wholesome man, abiding in tents. Isaac loved Esau for trapping was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.” (Genesis 25:27-28)


Esau was a natural hunter.  Hunting is the training ground for warriors, and was how young men honed their skills in killing.  David, for example, was a shepherd, but he also defended his flocks against attacks and was extremely proficient in the use of a sling.  With these skills it was a natural progression for him to join up with a band of like warriors, just as Esau would do later in life. (Genesis 33:1)  


“… for trapping was in his mouth.”  In whose mouth was the trapping ask the Jewish sages.  The obvious answer is that “his mouth” refers to the mouth of Isaac.  Isaac enjoyed the food that Esau brought and appreciated his hunting skills.  The midrash, however, sees in the phrase “for trapping was in his mouth” a hint that Esau was expert at deceiving his father as to his religiosity.2  With this explanation, the midrash is preempting the question - how could Isaac could have been so blind as to think that a person like Esau could become the leader of the tribe of Abraham after his death.  The Midrash’s answer is that Isaac was misled by Esau’s speech, i.e. the trapping was in Esau’s mouth. 


The story continues to elaborate more on the character of Esau while also developing the plot:


And Jacob boiled a stew, and Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. Esau said to Jacob: “Pour into me now (הַלְעִיטֵנִינָא) some of that very red stuff (הָאָדֹםהָאָדֹם) for I am exhausted.  He therefore called his name Edom. Jacob said: “Sell, as this day, your birthright to me.” And Esau said: “Look, I am going to die, so of what use to me is a birthright?” Jacob said: Swear to me this day.”  He swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, got up and left.  Thus Esau belittled the birthright.” (Genesis 25:29-33)


Esau is again described as being in the field hunting.  As a hunter he is attracted to the redness of the soup, which is why his name is called Edom.  It may be that he is attracted to it because of its blood-like qualities.   When he requests the soup, he wants it poured down his throat.  “Pour into me now (הַלְעִיטֵנִינָא) some of that very red stuff.”  There is no hint of sophistication in this person.  He is completely driven by his physical desires.  And when he sells Jacob his birthright “he ate and drank, got up and left.”  He gave not a moment’s thought to what he had done.  The birthright meant nothing to him.

 Interlinked with the theme of destiny in these passages is the theme of the rights of the firstborn.  Esau is the older brother, and he should, therefore, be the recipient of the privileges due to the firstborn.  The issue now confronting Abraham’s family is does the right of succession go automatically to the firstborn, or to the son most worthy of continuing the family tradition?  It could also be asked at this stage, what are the rights of the firstborn that they figure so prominently in these stories about Jacob and Esau? And why was Jacob so anxious to take away these rights from his brother? 


Firstborn rights were widely held in the Near East at this time.  The rights can be broken down into three components – religion, money, and the possession of privilege and power.  


Historically, many of the rights of the firstborn may have been related to rites for the dead parent.  The netherworld in Mesopotamian culture was not a comforting place.  Mesopotamian myths talk about the underworld as being a place “where dust is their food, clay their bread, they see no light, they dwell in darkness.”3  There was only one way to make death more tolerable for the dead until they were resurrected, and this was to bribe the gods of the underworld with sacrifices.  The gods would eat them and this would make them more favorably disposed towards the dead.  The firstborn was the religious head of the family and was expected to offer sacrifices to the gods of the underworld for the departed parent, and to look after those family members, especially the women, who had not been granted an inheritance.  All this cost money, and this may be the reason that the firstborn inherited double that of the other siblings.  The firstborn also inherited the prestige and power that went with looking after the family’s affairs   


All these functions can also be seen in the Jewish tradition.  The first of the year’s fruits were brought to the temple during the Festival of Tabernacles (Succot).   The first of the herd was dedicated to God.  The Jewish people are also regarded as God’s firstborn, since they are dedicated to His mission:

 “You shall say to Pharaoh: “So said YKVK, My firstborn son is Israel.  So I say to you: Send out My son that he may serve you – but you have refused to send him out; behold, I shall kill your firstborn son.” (Exodus 4:22-23)


In Judaism, the firstborn receives a double portion of the inheritance.  This is spelled out in the following verses from Deuteronomy that describe the rights of the son of a non-favored wife:


“If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and unloved have born him sons, but the first-born is the son of the unloved one – when he wills his property to his sons, he may not treat as first-born the son of the loved one in disregard of the son of the unloved one who is older.  Instead, he must accept the first-born, the son of the unloved, and allot to him a double portion of all he possesses; since he is the firstborn of his vigor, the birthright is his due.”(Deut 21:15-17) 


How did all this relate to Jacob?  It could be that Jacob was interested in receiving the entire birthright package - its religious aspects, its monetary value, and the power that it brought.  Rashi suggests, however, it was the religious aspect of the birthright he most wanted:


Your birthright: Since the sacrificial service is performed by the firstborns, Jacob said: “This evil one is not worthy that he should bring up offering to the Holy One, Blessed is He.

 And Esau belittled (the birthright): the verse testifies to his wickedness, that he belittled the service of the Omnipresent.


A strong argument against Rashi is that the blessing meant for Esau, and the one that Jacob took for himself, mentions nothing about religious functions, but only status, prestige and power.  This is no doubt the reason that the commentator Nachmanides assumes that it was the prestige of the firstborn’s position that was being contested here.  Nachmanides is also led to this opinion from his assumption that the monetary and religious aspects of the firstborn’s privileges are derived from the Torah.  Since the Torah had not yet been given, these rights did not exist.   Nachmanides could be forgiven for not knowing that these privileges were already well established in the surrounding cultures and were not primarily Torah creations.  Nevertheless, Nachmanides’ explanation seems very much in line with the plain meaning of the text, and it is likely that it was the power that the firstborn would attain that was sought by Jacob and Rebecca.  In particular, both felt it vital that this not be given over to Esau.


In general, the Jewish sages had a very negative view of Esau.  Without an appreciation of the nuances of the text, this might seem unfair.  On the surface, Esau seems to be the guileless victim of plots rather than the epitome of wickedness.  This midrash from Midrash Rabba, for example, seems to be reading ideas into the Torah that are not at all present in the text.


“And Esau came in from the field”: which means that he violated a betrothed maiden, as it says: “But if the man find the damsel that is betrothed in the field, and the man take hold of her and lie with her (Deut 22:25) …… while “And he was faint” signified that he committed murder………  R’ Berekiah and R’ Zakkai the elder said: He also committed theft, as you read’ “if thieves came to thee, if robbers (shodede) by night (Obad 1:5)4


In this midrash, Esau is a sexual violator, murderer and thief.  To support these points, the midrash will link up phrases from this passage to other passages in the Bible that have similar phrases.  The midrash is trying to make a point here; a violent nature without a moral code leads to sexual violations, murder and theft - and these will be the characteristics of Esau and his progeny.

The story of the plot that Rebecca concocts is well known.  Isaac, who is by now blind, informs Esau that he would like to bless him before he dies, and he asks Esau to hunt and prepare venison for him so that he will be in the right mood to bless him.  Rebecca hears the conversation, and disguises Jacob as Esau by placing goat’s hairs on his limbs and by dressing him with Esau’s scented clothes.  Isaac is suspicious that Jacob is before him, since the voice he is hearing sounds like that of Jacob.  Nevertheless, the goats’ skins and clothes persuade him that it is Esau.  He blesses Jacob with a blessing that has nothing to do with the tradition of Abraham, but a lot to do with which brother will have supremacy:

 "He approached and kissed him, and he smelled the scent of his garments, and he blessed him and said: "Behold, my son's scent is like the scent of a field that God has blessed.  And may God (Elokim) give you of the dew of the heavens and the fatness of the earth, and much corn and wine.  May the nations serve you, and may peoples bow down to you; may you be a lord over your brethren, and may your mother's sons bow down to you.  May those who curse you be cursed, and may those who bless you be blessed.” (Genesis 27:27-29)


Isaac’s opening words suggest that this is more of a prayer than a prophecy.  “May God give you … “ Isaac also invokes the name of Elokim rather than the personal God of himself and Abraham.  


The different names of God relate to different ways of experiencing or relating to God.  YKVK is the immanent aspect of God.  He is the personal God of Abraham’s family and He will eventually become the national God of the Jewish people.  Elokim, on the other hand, is the transcendent aspect of the God who created the universe and who is the God of all peoples of the world.  Therefore, in mentioning the name Elokim, Isaac is invoking here the God of international affairs and the God who will establish his son as a prestigious and powerful chief in the world of nations. 


How could Isaac have made such a mistake?  As we have seen, the explanation of Rashi is that not only was he physically blind, but he was blinded by the deception of Esau.  At best, this sounds as if he was oblivious to what was going on around him.  At worst, that he was a terrible judge of the characters of those closest to him.  


However, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch raised another explanation, and it is one that has been taken up by some modern commentators.  Isaac knew full well the character of Esau.  He appreciated those characteristics and thought they could be used by the Abraham family.5,6  


We know very little about Isaac from the Torah as he is not involved in any major episodes except for his near-sacrifice by his father in the Akeida episode.  He is often assumed to be a very spiritual person.  He did, after all, submit himself to being sacrificed without protest.  However, perhaps because he was so spiritual, he appreciated the materialistic and warlike character of Esau.  To be able to taste meat from a hunt was a new and exhilarating experience for Isaac.  Isaac also knew firsthand what it was like to be powerless in a hostile world.  


Within the story of Jacob and Esau is an account of Isaac’s life in Gerar in the land of the Philistines (chapter 26).  This is a chapter about lack of power - lack of power to be able to prevent Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, from taking his wife into his harem, and lack of power to prevent Abimelach’s servants from stealing his wells.  Isaac is continually on the move until he comes to Rehovoth “for now YKVK has granted us ample space” (Genesis 26:22). 


Isaac appreciated Esau not only because of the food he brought him but because of the power he personified.  Isaac argued as follows – would it be possible to join the power of Esau with the wholesomeness of Jacob, so that the two brothers could function as partners in bringing the heritage of Abraham to the world?  This would be the pen and the sword working together.  And because the sword is more influential than the pen, it made sense that the firstborn Esau should be the natural head of the family. 


Rebecca, on the other hand, came from a home in which conflict and scheming for influence and money were part of her environment.  She appreciated the household of Isaac because it was the very opposite of the home from which she came.  And she knew that it was Jacob, and not Esau, who espoused these values, and that these would be the values that would be continued by the Jewish people.   She also knew, because it had been revealed to her by prophecy, that the ideals of these two people would be in conflict, and that they were destined to struggle with each other throughout history.  The granting of supremacy to Esau had to be prevented at all costs, and Isaac had to be disillusioned of his plan in the most forceful of ways.  Her scheme of substituting Jacob for Esau was the only way this could be achieved.  By doing this she would drive home to Isaac that only Jacob was fit to continue the heritage of Abraham and supremacy had to be given to him.


As soon as he was informed by Esau of Jacob’s deception, Isaac became extremely distraught; not only because he had been made a fool of and because his favorite son had lost his birthright, but because his entire approach to his two sons and to the heritage of Abraham had fallen by the wayside.  His plan for the future of the Jewish people was no longer feasible.  As the text tells us:

 "Isaac trembled very excessively and said, 'Who, then, was it who hunted the provision, and brought it to me that I should eat from all before you came, and I have blessed him?  Yea, and he shall be blessed.” (Genesis 27:33).


Esau is also distraught when he learns what his brother had done and cries out a great and bitter cry.  His firstborn privileges had been spirited away from him twice.  Jacob has lived up to his name Jacob (Ya’akov) and tricked him again  (פַעֲמַיִם זֶה וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי - “he has tricked me (vayakveyni) twice.”)


Isaac sees very clearly the consequences of what Rebecca and Jacob had done.  The two brothers were not to be in partnership throughout history but in conflict.  Everything he had tried to avoid would now transpire. 


Behold, a lord have I made him over you, and all his kin have I given him as servants, with grain and wine have I supported him, and for you where – what can I do my son? …………. So Isaac his father answered and said to him: “Behold, of the fatness of the earth shall be your dwelling and of the dew of the heavens from above. By your sword you shall live, but your brother you shall serve; yet it shall be that when you will be aggrieved (תָּרִיד), you may remove his yoke from upon your neck.” (Genesis 27:37-40)


This is neither a blessing nor prayer, but prophesy.  But what does it mean that “when you will be aggrieved”?   In what way is Isaac limiting his previous blessing?


The 2nd Temple Biblical commentator Onkelos writes as follows: “Yet by your sword you shall live, and your brother you shall serve. But it shall be that when his descendants will transgress the words of the Torah you will remove his yoke from your neck.”7  


In a similar way, the commentator Rashi, based on Medrash Rabba, explains the connection between being aggrieved and transgressing the Torah:8  


When you shall be aggrieved: the word is an expression of pain … as if to say (i.e. Isaac means to say) “when Israel will transgress the laws of the Torah, and you will have a claim to be aggrieved over the blessings that (Jacob) took “you may remove his yoke etc.”  


Hence, according to this explanation, Israel will loose its ascendency if it becomes sinful, and Edom “will be aggrieved” by being subjugated by a nation that lacks the merit to do this.


A simpler less midrashic explanation is that Israel will remain ascendant unless it overdoes its dominion, in which case Esau “will be aggrieved” and will be able to break out of its oppression.  


Isaac is recognizing here the cyclical nature of the conflict between the future generations of Jacob and Esau.  There will be times in history when Jacob will be supreme, and at other times Esau will have dominion.


It is worth asking at this stage - who does Esau represent?  Who are the generations of Esau that will be struggling with those of Jacob?  


The Kingdom of Edom stretched from the southern border of the Dead Sea to the Sinai Peninsula.  Southwards it reached as far as Eilat, which was the seaport of Edom.  To the north of Edom was the territory of Moab and to the west Edom bordered on the territory of Judah.  


There was continual warfare between the early Israelite kingdom and Edom, and one sees a cyclical picture of Jewish and Edomite dominion, as the Bible foretold.  The Edomites were defeated in battle by both King Saul and King David.  However, they subsequently revolted.  At the time of Nebuchadnezzer, they joined the Babylonians in plundering Jerusalem and slaughtering the Judeans, and this earned them the considerable ire of the prophets.  At the time of the Second Commonwealth, John Hyrcanus forcibly converted the Edomites to Judaism, a step that was much opposed by the Pharisees.  The Roman province of Edom was known as Idumaea.  Antipater was an Idumaean general who became a power-maker in the struggle between the two Hasmonean brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus and he was eventually appointed ruler of Judea by Julius Caesar.  His son Herod was subsequently appointed ruler of the Jewish people by the Romans and he ended the rule of the Hasmoneans and subjugated Judea to the rule of Rome.  Thus it was that an Edomite king achieved dominion over the Jewish people.


There is also a very strong Rabbinic tradition that the Romans are descended from Edom.  


The following is a typical Talmudic statement that makes this point:


“Vespasian sent Titus who said: “Where is their God, the rock in whom they trusted (Deut 3:25). This was the wicked Titus who blasphemed and insulted Heaven. What did he do? ..... A voice went forth from heaven saying: Sinner, son of sinner, descendent of Esau the sinner...” (TB Gittin 56b)


There is a Rabbinic tradition that a chieftain of Esau founded Rome, and this tradition is found in midrashim, the Babylonian and Palestine talmuds, the Palestinian Targums of the Torah, and in the Targums to Lamentations and Esther.  No corresponding tradition exists in Rome, although the beginnings of this city are somewhat obscure and different legends are related.  


The Roman Empire eventually morphed into the Christian empire, and because of their oppression by Christianity, the term Edom became a synonym in the Jewish world for Christian Rome and subsequently for Christianity in general.


A very difficult question remains from the discussion so far.  Jacob is one of the forefathers of the Jewish people.   To what extent, therefore, should he be regarded as a role model for the Jewish people?  Or put in another way, does the Bible condone trickery and deception?  And is the Torah really a book about how to deceive a blind father?  In whichever way one looks at the issues the blanket ends up being too short.  Either Jacob acted correctly and the Bible is teaching us morally ambiguous behavior.  Or Jacob acted incorrectly and we have a trickster as a forefather. 


The following is by no means the only answer to this question, but it does attempt to put Jacob’s actions into perspective.  The Bible is a prophetic book.  Jacob is the diaspora Jew, the Jew who will spend much of his life away from the Land of Israel.  During this time, he will need deal with the likes of Esau and Laban.  Jacob lacks power.  The Bible is not shackling the Jewish people by demanding absolute straightforwardness in their dealings with their opponents.  There is only one way for the powerless to deal with the powerful –this is not to confront them face on but to be tricky.  This is the legacy of Jacob and this characteristic is embedded in his name.


However, deception and trickery have consequences.  Against a trickster, defenses go up.  Trickery begets trickery.  The Bible recognizes that there may be no option when dealing with a brother such as Esau, but it does not condone it.  Jacob paid dearly for his deceptions, and was paid back measure for measure for what he had done.

  •  Jacob is deceived by his uncle Laban at night when Jacob’s vision is impaired, and he is given Leah instead of Rachel as a wife.

  • Jacob remains in Haran for 20 years subject to Laban’s deceptions.

  • His own children trick him with the blood of a goat.

  • Jacob spends 22 years mourning the presumed death of his son Joseph.

 The Bible does not condone trickery, but it also recognizes there are times when there are no other options.  This is the ambiguous legacy that Jacob bequeathed the Jewish people. 

A Ladder Reaching to Heaven


Jacobs is on his way to Haran, penniless, and fleeing from the anger of his brother who has threatened to kill him.  He sleeps out in the open in a “place” which he later names Beth El, and there he experiences a vision of a ladder reaching towards the heavens, upon which angels of Elokim are ascending and descending.

  “Jacob departed from Beersheba and went to Haran.  He encountered the place and spent the night there because the sun had set.” (Genesis 28:10-11)  


Where is this “place”?  It is as if the Bible assumes we already know where it is.  In fact, Rashi will remind us that this “place” has been mentioned previously in the Bible, in the Akeida story:

 "And he encountered the place (וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם): The verse does not mention which place, but it means “the place” that has been mentioned elsewhere.  This is Mount Moriah, of which it has been said: “And he perceived the place from afar.”9


There is a problem though.  The location of “the place” is never identified in the Akeida.  There is, however, a very strong Jewish tradition that “the place” is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. 

 Hence, we are told the following in Chronicles 2;3:1:  


"And Solomon began to build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in the mount of Amoria, where the Lord appeared to his father David, in the place which David had prepared in the threshing-floor of Orna the Jebusite.” (Chronicles 2:3:1)  


From this verse it sounds very much as if the Temple was built on Mount Moriah.  However, this opinion has not been universally accepted.  Hence, the Greek Septuagint translates the land of Moriah described in Genesis as “the highland,” and the Mount of Amoriah in Chronicles as “the Mount of Amoria.” 

 In chapter 28 of Genesis “the place” is identified very specifically.  Following his nighttime vision, the Bible tells us:

 “Jacob arose early in the morning and took the stone that he had placed around his head and set it as a pillar; and he poured oil on its top.  And he called the name of that place Beth-el; however, Luz was the city’s name originally.” (Genesis 28:18-19) 


Rashi attempts to maintain the Rabbinic tradition that the gate of heaven was over Jerusalem by envisaging a slanting ladder:

 “The Amora R’ Elazar said in the name of R’ Yose ben Zimra. This ladder was standing with its feet in Beer-sheba, and the middle of its incline reached opposite [i.e. over] the Temple (Beis HaMikdash). For Beer-sheba stands in the southern part of the territory of the Tribe of Judah and Jerusalem is in its northern part on the boundary between Judah and Benjamin.  And Beth-el was in the northern part of Benjamin’s territory on the border between Benjamin and the sons of Joseph.  It is thus found a ladder whose feet are in Beer-sheba and whose upper end in is Beth-el, the middle of its incline (length) reaches opposite [i.e. over] Jerusalem.”10


Nevertheless, the selection of Jerusalem by King David as the site for the Temple is relatively late in Jewish history.  Until that time, either Beth El or Shilo functioned as the religious center for the Jewish people, and that the Ark of the Covenant was located in these places during the period of the Judges.  We are told the following, for example, regarding Beth El.


“Bnei Yisrael and all the nation went up and came to Beth-El, and they wept and sat there before God and fasted on that day until the evening, and they offered up burnt offerings and peace offerings before God.  And Bnei Yisrael asked of God, for there the Ark of God’s Covenant was in those days.  And Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon, stood before Him in those days.”(Judges 20:26-28)


We also know that the Ark of the Covenant was in Shilo for much of the time during the time of Joshua and the Judges.11  Shilo is within about 10 miles of Beth El.  


However politically inconvenient this idea is, it seems unlikely that the site of “the place” of Jacob’s dream and “the place” of the Akeida was in Jerusalem.  More likely, it was just as the Torah tells us - in Beth El.


To continue - at the very top of “it” was YKVK Himself.   


This phrase is ambiguous.  Where was God – above his head or above the ladder?  Either suggestion would fit into this sentence.  Rashi is of the opinion that God was standing directly over Jacob.  Nachmanides suggests that YKVK was standing on top of the ladder. 


YKVK now ratifies the prayer that Isaac made before sending Jacob on his way to Haran, and He assures him that he will inherit the mantle of Abraham: 




In a beautiful essay, Rav Tamir Granot points out that much of this speech had already been conveyed to Abraham.12  Abraham receives two communications from YKVK at the beginning of his mission.  The first is when he is living in Haran, when he is told to leave his homeland to become a great nation and a source of blessing to humanity.  The second is when his nephew Lot, who until that time would probably have been his heir, separates from him and leaves for the city of Sodom.  The points of similarity between God’s speech at the dream of the ladder and those given to Abraham in Haran and when Lot separates from him are highlighted in capitals.   It can be seen that God’s speech to Jacob summarizes that which had been told previously to Abraham:


The dream of the ladder:

And behold, YKVK stood over him/it and said, "I am YKVK, the God of your father Abraham, and the God of Isaac.  THE LAND UPON WHICH YOU ARE LYING – TO YOU I WILL GIVE IT, AND TO YOUR DESCENDANTS. 



The blessing at Haran


YKVK said to Avram, "Go forth… and I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; AND THROUGH YOU SHALL ALL THE 



The blessing following the separation from Lot, to the east side of Beth-El:


YKVK said to Avram, after Lot had parted from him. "Lift up your eyes and see, from the place where you are – NORTHWARD, SOUTHWARD, EASTWARD AND WESTWARD.


I SHALL MAKE YOUR OFFSPRING AS THE DUST OF THE EARTH, that if one can count the dust of the earth – then your offspring too shall be counted.

 Arise, walk about in the land, throughout its length and breadth, for to you I will give it.” 

So Abram packed his tent and moved and dwelled in the plains of Mamrei, which are in Hebron, and he built there an altar to YKVK. (Genesis 13:14-18)



God has now bestowed upon Jacob the blessing of Abraham.  He has also promised to protect him, and eventually to bring him back to the Land of Israel.  


Jacob’s vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder reaching up to heaven is the clearest exposition in the Torah of the concept of individual providence.  At the time the Bible was given this would have been a radical idea.  The ancients envisaged a clear separation between the activities of the gods and the lives of humans.  The gods were confined to the heavens.  They inhered within nature, and could influence the affairs of man by producing storms, floods, sickness and fertility, but they had no interest in the lives of individual people.  The God of Abraham, on the other hand, has concern over the affairs of individuals, even to the extent of ensuring they are sufficiently fed and clothed.  Moreover, the gods of the ancient world were extremely territorial, and areas or cities had their favored gods.  That the providence of a single God could extend over the entire Near East would have been a sweeping concept at that time.


A question - why were the angels going up before coming down?  Surely, angels reside in heaven?  Rashi, based on a midrash, suggests that the angels going up were those who had completed their task of protecting Jacob in Canaan, while those descending were the angels who would accompany him outside of Israel.  Jacob will again encounter angels as he is about reenter Israel at Machanayim after spending 20 years in Padam Aram in Mesopotamia. (Genesis 32:2-3)  Rashi will suggest there that these were angels about to escort him into the land of Israel.  


There are problems, though, with this explanation.  Machanayim may have been close to the border of Israel, but Beth El is only 12 miles from Jerusalem and still within the heartland of Israel.  It is also not clear why one person should warrant so many angels.  An alternative suggestion provided by Nachmanides is that this vision is demonstrating to Jacob the function of Divine providence in this world:


[God] showed [Jacob] in a prophetic dream that everything done on earth is done through the hand of the angels and everything they do is by the Supreme One’s decree upon them.  For the angels of God, whom YKVK sends to travel throughout the earth, do not do anything minor or major before returning to present themselves before the Lord of all the land….”13


Angels are messengers of God who carry out God’s directives.  The events in this world are not random but directed by God, and angels are a means by which He directs His will on this world.  


But why would angels go up to heaven first?  Should they not obtain first their directives from God in heaven and then descend?  This leads to a radical thought - the abode of angels is not in heaven but on earth!  The angels go up the ladder to obtain their instructions from YKVK, who is standing on top of the ladder in the heavens (and not above Jacob as Rashi suggests).  They then return to earth to carry out His instructions. 


Having been assured of God’s protection, Jacob takes an oath and addresses God’s promises phrase by phrase.  Note how modest Jacob is in his requests.  All he asks for are the basic necessities of life – food and clothing:14

 And He said: I am YKVK …….


And I will guard you wherever you go.

And I will return you to this soil, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I spoke to you. (Genesis 28:15)



Then Jacob took a vow saying:

 If Elokim WILL BE WITH ME, 

 and He will guard me on this way that I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear

And I return in peace to my father’s house, and YKVK will be a God to me – then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of Elokim, and whatever You shall give me I shall tithe to you. (Genesis 28:20-21)   


 Jacob’s vision sets the scene for his stay in Mesopotamia.  In Padan Aram, he will find two wives and build up a family.  It is also in Padam Aram that God will demonstrate to Jacob that he is caring for him, especially in situations that have the potential to be unfavorable to him.  Jacob is very much aware of this fact.  Hence, when he remonstrates with Laban when caught trying to flee from him he says: “Were it not that the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the fear of Isaac WERE WITH ME ……..” (Genesis 31:42)


The demonstration of God’s individual providence is a necessary preliminary for the concept of national providence.  Now that God has demonstrated His ability to care for their forefathers, the Jewish people can fully trust He will do the same for them.  


 Wrestling to the Dawn


Isaac was a man of peace and spirituality who nevertheless appreciated the materialism and strength that Esau brought to the family.  However, Isaac’s attempt to co-opt these strengths for the Abrahamic tradition was not to be.  The twins were destined even in the womb to be two nations in conflict. 

 Jacob is now on his way back to his parent’s home after an absence of 20 years.  He is married with two wives, two concubines and 11 children, and his favored wife is pregnant with a child to be named Benjamin.  The tension in the story builds up as Jacob sends messengers to his brother announcing that he is on his way to meet him.  The messengers return with information that Esau is coming to him with 400 men – a small battalion.   Jacob now greatly fears for his life and that of his family.  He prays to God, separates his camp into two, lest one be stricken, leaving the other camp the opportunity to flee, and he prepares expansive gifts for his brother. 


The Rabbinic sages are puzzled by Jacob’s actions.  Why did he arrange for this meeting in the first place?  Why court trouble?


An answer may be that Jacob intended returning to his father in Hebron, which is not that distant from Edom.  If Jacob had gone to Hebron without acknowledging his brother, Esau could have arranged a marauding party and massacred Jacob’s entire family.  One way or another his brother had to be faced.


Before he even knows that Esau will be arriving with warriors, Jacob sets the tone for this reunion by instructing his messengers to say the following:

Then Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to Esau his brother to the land of Seir, to the field of Edom.  He charged them saying: “This shall you say to my master, to Esau: ‘So said your servant Jacob  ….” (Genesis 32:4-5)


Jacob is the servant and Esau the master.


Jacob now returns to the other side of the Jabbok River, where, isolated from his party, he encounters a “man” who wrestles with him throughout the entire night.


“And Jacob was left alone and a man wrested with him until the break of dawn.  When he perceived that he could not overcome him, he struck the ball of his thighbone; and the ball of Jacob’s thighbone became dislocated as he wrested with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn has broken.” And he said, “I will not let not let you go unless you have blessed me.” He said to him, “What is your name?” He said, “Jacob.”  He said, “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for (שָׂרִיתָ) you have striven with the Divine (עִם-אֱלֹהִים) and with men and you have overcome.” Then Jacob inquired, and he said, “Tell, if you please, your name.” And he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel - “For I have seen the Divine face to face and yet my life was spared.” The sun shone for him as he passed Penuel and he was limping on his hip.  Therefore the children of Israel do not eat the gid hanoshe (the displaced sinew) on the hip socket to this day because he struck Jacob’s hip socket on the gid hanoshe.”  (Genesis 32:25-30)


This encounter is clearly symbolic, but it leaves us with many questions.  Who does this “man” represent?  He has the physical form of a man, but is also recognized by Jacob as being “Divine”.  What is the meaning of this struggle?  What is the significance of Jacobs’s name change?  What is the import of his limping?  And what is the significance of the Jewish people refraining from eating the gid hanoshe, the tendon of the sciatic nerve?  


Jewish commentators provide many answers to these questions.  Rashi follows the midrashic opinion that Jacob was wrestling with the guardian angel of Esau.15  This would explain how the tension that has been building up in the story could so quickly dissipate, and why Esau, arriving with 400 men and displaying warlike intent, now breaks down in weeping when he sees his brother.  It is almost as if a mystical force has reversed his aggressive intent.  


Rashi also explains that the blessing the “man” dispensed was a ratification of the blessing that Jacob obtained by trickery from his father.16  The angel of Esau now willingly bestows this blessing upon his brother.  Moreover, comments Rashi in reference to Jacob’s name change to Israel: 


"No longer will it be said that the blessings came to you through treachery (הבעקב) and deceit but rather through authority (serara) and in full view, and your destiny shall be that the Holy One, Blessed is He, will reveal Himself to you in Beth-el and change your name and there he shall bless you, and I shall be there and I shall concede to you with regard to them."14 


With this explanation, the story has come full circle.  Jacob has emerged victorious and with full mastery against his brother Esau.


Yet there are significant problems with this interpretation.  The concept of a guardian angel is first found in the Book of Daniel, which chronologically is a late book in the Bible.  Moreover, God has already demonstrated to Jacob in the vision of the ladder the function of angels as messengers of God involved in carrying out God’s plans in relation to humanity.  It would be odd for the Bible to now introduce a completely new notion of the function of angels without prior explanation.   


An alternative explanation is that this “man” is a messenger or angel sent by God to reassure Jacob in his struggle with his brother.17  The wrestling match demonstrates to Jacob that his superiority lies in his ability to survive.  With the arrival of the dawn, it is apparent that not only has he survived, but he has prevailed.  The gid hanashe is the symbol of the Jew’s physical survival in his cyclical struggle with the descendants of Esau.


The Sefer Hachinuch, a compendium of Jewish Biblical law, discusses these ideas:

“At the root of this precept lies the purpose that Jewry should have a hint that even though they will endure great tribulations in the exiles at the hands of the nations and the descendants of Esau, they should remain assured that they will not perish, but their progeny and name will endure forever, and a redeemer will come and deliver them from the oppressor’s hand. Remembering this matter always through the precept, which will serve as a reminder, they will stand firm in their faith and righteousness forever.”18


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees in this wrestling match, and specifically the symbol of gid hanashe, the attempt of the spirit of Esau to prevent the Jewish people from walking through history.


After all this the meaning of the prohibition cannot be doubted. The spirit of Esau will not be able to conquer Jacob nor to throw him down throughout the whole fight against him during the long ages of darkness on earth, but will be able to hamstring him, to prevent him standing firmly on both feet.  Without a firm stand and walk, does Jacob go through history  ....…  Whenever they sit down to table, the admonition from the story of the wanderings of their life shall come to them, that they are cheerfully to renounce this tendon, this submission of their strength to Esau, realize that their existence, and the continuation of their existence is not dependent on it, that they are not to feel that without it, that they are less protected and less certain of enduring throughout the ages because they are not armed with the sword like Esau, yea, cannot even take a firm step on earth.”19


Jacob has been reassured that he has God’s protection and that he will be able to survive against superior physical forces.  There is now only one way for Jacob to assuage Esau’s anger and establish a new relationship with him and this is for Jacob to seek forgiveness for his past actions.  Jacob has to acknowledge that he wronged his brother and that Esau is indeed the master.  


It has been suggested that Jacob was putting on a show in order to deflect Esau’s wrath.  However, this is not at all apparent from the text.  To the contrary, the text suggests that Jacob is sincere in his seeking forgiveness.  Note the section in brackets in the following sentence.  These brackets are not in the Torah but they frame the comments of Jacob as, speaking to himself, he acknowledges his desire to reestablish a relationship with Esau, a relationship which will be greased with gifts, and in which Esau will have the upper hand:

And say: “Behold your servant Jacob is behind us, (for he said: “I will wipe away his anger/face (אֲכַפְּרָהפָנָיו) with the offering that proceeds me, and afterwards I will see his face (אֶרְאֶהפָנָיו), perhaps he will accept me (יִשָּׂאפָנָי)). (Genesis 32:21) 


This passage above is full of words usually associated with repentance.20  In this next passage, Jacob completely ingratiates himself with Esau.

“Jacob raised his eyes and saw – behold, Esau was coming and with him were four hundred men – so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two maidservants.  He put the maidservants and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last.  The he himself went on ahead of them and bowed earthwards seven times until he reached his brother.” (Genesis 33:1-4)


Jacob bows to his brother seven times.  The number 7 is a sign of absolute homage, akin to the homage due to a god.  In the ancient world number 6 was associated with the physical world, while number 7 was associated with the godly.  In fact, Jacob will acknowledge as much when he says to Esau: “inasmuch as I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of a Divine being.(Genesis 33:10). 


Following Jacob’s bowing to his brother, his handmaids, his wives and their children also bow down to Esau:

Then the handmaidens came forward – they and their children – and they bowed down.  Leah, too, came forward with her children and they bowed down; and afterwards, Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed down.” (Genesis 33:6-7) 


One is reminded at this stage of the blessing bestowed upon Jacob by his father, the blessing intended for Esau:

May the nations serve you, and may peoples bow down to you; may you be a lord over your brethren, and may your mother's sons bow down to you.” (Genesis 27:28)


It seems very much as if Jacob is handing back to Esau the blessing he obtained from his father by deceit.  This is even more apparent from the words he now says to his brother:

“But Jacob said: “Please do not!  If I have now found favor in your eyes, then accept my tribute (מִנְחָתִי) from me, inasmuch as I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have been appeased by me.  Please accept my homage/tribute/blessing (בִּרְכָתִי  קַחנָאאֶת) which was brought to you, inasmuch as God has been gracious to me and inasmuch as I have everything.”  He urged him and he accepted.” (Genesis 33:10-11)


Jacob urges Esau to accept his large gift.  In so doing, he tells Esau to takeבִּרְכָתִי birchati.   This word can have several meanings.  Nachmanides suggests that it has the meaning here of my tribute.”20  


However, it also has its literal meaning of “my blessing.”  In other words, Jacob may be hinting to his brother, or even explicitly telling him, that he is giving back to him the blessing that he wrongfully took from him 20 years previously. 


But how could Jacob give up his privilege of dominion like this?  One answer is that he had no option.  It was Esau who had the sword and it was Esau who had the small army.  He, Jacob, was powerless.  But there is perhaps another answer.  Jacob had begun to appreciate that his father’s blessing of dominion was of limited importance.  There would be times that Esau and his progeny would have dominion and other times when the Jewish people would.  At this particular moment in time, it was Esau who was physically superior.  However, with God’s protection, it was no longer important.  

And he [Esau] said, “Travel on and let us go – I will proceed alongside you.” But he [Jacob] said to him, “My lord knows that the children are tender, and the nursing flocks and cattle are upon me; and they will drive them hard for one day, then all the flocks will die. Let my lord go ahead of his servant; I will make my way at my slow pace according to the gait of the work that is before me and to the gait of the children until I come to my lord at Seir.” (Genesis 33:13-14)


Is Jacob up to his old tricks again?  After all, he had no intention of following Esau to Edom. “Then Jacob journeyed to Succoth...” (Genesis 33:17)  Soon after saying this, he had crossed the Jordan and was in the highlands of Canaan.  


Unlike Abraham, whose original name Avram was changed to a completely new name, Jacob’s original name still remains.   This is because Jacob encompasses two aspects, the wiliness that he was born with, and the aspect of superiority that is now acknowledged by the angel.  It is not that one has given way to the other.  They both exist.  To be Jewish in a world in which one’s adversaries have power means that sometimes the Jew has to use guile and even outright lies.  The Bible never asked the Jewish people to deal with their enemies with suicidal candor and truth.


But there is another aspect to Jacob.  The word Israel comes from the root שרה, which is often translated as to struggle, strive or contend.  This sentence is therefore frequently translated as “for you have striven with the Divine and with men, and have prevailed.”  Jacob has prevailed against Laban and also “the man” of his nighttime struggle, whom he realizes is Divine.  It would follow from this that the name Israel means “one who struggles against God”.   


Yet this is a very strange concept.  Are the Jewish people really struggling against God?  And in what way are they doing this? 


This is perhaps the reason that the 2nd temple interpreter Onkelos provides another interpretation of the verb שרה (sara).  He writes:

 “For you have become mighty before G-d and men and you have prevailed”.  


It could also mean that you are a prince or ruler before God, or even with God.  In actuality, it is impossible to tell who is the subject in the word Israel, and whether it is Jacob or God.  R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch, for example, interprets the name Israel as “God is the All-conquering One.”22   The Jewish people are in partnership with God thereby demonstrating that it is He who has absolute power.

Fulfilling his Vow


Isaac proffered two blessings upon Jacob.  The first was intended for Esau and would have conferred dominion upon him.  Jacob stole this blessing, but never achieved in his lifetime the dominion this prayer appeared to offer. Esau had his sword and his warriors, and these would always be decisive.  However, at the dream of the ladder, God bestowed upon Jacob the spiritual legacy of Abraham, plus the promise of protection that would allow him to fulfill his mission.  Struggling with the angel by the Jabbok River he was recognized by God as His prince.  


Before leaving his father’s house, Jacob received one further blessing from Isaac.  Rebecca’s scheming was now working out exactly as she intended.  Isaac had appreciated the inevitability of two nations in conflict, Esau would separate from the tribe of Abraham, and Jacob would become the father of the nation of Israel.  There was one important task yet remaining for Jacob - to find a wife and begin building the nation promised to Abraham:

“Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and instructed him, and said to him: "You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan.  Arise, go to Padan Aram, to the home of Betuel, your mother's father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Laban, your mother's brother.   May the Almighty God (Kel Shakai) bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may be a multitude of peoples.  May He give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you – that you may possess the land of your sojourning, which God gave to Abraham.” (Genesis 28:1-4)


 In this prayer, Isaac invokes the name of God Kel Shakai (the letter k has been placed in front of the first word, and in the second word the letter d has been replaced by k in order that God’s true name not be pronounced).  Rashi suggests that this name of God has the meaning of “sheyesh dy”, translated as “there is enough.”  There is within God’s Divinity enough for every person, meaning that God has the ability to care for everyone.  No one in this vast universe is left out of God’s providence.23  Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed adopts a more philosophical approach - that God is self-sufficient and has no need for the existence of any other existing thing. 


Another explanation proposed by Umberto Cassuto, a Biblical scholar writing in the early 1900’s, is that this name encompasses the aspect of God concerned with fertility.  At first glance this might sound very pagan, since the ancient pagan religions also had gods governing fertility.  Yet there is no reason that an aspect of God most related to the fertility of the Jewish people should not also have a name, since fertility is not specifically a feature of the names of God YKVK and Elokim.  Admittedly, to us moderns it seems a strange concept.  Yet to the Jewish people at the time of the Bible, a fertility aspect of the One God would have been very logical.  As Jacob is being sent away to find a wife, it is very appropriate for Isaac to invoke this aspect of God.


This is not the first mention of this name of God.  We first meet the name Kel Shakai with Abraham.  Abraham has already fathered a son named Ishmael through Sarah’s servant Hagar, but God now assures Abraham that he and Sarah will sire their own son and that his name will be Isaac.  Isaac now repeats many of the phrases told to Abraham by God.  The two speeches are compared below, with the similar phrases shown in capitals.


Isaac’s blessing before Jacob leaves home:


Arise, go to Padan Aram, to the home of Betuel, your mother's father, and take yourself a wife from there, from the daughters of Laban, your mother's brother.


AND MAY HE GIVE YOU the blessing of Abraham – to you and to your descendants with you, to possess THE LAND OF YOUR SOJOURNINGS, which God gave to Abraham." (Genesis 28:1-4)


God’s appearance to Abraham

Avram was ninety-nine years old, and YKVK appeared to Avram and said to him, "I am KEL SHAKAI; walk before Me and be wholehearted.

I shall give My covenant between Me and you, AND I SHALL MULTIPLY YOU EXCEEDINGLY MUCH."

And Avram fell upon his face, and God spoke to him, saying:

"Behold, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of many nations.

And your name shall no longer be called 'Avram'; your name shall be 'Avraham,' for I have made you the father of many nations.

And I SHALL MAKE YOU MOST EXCEEDINGLY FRUITFUL, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall emerge from you.

And I shall establish My covenant between Me and you, and your descendants after you, in their generations, as an eternal covenant, to be God for you, and for your descendants after you. 

AND I SHALL GIVE YOU – and your descendants after you – the LAND OF YOUR SOJOURNINGS; all of the land of Canaan, as an eternal inheritance, and I shall be their God."(Genesis 17:1-8)



It is at this time that Abraham is commanded by God to circumcise his household.  In the Jewish tradition, circumcision is not usually associated with ideas of fertility.  Yet the concept is not so far fetched. 


Circumcision is practiced on the organ of procreation.  The passage above is a passage about multiplying and being fruitful.  Abraham’s name is changed to one related to fruitfulness – “father of a multitude of people.”  Hence, circumcision could well be considered a ritual about a multitude of people who will carry with them throughout their lives the sign of the covenant and who will be fruitful with this organ. 


That the name Kel Shakai was recognized in the Biblical period as being associated with fertility is evident in the following passage from the Book of Ruth.


“Do not call me Naomi (pleasant one), call me Mara (embittered one), for Shakai has dealt very bitterly with me.  I was full when I went away, but YKVK has brought me back empty.  Why should you call me Naomi; YKVK has testified against me, and Shakai has brought misfortune upon me. (Ruth 1:20-21)


In this passage, Naomi recognizes that the name Shakai relates not only to God dispensing fertility, but also taking it away.


When Jacob arrives in Israel, he erects an altar in Shechem, as did his grandfather Abraham when he first arrived in Canaan.  He also settles there.  


The Jewish sages fault Jacob for not going immediately to Beth El to fulfill his vow.  If he had done this, a midrash suggests, the rape of Dina would have been avoided.  In any case, Jacob is now reminded by God that it is time to fulfill his vow by going to Beth El.

“And Elokim said to Jacob, “Arise – go up to Beth El and dwell there, and make an altar there to God (Kel) Who appeared to you when you fled from Esau your brother.” (Genesis 35:1)


After removing all foreign deities from his family, Jacob fulfills God’s request:


"And Jacob came to Luz in the land of Canaan – it is Beth-el – he and all the people who were with him. And he built an altar there and called the place El-Beth-el, for it was there that that Elokim revealed Himself to him during his flight from his brother."(Genesis 35:6-7)   


Jacob has fulfilled his vow by erecting an altar at Beth El.  However, the aspect of God related to Kel Shakkai has more to convey to him:

And Elokim appeared to Jacob again when he came from Padam Aram, and He blessed him: Then Elokim said to him: “Your name is Jacob. Your name will no longer be called Jacob but Israel shall be your name.  Thus He called his name Israel.  And Elokim said to him: I am Kel Shakkai.  BE FRUTFUL AND MULTIPLY; a nation and a congregation of NATIONS shall descend from you, and KINGS shall issue from your loins.  The land that I gave to Abraham and to Isaac I WILL GIVE TO YOU; and to your offspring after you I will give the land.  Then Elokim ascended from upon him in the place where he had spoken with him.  And Jacob set up a pillar at the place where He had spoken with him – a pillar of stone – and he poured a libation upon it, and poured oil upon it. Then Jacob called the name of the place where Elokim had spoken to him Beth-el. (Genesis 35:9-14)


It is instructive to look at the similarities between the blessings given by God to Abraham and the one here in Beth El in the name of Kel Shakkai.  In both passages there is a name change – in the first one Abram’s name is changed to Abraham and in the other Jacob is renamed Israel.  The name of God Elokim is invoked in both, since these are blessings about Israel’s place among the nations.  In both passages, Elokim “ascends” from him when He has finished the conversation.  What does this mean?  Perhaps it is because the aspect of God associated with the name Elokim is more remote than that of YKVK.  The presence of YKVK on top of the ladder is tangible to Jacob and his descendants, but the presence of Elokim is distant in the firmament.


This passage also reminds the Jewish people that despite the unpredictability of fate, they have two secret weapons that have nothing to do with physical power.  These are the promise by God that he will ensure their survival and the promise of fertility.  The Jewish people are a nation of child-bearers, even in the face of adversity.  It happened first in Egypt - “The children of Israel were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became strong” (Exodus 1:7), and has continued to happen throughout Jewish history.  The Jewish population explosion in Eastern Europe, for example, and subsequent emigration is responsible for much of the Jewish population of America and Israel.


Finally, in “the place,” i.e. in Beth El, Jacob erects a pillar of stone, a matzeva, as he did after experiencing the vision of angels and God on a ladder.  God has fulfilled His part of the agreement.  He has protected him and brought him back to the Land of Canaan.  Jacob’s offspring will become the future tribes of Israel.  Jacob now fulfills his part of the agreement by offering a sacrifice in Beth El.  


The first circle in the struggle between Jacob and Esau for supremacy, in which the guiding principles are the Torah or the sword, is complete.


Acknowledgements:  Some of the ideas contained within this essay are from scholars writing within the framework of Yeshivat Har Etzion.  I have tried my best to reference them when I was able to trace their original source.  My apologies to those writers whom I have failed to reference.



  1. Rashi to Genesis 25:25 and Bereishis Rabba 63:8

  2. Rashi to Genesis 25:27 and Bereishis Rabba 63:10

      3.   The Descent of Ishtar to the Underworld in Myths from Mesopotamia. Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others by Stephanie Dalley., p155, Oxford University Press

      4.   Bereishis Rabba 63:12  

      5.   The commentary to the Torah of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 27:1

      6.   Dividing the Berakhot by Rav Ezra Bick in the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, Parshat HaShavua, Yeshivat Har Etzion (

       7.Onkelos to Genesis 27:40

       8. Rashi to Genesis 27:40 and Bereishis Rabba 67:7

       9.  Rashi to Genesis 28:11 and also Talmud Bavli Pesachim 88a

      10. Rashi to Genesis 28:17 and also Bereishis Rabba 69:7

      11.See Joshua 18:1 and Judges 21:19 

      12. Three Different Blessings by Rav Tamir Granot in the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, Parshat HaShavua, Yeshivat Har Etzion ( and Torah Mietzion. New Readings in Tanach. Bereshit  eds Rav Ezra Bick and Rav Yaakov Beasley p271, First Edition, 2011, Maggid Books, A Division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd

      13. Nachmanides Commentary to the Torah on Genesis 28:12-13.

      14. The Dream of the Ladder by Rav Tamir Granot in the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, Parshat HaShavua, Yeshivat Har Etzion (

      15.  Rashi to Genesis 32:25 and Bereishis Rabbah 77:3 and Tanchuma 8.

      16.  Rashi to Genesis 32:29.

      17. See Abarbanel

      18.  Sefer HaHinuch, mitzvah #3

      19.  The commentary to the Torah of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 32:33

      20. “And Jacob was left alone” by Rav Chanock Waxman in Torah Mietzion. New Readings in Tanach. Bereshit  eds Rav Ezra, Bick and Rav Yaakov Beasley p319, First Edition, 2011, Maggid Books, A Division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd

      21. Nachmanides Commentary to the Torah on Genesis 33:11.

      22. The commentary to the Torah of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Genesis 32:29

      23. Rashi to Genesis 17:1 and 28:3

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