Genesis 29-32: Jacob gets tricked, defeats God at wrestling

Jacob arrives in the East and falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel.  Laban promises to give him Rachel after Jacob works for him 7 years.  After 7 years, Laban gives him his other daughter, Leah, instead.  Laban demands 7 more years of labor for Rachel, which Jacob agrees to.  With the help of God, Jacob has many children through his two wives.  Both wives also let him have sex with their maid-servants, through whom he also bears children.  Jacob asks Laban for permission to return to Haran; Laban agrees and lets him keep all the speckled and spotted animals among his flock.  However, Laban tricks him again and removes all those animals.  Jacob, the master of trickery, takes black rams from the flock and mates them in front of white rods; because they saw white while mating, the offspring ended up with white speckles and stripes.  He also takes white sheep and mates them in front of dark-colored animals, obtaining the same result.  Jacob then leaves with his wives and children, without telling Laban.  Laban catches up at Gilead and the two make a pact, each promising not to intrude into the other’s territory.

Jacob sends messengers to gain Esau’s favor; Esau comes with 400 men.  Fearing that Esau was planning on slaughtering him, Jacob sends hundreds of animals ahead of him as tribute.  When crossing the river Jabbok, God (or a divine being) appears as a man and wrestles with Jacob all night, but Jacob wins, and his name is changed to Israel (“he who wrestled with a divine being”).

Commentary:

  • Here, Jacob the trickster gets tricked repeatedly by Laban.
  • Jacob’s mating of the sheep and rams reflects the folk belief that what animals see while mating affects the characteristics of their offspring.  Hence, if black rams see white rods, their offspring would have white on them.  Chapter 31 is a different and contradictory account of how Jacob came to obtain Laban’s animals.  There, God declares that “all the flocks would drop speckled young” (31:8); there is no clever mating by Jacob.
  • The fight between Jacob and God (or perhaps another divine being) is one of the most enigmatic episodes of Jacob’s life.  It is unclear why God chooses to fight Jacob, but remarkably, Jacob wins and God loses.  This could reflect a belief in river spirits (such as trolls), who attack hapless travelers and doom them to die in the river.  The fact that the divine being refuses to reveal his name (32:30) is due to the belief that knowing someone’s name gives power over that person.
  • “Israel” probably originally meant “[The God] El rules”.  The etymology in 32:29 is invented.
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