Genesis: The Beginning of Desire

By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg | Go to book overview

VA-YISHLAḤ


The Quest for Wholeness

Safe return: God's promise and Jacob's commitment

Jacob returns to the Holy Land, after twenty years' absence. Return proves to be a complex experience of confrontations, deaths, and disasters. His first act as he reenters the Holy Land is to send messengers to his estranged brother, Esau, parleying for peace and bearing gifts of reconciliation. Fearful for his life, he prays to God -- the first quoted prayer in the Torah -- and prepares for war. And during the night before meeting Esau with his four hundred men, Jacob encounters a mysterious "man," with whom he wrestles all night, till the sun rises and he limps toward his brother.

No sooner has he placated his brother than his daughter, Dinah, is raped by Shekhem, a local prince, and the whole town of Shekhem is massacred by his vengeful sons Simeon and Levi. Then, Rebecca's nurse, Deborah -- whose presence in Jacob's camp has not previously been mentioned -- dies, and the mourning is marked by the naming of the oak tree under which she is buried, Allon Bakhut, "the oak of weeping" (35:8).1 This is followed by the death of Rachel in childbirth, and by the enigmatic brief narrative, in which Reuben "lay with Bilhah, his father's concubine. And Israel found out" (35:22).

This brief survey of the tribulations afflicting Jacob on his return to the Holy Land casts a shadow over God's promise to Jacob, as he left the land twenty years earlier. In his dream at Beth El, Jacob had heard God say, "I will bring you back to this land" (28:15). And, on waking, he had vowed his response to the promise: "If God remains with me, if He protects me . . . and if I return safe [ be-shalom ] to my father's house -- the Lord shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God's abode" (28:20-22). In his vow, Jacob had added be-shalom -- "safe, in peace" -- to the words of God's promise: his concept of return

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