The Yaakov Cycle

I quite like scholar’s section introductions. Unlike issues, arguments and conclusions which I may or may not welcome, follow or share, good introductions are forward looking – full of hope. The writer seems freer, almost stating the obvious while pulling us onward.

I find Everett Fox’s following introduction to the Yaakov  Cycle most helpful as our lectionary reads highlights of  the Jacob Cycle through these last and coming few weeks. It is taken from his  excellent English translation and commentary “The Five Books Of Moses”

I especially like his last paragraph reminder of “the two levels of biblical reality.”

Last week our discussion ranged from “reads like a novel” to “dysfunctional family” to other literature e.g. “The Red Tent” and I would hope these and Fox’s thoughts below would lead us to read beyond our lectionary samplings and encounter the whole story.

YAAKOV (Jacob)


BEFORE  COMMENTING ON THE YAAKOV CYCLE, IT IS APPROPRIATE TO CONSIDER WHY HIS father  Yitzhak (Isaac), the second of the Patriarchs, receives no true separate group  of stories on his own.

Yitzhak functions in Genesis as a classic  second generation-that is, as a transmitter and stabilizing force, rather than  as an active participant in the process of building the people. There hardly  exists a story about him in which he is anything but a son and heir, a husband,  or a father. His main task in life seems to be to take roots in the land of  Canaan, an admittedly important task in the larger context of God’s promises in  Genesis. What this means, unfortunately, is that he has almost no personality  of his own. By Chapter 27, a scant two chapters after his father dies, he  appears as (prematurely?) old, blind in both a literal and figurative sense, and as we will see, he fades out of the text entirely, only to die several
chapters, and many years, later.

The true dynamic figure of the second  generation here is Rivka (Rebeccah). It is she to whom God reveals his plan,  and she who puts into motion the mechanism for seeeing that it is properly  carried out. She is ultimately the one responsible for bridging the gap between the dream, as typified by Avraham (Abraham), and the hard-won reality, as  realized by Yaakov.

Avraham is a towering figure, almost  unapproachable as a model in his intiimacy with God and his ability to hurdle nearly every obstacle. Adding to this the fact that Yitzhak is practically a noncharacter, and that Yosef (Joseph), once his rise begins, also lacks dimension as a personality, it becomes increasingly clear that it is Yaakov who emerges as the most dynamic and most human personality in the book. The stories about him cover fully half of Genesis, and reveal a man who is both troubled and triumphant. Most interestingly, he, and not Avraham, gives his name to the people of Israel.

Distinctive themes of the cycle include physical struggle, deception, and confrontation. These are expressed through the key words of Yaakov’s name (“HeellHolder” and “Heel-Sneak,” then Yisrael (Israel), “God-Fighter”), “deceive” and similar words, and “face.” Also recurring are the terms “love,” ‘bless,” “firstborn-right,” and “wages/hire” (one word in Hebrew). The cycle is structured partly around etiologies (folk explanations of place-names and personal names) and also around Yaakov’s use of stones in several of the stories.

Continuing from the Avraham cycle are such earlier themes as wandering, sibbling rivalry, the barren wife, wives in conflict, the renaming of the protagonist, God perceived in dreams and visions; and particular geographical locations such as Bet-EI, Shekhem, and the Negev (Cassuto 1974).

Finally, it should be mentioned that the Yaakov stories are notable in the manner in which they portray the two levels of biblical reality: divine and human. Throughout the stories human beings act according to normal (though often strong) emotions, which God then uses to carry out his master plan. In this cycle one comes to feel the interpretive force of the biblical mind at work, understanding human events in the context of what God wills. It is a fascinating play between the ideas of fate and free will, destiny and choice – a paradox which nevertheless lies at the heart of the biblical conception of God and humankind.

Everett Fox,
The Five Books of Moses: A New English Translation with Commentary and Notes
(New York: Schocken Books, 1995).

Jacob dreamed

On Sunday, July 17th we read from the book of Genesis:

10    Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.

11    He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.

12    And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

13    And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring;

14    and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.

15    Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

16    Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

17    And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

18    So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.

19    He called that place Bethel. —Genesis 28:10-19a

How is this (Genesis 28) our story?

Consider these questions about Jacob’s dream.

  • Do you believe this story?
  • Do you think that God has ever spoken to “mere mortals” in dreams?
  • Do you think that God, to this day, uses dreams as one way to communicate with us?
  • Do you know anyone who has dreamed and in that dream has heard God? If yes, do you believe what you have heard from this person? What clue(s) did the person use to know it was of God?
  • Have you ever “heard” God in a dream? How did you know it was God?
  • When was the last time God spoke to you in a dream?

These are a few of the questions that occur to me as I hear Jacob’s story. In the Sunday Morning Forum we shared our answers to some of these questions. We invite you to share your answers here as we continue to live in the light of this reading from Genesis. –djr

For further consideration and reflection

Consider that Jacob encountered God (v. 13), “a very personal Being.” within his dream, and was transformed. Dreams are mysterious in their power because of the One who meets us there at just the right time. —djr

Nearly midway into life I had come into a dark woods, into a blind alley. I found my way out of that stalemate through an understanding of dreams. I worked with a Jungian analyst, a Jew who had escaped from a Nazi concentration camp. He believed that the Holy One still spoke to both sleeping and waking human beings in dreams in the silence of the day and in the night. With his help I discovered that my dreams were wiser than my well-tuned rational mind and that they gave me warnings when I was in danger. They also described in symbols the disastrous situations in which I found myself. These strange messengers of the night also offered suggestions on how to find my way out of my lostness. When I followed these symbolic suggestions, much of the darkness lifted, and my situation no longer seemed hopeless. Many of my psychological and physical symptoms of distress disappeared.

In addition to all this, I found a very personal Being at the heart of reality who cared for me; my theological dry bones were covered with sinew and flesh. And then, as I continued to listen to my dreams, I experienced the risen Christ in a way that I had not thought possible. And last of all, I realized that the Holy One continued to knock on the doorway of my inner being in my dreams even when I paid no attention to them, and he would also be waiting for me when I deliberately opened the door of my soul to the risen Christ. Prayer, contemplation, and meditation, then, became real and necessary aspects of my life as I journeyed toward fulfillment and wholeness.

Morton T. Kelsey, God, dreams, and revelation,
Kindle edition, Preface (search: stalemate)

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