Wrestling with God - Part 1

"Jacob was one of the sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob was favored by his mother while his brother Esau was favored by his father. When Isaac was close to death, he asked Esau to hunt and kill some wild game for him to eat with the promise that when he returned, Issac would bless him. The Old Testament blessings of a father included promising words of inheritance and prophesying of the future. While Esau was out hunting, Rebekah helped Jacob disguise himself and he tricked Isaac into giving him the blessing instead. When Esau returned home and discovered that Jacob had received their fathers blessing, and the large inheritance, Esau determined to kill Jacob. Jacob fled and lived in Laban for 20 years before deciding to return home and restore peace with his brother Esau. It was on that return journey that Jacob wrestles with God."

Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, gave birth to twins. The twins, even in her womb, were struggling. Of course, the story is that they were struggling for dominance—the younger against the older. Jacob means ‘usurper.’ Rebekah had a vision from God that said that Jacob would supplant Esau. And so, even before her twins were born, they were in a state of competition.

That’s a recapitulation of the motif of the hostile brothers. It’s a common mythological motif. We already saw that, really well developed, in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain and Abel were, essentially, the first two human beings—the first two natural-born human beings. They are instantly locked in a state of enmity, which is symbolic of, first, the enmity that exists within people’s psyche—between the part of them that you might say is aiming at the light, and the part of them that’s aiming at the darkness.

My experience of people—especially when you get to know them seriously, or when they’re dealing with serious issues—is that there is a part of them that’s striving to do well in the world, or even to do good, and another part that’s deeply cynical and embittered, that says ‘to hell with it,’ is self-destructive, lashes out, and really aims at making things worse. So that seems to be a natural part of the human psyche. That’s also reflected in the idea of the Fall. Those ideas are not easily cast away. They’re associated with the rise of self-consciousness, in the story of the Garden of Eden. I think that’s right, because I do think that our self-consciousness produces that division within us. More than any other creature, we’re intensely aware of our finitude and suffering. That seems to turn us, to some degree, against Being itself.

The idea that we can be easily turned against Being and work for its destruction is a really common theme. It never goes away. You see it echoed in stories—like with the new Marvel series, for example, you see the enmity between Thor and Loki, or between Batman and the Joker, or between Superman and Lex Luthor. There’s these pairs of hero against villain that’s a really dramatic and easily—everyone can understand that dynamic. It’s a basic plot. The reason it’s a basic plot is because it’s true of the battle within our own individual spirits. It’s true within families, because sibling rivalry can be unbelievably brutal. It’s true between human beings who are strangers. It’s true between groups of people. It’s true at every level of analysis. And then, in some sense, it’s archetypally true, at least with regards to deep religious symbolism, because you see that echoed in many stories, as well. I think the clearest representation is probably Christ and Satan. That’s the closest to a pure archetype—although, in the old Egyptian stories, there’s Osiris and Seth, or Horus and Seth. Seth is a precursor to Satan, etymologically. So it’s a very common motif.

That’s what happens, again, in Rebekah’s womb. This idea is played out right away. The twins have a superordinate destiny, because one of them is destined to become the father of Israel. Of course, that’s a pinnacle moment in the Old Testament, obviously—and, arguably, a pinnacle moment in human history. Now, the degree to which the stories in the Old Testament actually constitutes what we would consider empirical history is a matter of debate. But it doesn’t matter, in some sense, because—as I mentioned, I think, before, in this lecture series—there are forms of fiction that are meta-true, which means that they’re not necessarily about a specific individual. But they’re more real than reality itself, because they abstract out the most relevant elements of reality and present them to you. That’s why you watch fiction.

You want your fiction boiled down, right? You want to boil it down to the essence. That’s what makes good fiction. That essence is something that’s truer than plain old truth, if it’s handled well. Half a lifetime of events can go by in a Shakespeare play, and it covers a wide range of scenes, and so on. And so it’s cut and edited and compressed all at once, but, because of that, it blasts you with the kind of emotional and ethical force that just the mere videotaping of someone’s daily life wouldn’t even come close to approximating. This motif of the hostile brothers is a archetypal truth.

God says to Rachel, "two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger."

So there’s an inversion, there, because, as we’ve discussed, historically speaking and traditionally speaking, it’s the elder son to whom the disproportionate blessings flow. There’s some truth in that, too, even more empirically. IQ tends to decrease as the number of children in the family increases. The oldest is the smartest, generally speaking. It isn’t clear why that is, but it might be that they get more attention.

Isaac and Rebekah are at odds about the children. There’s an Oedipal twist to it, too. Isaac is allied with Esau, who turns out to be the hunter type. So he’s your basic rough-and-tumble character. He’s kind of a wild-looking guy; he’s hairy; he likes to live outside; he likes to hunt; he’s a man’s man. Whereas Jacob dwells in tents. He doesn’t go outside much. Maybe he’s more introverted, but he’s certainly the sort of adolescent who hangs around home. There’s some intimation—well, he’s clearly his mother’s favourite, with all the advantages—and, I suppose, the disadvantages—that go along with that. Isaac and Rebekah don’t see eye to eye about who should have predominance among the sons. Rebekah is quite complicit with Jacob in inverting the social order.

The first thing that happens that’s crooked is that Esau comes in from hunting, and maybe he’s been out for a number of days, and he’s ravenous. He’s kind of an impulsive guy. He doesn’t really seem to think about the long-term very much. Jacob was cooking some lentil stew, and Esau wants some of it. Jacob refuses, and says that he’ll trade his stew for Esau’s birthright. Esau agrees, which is a bad deal. You could say that Esau actually deserves what’s coming to him, although, at minimum, you’d have to think of them both as equally culpable. It’s a nasty trick. So that’s Jacob’s first trick.

The second trick comes later. Isaac is old, blind, and close to death. It’s time for him to bestow a blessing on his sons, which is a very important event, apparently, among these ancient people. Esau, again, is out hunting. Rebekah puts a goatskin on Jacob’s arms, so he’s kind of hairy like Esau, and dresses him in Esau’s clothes, so he smells like Esau. Isaac tells Esau to go out and hunt him up some venison, which is a favourite of his. Rebekah has Jacob cook up a couple of goat kids, and serve that to Isaac, and to play the role of Esau. And so he does that.

It’s pretty damn nasty, really, all things considered, to play a trick like that, both on your brother and on your blind father, and in collusion with your mother. It’s not the sort of thing that’s really designed to promote a lot of familial harmony—especially because he already screwed over Esau in a big way.

So, anyways, he’s successful. Esau loses his father’s blessing. Jacob ends up, really, in the position of the firstborn. It’s quite interesting because God tells Rebekah that Jacob is going to be the dominant twin. You’d think, again, with God’s blessing—or at least the prophecy—that Jacob would end up being a good guy, but he’s certainly not presented that way, to begin with, which is also quite interesting, given that he’s the eventual founder of Israel. It’s another indication of the realism of these old stories. You’d think that, even if you’re even the least bit cynical, especially if you had the kind of Marxist, ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’ viewpoint—which is a credible viewpoint, although it’s wrong. I think it’s a shallow interpretation. Part of the reason I think it’s a shallow interpretation is because the stories would be a lot prettier, if that was the case. The characters wouldn’t have this strange, realistic moral ambiguity about them. If you’re going to feed people a fantasy, then you want it to be like a Harlequin novel, or a greeting card, or something like that. You don’t want it to be a story that’s full of betrayal and deceit and murder and mayhem and genocide, and all of that. That just doesn’t seem all that calming.

So, anyways, Jacob gets away with this, but Esau is not happy. Jacob is quite convinced that Esau might kill him. That was a reasonable fear, because Esau was a tough guy, and he was used to being outside, and he knew how to hunt, and he knew how to kill, and he actually wasn’t very happy about getting seriously screwed over by his stay-at-home younger brother, twice. And so Jacob runs off, and goes to visit his uncle. On the way—and this is a very interesting part of the story—he stops to sleep, and he takes a stone for a pillow, and then he has this vision. It’s called a dream, but the context makes it look like a vision of a ladder reaching up to heaven, with angels moving up and down the ladder.

"And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south…"

So that lays out the canonical directions. Now there’s a center, with the canonical directions, like the little symbol that you see on maps. It’s the same thing, symbolically placed upon the earth. A center has been established, with directional lines radiating from it. That establishes it as a place.

"…and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." That’s pretty good news, for Jacob. It’s not self-evident why God is rewarding him for running away after screwing over his brother. But that seems to be what happens.

Here’s a couple of classic representations. The one on the right is William Blake. It’s one I particularly like. Blake assimilates God with the sun, and with light. That’s quite a common mythological idea, that God is associated with light, and with the day.

"And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid"—which is exactly the right response—"and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

"And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.”

Up until this point in the story, there isn’t anything that’s really emerged to mark a sacred space. There’s no cathedral; there’s no church. There’s nothing like that. But here’s this idea that emerges: you can mark the center of something, and that’s important, and you mark it with a stone. A stone is a good way to mark things that are important, because a stone is permanent. We mark things with stones, now—we mark graves with stones, for example—because we want to make a memory. To carve a stone, and to carve something into stone, is to make a memory. To use stone is to make a memory, because stone is permanent. To set it upright is to indicate a center. That’s what happens, and he pours oil on the top of it, which is a kind of offering.

"And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, then a tenth of what I earn I will give him."

That’s interesting, too, because now there’s a transformation of sacrifice. Until that point, sacrifices had been pretty concretized: it was the burning of something. Here, all of a sudden, it’s the offering of productive labour per se, like a tithe. A tithe is a form of sacrifice, and so there’s an abstraction of the idea of sacrifice. Because it should be abstracted to the point where it’s used the way that we use it today, which is that we make sacrifices to get ahead, and everyone understands what that means. But the sacrifices are, generally, some combination of psychological and practical.

We’re not acting sacrifices out, precisely: we’re not dramatizing or ritualizing them. We actually act them out in the covenant that we make with the future. Unless we’re incredibly impulsive and aimless in our lives, and have no conception whatsoever of the future, and are likely to sacrifice the future for the present—which is what Esau does—then we make sacrifices. You gotta think that the idea of making sacrifices, to make the future better, is an extraordinarily difficult lesson to learn. It took people God only knows how long to learn that. We have no idea. It’s not something that animals do easily. Chimpanzees don’t store leftover meat, and neither do wolves. You’re not saving it for later. They can’t do that. They can’t sacrifice the present for the future. This is a big deal, that this happens.

To be continued...

#religion #philosophy #ideas #psychology

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