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Questioning God

Genesis Chapter 28: 10-22

Jacob’s Dream. Giorgio Vasari  (1511–1574)  Wikimedia Commons

Although in Jewish liturgy, God is referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, says Leon Kass, the former chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics, the people who follow Him are known as the descendants only of Jacob (that is: the Children of Israel). So significant is Jacob for Israel that fully half of Genesis’s fifty chapters are dedicated to him: an intriguing partiality in the Jewish people’s Foundational Literature.


Genesis tells a story in which Jacob is courageous and clever, but at the same time, there is an implicit condemnation of unethical conduct. Israeli philosopher and political theorist Yoram Hazony reasons that this is a complex man who refuses the hand he has been dealt and is willing to take enormous risks to try to improve things for himself and his posterity; an attitude that more times than one puts him on the run.


On one such occasion, he finds himself spending the night in an open field some 14 miles north of Jerusalem. There he has a dream in which God says to him:

'I am the Lord, the God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac. The land whereon you are lying, I give to you and your descendants. And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south. And in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. I will be with you, protect you wherever you go, and bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Awakening from his sleep

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 so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house, and of all that You shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto You.'

If there has ever been an example of shameless audacity (otherwise known as “chutzpah”) in the TaNaKh, here it is. After all desired conditions have been already unqualifiedly promised, Jacob makes a vow to accept the Lord as his god… with conditions.


His mindset, as Dr. Kass imagines it, is thinking: Will God be able to deliver His promises? How can I be sure? Am I right to trust dream promises? What if they are mere projections of my wishes? Let’s wait and see what transpires; if the Lord does deliver on His dream promises, then He will indeed be my God.


In noting that Jacob’s character emerges from the Genesis anecdotes as that of a trickster, Susan Niditch, a Biblical scholar at Amherst College in Massachusetts, comments that, as in all trickster tales, there is a lack of respect for authority. Jacob has defied the authority of his father, his elder brother, his maternal uncle and father-in-law, and, ultimately, the authority of God.


This is not atypical in Israel’s story. “Nearly all the principal figures throughout the biblical corpus,” says Dr. Hazony, “are esteemed for their dissent, and disobedience Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and other biblical figures are at times portrayed as resisting not only man but God himself.”


The TaNaKh then, not known for painting its heroes perfect, throws the spotlight on Jacob’s qualities that make for survival. If there is a theme that sums up Jacob’s life pattern as well as the one of his descendants, says American psychoanalyst Dorothy Zeligs, it is: striving.


God, says Hazony, admires and cherishes those who defy the decree of history and who dare to better things for themselves and their families in ways that conflict with the order that has been created for them by king and state, by their fathers, by God himself. Indeed, we are to understand that it is just such individuals who gain God’s blessing.

Rabbi Moshe Pitchon