Sunday, November 21, 2010

Jacob's Sophie's Choice

I've always found it puzzling why Jacob divided his camp into two parts so that "If Esau come to the one camp, and smite it, then the camp which is left shall escape." (Gen 32:8-9). This never made sense to me, since when the meeting with Esav is about to transpire, Jacob abandons this strategy. One commentator presumed that the division involved only his servants and property, and not his family. Of course, this creates its own problem, as it suggests that Jacob's primary concern was with preserving his wealth over the safety of his family.

So what is the new strategy? Jacob ranks his wives and children in order of his regard for them! Bilhah and Zilpah with their four sons are most at risk as they go to the front lines, then Leah with her six sons and daughter, and finally Rachel with Joseph (Gen. 33:2) at the rear. We are mostly not privy to the inner psychological world of biblical characters so we are free to assume that Jacob did this with much anguish, and possibly lived afterward with some guilt (probably not too much since everything eventually worked out well.) But just imagine your family having to face a presumed murderous enemy and your father puts you in the front of the line - not because you are the most capable of protecting the family, but because he loves you less than some of your siblings! That was how three of Jacob's wives and eleven (Dinah went in front of Joseph) of his children must have felt.

In general, the author(s) of the Genesis stories generally chose to leave the stories fraught with ambiguity, a style that allows for great embellishment and interpretation by later commentators. Unfortunately, this has often resulted in overly simplistic characterizations of both the villains and the heroes. Esav is looked at as intrinsically evil from birth (indeed even prenatally!), and he ultimately becomes the archetype for all of the historical evil perpetuated against the Jews. On the other hand, Jacob - and most of the "Jewish" heroes (forefathers/foremothers/tribal heads) - are often depicted as perfectly righteous beings on par (or even above) the level of angels. In both cases, apologetics - often as aggadic/midrashic glosses - serve to minimize either the positive qualities of the former (Esav's only redeeming quality - honoring his father - is often mitigated by claims that it was motivated by purely ulterior goals) or to suggest, for the latter, that what seem to be very blatant human flaws are in actuality deeds done for the sake of heaven, and at worst relatively minor mistakes that are judged more severely because of the greatness of the personalities involved. A recent example that comes to mind is Reuven sleeping with Jacob's concubine, Bilhah, which is reinterpreted as an "as if". That is, interfering with Jacob's sleeping arrangements after numero uno wife Rachel died was done to preserve his mother Leah's honor, but is treated by the Torah "as if" he slept with Bilhah. The earliest commentary on this story, however - Jubilees 33 - understood Reuben's misdeed literally.

It seems obvious that Jacob did not learn from the mistakes of his father, Isaac, who preferred Esav the hunter to Jacob the simple. (And it is not unreasonable to presume other family dysfunction in a family headed by a man who was almost sacrificed by his father. There is certainly no indication that he and Abraham had any kind of personal relationship after this event.)

Jacob repeats the mistake by showing preference to one son, Joseph, the first born of the woman he truly loved. (As an aside, note that the Torah suggests that Jacob was initially attracted to Rachel for a very understandable yet superficial reason - basically she was pretty hot!) We are all well aware of the tragic results of this preferential behavior, regardless of the "after-the-fact necessity" for the progression of Jewish history - or at least the mythos that surround it.

Jacob is like the woman who - abused as a child - ends up with an abusive spouse. Both are victims of a traumatic upbringing and caught up in a self-destructive cycle. Jacob doesn't seem to learn this lesson even at the end of his life when he gives preference to the younger child of Joseph.

The Choir Apologia may be singing fortissimo by now, but I find the Torah infinitely more meaningful when the heroes are viewed as having the same strengths and flaws as "ordinary" human beings. And doesn't moral ambiguity make for far more interesting analyses and lively discussions?


G*3 said...

I think that the commentaries flatten Biblical characters because they see everyone as either an Evil Villain or a Righteous Hero. The biblical characters, like most mythical characters, are archetypical, but the commentators have the wrong archetypes. Eisav is a Hunter/Warrior, and Yaakov is a Trickster. And while Yaakov is clearly the hero of the story and Eisav the villain, Yaakov is not particularly Righteous and Eisav is not particularly Evil.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps some of the literal interpretations of this story make the characters too one-dimensional. But don't you feel the next parsha, Vayeishev, is full of unflattering and unwashed stories of Torah heroes, for example Judah and Tamar?

taco said...

1. The two camp split: Perhaps all non-relevant personnel (i.e., non-family) were sent to a second camp so as not to be put in danger. Jacob, though, had to take his family to meet Esav.

2. The order: I don't think it was a matter of putting the "red-shirts" first in the line of danger. If Esav and his 400 men were going to go all Kill Bill on Jacob, no one would stand a chance. This seemed more of a ceremonial thing, and we know that in those days it was normal that maidservants were on a lower level. Rachel was last perhaps out of love or perhaps because her kids were younger.

Frum Heretic said...

There is no indication as to the composition of the two camp division. Your guess is as good as anyone else.

As for the order, if this were merely a ceremonial thing then it is all backwards. Jacob would not have introduced his maidservant before his wife. Common protocol today - and I suspect also in ancient societies - is to introduce the person of highest rank first.

taco said...

Regarding the two camp division, unless they regrouped to meet Esav, we are only told of Esav meeting the group with the family.

Regarding the order, it seems that Par'oh meets the brothers before meeting Yaakov. Maybe that is protocol.