Biblical Series XIV: Jacob: Wrestling with God by Dr. Jordan Peterson
The last time I was here—many of you were here, as well—we got halfway through the story of Jacob. I’ve been digging underneath the story sporadically, since then, to try to find out what other themes are being developed. I’ve got some things that I think are really interesting to talk about. So we’ll get right into it.
I’m going to review a little bit, first. We were talking about Jacob. I’ll re-update his biography a little bit, so that we can place ourselves in the proper context, before we go on. So his mother, Rebecca, 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, really. Jacob means ‘usurper.’ Rebecca 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 very, very, very 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. I think that’s a reasonable way of portraying it. Obviously, it’s a way that’s sort of rife with symbolism.
My experience of people—especially when you get to know them seriously, or when they’re dealing with serious issues—is that there is, quite clearly, 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.
I was watching a bunch of protestors in the U.S., last week, scream at the sky about Trump. It was interesting. I thought it was an extraordinarily narcissistic display. But, despite that, there’s something symbolically appropriate about it. A movie I really like—sadly enough—called FUBAR…I don’t know how many of you have seen that. Hah. Yeah, you know that movie, I take it. It’s about the people I grew up with. That’s true, man. I’m telling you, that’s true. The main actor in FUBAR, who’s quite bright but completely uncivilized, gets testicular cancer. There’s one great scene where he gets far too drunk, and he’s stumbling around the street in a virtually comatose state. Of course, he’s not very thrilled with what’s happened to him. He’s shaking his fist at the sky, and it’s pouring rain, and he’s cursing God. You can kind of understand his position. That kind of reminded me of these people who were yelling at the sky. They were dramatizing the idea of being enraged at—well, you can say ‘God.’ Of course, most of them wouldn’t say that. But they were the ones yelling at the damn sky. I mean, you gotta look at what they’re doing, rather than what they say. They were outraged that Being was constructed such that Trump could have arisen as President.
Well, this 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. That’s a good example of the same thing—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, right? 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, very common motif.
That’s what happens, again, in Rebecca’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. Although, I do generally think they are based on the lives of specific individuals. It’s the simplest theory, but who knows. 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 deep, deep 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. Who knows. So those of you who are younger can be very unhappy about that fact.
Ok, so there’s another plot line, too. Isaac and Rebecca 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. That’s one way of thinking about it. 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 Rebecca don’t see eye to eye about who should have predominance among the sons. Rebecca 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, right? It’s 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. Rebecca 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. Rebecca 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. You’d think that would be sufficient.
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 Rebecca 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. It’s always been quite amazing, to me, how unprettified these stories have remained. 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. I think 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, let’s say. There’s some representations of that. I showed you some of them the last time we met. But I’ll read it to you, first.
"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, right? 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." That’s a more important thing than you’d think, and we’ll go into that a little more deeply.
Up until this point in the story, there isn’t anything that’s really emerged to mark a sacred space, right? 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. It’s really important that the idea of sacrifice gets abstracted, right? 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. A wolf can eat about 30 pounds of meat in one sitting. That’s where the idea of ‘wolfing it down’ comes from. 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.
Now I want to tell you a little bit about the idea of the pillar. It’s an unbelievably deep idea. It still orients us in ways that we don’t understand. In fact, it’s actually the mechanism by which we’re oriented—and, if it’s lacking, then we become disoriented. First, I’ll show you some pictures, and I’ll describe them.
Ok, so there’s a walled city. You can think of that as an archetypal human habitation. Maybe it’s a reflection of something like a fire in the middle of the plain, forest, or jungle—although, it’s kind of hard to get a fire going, there. Imagine a fire ringed around with logs and, perhaps, ringed around with dwellings, so the fire’s in the center. The fire defines the center, and then, as you move away from the fire, you move out into the darkness. The fire is light, communion, and safety. As you move away from the fire, you move out, into the darkness, and into what’s terrifying, out beyond the perimeters.
You can feel that if you go camping somewhere that’s wild. You’re pretty damn happy, especially if the wolves are howling, to be sitting by the fire, because you can see, there. The fire keeps the animals away, and, if you do wander into the bush and the darkness, you’re on alert. Your predator detection systems are on alert. And so you could think about the classical human habitation as two places: one where your predator detection system isn’t on alert, and another where your predator detection is on alert. You could think about that, roughly, as the distinction between explored territory and unexplored territory. Really, the founding of a place is precisely—a lot of this I got from reading Mircea Eliade—the definition of an explored center, set against the unexplored periphery.
You can kind of think about that with regards to the walled city: everything within the wall is cosmos, and everything outside the wall is chaos. But it also extends to the conceptual realm. Imagine that you’re the master of a field of study. That’s an interesting metaphor, because a ‘field’ is a geographical metaphor, right? In the center of the field are those things that everyone knows really well—the axioms that everyone abides by, in the field. And then, as you move towards the fringes, you get towards the unknown—towards the frontier of the discipline. As you become expert, you move from the center to the frontier. When you’re a competent scholar, you’re on the border between the explored and the unexplored. You’re trying to further that border. So, even if you’re doing this abstractly, it’s the same thing. It’s a reflection of the fact that every human environment—concrete or abstract, it makes no difference—recapitulates the order-chaos dichotomy. That’s why Daoism, for example, is the union of chaos and order that constitutes Being itself, and that you stand on the border between chaos and order, because that’s the proper place to be. Too orderly, too much in the explored, and you’re not learning anything. Too much out there, where the predators lurk, then you’re frozen with terror. Neither of those positions are desirable.
So you think—and this is a concrete reality, obviously, as well as a psychological reality—there were reasons for those walls. Inside the walls were all the people like us. That begs the question, what does it mean for people to be ‘like us?’ And then, outside the wall, there was all those people—because people are actually the worst forms of predators—who aren’t like us. The wall is there to draw distinction between ‘like us’ and ‘not like us.’ That was a matter of life and death. You can tell that because—I mean, look at those walls. They had to build those by hand. And you do see walled cities that have three rings of walls. So these people were terrified, but not so terrified as the people who built three walls. They were really terrified, and they had their reasons.
There’s an idea that’s reflected in the Jacob’s Ladder story: the center, where you put the pillar, is also the place where heaven and earth touch. That’s a complicated idea. I’m trying to look at these stories from a psychological perspective. So then you could say that that’s a symbolic place where the lowest and the highest come together. It’s a place where earthly Being stretches up to the highest possible ethical abstraction, and that’s the center. One of the things that defines ‘us,’ say, as opposed to ‘them,’ is that we’re all united within a certain ethic. That’s what makes us the same. This is a complicated line of reasoning. I’ll go back to it after I show you some more pictures. But the first idea is that the center is the place where the lowest and the highest touch simultaneously. You could say that, in some sense, it specifies the aim of a group of people.
If you get together with people to make a group, you group yourself around a project, and that unites you. It unites you because you all have the same aim; you’re all pointing to the same thing. That makes you the same, in some ways. If you’re after the same thing that I am, then the same things are going to be important to you that are important to me. And the same things are going to be negative to you that are negative to me, because our emotions work out that way. That means I can instantly predict you; I know how you’re going to behave. And so our aim is basically ethical, because we’re aiming at something better, at least in principle. It’s our ethical aim that unites our perceptions, and that’s what aligns our emotions. That begs the question, if you’re going to build a community, around what aim should the community congregate?
Ok, so the idea, here, is that the center of the community is the pillar that unites heaven and earth—it unites the lowest with the highest. There’s some intimation of the idea that it’s the highest that unites the community. Keep that in mind. That’s a very old idea, as well. That’s the idea of the axis mundi, which is the center pole that unites heaven and earth. It’s an unbelievably old idea—tens of thousands of years old. It might even stretch back to whatever our archaic, archetypal memories of our excessively old ancestry in trees—when the tree itself was, in fact, the center of the world, and it was ringed by snakes and chaos. We have no idea how old these ideas are, but they’re very, very old.
Evolution is a conservative business. Once it builds a gadget, then it builds new things on top of that gadget. It’s like a medieval town: the center of the town is really old, and newer areas of the town get built around it, but the center is still really old. That’s what we’re like. Our platform, our basic physiological structure, this skeleton body, is some tens of millions of years old—or older than that. If you think about vertebrates, it’s much older than that. That’s all conserved. So everything’s built on top of everything else.
There’s kind of a classic town. This is the same idea as the Scandinavian world tree. It unites heaven and earth, and around the roots of that tree are snakes that eat this tree, constantly. So that’s the idea that there’s stability, but there’s constant transformation around that stability. And, at the same time as the snakes are gnawing on the roots, there are streams that are nourishing it. It’s sort of an echo of the idea that life depends on death and renewal, constantly. Your cells are dying and being renewed, constantly. If they’re just proliferating, then you have cancer. If they’re just dying, then you die. You have to get the balance between death and life exactly right, so that you can actually live—which is also a very strange thing. That tree is something that reaches from the bottom layers of Being—maybe the microcosm—all the way to the macrocosm. That’s the idea, anyways.
There’s Jacob and his pillar. He’s got this idea that you can mark the center with this stone. It sort of symbolizes what he was laying on when he dreamt. But now he’s got this idea—you put something erect, and it marks the center. It symbolizes his vision of the highest Good—something like that—and the promise that’s been made to him.
This image on the right is an Egyptian obelisk, with a pyramid on top of it. That’s in Paris. It was taken from Luxor and put in Paris. That’s a much more sophisticated instance of the same idea. There was a stone age culture across Eurasia that put up these huge obelisks, everywhere. Stonehenge is a very good example of that, although it’s very sophisticated. They were also markers of places. We don’t know exactly what their function is, but they’re very much akin to this—some permanent marker of place.
There’s a good one. That’s in Saint Peter’s. I really like this one because you can see the echoes of Jacob’s vision for the establishment of a territory, there. You’ve got the obelisk in the middle, and then you’ve got the directions radiating from the center. Of course, this is Saint Peter’s Basilica, in Rome, which is an absolutely unbelievable place. It’s just jaw-dropping. So there’s the cathedral at the back of it, and then there’s this circle of pillars that surrounds it. You can just see them a little bit, on the middle-left, there. That goes all the way around that entire enclosure. A very large number of people can gather there. So that pillar marks the center, and that would be the center of Catholicism, essentially. That’s what that represents: the symbolic center of Catholicism. Although, you could make the case that the cathedral is the center. It doesn’t really matter; they’re very close together. It’s half a dozen of one and six of the other.
Here’s another representation of the same idea, right? This is why people don’t like the flag to be burned. Conservative people see the flag as the sacred thing that binds people together. They’re not happy when that sacred thing is destroyed, even if it’s destroyed in the name of protest. Whereas the people who burn flags think, well, there’s times to dramatize the idea that the center has been corrupt, and you can demonstrate that by putting it to the torch, as a representation that the corrupt center now has to be burned and transformed.
The thing is, they’re both right. They’re both right, all the time. The center is absolutely necessary, and is sacred, and is almost always also corrupt and in need of reparation. That’s also an archetypal idea. That’s a useful thing to know, because it’s easy for young people, in particular, to think that, ‘well, the world’s gone to hell in a hand basket. It’s the fault of the last generation. They’ve left us this terrible mess. We’re feeling pretty betrayed about that, and now we have to clean it up.’
Yeah, yeah—people have been thinking that for like 35,000 years. It’s not new. The reason it’s not new is because it’s always true. What you’re handed is a sacred center with flaws—always. That’s partly because it’s the creation of the dead, and the dead can’t see, and they can’t communicate. They’re not in touch with the present. What they’ve bequeathed to you—apart from the fact that it might actually be corrupt, which is a slightly different thing—is at least blind and dead. So what the hell can you expect from something that’s blind and dead? You’re lucky it doesn’t just stomp you out of existence.
That’s a lovely photograph, obviously. That’s the establishment of a new center. The center can be a cathedral, too, and often is. Of course, in classic towns, and in European towns, in particular—although, it’s not only European towns that are like this—there’s a center that’s made out of stone, so that would be the cathedral, and it’s got the highest tower. On top of the tower, there’s often a cross, and that’s the symbolic center. People are drawn together around whatever the cross represents. The cross obviously represents a center, because it’s an X, right? X marks the spot. So the center of the cross is the center, and then the cathedral’s often in a cross shape, which also marks the center. In a cathedral, there’s often a dome, and that’s the sky, and that’s a ladder that reaches from earth to heaven. So it’s a recapitulation of the same idea.
People are drawn to that center, and the center is the symbol of what unites them. What unites them is the faith that the cathedral is the embodiment of. You’d think, ‘well, what does the faith mean?’ Again, we’re approaching this psychologically. What it means is that everyone who’s a member of that group accepts the transcended ideal of the group. Now, the thing is, if you’re the member of a group, you accept the transcendent ideal of the group. That’s what it means to be a member of a group. So if you’re in a work team, and you’re all working on a project, what you’ve essentially done is decided that you’re going to make the goal unquestionable. I mean, you might argue about the details, but if you’re tasked with something—‘here’s a job for you ten people. Organize yourself around the job’—you can argue about how you’re going to do the job, but you can’t argue about the job, because then the group falls apart.
There’s an active faith, in some sense. The reason that the active faith is necessary is because it’s very, very difficult to specify, without error, what that central aim should be, given that there’s any number of aims. It’s a very, very difficult thing to figure out. This is something we’re going to do a little bit, tonight. What should the aim be around which a group would congregate? Especially if it’s a large group, and it’s a large group that has to stay together across very large swaths of time, and the group is incredibly diverse. What possible kind of ideal could unite a large group of diverse people across a very large stretch of time? That’s a really, really, hard question. I think part of the way that question has been answered is symbolically, and in images, because it’s so damn complicated that it’s almost impossible to articulate.
But, obviously, you need to have a center around which everyone can unite. If you don’t, then everyone’s at odds with one another: if I don’t know what you’re up to, and you don’t know what he’s up to, we’re just strangers, and we don’t know that our ethics match, at all. The probability that we’re going to be able to exist harmoniously decreases, rapidly, to zero. That’s obviously just no good. That’s a state of total chaos. So we can’t have that. It’s not possible to exist without a central idea. It’s not possible.
It’s deeper than that, partly because it’s…I’ll try to get this right. This is the sort of thing that I was arguing with Sam Harris about. Your category system is a product if your aims. That’s the thing. If you have a set of facts at hand, the facts don’t tell you how to categorize the facts, because there’s too damn many facts. There’s a trillion facts, and there’s no way, without imposing some a priori order on them, of determining how it is that you should order them. So how do you order them? Well, that’s easy: you decide what you’re aiming at. Now, how do you do that? Well, I’m not answering that question, at the moment. I’m just saying that, in order to organize those facts, you need an aim. Then the aim instantly organizes the facts into those things relevant to the aim—tools, let’s say—those things that get in the way, and a very large number of things that you don’t have to pay attention to, at all.
If you’re working on an engineering problem, you don’t have to worry about practicing medicine in your neighbourhood. Focusing on any job, any set of skills, implies that you’re good at a small set of things, and then not good at an incredibly large number of other skills. It simplifies things. So you can use your aim as a basis of a category structure. You also have to keep that in mind, because what it means is that your category system itself—which is what structures your perceptions—is actually dependent on the ethics of your aim. It’s a moral thing. It’s directly dependent on your aim. That’s a stunning idea, if it happens to be true.
That’s not how people think about thinking. We don’t think that way. We think that we think deterministically, let’s say, or that we think empirically, or that we think rationally. None of that appears to be the case. What we do is posit a valid aim, and then we organize the world around the aim. There’s plenty of evidence for that in psychological studies of perception. Mostly they ignore, because the world’s too complicated. They focus on a small set of phenomena, deemed relevant to whatever the aim is. Of course, the aim is problematic. Again, it’s complex, because the aim I have has to be an aim that some of you share or at least don’t object to. Otherwise, I’m not going to get anywhere with my damn aim. It has to actually be implementable in the world. It has to be sustainable across some amount of time. It can’t kill me. It’s really hedged in, this aim. It isn’t any old thing. There’s hardly any things that it can be.
Jacob’s aim, for example, in undermining Esau, almost gets him killed. You can understand why—that’s the other thing. That was a nasty bit of work; you can understand Esau’s rage. Even though we’re separated from the people in these stories by something like 4,000 years, you know immediately why everyone feels the way they do, at least once you understand the context of the story. None of that’s mysterious, in the least.
So there’s the church, and the church is underneath the cross. That’s Saint Peter’s Basilica. There’s the cross on the globe, on top of the basilica, and then there’s the cross on the obelisk, as well. And so what that means is that—and this is where things get insanely complicated—the center is defined by whatever the cross represents. Now, the cross represents a crossing point, geographically. It’s certainly that. The cross probably represents the body, to some degree. But the cross also represents the place of suffering—and, more importantly, it represents the place of voluntary suffering transcended. I’m speaking psychologically, not theologically. That’s what it represents.
Here’s the idea behind putting down the obelisk with the cross and saying that’s the center. That’s the thing that everyone’s aiming at, and so the idea would be, well, if you’re going to be a member of the group, defined by this obelisk, then what you do is accept your position at the center of suffering, voluntarily, and therefore transcend it. That’s the idea. That is one hell of an idea. It really is, man. That is a killer idea. It’s actually a really clear signal of psychological health.
If you’re a clinical psychologist and someone is paralyzed by fear, one of the things you do is break their fears down into relatively manageable bits, and then you have them voluntarily confront their fears. It might also be things that they’re disgusted by, say, if they have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. But it produces very strong negative emotion, whatever it is. Then you have them voluntarily confront whatever it is that produces that overwhelming negative emotion. That makes them stronger. That’s what happens. It doesn’t make them less afraid. It makes them more courageous and stronger. That’s not the same thing. It doesn’t decrease the fear; it increases the courage. That’s a mind boggling idea.
One of the things that’s really interesting about these archetypal ideas is that—and maybe it’s partly because of the hyperlinked nature of the Bible, but it’s not the whole thing—no matter how deep you dig into them, you’ll never get to the bottom. You hit a bottom, and you think, ‘God, that’s so unbelievably profound.’ And then, if you excavate a little underneath that, you find something else that’s even more profound. And then you think, ‘wow, that’s gotta be the bottom.’ And then you dig under that, and there’s no bottom. You can just keep digging down. As far as I can tell, you can keep digging down, layer after layer. We’ll talk a little more about what the cross signifies, as the center.
People were trying to figure out what they need to unite under. What’s the proper thing to unite under? I can give you another example. In the Mesopotamian societies, the emperor, who was more or less an absolute monarch, lived inside what was essentially a walled city. The God of the Mesopotamians was Marduk, and Marduk was the figure who had eyes all the way around his head, and he spoke magic words. He was very attentive and very articulate. It was Marduk who went out and confronted the Goddess of chaos—the dragon of chaos—cut her into pieces, and made up the world.
You can kind of understand what that means. Marduk goes beyond the frontier, into the place of predatory chaos, and encounters the thing that’s terrifying, and then makes something productive out of it. So it’s a hero myth. Marduk is elected to the position of preeminent God by all the other Mesopotamian gods because he manages that. So the Marduk idea emerges up the holy dominance hierarchy, and hits the pinnacle. God only knows how long that took. It would be the amalgamation of many tribes, and then the distillation of all the tribal myths, to produce this emergent story of what constitutes top God. And then the job of the emperor was to act out Marduk. That’s what gave him sovereignty.
The reason that he was the center around which people organized themselves—when he was being a proper emperor—wasn’t because there was something super special about him. The power didn’t exactly reside in him, which is a really useful thing to separate. It’s kind of nice to have a symbolic monarch. You get the symbolic power separated from the personality power. Otherwise, they get conflated. That’s what happened in Rome, and you can see it tending to happen now and then in the U.S., like with the Kennedy dynasties, and that sort of thing.
The idea was that the emperor had sovereignty as long as he was acting out the idea of Marduk properly—going out into the chaos, cutting it into pieces, and making order. That was his job. They used to take him outside the city, on the New Year’s festival, and strip him of all his emperor garments, and humiliate him, and then force him to confess all the ways that year that he hadn’t been a good Marduk—a good ruler. That was supposed to clue him in, and wake him up. Then they would ritually reenact the battle of Marduk against Tiamat, the chaos monster, using statues. If that all went well, then the emperor would go back in, and the city would be renewed for another year.
We still have echoes of that in our New Year’s celebration. It’s the same idea that’s echoed down all those thousands of years. It’s a staggeringly brilliant idea. Part of the idea is that the thing that’s sovereign—so that’s the pillar at the center, that everyone gathers around—is, at least in part, the thing that courageously goes out into the unknown and makes something useful out of it, for the community. That’s very, very smart.
So this is another example of the center. This is the Union Jack. It’s made up of a bunch of crosses. The first cross—the English cross—is the flag of Saint George. That’s the flag of England. What does Saint George do? He slays the dragon. Exactly. It’s the same idea, right? So Saint George, patron saint of England, goes out, slays the dragon, and frees the virgin from the grip of the dragon. Same idea. So that’s the center.
The second cross is called a saltire, but it’s another crucifix. It’s the cross on which Saint Andrew was crucified. It’s the same idea—the center is the center of suffering, voluntarily undertaken—because Saint Andrew was a martyr.
Saint Patrick is the third cross. What did Saint Patrick do in Ireland? He chased out all the snakes. Right. So it’s the same thing. So the flag of Great Britain is the combination of all these three crosses. That defines the center. That’s what the flag is. So that symbolizes all of that. That’s completely mind boggling.
There’s more about Saint Patrick, too. He banishes the snakes after a 40-day fast. That’s an allusion to the 40 years that Moses spends in the desert, and also the 40 days that Christ fasts in the New Testament. His walking stick, when he plants it, grows into a tree. So that echoes all of the ideas about the center that we just described. He also speaks with the ancient Irish ancestors, which, if you remember, is characteristic of the shamanic rituals.
In the typical shamanic ritual—it seems to be elicited by psychedelic use—the shaman dissolves down, past their bones. Then they go up into heaven, and they speak with their ancestors. Then they’re introduced into the heavenly kingdom. Then the flesh is put back on the their bones, and they come back and tell everybody what happened. That’s a repeatable experience. The shamanic experience is unbelievably widespread. All over ancient Europe and Asia, and perhaps as far down as South America, it’s highly conserved. It’s out of that tradition, in all likelihood, that our religious ideation emerged. You can see echoes of that, here.
Back to the story of Jacob and his ladder. "So that I can come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: and this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee."
That’s also an echo, I would say, of the obligation of those who climb the power hierarchy to attend to those who are at the bottom. If you think about the tithing as a form of wealth distribution, which is essentially what it is, part of the ethic that defines the proper moral endeavour, that’s related to that center, is not to advance yourself at the expense of the entire community. So if you’re fortunate enough to rise in authority and power and competence within the confines of a community, you still have an obligation to maintain and further the structure of the community within which you rose. That’s obvious, right? If people didn’t do that, after a couple of generations, the whole thing would fall apart. It’s not reasonable to destroy the game that you’re winning; it’s reasonable to strengthen the game that you’re winning. That also describes the ethic that should allow you to be an active member of the community that gathers around that center.
One of the things I’ve learned about the hero mythology, that I really, really like, is seen in the figure of Christ. Two things are conjoined in that story. There’s two kinds of heroes: There’s the hero that goes out into chaos, confronts the dragon of chaos, gathers the treasure as a consequence, and then shares it with the community. That’s one. The other form of hero is the hero who stands up against the corrupt state, rattles the foundation of the state, has it collapse, and then reconstructs it. The two great dangers to human beings are unprotected exposure to the catastrophes of the natural world and subjugation to tyranny. Those are the two major dangers. So the ultimate hero is the person who reconstructs the structure of the state by using the information that he gathered by going out into the unknown. That unites them both.
Here’s the rub, as far as I can tell. A structure, a center, has two risks associated with it: one is that it will degenerate into chaos, and the other is that it will rigidify into tyranny. It’ll degenerate into chaos even if it just stays doing what it’s doing. So if it just does exactly what it’s doing, and it doesn’t change, it will degenerate, because things change, and if it doesn’t change to keep up, then it gets farther and farther away from the environment, and it will precipitously collapse. And then, if it just changes willy-nilly, so that nobody can establish a stable, centralizing aim, then it degenerates into chaos immediately, and no one can get along.
There’s a rule for belonging to a community, and the rule has to be that you have to act in a manner that sustains the community and increases its competence. That’s the fundamental moral obligation for belonging—and obviously so. Why would you walk into a clubhouse that was on fire? That’s just not smart, right? If you decided that being part of the game was worthwhile, you’ve also decided—even if you didn’t notice it—that you have to work to support that game. By deciding to play that game, you said that it’s valuable. And if it’s valuable, then obviously you should work to sustain and expand it, because that’s the definition of having a relationship with something that’s valuable.
That’s the criteria for membership in the community. That’s partly why, if you regard the cross, say, as the symbol of voluntary suffering—there’s another element of that, too, that’s worth thinking about. The reason that Cain gets so out of hand is because he’s suffering, and he won’t accept it—he certainly won’t accept responsibility for it. He’s angry and bitter about it, and no wonder. We have to be realistic about these sorts of things. All of you people are going to suffer at some point in your life, to the point where you’re angry and bitter about it. There’s just absolutely no doubt about that. You’re even going to think, ‘well, it’s no bloody wonder that I’m angry and bitter about it—everyone would be—and things are so God-awful that there’s no excuse for them to even exist.’ That’s a powerful argument, although I think it’s ultimately self-defeating. That’s kind of the moral of the story of Cain and Abel.
What that symbol means, instead, is that, even under those conditions of relatively intense suffering, you have to accept it voluntarily. Otherwise, it turns you against Being, and then you start to act in this terrible manner that makes everything worse. It seems, to me, that there’s a contradiction, in there: if the reason that you’re complaining is that things are bad, then it isn’t reasonable for you to act in a manner that makes them worse. It’s no wonder that people do that, but it’s a degenerating game. Part of the idea of the cross—and the suffering that it represents—is that, if you could accept that voluntarily, regardless of its intensity, then you won’t become embittered and resentful and vengeful, to the point that you pose a danger to the stability of the community—or to your own stability, for that matter. It might be your own stability, the stability of your family, the stability of the community, and the stability of the world. It might be all of that. And, increasingly, I think it is all of that.
Now we get the second part of Jacob’s story. He goes to meet his uncle, Laban. He meets Rachel there—again, by a well. He falls in love, and goes to live with Laban. There are two daughters there: Leah and Rachel. Leah is not a particularly attractive person. It isn’t exactly clear why, but the story makes it quite clear: she’s definitely the least desirable of the two daughters. The story makes reference to her eyes, and it isn’t clear if there’s something wrong with her physiologically, or if there’s something wrong with her attitude. It’s not obvious, but it doesn’t really matter. The point is that she’s the older daughter, but she’s the less desirable one.
Jacob stays a month, which is the limit of hospitality, in that time. If you stayed for a month, you were welcome, but you had to work for your keep after, I think, three days—something like that—which seems rather reasonable. So he stays a month, and then he has a chat with Laban. He’s fallen in love with Rachel, by this time. He says, ‘I’ll stay with you and work for seven years, and then I’ll wed Rachel.’ Laban says, ‘that’s a fine deal.’
The seven years passes, and there’s a wedding ceremony. It’s quite a long thing, and the bride is veiled, and the bride goes into the tent, with Jacob. If I remember the story correctly—I haven’t looked at it for a month or so—Rachel is outside the tent, speaking, but Leah is inside the tent. And so Jacob thinks he’s getting married to Rachel, but he’s actually getting married to Leah. It’s an inversion, because he’s in the dark like Isaac was, when he fooled Isaac. Now it’s Jacob’s turn to be in the dark, and he gets betrayed by his uncle and his bride-to-be, Rachel, and her sister, in a manner that’s broadly parallel to the trick that he pulled on Esau.
There’s a karma notion, there, which I like. You might think of karma as a superstitious idea, and there are ways of interpreting it that might make it the case, but I don’t think that’s what it is. It’s that no bad deed goes unpunished. It’s something like that. Maybe you’ve done something bad to someone, and therefore there’s part of you that feels quite guilty about that—hopefully. That part is looking for punishment, to set the stage right. You might think, ‘well, no,’ but it’s ‘yes,’ unless you’re a psychopath. That’s how things work.
If you’re interested in that kind of thing, you should read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, because it’s the definitive study of that sort of phenomena. In that book, the main protagonist, Raskolnikov, gets away with murder. He does it successfully, and no one suspects him. He drives himself so crazy with guilt that he basically falls into the hands of the police—he drives himself into the hands of the police, because he can’t tolerate what he did. It’s an amazing book.
But, anyways, the point is that Jacob falls prey to the same sort of crookedness that he used to ratchet himself up the ladder. That happens far more often in life than people think. It’s really not like he can complain about it, right? Not if he has any sense. He brings Leah out to see Laban, and he says, ‘what’s with this sister?’ Laban basically says to him, ‘in our culture, it’s the custom to marry the eldest daughter first,’ which is exactly right. He’s rationalizing, obviously, because he’s just screwed over Jacob in a major way, but it’s a little late to take it back. The marriage has been consummated, and the ceremony has been complete, and all hell would break out if there was any attempt to severe the relationship. So that’s how it is. Leah’s married, and Jacob has the wrong wife.
This is Jacob, there, on the right. He’s got the little flowery hat, and he’s pointing to Leah, and he’s saying, ‘what’s up, here?’ Laban is a tough old goat, and he’s not really all that sad about it. In fact, you can imagine that he’s kind of laughing.
Then Jacob has to work another seven years, and he gains Rachel. But, because God is a tricky character, there’s another twist in this story: Rachel turns out not to be very good at having children, but Leah is really good at having kids. She provides Jacob with Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Reuben means ‘see! A son!’, Simeon means ‘hearing’—like ‘the Lord heard my prayer’—Levi means ‘joined,’ Judah means ‘praise to YHWH,’ and it’s Judah from which tribe Christ arises. Judah is essentially promoted to status of firstborn, later in the story, because Reuben, Simeon, and Levi all do something reprehensible. So Judah gets promoted to firstborn. That’s partly why, in the logic of this narrative, that it’s from the tribe of Judah that Christ arises.
While this is going on, Rachel is like suicidally desperate for children. She’s jealous of her older sister, who’s rather ill-favoured, as we pointed out, but seems to be damn good at producing sons. She’s really not happy with Jacob, and so she chews him out. Jacob basically says, ‘what do you want me to do about it? I’m not God,’ which is a reasonable response, I would say. In her desperation, she gives Bilhah, her maidservant, to Jacob. We’ve seen that sort of thing happen, before.
Bilhah produces two children, Dan and Naphtali. The details are important because Jacob is the founder of Israel, and his sons are the founders of the 12 tribes. It’s a pivotal moment in the story, because he’s the fundamental patriarch of ‘those who wrestle with God.’ As we’ll see, that’s what the name ‘Israel’ means. He gets the name ‘Israel.’ You’ll see why, in a while. You need to know these genealogies, in this situation, because they play an important role in everything that happens afterwards. Naphtali is the second, and his name means ‘with great wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, contended with her, and prevailed.’ That gives you come indication of the tension in the household.
Leah is now past bearing children. She gives Jacob her maidservant, Zilpah—to keep up with her sister, I guess. Zilpah bears two children for Jacob, so he’s piling up the kids left, right, and center, here. One of them is named Gad, meaning ‘good fortune,’ and the other is named Asher, meaning ‘happy’ or ‘blessed.’
There’s more rivalry going on between the sisters. This is quite an interesting little story. So Reuben, who’s Leah’s son, goes out looking for mandrakes. Now mandrakes have aphrodisiac properties, so that’s a little odd, to begin with. But it doesn’t matter; that’s what happens. Rachel wants the mandrakes because she’s still interested in having some children. She bargains with Leah to give her a night with Jacob in exchange for the mandrakes. More sons emerge as a consequence of that. Rachel finally gives birth, to Joseph. Joseph plays a key role in the last story in Genesis, which I hope to get to in the next lecture. Then we can close off Genesis. That’s the plan, anyways.
Jacob isn’t really very happy about the whole arrangement, because he’s been there 14 years. He’s got two wives. It’s not too bad, but the bargain wasn’t exactly clean. He doesn’t really trust Laban, and there’s no reason for him to do so. Laban was poor, before Jacob came. Jacob turns out to be a very useful person to have around. He tells Laban he wants to leave and go back to his home country, and that he’ll take the "speckled and spotted cattle, brown sheep, and spotted and speckled goats." They’re in the minority, and that’s the idea. Laban takes all those animals out of his flock.
There was an idea that the speckled goats and the brown sheep would breed true. If you have a male goat and a female goat, and they’re both speckled, they’ll have speckled kids. That’s the theory, and the same with brown sheep. So what Laban does is take all the speckled animals out of the flocks, gives them to his son, and they go three days away with them. Jacob is left with the flock, but with none of these animals. The idea was that all the newborns were going to be his, and so what Laban has basically done is set it up so that, in principle, Jacob is going to get nothing for his work. That’s another time when Jacob experiences betrayal. It’s almost as if God isn’t done with reminding him of the magnitude of what he did in the past. That’s the moral of the story, in some sense.
There’s a weird little twist in the story, here. What Jacob does is some sympathetic magic. When the animals are rutting, he puts speckled objects in front of them—speckled branches, and so forth—I guess to remind them about what they’re supposed to be producing. Something like that. It works, and all these animals that Laban left are producing spotted animals like mad. I guess God’s changed his mind, and let Jacob off the hook, slightly, here.
"Soon he was very wealthy (much cattle, maidservants, menservants, camel and asses.) Laban’s sons become jealous and Laban is outraged." Well, obviously there’s some competition, there, between Jacob and the sons, which is hardly surprising. Laban played this trick to strip Jacob of all his property, and, instead, Jacob got far more than he was going to get, to begin with. So you can imagine that’s kind of annoying. Jacob thinks he better get out of there.
Jacob calls Rachel and Leah: "And said unto them, I see your father’s countenance, that it is not toward me as before; but the God of my father hath been with me. And ye know that with all my power I have served your father. And your father hath deceived me, and changed my wages ten times; but God suffered him not to hurt me. If he said thus, The speckled shall be thy wages; then all the cattle bare speckled: and if he said thus, The ringstraked shall be thy hire; then bare all the cattle ringstraked. Thus God hath taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me."
"They decide to sneak away, but are unhappy with the lack of inheritance from Laban." As they sneak away, Rachel steals the idols that her father has in his house. It’s not exactly obvious why. There’s a lot of contention about why she’s doing that. It could be "as punishment; to bring with her the images of her ancestors"—maybe she’s lonesome, moving away from home—"just out of spite; to show him that the idols were actually powerless; for protection; to stop her father from divining the route of their escape."
That last one is the strangest one, because the idea would be that Laban would’ve used some sort of ritual, with the idols, that would help him infer their escape route, and then he could chase. Anyways, that’s the range of speculation about that. I think it sounds, to me, mostly like a little act of revenge—maybe with a bit of loneliness mixed in.
Laban pursues them, but God comes in a dream to tell him to leave Jacob unharmed. Laban catches up to Jacob and reproaches him, saying that he would have thrown a great party, if he would have known that they were going to leave—that he didn’t want them to sneak away in the night. You can’t tell from the story whether that’s true or not. These people were pretty rough and impulsive, I would say. Maybe there was a fifty percent chance of a slaughter and a fifty percent chance of a party. Who knows. I’ve been to parties like that, actually.
Laban complains that his gods are gone, and Jacob says that whoever has them, he will have them killed. Rachel—who’s really quite a sneaky character, all things considered—basically claims that she’s having her period, and she’s sitting on a carpet, with all the idols underneath. She can’t move, so they search everywhere, and they can’t find them. She’s laughing away, behind her hand, about that sneaky little maneuver. But she doesn’t die, so that’s probably a good thing.
Laban checks everything out, checks the camp out, and he can’t find anything. They reconcile, and so that’s the first reconciliation that Jacob engages in. It’s sort of like the karmic debt has been paid. That’s one way of thinking about it. He got punished for his wrongdoing; he’s learned his lesson, perhaps. That’s good enough, as far as he’s concerned. He got away good enough, and they make peace.
The next thing that happens, as they’re travelling, is that "Jacob was left alone, and there wrestled a man"—man, angel, or God…It’s not clear. We’ll go with angel—"until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with the angel. And the angel said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And Jacob said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And the angel said unto him, What is thy name? And Jacob said, Jacob.
"And the angel said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob"—‘the supplanter’, ‘the overthrower,’ with that kind of implication of crookedness—"but Israel"—which means ‘he who wrestles or strives successfully with God—"for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed."
That’s quite a story. I don’t know exactly what to make of it. There’s obviously a symbolic level of meaning. That is what human beings do, in some sense: they wrestle with the divine—even with the concept of the divine, for that matter. But the question is, do they prevail? It’s an odd thing that Jacob actually seems to win this battle. At least, he wins it enough so that whoever he’s wrestling—this divine figure that he’s wrestling—is willing to bestow a divine blessing on him. Maybe it’s a testament to his courage. Maybe it’s an indication that he has paid for his sins sufficiently, and he’s back on moral high ground. But I think the transformation of the name, from ‘Jacob’ to ‘Israel,’ is really telling, as well as the fact that ‘Israel’ means ‘he who wrestles or struggles with God," perhaps successfully.
It’s also so interesting that Jacob actually emerges victorious. You wouldn’t necessarily think that would be a possibility, especially given God’s rather hotheaded nature in the Old Testament. You don’t want to mess with him, too much. But Jacob does it successfully. Even more importantly is the idea that, whatever ‘Israel’ constitutes—which would be the land that Jacob founds—is actually composed of those who wrestle with God. I think that’s an amazing idea. It also seems, to me, to shed some light on, perhaps, what was meant by ‘belief,’ in those days.
I’ve often thought of marriage as a wrestling match. If you’re lucky, the person that you marry is someone that you contend with. I don’t think it’s tranquil, precisely. You might have noticed that, some of you. But the thing is, if you have something to contend against, then that strengthens you. That’s actually better than having nothing to contend against. And so Jacob is also the person who is strengthened by the necessity of this contending.
That contending or battling seems to be the proper relationship with God, rather than some sort of loose, weak statement of belief. I’m not trying to denigrate, to any great degree. It just doesn’t seem like the right mode of conceptualization. Human beings aren’t like that. We’re contentious creatures, and that actually seems to be something that meets with God’s favour, in this situation—especially given that that’s actually what he names the whole kingdom of the chosen people. The idea is that the kingdom is composed of those who contend with God. That’s a hell of an idea. That’s for sure.
"And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?"—so that’s not happening—"And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh."
Jacob does walk away injured from this. He has a permanent limp, after that. That’s also an indication of just how dangerous that contention actually is. He gets blessed, and he wins, but he doesn’t get away scot-free.
So Jacob goes back to Esau, and he’s terrified. Even though it’s been 14 years, he thinks that maybe his hotheaded brother hasn’t calmed down. He has good reason to think that, I would say. "Jacob sends messengers to Esau, who sets out with four hundred men." Jacob is not happy with this whole idea. "Jacob disperses his people into two bands"—so that maybe half of them cannot be killed—"Then he selects a numerous flock of diverse animals and sends out his servants to meet Esau," basically to say, ‘look, I’m a jerk, and sorry about the whole birthright thing, and here’s some animals. Maybe that’s the beginnings of an apology.’ It’s something like that. But he’s not very convinced that’s going to work.
But Esau, who has, perhaps, matured in the interim—that’s one way of thinking about it—meets Jacob, and says "that seeing him is enough, but Jacob insists that he takes the gift, and Esau accepts," which is probably a wise thing, because, even if Esau is ninety-five percent convinced that just seeing his brother is enough, there’s probably five percent of him that’s really not all that happy.
You have to be careful when you say you forgive someone, because there might be a part of you that really doesn’t, and that really needs something else before you can actually say, ‘fine.’ You don’t want to fool yourself about that, because that five percent that hasn’t been completely convinced will find its voice, at some point, and maybe undermine the whole reconciliation process. You don’t want to think that you’re any better than you are, or any nicer than you are. It’s not helpful.
Jacob’s smart to say, ‘no, no. Thanks a lot, but take the damn goats.’ Esau’s smart enough to accept that, and he might do that, maybe, to please Jacob. But also, I think, so that there really is the possibility of establishing peace. Hypothetically, the gift that’s being offered is of sufficient magnitude to erase the debt of the loss of the birthright. It’s something like that. It’s the payment of the real debt.
"And Esau said, What meanest thou by all this drove which I met? And Jacob said, These are to find grace in the sight of my Lord. And Esau said, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself.
"And Jacob said, Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found grace in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand: for therefore I have seen thy face, as though I had seen the face of God, and thou wast pleased with me."
So he’s taking the honourable judgement of his brother. It is honourable, because Esau did get betrayed. He does have a right to be standing in judgement. He equates that judgement with the highest of virtues. It’s appropriate judgement. He wants to make complete amends to Esau, as if Esau is a representative of the divine element of justice. I guess that’s convincing to Esau. It’s quite a thing to say, that ‘I need to be reconciled to you, because that would simultaneously reconcile me with God. This is between us, but there’s a higher principle at stake, that is vital.’ I think that is the case with betrayal. That’s very frequently the case. If you betray someone, you have deeply violated what can only be called a sacred trust. It’s the right terminology for that.
"Take, I pray thee, my blessing that is brought to thee; because God heath dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough. And he urged him, and he took it."
The story starts with Jacob being an arrogant, crooked, deceitful character—maybe over-impressed with his own ability. He thought it was pretty amusing to pull a fast trick or two on his brother. Then he ran off, which is not all that brave, and then he got walloped a lot, and then, perhaps, he learned something. And then, when he came back, he was a different person.
That’s a reasonable story. He has to repent completely about what he did, before he can rectify the situation properly. He’s willing to do that. That’s an interesting idea, too, because it’s an early reflection of the idea that, if you do something wrong in the past, A, you can learn from it—so you're actually capable of learning—and B, that you can set the balance right in the present. Those are very optimistic ideas. You might say, ‘well, once you’ve committed some sort of crime, that’s it; there’s no hope for you.’ That’s pretty rough, because the probability that you’ve done unethical things at some point in your life is a hundred percent. So if there was no way of setting the balance right, after that, then everybody would be doomed.
So then the story gets rough again. "Jacob settles in Shalem. Dinah, his daughter, goes looking around for friends. Shechem, the son of Hamor, lays with her, and then wants her for his wife." He actually has the order reversed, there. That actually turns out to be a problem. "Jacob hears of this. The fathers talk. They make an agreement." The agreement is that if all of Hamor’s men—including Hamor and his son—are circumcised. So that’s the proper offering, and I guess that brings them into the familial fold, and indicates that they’re willing to make a sacrifice to do so—especially after Shechem put the cart before the horse, let’s say.
The men of Hamor agree to do so, and that turns out to be a big mistake. While they’re laying around the next day, suffering madly from the circumcision, Simeon and Levi sneak in, kill all of them, and take their wealth, women, and children. That’s rough. It’s rough. They’re honour societies, right? There are still lots of honour societies in the world. They don’t take kindly to what happened to their sister, although, they don’t kill her.
"It came to pass on the third day, when they were sore, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brethren, took each man his sword, and came upon the city boldly, and slew all the males. And they slew Hamor and Shechem his son with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went out. The sons of Jacob came upon the slain, and spoiled the city, because they had defiled their sister.
They took their sheep, and their oxen, and their asses, and that which was in the city, and that which was in the field, and all their wealth, and all their little ones, and their wives took they captive, and spoiled even all that was in the house."
Jacob actually turns out not to be that happy about that, because he’d met with Hamor, and they’d hammered out a deal. That’s where they were living, and he figured that he was making the best of a bad lot. His sons went behind his back. Jacob says to Simeon and Levi, "ye have troubled me to make me to stink among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites: and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house.
"And they said, Should he deal with our sister as with an harlot? And God said unto Jacob"—and this is where we get back to the idea of the center—"Arise, go up to Bethel"—Bethel was where Jacob originally put that pillar. It’s a real hero’s journey: he has a set place; he goes out and has these adventures; he has a moral transformation; he reconciles, and he comes back to the same place, as a transformed person. That’s a full hero’s cycle.
"Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother. Then Jacob said unto his household, and to all that were with him, Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean, and change your garments: and let us arise, and go up to Bethel; and I will make there an altar unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went.
"And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and all their earrings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem. And they journeyed: and the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them, and they did not pursue after the sons of Jacob. So Jacob came to Luz, which is in the land of Canaan, that is, Bethel"—so that’s the place where he put up the pillar, to begin with—"he and all the people that were with him. And he built there an altar, and called the place Elbethel: because there God appeared unto him, when he fled from the face of his brother.
"And God appeared unto Jacob again, when he came out of Padanaram, and blessed him. And God said unto him, Thy name is Jacob: thy name shall not be called any more Jacob"—which means ‘usurper’—"but Israel shall by thy name"—‘he who wrestles with God’—"and he called his name Israel. And God said unto him, I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins.
"And the land which I gave Abraham and Isaac, to thee I will give it, and to thy seed after thee will I give the land. And God went up from him in the place where he talked with him. And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he talked with him, even a pillar of stone: and he poured a drink offering thereon, and he poured oil thereon. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spake with him, Bethel." Jacob has returned to the central place, which had been given to him as his territory.
"Rachel dies in labor, giving birth to Benoni (son of my sorrow), whose name was then changed to Benjamin (son of the right hand)."
Simeon and Levi have already done something unforgivable. Now it’s Reuben’s turn. He sleeps with Bilhah, who is Israel’s concubine. So he’s the third of the sons to make an unforgivable error. Jacob/Israel gets wind of it. Reuben would have been the premier son, given that the two older sons were put out of the running, so to speak, because of their disobedience, and their impulsive, vengeful cruelty. Rueben can’t keep his…Well, you get the idea. It seems to be something that’s still quite surprisingly common.
Now we have the story that basically ends with the establishment of the 12 tribes of Israel. From Leah, there’s Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulon. From Zilpah, there’s Gad and Asher. From Bilhah, there’s Dan and Naphtali. From Rachel, there’s Joseph—who figures extraordinarily importantly in the next story that we’re going to cover, which, hopefully, will wrap up Genesis—and Benjamin.
So now Israel itself is established. I’m actually going to end this early, tonight. That’s quite the bloody miracle. The story then turns to Joseph. The story begins, essentially, "now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors."
It is often the case that clothing in dreams—footwear, in particular—symbolizes a role. This seems to be particularly true of women’s dreams. That’s been my clinical observation. That makes sense, right? Because you dress for the role. It’s not that big of a mystery. So then you might say, ‘well, what does a coat of many colors indicate?’ It’s something like the mastery of multiple domains, or maybe something like plura-potentiality.
Joseph is Israel’s favourite because he sees in him this excess possibility. He basically tells his other sons that Joseph is going to be the head son, which they are not happy with, because he’s just this young punk, fundamentally. Clearly, he’s his father’s favourite, and he gets this coat that’s kind of indicative of this higher status. And so Israel inadvertently sets up a tremendous amount of sibling rivalry in the household, again. That’s the understructure of the last story in Genesis. In the last of this lecture series, for 2017, we’ll cover the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours, and what happens as a consequence of the favouritism shown to him by his father. I’m going to stop, there, because I’m finished.