This week’s portion is Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:2), meaning “and he went out.” It follows Jacob on his 20-year sojourn in Padan Aram and his fortunes there, providing an incredible testament to the faithfulness of God and the character of Jacob himself – a fitting continuation to the things that were expounded in the last portion.
So the main thing I want to look at is the strong angelic presence that was with Jacob the whole time he was away from his father’s house. In this portion, angels/the Angel of the Lord are explicitly mentioned 3 times – at the beginning, middle, and end – and I’ll be going through the passages one by one. First, Genesis 28:10-22:
Now Jacob went out from Beersheba and went toward Haran. So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
And behold, the Lord stood above it and said: “I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.”
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”
Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of that city had been Luz previously. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.”
This is an incredibly interesting passage for many reasons, but I want to focus especially on its translation in a particular targum. In a previous post, I wrote concerning the targums:
The targums are Aramaic translations/paraphrases of Hebrew Scripture which came about as a result of the Babylonian exile. Having been carried away into Nebuchadnezzar’s empire, the Jews of the time learned to speak and write Aramaic, but were not as familiar with Hebrew as they were before, especially in subsequent generations. So upon their return from exile, a practice of reading the Bible in both Hebrew and Aramaic was instituted in the synagogues so that the people could stay in touch with their mother tongue and understand what the Scriptures said.
Because of this, the targums provide valuable insight into the various ways in which the Scriptures were understood by ancient Jews of the time, because they not only translate the Hebrew verses, they also paraphrase and expound on them.
Several targums are in existence today, the most authoritative being Targum Onkelos. And to elaborate what’s so special about its translation of Genesis 28, I’m going to quote, again, Dr. Michael Brown in his book, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus Vol. 2: Theological Objections (emphasis mine):
Since God was often perceived as somehow “untouchable,” it was necessary to provide some kind of link between the Lord and his earthly creation. One of the important links in Rabbinic thought was “the Word,” called memraʾ in Aramaic (from the Hebrew and Aramaic root, “to say” [ʾmr], the root used throughout the creation account in Genesis 1, when God said and the material world came into existence). We find this memraʾ concept hundreds of times in the Aramaic Targums, the translations and paraphrases of the Hebrew Scriptures that were read in the synagogues before, during, and after the time of Jesus. These Targums arose because, in some locations, many of the Jewish people no longer understood Hebrew. Instead, they grew up speaking and reading Aramaic, so they could follow the public reading of the Scripture only with Aramaic translation.
To use Genesis 3:8 as an example, most of the people who were listening to the public reading of the Scriptures would not have understood the Hebrew, which said, “And they heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden.” Rather, they would have understood the Targum, which said, “And they heard the sound of the Word of the Lord God walking in the midst of the garden.” What a difference an extra “word” makes! To speak of the Lord walking in the garden seemed too familiar, too down to earth. So the Targum made an adjustment: It was not the Lord who was walking in the garden, it was the memraʾ (Word) of the Lord! This Word was not just an “it”; this Word was a him. …
[Consider] Genesis 28:20–21, Jacob’s vow. In Hebrew, it reads, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the Lord will be my God.” The Targum says, “If the Word of the Lord will be with me … then the Word of the Lord will be my God.” The Word of the Lord will be Jacob’s God! And this was read in the synagogues for decades, if not centuries. Week in and week out, the people heard about this walking, talking, creating, saving, delivering Word, this Word who was Jacob’s God.
– Excerpted from Brown, M. L. (2000). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 2: Theological objections (14–37). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Isn’t that interesting? The ancient Jews didn’t simply take the Scriptures to mean that God, whom no man can see, appeared in His creation to various people doing and saying things. Rather, they understood that this was accomplished through the Word of God – a distinct entity who was also known as the Angel of the Lord, and every bit as divine, powerful and authoritative as God Himself – and they translated the Scripture accordingly. … Which makes total sense when you remember the fact that the word מַלְאַךְ (mal’akh), which is commonly translated “angel” in English, really means “messenger” in Hebrew – and what greater or more effective messenger for the Lord can there be, than the very Message (or Word) of God itself, made alive?
We find further support for this idea when we go on to read Genesis 31:4-16:
So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to the field, to his flock, and said to them, “I see your father’s countenance, that it is not favorable toward me as before; but the God of my father has been with me. And you know that with all my might I have served your father. Yet your father has deceived me and changed my wages ten times, but God did not allow him to hurt me. If he said thus: ‘The speckled shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore speckled. And if he said thus: ‘The streaked shall be your wages,’ then all the flocks bore streaked. So God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me.
“And it happened, at the time when the flocks conceived, that I lifted my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the rams which leaped upon the flocks were streaked, speckled, and gray-spotted. Then the Angel of God spoke to me in a dream, saying, ‘Jacob.’ And I said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Lift your eyes now and see, all the rams which leap on the flocks are streaked, speckled, and gray-spotted; for I have seen all that Laban is doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now arise, get out of this land, and return to the land of your family.’”
Then Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Is there still any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? Are we not considered strangers by him? For he has sold us, and also completely consumed our money. For all these riches which God has taken from our father are really ours and our children’s; now then, whatever God has said to you, do it.”
Did you see that? Not only is the idea of a divine Word, or Memra, of the Lord present in the targums, but Jacob himself identified the Angel of the Lord as the God of Bethel to whom he made a vow – the same God whom he saw standing at the top of the ladder in his earlier dream in Genesis 28:13! Thus the Angel and the Word are one and the same, and they are God. And Christians believe that the allusion to such a figure in Old Testament Scripture provides strong evidence for the divine personhood and pre-existence of the Son of God – that this Angel, or Word, was really Jesus pre-incarnate: the divine Word who the Bible says was born into human flesh to be the Redeemer of the human race. Which explains why John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory” (John 1:1, 14).
There’s more to be said about this; you can read what I’ve written so far on the subject here. And for those who’re interested in learning more about the concept of the memra, I’m providing just the relevant section of Dr. Brown’s book here (but again, I ask that if you read it: please, do proper referencing if you want to quote any part of the text, and please, buy the book if you want to read more).
But getting back to the Torah, this same God who appeared in dreams to Jacob was faithful to uphold the promises which He made to him at Bethel (“I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you”). This is very clear when we look at Jacob’s confrontational speech to Laban in Genesis 31:36-42:
“What is my trespass? What is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued me? Although you have searched all my things, what part of your household things have you found? Set it here before my brethren and your brethren, that they may judge between us both! These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried their young, and I have not eaten the rams of your flock. That which was torn by beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it. You required it from my hand, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. There I was! In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep departed from my eyes. Thus I have been in your house twenty years; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times. Unless the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God has seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you last night.”
Notice that no one disputed Jacob’s version of events: not Laban, nor the men who were with him. Instead, Laban asked Jacob to make a covenant of peace with him before they parted ways, so there’d be no bad blood between them. This corroborates the moral character of Jacob as first noted in Genesis 25:27, which describes him as an אִישׁ תָּם (ish tam), or blameless man. And it makes sense of why God chose him and loved him even from the womb, and promised to be with him and keep him wherever he went, as well as bring him safely home. … Moreover, God demonstrated this protection and provision by giving Jacob children, wealth in livestock, and repeatedly restraining Laban from harming him. And He instructed him to leave Padan Aram when it was time.
Now Jacob was on the last stretch home, and the portion closes with Genesis 32:1-2, which says:
So Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, “This is God’s camp.” And he called the name of that place Mahanaim.
When he set out from Beersheba many years ago, Jacob dreamed of God’s angels ascending and descending at Bethel. And now, on his return, he was again greeted by the sight of angels. His journey had come full circle – he’d been seen off by the heavenly servants of God, and he was now being welcomed back by them. … When he first left, he’d been alone, a fugitive from his home; now he was a great camp, and was being met by God’s camp (which is why he named that place Mahanaim, which literally means “two camps”) – a vivid reminder of Psalm 91:11, which says of all who believe in God and make Him their refuge, “For He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.”
Jacob had been watched over by the Angel of the Lord the whole time he was away, and his travels were bookended by angelic vision. But that was not the end of it; he was going to have one more extremely personal encounter with an angel before he reunited with his brother, Esau… and we’ll be looking at that next week.
Until then, shalom all, and shavua tov (good week). :) May the God of Jacob smile on you~