Jacob, A Long Night Of Exile

The stories in the Torah are often full of hidden message and revelation that awaits us to uncover. Instead of simply comprehending the direct meaning in a particular passage, often times there’s a life lesson for the audience to learn. From which we can glean, grow and be inspired. In this parashah, Jacob (ya’akov יַעֲקֹב) the son of Isaac had just been running away from his brother Esau (esav עֵשָׂו) after deceiving Esau of his birthright and taken his blessing. “and Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright, and now look, he has taken away my blessing!” (Gen. 27:36). Jacob was then gone out from Beersheba and went toward Haran, where he came to a certain place and stayed there all night after the sun had set (the place where he had the famous dream of the ladder). Later, he arrived to meet with his uncle Laban (Rebekah’s brother), and worked seven years for Leah, seven years for Rachel and another six years for Laban’s flock. To which, through Laban’s wickedness and deceit, his wages had been changed ten times (Gen.31:41).

In his final decision, he took both his wife Rachel and Leah together with all his children and his possession to return to his father Isaac in the land of Canaan. Yet along the way, Laban and his men pursued him before they made a covenant together, and each departed their way. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, we see again Jacob has to face his very own brother Esau, who earlier sought to kill him. Front and back, he was confronted by Laban and Esau, both with their men. After all the trouble of deceit, running away, an exile from home, being deceit and escaping from Laban. Finally, Jacob had no choice but to face his own reality as he wrestles with God.

After the long ordeal, we come to Gen. 32:31-32, “Just as he crossed over Penuel the sun rose on him…”.  Why does the Torah make mention of the rising sun? Earlier on, we learned that Jacob’s encounter started to take place after his last night outside the land of Canaan. We can remember that his first encounter with God was during his last night in the land some 20 years ago with the dream about the ladder. “So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night because the sun had set (Gen 28:11).” Notice the phrase “The sun had set” in his first encounter and later “the sun rose” the moment after his second encounter. Here we can see a beautiful and lyrical story, the starting and end as closure. Like a narrative, composed by an invisible author. The message can be summarized, the sun had set when Jacob was leaving the land, and the very next time when the sun has risen, Jacob was about to return to the land.

We can conclude that his whole twenty years of exile are between this sunset and sunrise. Therefore, his whole journey can be understood as one long night of exile. One would have to realize the importance of going through a deep transformation before becoming an overcomer, from Jacob to Israel (yisrael יִשְׂרָאֵל).

During the wrestling with “the Man”, He said to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob (ya’akov יַעֲקֹב), but Israel (yisrael יִשְׂרָאֵל), for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” The Hebrew word for Israel is widely believed to have come from the word sharit (שרית), meaning ‘to struggle’, ‘to prevail’ and ‘to exercise influence’. Interestingly, the name can also be read as Yashar-El (ישר-אל). The word Yashar (ישר) means ‘straight, honest, honorable, law abiding’. From the biblical context, it speaks of a person who is righteous and having the characteristic of God-fearing. In contrast with the root word for Jacob ‘akov’ (עָקֹב) meaning ‘crooked’. As in Isaiah 40:4 “the crooked shall be made straight.” Thus we can understand that Israel (יִשְׂרָאֵל), is the one whom God chooses to make straight as opposed to being crooked.  

For a man to walk this journey of life with godliness, one often had to go through deep trial and test. Of struggle and faith. From then would he rise as a people of God. According to Rashi, Jacob (Israel), even in his old age still have to face many trials including the losing of his son Joseph (though who was sold to Egypt) and later being tested to send his youngest son Benjamin to Egypt during the famine. As he said to his sons and Reuben in Gen. 42:38 “…If any calamity should befall him (Benjamin the youngest son) along the way in which you go, then you would bring down my gray hair with sorrow to the grave.” Here we see a troubled Jacob, who had faced many challenges in his life. A midrashic interpretation of this verse states that: May He who said to His word, “Enough!” Say to my troubles. “Enough!” for I have not enjoyed tranquility since my youth. I endured the trouble of Laban (who tricked me and pursued me with the desire of killing me), the trouble of Esau (who wanted to kill me), the trouble of Rachel (who died in childbirth), the trouble of Dinah (who was violated and kidnapped by Schechem), the trouble of Joseph (who disappeared), the trouble of Simeon (who is being detained by the ruler of Egypt), and the trouble of Benjamin (whom he demands that I send to him), Tanchuma Mikeitz 10.

Blessed be the Lord for His kindness and mercy endures forever. May His grace abounds more and more as we face each day in our trials and temptations. May we cling to Him ever closer because He knows our days are numbered. May we be quick to turn to Him in repentance when He rebukes and correct us. May we be reminded that He gives and takes away. And may we remember that the Lord our God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations (Deut. 7:9).


Israel Institute Of Biblical Studies