Vayishlach – Jacob, Esau and Christ – synopsis and sources

Gn 32:4 – 36:43 Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1 – 1:21

Synopsis –

After Jacob’s sojourn of 20 years with Laban, he is finally on his way to the Land of Canaan, certain – as we study in the parasha – that he has fulfilled the prophecy of Gn 15:13-16 (see below). He meets “God’s camp” (Gn 32:2) and this camp of God is in fact split into two camps (hence its Hebrew name: “Mahanaim” – i.e. the two camps). He immediately gets to command angels (your version might say “messengers”) to bring a message to his brother Esau – a message that also relates back to Gn 15:13-16. In his fear of his brother Jacob replicates God’s action by splitting his own camp in two (we study the implications of this in some detail), and eventually finds himself alone fighting a God-man where the borders of weakness and strength get completely blurred. We study these seminal events with the Church Fathers as well as Jewish sources, and pursue them further into the story of Dinah’s rape, the revenge of Jacob’s sons and the continuation of the journey down to Beth-El. Along the way God calls jacob “God” (see below the reference from the Talmud), Rebecca’s nurse makes a surprising appearance and Rachel dies prophetically at the entrance to Bethlehem. Finally we study the progeny of Esau and see how it also points to the “latter days” when Jacob’s hopes and actions for his brother to be saved in Christ are prefigured through Esau’s more illustrious offspring: Job.


Scripture references from the episode

Ge 15:6

“And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”

Ge 15:13–16

Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But tI will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

Matthew 25:31-46

“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.

 ‘Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”

 ‘Next he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food; I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink; I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, naked and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.” Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or naked, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?” Then he will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you neglected to do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.”  ‘And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the virtuous to eternal life.’”

Hos 12:1–14

“Ephraim feeds on the wind and pursues the east wind all day long; they multiply falsehood and violence; they make a covenant with Assyria, and oil is carried to Egypt.

The LORD has an indictment against Judah and will punish Jacob according to his ways; he will repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his manhood he strove with God. He strove with the angel and prevailed; he wept and sought his favor. He met Him at Bethel, and there God spoke with us—the LORD, the God of hosts, the LORD is his memorial name: “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for your God.” A merchant, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress. Ephraim has said, “Ah, but I am rich; I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin.” I am the LORD your God from the land of Egypt; I will again make you dwell in tents, as in the days of the appointed feast. I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables. If there is iniquity in Gilead, they shall surely come to nothing: in Gilgal they sacrifice bulls; their altars also are like stone heaps on the furrows of the field. Jacob fled to the land of Aram;  there Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he guarded sheep. By wa prophet the LORD brought Israel up from Egypt, and by a prophet he was guarded. Ephraim has given bitter provocation; so his Lord will leave his bloodguilt on him and will repay him for his disgraceful deeds.”


External Sources


“And Jacob send Messengers” (Heb. מלאכים angels) — actually angels (Genesis Rabbah 75:4)”

Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 763:12

“Take the staff…” (Nm 20:8) This is what the scripture says “The staff of your might the Lord will send from Zion…” (Ps 110:2) This is the staff which was in the hand of our father Yaakov, as it says “…for with my staff I crossed…” (Ge 32:10) And it is the staff which was in the hand of Yehudah, as it says “Your signet, your cloak, and the staff that is in your hand.” (Ge 38:18) And it was in the hand of Moshe, as it says “And you shall take this staff in your hand…” (Ex 4:17) And it was in the hand of Aharon, as it says “Aaron cast his staff…” (Ex 7:10) And it was in the hand of David, as it says “And he took his staff in his hand…” (1 Sam 17:40) And it was in the hand of every king until the Holy Temple was destroyed, and so in the future that very staff will be given to the King Messiah and with it he will rule over the nations of the world in the future. Therefore it says “The staff of your might the Lord will send from Zion…” (Ps 110:2)…

Talmud – Megillah 18a:17

Apropos statements in this line of tradition, the Gemara adds: And Rabbi Aḥa further said that Rabbi Elazar said: From where is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, called Jacob El, meaning God? As it is stated: “And he erected there an altar, and he called it El, God of Israel” (Genesis 33:20). It is also possible to translate this as: And He, i.e., the God of Israel, called him, Jacob, El. Indeed, it must be understood this way, as if it enters your mind to say that the verse should be understood as saying that Jacob called the altar El, it should have specified the subject of the verb and written: And Jacob called itEl. But since the verse is not written this way, the verse must be understood as follows: He called Jacob El; and who called him El? The God of Israel.

LXX – Greek translation of the Old Testament – Brenton’s translation (Job 42:17) 

 And Job died, an old man and full of days: and it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up. This man is described in the Syriac book as living in the land of Ausis, on the borders of Idumea and Arabia: and his name before was Jobab; and having taken an Arabian wife, he begot a son whose name was Ennon. And he himself was the son of his father Zare, one of the sons of Esau, and of his mother Bosorrha, so that he was the fifth from Abraam. And these were the kings who reigned in Edom, which country he also ruled over: first, Balac, the son of Beor, and the name of his city was Dennaba: but after Balac, Jobab, who is called Job, and after him Asom, who was governor out of the country of Thaeman: and after him Adad, the son of Barad, who destroyed Madiam in the plain of Moab; and the name of his city was Gethaim. And his friends who came to him were Eliphaz, of the children of Esau, king of the Thaemanites, Baldad sovereign the Sauchaeans, Sophar king of the Minaeans.

Aphrahat – On Prayer 6.5

“With only his staff he crossed the Jordan.” It was a wondrous symbol Jacob held in his hand in anticipation—the sign of the cross of the great prophet. He lifted up his feet on to the land of the people of the east, because it was from there that “a light shone out to the peoples.” He reclined by the well that had a stone on its mouth that many men had not been able to lift—for many shepherds had been unable to lift it and open up the well, until Jacob came and, through the power of the Shepherd who was hidden in his limbs, lifted up the stone and watered his sheep. Many prophets too had come without being able to unveil baptism, before the great Prophet came and opened it up by himself and was baptized in it, calling out and proclaiming in a gentle voice: “Let everyone who thirsts come to me and drink.”

Ambrose – Jacob and the Happy Life 7.30.5

Therefore Jacob, who had purified his heart of all pretenses and was manifesting a peaceable disposition, first cast off all that was his, then remained behind alone and wrestled with God.1 For whoever forsakes worldly things comes nearer to the image and likeness of God. What is it to wrestle with God other than to enter upon the struggle for virtue, to contend with one who is stronger and to become a better imitator of God than the others are? Because Jacob’s faith and devotion were unconquerable, the Lord revealed his hidden mysteries to him by touching the side of his thigh.2 For it was by descent from him that the Lord Jesus was to be born of a virgin, and Jesus would be neither unlike nor unequal to God. The numbness in the side of Jacob’s thigh foreshadowed the cross of Christ, who would bring salvation to all people by spreading the forgiveness of sins throughout the whole world and would give resurrection to the departed by the numbness and torpidity of his own body. On this account the sun rightly rose on holy Jacob,3 for the saving cross of the Lord shone brightly on his lineage. And at the same time the Sun of justice rises on the person who recognizes God,4 because he is himself the everlasting Light.

Hilary of Poitiers – On the Trinity 5.19

You struggle with a man, but you behold God face to face. You do not see with your bodily eyes what you perceive with the glance of your faith. In comparison with you he is a feeble man, but your soul has been saved by the vision of God.

During this struggle you are Jacob, but after your faith in the blessing for which you prayed you are Israel. The man is subject to you according to the flesh in anticipation of the sufferings in the flesh. You recognize God in the weakness of his flesh in order to foreshadow the mystery of his blessing in the spirit. His appearance does not prevent you from remaining steadfast in the fight, nor does his weakness deter you from seeking his blessing. Nor does the man bring it about that he is not God who is man, nor is he who is God not the true God, because he who is God cannot but be the true God by the blessing, the transfer and the name.

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