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Home > Secteur-English > General > Parshat Vayechi : Genesis 47:28–50:26

Parshat Vayechi : Genesis 47:28–50:26


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Switching Between the Names Jacob and Israel
By:Raphael Yachin*


Well-known exegetes and Bible scholars have dealt with the way Scripture uses the name Jacob even after the Lord’s explicit promise, "You shall be called Jacob no more, but Israel shall be your name" (Gen. 35:10) and the statement, "Thus He named him Israel." Note that the man (angel) with whom Jacob wrestled at the ford of the Yabok had changed his name to Israel earlier (Gen. 32:29), but this name change was made under special circumstances and therefore perhaps should not be viewed as binding until it received divine confirmation. In any event, Jacob is the only instance of a person being given a new name that does not cancel all use of the former, original name. Let us examine the reason for this.
Several commentators have tried to provide a rationale for the alternation of names used for Jacob. Moshe Tzvi Segal, in Mesort u-Vikoret ha-Mikra,[1] devotes an entire chapter to this question, taking issue with the proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis and ultimately rejecting their approach. He also rejects the explanations of such commentators as Abraham Geiger,[2] Umberto Cassuto[3] and Benno Jacob who associated the use of particular names with specific content. Segal ultimately concludes that "one should not look for homiletic explanations and hidden reasons…for switching between the two names because [of] various Scriptural passages which contradict such assumptions."[4]
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch takes up this challenge and grapples with it throughout the Joseph narrative. He holds that the alternating names reflect Jacob’s different emotional states in the light of what was transpiring. The name Jacob, he maintains, connects with the stooped, downcast man whereas the name Israel connotes hope and reinvigoration (see his commentary on 43:6) :
Ever since the loss of Joseph, the name Jacob is always used. For Jacob denotes the downcast man, the sense of dependence and decline, as a person who "limps" after events, a person who is dragged along by events rather than marching in the lead.
The name Israel shows us the points of light in his life. On the verse, "Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons" (Gen. 37:3), Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes : "Israel—not Jacob—for he viewed him as his chosen son, because he was the son of his old age and in him he saw himself repeated and coming again to life ; in him he saw the heir of all his spiritual wealth."[5]
Even though this approach explains a considerable number of alternations of Jacob/Israel, it does not account for all such instances. Here we suggest using statistical significance, commonly applied in textual analysis. Examining the distribution of appearances of each name, we find that in connection with Joseph the name "Jacob" is mentioned only 8 times, as opposed to 17 for "Israel", while in other contexts we find almost the opposite : "Israel" appears only 5 times, whereas "Jacob" appears 37 times.[6] Thus there appears to be a connection between the use of the name "Israel" and the appearance of Joseph on the stage. Insofar as "Israel" is known to be the national nomenclature for Jacob’s descendants, this combination of names reinforces the notion of Joseph as chosen to realize the national destiny of "Israel". As we shall see below, switching between the names helps explain several important issues in the narrative about Joseph and his brothers.
Even though the cause of the brothers’ hatred of Joseph - it being in the context of Jacob’s preference of Joseph - is explicitly stated in Scripture, it does not suffice to account for the destructive intensity of this hatred. Let us try to further fathom the nature of the hatred and competitiveness among Joseph’s brothers. The ornamented tunic in which Jacob dressed Joseph is symbolic of sovereignty,[7] and apparently attests that Joseph was not only destined to be Jacob’s spiritual heir and the one to carry on the dynasty of the Patriarchs, but also to be heir of his material wealth. Moreover, the verses, "This, then, is the line of Jacob : Joseph…" (Gen. 37:2) and "Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons" (Gen. 37:3) stress the element of continuity evident in Joseph, in contrast to rejection of the other brothers who were not found worthy of that same inheritance. The midrash further supports such a perception : "Joseph was worthy that the twelve tribes should issue from him…but his lust came out from between his fingernails" (Sotah 36b).[8]
Seeing that Joseph was destined as the son to carry on the line of "Israel" and be the heir of the patriarchs, the other sons might well have feared that they would follow in the path of the other rejected branches of the family—Ishmael and Esau, who became the heads of clans of other, separate nations. Abraham had been told, "I will make you a father of a multitude of nations" (Gen. 17:5), and from him had issued Isaac, Ishmael, and the sons of his concubines. Rivkah had been told, "Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body" (Gen. 20:23), and from her came Esau and Jacob. Jacob had been given a similar promise : "A nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you" (Gen. 35:11), which might be taken as alluding to one important nation and "an assembly of nations" which is separate and distinct from the one chosen as successor. Moreover, the promise of progeny and of the land was only heard by Joseph (Gen. 48:3) without his sharing this information with the rest of his brothers. Thus Joseph’s brothers discerned several signs that appeared to confirm their feeling of being destined to be the rejected "assembly of nations." Clearly this was especially hurtful to the sons of Leah, who herself had suffered Jacob’s discrimination against her due to his love for Rachel. This perception throws a different light on the ties between the concubines’ sons and Joseph—"a helper to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah" (Gen. 37:2) ; they were willing to accept Joseph’s superiority in view of their lower status.
Judah is an exceptional figure in the Joseph narrative, in which he emerges as a resourceful leader in times of despair. In the verses describing Judah’s willingness to take responsibility for Benjamin and to return to Egypt to buy more grain, the name "Israel" surfaces again several times.[9] This unusual occurrence can be explained in terms of Jacob being encouraged by Judah’s leadership and therefore trusting him and seeing in him a substitute for the loss of his beloved son Joseph, whom he had destined to assume the role of leadership.[10]
Can these observations account for Jacob’s great suffering over Joseph’s disappearance ? Was Jacob punished by twenty-two years of misery and mourning because he had erred in determining the destiny of the tribes and had seen them as rejected branches ? Since Scripture does not reveal why "few and hard have been the years of my [Jacob’s] life" (Gen. 47:9), as Jacob described his life to Pharaoh, we shall try to extract some hints from Jacob’s blessings to his sons.
Only after concluding all the blessings does Jacob make the important declaration, containing an explicit promise : "All these were the tribes of Israel, twelve in number, and this is what their father said to them as he bade them farewell" (Gen. 49:28), unlike the previous reference to his sons : "Now the sons of Jacob were twelve in number" (Gen. 35:22). This summation, after his addressing each of the tribes, signifies that there will no longer be sons who are rejected, but that they will comprise the people of Israel together. In Scripture the expression, "what [he] said," can mean a promise, as in "who said to me and promised me on oath" (Gen. 24:7) ; "to the end that He may establish you this day as His people…as He said to you and as He swore to your fathers" (Deut. 29:12) ; "The Lord had given Solomon wisdom, as He had said to him" (I Kings 5:26).
If the above declaration of Jacob’s is viewed as a promise to all the tribes that they will be the "children of Israel," - that is, the Jewish people – then this brings to an end the era of suspiciousness and doubt that so sorely gnawed away at the foundation of trust in Jacob’s family. We speak not only of the suspicions of the brothers towards Joseph, but also of Joseph’s silence throughout the years that he was serving in a lofty position in Egypt while his father, back home in Canaan, was grieving over the "death" of his son.[11] This is a fitting way to end the book of Genesis, bringing the story of Jacob and his sons to a successful conclusion. In the end all his sons, both those whom he blessed as well as those whom he rebuked, were included in the nation of Israel and no tribe from among his sons was rejected. Just as Joseph’s brothers understood that their hatred of him had been a tragic mistake and that all that had befallen them in Egypt was had been punishment for their treatment of Joseph, so too Jacob understood that his attitude towards Joseph’s brothers had been mistaken and that they were all worthy of being the "children of Israel," part of the emergent Israelite nation.*


 


Translated by Rachel Rowen
* Raphael Yachin lives in Kefar Saba.
[1] Moshe Tzvi Segal, "Ha-shemot Ya`akov—Yisrael be-Sefer Bereshit," Mesoret u-Vikoret ha-Mikra, Jerusalem 1957.
[2] "The name Israel appears instead of Jacob wherever Joseph and his brother Benjamin are concerned," Abraham Geiger, Ha-Mikra ve-Targumav : Be-Zikah le-Hitpathutah ha-Pnimit shel ha-Yahadut, 1948, p. 239.
[3] "The general rule is that wherever the name designates the father of the nation, there the name Israel is used…giving preference to or elevating Joseph or Benjamin over the other tribes. Elsewhere the name Jacob is used." Cited in Segal (note 1, above), p. 69.
[4] Ibid., p. 75.
[5] See other discussions by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh of the names by which Jacob is called : Gen. 45:27-28, 48:8.
[6] Counting every single appearance of the word "Jacob" and the word "Israel", as Segal did, yields 47 occurrences of the name Jacob as opposed to 29 of the name Israel, beginning with chapter 35:10. Segal, however, also included all the appearances of these names, including those in Jacob’s blessing to his sons and in expressions such as "children of Israel" and "tribes of Israel," even though these occurrences do not reflect what was Jacob himself was undergoing.
[7] See II Sam. 13:18.
[8] Rashi, on verse 49:24, cites the midrash about Potiphar’s wife, which describes Joseph’s partial failing.
[9] See Gen. 43:6,8,11.
[10] Indeed, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees this moment as one of recovering strength : "As long as Jacob was plagued by doubts and believed that he must not let Benjamin go, his name appears as Jacob, but once he realized the utter necessity—Benjamin’s life was in danger whether he stayed home or went with them—then he pulls himself up and becomes Israel" (commentary on 43:6).
[11] Nahmanides raises the issue of Joseph’s disavowal of his father being a moral problem : "One wonders how it was that, after being long in Egypt and a clerk and overseer in an important Egyptian official’s house, Joseph did not write to his father to inform him of his presence and console him ; for Egypt is only six days’ travel from Hebron, and had it been even a year’s journey away, he should still have contacted him out of filial respect" (commentary on verse 42:9).
* Thanks to Dr. Meir Roth for his helpful comments.

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