Friday, May 13, 2011

Israel: What's in a Name, Revisited (Part 2)

Yesterday, we briefly discussed the origin of the word "Hebrew" as it appears in the Hebrew language:  ivri.  Today, we will examine the literary and linguistic origin of the word Israel.  The prosaic account that introduces the Torah's audience to the name "Israel" is one of the most fascinating narratives in Genesis.  In the narrative, we read of Jacob's wrestling with a mysterious figure who after struggling with him throughout the night, renames Jacob "Israel," which in English translates to "He struggled (with) God."

We will first examine this account from a literary perspective and place this literary account within the context of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture.  We will then examine the linguistics of the Hebrew word "Israel"and attempt to understand how the Torah's ancient audience may have understood their own identity.

I doubt that I could tell the story of Jacob's struggle with the mysterious figure any better than the account found in Genesis, so I have posted it below:
The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.  Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle. (Gen 32:22-32)
We are immediately clued into several interesting items found within the text.  First, Jacob wrestles with a "man" until daybreak who we are only told later is God.  Second, Jacob demands to know God's name but God does not divulge this information.  Third, God renames Jacob "Israel."  Fourth, the author recounts this story later, which we aware from the introductory formula of "Therefore to this day..."  Each of these items reflects an intriguing cultural location from ANE religious beliefs and practices, and for this reason we will discuss each item (in brief) individually.  We will begin with God's renaming of Jacob into "Israel," and we will then discuss the remaining items of interest in order to place this narrative within an ANE context.

The mysterious figure with whom Jacob wrestle's tells Jacob, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed."  The name Israel is a combination of two Hebrew words:  sarah (שרה) and el (אל).  Sarah is a verb meaning, "to struggle," and the conjugation in which it appears in Israel indicates a third-person, pronominal suffix meaning "He has struggled."  The word el in Hebrew often refers to God, and it more specifically refers to the Canaanite god El who served as the head deity of the Canaanite pantheon.  Most often in classical Hebrew, we find el in the plural form as elohim in reference to the God of Israel.  So, Israel literally means "He has struggled (with) God."  Of interest is why the nomenclature el was used to name Jacob as opposed to the personal name in which Israel knew its God:  YHWH.  In fact, I cannot think of a single instance in which Israel's name for God was used instead of the Canaanite name for God (Other examples include Samuel and Daniel; please correct me if I am wrong).

The use of the deity el in renaming Jacob allows us to place this story (or at least the oral origin of this story) during a time prior to the monarchial period of Israel when the deity el was worshipped in Canaan.  Several other factors in the story also to this earlier date.  The first is that Jacob wrestles with the man until daybreak, which plays nicely into the belief that the Canaanite gods came to the earth at night but went away with the light of day.

The second factor is that Jacob demands to know the mysterious man's name (the inclusion of "please" in English does not truly reflect the sentiment of the Hebrew).  In the ANE, learning one's name or demanding to know one's name often expressed a desire to possess mastery over that individual.  In the context of our story, then, Jacob demands to know this mysterious man's name in order to exert power over him.  What happens, however, is that instead of revealing his name to Jacob, the mysterious man renames Jacob--reversing the paradigm of power.  If this narrative was an ancient story that predated Israel and the knowing of God as YHWH, it is no wonder why the ancient authors and editors of Genesis identified this mysterious man as God.

The last factor that we will examine is the author's inclusion of the phrase, "Therefore to this day, the Israelites don't..."  In this phrase, we learn that a later author is recounting a story in order to explain a practice of modern Israel.  When could this modern author be writing?  Most likely during Iron Age II (during the monarchial period), during the Babylonian Exile, or just following the return of Israel from the Babylonian Exile.  Though the story was not written until this period it is likely that the oral tradition extends much further into Israel's past.

In conclusion, when we read Jacob's story of wrestling with the mysterious man, we read a narrative that spans centuries.  What likely began as a local religious myth at some point during the Early to Middle Bronze Age, meets its final casting during Iron Age II under the providence of Israel's God YHWH.

Again, as in earlier posts, my goal is not to bring people's faith into question but to illuminate items of interest.  The same story that likely developed over centuries in antiquity is the same story that continues to develop in the Jewish and Christian canon today.  When approaching the story of Jacob's wrestling with the mysterious man, we bring with us our own narratives and stories, just like the Jewish authors who cast the story of Jacob's wrestling under the providence of their God.

Though the story of Jacob's wrestling with the mysterious man may not be native to ancient Israel, ancient Israel recognized the story's significance and decided that the mysterious figure who struggled with Jacob was in fact their God.  A question we may then ask today is, "Is Christianity any different than ancient Israel in Christianity's interpretation of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 as Jesus Christ?"  Is Christianity not playing into the very tradition out of which it arose?  And finally, should this bring comfort or concern?  Thanks for reading.