Excerpt from James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 46-54.

3. Jacob's Encounters with God and Esau (Genesis 32-33)

a. The Encounter at the Jabbok. The mimetic crisis was abated only by Jacob's flight or expulsion, and as he returns to Canaan from Aram, Jacob knows that he must still deal with its consequences. Esau has reason to hate him and seek revenge, even though twenty years have passed. From Jacob's standpoint the messengers he sends to Esau only confirm his worst fears, for Esau approaches to meet him with four hundred men. "Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed" (32:7), dividing his people, flocks, herds, and camels into two companies in the hope that if Esau attacked the one the other would escape. Jacob prays to his God for deliverance from his brother, reminding God of the promise made at Bethel (32:9-12).

Now Jacob conceives a strategy of "softening up" Esau by sending ahead animals at intervals as a present to his brother (32:13-21). As is well known to Hebrew Bible specialists, the word face (Hebrew panim) in some form occurs six times in this passage. Some of them, as isolated occurrences, would simply belong to colloquial expressions and so would carry no special meaning. However, taken together, they form a kind of litany that prepares the way for Jacob's struggle with the Adversary at the spot that he would name Face of God. The first occurrence is, in truth, rather isolated, so it is arguable whether it belongs to this configuration: "Pass on before me [lefanay, 'to my face'; the p sound becomes like our f after a vowel], and put a space between drove and drove" (32:16). But there is no doubt about the pattern in verses 20-21:

And you shall say, "Moreover your servant Jacob is behind us." For he thought, "I may appease him [akapprah fanayw, 'cover or atone his face'] with the present that goes ahead of me [lefanay, 'to my face'], and afterwards I shall see his face (fanayw); perhaps he will accept me [yissa fanay, 'lift my face']." So the present passed on ahead of him [al-panayw, "on or to his face"]; and he himself spent that night in the camp.
The Hebrew expression "atone his face" is particularly interesting. The ordinary way of saying "appease" someone would be to "find favor in his eyes," or some expression of that order. The wording here is much more serious and fraught with tangles of meaning. The noun related to kipper, kofer, has the common signification or "ransom" or "price of exchange" (so Exod 21:30). Hartmut Gese discusses various occurrences of this root, kpr, and concludes that kofer and its Greek translation lutron bear the basic meaning of "means of exchange for release" (Losegeld), that is, "what comes in as the price of a life, what can stand in for my life." The verb then denotes to find a kofer, and in relation to God this means to "release from death-guilt, and from the human side only total surrender can be adequate to that." (1)

The sequence of occurrences of the word for face makes it appear that ritual process is being described in 32:20-21: (a) finding release from death-guilt for his face (b) by means of the gift that goes to my face, (c) and afterward (i.e., so that) I will see his face; (d) then perhaps he will lift my face. By the logic of this process, if he lifts my face (accepts me, is reconciled with me), then I will have atoned for or propitiated his face. Then -- and it remains to be seen precisely what this could mean -- we both will have our proper face.

In this situation of acute anxiety for Jacob in which he agonizes over "facing" his brother, he does a very strange thing: he sends the remainder of his party -- his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children -- across the fording place of the Jabbok River and spends the night alone on the farther side. Is it his fear that prevents him at this moment from taking another step toward meeting his brother? Or is it a literary device, not smoothly employed, to have Jacob alone for the ensuing struggle? Because I think the author is both cunning and profound, I find it hard to accept the notion of an awkward literary device, but this question need not detain us.

Jacob's struggle with the strange assailant is narrated in 32:24-30. (Verse 30 is not part of the contest episode as such, but as the text stands it relates the object of the narrative, so I will include it in my comments here.) The literary richness of the passage has often been noted by the commentators. (2) Only two of the literary elements interest us here: the repetition of the word name (shem) and the movement toward the naming of the spot Face of God. I will come to these shortly.

The adversary who attacks Jacob is called initially a "man," in Hebrew, ish. Whether this is to be taken as an actual male human being, or God, or an angel in the form of a man is not clear. The God of Israel and of the ancestors couldappear in human form, as could his messengers (see Gen 18:1-15; 19:1-23; Judg 13), and in the early Israelite tradition the prophet Hosea called Jacob's adversary "the angel" (Hos 12:4). Of course, in popular mythology there was a fine line between God and angels, and the appearance of both as the subject of the same passage probably indicates not a contradiction, but an expression of the same reality viewed from a slightly different angle. (3)

As it turns out, this "man" cannot defeat Jacob, whose strength is evidently superhuman (so his feat of rolling the stone away from the mouth of the well, Gen 29:10). He has strength and staying power. As he had held on to Esau's heel at birth, so now he holds on to his opponent and will not let him go. (4) The opponent even puts Jacob's thigh out of joint, but still he holds on, until the adversary says, "Let me go, for the day is breaking" (32:26). But Jacob refuses to release him unless the opponent blesses him. This demand of a blessing shows that Jacob views his opponent as divine.

And he [the opponent] said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then he said, "Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Tell me, I pray, your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Face of God (Peniel), saying, "For I have seen God face to face (panim el-panim), and yet my life is preserved." (32:27-30, RSV modified; my italics)
I italicize name and face in order to highlight the significance of Jacob's new name and the naming of the site. We find in this fascinating episode simultaneously a recognition of rivalry and a disclosure of its emptiness. The disclosure of emptiness is a subversion of the ritual process of substitutions for the original victim. Jacob had been anxious about encountering Esau and had sent expensive gifts ahead to pave the way, hoping that he could "atone his face." But with his mind on that he is encountered by an adversary who is, in effect, Jacob's true opponent, his Other, who wrestles with him but renames him and blesses him. The name and blessing are gained for no other reason than his strength and persistence: he holds on until dawn. There is no question of an exchange of anything. The adversary will not disclose his name, which means that Jacob cannot have power over him (see Exod 3:13-14 and Judg 13:18). What Jacob can give or ascribe to him makes no difference to him. Jacob's differences do not matter to the Other, but the new name and the blessing make all the difference to Jacob.

Jacob has won; he has prevailed -- over Esau, Isaac, and Laban, and now over his Other, over God. Or at least this is what he concludes: "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." Something like a substitution has taken place, of course -- the name Israel for the old name of Jacob. But it is not actually a sacrificial substitution, for there is no concealment or denial of the old name, which he continues to use and which is employed more frequently than "Israel" in the remainder of Genesis.

But the Jacob story does not break completely with the cultic context. Ancient Israelite readers undoubtedly understood the naming of the site as an etiology, or tale explaining how a cultic sanctuary got its name, and at the surface level of the text such is the case. Furthermore, the injury of Jacob's thigh (32:31-32) -- or perhaps penis or groin (5) -- is related to a cultic taboo. The injury is related to the universal motif of the hero's injury. (6) And the hero's injury or disability is conventionally a sign of his outsider status and an indication of his fate as a victim. But the figure of Jacob is now basically different from the expelled hero or sacred king. Unlike the blindness of Oedipus, Jacob's limp is a sign of his success, a sign that he has been victorious without scapegoating or being scapegoated. The great disorder he has endured has resulted in sight, not blindness: "I have seen God face to face." He no longer must live away from his land but is now prepared to return. Rival comes from a Latin root meaning "other side, river bank." Now Jacob knows who his real rival is, the Other who lets him win. Now he can cross the river.

Some years ago the structuralist-poststructuralist critic Roland Barthes presented a very interesting reading of Jacob's struggle at the Jabbok. His overall approach, which he calls textual analysis, "seeks to say neither from where the text comes (historical criticism) nor how it is made (structural analysis), but how it undoes itself, explodes, disseminates -- by which coded routes it departs." Most of the essay is devoted to "sequential analysis," which is an inventory and classification of actions. The most striking result of his sequential analysis is the observation that the personage delivering the supposedly "conclusive blow" (coup décisif) is not the winner: the adversary, angel, deity, or whatever it is, delivers the blow that injures Jacob's thigh, but he is blocked or stymied and so enters (must enter?) into negotiation with his human opponent. But even though the weaker combatant stymies the divine adversary and wins new name and blessing, he is "marked," that is, injured: "the weaker defeats the stronger, in exchange for which he is marked (on the thigh)." Barthes goes on to observe that just as Jacob had earlier "marked himself," as it were, in grasping his older brother's heel at birth, so he accomplishes an analogous feat here. "One may say in a sense that [God] is the substitute for the older brother, who once more submits to defeat by the younger brother: the conflict with Esau is displaced (every symbol is a displacement; if the 'struggle with the angel' is symbolic, then it has displaced something)." (7)

As for Jacob's new name, it is part of the pattern of "mutations" that are dis;rnible in the narrative. That is, "the entire episode . . . functions as the creation a multiple trace: in Jacob's body, in the status of the brothers, in Jacob's name, in the name of the place, in dietary practice." The sequences analyzed are instances of passage: "of place, of parental line, of name, of dietary ritual, all of which remains very close to an activity of language, to a transgression of rules of meaning." (8)

After a few further comments on a structural, rather than textual or sequential, analysis of the passage, Barthes concludes that what really interests him "are the frictions, the ruptures, the discontinuities of readability, the juxtaposition of narrative entities that to a degree escape an explicit logical articulation: one has to do here . . . with a sort of metonymic montage." The logic of this metonymic montage is that of the unconscious, and it is this that should be the focus of the reading of the text, of its "dissemination," rather than the question of its "truth." "The problem, at least the one I pose to myself, is really to succeed in not reducing the text to a signified, whatever it may be (historical, economic, folklorist, or kerygmatic), but in maintaining its open meaning." (9)

The lucidity of Barthes's reading, in conjunction with the appeal of structuralist and poststructuralist approaches since the early 1970s, has resulted in the high status accorded this essay in the recent history of biblical studies. The paradox of Jacob's "victory," the function of symbolizing as substitution, and the description of metonymy are interpretive insights that are deservedly esteemed. I have, however, two primary objections to his reading. One is an issue at the level of assumptions and philosophical perspective. The appeal to the unconscious and to the work of Freud on rivalry and displacement is an appeal to a myth that sucks up the meaning of the text into a dark abyss where all signifieds, all objects of signifiers, disappear. One then does not have to deal with real things, with real events, with "truth" -- because the "truth" is foreclosed by the "truth" of the unconscious, which is the origin and end of all attempts at signification. The ethical issue, as I see it, is that one does not have to assume responsibility for the text in the context of its tradition or relations with other persons. Or to put it another way: one assumes responsibility only to show continually how the signifier -- the text, the sequences and functions of the text, the words, the sounds of the words, and so on -- refers always to another signifier in a metonymic chain.

Second and concomitantly, the reader of the text does not then have to become engaged with the question of real conflict and violence. I think this is the surest proof that a reading like Barthes's is still caught in the myth of Oedipus, accepting the blindness that the community demands but attributing it to the unconscious. The displacement into nonviolent resolution of the conflict of brothers becomes simply a signification of a different sense, a different language. Violence and scapegoating cannot really be a subject of concern because to lift this to the light of day would be to call the reading, along with the power and prestige of the reader, into question in light of an interpretive consensus that signifiers deal with nothing real but other signifiers. What Jacob sees, the God beyond differences, is only a difference thrown up by the unconscious, and this difference or meaning, this "truth," can only lead into other differences that come from the unconscious. It seems very similar to a chain of victims or victim substitutes offered in sacrifice so that the community will not have to confront why it offers sacrifice continually.

b. The Meeting with Esau. After the encounter at the Jabbok, Jacob must still face Esau. As he sees Esau approaching with four hundred men, he anxiously arrays his women and children, with his favored ones, Rachel and Joseph, at the rear where they will presumably be safer. Jacob leads the way, "bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother" (33:4). Jacob is overwhelmed with Esau's enthusiastically affectionate greeting. When Esau asks him about the "camp," or company of animals, Jacob replies that it is all for his older brother, "to find favor in the sight of my Lord" (33:8).

We as readers are not prepared for Esau's generous welcome of the brother who had tricked him out of the blessing. After the notice that he had married Canaanite women to displease his father, we hear no more of him until he comes within Jacob's horizon once more. Has he changed? Has the divinely guided process of differentiation been at work in his life also? Or has he simply received the message that the cattle and sheep and other animals were intended as a peace offering to him? In that case, he approaches Jacob with some guile in his own right, although the story intends us to understand that he and his men could have easily destroyed or captured Jacob and his company.

However that may be, the next three verses are crucial for understanding the reunion of the brothers: "And Esau said, 'I have much (rav), my brother; keep what is yours.' And Jacob said, 'No, please, if I have found favor in your eyes then take my gift (minhati) from my hand, because (ki al-ken) I have seen your face, [which is] like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me. Please take my blessing (birkati) that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me and because I have everything (kol).' And so he urged him, and he took it" (33:9-11, my translation).

Esau, pretending perhaps not to desire the gift, says "I have much." The usual translation is "I have enough" (so the RSV and NRSV). The word in question is rav, which in context may mean "enough," or simply "much" or "a lot." It is also used for other distinctions. In the oracle to Rebecca before the twins were born, the Lord told her that "the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder (rav) shall serve the younger" (25:23). The rav, the older brother, now tells the younger, "I have rav," but the younger then tells the older, "I have everything (kol)"! This phrase, "I have kol," is usually taken as having the same sense as "having rav," but this rendering is to miss the comparison Jacob is making: Esau has a lot, but he, Jacob, has everything!

That is not all, for the "gift" that Jacob offers turns out to be a "blessing"! The Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version render this also as "gift," but again, translators have had difficulty with this word because they did not comprehend what is at stake in the story. Of course, in the sphere of the sacred, giving a gift and giving a blessing are distinct but closely related ritual acts. In ritual or a highly ritualized situation, the gift is a substitute for sacrifice; the blessing is the ritual word that confers the peace and welfare that form the obverse of the disorder the prohibition seeks to avoid. Nonetheless, in ordinary speech they have the appearance of being quite different from each other, so Jacob's use of the word blessing comes as a surprise here. It may be a slip of the tongue, as Michael Fishbane maintains (see below), but deciding the question does not really matter. What matters is the outcome of Jacob's thought, "I may propitiate or atone his face with a gift." Jacob is returning the blessing that he had stolen, and in so doing he is asking his brother for forgiveness. He is asking, indeed, for release from death-guilt, and in requesting this release he compares his brother's face to the face of God ("because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God").

A number of years ago Michael Fishbane already discerned some of what I have set forth here concerning Jacob's meeting with Esau. Two passages in his essay are worthy of quotation. The first concerns the blessing. "What [Jacob] says, in effect, is 'Take [back] the blessing which I have tricked from you.' Esau does, in fact, accept it from Jacob. By such an external transaction the internal guilt of a misappropriated blessing is 'atoned' for." (10) The other has to do with Fishbane's interpretation of the relation of Jacob's struggle with the adversary and his meeting with his brother.

The wrestling scene thus appears to be part of Jacob's dream-work, whereby he "works through" the anticipated struggle with Esau by fusing it with earlier wrestlings with his brother -- in the womb and at birth. The use of the wrestling image not only underscores the agon-struggle which Jacob anticipates with Esau, but effectively discloses the psychic core of the event (also indicated by the tongueslip [saying "blessing" rather than "gift"]). Compounded by guilt, the anticipated fraternal strife is fused with an earlier one, allowing Jacob to resolve the conflict raging within him. In the "night encounter" Jacob wrestles with the "Esau" he carried within him. The "rebirth" Jacob achieves by his psychic victory in the night had still to be confirmed in the light of day .... Having seen Elohim face to face at Penuel, Jacob can prepare to meet Esau face to face as well. (11)
I find Fishbane's reading quite perceptive. For my purposes it does not matter whether Jacob is engaged in "dream-work," although in general I would want to avoid the connotation of psychological processes that stem from an "unconscious," a kind of mythical place of the psyche that determines psychic life. (12) But I agree with Fishbane on these specific points: (1) Jacob says to Esau, in effect, "Take back this blessing that I tricked from you." He thus atones Esau's face with the gift-blessing in the sense of releasing himself from death-guilt and renewing his relationship with his brother. (2) The contest at the Jabbok recapitulates Jacob's previous struggle with Esau (in the womb, for the blessing) and represents what he anxiously anticipates as a conflict-ridden, if not violent, meeting with his brother. (3) Jacob himself, perhaps by analogy to his mother carrying twins, struggles with the "Esau" he bears within him, and in successfully carrying this through he experiences "rebirth." I would want to emphasize, though, that a rebirth for Jacob is in some sense a rebirth for Esau.

Fishbane's analysis of the Jacob story need only be supplemented and strengthened, first, by the recognition that sacrifice, blessing, and prohibition are rooted in mimetic desire and rivalry. (13) The Jacob story is told within this ancient structure of the human condition but seeks to disclose a liberating alternative, a good mimesis in response to the ancient structure of the sacred.

Jacob and Esau desired the same object, the patriarchal blessing (that is, patriarchal status and power), because their father had it, and each knew the other wanted it. But the sacrificial substitutes (the meals), prohibition (not to kill, not to displace the rival who has the blessing), and myth (the tradition of the chosen one who will prosper) have not sufficed to differentiate the enemy brothers and settle their differences. At the Jabbok, Jacob "forces" the divine adversary to bless him and "accepts" the blessing that attends a new name. The name Israel signifies that he is no longer "Jacob" in the sense of "Jacob struggling with Esau," but is now "Israel" in the sense of "Jacob the ancestor of God's people of the future." As such, as this "new Jacob" that is "Israel," he is ready to become the ancestor of a great people.

Moreover, in my reading, the Face of God plays a more significant role than in Fishbane's. Fishbane speaks of Jacob's face-to-face encounter with God as a preparation for his encounter with Esau. I think it is much more than that. The Face of God is the gracious power that differentiates properly and appropriately. The encounter with the Panim has done what birth and sacrifice and patriarchal blessing could not do: separate the rival twins so that they could be brothers and not enemies. When Jacob says, "Because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God," he clearly means that Esau's face is a reminder of the divine countenance, of the Face that settles differences because it is not caught up in human differences. Esau is no longer god to Jacob, but he is a reminder of the God that accepts both brothers as distinct.

In a sense, it does appear that Esau is a kind of "god" to Jacob, for the plot line of the story indicates Jacob's fear of Esau. Moreover, Jacob humbles himself as if he were Esau's subject, not only bowing to him but also calling him "Lord" (33:8, 13, 14, 15) and referring to himself as "your servant" (33:5). This is also probably an ironic touch in the narrative in light of the oracle to Rebecca ("the elder shall serve the younger") and Isaac's prophecy of Jacob's dominance (27:29, 40). But if at the narrative surface Jacob appears to grovel, at a deeper level the significance of the transformation at the Jabbok has taken away his need to contest anything with his brother. He can "return" the blessing and politely grant Esau the title of Lord on Esau's turf because now his own destiny is clear, his own "lordship" has been affirmed.

The aftermath of the meeting with Esau could be viewed purely and simply as Jacob up to his old tricks. Esau wants Jacob to come with him to Seir, and Jacob promises to join him there after he makes a slower journey so that his children and the flocks will not be overtaxed. But when Esau leaves, Jacob journeys on to Canaan and builds an altar at Shechem, an altar that he calls "God, the God of Israel" (33:20). Again, even though this is deception at the narrative surface, we are prepared by now to accept the differentiation of Jacob and Esau that has taken place. They will henceforth be properly distinguished, Jacob in Canaan and Esau in Seir. Each must go his own way.

To conclude concerning the story of Jacob and Esau, the relation of the brothers is a model of mimetic desire and rivalry precisely because the brothers are twins, a factor that intensifies the rivalry and the need to differentiate the two. This need for differentiation functioned in Israel's traditions as a story of Israel's differentiation from its ancestral stock and relationships. At the same time it discloses that separation and identity can and should take place without violence. As already noted, in the Jacob model of origins, the hero's injury or disability is not primarily a sign of his outsider status and an indication of his fate as a victim. The figure of Jacob is basically different from the expelled hero or sacred king. Unlike the blindness of Oedipus, Jacob's limp is a sign of his success, a sign that he has been victorious without scapegoating or being scapegoated. The truth of the revelation to which the text bears witness (which, because of its debt to the myth of the unconscious and of endless signification, an analysis like Barthes's will not touch), is that there is an Other whose providential reality is necessary to liberation from victimization because this Other is beyond differences and accepts human creatures in spite of the differences they make between God and man and between each other.


1. Hartmut Gese, "Die Sühne," Zur Biblischen Theologie (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1977), 90 (my trans.). The passages discussed include Exod 21:30; 32:30-32; 2 Sam 21:1-14; Deut 32:43; Isa 6:7; Deut 21:1-9; 1 Sam 3:14.

2. See James G. Williams, "The Comedy- of Jacob," Journal of the American Academy of Religion Supplement 46 (1978), 241-266, where I treat in some detail wordplays, sound plays (e.g., on the consonants in Jacob's name), and repetitions.

3. For example, "angel of the LORD" in Exod 3:3, 7.

4. See Williams, "Comedy of Jacob."

5. See Stanley Gevirtz, "Of Patriarchs and Puns: Joseph at the Fountain, Jacob at the Ford," Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975), 51-53.

6. See Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, ed. S. Pirkova-Jacobson, trans. L. Scott (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1958), function 17.

7. R. Barthes, in Barthes, et al., "La lutte avec l'ange," Analyse Structurale et Exégèse Biblique: Essais d'interprétation (Paris: Delachaus et Niestlé, 1971), 28, 33, 34 (my trans.).

8. Barthes, "La lutte avec l'ange," 35, 36.

9. Barthes, "La lutte avec l'ange," 39.

10. Michael Fishbane, Text and Texture (New York: Schocken. 1979), 52.

11. Fishbane, Text and Tenure, 52-53.

12. See in particular Girard's comment on the concept of the unconscious as a kind of deus ex machina that intervenes from the past in neurotic episodes. Critiques dans on souterain, 33-34.

13. Fishbane certainly comes close to this recognition with his statement that the Jacob cycle "opens as a tale of barrenness and birth, of deception and strife, of rights and priorities, and of blessing and power. As intimated, these issues recur throughout the narrative" (Fishbane, Text and Texture, 46).