Questions from G: Jacob

Now that the girls are getting older (10 and 8 respectively), we’ve been working this Lent on praying Morning and Evening Prayer from the prayer book (well—from the breviary, technically) as we’re able. M and I do the offices as regularly as possible, but it’s usually at a time when the girls are not around. By making a point of doing them as a family we’re modelling it and reinforcing the importance of the Office.

I typically ask at the end if there are any questions. Lil’ G (who’s 10), looked at me the other day and said, “Yeah—why do the psalms talk so much about Jacob?” I thought this was a great question and explained it for her. And, if she’s asking it, other people may be asking it too…

This was a couple of days ago when we were reading through the historical psalms in the 70’s—in particular the stretch from 75-80. Here are some examples take from Ps 75:

  He gave his decrees to Jacob and established a law for Israel, *
which he commanded them to teach their children;

21   When the LORD heard this, he was full of wrath; *
a fire was kindled against Jacob, and his anger mounted against Israel;

71   He brought him from following the ewes, *
to be a shepherd over Jacob his people and over Israel his inheritance.

So, Jacob is one of the great patriarchs of Genesis. When we speak about God and God’s relationship with his people in the early days, we speak of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” and one of the identifying names for God we find in Exodus is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (see throughout Exodus 3-6). The story of Jacob is found in Genesis 25 to 36. As you’ll recall, Jacob was the one with all the kids who would turn out to become the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel. And that’s a key point… Not once but twice, Jacob is given a new name from God himself; in both Gen 32:28  (after wrestling with God by night) and in Gen 35:10 (where God is confirming the blessings on Jacob) he is called “Israel.”

As a result, when see the phrase, “the sons/children of Israel,” it’s functionally interchangeable with “sons/children of Jacob” and thus refers to all the people of the 12 tribes of (from) Israel/Jacob.

If you glance back up at the psalm snippets, you’ll see this pretty clearly; one of the most common features of Hebrew poetry—psalms included—is parallelism, saying the same kind of thing in slightly different words. As you see, Jacob and Israel are used in parallel, one balancing the other.

However, you’ll also note that the psalms doesn’t seem to really be referring to the patriarch—and that’s also true. Both “Jacob” and “Israel” came to function as territorial designations. As you’ll recall, the 12 tribes were all allotted specific parcels of land in the gripping chapters of Joshua 14-21. “Israel” was shorthand for the territory. When the kingdom split after the death of Solomon, Israel became the designation for the Northern Kingdom while Judah was the name of the Southern Kingdom. As a result, in the psalms, Jacob/Israel/Samaria (the capital city of Israel) are frequently used to refer to the northern political entity—the part that didn’t have the Temple, that flirted more with apostacy due in part to close connections with the Phoenicians (think Jezebel, wife of the northern King Ahab), and which was crushed by the Assyrians in 722 BC.

Because the Temple was in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, and many of the psalms reflect a Jerusalem setting, we occasionally have a bit of trash-talking at the North’s expense. Indeed, Ps 75 provides a perfect example of this: it has a long narrative section that describes God’s rocky relationship with Jacob/Israel. Then, right near the end, we have a brief section about how much more God loves Judah than Israel. It should come as no surprise that many scholars see this as a latter section added on in the South to a pre-existing northern composition!

One Reply to “Questions from G: Jacob”

  1. In J. M. Neale’s Commentary on the Psalms, he equates Jacob with the Church Militant, and Israel with the Church Triumphant (He makes the same distinction for Jerusalem and Syon) :
    “‘He sheweth his word unto Jacob,’ as indeed he did at the Incarnation; ‘his statutes and ordinances unto Israel;’ that is, the full knowledge of his mysteries, the understanding of the depth of his dispensations, is reserved for the Church triumphant.” (Vol. I, p. 453.) He spends several pages on it!

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