Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dale C. Allison on Jacob and Israel

In the Prayer of Joseph, frg. A, the patriarch Jacob utters these arresting words: “I, Jacob, who speak with you, am also Israel, an angel of God and a ruling spirit. Abraham and Isaac were created before any work. But I, Jacob, whom men call Jacob but whose name is Israel, am he whom God called Israel which means, a man seeing God, because I am the firstborn of every living thing to whom God gives life.”1 Although this obscure fragment probably equates Jacob with the angel Israel, who has come to earth and somehow forgotten his true identity, it must be related to the well-known tradition that the features of the patriarch Jacob/Israel have a heavenly correlative on or near God's throne.2 It seems likely enough, reading between the lines, and as James Kugel has suggested, that some Jews held the earthly Jacob to have a heavenly counterpart. Such a belief could have arisen from the Hebrew of Gen 32:29 (םיהלא־םע תירש), taken to mean, “you [Jacob] have been exalted with God,” and/or from the popular etymology of Israel's name, “the man who sees God”3 (לארשי being supposed to derive from איש ראה אל) Since Jacob was on earth, not in heaven, he was neither exalted in that place nor privileged with the constant vision of God; so it must have seemed incumbent to posit a super-celestial twin. Surmising such an idea helps account for the unnamed Nag Hammadi text that turns the figure in Exod 4:22 (“Israel is my firstborn son”) into a heavenly being,4 as well as Pirqe R. El. 37, which recounts that the angel who wrestled with Jacob gave him his own name, for he too was called “Israel”5—a legend known already to Justin.6 [Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History p. 299]

1. Preserved in Origen, Comm. Jo. 2.31. For discussion, see Jonathan Z. Smith, “The Prayer of Joseph,” in Religions in Antiquity: Essays in Memory of Erwin Randsell Goodenough (ed. Jacob Neusner; SHR 14; Leiden: Brill, 1968), 253–94. 2. See Tg. Ps.-J. on Gen 28:13–17; Tg. Onq. on Gen 28:13–16; Gen. Rab. 68:12; Pirqe R. El. 35. For a related refrain in later Jewish thought, “the patriarchs themselves are the Merkabah,” see, for example, Gen. Rab. 47:6; 69:3; 82:6. 3. Cf. Philo, Flight 208; Dreams 1.171; Pr. Jos. 3; Origen, Princ. 4.3.12. 4. See Die Koptisch-gnostische Schrift ohne Titel aus Codex II von Nag Hammadi (ed. Alexander Böhlig and Pahor Labib; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1962), 52, 54 (153 lines 20–25). 5. For traditions about the angel “Israel,” see Smith, “Prayer of Joseph," 262 - 265 6. According to Justin (Dial. 125.3), Jesus bore the name “Israel,” with which he christened Jacob after wrestling with him.

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