Translating from one language to another always involves imprecision and a degree of informed speculation. Such is especially the case with dead languages since the translator cannot have access to a native speaker for advice. One passage in Genesis has long intrigued me because the almost universally accepted translation does not seem to fit the circumstances and because another option tantalizes me. The linguistic data suggest that this other option is merely possible, not likely; my sense of its suitability to the context, on the other hand, entices me at least to contemplate the significance of the possibility.
When Jacob wrestled with the mysterious stranger on the far side of the Jabbok the night before he and his family would meet his brother Esau and an entourage of 400 men on horseback, just before the contest ended in an apparent draw, the stranger changed Jacob’s name to Israel (Gen 32:28). He explained the name change with a popular etymology that alludes to the contest at the Jabbok (Yisrael = “wrestled with God”). The name suits, the stranger said, because Jacob “had striven (yasar, cf. Hos 12:5) with God (el, thus yasar + el = yisra el) and with men.” The next one-word clause (wattukal) is, for me, the problem. It is almost universally translated “and have prevailed.” The root verb ykl normally functions as an auxiliary in the meaning “to be able to,” taking a supplementary verb to complete the idea: “to be able to do something.” In these instances, forms of the English word “can” may be used “he is able to/ he can run.” Sometimes it stands alone and, in these cases, usually means, as the translations rightly recognize “to prevail, succeed.” One other linguistic possibility also intrigues me. Hebrew has only a few conjunctions. It relies heavily on one (the wa[t] in wattukal) to do the work of all the conjunctions we have in English: and, but, because, since, however, etc. Taken together, I wonder whether the final clause in the stranger’s statement might be translated “because you could.”
After all, Jacob had definitely not prevailed in the wrestling match with the stranger. Instead, midway through the standoff, the man “touched” Jacob on the thigh and displaced Jacob’s hip. Jacob would leave the encounter not only with a new name, but with a limp to accompany him the rest of his life as a reminder of the struggle. Jacob failed to learn the stranger’s name, although in the aftermath, he concluded that he must have been wrestling with God (“So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel [= “face of God’],” 32:31). I do not see any victory for Jacob here other than, as Jacob himself realized, he walked away with his life.
Jacob’s history of struggle with other people does not comport with the notion that he always prevailed, either. Rather, his pattern of relating to his family reflected the meaning of his name before it was changed: Jacob, “cheat.” To be sure, he succeeded in buying his brother’s birthright and stealing his blessing. Yet, he had to leave home because of Esau’s determination to kill him in retaliation and the morning following the wrestling match, he would come face to face with Esau and his army. Jacob had become wealthy, but he could not hope to defend himself against an angry, aggressive, armed brother.
Jacob found himself in this tenuous position, after all, because he had also struggled with his father-in-law/uncle, Laban, for economic advantage. Round one had gone to Laban when Laban pulled a “bait and switch” with Rachel and Leah, extending Jacob’s seven-year indenture to fourteen. Apparently, deceit and fraud were family habits: the theft of the blessing had been Rebekah’s idea. She must have learned the technique from her brother. In any case, at least in the eyes of Laban’s sons, Jacob had virtually impoverished the family in round two of his struggle with his father-in-law. They had parted company with bitterness and recrimination. Jacob was journeying back home because he had nowhere else to go! He was trapped between a murderously angry brother and murderously angry brothers-in-law!
Jacob may have succeeded materially, in the short term. In the long term, he had destroyed every important relationship with members of his family except for his wives. Consequently, he was on the run – limping as he went. Consequently, “and you have prevailed” does not suit the story of Jacob’s life.
Why would anyone be so selfishly destructive of relationships? Jacob was clearly ambitious and he did the things he did, I submit, simply “because he could.” He could gain materially by tricking his brother and lying to his aging father, so he did. He could gain by tricking his father-in-law, so he did. The personal consequences did not enter into his calculations.
Jacob/Israel is the patriarch who would be at home in today’s America in which bankruptcy has become a business tool to be manipulated ‘because you can’ rather than a last resort. Why do large corporations turn their backs on the workers who built their success to relocate abroad? Because they can. Persons are means. From the interstates flooded with people recklessly racing to their destinations to classrooms full of students who consider cheating a tool toward success, our culture abounds in Jacobs doing what they do because they can. Raid the pension fund? Go ahead, because you can. Cut corners on your taxes? Go ahead, because you can.
Jacobs must be prepared, however, for the wake of damaged and destroyed relationships that they will leave behind. They must be prepared for the contest that may render them lame. God willing, they may get a new name.