During a strange and famous night, Jacob struggled for a long time with a ‘man’, hand to hand, thigh to thigh. Neither winner nor loser. Finally, the ‘man’ struck Jacob in the hollow (kaf) of the hip (yarakh). The hip dislocated.i
In Hebrew, the word kaf has several meanings: « the hollow, the palm of the hand; the sole of the foot; or the concavity of the hip (the ischium, one of the three bones that make up the hipbone) ». These meanings all derive from the verbal root kafaf meaning ‘that which is curved, that which is hollow’. In another vocalization (kef), this word also means ‘rock, cave’.
Jacob’s battle did not end until his adversary, the man, wanted to leave at dawn. But Jacob would not let him go. He said to him: « I will not leave you until you have blessed me »ii .
This was a strange request, addressed to a determined adversary who had been able to hit him in the weakest point, in the hollow of the thigh, dislocating it.
A strange, disjointed dialogue followed.
The man asked Jacob: “What is your name?”
He answered: “Jacob”.
The man replied, « Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have fought with God and with men, and have prevailed »iii.
Was it against God himself that Jacob had been fighting all night? And had Jacob fought not only against God, but also ‘with men’? And had he decisively defeated all them, divine and human, only at the price of a dislocated hip?
However his apparent success was not complete… His name had indeed been changed for eternity, and he had received eloquent praise, but Jacob was still not blessed, despite his urgent request.
Changing his tactics, he questioned the ‘man’:
« Let me, I pray thee, know thy name. He answered : – Why do you ask my name? And he blessed him there »iv.
‘He blessed him, there’. In Hebrew: Va yebarekh cham.
The word cham means ‘there’; but in a very close vocalization, the word chem means ‘name’.
Jacob asked the man for his ‘name’ (chem), and in response the man blessed him, ‘there’ (cham).
This is literally a ‘metaphor’, – that is to say, a ‘displacement’ of the ‘name’ (chem) to a place, ‘there’ (cham).
And this ‘there’, this ‘place’, was soon to receive a new name (Peni-El), given by Jacob-Israel.
The divine transcendence, which does not reveal its name (chem) here, suggests that Jacob is faced with an absolute non-knowledge, a radical impossibility of hearing the (ineffable) name. This non-knowledge and this transcendent non-saying can nevertheless be grasped, through a metaphor of immanence, through the displacement towards the ‘there’ (cham), but also through a metaphor inscribed in the body, in the hollow (kaf) of the hip and in the ‘displacement’ (the dislocation) that this hollow makes possible.
What a curious encounter, then, that of Jacob with the divine!
Jacob had fought without winning, nor being defeated, but the hollow of his hip was struck, and of this dislocated hip, the children of Israel still keep the memory by a food taboo…
Jacob had asked to be blessed by his adversary, but the latter had only changed his name (chem), – without however blessing him.
Jacob then asked the man for his own name (chem), and the man, as his only answer, finally blessed him, ‘there’ (cham), but still without giving him his name (chem).
Since he did not know this name, which was kept secret, Jacob gave this place, this ‘there’ (cham), the name (chem) of ‘Peni-El‘. « For, he said, I have seen God face to face, and my life (nefech) has been saved. »v
Since he could not hear the proper name of God, Jacob gave a name to this place, using the generic word El, which means ‘god’.
Peni-El, word for word, ‘face of God’.
This was an a posteriori affirmation that the ‘man’ against whom Jacob had fought was in fact God, or at least some living being who had presented him with a ‘face’ of God…
Now, it had long been accepted in the ancient religion of the Hebrews that one cannot see the face of God without dying.
Jacob had struggled ‘against God’ and had seen His face, yet he had not died. His own name had been changed, and he had been blessed, – but the name (of God) had not been revealed to him.
This revelation would be made much later to Moses, but then Moses would not see the ‘face of God’, since he had to take refuge in the ‘hollow’ of another rock, and see only the back of God…
To Jacob and Moses were revealed the Name or the Face, – not the Name and the Face.
Let us add that all this scene took place at night. Then the sun came.
« The sun was beginning to shine on him when he left Peni-El »vi.
This direct reference to the sun (and to the light of day) seems to give the solar star the role of a negator of the night, and of revelation.
It is probably not unrelated either, from the Hebrew point of view, to the ancient Egyptian culture, which is known to have seen in the ‘sun’, as in ‘night’, one of the symbols of the divine.
To understand this implicit reference in its relation to the story of Jacob’s struggle against ‘man’ or against ‘God’, it may be useful to cite a singular episode in the story of Ra, – this solar God who also, strikingly enough, refused to reveal his ineffable name to a tireless questioner, Isis.
The famous Egyptologist, Gaston Maspéro, has described this story in detail, taking as his source the ‘hieratic’ papyri of Turin, dating back to the Ramesside period of the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, from the end of the fourteenth century to the twelfth century B.C., and thus some two or three centuries before the period corresponding to the generations of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
« Nothing shows this better than the story of Ra. His universe was the outline of ours, for Shu did not yet exist, Nouît continued to rest in the arms of Sibou, and the sky was one with the earth. « vii
By dint of his generosity towards men, the God Ra had kept only one of his powers, his own Name, which his father and mother had given him, which they had revealed to him alone and which he kept hidden in the depths of his chest, for fear that a magician or a sorcerer would seize it.viii
But Ra was getting old, his body was bending, « his mouth was shivering, his drool was running to the ground, and his saliva was dripping on the ground »ix.
It so happened that « Isis, until then a simple woman in the service of Pharaoh, conceived the project of robbing him of his secret ‘in order to possess the world and to make herself a goddess by the name of the august godx. Violence would not have succeeded: weakened as he was by years, no one had enough strength to fight against him successfully. But Isis ‘was a woman who knew more in her malice than millions of men, who was skillful among millions of gods, who was equal to millions of spirits, and who knew everything in heaven or on earth, as much as Ra did’xi. She devised a most ingenious stratagem. If a man or a god was ill, the only way to cure him was to know his true name and to call upon the evil being who was tormenting himxii. Isis resolved to launch a terrible evil against Ra, the cause of which she would conceal from him, and then to offer to heal him and to wrest from him through suffering the mysterious word indispensable to the success of the exorcism. She collected the mud impregnated with the divine slime, and kneaded a sacred snake of it which she buried in the dust of the road. The god, bitten unexpectedly as he left for his daily rounds, uttered a howl: ‘his voice went up to heaven and his Novena, « What is it, what is it? », and his gods, « What is it, what is it? », but he did not find what to answer them, so much his lips were chattering, so much his limbs were trembling, so much the venom was taking on his flesh, as the Nile takes on the ground which it invades. »xiii
He came back to himself however and managed to express what he felt (…): ‘Here, let them bring me the children of the gods with the beneficent words, who know the power of their mouth and whose knowledge reaches the sky!
They came, the children of the gods, each of them with their grimoires. She came, Isis, with her sorcery, her mouth full of life-giving breaths, her recipe for destroying pain, her words that pour life into breathless throats, and she said: ‘What is this, what is this, O father-gods? Is it not that a serpent produces pain in you, that one of your children raises his head against you? Surely he will be overthrown by beneficent incantations and I will force him to retreat at the sight of your rays.’xiv
The Sun, learning the cause of his torments, is frightened (…). Isis offers him her remedy and discreetly asks him for the ineffable name, but he guesses the ruse and tries to get out of it by enumerating his titles. He takes the universe as witness that he is called ‘Khopri in the morning, Ra at noon, Toumou in the evening’. The venom did not flow back, but it still worked and the great god was not relieved.
Then Isis said to Ra: ‘Your name is not stated in what you have recited to me! Tell me and the venom will come out, for the individual lives, let him be charmed in his own name.’ The venom was like fire, it was strong like the burning of the flame, so the Majesty of Ra said: ‘I grant that you search me, O mother Isis, and that my name pass from my breast into your breast.’xv
The almighty name was really hidden in the body of the god, and it could only be extracted by a surgical operation, similar to that which corpses undergo at the beginning of mummification. Isis undertook it, succeeded, drove out the poison, and became a goddess by virtue of the Name. The skill of a simple woman had stripped Ra of his last talisman. »xvi
Let us put in parallel the two stories, that of the fight of Jacob in Genesis and that of the extortion of the ineffable name of Ra by Isis, in the Turin papyrus.
Jacob is a man, intelligent, rich, head of a large family and of a numerous domesticity.
Isis is a simple woman, a servant of the Pharaoh, but very cunning and determined at all costs to reach a divine status.
Jacob fights against a man who is in reality God (or an envoy of God, possessing his ‘face’). He asks him for his blessing and his name, but only obtains the blessing, the change of his own name, without the ineffable name of God (only known under the generic name ‘El’) being revealed to him.
Isis deceives the God (publicly known as Ra, Khopri, or Tumu) by her cunning. This great god shows himself weak and suffering, and he is easily fooled by this woman, Isis. She uses the God’s creative powers without his knowledge, and forms, from a mud impregnated with the divine saliva, a snake that bites the God and inoculates him with a deadly venom. The Sun God is now so weak that he cannot even bear, although he is the Sun of the universe, the ‘fire’ of the venom, ‘burning’ like a ‘flame’…
Jacob « fights » hand to hand with the God-man, who strikes him in the « hollow » of the hip, without ever revealing his Name.
Isis, for her part, « searches » the breast of the God Ra, with his (somewhat forced) agreement, in order to finally extract his (unmentioned) Name, and incorporate it directly into her own breast, which has become divine.
An idea somewhat similar to this search in the ‘breast’, though to some extent reversed, is found in the account of Moses’ encounter with God on Horeb.
« The Lord said to him again, ‘Put your hand in your breast’. He put his hand in his breast and took it out, and it was leprous, white as snow. He said again, ‘Put your hand back into your breast’. And he put his hand in his breast again, and then he took it out, and behold, it had regained its color. « xvii
The similarity is in the search of the ‘breast’. The difference is that Moses searches his own breast, whereas Isis searched the breast of Ra…
Note that in the case of Jacob as in that of Isis, the ineffable name is still not revealed. Jacob only knows the generic name El.
As for Isis, she is given to see the Name transported from the bosom of Ra into her own bosom, divinizing her in the process, but without her publicly revealing the Name itself.
However, it is undeniable that Isis succeeded where Jacob failed. She got to know the Name, in her heart.
There is yet another difference between Isis and Jacob.
Jacob, by his new name, embodied the birth of ‘Israel’.
As for Isis, she became a goddess, and the faithful companion, in life and in death, of the god Osiris. She transcended, when the time came, his dismemberment, and prepared the conditions of his resurrection. She participated in the metaphysical adventure of this murdered, dismembered and resurrected God, whose divided body, cut into pieces, was distributed through the nomes of Egypt, to transmit to them life, strength and eternity.
Today, Isis seems to have no more reality than that which is given to ancient dreams.
And yet, the metaphor of the murdered God (Osiris), whose body was cut up and distributed throughout Egypt and the rest of the world, offers some analogy with the Christian idea of the messianic God, murdered and shared in communion.
Man’s play with metaphors continues to this day…
Who will win, in the end, the transcendence of the ‘name’ (chem), – or the immanence of the ‘there’ (cham)?
The ‘hollowness’ of Jacob’s hip, or the ‘fullness’ of Isis’ breast?
Or should we expect something else, as ineffable as the Name?
Something that would unite together the full and the hollow, the chem and the cham?
iGen 32, 25-26
iiGen 32, 25-26
iiiGen 32, 29
ivGn 32, 30
vGen 32, 31
viGn 32, 32
viiG. Maspéro. Ancient history of the peoples of the Classical East. Hachette Bookstore. Paris, 1895, p. 160
viiiG. Maspéro indicates in a note that the legend of the Sun stripped of its heart by Isis was published in three fragments by Pleyte and Rossi (Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. XXXI, LXXVII, CXXXI-CXXXVIII), without them suspecting its value, which was recognized by Lefébure (Un chapitre de la Chronique solaire, in the Zeitschrift, 1883, p.27-33). In op.cit. p. 162, note 2.
ixPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 2-3, in op.cit. p. 162, note 3.
xPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 1-2, in op.cit. p. 162, note 4.
xiPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXI, I, 14 – pl. CXXXII, I,1, in op.cit. p. 162, note 5.
xiiOn the power of divine names and the value of knowing their exact names, see G. Maspero, Etudes de mythologie et d’Archéologie Égyptiennes, vol. II, pp. 208 ff.
xiiiPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 6-8, in op.cit. p. 163, note 1.
xivPleyte-Rossi, The Hieratic Papyrus of Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 9- pl… CCXXXIII, I,3, in op.cit. p. 163, note 2.
xvPleyte-Rossi, Les Papyrus hiératiques de Turin, pl. CXXXII, I, 10-12, in op.cit. p. 164, note 1.
xviG. Maspéro. Ancient history of the peoples of the Classical East. Hachette Bookstore. Paris, 1895, p. 161-164.
xviiEx 4, 6-7