Struggling With Monotheism

Jacob and his family's evolving relationship with God illustrates the complex struggle with faith and monotheism.

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Why did the editor of the text choose to tell the story in this way? Why didn’t he develop a text according to the model I was taught in high school, as a book of pure monotheistic faith? A possible answer is that there were theological “divisions” that the editors in effect overlooked. According to this approach, some Torah passages express a pre-monotheistic, pagan religious approach that reflect not the editors’ viewpoint, but their failure to confront a competing theological stance.

I don’t accept this theory. I believe that the Torah tell us the story of a struggle on the road to faith. Jacob’s story in Bet El is true because it reflects the complex, human truth that, while God is indeed found everywhere, we often also believe in strange gods. Such deities are “foreign gods,” which can mean: Sometimes, we worship gods that have no resemblance to the true God.

The Complex Road to Monotheism

Sometimes, we take steps away from God that only serve to bring us closer to Him. And sometimes, as with Jacob, we forget that God is everywhere and are surprised to discover Him suddenly outside of the Holy Land, or outside of the synagogue, or even in the heart of a stranger.

Immediately following Jacob’s building of the altar and naming it “El Bet El” (God [of] the House of God), God reveals himself to Jacob. Among His blessings to the patriarch are, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel will be your name” (This marks the second time Jacob’s name-change appears in the text; the first occurs immediately following Jacob’s struggle with the angel, in Genesis 32:29, near the parashah’s beginning). The meaning of Jacob’s new name, “struggler with God,” re-enforces the theme of this narrative: the story of the struggle on the road to faith.

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Osnat Elnatan

Osnat Elnatan is the director of the non-profit organization Kehilla, a UJA-Federation of New York beneficiary agency that promotes Jewish pluralism and community development in the Israeli city of Bet Shemesh. A member of the urban kibbutz Tammuz, she also teaches in the Bet Shemesh Community Bet Midrash (house of Jewish study).