Struggling With Monotheism

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

Commentary on Parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

The weekly Torah portion Vayishlach is composed of many different subjects that are unequal in importance or length. The Torah portion can be summarized in eight “subheadings:”

1. Jacob’s journey with his family from Laban’s house and the meeting with his brother Esau on the way

2. His struggle with a mysterious person (angel?) who blesses him

3. The rape of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, and Jacob’s sons’ revenge on all the men of the city where the rape occurred

4. Jacob’s building of an altar in Bet El

5. Rachel’s death while giving birth to Benjamin

6. Reuben’s sin in lying with his father’s concubine

7. The death of Isaac

8. The listing of Esau’s children and the kings of Edom

My focus is on the building of the altar at Bet El, as described in Genesis 35:1: “And God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bet El, and dwell there; and make there an altar to God, Who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother.’”

A Reminder

The purpose of this verse is to remind us of the dream Jacob had had after fleeing his brother, about the ladder stretching from earth to heaven, and how he’d vowed to build an altar at the place where he’d dreamt this revelatory dream.

In Genesis 28:16-19, we read that Jacob woke up from his slumber and exclaimed, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not! …And he called the name of that place Bet El, but the name of that city was called Luz at first.” Jacob had vowed to build a monument and a House of God in that place if God would protect him on his journey.

Now, twenty years later, Jacob leaves his father-in-law’s home with a large family (four wives, eleven sons and one daughter). God reminds him that he must go to Bet El, to dwell there and to build an altar, as he had previously vowed to do. Jacob turns to his family and tells them that they must remove the foreign gods that are among them, to purify themselves and to change their garments, and to join him on his journey to Bet El.

What Can We Learn From Bet El?

After his family gives Jacob all of their foreign gods which they carry with them as well as their jewelry he buries all the implements of idol worship under an oak tree in Shekhem. Then, everyone travels to Luz, which is Bet El, in order to build the altar there.

This story raises a number of difficult questions regarding belief in God and monotheism: When waking up from his dream when he first set foot in Bet El, how was it possible that Jacob did not know that God was in this place? Didn’t he realize that God is found in all places?

Who and what are the “other gods” that Jacob asked his family to remove? Why is it that, when the children of Israel built the golden calf, this was considered a great sin, while here, when the “strange gods” that Jacob’s family buries under the oak tree are alluded to, there’s no mention made of sin or punishment? What does the name Bet El (“the house of God”) hint at? Is God found in certain places more than in others?

These questions very much pertain to our lives today. According to our beliefs, is God found in all places? Do we have one “God,” as well as certain “strange gods” that we must remove prior to building an altar? Is the synagogue considered the “house of God” more than one’s own private home or workplace? Is God to be found in the Land of Israel more than in New York? And if the answer to all of these questions is in the negative, what is the meaning, if any, of a “holy place?” Does it have any meaning?

God and Place

When I was a child in an Israeli public school, I was taught that the Bible is the book of monotheistic faith, of how the people of Israel became a nation that believes in one, abstract God Who controls nature and history. I learned that a culture based on monotheism is more moral and that mankind, because it’s created in God’s image, has a special place in the world.

Today, when I read a narrative like that of Jacob in Bet El, I discover that biblical stories express a much greater complexity. In the ancient world, God belongs to a specific place. The god of Egypt rules in Egypt; that of Moav rules in Moav. According to this approach, “our” God is just another divinity who rules over a specific land (Canaan).

Thus, Jacob’s astonishment upon waking from his dream is warranted. While he had thought that the God of Israel belongs only to one specific place, he discovers to his surprise that God is also found “outside of the Land.” He learns that God is not a local god, but a transcendent God Who controls the world and dwells everywhere.

Still, among Jacob and his family, God continues to exist alongside the “strange gods” that they carry with them in their baggage throughout their wanderings. Perhaps Jacob asks them to separate from their “strange gods” because of the belief that, upon entering the Land of Israel, they’re once again entering into God’s “territory” (viewing Him as the god of Canaan). It would be undesirable to continue worshipping the gods of other lands that they brought with them from Padan Aram.

Theological Divisions in the Bible

Jacob, described here as a man to whom God has been revealed, begins to understand the essence of faith in one, omnipotent God. But he still finds it difficult to reject his previous belief in a local god. Jacob’s family, of course, which was not a partner to his dream and God’s revelation to him, worships foreign gods and statues of different types. Indeed, in Vayetze, the previous Torah portion, we are told that “our mother” Rachel stole the idols of Laban (Genesis 31:19).

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 Torah portion’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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