Monday, 11 December 2017

Book Review: Wrestling Jacob

I originally heard about Shmuel Klitsner's book Wrestling Jacob on Sarah Rindner's excellent Book of Books blog. It sat on my list of books to order for a long time, but recently made the cut when I was making an Amazon order and I found a used copy on the cheap.

What you get is 180 pages of close literary reading and Modern commentary on the story of Jacob and Esau. The analysis begins with Rivka's tempestuous pregnancy, continues through to the brothers' momentous meeting upon Jacob's return to Canaan, and ends with a final exploration of parallel passages in the Torah, specifically God trying to kill Moshe at the Inn and Bilaam's encounter with the Angelic swordsman.

Klitsner's methodology is interesting. He has a long introduction detailing methodology and assumptions. It's important, so let's summarize the salient features:
  • Close literary readings
    • as opposed to Critical readings which put idiosyncrasies down to progressive changes/additions
    • as opposed to Fundamentalist readings which explain-away ideosyncrasies
    • instead, Klitsner takes idiosyncrasies/repetition as an authorial choice with a literary payload
  • Bible as a "Divine Anthropology" of Jewish people
    • As opposed to novels or even Greek classics which focus on Human individuality
  • Subtext gives insight into authorial intent

Rabbi Klitsner
Klitsner ultimately suggests these stories have as a theme, the struggle between Human autonomy and Divine destiny. Yet he contrasts how this theme plays out in the Bible with how it plays out in Greek literature. In Greek literature, people must follow their destiny as determined by the Gods, when they break this mold, bad things happen. The Bible carries this theme in the opposite direction. Characters try to fulfill their divine destiny, but suffer when they use illicit means to achieve those ends.

This is a very Modern literary reading, with the focus being on Jacob's individual religious experience, his inner struggle, and his eventual redemption.

Bottom line, Wrestling Jacob is a great book for anyone interested in Literary Bible studies. It's a short book, but is dense with ideas, close readings, and intertextualities. Highly recommended!

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