Parashat Va-yishlah

Genesis 32:4–36:43

December 5, 2009 / 18 Kislev 5770

This week's commentary was written by Dr. David Marcus, professor of Bible, JTS

Attentive readers may note that our Parashat Va-yishlah does not start at the beginning of its chapter (Genesis 32), rather it starts four verses down with the words "va-yishlah Yaakov malachim lefanav" (Now Jacob sent messengers ahead of him). The actual chapter starts with the words "vayashkem Lavan babboqer" (Early in the morning Laban arose) (see the enumeration in Etz Hayim), and some printed Hebrew editions, such as the Koren Tanakh before 1992, and English Bibles, such as the King James Version and the New Revised Standard Translation, start the chapter with the next verse, "veYaakov halach ledarko" (Now Jacob went on his way). From these three beginnings we see that there are various ways of starting the story of Jacob's meeting with Esau, the story with which our parashah commences. All three emphasize different aspects: one, the standard chapter opening, begins with time, "early in the morning"; another, the alternate chapter opening, highlights a character, "Jacob"; and the third, our parashah, commences with action, "he sent." Each of these different starting points is the result of different Hebrew manuscript traditions, and each allows us to interpret the text slightly differently.

The standard chapter division, which starts with "early in the morning," demarcates the stories by time, the events of the previous story (that of Jacob and Laban and their concluding a treaty together) taking place in the evening, whereas the new events take place during the day. The new chapter then starts with a new day, with Laban rising up early, blessing his children, his departure home, and of Jacob's meeting with the angels of God (verses 1–3).

The alternate chapter division, starting with "now Jacob went on his way," places the point of demarcation between the characters involved. What happened in the previous story had to do with Laban, while the new story concerns Jacob exclusively. Laban's activities would then conclude with the last verse of the previous chapter. There he gets up, kisses his children and grandchildren goodbye, blesses them, and leaves for home. With Laban out of the picture, the new chapter then deals only with Jacob's activities. Indeed, the inversion of subject and predicate in Hebrew—veYaakov halach, "now Jacob went," as opposed to vayeilech Yaakov—is evidence for this change in subject matter with its emphasis on Jacob.

What then of the Masoretic division with which our parashah starts? The most noticeable effect of the starting of our parashah at verse four is that it transfers the episode of Jacob meeting the angels of God (verses 1–3) to the preceding parashah of Va-yetzei. From a literary point of view such a division has the effect of creating an inclusio (a literary device that creates a frame by placing similar material at the beginning and end of a passage) with the previous parashah, since at the very beginning of that parashah Jacob, about to leave Canaan, also has an encounter with angels of God (malachei elohim, 28:12). The attaching of this episode of Jacob's meeting the angels of God on his way to Canaan (32:1–3) to the previous parashah has the direct effect of placing two occurrences of meeting angels at both ends of the parashah. One occurrence is at Bethel when Jacob is leaving Canaan and the second one is at Mahanaim when he is about to reenter Canaan, a magnificent literary envelope figure.

The second noticeable effect of the parashah division is that it stresses Jacob's actions in sending messengers to Esau. Our sages (in Genesis Rabbah) long ago noticed the literary connection of the episode of Jacob's encountering the malachei elohim, "angels of God," in the immediately preceding parashah and Jacob's sending out his own malachim, "messengers." The earlier occurrences of malachim sent to Jacob foreshadowed Jacob's sending of his own malachim. The sages interpreted the presence of what is seemingly an unnecessary preposition, lefanav (before him), in the phrase "va-yishlah Yaakov malachim lefanav" (and Jacob sent messengers before him), as evidence that the messengers sent by Jacob were actually divine because elsewhere lefanav is actually used in contexts of the sending of divine messengers.

One can see from just this one example how alternate modes of division can lead to different hermeneutics (methods of interpretation). The standard chapter division demarcates the stories by time, the events of the previous story taking place in the evening whereas the new events take place during the day. The alternate chapter division places the point of demarcation between the characters involved. What occurred in the previous story had to do with Laban, while the new story concerns Jacob exclusively. The Masoretic division allows for an envelope structure with the previous unit and stresses Jacob's actions in sending messengers to Esau. All three of these divisions are the result of different Hebrew manuscript traditions, and all three allow us to interpret the text slightly differently.

In three weeks' time, when we reach Parashat Va-yiggash, we will have another opportunity to ponder why a parashah does not start at the beginning of a chapter.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.