The infinite time of weeping

The infinite time of weeping

The sign and the flesh/13 - There are blessings that come from wounds and make one stand next to the vanquished

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  27/02/2022

"All Holy Scriptures defile the hands"

Misnah Jadaim, 3.5

Hosea's different account of Jacob's struggle with the angel is one of the most beautiful pages in biblical prophecy and has much to teach us in these sad times of pain and war.

It is always surprising, and a little disconcerting, to read and reread in the Bible that its God constantly enters into very concrete and precise economic and political matters, calling events by their proper name. Covenants and alliances, requests for military aid, invasions, occupations, are theological materials with which the prophets compose their words, their blessings and curses, they are the threads with which YHWH weaves his tent in our midst. Telling us that to the biblical God there are no more spiritual words than those of international treaties, of war and peace. And if the prophets, even God himself, get their hands dirty and defile them with political and military matters, without thereby becoming less or more holy, then any humanism that wants to be inspired by the Bible cannot fail to touch, here and now, the wounds of history, pouring oil and wine into its wounds, never afraid to talk about economy and financing, armies and weapons, executioners and victims, unmasking those who in the name of the gods of war want to "deceive" God.

The prophets always stand on the side of the victims, they do not make cost-benefit calculations because they know that a single life is worth more than the world GDP, and then they remind us that not taking sides means always being on the side of the powerful and the executioners: «Ephraim has surrounded me with lies, Israel with deceit… Ephraim feeds on the wind; he pursues the east wind all day and multiplies lies and violence. He makes a treaty with Assyria and sends olive oil to Egypt» (Hosea 11,12 and 12,1).

Chapter twelve in the Book of Hosea is one of the most difficult chapters in all the prophetic books, but, as is often the case, it is also one of the most beautiful and important ones. It contains another account of the "cycle of Jacob", different from that contained in the Book of Genesis. The founding core of this chapter most likely belongs to the oral teachings of the prophet; hence, it dates back to the eighth century BC, at least two hundred years before the text of Genesis. It is therefore possible that the authors of Genesis were inspired by the story of Hosea. However, given the considerable narrative and theological differences between the two stories, it is also possible and probable that in ancient times there were various oral versions of the traditions of Jacob and the Patriarchs, which the Bible wished to preserve in all their differences, without attempting to make a synthesis or deciding which story was the "real" one. Because the Bible repeats to us every day that the spirit breathes into the interstices, into the gaps and cracks, it does not like symmetries and rocks that are too regular and smoothed by court theologies.

Let us start from the Hosea’s text: «The Lord has a charge to bring against Judah; he will punish Jacob according to his ways and repay him according to his deeds. In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel; as a man he struggled with God. He struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favour» (Hosea 12,2-4). Hosea’s Jacob is a deceiver of his twin brother and firstborn Esau, already in his mother’s womb, a tradition consistent with the Book of Genesis (Genesis 25,26). In the ancient text, the name of Jacob probably appeared together with that of Israel, since in verses 4-5 we find an etymology of both the name of Jacob (i.e. Ya'aqob, from aqab, to supplant, to deceive, to "trip" someone up) and that of Israel (from the verb sarah, to fight, to struggle, but also with a hint of the etymology of the name Israel: «God is the Lord»: (verse 5). In the famous chapter thirty-two in the Book of Genesis, Israel is the new name that Jacob receives, along with his blessing, from the mysterious fighter at the end of the fight: «Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled [sarah] with God [Elohim] and with humans and have overcome”» (Genesis 32,28). Let us now dwell on the single episode of the struggle between Jacob and God, which Genesis (not the Book of Hosea) sets in the nocturnal ford of the river Jabbok. There are similarities between the two versions of this mysterious and very rich struggle of Jacob with the humans («…a man wrestled with him till daybreak» Genesis 32,24) and with God. However, there are also important differences.

In Hosea’s story, the winner of the fight appears to be God, although the official Italian catholic translation does not really highlight this: «Hosea explains Jacob's struggle with God like this: Jacob, the impostor, remained alive only because he begged God to be kind» (J. Jeremias, Hosea, p. 233). In the Book of Genesis, on the other hand, the one who prevails is Jacob («and you have overcome» Genesis 32,28), who is presented to us as a man endowed with extraordinary strength (Genesis 25,26). Then, in the Book of Hosea, there is no reference to the blessing that the man-Elohim bestowed upon Jacob, nor to the new name, Israel, which came together with the blessing (Genesis 32,29), or the wound in the hip, a legacy of combat (Genesis 32,32). In the eyes of Hosea, Jacob-Israel is the trickster-fighter who weeps and begs; in Genesis, he is the blessed-wrestler-cheat. In the eyes of the Book of Genesis, the blessing comes to Israel as the price for the liberation of the man-Elohim who had been defeated. In Hosea, Jacob is defeated, weeps and begs for mercy. He is the weak one, and God the strong one. Jacob, a deceiver, weeping and pleading. So, two different images of the founding myth of Israel, two different anthropologies (who is he, what is man like?), two different theologies (who is he, what is God like?). Not even Genesis is afraid to show the father of the people as a fragile, limited, liar and cheater. Hosea, however, is more radical. He does not seek consolation, he does not attempt to dampen the impact of the deceit with the blessing, he is not afraid to show the founding father as someone who has been completely defeated.

Beyond the exegetical and philological aspects, almost always controversial when dealing with such ancient texts, which have undergone various modifications by several hands after the first original author, the important message that we derive from this other account of the story of Jacob must be sought elsewhere. The narratives of the prophets and those of the priests and doctors of the Law (that is, the environment where the text of Genesis was born) are different and almost never attributable to each other. The prophets have an anthropological radicalism that priests neither know nor love. Hosea wants to show that Jacob-Israel was born a cheat and remained a cheat throughout his life, and, perhaps, even tried in vain to trip God up in the battle arena. He does not create an uplifting or consoling founding myth. No, his Israel is not born of a great victory; it is the child of defeat. Jacob also remains a big failure (because) he tries to deflect God's plans with his gimmicks. The dominant image of Jacob that Hosea leaves for us is of a man who dared to face God, a sort of Prometheus, who however weeps and asks for mercy. Weak, fragile, not a strong man, but one who asks to be saved. Two different stories and the Bible decided to keep them both.

Thus, a new discourse on prophecy, on the prophets, and on their essential role in communities begins here. The prophets, back in the day as well as today, are not only essential in order to understand and discern the present, nor merely to indicate future scenarios. They are also needed to read the past, to build memory, to write a different story, often a very different one from the official history and narrative of the temple. The prophets do not need consolation, they are not afraid to face the errors and sins of the present and the past, because they have an unshakable inner certainty that the story they are telling is alive and true. They love us by removing the consoling patina from our stories, telling us every day: "Better and beautiful times lie ahead of you, not behind you". Therefore, they are ruthless in the demolition of the consoling myths that instead abound especially in times of crisis, when the temptation to invent a glorious narcotic past is too strong to forget the miseries of the present. True prophets are different, they have other stories to tell, which may not like but are the only good medicine that works.

We will never cease to thank the Bible and the Jewish people for having given us the words of the prophets, so that they could reach us, within our crises, when we stubbornly continue not to listen to the harsh stories of the prophets and love consoling stories and fake resurrections. The prophets know that a weak and defeated founding father who weeps and begs rings truer than a very strong patriarch capable of facing and defeating even Elohim. They know how to love us only with the truth, and thus their anti-hero Jacob, weeping and pleading, can reach us into the very depths of our defeats, touch and heal us, because only true wounds can be touched and healed.

Chapter thirty-two in the Book of Genesis is one of the biblical passages that I love the most. Fifteen years ago, this was the text that inspired my first book on the Bible: The wound of the other (La ferita dell’altro), in turn, perhaps, my most beloved book. A chapter that is one of the literary masterpieces of all religious literature, an authentic glimpse of heaven. However, perhaps due to the terrible times that we are experiencing, Hosea’s Jacob is able to speak new words to me. Today, we have a clearer view of that defeated man who cries and begs for mercy, now we can recognize him more. There are times, on a both individual and collective level, when the "blessing" speaks to us more, others in which the "wound" speaks to us above all, and we do not want blessings that do not come from the heart of these wounds. Because those wounds enable us to see earth better, they call us to the side of the defeated, they command us to cry with them, and to implore and pray for a different blessing with them and for them, truer than the banal ones we have known so far. The prophets are the only good teachers for this purpose, because the time of the prophet is the infinite time of the man and the woman who weep.

And then make the discovery, but only if we get to the end, that Hosea also has a blessing for Jacob, and for us. It is not found in the ford of the Jabbok. It awaits him at Bethel, a holy place in Jacob's cycle. It does not change his past, it just gives him another future: «He found him at Bethel and talked with him there... "But you must return to your God; maintain love and justice, and wait for your God always"» (Hosea 12,4-6). Jacob, the weeping trickster, remains alive, still speaks face-to-face with God who renews his ancient promise. The true hope of the prophets uses the sins and tears of the past to nourish the path to the Promised Land. Because they know that it must be out there, somewhere.

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