Devora Publishing, 2009
Reviewed by Ben-Tzion Spitz
If you have any interest in the Bible, Rabbi Gad Dishi’s new book, “Jacob’s Family Dynamics” is a must-read. A warning is in order though. Dishi rips apart many long-held stereotypical images of the Patriarch Jacob and his relationships. He then puts them back together in often innovative, insightful and even brilliant ways.
What is beautiful and inspiring about Dishi’s work is the weaving of a mostly fragmented narrative of the stories of Jacob into a fluid, consistent and comprehensive picture. Many students of the classical commentaries will want to jump down Dishi’s throat as he repeatedly negates or contradicts centuries-old interpretations. However, they will find it a challenging battle. The strength of Dishi’s book is his extreme adherence to the text.
Dishi makes Jacob very human, contrary to the often superhuman depiction that classical commentaries portrayed him as. Dishi justifies the dichotomy in his introduction:
“The human element brings readers back to the Bible repeatedly to experience the characters’ dramatic, real-life choices, while the superhuman approach draws readers to the text to be inspired once more by the perfection of the characters’ personal attributes. Thus, from a religious perspective, both approaches have validity and can operate in parallel, each appealing to a different audience.”
The analysis is based on a laser-like focus on each phrase, word and language nuance. He builds the personas and action of the stories based on these careful readings. At the same time he keeps an eye on the big picture and the continuum of Jacob’s life, actions, fears, insecurities, needs and driving forces. The scenes that are covered in detail include (but are not limited to):
– Jacob’s impersonation of Esau to obtain Isaac’s blessing;
– Jacob’s arrival at Haran and his meeting of Rachel;
– The switch of Leah for Rachel on the wedding night and Jacob’s response;
– The competition of Leah and Rachel for Jacob’s affection;
– Laban’s confrontation with Jacob at Gilead;
– Jacob’s reunion/confrontation with Esau;
– Jacob’s reaction to the rape of Dinah;
– The burial of Rachel.
What emerges is a very human, and perhaps because of that, a very heroic (and also tragic) figure of Jacob. Dishi also presents Jacob’s family members (parents, brother, father-in-law, wives and sons) as characters that seem truer to the biblical text than what many other commentaries paint.
Just one example of Dishi’s original interpretations can be found in his analysis of Jacob’s stimulus in stealing Esau’s blessing. Dishi explains that Jacob was the initiator of the deception conspiracy as opposed to his mother, Rebecca. Furthermore, he argues that Jacob’s motivation had less to do with achieving some still unknown blessing from his father, but rather to be the recipient of fatherly love and attention via this blessing before Isaac’s death.
Dishi consistently uses a plethora of commentators both classical and modern to support his points. The pure erudition required to create this masterpiece is impressive, besides the excellence of his theories themselves.
Dishi successfully pulls off another feat. That of writing a scholarly work that will be accessible to the layman. The language is never too heavy or difficult. The prose is clear and flows. Even the extensive footnotes are fun and enlightening. It is as if one was sitting next to Dishi while he is typing and he shares yet another brilliant and related nugget of information or insight.
There is a special treat in Chapter 7 of a pair of color maps and pictures that delightfully illustrate Dishi’s explanation of what really happened in the preparation and encounter of Jacob and Esau after their twenty year separation.
There are two minor flaws in this diamond of a book. Both can be attributed to the Herculean task of attempting to write for the two very different worlds of the layman and the biblical scholar in one volume. Dishi explains in a footnote of the first chapter that he uses the translation of Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses. He then repeatedly cites him in much of the subsequent translation in the footnotes, which is presumably the scholarly thing to do. However, it is a minor annoyance in the otherwise entertaining footnotes.
The second and perhaps more significant flaw for biblical scholars (but one that they may enjoy finding and pouncing on), are the cases where Dishi continues his theories with limited substantiation or support. From a layman’s point-of-view the theories still hold. They are compelling – even convincing at points. An analogy that comes to mind is a skater approaching a patch of thin ice. The skater takes advantage of the solid ice to forcefully propel himself as quickly as possible over the thinner section.
Because Dishi has done such a superb and persuasive job in the highly detailed and corroborated sections, one is more willing to go along for the ride and follow where Dishi leads.
It is hard to believe that there could be surprises left in a biblical narrative that is so well known to many. Dishi however keeps the suspense and the original interpretations flowing, from the first to the last chapter.
Jacob’s Family Dynamics should be part of the library of every Jewish home. It should also become required reading for any Bible/Genesis course from high school level to post-graduate degrees.
In Jacob’s Family Dynamics Dishi has set a new standard for reading of biblical text. A student of the Bible will not be able to look at Jacob or at the text the same way again.
Dishi hopes in his introduction “that Jacob’s Family Dynamics will lift the habitual blinders that have subdued the full power of the text.” In this he has succeeded admirably.
The book can be ordered directly from the publisher (discounted) at http://www.urimpublications.com/Merchant2/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=UP&Product_Code=Jacob
Ben-Tzion Spitz is an engineer, Bible studies writer and lecturer. He has started a series of Biblical Fiction short stories which can be viewed at http://torah.works/category/fiction/