English Literature

The Book of Genesis as Translated by Robert Alter

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Since the time that the Book of Genesis, as tradition holds, was presented to be the story of the creation of the universe, it has been open to interpretation. In modern times, one of the most well-known interpreters of this sacred text is Robert Alter. This paper will use the theory of Alter to discuss the Jacob stories from Genesis; more specifically, the nature/identity of the “man” that Jacob wrestles with as well as the assertion that God does believe in right and wrong, reward and punishment.

This being stated, however, in the case of Jacob, it sometimes seems that God passively reacts or delays in His punishment of Jacob, despite his cheating of his brother Edom and the like, so an additional theory that God is testing Jacob in preparation for a greater good, as well as whether Jacob’s “opponent” was flesh or spirit, will be considered.

Jacob’s Birthright/Justice of God

Alter makes the argument that Jacob seems to have been given a birthright to exploit and take advantage of others in the most intimate and hurtful of ways and that Jacob possesses a supernatural immunity to the justice of God; as a means of making this point, Alter discusses examples from Genesis whereby evil men such as Er, the firstborn of Judah, being put to death for his unrepentant ways (Genesis 38.8). Conversely, Alter shows that Jacob possesses the unique ability to question the authority of God in this respect, and that God, rather than resenting this challenge, actually is pleased by the affront (Genesis 28.20).

This argument by Alter seems to have merit if one believes that God represents ultimate, and equal justice. If equal justice is the case in fact, then it is clear that Jacob, perhaps in preparation for a higher purpose, is held to a different standard than his contemporaries (Alter).

Jacob’s Unique Mission / Position/Opponent

Perhaps one of the most useful ways to understand the unique position and mission of Jacob, rather than merely thinking of him as someone who could simply do what they wished without consequence, and to think that he was “wrestling” with a merely human opponent, is to look deeper into why Jacob was indulged by God as he was.

If one thinks about a modern situation, such as the deployment of American troops in Iraq, in comparison to Jacob, the issue becomes much clearer. Like the Iraq soldiers, Jacob is playing by rules that no one else is using, against a sort of invisible enemy that may or may not exist. Also like the Iraq situation, Jacob, it seems, is waging more of a symbolic than concrete type of war; in Jacob’s case, it appears that a struggle with faith is taking place, while God is mentoring, guiding, and even indulging him, keeping him alive for a higher purpose (Alter).


In summary, after studying the Book of Genesis itself as well as Alter’s theories, it appears that Jacob was not evil, but rather doing the best that he could in light of what was being asked of him, much of which he did not comprehend. God had a definite plan for Jacob and was not giving him a license to do evil as much as he was making it possible for Jacob to use deduction and logic to follow God’s path, much as the faithful continue to do to this day.

Works Cited

Alter, R. Genesis: Translation and Narrative. New York: WW Norton and Company, 1997.