The first time I walked into the FamilySearch offices in Lehi for a meeting I saw these small plaques on the entrance wall, I wish I had taken a photo of the entire wall. I was so excited to send the images to John. I hadn't ever seen anything about pictographic Hebrew except what he'd shown me. (To be fair, I wasn't looking so maybe it's in many places.) I love that he shares with me some of the things he learns. The way John learns and understands the scriptures is a spiritual gift and I love to learn as much as I can from him. I have an elementary understanding of the scriptures. (Which is not a disparaging comment just truth that I accept. My spiritual gifts come in other forms and John supports me in them.) When he shares his thoughts, I feel like I'm drinking from a firehose and only glean bits and pieces of what he is learning:
And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. Genesis 32:28
There are many verses in the Old Testament that leave me with questions when I read them in the English version. Then I read these verses in Hebrew, and they make more sense, and often when I go further and look at them in pictographic Hebrew they contain more meaning and lead to wonderful insights and connections. The verse included above is a great example of this for me. In English, this verse expresses relative power and suggests conflict, whereas in pictographic Hebrew all of this evaporates away and is replaced by association and unity with God and with keys to achieve this relationship.
To begin, the name Jacob is fascinating in terms of how it can be understood in pictographic Hebrew versus how its perceived meaning has been changed by men in ways that are negative and that illustrate in general how words and ideas can be altered, contaminated, and perceived differently as they flow from a pure source and become increasingly polluted as men come into contact with them. Jacob in pictographic Hebrew reads from right to left with the symbol of a hand or arm, followed by an eye, followed by a horizon, and ending with a home:
One way of understanding these symbols in sequence is: to act with faith and vision in pursuit of a journey to a distant home. With a correct understanding of ancient Jacob as a prophet who with long-term vision sees both the temporal and the spiritual need for his family to travel into Egypt, into bondage, and eventually to return through Exodus from Egypt into the wilderness and finally into the Promised Land, this pictographic name makes complete sense and lends insight into the role of the House of Jacob throughout time in its journey in this world and into the spiritual Promised Land in eternity. Without the first symbol of this pictographic word the remaining symbols of the eye, horizon, and home form a word meaning heel, which reinforces the connection between Jacob’s name and journeying, as the heel is the part of the body perhaps most symbolic of walking, as with each step the heel first touches the ground.
A relevant association involves the first appearance of the word heel in the Bible in Genesis 3:15:
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
The symbolism of bruising his heel involves imagery of lying in wait to attack someone on a journey being pursued, which is apt in this context as Satan continually lies in wait and attacks the seed of Adam and Eve with the objective of stopping and ideally reversing their course on their journey home and destroying them. In this endeavor Satan and those who follow him actually perform a necessary bruising role as they create opposition required for the development of faith, opposed to the saving role of Christ who shall bruise thy head, saving Adam and Eve and their seed from Satan, making the journey, and the final destination of the journey, or eternal lives, possible.
There is a stark difference between the above described meaning for the name Jacob and that of supplanter, which is a meaning of Jacob’s name often ascribed to him due to events and interpretation of events in the lives of Jacob and his family, particularly in his relationship with Esau whose heel Jacob takes hold of as they are born (Genesis 25:26), who sells his birthright to Jacob for bread and pottage of lentiles (Genesis 25:29-34), and whose first blessing is taken from him by Jacob (Genesis 27).
Life in this world is messy, and interpretation of what happens in this world is varied and conflicting in first-hand perspectives, let alone far removed in time and culture. The lives of and the relationship between Jacob and Esau, for instance, are understood very differently by the people directly involved, so it is not surprising that the account and how that account is viewed millennia later by people of very different cultural perspectives is even more difficult to understand. With respect to Jacob and Esau’s lives, relationship, and the varying and conflicting interpretations of Jacob’s name I find recurring patterns to be helpful: For instance, what other accounts exist in the scriptures in which a brother who is a prophet is also viewed as a supplanter? This theme runs throughout the Book of Mormon beginning with the relationship of Nephi, a younger brother to Laman and Lemuel whom they resent and oppose:
And Laman said unto Lemuel and also unto the sons of Ishmael: Behold, let us slay our father, and also our brother Nephi, who has taken it upon him to be our ruler and our teacher, who are his elder brethren. 1 Nephi 16:37
What is clearly missing in Laman’s perspective is the many ways in which Nephi acts in faith to bless his family and as an instrument in God’s hand to save them from destruction along their journey to their land of inheritance and liberty. Another striking and parallel example of this general principle is found in a later battle between the righteous and the robbers of Gadianton, in which the robbers claim the right to rule without contributing anything but the certainty of oppression as they are not self-sustaining and must depend parasitically on others for their subsistence and despite this imbalance in contribution persist in their twisted perspective that they are entitled to rule, control, and receive support:
And I write this epistle unto you, Lachoneus, and I hope that ye will deliver up your lands and your possessions, without the shedding of blood, that this my people may recover their rights and government, who have dissented away from you because of your wickedness in retaining from them their rights of government, and except ye do this, I will avenge their wrongs. I am Giddianhi. 3 Nephi 3:10
These examples demonstrate an astounding lack of self-awareness and a completely unwarranted sense of entitlement. The other side of the spectrum of human and cultural nature, represented by Lachoneus, Nephi, Jacob, and others like them provides a striking contrast. One way of looking at this other side of the spectrum involves the ancient patriarchal order in which the first born is given a double share of the inheritance, which on the surface appears to create an imbalance in status and possessions, but in connection with this double share the first born is also intended to carry much more than a double portion of the burden of responsibility for the family, as he is to take care of the extended family in whatever ways are needed, specifically receiving the charge to care for the widows, orphans, and strangers in the land. This ideal, righteous first born role is often filled by those who are not biologically born first as in the cases of Jacob and Nephi, who naturally take this role due to their willingness to shoulder the burdens that exist, and that others are not carrying, as a result of their sense of obligation and their love for their family and others.
This role of the righteous first born, or in general terms shepherd-ruler--eternally the role of father and mother or God (El, Elohim, the pictographic Hebrew word for which may be understood as a strong shepherd or shepherd-ruler), can be viewed in very different ways: An immature, self-centered, entitlement minded observer primarily, if not solely, views the shepherd-ruler as unfairly privileged and positioned, and as a result a shepherd-ruler will often be labeled and treated as selfish or as a supplanter. A true shepherd-ruler, on the other hand, serves and sacrifices despite this labeling and the opposition that accompanies it, without seeking recognition or reward, status or privilege, with love for God and love for neighbor being the primary, and finally sole motivation. A true shepherd-ruler acts as a type of Jesus Christ, who is a Servant, sacrificing all for love of His Father and His neighbors, and can like Jesus at times be despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3) despite or even as a result of filling this role.
Again, life is messy, and people like Jacob, Nephi, and Lachoneus are mortals with flaws, who sin as all, but Jesus Christ does in this life. They are men like Noah before them who apparently sins in becoming drunken from the wine of his vineyard after the flood. A much more important issue than the reality of this messiness, which is inevitable, and attempts to identify, categorize, and be concerned with specific flaws and sin in the story of Noah, and in the perspectives against Jacob, Nephi, Lachoneus, and numberless others is that of condemnation. All commit sin, Christ excepted, and condemnation is not only unjustified but due to the reality of universal sin is nonsensical—it is the mindset and actions of those existing in darkness reaching up to pull others down with them or keeping others in darkness and unable to ascend. Justice is necessary, but from an enlightened perspective it is completely in harmony with mercy and compassion, all possible through the atonement of Jesus Christ—it is the mindset and actions of those existing in light reaching down to pull others out of darkness. Accusation, condemnation, and retribution without provision for mercy come from spiritual evil, one name for and role of Satan being the Accuser:
For the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. JST Revelation 12:10
In contrast with this is the spirit of Christ:
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. John 3:17
How, then, is the name Jacob to be understood? How is the House of Jacob and how are his descendants to be understood? The name Jacob, the House of Jacob, and the history of both the man and his posterity involve all these principles, particularly as they are viewed in a way that goes beyond the surface and human interpretation and perspective, and instead involves the same spiritual perspective that is communicated through the pictographic Hebrew name for Jacob, involving, among other things, a difficult journey, trial and pain, misunderstanding and contention, progression through all of this experience, reconciliation, reception of blessings seen from afar and little understood at the beginning... The next time I write I plan to look at other words in Genesis 32:28 that in the same manner have depth, richness, and insights that are not conveyed in English.