Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Champion of Jacob, Stone of Israel

His bow remained steady, and the arms of his hands were made agile by the hands of the Champion of Jacob, by the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel. (Gen. 49:24)

In Jacob's blessing for Joseph, he uses three wonderful picture words for God: Champion ('aviyr), Shepherd (ro'eh), and Stone ('even). God is the Champion of Jacob, the Shepherd and Stone of Israel.

A. The Stone

Consider the last one: the Stone of Israel. Until recently I have always taken the word to be equivalent with the several references in Psalms to God as a rock (either selah or tsur) with the basic meaning of a high fortress or a cliff for refuge. So do at least four recent translations: RSV, the new JPS, NIV, and, interestingly enough, the translation by Robert Alter. All of them translate the word as rock here, but as stone everywhere else in Genesis. On the other hand, the old JPS (following the KJV) is consistent to say "the stone of Israel."

Why do I think this is important? Well, a stone is not a cliff, and so would not mean (as the translations imply) a stronghold or refuge. Instead, a stone is used for building (cf. Gen. 11:3), or by Jacob for a place to rest his head (Gen. 28:11; cf. Exod. 17:12) and then for a marker in the form of a pillar (Gen. 28: 18, 22; also 31:45 and 35:14) or a mound (Gen. 31:46), and for a cover on the mouth of a well (Gen. 29:2-3, 8, 10; note the relation to gathering and watering the sheep). Also, altars were often built with stone (Exod. 20:25). Finally, a stone could be a precious stone (Gen. 2:12).

So when Jacob declares that God is the Stone of Israel, what does he have in mind? The foundation stone for building the nation? (Isa. 28:16) The stone of revelation? The stone of worship? The stone of identification (Num. 6:27) as in a marker placing God's claim on Israel? The stone protecting the life of the nation as in the well associated with the shepherd and the sheep? Or the stone of highest value?

B. The Champion

God is also the Champion of Jacob. On this term compare Isaiah 49:26, 60:16; Psalm 132:2,5.

I derived the translation “champion” indirectly from a comment by Martin Buber on the title for God that is peculiar to Jacob. He used a more obscure word “paladin.” (The Prophetic Faith, p. 42) I must admit that "paladin" (def., paragon of chivalry, heroic champion) is new to my vocabulary, but what an interesting way of understanding God’s relation to Israel, both the man and the people.

The Isaiah references given above call for knowledge that "I the Lord am your Deliverer, your Redeemer, the Champion of Jacob." Read the context of each, especially Isaiah 60:15-22, and you may agree that champion is an appropriate interpretation of the Hebrew word 'aviyr.

Champion of Jacob. This title suggests so much about the chivalrous regard God has shown to Israel:
*Loved with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3);
*Carried on eagles’ wings (Exod. 19:4);
*Surrounded with songs of deliverance (Ps. 32:7);
*Nourished with honey from the rock (Deut. 32:13);
*Guided in paths of righteousness (Ps. 23:3);
*Chosen (and kept) as a treasured possession (Deut. 7:6).

A traditional Jewish hymn envisions this Champion:

He wears triumph as a helmet on His head,
His power and holiness have stood Him in good stead…
He takes pride in me, the source of His delight;
And He will be my splendor whose praise I will recite…
He beautifies the people He has carried since their birth.
For Him they are precious; He pays honor to their worth.
(Excerpts from Hymn of Glory, translated by Jules Harlow)

Or consider this beautiful song of deliverance:

The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save.
He will delight in you with joy, He will quiet you with His love,
He will rejoice over you with singing.
(Zeph. 3:17)


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