There are many ways of relating to the Divine, but it was Jacob who brought worship indoors. Abraham spoke to God on a mountain, Isaac found Him in the fields, but even when Jacob sleeps out in the rough, he calls that place the house of God.
Jacob is defined as “one who dwells in tents”, while his brother hunts in the countryside. On his first night outdoors, we find Jacob piling rocks around his head against the wilderness. Nature frightens Jacob, so he builds order against it, first with stones; later, to increase the speckled count of Laban’s flock, he exerts his will on the gene pool of his animals.
Night and day he guards the flock against the vagaries of “nature red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson). Yet in the Midrash, Jacob looks back on a life of steady control of the natural world with regret: “Perhaps because I was too careful to protect the flocks from predators, a wild beast has devoured my beloved Joseph!” (Midrash Sekel Tov 37:34).
Jacob’s boast of prowess over the wild things – “I never brought forth a torn [sheep]” (Genesis 31:39)— echoes in his bitter cry, “Torn, torn is Joseph!” (Genesis 37:33). The tearing beast, never invited inside, must enter Jacob’s house with cruel force.
As we postmoderns glance back, we often find that — like Jacob — the world is not whole without its wilderness. Who can fathom the potential we deny to our children with every swing of the axe in a lush rainforest?
Yet, we can learn from Jacob’s regret. After more than 300 years, there are now plans to reintroduce the wolf to the Scottish highlands. Without them, the deer populate and the grass is devoured. Perhaps, we will save our children when we remember to give the wildest creatures a place in God’s home.