We decided to go to the Hebrew Scriptures for Bible study but instead of reading entire books we are focusing on a story each week. First one is the story of Jacob (which oddly enough takes up the entire second half of Genesis!). I tried to put some thoughts together on the account. The OT is not my strong suit. Any glaring errors, oversights or constructive thoughts would be appreciated.
I often channel my inner Marcion but if you only watch bad news all day you might think there is no good in the world. I am trying to reread portions of the OT and I was very pleased with the story of Jacob, because how I interpreted it in lieu of my readings, just screams God’s grace and love. There are certainly some hang ups and cultural things that shock my modern sensibilities but I think I have come to appreciate this story and its place in scripture. I read a couple of commentaries and a book, the Hidden Story of Jacob, which I will quote quite a bit. I did not have time in a week to read that and a host of commentaries on the OT. I also have zero interest in the question of “did this happen in history.” My focus is from a narrative perspective: what does this mean and how do we apply it today and also what did it mean to its audience (possibly original and final redaction during the exile).
THE STORY OF JACOB
In her commentary on Genesis, In the beginning , Karen Armstrong wrote: “The example of Jacob makes it clear that God does not choose one person over another because of his moral virtue.” Jacob is very much a perplexing individual and we can rightly be miffed by God choosing Jacob when he tricks his dying father and steals his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing. Is this the type or individual that serves to Father a nation? He is clearly no Abraham. Why does God hate Esau but love Jacob? Jacob also, in a bout of cowardice, flees from his justifiably upset older brother after robbing him. Later he has a wife who feels so unloved God mut intervene. Modern sensibilities can certainly be troubled by some other details in the narrative. Namely, Jacob’s wives, who are sisters, and his cousins, having a child-bearing contest to see who can produce him more offspring. They even provide him with their own servants as additional wives to use as a proxy to increase their own respective offspring tallies. We have come a long way from the notion of women being viewed as the possessions of men whose major purpose is giving them children. Rachel was mortified at first when she was barren. She blamed Jacob as if it was his fault: “Give me children or I will die.” The NJBC wrties, “Sterility is a profound grief for the Israelite woman; cf. 1 Sam 1:5-8. 3-6. In her dire situation, Rachel acts as Sarah did (Gen 16:2), giving Jacob her maid Bilhah, that a son may be born.”
At one point Leah tells Jacob he must sleep with her that night as she “hired” him with her son’s mandrakes in a deal with Rachel. Esau also had his own issues. Karen Armstrong wrote, “It was clear that Esau was not a suitable person to establish a dynasty. He was a slave of appetite, swayed by the hunger of the moment.” His appetite was so ravenous at the time he couldn’t even pronounce the name of the stew his brother used to get him give up his birthright. Esau also married two local Hittite women raising complications for his parents. These two brothers began fighting in the womb. What do we make of these characters? Jacob and Esau both initially strike us as very odd and even God initially appears to behave in a manner strange to our moral sensibilities.
Some Common Themes in Genesis: it is of note that there is a barren womb and younger brother motif peppered throughout Genesis. The barren womb is found in Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Rachel/Leah. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg wrote, in The Hidden Story of Jacob , “The narrative that establishes the origins of Jacob’s family begins with barrenness, just as was the case with Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah. He opened up Leah’s womb, but closed the womb of Rachel. The text says very clearly that this was so because “the LORD saw that Leah was unloved” (Gen. 29:31).” There is also a younger Brother Motif in the text. Some examples:
- · Cain and Abel
- · Isaac and Ishmael
- · Jacob and Esau
- · Joseph and Brothers
- · Ephraim and Manasseh (who Jacob gives the larger portion of the Land)
- · Joseph and Judah (youngest sons) outshine Rueben, Jacob’s firstborn.
God has regard for Abel’s offering but none for Cain. No explanation is given. God will favor whom He will favor (e.g. Jacob I loved but Esau I hated). God generally shows some love to both brothers in these stories as even Cain is granted God’s protection after the murder of his brother (the mark on his head). The first born was granted superior privileges in the ANE and the younger brother was often more vulnerable. In some sense these accounts may be about depicting God’s concern and love for the weaker members of society. The fragile and vulnerable, the poor. In many societies the rich and powerful often trample on the rights and freedoms of the poor and weak (David and Uriah, Ahab and Naboth, and the poor and rich in Amos). God may be depicted as showing favor to the younger brother. Is there a “blessed are the poor” vibe from this or as Psalm 35:10 says : “My whole being will exclaim, “Who is like you, Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
The final redaction of the material may have even been finalized during the Babylonian exile or at a time when Israel was surrounded by and overshadowed/oppressed by much stronger nations. At that time, being in power and “good” things happening to you were general a sign of divine blessing and vice versa. The weaker brother is Israel and they are raised up by God to be his true firstborn. All of these stories share a common motif and in its simplest terms, it is probably about depicting God’s love for Israel despite their status in the world. If status quo and outward appearances were all that really mattered, Israel would still be in bondage in Egypt!
Esau I hated, Jacob I loved:
This OT passage from Malachi is quoted in the New Testament by Paul but it should be obvious from the story that God did not actually hate Esau. He prospered as did his offspring the Edomites. The literal rendering in modern English obscures the true meaning of this idiomatic phrase. Did Jesus tell us that we should hate our parents? Of course not. We are commanded to honor our parents by the Father and we are told to love our neighbors and even our enemies. How odd if Jesus meant we should literally love our enemies but also literally hate our parents. Rather, like Jesus’s saying, this is a Hebraism meaning “love less.“ Lizorkin-Eyzenberg wrote, “The phraseology expresses the idea of intensity of feeling in comparison. In other words, “Jacob I loved… Esau I hated” (Mal. 1:2-3) is rendered quite literally in our modern terms. Translated from ancient Hebrew and interpreted into our modern way of speaking it could arguably mean something like “Esau I loved, but Jacob I favored with my great covenantal love.” The blessings of being the father of Israel went through Jacob, not because he earned it or God saw that we was a man of high moral character, but simply because God in his sovereignty chose him. Jacob can screw up repeatedly and seemingly endanger this blessing but God’s will, as expected, triumphs in the end.
What Goes Around Comes Around .
Jacob went from clever manipulator and trickster to being manipulated and tricked. With a dose of cold calculus, he conned his brother out of his inheritance and deceived his father, but during his exile the roles were reversed. His uncle Laban deceived him in giving him Leah, his eldest daughter instead of Rachel, on whom the bargain was struck. Jacob ended up being cheated after working for 7 years and he needed to work another 7 years for Laban in order to marry Rachel. He was also tricked later by his sons into thinking Joseph was killed by a wild animal when in fact they had sold him into slavery (Genesis 37).
The Actual Blessings:
What I originally missed in reading the Jacob story is that there appear to be two different blessings altogether. The one meant for Jacob by God (which does come true) and his father’s blessing that he stole from his brother (which does not come to pass). There is actually some friction in the text if we equivocate the two blessings. The Lord tells Rebekah in Genesis 25:23: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” Is God referring to nations or brothers here? Its seems the former as that is what the brothers represent and Esau never serves Jacob. Quite the opposite in fact. Jacob actually bows before Esau and calls him Lord!
God was blessing Jacob in a covenantal sense. His offspring would be many and would become a great nation. The promise to Abraham was being fulfilled through Jacob’s lineage, not Esau’s. Isaac’s blessing is about getting rich, having things easy and having power over one’s siblings. Genesis 27:28-29 reads: May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”
Jacob did not have it easy. He was exiled for decades, worked hard as a servant, was tricked by his uncle, wrestled with God, mourned his son Joseph and towards the end of Genesis when questioned by pharaoh he says, “Few and hard have been the years of my life…” (Gen.47:9). Jacob’s struggles also clearly represent the struggles of Israel over time. Large swathes of Israelites history certainly were not easy or glamorous. For times when Israel was in bondage or surrounded by mire powerful enemies, the story of Jacob could provide hope. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg wrote, “None of the stolen blessings came true in the life of Jacob (especially those having to do with power and domination, but more about this later). In the end it was Jacob who called Esau “his lord” to his face and prostrated before him seven times, thereby acknowledging his fault in stealing his brother’s blessing. Contrary to expectations, Esau is blessed with a good and successful life, free of his brother’s unconditional superiority and domination (Gen. 27:39-40).”
Jacob actually lives out the blessing that was indeed intended by Isaac for him from the beginning. It is this second blessing that Isaac gave him that actually comes true in his lifetime. God promised to bless Jacob with the blessing of Abraham and grant him the perpetual inheritance of the Promised Land and children (Gen. 28:3-4). While Jacob stole the blessing of wealth and domination, it was the blessing of the land and posterity that God had in mind for him.” It is comforting that God did not actually honor the stolen blessing.
To some it seems as if a fearful Jacob tries to bribe Esau with gifts. The account does say he was fearful and distressed. He was worried his brother would kill them all (see Genesis 32:9-12). But fear is only natural in this instance and it certainly does not negate the possibility off genuine repentance. Some Jewish commentators actually think the distress Jacob felt could have stemmed from the thought that he might have actually killed Esau if his brother had attacked one of his camps. He was certainly fearful of losing his family and distraught by the prospect of fighting and killing his brother (see Gen 27:45). He was also grateful for what God had given him and said in his prayer, “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant. . .”. I think this narrative also shows a repentant Jacob. He knew what it was like to deceive and be deceived at this point in his life. He lived a hard life filled with struggling. His brother was certainly well off but Jacob is in essence, publicly negating or returning the blessings he had stolen years before. He prostrates himself before his brother seven times when he finally meets and calls him Lord. Before this he refers to himself as his servant several times. This is his way of negating and returning the dominance aspect of the blessing he stole (“Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you”). He is asking Esau for forgiveness. The ratio of males to females in the livestock gifts are not coincidental but will allow for an exponential growth of wealth (the dew of heaven and fatness of the earth). Lizorkin-Eyzenberg wrote, “Jacob has learned, over time and through many struggles, to listen both to God and to the cries of those around him. As he struggled with the insecurities of both Leah and Rachel, Jacob became a different man. He would no longer “walk over corpses” to get what he needed. He now understands the deep human need for justice and righteousness. He has learned that love without justice is not sufficient. Those less-loved must be treated with honor and dignity; with sensitivity and care. Jacob has learned what Israel will later be commanded to learn – to listen (Shema).”
I initially found God choosing to bless Jacob problematic. He certainly did not deserve it. When I came to think of it, I don’t deserve the blessings God has given me either. I don’t deserve them nor do I think I have earned God’s love out of my own personal awesomeness and high moral character. Like Jacob, I am wonderfully blessed by God’s grace which shines clearly all throughout the Old Testament. Jacob like Israel and myself, are indebted to God’s love. The stories of Israel’s formation are brutally honest. They show flawed human beings and God choosing to love them none the less. God is present in the lives of his people and he follows them everywhere they go He is not limited to a specific region like some of the other “gods” at the time. Jacob is protected wherever he goes.
“The story of the birthright bought and the blessing stolen by Jacob, as well as the stories of manipulation by Leah and Rachel, show that the origins of Israel as a family were far from perfect. Jacob’s family was very much like Jacob himself, flawed. Yet the wonder of it all is that the narrator, far from hiding these facts, parades them to the readers/hearers instead. This is the point. The people in these stories are imperfect, but God who chose to do His will through them, He is perfect! They do not “deserve” the benefits of His commitment and covenantal love, but the LORD God enters into covenant relations with these imperfect sons and daughters of Adam. There is hope. All these stories are really not about these characters, but about the character of God.”
When I was younger I thought the Old Testament was more about rules and legalism where the New Testament gets things right. But the truth is that the Hebrew Scriptures present as clear a picture of the sinfulness of man and his need for God’s grace as does any letter of Paul in the Christian scriptures.
Wrestling With God
The story of Jacob continues on through Joseph his son but we shall take a look at one final incident and stop our journey here. Jacob wrestles with God before going to meet his brother. What do we make of it? Obviously God could beat Jacob in a wrestling match so it seems that it may be that Jacob was having doubts or that God needed to test him. The NJBC says, “Jacob is truly a man of blessing, but this time he wrestles for it and receives it from God (in contrast to his cheating Esau in order to receive Isaac’s blessing.” Jacob has just prayed to God and laid his thoughts bare. Now he has wrestled with him and won. Now Jacob is ready to become the father of Israel. As Orual asked in C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, Till we have faces, “How can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces?” Also, “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?’” Jacob now has a face and is ready to become the father of a great nation. First he must make things right with his own brother. Jacob may have been struck by earnest doubts in the face of possible bloodshed and death but this meeting was too important for covenantal history. God had to intervene. Lizorkin-Eyzenberg wrote:
“But why did this unexpected meeting happen right before the meeting with Esau? The basic answer in my view is that the founder of Israel as a nation could not have been a thief, a liar and a coward. We must remember that the Book of Genesis is a prelude to the Book of Exodus, which was written for Israelites who departed from Egypt and were on their way to Canaan. Jacob needed to become Israel. It took twenty-two years of exile to accomplish this. He had now changed and was ready. He possessed the blessing of Abraham (land and children), but he needed to return the blessing he had stolen which was not his own (power and wealth). This reconciliation with Esau was not simply a personal family affair, as it must surely have seemed to Jacob and Esau. It was an event of global significance, for the very identity of the future nation of Israel was at stake.
As a result, God’s struggle with His own chosen people appears to be a major theme. We can recall other times when God just would not let something happen. For example, Jonah tried to evade the Nineveh mission, but God pursued him and compelled him to accomplish the task. Balaam, on the way to cursing Israel was literally stopped by the Angel of the LORD (Num. 22:21-35). The examples are numerous, and they seem to form a pattern. When something vitally important, in a covenantal sense, is imminent, God intervenes to ensure it happens.”
I really think one dimensions of this incident is a hermeneutical key to all of Genesis and quite possibly the entire Bible and God’s relationship to humankind. Interpretations are multi-dimensional. We can glean so much from this account. God is constantly wrestling with us. God must put up with our imperfections, our selfishness, our bad habits, our doubts, our deafness, our complacency and a litany of our other sins. The actual etymology of “Israel” is not known but its meaning here as told in this context seems clear. The wrestling match account also seems to serve as an explanation for a Jewish dietary practice not otherwise found in the Law (Exod 32:32). We can look at the stories of many Biblical characters who faced adversity and struggled in following God’s commands. Abraham was tested (Genesis 22) and asked to sacrifice his only son Isaac on the altar. He had to wrestle with God and decide if he would obey him or not. This is an impossible request for most! Israel may have seen itself in the same type of struggle with God as Abraham, Jacob and so many others. Doubt and uncertainty is certainly a problem that plagues many of us. Like Jacob and Israel, we must all wrestle with God. In some ways Jacob represents all of us when trying to understand God, scripture and our place in this world in our sinful condition. We must be resolute, strong and hold fast in our convictions. We must fight tirelessly as Jacob did. Strive to enters as Jesus says. We are not guaranteed an easy road. In fact, we should probably expect the opposite. Yet we are given a blessing, we are given hope. Karen Armstrong wrote, “Genesis has been one of the sacred books that have enabled millions of men and women to know at some profound level that human life has an eternal dimension, even though they may not always been able to express this insight in logical, rational form. Like any scripture, Genesis points to a reality that must essentially transcend it. . . . The biblical authors force us to make an imaginative effort. They imply that it is a hard struggle to discern a sacred reality in the flawed and tragic conditions in which we live and that our experience will often be disconcerting or contradictory. Like Jacob, we will have to wrestle in the dark, denied the consolations of fine certitude and experiencing at best only transient, elusive blessing. We may find the we have been wounded in the course of our struggle.”