Monthly Archives: April 2013

Deceptions and Blessings

This week in the Sojourners Bible Class we’re looking at Jacob’s deception of his father in Genesis 27. Over a century ago Biblical scholars determined that this story was written by an anonymous Hebrew storyteller we simply call “J”. Some of the most powerful stories in Genesis were written by J.   According to J, the reason Jacob left his family was because he had stolen his brother’s blessing. This is why he became “a wandering Aramean” who wrestled with God. Jacob was an exile from home, a deceiver forced to go an odyssey of self-discovery. Jacob steals a blessing but reaps bitterness and struggle. J does not present Jacob as a paragon of virtue, such as we depict our Founding Fathers, neither is he a hero and conqueror. He is the heel-grabber who labors and suffers for 20 years before being reconciled to his brother and family.

 Blessing:        The first thing to note about this story is the importance of the blessing by the father. It is a little hard for us to appreciate the passion of this story because we live in a world where words are cheap and rituals are empty of meaning. We hear a thousand messages each day, but have lost the ability to speak with one another about the things that really matter. We curse thoughtlessly and bless almost as carelessly, but language was still powerful and almost magical in biblical days. Walter Bruggemann (Genesis, p. 227-228) notes that the act of blessing forms the dramatic tension of the story: “Blessing is understood as a world-transforming act which cannot be denied by modern rationality. For the son as for the father, indeed for the entire family, the matter of the blessing is as dangerous as it is compelling.”

            Our popular culture mocks parents rather than looking to them for blessing and wisdom. This story of Jacob longing for his father’s blessing seems almost pathetic in a world that values the Simpsons. We are too cool, too worldly, too independent to need the blessing of a parent. We can dismiss with Jacob’s story and proclaim our liberation from such archaic rituals. So we pretend. But deep in our hearts, in that vulnerable center of our soul, is the son or daughter aching to hear a word of blessing from a parent.

            You probably remember what it was like to look for a smile or some sign that your parents were pleased with you, not for what you had done, but for who you are. You may recall what it was like to be on the cusp of full adult responsibility. You may remember what it was like to long for someone you admired place his or her hands on you and tell you that your life would turn out alright; that you were ready to make your place in the world. 

Jacob and Rebekah:                         The story of Isaac’s blessing has four major scenes with four main characters. First Isaac tells his favorite son, Esau that he wanted to bless him. Isaac knows that he will soon die, and, like a good father, he is putting his affairs in order. Esau runs off to do as his father commanded him. But off stage, or if you prefer, outside the tent Rebekah heard what Isaac told his son. Scene 2 has Rebekah and her favorite son, Jacob. Many interpreters are harsh on Isaac for having a favorite son, but they forgive Rebekah for doting on Jacob. Many people argue that Rebekah was trying to fulfill the will of God by helping her beloved son receive the blessing. That may be, but the most reasonable explanation for her actions is that she loved Jacob more than Esau.

            Rebekah knew that Jacob would take care of her after Isaac died. She may have even thought that Jacob would simply be a better clan leader than his impulsive brother. It could be that she, like all of us, acted for many reasons that she could not fully explain herself. But act she did. Whether you view her as a Lady Macbeth or a saint, she was the principal actor in this drama. She is the one who took charge of the situation and convinced her son to deceive her husband.

The Deception          The third scene involves Jacob deceiving Isaac by pretending to be his brother. There is a bit of obvious comedy in the deception itself, which I think was intended. The 1960s British comedian Alan Bennet grasped some of the inherent humor of the phrase “But my brother Esau is a hairy man, but I am a smooth man.” There is a pun in Hebrew here that still works in English, by the way. Jacob is a smooth customer. We could call him Slick Jake, but Esau is hairy man. So hairy, in fact, that Jacob wears goat skins on his hands and neck. I am sure that in ancient times they laughed about that just as much as we would today.

            Lest you are tempted to exonerate Jacob for his deception, notice how far he goes. When his father questions him, Jacob lies. When he returns too quickly with the food that Rebekah has already prepared for him, he mixes his lies with impiety. “The LORD your God granted me success,” he says. The LORD will not become Jacob’s God until much later at Peniel. Now Jacob, like many people in our own country, uses the name of God in vain to add credence to his deceptions. Genesis does not try to excuse Jacob’s actions. That is left up to preachers and rabbis through the centuries who are embarrassed that the father of Israel was a scoundrel in his youth. 

            But this is just a bit of comic relief in a scene filled with pathos. Isaac is blind and dying, and he wants to put his affairs in order. He wants to pass on his legacy and his blessing to the next generation. He has chosen Esau as his successor, but he literally cannot see the future. Isaac was in the situation that some of us may be in today. We want to establish our legacy, to make sure we have an impact on the future, but we cannot see what our successors will do, what our children will do. We have to act as best we can with our limited powers and vision, leaving the final result to God, whose purposes are sometimes different than our own. There is also pathos in the fact that Jacob feels that he must deceive his father rather than coming to him and speaking in his own voice. Jacob has to steal his brother’s identity to receive the love of his own father. Isaac remains suspicious of this smooth talker, but the smell of Esau’s clothing convinces him. Jacob leaves with his father’s benediction.

Esau and Isaac           The fourth scene is an agonizing scene between Esau and Isaac. What is most surprising in this scene is that the author appears to be so sympathetic to Esau, who was the ancestor of one of the enemies of Israel. Genesis displays remarkable insight into the complexity of human society and human motives. It is not a simple morality tale, but Genesis does teach us that some things cannot be undone, even if they were done in error. We have become accustomed to fixing mistakes, expunging police records, and making fresh starts. We are guided by the myth that “tomorrow is another day,” and that we don’t have to live with the consequence of what we did today. That’s not how the world is. Isaac gave his blessing and would not go back on his word. Esau had to live with the results of that decision.

            Lest we be too sympathetic with Esau, though, we have to acknowledge that his fate was no worse than Jacob’s would have been had things gone as Isaac planned. Jacob lied and tricked his way to a blessing intended for Esau, but Esau was not cursed. This is important to note because later Jewish and Christian tradition was very harsh on Esau. In fact, John Calvin defended his doctrine of predestination on the grounds that God had predestined Jacob for blessing and damned Esau, just as he saves some of us and damns others. Calvin argued that God’s ways are inscrutable and cannot be changed by the actions of humans, but he read too much into this story. Esau was not cursed. His life, like that of Ishmael, would be one of struggle, but he had four wives and became very wealthy in his own right.

Exile:              In the final scene, we see Rebekah and Jacob again. They now have to live with the consequences of their actions. If Rebekah had hoped that Isaac’s blessing would mean that her beloved son would be able to stay with her and take care of her, she was wrong. If Jacob had hoped that his father’s blessing would mean that he would become the head of the family and be respected by his brother, he was wrong. If either of them thought that their deception would go undetected or unpunished, they were wrong. Actions have consequences. Esau hated his brother.

            This recalls the earlier story of Cain and Abel. Abel was the younger brother whose offering was acceptable to God. Cain hated his brother and killed him. When we discussed that story many of us were bothered by the fact that no explanation was given for why Abel was blessed and Cain rejected. But in our story for today, we know why Esau hated Jacob. Rebekah did not need to go to Sunday School to figure out that Esau would kill Jacob as soon as Isaac had been buried. So she acted again to save her beloved son. She sent him away to Haran, to the home of her brother Laban, who was powerful enough to protect him from the wrath of Esau. 

            Rebekah says something very interesting as she sends Jacob away: “Why should I lose both of you in one day?” It is ambiguous whether she is discussing the loss of Jacob and Esau or Jacob and Isaac. The latter makes sense in terms of both them dying on the same day, but the former seems more likely in the context. Rebekah knows that she has lost the love of her son Esau by robbing him of his blessing, and she cannot bear the thought of losing the life of other son. She is a tragic figure here, so different from the bright young woman who received a nose ring years before. Now she is trapped in her own actions. In order to save the life of the son she loved most, she must lose him. We shall see that Isaac’s blessing does eventually come true for Jacob, but not in the way Rebekah intended. Jacob will prosper, but only after years of toil and hardship. He leaves for Haran, and mother and son will not be reunited for 20 years. 

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The Jacob Saga

We’ve been discussing the book of Genesis on Sunday mornings in the Sojourners Class at Central Moravian. Today we are beginning the stories about Jacob, and I thought you might be interested. Some of this material was posted earlier on the blog.

Overview of Jacob Saga:      Last week we discussed the prelude to the Jacob and Esau saga. We will be spending several weeks examining the story of Jacob in some detail, and it might be helpful to have an overview of that saga since it is one of the longest sections of Genesis (ch. 25-36). One reason Jacob is so compelling is that he is so much like us. His struggles with God mirror our own struggles with God. And in the final analysis, the major religious point of the Jacob saga appears to be profoundly simple. God chose Jacob despite his flaws rather than because of his strengths. And that may be the message for us as well. We are chosen for reasons we cannot fathom and despite our unworthiness. Though we struggle, God remains faithful to us. 

First of all, we should note that in many ways, it is Jacob, not Abraham who is the central figure in Genesis. Though Abraham was the great ancestor of faith who first answered the call of God, the tribes of Israel would be named for Jacob. Jacob experiences the most significant change of name in the Bible, going from Jacob (heel-grabber) to Israel, the one who strives with God. Jacob’s story is a story of striving and conflict. Unlike Isaac who moved repeatedly in order to avoid violence, Jacob struggles with everyone he encounters in the world. He struggles with Esau, his mother, his father, Laban, his wives, and even God himself. God will change his name to Israel, and it is a fitting name for Jacob the scrapper. Israel will be the name of the tribes who descended from Jacob. They will strive with God all well.

            The Jacob saga is made up of many different stories that probably came from a variety of sources that scholars refer to as J, E, and P, but the final version as we have it is a masterpiece of literature. It has been carefully assembled so that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts alone. There is a careful symmetry in the story. It begins with the conflict with Esau and Jacob’s flight from his family, and it ends with the reconciliation with Esau and Jacob’s return to Canaan with his own family. So we have an odyssey here. The main character leaves his home, but cannot return until he has completed his quest.

            When he returns he is both different and the same. During his odyssey, Jacob has two significant religious experiences. The first is his famous vision at Bethel when he sees the stairway to heaven. The second is his encounter with God at Peniel when he receives a new name as well as a limp. Each religious experience marks a significant transition in Jacob’s life while affirming that Jacob has been chosen by the LORD. In the middle of Jacob’s odyssey is his time in exile in Haran when he labored for Laban. The climax of his story is the birth of his 12 sons as the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham.

              It appears that the Jacob stories originated in the North, with the 10 northern tribes of Israel. The Abraham and Isaac stories are more closely associated with the southern kingdom of Judah. We can tell this in part from the place names. Beersheba is the key shrine for the Abraham stories, while Bethel is the main shrine in the north. We don’t have time to go into the whole history of Israel here, but it is helpful to remember that there were twelve tribes of Israel. The most important tribe was Judah, and that tribe established a separate kingdom after the death of Solomon. It is from Judah that we get the words Judaism, Jew, and Judea. Judah lasted longer as a kingdom than Israel did, and it was in Judah that the Old Testament as we know it was written. Most of the time when we think of Israel, we are thinking of Judah.

            The ten northern tribes disappeared after the destruction of the kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 721, but they were very important. The kingdom of Israel was different from Judah. In many ways, it was wealthier and more powerful, but it was also less stable. The prophets played a key role in the politics of the north, occasionally even anointing warriors to overthrow the king. The north was never as unified as Judah was, and its holy places were destroyed. The Samaritans were the descendents of Israel and maintained some of the old religion of the Israelites. As we can see in the New Testament, there was conflict between Jews and Samaritans for centuries. Some of that conflict is reflected in the Jacob saga. The complexity of the Jacob saga and the moral ambiguity of its main character reflect the complexity and ambiguity of human society itself.