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.