In the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, we meet many complex folks who were chosen by God for reasons beyond our limited, finite comprehension, in order to carry out his plan in a particular temporal place and time. Many of these men and women are faulted, and certainly imperfect. That might be a nice way of putting it. In most cases, they are downright shady characters—though I might give an exception to Esther—hey, they are human! Yet, all of them were at least partially willing to assume the immense responsibility, and that is what separates them from their peers—most importantly, they come to recognize God in their imperfection. These “sinners” are to be transformed because they own and (eventually) take recognition of their imperfections. In all things, they seek Perfection by way of knowing their way is not the right way. In this way, they are no longer sinful after removing that which blocks them from actively seeking (and receiving) the Divine through Ultimate Concerns. However, it’s a process. It takes time.
One of the most extraordinarily shady “characters” we meet in Genesis is Jacob. Though he was the youngest son of Isaac and Rebekah, grandson of Abraham, which made him a direct descendant of God’s greatest covenant, he was not—at least for much of his life—what we might consider a Godly -man. He was a smart, determined, but troubled man…and perhaps this was the case since conception. Jacob fought, in one way or another, since he was in his mother’s womb. After twenty years of trying to have children, Rebekah finally conceived. The couple’s prayers were answered after twenty years of marriage; she was pregnant. However, we soon learn that the pregnancy was not an easy one: “The children struggled together within her.” With such physical discomfort, she was naturally worried about losing a child, and so she went to the Lord with her concerns. He reassured her of the inevitability of the birth of twins— two boys she would name Esau and Jacob. Additionally, he told her that there were “two nations in [her] womb, / and two peoples born of you shall be divided; / the one shall be stronger than the other, / the elder shall serve the younger.” When they were born, the eldest came out red and hairy, and so they named him Esau, to this symbolism. The youngest existed the womb “with his hand gripping Esau’s heel,” and because of this they named the younger Jacob, which in Arabic means “heel” or “leg-puller” (Genesis 25:22-26). Jacob’s name is not only significant in the cantankerous relationship between brothers, as well as the dynamics between the nations of Israel and Edom, but foreshadows his later interactions/ conflicts with God.
As the two boys matured into their roles, Esau emerged the stronger more masculine “skillful hunter” (in some translations “cunning,” though I think this translation is problematic, especially when considering other translations describe him later on as “dull” minded), “man of the field.” Jacob was “a quiet man, living in tents.” However, not enough is given to explain his true talents, which stretch beyond the physical, if we can call them talents. Though he was not a hunter, he was much more skillful and cunning in life-strategy than his older brother. While God does not intervene to favor one over the other, at least not initially, like in the story of Cain and Abel, it is clear that Isaac prefers Esau and Rebekah favors Jacob. Additionally, in this early description of identity, Jacob is glossed over—he is the unassuming brother, which is ironic.
While God does not favor one’s intentions over the other, as in the story of Cain and Abel, this fraternal conflict and competition plays on the Hunter vs. Shepherd. The conflict between these two was not outwardly apparent, at least not in what we’ve been given in the text, until Esau came home one day famished after a long day of work. He found Jacob cooking in the tent and asked him for some of the food he was preparing. Jacob, seeing a hole in his brother’s armor, thought it through. He assessed the situation and acted. He agreed to share his food with Esau, but only on the condition that he relinquished his birthright. Once Esau swears on it, Jacob gives him the “red” lentil soup and drink. In this moment, we see the birth of the Trickster. This is the first of many situations where he uses his mind to successfully manipulate those around him. Esau was caught unawares, due to hunger, and unable to be entirely sure of the situation. As a result, Jacob begins the process of usurping power over him by outwitting him on an empty stomach. Esau’s mistake will have powerful consequence, and it will set up the expectation that he will be fooled again.
After the family took God’s advice to move to the land of Gerar in order to avoid problems in Egypt, and after the many tricks in which Abraham played his wife off as his sister in order to avoid death by King Aimelech of the Philistines (they are a very “tricky” family!), we arrive to a very important scene. Isaac is going blind, and thinks he is dying. Consequently, he wants to bless his sons (blessing during this time was very significant and was known to direct a person’s success in life) and talk about their future after what he believes is an inevitable death. In preparation for this event, he asks both to bring food on their behalf. Esau is the first to leave, heading out to go for a long hunt for game. Before Jacob can leave, Rebekah stops him and offers to prepare the food the way Isaac likes. She tells him that if he allows her to do this, and if he approaches his father first, then he will be blessed over Esau. Though Jacob is worried that his father will sense a fraud (not only is Esau’s voice different, but his arms are much hairier), he places his trust in his mother and follows her plan—this decision is driven by fear and greed- rooted in pride.
When the time came, Rebekah dressed Jacob in his brother’s clothing (note: his arms are covered with the hair from the animal skins, which would give him the smell of a hunter and the hairy hands of his brother), gave him the food, and sent him in first. When he approached his father, Isaac said: “Here I am; who are you, my son? Jacob, following his mother’s plan, responded: “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.” When Isaac suspects that the hunt did not take as long as it should have, he probes his son; however, Jacob, the talented manipulator, says, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.” Isaac, still unsure of the situation, begs his son to come closer. He recognizes his son’s voice as that of Jacob, but needs to feel his arms. After he feels the hair on his hands (remember, the hair is that of an animal he wears), he questions him further, saying: “Are you really my son Esau?” Jacob responds, “I am.” Lastly, he asks him to come near him for a kiss, and it is the smell of game (the animal he is wearing) that is the last confirmation. As a result, Isaac blesses Jacob with his father’s one blessing.
Just like in a good drama, the deceiver leaves right before the true son arrives, and you can imagine the shock of both when they find out what happened. All Isaac can say in response to Esau’s tears are, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” In response, Esau says, “Is he not rightly named Jacob?” For he has supplanted me these two times. He takes away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessings.” Esau’s anger is understandably at fever pitch, and so Rebekah, fearing Esau’s threat to kill Jacob upon his father’s death, warns Jacob to leave for her brother Laban’s land in Haran, and to not return until Esau’s anger has diminished. From here on, Jacob, though blessed and in control of birthright, becomes an exile as a result of his greed. Additionally, we are unsure if he will even be able to live into the birthright upon his father’s death, mainly because Esau has threatened to kill him. In fact, the irony here is that both sons become exiles as a result of mother and son’s selfish trickery.
Though Rebekah is not an ideal role model, per say, she is a strong woman who learns how to assert her will in times where a women’s power was nearly nonexistent. In ancient times, mortal women did not much say so, at least not outside of the management of the house, and if they did have power it was because they found ways to empower themselves through subtle, intellectually cunning ways—Eve, Pharaoh’s daughter (who guarded Moses), Rebekah, Rachel, and Esther, just to name a few. This is exactly what Rebekah does—she uses her intelligence and craftiness to enhance the life of her son…a boy who was born with less opportunity than his brother—and she does it by unconventional means. It is by no mistake that Rebekah favors Jacob; he certainly takes after her with regards to using intellectual strategy to better himself. However, he is also hindered by the sins of insecurity and greed, and though he is a man chosen by God, it will take a lot of painful toil in order to transform into a Godly man.
Isaac told Jacob that he could not marry a Canaanite woman, but would have to go live with Laban in Paddan-aram (land of Haran…a “pagan” land). There he would need to marry a woman, one of Laban’s daughters, from the house of Bethuuel. Jacob would assume power of the family name, but in a new land where he would “now live as an alien—land that God gave to Abraham” (28:4). It was during this journey to Haran that Jacob encountered God for the first time in a dream we refer to as “Jacob’s ladder,” though perhaps “stairway” or “ramp” is a more appropriate translation. All the same, God blesses the land to Jacob, and his family (more specifically, the line of Judah), and adds: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:12-16). This line really resonates later in Jacob’s faith journey, but at the time it is not really as important to him as it should be. Here he recognizes God’s presence, at least in the land he’s entered, and says: “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (28:17). That said, I don’t believe Jacob truly finds God’s place in his soul [this sparks some deep questions: When thinking of God’s presence in humans, is “find” even the right word? Is God ever lost to us? Is it that we just chose not to recognize him during some stages of our life? Can we recognize God in us when our psyche and/or when our ego overshadows God?]. He is unable to fully trust in him for quite a while longer…this is part of his journey. This is Jacob’s ongoing struggle—perhaps it started in the womb— a crisis between what he is (and was) and what God wants him to be… between how he views himself and how God views him… between God’s will and his way.
During his time in Laban’s land, Jacob lives a busy life. He assumes his role of shepherd, and falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. In order to give her away in marriage, Laban asks Jacob to work for seven years, which he does because of his genuine love: “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed but a day because of the love he had for her” (29:20). When the time came, Jacob asks Laban for Rachel, and he agrees to hand the bride over, but not in the way Isaac’s son had expected. Call it karma, or a receiving a taste of his own medicine, but Laban “took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.” According to the text, when the morning came, the new groom was shocked to see Leah in bed next to him. This is both humorous and disturbing. Since he has slept with her, the marriage is officially sealed. While Jacob grows to love Leah, he still worships the ground Rachel walks on—she is prettier, and much more intelligent…like a mirror of his mother, no? Ironic? No. After their week-long honeymoon, Laban agrees to give Jacob his younger daughter, but if he promises that the young man will work for him another seven years, which he does.
After these seven additional years of work, Rachel is given to Jacob for a second wife. Rachel and Jacob are perfect for each other, for better or worse. Rachel is not only a beautiful woman, who is dedicated and in love with her husband, but she is also intelligent, cunning and bold. She, just like Rebekah, the first woman in Jacob’s life, to team up with him to better their situation—i.e., the sheep trick and the stealing of her father’s idols. In an act of revenge, she ruins her father’s life. In the end, Rachel and Jacob escapes Laban’s control, stronger and more powerful, leaving the man and his sons as exiles in their own land…disconnected from their family and celestial gods.
I am in no way condoning Jacob’s actions—he is a complex character, and he is hard to understand… as are most humans. While Jacob was chosen by God, and while God has great plans for him and his children (the line of Judah, in particular), I don’t think God necessarily chooses to micromanage every detail of a person’s life. Certainly God (and later the Lord – God in human form) works with people who are faulted…people who sin. In the Gospel According to Mathew, the Pharisees is disgusted to see Jesus eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, and asks the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus responds, saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:10-13). Jacob, like Adam, Moses, Noah, Solomon, David, and other “great men” of the Old Testament, and men Peter, Thomas, and Lazarus and others of the New Testament, deal with personal and spiritual issues. However, all of these men undergo profound personal transformations, as well as changes in how they perceive their place in the world around them.
Before Jacob changes for the better, he shows the absolute worst of his humanity. When he left Haran to return to Canaan, he heard rumors that his older brother was on his way with an army of 400, possibly to kill him. Instead of going out to meet Esau, what does he do? He does the coward thing, and this should be fully recognized as part of his journey. Jacob divides his camp up into groups (humans and animals), putting the least important up front and the most important in the back. He positions himself, Rachel and Joseph (her favorite) in the very back, so that he is the last to come face to face with Esau. It is in this moment that Jacob, perhaps for the first time, makes a direct prayer to God…what we call a “fox hole” prayer; however, it is a prayer…and he does show a concern for those beyond himself. He says: “I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.”
In this prayer, Jacob also reminds God’s promise that his people will inherit the land and be safe. This is the first step in humility before God. But instead of trusting in God’s will, he sends lines of animals out to appease Esau… again, to appease Esau…not God. In all of this not only does Jacob not trust in God, especially considering that God has chosen him and his people and made this clear many times, but he is a coward. He places his possessions, servants and some of his family before his own life. He hides behind them all, quivering under the suspicion but not proof that Esau is coming to kill him. His God is fear, manifested in the image of his greatest guilt—the wrongdoing he did to his brother by stealing his birthright and blessing.
What came as a result of Jacob’s prayer is not relief, but more conflict (this time internal)… and perhaps the most meaningful conflict of his life. The scene is confusing, and no one scholar has gotten it perfectly right (and here I am not professing that I am an Old Testament scholar, not by any means), but there are a lot of theories… and I have one. It was night and Jacob moved his family across the stream (in front of him, just in case Esau attacked) before going to bed. The text says:
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled him until daybreak. When the man saw he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ … Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’” When Jacob asked the man his name, he said: “Why is it that you ask my name?” The man did not give up his name, but blessed him, and Jacob knew. He called the place Peniel because according to Jacob, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The next day, Jacob arose with the sun and approached his camp, “limping because of his hip” (32:22-32).
The first thing to say about this odd wrestling match is that the “man” is certainly not a man…not at all. He is a divine opponent, and perhaps opponent is the wrong way of looking at it. Many say “he” is an angel of God sent by God. Others say he is actually God in the form of an angel, which is pretty much the same thing. Either way, “he” is a divine force representative of the mystery and power of God, and it is clear that Jacob is one of the few people in the Bible to see the face of God and live. In addition to these reads, some who read Jung would say that “he” is Jacob, or a part of him at the very least. In a Jungian read, Jacob, troubled man wrestles with his subconscious that wants desperately to get out, or influence him in a dramatic way. In keeping with this reading, he is wrestling the Shadow (see earlier posts, but that cavern in the deepest layer of self that holds the pure, raw energy of our psyche—something not all of us fight, but great hero’s have to encounter head on).
Then there are some who might combine the theological and psychological, like me, and see this as some sort of combination. Jacob is alone, and he is at the apex of his suffering—much of it caused by himself. This was the first time that he prayed a genuine prayer… not just to recognize God in a place, but invite Him into himself to correct what ails him. He does not ask to be “fixed,” but he certainly admits that he has hit what we might call a bottom… and he does not know what to do in order to make it better. Instead of God revealing himself in a burning bush, an earthquake, a defeat of Esau, or even a whisper outside the cave (Jacob is not as intuitive as Elijah), he physically engages Jacob with himself. God has always been in Jacob, but he was never able to hear him in his home country. He had to become his own individual… he had to make mistakes… he had to feel the pain of isolation and error… and he had to suffer in order to turn to him for a new way.
This wrestling match is certainly about more than God. If it were only about God, He would not have even played around with Jacob—He would kill him in that instant. No, there is a lesson here. God comes to Jacob and wrestles him in order to show him that he has the strength he never thought he had…and he’s had it in him since birth; he just needs to recognize. Likewise, God shows him that physical strength is not as important as internal strength—the state of the soul. He must step up and assume the hero’s role (in this case, hero is humble… a servant to family, friends, and stranger… because the servant is the leader in God’s eyes). If anything, the wrestling match not only brought out the hero in Jacob, but it unveiled God in Jacob. Now that Jacob knows that God is with him, even in the worst of times, he has the confidence to live God’s will. God allowed Jacob to win the wrestling match, or at least draw, because he wanted Jacob to remember that he must do some of the work… he can’t just turn to God and say, “Fix this problem I have gotten us into.” God needs a human that can rely on his word and live his will, but the human must take risks and live. God will not micromanage every detail, though he is always overseeing the pathway we follow under him. He leaves Jacob with a bum hip in order to remind him that he walks (imperfection) with God (perfection), yet they do it together.
After the wrestling match, Jacob experiences a significant faith transformation as a result of finding humility—in finding humility, he gains a confidence which shatters the insecurity of his birth order. He sheds himself to find his GOD SELF, and this gives him the kind of confidence to re-approach his fractured life in a way that serves as a model to others. After limping back to his people, he walks to the front of groups and faces Esau (the fear) head on, regardless of the possibility that Esau might have killed him upon first sight: “He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother” who welcomed him, a transformed man, in joy. Though the story progresses, and we do not have time for the later years of Jacob, at least not in this post, Esau certainly notices the change in his brother. He says: “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you” (33:1-12).
I see a lot of similarities between this Genesis story and my particular reading Homer’s Odyssey, especially the life and misadventures of Odysseus (his dependency on wit over physical strength; the relationship he has with his wife, Penelope, who was also a trickster—and her deception of the suitors that plague them; manipulation of identity to trick and assert power; and a conflicted, yet loving/dependent relationship between him and Athena). While I have a significant amount of research and writing on the transformation of Odysseus from hubristic to holistic hero, I need to give some more thought to ways in which these stories parallel each other. It might be that the only link is the hero’s battle of self and psychic transformation (shedding of ego) through humility… a dependence on a god over our own self-seeking perspective. I have already brought up the descent into the layers of the psyche (Jung) in order to confront the Shadow (what I might expand here to God-self—recognition of God embedded in our psyche), and a psychic transformation—but that’s as far as I will go for today. I will give this story of Jacob a bit more thought, and I might come back to it in a few weeks with parallels to my Homer writings. If not, I will keep my thoughts and other findings as is…