Saturday, June 20, 2009

Jake the Snake?

Jacob son of Isaac was a hero of the faith, but he doesn’t seem to get any respect. The Sunday school story is basically that he was a snake until God got hold of him at Mahanaim, and then he became St. Israel. But I think highly of the young Jacob. For sure I’d rather deal with him than with Isaac, Esau, or Laban.

Take his deal with Esau. Poor Esau! There he is, out hunting for a day. Or a week. Or a month. We’re not told how long it was. Then he comes home empty handed. Well, Jacob is boiling some beans, and suddenly a guy who lives on meat can’t live without those beans. Remember, Isaac’s tent is probably in sight, and even though Mom liked Jacob best, she would certainly feed her own son; if nothing else, Dad would give him a sheep or goat from the flocks that would fill his stomach, even if it wouldn’t salve his ego. But no, he wants those beans.

And let’s back up a bit. Before Jacob and Esau are born, God tells both parents, apparently in a way they couldn’t mistake for indigestion, that Jacob will be born second but he will be the real leader. The text describes Esau as a beast (What else would supply a “hairy garment”?), but Jacob was an iš tam, a phrase the Bible uses otherwise only for Job. It is translated there “a righteous man,” but that translation is denied Jacob because—well, that would spoil the characterization of him as a snake, wouldn’t it?

Now some folks say that Jacob is cooking red beans to symbolize that he has been lying in wait to cook Esau (Edom the Red) to get the birthright. That may be true. He’s had decades to see where Esau’s priorities lie, and he knows that God’s blessing will rest on the leader of the family. Jacob probably has seen Esau trade treasure for piffle before and also knows that Esau and Isaac have both lost sight of the value of God’s blessing on their family, as we shall see. So yes, he’s lying in wait for Esau: he knows the value of the birthright and God’s attendant blessing, and he knows that Esau is clueless—not a simpleton, but a fool, one whose heart is inclined toward evil.

Anyway, the “cunning hunter” shows up hungry and says, “Give me some of them beans—the red ones.” So Jacob in effect asks a perfectly reasonable question: “What are they worth to you?” And Esau replies, “Why, I’d even trade my birthright for them,” to which Jacob says, “Deal.” The Torah says that that deal was proof that Esau “despised” his birthright; the writer of Hebrews says it was because he was “unspiritual,” proven in the Genesis account by his choice of ungodly wives. And I’d rate the deal as a slap in Isaac’s face in the same league as the lost son’s request in the parable that his dad give him his share of the inheritance so he can leave home. Yet the Sunday school version of that deal is that Jacob was a conniver—the father of shyster Jews, as it were. Now there’s a lot of Esau in me—I certainly know what it is to trade treasure for piffle—but that (alone) doesn’t make those I’ve traded with bad people. So in my book, Jacob drove a hard bargain, but if Esau ate and was satisfied, Jacob got the birthright fair and square. Though Esau later blames Jacob for his desolation, the Bible says it’s his own fault.

But Isaac, who has doubtless heard the news that his beloved Esau has despised his birthright, decides that he’ll sneak the blessing to Esau anyway. Where Esau earns a meal by treating the birthright as worthless, Isaac wants to earn a meal by treating God’s blessing as subject to his own whim: remember, it was God who told him that Jacob was to be his successor.

But Rebekah is on the ball and gives Jacob a plan that is so outrageous that it would never work apart from God’s intervention. Think for a second: Isaac wants wild game cooked according to Esau’s secret recipe. Jacob is going to take him the same domestic meat he’s eaten thousands of times. And we learn that Jacob can’t disguise his voice. On top of that, Isaac is suspicious because of the timing. But even down three strikes, Jacob gets the blessing. Why? The best answer is that God blinded Isaac. And when Isaac realizes what has happened, he trembles with terror because he realizes he has been going against God’s wishes by trying to bless Esau.

The Sunday school lesson from this phase of Jacob’s early life is usually, “Don’t be a snake like Jacob,” backed up by speculation of what would have happened if Jacob had not dealt with Esau for the birthright or chosen some more diplomatic way to get the blessing. I think the river runs deeper in the other direction.

Because we are sinners and choose to be sinners and to sin, we deserve nothing from God, not even to know the truth. In fact, everyone by nature hates the truth, so God is within his rights when he “sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie” (2 Thess 2:11), as he did Isaac. Everything I’ve ever done that I’ve regretted began with believing a lie because I wanted to; every time, I’ve looked back and said, “I knew better.” God is not obliged to let us even hear the Gospel, and we who have heard it, to say nothing of those who put it into practice, are recipients of grace beyond measure.

Jacob was flawed like the rest of us, and we’ll talk about that later, but he knew that God had promised him a special blessing, and he was willing to risk everything to get it. It wasn’t only the ruse on Isaac that was risky; his offer to Esau was as outrageous as a guy at a McDonald’s counter offering a Happy Meal in exchange for sex. Anyone with a normal understanding of the situation would have been aghast at the proposition. (“I asked him if he was serious, and he said yes. Can you believe it?”) But Esau not only wasn’t offended, he agreed to the deal: Jacob’s wisdom was justified by her children (Luke 7:35). And in the end, Jacob really had nothing to lose and everything to gain by pursuing the blessing. If Esau hadn’t taken the bargain or his ruse hadn’t worked, what would he have lost? His father already would prefer to disobey God than to give him either the birthright or the blessing—how could being discovered and overtly cursed be worse? What looks risky to the undiscerning really isn’t. How much of God’s blessing have I done myself out of by not being willing to take lawful risks?

Jacob pursued the blessing by lawful means. His deal with Esau was gutsy but lawful. His ruse on Isaac was also lawful: it prevented Isaac from sinning against God by giving the blessing to an unspiritual beast. In the same way, helping slaves escape on the Underground Railroad and hiding Jews during the Holocaust prevented God’s appointed authorities from sinning through murder and kidnap. The Israelite midwives in Egypt and Rahab showed their faith by denying the truth to the ungodly; Judas Iscariot told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and the Bible treats him as a scoundrel. We have no obligation to tell someone a truth that will enable them to sin more effectively.

Finally, like Esau, we are naturally beasts who pursue the short-term pleasures of piffle at the cost of long-term blessing. And when we come up short, we tend to blame others, ultimately God (Prov 19:3). If we don’t want our natural desires to keep us from God’s blessings, we need to act unnaturally—or supernaturally. That’s why Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit is the greatest gift we can ask for (Luke 11:13): it is the Spirit who enables us to act supernaturally.

Next post on this thread will look at Jacob’s time with Uncle Laban.

UPDATE: The second post is here.

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