Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jake the Snake? (Part 2)

In my first post on this thread, I concluded that Jacob son of Isaac was a true hero of the faith and worthy of emulation, even in the early phase of his life, for which most Christians disparage him. This time we’ll look at his the second phase of his life, when he supposedly gets his come-uppance from Uncle Laban and is converted to true faith at Mahanaim. Jacob substituted himself for Esau, so the thinking goes, and so having Laban substitute Leah for Rachel was God’s way of making turnabout fair play and driving Jacob to the conversion that prompted God to name him Israel.

This argument is more difficult to refute than criticisms of Jacob’s actions per se, relying as it does on literary device rather than an ethical evaluation of Laban’s treatment of Jacob. So first we must establish that Laban was a beast like Esau, a true son of the father of lies.

Laban knew that Jacob wanted to marry Rachel only, and he agreed to give him Rachel only for the work of the first seven years (Gn 29:18-19). While sharp attorneys might get government judges to rule that Laban’s words in Gn 29:19 do not constitute a commitment to give only Rachel, no private arbitrator who wanted to be engaged in the future by people of good will would so rule.

Laban also cheated Jacob by taking from him the sheep he had just agreed would be Jacob’s (Ge 30:35, cf. v. 32). Jacob showed his godliness not only by offering to take the least valuable sheep (cf. 1 Co 1:26–27) but by making sure the system was one he couldn’t cheat. Yet Laban cheated him.

“But that’s the point,” you say, “Jacob cheated Isaac and Esau, and so God gave him a dose of his own medicine.”

Not so fast. If it’s possible to make statistics say whatever you want, surely the same can be said of literary devices. We need to view literary devices in their contexts, and the bigger the context, the less Laban’s actions look like fair play.

Remember that Jacob is one of only two people in Scripture called iš tam; the other is Job, about whom the phrase is taken to mean that he was a “righteous man.” What is the main theological point made by the book of Job? Is it not that the righteous often undergo the same experiences we consider just recompense to the wicked? that we cannot infer from others’ sufferings that they have committed heinous sins?

Job, of course, is a type of Christ, and the christological purpose behind the book of Job is to demonstrate that Jesus could undergo persecution and death despite never having sinned (and that in the end he would be resurrected). The stories of Job, Jacob, and Jesus follow the same trajectory: an iš tam endures the suffering of the wicked (see Heb 5:8; 12:5-11) and comes out better off than when he started. If the prologue to Job’s story establishes that his suffering was the suffering of one whom God considered righteous, why could the story of Jacob not begin with the same phrase, iš tam, for the same reason?

Finally, let’s look at Jacob’s “conversion” experience. This pericope forms an inclusio with another misinterpreted incident, Jacob’s vision at Luz of the stairway or ladder from which God reassures Jacob that he is indeed still the heir to the covenant with Abraham. The Sunday school version is that Jacob, ever the trickster and shyster, is trying to make a deal with God: “If [and only if] God will ... then [and only then] I will....”

But there’s a big problem with that view: God wasn’t making an offer. He was stating a fact. If you tell someone, “I’m going to give you this $500 you see in my hand,” and if they say, “If you give me that money, I’ll take you to dinner,” won’t you assume that they are expressing gratitude? If they were dickering with you (“Hey, nice money! Would you give it to me if I took you to dinner?”), you wouldn’t consider them ungrateful as much as crazy: “No, listen carefully this time. I’m going to give it to you. It’s yours. You don’t have to take me to dinner to get it.” That is what God was saying to Jacob.

Ah, you say, but Jacob couldn’t see the fulfillment of the promise, so he thought he had to dicker. Do you blame him? He’s rescued the promise from Isaac and Esau and for his trouble been run not only out of his home but out of the Promised Land. That’s why God appeared to him: to assure him that the promise was his. There is not a syllable of rebuke in the Lord’s words, only blessing. Jacob was not trying to dicker; he was expressing his gratitude.

Now we can look at Jacob’s “conversion experience,” which comes after he has suffered for twenty years under Laban. He is again alone and facing an uncertain future, again God takes the initiative to meet him, and again there is only blessing in God’s discourse. I will show that in this scene God says, in effect, “People call you a heel-grabber [deceiver, Jacob], but I call you Israel.”

What is meant by “Israel” is somewhat enigmatic because of the use of both the root śrh and the preposition `im “with.” What activity does the verb denote? How does the preposition relate the verb to its object?

Because Jacob is wrestling with “a man,” most versions take the verb to mean “struggle.” If we go with this translation, the question becomes, does Jacob struggle “with” God the same way he struggles “with” men? To struggle or fight or wrestle with someone can mean either that the people involved are opponents or that they are allies. The parallelism of the sentence would lead one first to believe that Jacob had “struggled with” men in the same sense he “struggled with” God. This is the traditional view.

But what if śrh is meant to be constrasted with, rather than synonymous with, “wrestle”? The KJV translates the verb śrh as “to have (princely) power”for good reason: śrh is clearly related to the idea of śar (“prince”) and śrh (“Sarah, princess”). Grammarians relate śr (“prince”) to the verb śrr (“to rule”), the third radical h in the verb (not unlike the h in Sarah, which marks the presence of a vowel after the r) could reasonably be taken as a sign that śrh is derived from śr (which in turn is derived from śrr). The Septuagint, “the Bible of Paul,” uses the verb enischeuo, the root meaning of which is strength, not struggle.

The best way to test this hypothesis would be to look at other passages that use the verb. Unfortunately, the only other occurrence of śrh is in Ho 12:4, which tells us only what we already know: “as a man, Jacob śrh with God.” Even the context there is enigmatic. Jacob is clearly a symbol for the nation of Israel, which is being called to task for its spiritual adultery (12:1-2). “In the womb he grasped his brother’s heel” (12:3a) seems to be a condemnation of falsehood. But “he śrh with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor” seems to indicate that Jacob was zealous for God, in contrast to his descendants, Hosea’s hearers, who were spiritual idolaters. The question then is whether “he śrh with God” is praise, to be grouped with what follows, or chastisement, grouped with what precedes. Since “as a man” precedes “he śrh with God,” I would group this sentence with the praise that follows. (And given Esau’s character, described in my earlier post, I wouldn’t consider it impossible that “in the womb he grasped his brother’s heel” is intended as praise: see Ro 9:11-13.)

There is an interesting word play here. The verb for “wrestle,” ′qb (the first consonant being the consonant in “uh-oh”), is one point of articulation different from the verb for “take by the heel, supplant,” `qb (the first consonant being like but pronounced deeper in the throat). Of course Jacob’s name, ya`qob, is taken from the verb and its noun, `aqeb (“heel”). One could reasonably conclude that Jacob was so named because his parents, seeing him grasping his brother’s heel at birth (Gn 25:26), considered him the personification of the serpent who would strike at the heel of the Messiah (Gn 3:15). Let me flog the dead horse by noting that Isaac’s actions show that he had the wrong son pegged for the messianic line.

So we have ya`qob, Jacob, and wayye’aqeb, “he wrestled” to set the scene. But when the man speaks, he seems to put all that in the past: ““Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have śrh with God and with men and have overcome.”

And who was speaking? We don’t know for sure, but Jacob’s demand that this man bless him leads most commentators to believe that the man was some kind of theophany; certainly he spoke with divine authority. Where rebellious Isaac called the one God had told him was his chosen a “heel-grabber” and other men considered his actions deceitful, here a divine messenger calls that same man a prince with divine authority precisely because he had acted as one with divine authority, both toward God and toward man.

If we are to insist that śrh is a synonym for ′qb and Jacob was one whose relationship with men and God up until that time had been śrh—that is, negative—then the name Israel is not much of an improvement over Jacob; it’s simply another way of saying he’s a snake. Yet the basis of the blessing is that Jacob has done well. When? From the beginning.


What is there to take home from all of this? First is that no one has inherent, unalienable rights. Jacob was promised God’s favor “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad” (Ro 9:11); Isaac had no right to give God’s blessing to Esau, and neither Jacob nor Esau could claim a right to the blessing apart from God’s say-so. Laban had no right to break the terms of his deal with Jacob, either regarding his daughters or regarding the sheep. Isaac, Esau, and Laban could not get away with cheating Jacob, but that was not because Jacob deserved God’s protection; rather, God is gracious and so loves and protects his people. Jacob had no right to the blessing but got it because of God’s grace, and no one—Isaac, Esau, or Laban—had any right to take it away.

Similarly, we have the right to die and go to hell; no more, no less. Every day of life is a gift from God, as are the tangible items needed to sustain it. No one has the right to take them from us, and we have no right to take from others either directly or through deceit. This is the foundation of justice on which is built the freedom, generosity, and other graces that make life worth living.

Second is that truth is not an absolute good, but justice is. That is why God “the not-liar” (Ti 1:2) is just when he “sends [some people] a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie” (2 Th 2:11). People have no right to know the truth.

Third is that all acts must be evaluated in their full ethical context. Jacob’s deception of Isaac was God sending Isaac a “strong delusion”—as we have seen, the ruse could not have succeeded without divine intervention—to keep him from the sin of nullifying Esau’s contempt for the birthright. In the same way, telling a potential murderer where to find his intended victim is to be an accessory to that murder and therefore not just. Rather, truth is the servant of justice. We need to know from Scripture what is and is not just and evaluate our use of truth accordingly.

Next is the assurance that Scripture is indeed consistent with itself. God told Rebekah that the older would serve the younger. The older despised his birthright and so chose to be the servant rather than the master. Though we don’t see Esau in abject servitude to Jacob, he considers himself as coming out second best to Jacob, and his descendants do indeed serve Jacob’s greatest older covenant son, David (2 Sam 8:14).

Next is that God’s ways don’t always sit well with his people. Isaac, the most famous of biblical children of promise (e.g., born miraculously of barren women), loved Esau despite God’s prophecy and Esau’s contempt for the birthright. Yet Bible-believing Christians throughout church history have sided with Esau and Isaac against Jacob. Indeed it was those who would defend God’s righteousness who “comforted” Job, and it was the most devout Jews, those who spent the most time in Bible study, who were Jesus’ most vicious opponents. The pattern is remarkably consistent.

This blog is about being good neighbors. I said at the beginning of the first post that I’d rather deal with Jacob than with Isaac, Esau, or Laban; these posts have shown that Jacob was, like Jesus, a quill pig: unsavory to his enemies (2 Co 2:15–16) but not otherwise blameworthy. He minded his own business, never took more than his due, and yet was despised and rejected.

When I was first given an explanation of how by God’s common grace human liberty works and why and how it accords better with Scripture than the soft socialism I was then espousing, I was struck first by how good the news was and then by how my worst enemy is the evil in my own heart. The subsequent three decades have only confirmed both those impressions. (I have also been astounded by the hostility people exhibit toward them!) But I’m not the only sinner in this boat.

I find it significant that almost to a man those who are quick to castigate Jacob for his bargain with Esau, let alone for his deception of Isaac, and would call Laban’s deception fair turnabout are slow to speak against Uncle Sam’s bombing of innocent people overseas and taking of money from the unborn at home. They call Jacob a snake for offering Esau a meal Esau was free to refuse but force their neighbors to pay for schools and health and retirement programs that always deliver less and cost more than they claim. They would (rightfully) deny tax transfers to single mothers but defend corporate welfare. Where the Bible calls for full responsibility, including restitution for victims of fraud, violence, and negligence, they say nothing against a “corrections” and tort system based on limited liability, retribution, and “rehabilitation.” Where the Bible calls only for us to avoid and rebuke those guilty of vice, they call for jailing them. Is it any wonder the church in the US is losing ground?

In my lifetime I have seen my fellow citizens exchange their birthright as free individuals for the pottage of serfdom to a rapacious tyranny. The process was well under way before I was born, of course, but today’s gallows was then only a pile of lumber. As a member for two decades of a Christian missions organization that openly espoused the “public-private partnership” that is the essence of fascism (and, alas, apart from that work as well), I have contributed to the decadence.

While only Jesus can atone for my sins, this blog is an attempt to bring my fellow Christians out of the mire of politics I consider myself delivered from.

In Gary Paulsen’s novel Hatchet, the protagonist’s life is saved by a porcupine. He becomes aware of its presence one cold night because of its stench and, not knowing what it is, kicks in the direction of the sound and is rewarded with quills in his leg. He throws his hatchet at the porcupine and misses, but he sees a spark and as a result realizes he can make fire, learns to do so, and is able to survive, even thrive, until he is rescued.

So throw your hatchets at this stinky old quill pig. You may learn something that will enable you to be doing something much better than making love to Uncle Sam when Jesus comes to take you out of this fallen world.

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