There are probably many ways to preach the Jacob saga and make applications to our lives. The frank biblical portrayal of a dysfunctional family is itself encouraging allowing us to suspect that if God could use folks like them perhaps there is hope for our families and church families as well. This weeks readings continue the Jacob Saga and are perhaps best treated with reference to what has gone before.
There is a temptation for preachers to portray Jacob in a less than favourable light and course his story provides lots of ammunition for that practice. The name Jacob apparently indicates a supplanter, a “heel grabber”, one who takes advantage of others weaknesses, and I remember one of my bible school professors saying this with some distaste, thinking of course of Jacob swindling his brother Esau in the disproportionate trade of birthright for a bowl of stew and then plotting with his mother in the outright and bold faced deception of his father.
But a more sympathetic reading of Jacob is possible. Before being too hard on Jacob we might ask “what would you do if your mother who loved you told you to lie to your father who didn’t ?” We might also consider “what position are you in when you can grasp your opponents heel?” Being in proximity to your opponents heel means you have already been knocked down or stepped on. One who grasps the heel is one who is down but has not given up; one who is in second place but still endeavours to win. Rather than expressing disapproval or distaste why not apply all our glowing rhetoric and sentiment about sports “heroes” who came from behind to win to Jacob as well?
There is in fact a major clue to this more sympathetic reading that is hidden in most English Bible translations. The Hebrew word in question is “TAM”. In Genesis 25:27 we read Jacob was a quiet man, (NRS, NIV NJB), or Jacob was a plain man (KJV), or simple (NAB). However this is the same word used to describe the character Job is translated as blameless or perfect or pure (Job 1:1.8). If the point of the story of Job is that he didn’t actually deserve the calamities in his life, is it possible to read the story of Jacob the same way ? It has been suggested that a bit of latent anti-Semitism may have skewed English translations in the case of Jacob, but even the Jewish Publication Society TNK translation uses mild to translate TAM in the case of Jacob. Perhaps a negative reading of Jacob from the rest of the story inhibits translators from using the much more common meaning of TAM which is translated: blameless, complete, guiltless, integrity, perfect, (New American Standard) and perfect, undefiled , upright in the KJV.
And so I think Jacob whose personal transformation pre-figures the transformation of his descendants: the people of Israel often gets a bum rap. Typical of so many Bible stories the tension between what the narrator tells (or doesn’t tell us) and the way we feel about the characters as the stories progress produces an ambiguity that simply doesn’t allow a flat or one dimensional reading of the characters. A simplistic division of heroes and villains made popular in many Sunday schools just doesn’t hold up. But of course this allows the ancient texts of Holy Scripture to artfully address the complexities of our own human experience and the interaction of God in our contemporary messes.
Rob Bell points out that (perhaps like many of us) Jacob attempts to rise to power by pretending to be someone else. He gives his brother’s name when his blind father asks him who is. But Jacob gets his come-uppance. Having stolen his bother’s blessing he has to flee in fear for his life. His resources are so depleted that he has to use a stone for a pillow. It is there at this point of desperation and poverty that God revels the real means of ascent to the power of heaven: the ladder with which Jesus later identifies himself. Jacobs transformation (as so often our own) is triggered by the realization that God was here but we didn’t realize it.
This revelation that God is at work will not completely halt the consequences of karma in either Jacob’s life or our own. What goes around still comes around. Having deceived his own father he is in turn deceived by his father in law in the matter of how long he has to work in order to marry Rachel. Now in order to go home, he needs to face the danger of attempting to reconcile with his brother. His encounter with the face of God is portrayed as a wrestling in which he is wounded.
Those of us who plan to get ahead in life through our scheming or our family connections or try to succeed by pretending to be someone esle, are apt to find God and our real identity only after we have been wounded. At the end of the wrestling that wounds him Jacob is invited to repent in the matter of admitting who he really is. What is your name? It is through being wounded and admitting his real self that God grants him a new identity. Our new identity in Christ is also received when we identify with his woundedness and admit who and what kind of people we really are. Perhaps the wrestling God does with all of us is intended to help us discover who we really are so we can go on to learn who we can become by the grace of God.