(This post covers some of the same ground as my session on Jacob in Reading the Bible as an Adult but talks more about how the themes of the story resonate with me.)
It’s common to read the Jacob narrative (Genesis 25-36) as tracing the main character’s transformation. According to a lot of folks, Jacob begins his life as trickster but several key events help him to change. One is his experience of being on the receiving end of deception, when his uncle Laban manipulates him into taking not just one but two cousins and hatches one scheme after another to keep Jacob down on the sheep farm. The other episode seen as pivotal shows up in chs. 32 and 33: on the night before he is to face the brother he has wronged, Jacob wrestles with and prevails over a man whom he later perceives as God. Not only Jacob’s name but his very character is altered by the experience, enabling him to reconcile with Esau.
That’s one way of looking at this story. But paying close attention to particular literary features of this narrative makes Jacob’s story look different– less about change than about how themes established at the beginning of a life continue to weave throughout it.
The themes that begin Jacob’s story in Genesis 25:19-28 run throughout the narrative:
(1) Family history. Jacob’s story begins as the story of Abraham, Isaac, and then Rebekah. His life will not be lived apart from the dynamics already at play in his nuclear and extended families.
(2) Rivalry. Jacob’s struggle with his brother begins before he is born. They are twins but also competitors.
(3) Divine decree. Before they exit the womb, God has already decreed how the relationship between brothers will play out—who will win and who will lose.
(4) Unequal parental love. Before we hear a single word from either son, we also are told that their parents love them unequally. “Isaac loved Esau. . . but Rebekah loved Jacob” (25:27).
Family history. Rivalry. Divine decree. Unequal parental love. All define Jacob’s story before the narrator allows him to speak a single word or take a single action. Before he chooses anything or anyone.
The episodes of Jacob’s life can be seen as his living out—or into—his story’s beginning. Just as God decreed, he reverses the normal chain of birthright. His taking of his father’s blessing is made possible by his parent’s unequal affections for their sons. He winds up with Rachel and Leah and Laban because his mother sends him to her family, and his adventures with them are but variations on his own story of family life—trickery and unequal love for those supposed to be equals.
And so, when Jacob prepares to meet Esau in ch. 33 he’s preparing to face all that his life has always been: not only his own choices but also the dynamics set in play by the choices that others have made for him, the life into which he was born, and the life to which the narrator claims God destined him. It’s all mixed together, including the human and the divine aspects. Many commentators have noted that the wrestling in ch. 32 and the Jacob-Esau encounter in ch. 33 are described with similar vocabulary. In ch. 32, Jacob thinks he is wrestling with a man but later sees he’s wrestled the divine. In 33:10, he professes that seeing the human face of Esau is like seeing the face of God.
One of the things that strikes me about the story is that although the brother-brother reunion is poignant it doesn’t really change anything. Despite Esau’s request that they live together, Jacob proposes that they part–just as he and Laban had parted. And, as the Jacob story unfolds in later chapters, he continues his life pattern of preferential love that poisons the relationship between brothers and spawns betrayal and the need for reunion.
Of course I have highlighted some features of this story more than others. These features intrigue me because they touch on questions that great novels explore: how much are humans free to be who they choose to be and how much their lives are shaped (even constrained) by family and other factors beyond their control? Even if you’re more comfortable talking about “fate” or “destiny” than God’s direct hand in determining a life, you can still relate to the question that reading this story poses: how much can and do humans change over the course of their lives?
I’m sure these features of the text interest me, too, because at mid-life I find myself thinking more and more about how my own life is playing out now and where it will head. Will I be as healthy at 83 as my mother is now? How has my life changed in 50 years? What is the same? Who will I be in the future and how much of that is in my control?
These questions have personal dimensions but also political and ethical ones. If a society believes that people are stuck with what they are born into, should it write off those who are doomed from the outset or try to create better circumstances into which children are born? If we think people are able to change, do we blame them when they don’t or help them transform their lives? What do our answers to these questions mean for public policy, social agency, and just plain compassion?