A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Does Jacob Change? Does Anyone?

(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.

change

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?

crystal-ball

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?



4 Responses to Does Jacob Change? Does Anyone?

  • Although I am not a “genesis” scholar, tending toward a later period, I have taught Genesis in a literature class, and, in doing so, I found the trickster motif to be all-pervasive and, in fact, divinely supported. It actually ended up providing a nice comparison to Odysseus after having taught the Odyssey in the same class.

    It begins in the beginning: the serpent tricks. It picks up again with Abraham, who tricks Pharaoh and Abimelech in the doublet, passing off Sarai/Sarah as his sister. Like father, like son: Isaac plays the same trick on Abimelech (although you think he would have wisened up by now). Without getting into source-critical issues of the lore, the same pattern of Abraham becomes imprinted on Isaac’s behavior and, what is more, they are not punished but rewarded, receiving wealth for their trick. Jacob becomes the trickster par excellence, but it hadn’t started with him. Jacob tricks Isaac with the help of his trickster mother, Rebekah. He, in turn, is tricked by Laban. Rachel, then, tricks Laban with the household gods episode. Finally, Jacob is tricked by his own sons, who tell him that Joseph has been killed. Joseph, of course, in turn tricks his brothers when they come to Egypt. In this way, can we see God’s “testing” of Abraham (Gen. 22) as a trick? Maybe that’s going too far, but I think it is in the realm of possible readings.

    In sum, they are all a bunch of Odysseuses. If we step away from trying to take moral lessons from the text, I think we can see Genesis delights in trickery.

  • Dr. O’Brien:

    Thank you for this write-up. It is good to know others see what I do.

    To clarify . . . . I am currently ABD at Baylor, writing my dissertation under Bill Bellinger (James Nogalski is my second reader) on the texts of deception in the Jacob cycle. Namely, I am looking at the role of God in these deceptions from an OT theology perspective; I argue at bottom that God is in the very least complicit in, and at times the perpetrator of, these deceptions.

    I will be presenting a paper at SBL this year (in the “coveted” Tuesday morning slot!) on Gen 25:23 as a “trickster oracle.” Also, though, I have an article out that touches very much on what you have said in this post. I am unconvinced Jacob undergoes a change in character. He clearly deceives Esau yet again in Gen 33 when he promises to follow Esau to Seir but instead settles elsewhere in the very next verse. I view the reconciliation scene as one that mirrors the initial interaction between Jacob and Esau in 25:27-34: both are scenes of deception. Later in life Jacob still seems to be the trickster, for instance in Gen 48 when he intentionally blesses the younger of the sons.

    I am also convinced there is no ethical commentary at all in these texts.

    If you are interested in the bibliography for my article (or a pdf of it), please do email me. I would very much enjoy hearing from you. You can email me at j_anderson at baylor dot edu.

    Shalom!

  • thanks to the previous two commenters for their reflections. I’d love to hear more.

    Why do you think Genesis delights in portraying Jacob as trickster?

  • That is a difficult question–and like all good questions, probably does not have a way to answer it. But I wonder what we might discover in the attempt. When moving comparatively, it seems that a whole host of ancient literatures delight in the trickster, whether human or divine (I’m thinking here of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes). So not just why Genesis, but do so many people pass down legends and stories of famous tricksters throughout the ancient Mediterranean and Near East? Perhaps on one level they are simply entertaining and funny. Perhaps there is an ethnic element at play as well. In Genesis, for example, we get to see Abraham best the Pharaoh of Egypt and a local Canaanite king! Isaac does the same. Jacob is trickier, though. Perhaps we have a bit more difficulty with him more because he tricks his own family, whereas we might sense a degree of justification when Joseph tricks his brothers.

    To complete my non-answer, I often am more startled at the divine sanction of trickery in these tales, although, I shouldn’t be since I read so many tales of gods tricking humans and other gods in other literatures–why not Israel’s?

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