By Bishop Todd Townshend
After two weeks of focus on these stories through the lens of the women, the matriarchs, of the stories in Genesis, the last two videos in this series will focus on the two remaining patriarchs.
If you look at how Genesis is organized from a more male centred view—you can basically divide the book into four parts. It’s all about God, or course—here, referred to as “the God of Jacob”. God is the central character in every part of their story, and ours, but God is relating to creation and to people—families of people who are trying to respond to God’s summons, God’s invitation, God’s call to living in relationship with God.
The first of the four is Adam. This is the “pre-history”, the first human, the first place, the first creation.
The second part of the story focuses on Abraham. The person, with Sarah, who embraces the call of God (see: W. Brueggemann, Genesis).
The third part revolves around Jacob. This is Rebekah and Isaac’s son, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson. We will see today how Jacob reveals that it is a conflicted call of God. Then the book concludes with Joseph, young son of Jacob, who lives out the hidden call of God.
The invitation to be in relationship with God if first embraced, it is then conflicted, and finally, it is always somewhat hidden—until revealed.
As we’ve seen, there was plenty of conflict between the humans before Jacob came along, but here it gains some focus in this remarkable and infuriating character. Another thing we’ve notice is that these heroic ancestors of faith are portrayed very honestly. No hiding their faults, their failures, their earthiness. Jacob, again, stands out in this regard. His behaviour is scandalous, in so many ways. The grandson of the promise of God is this crude mixture of motives, he “is a rascal compared to his faithful grandfather Abraham or his successful father Isaac.” (WB, 204) And here we see that the purposes of God are tangled in a web of self-interested human behaviour.
Yet, God has chosen Jacob to be a special part of the plan, already overturning human conventions. This child who could be considered “low and despised” will be overturned through conflict and trouble. God’s purposes get worked out in and through the trouble. This is a blessing and a burden of life with God.
The Jacob story is told in chapters 25 to 36. There is a lot to it. He continues to be a central character through the Joseph story in chapters 37 to 50. This covers about half of the book of Genesis! I’ll try, but I won’t be able to summarize it well enough in the time we have. It is some pretty great reading, though, so I suggest that you read through it—again, or for the first time.
Here are the contours of the story – things to watch for while you’re reading.
God has made a promise—to form a people, a family, to be God’s people. And God has promised to be their God. God has promised protection, reward, heirs—a great nation, a people who will be blessed, so that they may be a blessing to others. God promises that faithfulness is the goal and summit of the relationship. It is to be an everlasting covenant. But, as the story progresses, it’s far from clear IF or HOW God is going to be ABLE to keep this promise. And will the humans trust in this promise and blessing?
We’ve seen all along how the promise comes up against one kind of barrenness after another. Then, it runs up against one conflict after another. Nothing is easy!
Right from the womb, Jacob is jostling and agitating and, as he grows, it’s clear that he cares primarily about his own prosperity, fertility, and well-being. He steals the blessing from his father and brother. He manipulates the situation one scene after another to meet his own needs and interests.
First, with Easu, his brother. When Jacob steals his brother’s birthright, Esau vows to kill him. So Jacob runs. This broken relationship hangs over Jacob’s head for much of his life.
Jacob runs away, he leaves Beershba in the south and goes towards Haran, far in the north.
He stopped one night, laid a stone under his head for a pillow, and had that wonderful but strange dream of the ramp, stairway, ladder to heaven with the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And the LORD stood beside Jacob and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac: the land on which you lie I will give to you and your offspring…” and the promise is both renewed and give explicitly to Jacob.
Jacob wakes up shouting, “how awesome is this place!” God is in this place and I didn’t even know it! This is the house of God, “Bethel”, this is the gate of heaven!”
Pretty powerful dream. He set up a stone pillar to mark the spot and he said, this God will be my God.
From there, Jacob continued far north and east, around the great dessert, and he met some people at a water well, one of whom was Rachel. The point of this whole journey was to run away from Esau’s threat and to start a new life with his uncle Laban. Jacob was looking for Laban, but he first found Rachel, and falling in love immediately Jacob kissed Rachel—a heck of a kiss, causing him to weep aloud. Jacob settled there, working for Laban. The deal was that if he worked for Laban for seven years he could marry his daughter. Well, the trickster got tricked because, when the time came, Laban offered the older daughter Leah instead. But Jacob loved Rachel so he worked another seven year to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage, as well. Everything in the Jacob story is a bit of a chess match.
Jacob ends up with four wives in total, Rachel being the favorite, and twelve sons. These sons each became the namesake of the twelve tribes of Israel: you may have heard of them . . .
Leah gave birth to four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel, however, remained barren. Following the example of Sarah, Rachel gave Jacob her servant, Bilhah, in marriage so that Rachel could raise children through her. Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah joined in again giving her servant Zilpah to Jacob in marriage so that Leah could raise more children through her. Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher. Afterwards, Leah became fertile again and gave birth to Issachar (Yish-sakar), Zebulun, and Dinah, Jacob’s first and only daughter. Finally, God remembered Rachel, who gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin.
Got that? These are the fulfillment of part of God’s promise. The promise was kept. These guys will return to the story next week—there’s more conflict coming!
After Joseph was born, Jacob decided to return home to his parents. . . and his brother. . . seeking—who knows what—perhaps, reconciliation. With Rachel’s help, Jacob had to trick Laban in order to be released, of course, but it worked and off he went with Laban chasing after him wanting to kill him.
As Jacob neared his homeland, he sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau. They returned with the news that Esau was coming to meet Jacob with an army of 400 men. With great apprehension, Jacob prepared for the worst. He prayed to God, then sent on before him a tribute of flocks and herds to Esau, “A present to my master Esau from your servant Jacob.”
Jacob then moved his large family and flocks across the Jabbok river by night, then returned back to be left alone in communion with God. There, a mysterious being appeared and the two wrestled until daybreak. When the being saw that he did not overpower Jacob, he touched Jacob on the hip area, giving Jacob a limp. But Jacob held the person and demanded a blessing. From then on Jacob walked with a limp and was called “Israel” (“the one that struggled with the divine angel”, “the one who has prevailed with God”, “the one who has seen God”.
Jacob asked the being’s name, but he refused to answer. Afterwards, Jacob named the place Penuel (meaning “face of God”), saying: “I have seen God face to face and lived.”
(Chapter 33, the Message)
Finally, in the morning, “Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming with his four hundred men. He divided the children between Leah and Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants out in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He led the way and, as he approached his brother, bowed seven times, honoring his brother. But Esau ran up and embraced him, held him tight and kissed him. And they both wept.
Then Esau looked around and saw the women and children: “And who are these with you?”
Jacob said, “The children that God saw fit to bless me with.”
Then the maidservants came up with their children and bowed; then Leah and her children, also bowing; and finally, Joseph and Rachel came up and bowed to Esau.
Esau then asked, “And what was the meaning of all those herds that I met?”
“I was hoping that they would pave the way for my master to welcome me.”
Esau said, “Oh, brother. I have plenty of everything—keep what is yours for yourself.”
Jacob said, “Please. If you can find it in your heart to welcome me, accept these gifts. When I saw your face, it was as the face of God smiling on me. Accept the gifts I have brought for you. God has been good to me and I have more than enough.” Jacob urged the gifts on him and Esau accepted.
Then Esau said, “Let’s start out on our way; I’ll take the lead.”
In all of this we see the capacity of God to transform people – to transform power relations and to bring a well-being that is far better than the one we can provide for ourselves.
Next week, on to that young son Joseph.
In the meantime, be at peace, stay safe, pray for one another as I am praying for you.