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A lover of the liberal arts, especially antiquity in its diverse forms, I am nonetheless wholly devoted to, utterly transformed by divine revelation. I seek to know the thought of the past, articulate my deepest longings aroused by the wise, and understand the uneasy relationship between reason and revelation; all for the sake of proper action and contemplation, both now and in the future.


On Jacob's Relationship to God

On Jacob’s Relationship with God
Timothy Davis
Sophomore Language, Mr. Pihas
And Iacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keepe me in this way that I goe, and will giue me bread to eate, and raiment to put on, so that I come againe to my fathers house in peace: then shall the LORD be my God.” [1][2]
And Iacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the LORD which saidst vnto me, Returne vnto thy countrey, and to thy kinred, and I will deale well with thee: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the trueth, which thou hast shewed vnto thy seruant: for with my staffe I passe ouer this Iordan, and now I am become two bands. Deliuer me, I pray thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I feare him, lest he will come, and smite me, and the mother with the children. And thou sadist, I will surely doe thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbred for multitude.”[3]
In these two passages we have very different prayers to God. The former is confident and brief, as though Jacob is addressing an equal; the second is far longer, intimate, humble, and desperate. What are the ways that Jacob has changed between these two prayers and how does it affect his relationship to his God?
Jacob’s early years are privileged. God informs Rebekah that the elder son (Esau) will serve the younger (Jacob), and Jacob is Rebekah’s favorite child.[4] He is a confident, self-assured character when we first meet him, tricking his careless brother out of his birthright by means of a bargain that would make Odysseus proud. He is skilled in trickery and deception (even his name means “supplanter”) and since he is the weaker of the two, relies upon intellect and tricks to achieve his ends. This early confidence climaxes when he steals Esau’s blessing and deceives Isaac at Rebekah’s urging. He flees Esau to save his life and journeys towards Padan Aram to marry. Though he has no wealth and wanders alone, he has great reason to be confident; Isaac’s God has chosen him to seed Abraham’s descendents and be a great nation. Isaac has blessed him to be prosperous wherever and whenever he acts. Thus when he experiences a vision of God at Bethel he manifests his pride by making a vow which is more reminiscent of a business contract than a man doing homage to his Creator. He is conscious of his poverty and stipulates that if God will enrich him, he will serve God and even return to God some of his wealth.[5] This last clause is his first spiritually mature act and gives us hope that he will not always be arrogant.
The first blow to Jacob’s pride is Laban; a man whose intellect and craft are equal to his own. Laban exploits Jacob’s passion for Rachel so that Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah and serving him for fourteen years.[6] To our surprise, Jacob does little more than protest Laban’s deception; once he marries Rachel, he bears seven years of service without complaint as far as we know. But it is important to note that from the very beginning of Laban’s interaction with Jacob, Jacob is no longer in control. Back home with his parents and Esau, there was no question that Jacob was the crafty and clever one; he led and Esau followed. But now Laban has the initiative and Jacob is the one who is forced to adjust; Laban has wrested control over him which must certainly surprise him, and God now enters into the dispute which is the second blow to Jacob’s supposed invincibility.
Jacob never intended to marry Leah, and thus loves Rachel far more than she. God apparently sees this as unjust and permits Leah to bear many children while keeping Rachel from conceiving. A quarrel between the two sisters ensues and Jacob is in the middle, forced to deal with familial conflict after creating so much of his own. His tricks are unable to save him from domestic troubles and he again is not the dictator of events; he is passive, accepting Rachel’s leadership in taking Bilhah for a wife (a favor he gives Leah as well). His four wives bear many children but Jacob is not the leader and was unable to gain the upper hand in either this predicament or in his trials with Laban.
And his trials with Laban are only beginning. Jacob has now served Laban for more than fourteen years and God has blessed his efforts, for Laban’s flocks are more prosperous than he ever could have made them and he surely knows Jacob’s administrative talent. He is greedy for more wealth at the hands of Jacob and even agrees to pay Jacob for his work. A game of cat-and-mouse erupts between the two, as both trick each other as quickly as they can, Laban changing Jacob’s wages and Jacob practicing one-sided selective breeding to give himself the best cattle and shortchanging his uncle. But either because Jacob’s wit has finally mastered Laban’s, or God has blessed him, Jacob grows exceedingly rich in cattle and servants. He realizes that Laban’s attitude towards him has darkened, and at a word from God, he flees back to his homeland.
Jacob has now become confident again, but not solely for his own talent. He recognizes that God blessed him in his duel with Laban and this gives Jacob the courage to confront him, who gives pursuit, and even though he assumes a humble stance in the argument, it is clear he does not fear his uncle. God forbids Laban to harm Jacob, and once again, the latter has persevered. He has shown tenacity and growth for twenty years and has gained a larger perspective on his place in the world. Confident in his own ability still, he nonetheless grants God a higher place in the causes for his success.
All of this changes in chapter thirty-two, when Jacob returns towards Canaan. He immediately assumes a humble stance towards Esau, no longer thinking himself the better of the two or superior. But his messengers return saying Esau comes with four hundred men, and Jacob is petrified in terror, thinking his brother to be attacking him. His intellect and trickery cannot save him from his perceived doom, and it is now when he acknowledges God’s hand in enriching him, sending his desperate, intimate plea to God for salvation; it is here that the contrast between the two prayers is starkest. The first is clear and succinct: terms are expressly laid out and the relationship is clear: God will interact with Jacob on Jacob’s terms. But here, Jacob indulges in prose poetry in his lengthy appeal for mercy, humbling himself contrary to his nature, fully acknowledging his success to be from God, who has kept his side of the bargain, blessing him with wealth. He ends his prayer with a call of remembrance, reminding God that he will be made a great nation. No longer bargaining, Jacob is begging God to have mercy on him and remember the promises made at Bethel. The end of this petition is the opposite of the first: God would approach Jacob on God’s terms; the prayer was one-sided. Now the prayer is still one-sided but the roles have changed; God will interact with Jacob on God’s terms. Jacob knows this and therefore has humbled himself, waiting (and possibly not expecting) for God to answer. God’s answer to Jacob’s prayer is in the form of a contest:
…and there wrestled a man with him, vntill the breaking of the day. And when he saw, that he preuailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh: and of the hollow of Iacobs thigh was out of ioynt, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me goe, for the day breaketh: and he said, I will not let thee goe, except thou blesse me.[7]
By fighting and maintaining indomitable will, Jacob ultimately finds favor with God, for he refuses to yield even when injured, and even though God has the “upper hand”, Jacob is able to drive a bargain with the man whom he has fought to a draw. What is it about Jacob’s endurance during trial that allows him to gain God’s blessing? Is it endurance as endurance simply, or is there something particular about this endurance? One possible answer is that Jacob’s prayer represents a real change of heart from his previous “bargain” oath at Bethel, and that he is newly committed to placing the future in God’s hands but will not flag in his own mortal efforts to effect his desired ends, even when his wealth, his family, and himself is mortally threatened by his brother. Perhaps it is this will, this courage to continue in his affairs despite placing hope in God that paradoxically wins him divine favor, for if he had not shown humility and sought God with the proper heart it is doubtful that he would have been delivered.
Jacob crosses the river towards Esau a new man. He has wrestled with God and prevailed, been blessed, and given a new name. He is becoming a faithful servant of God and a great patriarch. The seeds of a new faith, built on holy fear and trembling, rather than bargains, have been sewn and the rise of God’s chosen people has begun; all because Jacob’s excesses of pride and deception have mellowed into a richer submission to the will of God. It is in his recognizing and submitting to this will that God’s covenant with him will be fulfilled.

[1] Genesis 28:20-21
[2] All quotations come from the 1611 King James Version, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody MA, 2008
[3] Genesis 32:9-12
[4] Genesis 25:23, 28
[5] Genesis 28:20-22
[6] Genesis 29:15-30
[7] Genesis 32:24-26

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