September 15, 2010

Faithful Like Jacob

From the nonexistent book of Jacob: “There was a man in the land of Beer-lahai-roi whose name was Jacob—a perfect man, which was incredible, for Jacob was well known as a little crook at home and a big-time fraud abroad. Jacob, therefore, could not be perfect, though he was said to be so, or at any rate, to be like Job.”1
Meet Jacob—And Esau
Most of us have already suffered Jacob’s exploitation at the point of our desperation, a calculating strategy that has strangled us out of our rights, or our rights out of us (Gen. 25:29-34). We have been victims of his deception that discriminates against neither young nor old, given Jacob’s will to get his way.
At the same time, we know his gaucherie, all scheming brain and social nerd, a man tied to his mother’s apron strings while his peers hunt meat and find wives. We know his cowardice that only cuts and runs from Mommy when he has to flee for his life (27:41–28:5). Moreover, if he has worked for us, we know that he has conned us with the same shrewd callousness that undid his own father and twin brother (30:25-43; 31:1-21).
2010 1531 page14Given all this, the translators’ hesitation at Genesis 25:27 is quite understandable. They describe him there as “a plain man” (KJV), or “peaceful” (NASB),* or “quiet” (NIV, etc.),† though the identical Hebrew term, tãm, in Job 1:1, is held to describe Job’s perfection or blamelessness.
Still, if Genesis 25:27 is about Jacob, it is also about Esau. The text is a summation, either climactic, or introductory; either reviewing and concluding, or about to expose readers to its full import, through a narration on the characters there compared. Its comparative structure names two individuals and includes two phrases about each. Investigating its comparison, we learn that Esau was a master hunter—a man who smelled of sweat, shot straight, and married thrice before his twin could find one date. What sounds like sexism is, in fact, pure Esau-ism—basic data on hunter’s mastery. As such, it connects us with Nimrod, the book’s first great hunter (Gen. 10:8-10), remembered, besides, for great city building. His Babylon tower2 stands throughout Scripture as an expression of the summit of satanic defiance, of natural and supernatural rebellion against Heaven’s rule on earth (Rev. 14:8; 17:3-6; 18:1-24).
The Hunter in Scripture
Hunters are not a popular biblical breed. Nimrod and Esau, non-Israelites, are the Bible’s only named great hunters. Of the Hebrew Bible’s 32 substantive and verbal uses of the term for hunting or wild game,3 Nimrod and Esau are 15 times involved. The other 17 occurrences hardly enhance the image of the chase: Job, for example, deems God abusive for hunting him like the lion (Job 10:16); the psalmist prays that evil will hunt down men of violence (Ps. 140:11); the adulteress hunts for the precious life (Prov. 6:26); and God both denounces those who unscrupulously hunt His people’s lives (Eze. 13:18-20), and responds to His people’s iniquity by hunting them as punishment (Jer. 16:16, 17). Taken together, the Bible’s overall attitude to the hunt, the theological significance of Babylon in Scripture, and the fact that Babylon is Nimrod’s invention—all these factors encourage another look at the Jacob of Genesis 25:27. For the text’s contrasting Esau as a champion of the biblically undesirable. As the expert hunter, he shares in an ancient Near Eastern tradition that marked the path of creaturely ascendancy. The Neo-Assyrian lion hunt, for example, was used to demonstrate an individual’s progression from the status of prince to that of “king of the universe.”4 The Esau of Genesis 25:27 is party to such traditions. His character linkage with Nimrod’s proud aggression emphasizes why Jacob is depicted as his opposite.
Between News and Good News
Unfortunately, scientific objectivity and journalistic neutrality make it easier for readers to miss the intended message of Genesis 25. The news as we receive it simply reports: Tom shot Dick and Harry; there was a coup in Timbuktu; Squooshkappers (whatever those are!) are selling fast this season; Mary and Martha got married in Massachusetts last Monday. But however admired such evenhanded reportage may be, it is thoroughly unbiblical mischief, incapable of bringing grace and salvation to a single individual.
The Bible, by contrast, inclusive of Genesis 25:27, stands, not for neutrality, but for unequivocal partisanship. In Genesis the Mosaic word processor functions neither as politically correct dispenser of data, nor as idle pastime, nor as entertaining commercial instrument. Its author simply knows whose side he is on. He texts, unpretentiously, for God against evil. His blog on Nimrod in God’s face, and his Jacob against Esau tweets belong in that context. And his political incorrectness is typical rather than unusual in Scripture. Malachi and Paul freely announce that “God loves Jacob,” and hates Esau (see Mal. 1:2, 3; Rom. 9: 10-13); that both Esau and Babylon are doomed to utter destruction (Mal. 1: 3-5; cf. Rev. 18:21).
Still, this divine expression equates to none of humanity’s little prejudices. For God does not love Afghans or Bajans more than Yankees or Zimbabweans. His partiality is not ethnic. His interest is not race. It is salvation. He knows everybody to be doomed, damned, and lost. And He offers us all hope, and another chance, and a new life. And Jacobs and Esaus may both make it the same way. “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5, NASB). “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, NKJV).
The celebrated biblical difference between Abraham and the rest of humanity is not genetic. God’s salvation is ever to be distinguished from human genome projects. The significant biblical difference between Jacob and Esau is not who comes out first. Heaven’s grace is not an idiosyncratic version of the Olympics. Similarly, the determination of who is perfect (tam) cannot be determined by finite humans.
God’s Grace in Action
It may be time to turn, again, to the book of Jacob, as we contemplate the end of this remarkable life, as Spirit-guided hands bestow the birthright on grandson Ephraim (Gen. 48), and Spirit-anointed lips predict the future of the tribes of Israel (Gen. 49). How, we must ask, does Jacob get here from there—from schemer and exploiter to minister of grace and voice of prophecy? We know for sure that the answer is not Jacob himself. And we must equally admit that godliness like this is not intrinsic to any other of history’s saints, including the celebrated Job. We know, in the end, that the answer to Jacob’s miracle is the same as the answer to Job’s perfection. And that answer is God’s grace, celebrated again in what must be the final chapter of the Jacob book, where we read that “by faith Jacob, as he was dying, . . . worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff” (Heb. 11:21, NASB). What a way to die!
In the end, meeting Jacob may be ?no more than staring into the mirror; nothing more than gazing into the potpourri that is the awkwardly personal experience called life; nothing more than admitting to the struggle between cravings of our flesh, longings of the spirit, humanistic optimism, and heaven’s high ideals—a chaos of hope and hauntedness, of will and wish that wrestle together until we scarcely know whether it is a holy God, or some vile devil, or our own bewildering self-deception that dictates our drives. Jeremiah is dead right—we are incapable of directing our life—no human walking, on two or four or less or more legs, is capable of directing his steps (Jer. 10:23). The God we long to serve knows our hearts and our stories—stories of dreams like Jacob’s, blends of immorality and deep sincerity; life stories overflowing with bittersweetness, like the story of Genesis 3:15, and the miracle of grace, and the horror of the cross. The ultimate disgrace of the history of the universe is, simultaneously, the incomparable demonstration of the glory of divine love. The cross is the pits and the zenith, shame and glory, hell and heaven all at once—a curse on the man or woman who brings it about, and grace for everybody who will believe in its power, and be faithful, falling and rising and all, to that belief.
Because Jacob will not stop believing in Him, God wins for Jacob, and with Jacob, and in Jacob—in the end. With Jacob, God wins in the end. Jacob’s faithfulness does not teach that shame is virtue. But it does teach that sinning is no cause for hopelessness. Jacob’s faithfulness does not teach human inerrancy. But it does teach that there is a greater, infinitely greater option than quitting. It is the option of grace! Jacob’s faithfulness does not teach that humans do not sin. But it does teach that we must never, never, never ever give up. It is the devil’s role to denounce the people of God (Rev. 12:10). It is our privilege to ignore the accuracy of his barbs, and the contempt of his scorn, and keep looking to, and listening to, and leaning on, and trusting again and again in Jesus. The promise of life is not ours because we are remarkably brilliant, or conspicuously cute, or naturally flawless, but because we are faithful. And God’s grace can make us faithful. Faithful like Jacob. 
*Scripture quotations marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
†Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ” 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
‡Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1You will, no doubt, recognize similarities to books that do exist, viz., Gen. 25:27 and Job 1:1, which use the same Hebrew word tãm to very different effect with Jacob and Job.
2Babel and Babylon are not two different names in Hebrew.
3The verbal root is tsud; its substantive form is tsayid.
4See Michael B. Dick, “The Neo-Assyrian Royal Lion Hunt and Yahweh’s Answer to Job,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125 (2006): 243-270.
Lael Caesar, Ph.D. is an Old Testament teacher, serving as professor in the religion department of Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article was published September 16, 2010.