Trinity 4 ~ Jacob - Flawed but not floored
If you climb Kinder Scout in the Peak District - a pretty gruelling walk it is - on your way round you have to negotiate Jacob’s Ladder. Setting out from Edale you climb higher and higher onto the plateau that is Kinder Scout, high above the fells and lowlands of the Peak District. But Edale to Kinder Scout is not one of your sunday afternoon walks, and last time I did it was quite a few years ago and the 14 mile trek took over 8 hours. It is a tough walk at any time, but get up there in fog and it can be quite dangerous - more of a ladder to hell, then heaven, it might be said.
We have just heard - and already sung about the famous story of Jacob’s ladder. Perhaps you remembered the hymn from the 1970’s. But while the hymn has receded in popularity a bit, the story to which it refers has entered our language and culture in so many ways. Not only are there places with the name, there is a children’s toy, and according to good old Google, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ is an exercise machine popularized on the American television show “The Biggest Loser”!
Which is kind of ironic, because if there’s one thing Jacob was not, it’s a loser. And he was no loser-out on Biblical copy material either - the second half of the book of Genesis is about him and his family. We’ll be hearing a lot more about Jacob these coming weeks, just as last week we heard about his birth, and that funny business with Esau his brother.
But if you go back a little further, you might recall that it is Jacob who is the son of Isaac and Rebekah, Isaac being the son of Abraham. Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren, but God acted to give her Isaac. In turn, Isaac’s wife Rebekah was barren, and they prayed for 20 years for children, and Jacob and Esau were born, twins, and rivals. Abraham is Jacob’s Grandad.
Esau was a hunter, Jacob a farmer, just as Cain and Abel are differentiated in this way. Their enmity is to be continued, and symbolises a wider, later, conflict of interests. There is also a conflict between the parents, Isaac and Rebekah, who are divided over their children: the Father loves Esau, the mother loves Jacob. Conflict is a key theme in the life of Jacob. And the first conflict comes with his brother when as we heard last week, Jacob plays his first con trick on Esau, depriving him of his birthright for a mess of potage.
Then, after an interlude, in which we hear of Isaac deceiving Abimelech, we learn that Esau and his Hittite wives Judith and Basemath, are making life hell for Isaac and Rebekah. So Isaac calls Esau and sends him hunting for meat, so that he can then give him his blessing. But Rebekah is more loyal to her second son than to her husband or eldest son, and so she helps Jacob fool Isaac - he lies to his father and pretends to be Esau, gains his father’s special and irrevocable blessing, and thereby completes part two of the con trick that began with the bowl of soup Easu was forced to buy from him through hunger. Interestingly, on both occasions food plays a major part.
Not surprisingly, Esau is furious and seeks to kill Jacob, so Rebekah persuades Isaac to send him away to Uncle Laban to find a wife, or two. On the way, and as we heard in today’s reading, Jacob stops at a place called Luz, and sleeps with a stone for a pillow (eee, they were tough in those days). Like his future son, Joseph, Jacob is a dreamer, and dreams of a ladder to heaven, and God speaks to him, promising him the very land on which he sleeps. Jacob renames the place Bethel (which means, ‘House of God’), marking the spot with his oiled pillow-stone. He vows to tithe 10% of everything in return for God’s favour - a kind of deal.
Then Jacob arrives at Laban’s, and negotiates another deal - in return for 7 years’ work he wants Rachel, as a wife. But now it’s time for the deceptions to come home to roost: Laban deceives Jacob - substituting his elder daughter Leah at the marriage festival. Just as Jacob dressed up as his brother Esau, Laban dresses his daughter up as her older, and it is often supposed, less attractive sister. And Jacob, like his Dad, is not very good at telling the difference. But eventually, Jacob gets Rachel too, after another 7 years hard labour.
Children, loads of them, follow, notably Joseph, and 11 others who later become the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jacob then wants to leave Laban’s service, but Laban persuades him to stay, this time offering him a proper wage, based on sheepskins. Laban hides all the stripey sheep. Jacob tries to indulge in a little genetic engineering by putting spotty and stripey rods near the sheep in order to affect the outcome.
Bizarrely, Jacob becomes rich, and Laban’s family resent it. So Jacob decides to return to Canaan, and while Laban is out, Rachel nicks the family Gods (a strange thought, but doing so was supposed to mean that they would inherit the estate). They flee, but Laban pursues. Rachel hides the idols in her bag which she sits on, on a camel, and Laban believes her. Meanwhile Jacob has an argument about wages, but they make their peace and part company. It’s a kind of Biblical Soap Opera.
Jacob sends ahead to tell Esau he is coming, so he sends 400 men to meet him. Jacob is afraid, sends presents to Esau, and sends his family to safety across the Jabbok river, now in modern Jordan. While alone, a stranger wrestles with Jacob, injuring him, but Jacob asks his name and demands his blessing. The angel gives him the name ‘Israel’, which means ‘he strives with God’. Esau turns out to be a nice guy now, forgives Jacob and welcomes him. Esau then goes back to Seir, and Jacob moves on to the land of Schechem.
There is trouble there because Schechem himself rapes Dinah, one of Jacob’s daughters, and then asks to marry her. Jacob’s sons deceive Hamor (Schechem’s father), saying that they will let them have Dinah if they first become circumcised. Then when the men are still recovering from the proceedure, they attack and kill them all. It’s not a passage we tend to hear read in church much.
On God’s instruction, Jacob takes his family back to Bethel and makes them reject their foreign idols, reminding them of how God has helped him when he was in dispute with Esau, and in other difficult times. God appears to him again, and tells him that he is to be henceforth known as Israel.
Rachel dies giving birth to Benjamin, and is buried between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a site still revered today, and Isaac also dies, and his two sons, Israel, formally known as Jacob, and Esau, bury him. Israel formerly known as Jacob then settles in Canaan, and the narrative moves to an account of his family.
Now there isn’t time to relate the story of Joseph and his brothers, and I hope you know it well enough anyway: His Lordship Lloyd Webber has immortalised this part of the story, so I won’t dwell on it.
But let’s just remember that Jacob buys Joseph - his favourite - dreamer - son, a very nice coat, a disastrous piece of favouritism that leads to his being sold into slavery and subsequent deception whereby Jacob is persuaded that Joseph is dead. Just as Jacob himself donned a sheepskin to trick his dad, his own sons drape a skin that he has given his favourite son, in the blood of goats to persuade him that Joseph is dead. Jacob is distraught and it takes many years before he sees his long lost loved son again.
Later there is a famine, and Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to get food. Joseph plays a trick on his family - trickery runs in the family it seems - and arrests Benjamin for stealing a cup. The others plead for mercy, saying it will kill Jacob if they return without him. Joseph cannot resist telling them the truth any longer, and sends them back to Jacob with his good news. Jacob finds it hard to believe of course, for once again his fortunes have turned. So they travel back to Egypt (thus affecting Jewish history thereafter), and on the way, God tells Jacob not to worry.
After 17 years the time for Jacob to die comes, and he asks Joseph to let him bless his sons, and we note that Jacob, like his father Isaac before him, has poor sight. Mind you, he was 147 years old. He blesses the two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, and does so in such as way that gives the younger of the two the greater blessing. History repeats itself, but even though Joseph tries to stop him, Jacob won’t have it. The younger is to be the greater.
Jacob dies, and after having him embalmed - his daddy becomes a mummy - Joseph takes him to the field near Mamre where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah are buried. And then, in a final note of irony, Joseph’s brothers invoke their father as an instrument of reconciliation, saying it was his wish that Joseph should forgive them. So, involved in a final, unwitting deceit, Jacob has the final say in the book of Genesis, at the end of the beginning of the history of Israel, to which people he bequeaths the name that God gave him.
To draw all this together is not easy, but there are themes that we can detect in Jacob’s life, and which may resonate with us today. Trickery and deceit are the main two, and they recur. They recur with annoying frequency it might be said, and perhaps also for literary reasons. History repeats itself, both actually, ritually, and symbolically, and sometimes ironically. And the purpose of the book of Genesis is as a text which seeks to tell the story of who the people of Israel are, by telling of where and who they came from. The subtext is that you are who you were, and your future is a product of your past.
And this is a reality for us today. We see history repeat itself, in international relations, and in our own families. We do take after our parents, and our children after us - whether we like it or not. We often want our children to be like us, and get upset if we think they are not - although sometimes it is precisely then that they are just like us, if only we could recognise it. Or we don’t want them to be like us - we want them to succeed where we have failed, which means we spend emotional energy trying to defeat the ways in which our genes and environmental influence form those who come after us. The story of Jacob shows us all too well how father is like son, and daughter like mother, no doubt.
And this of course - is so tremendously human. Jacob’s story is a human history, about a family who become a race, both actually and metaphorically. We can recognise our own lives in the story, not just in what repeats, but also in the particular disputes, struggles, needs, desires and problems that arise. So through it all we hear and recognise basic human situations, love, hate, revenge, family feud, trouble with the in-laws, favouritism, family firm!
Maybe we are not as deceitful as Jacob was, or maybe we didn’t have the opportunity to be so. But out of this slightly deceitful, but good hearted man, God chose to raise up twelve tribes and a whole nation. We should not be surprised - for our Bibles tell us that there is only one person who is perfect - and that is our Lord Jesus Christ - and just about everyone else whom God calls or whom he uses, is in some way flawed. Adam and Eve, Moses, Jeremiah, Simon Peter, Judas, St Paul even - these are just a few who spring to mind. And of course, there’s you and me - we’re not perfect, you and I, but we can be used by God.
So let us pray that, like Jacob, in spite of our weaknesses, we may be put to good use by God, and that we may allow ourselves to be so.
To him the glory, now and always. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 17/07/11