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Official Website of the
Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: July 16, 2011
This is the second column in a 13-part series
By Clifford M. Yeary
Associate Director, Little Rock Scripture Study
Hollywood loves its super heroes, and so do many of us, or why else would Hollywood love them? Increasingly, it seems, many of these heroes come with serious flaws in their character. The Batman of modern film is not the Batman of the comic books of old.
Often, this trend to show flaws in the heroic makeup seems designed to reveal a complex inner depth to what otherwise might be a one-dimensional stereotype. As superheroes struggle with their own dualities, we discover their humanity, and they earn our sympathy alongside our hero worship. It’s when they are stripped of their masks that they become most interesting.
The Bible is filled with many characters that seem bigger than life. Some of them even have phenomenal powers given to them by God. But many of these heroes also come with serious flaws. In Scripture, this reality is not simply an attempt to gain our sympathy. Rather, it is intended, in part, to draw our attention to the fact that God does good things for us in spite of our sinfulness.
Still, it means the pages of salvation history are peopled with some fascinating characters. One of the most engaging is Jacob, as found in Genesis 25:19 – 34:27. The younger son of Isaac, a grandchild of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob is crucial to the story of how ancient Israel came to be the people through whom God would reveal the covenant of salvation. And yet, as readers, if we enjoy the antics of Jacob, it is probably because most of us love a rascal. Mark Twain seems to have put something of Jacob’s character in both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, nearly despaired of ever bearing children, but after her husband Isaac prayed for her, she conceived twins. The two fought in her womb until the day of their birth. In an age when being the firstborn supposedly meant everything, the younger came into the world clutching the heel of his older twin, Esau. It was a sign that he would undermine his brother’s rightful heritage, and the younger was given a name in Hebrew appropriate for a supplanter: Jacob.
Esau is described as brawny, hairy and reddish. What is more, he is a hunter while Jacob prefers tending crops closer to the home. A day came when Esau arrived home from a failed hunting trip to find Jacob stirring some stew. Famished, he asks his brother for a bowl only to be told that it will cost him his birthright. With little regard for what he was being asked, Esau agrees to Jacob’s demand and is given the stew. The consequences are momentous.
Jacob is clearly his mother’s favorite, and while he is clever and conniving on his own, she is equally determined to give him every advantage. When the failing and nearly blind Isaac determines that he must now bequeath his patriarchal blessing on Esau, Rebekah dresses Jacob as Esau and sends him to Isaac with a hearty dish of meat. Esau, meanwhile, is out hunting wild game for the blessing day meal.
Isaac’s blessing, the equivalent of a will but having true prophetic power, falls on the disguised Jacob. It matters not that Isaac was duped. It will now be Jacob and his descendants who will carry forward the divine promises first given to Isaac’s father, Abraham.
There is a price to be paid for his trickery, however. In fear of Esau’s murderous wrath, he flees to another land to find a wife. His future father-in-law however, will prove to be very nearly his match in wits and cunning. After working seven years for the promise of marrying the beautiful Rachel, he will unveil his bride only to discover he has married her older sister! Fourteen years and many tricks later, when Jacob finally returns home, he will still have to face Esau and the possibility of his revenge.
Jacob’s choices do not make for a happy life. In later years, the disharmony between his own children will haunt all but his final days. God never abandons him, however, choosing instead to literally wrestle with him.
In one fateful encounter, a mysterious figure meets Jacob on the banks of a stream and grapples with him until Jacob is left wounded and limping for life. But he also blesses Jacob and gives him a new name, Israel, a name for one who wrestles with God. It will be the name borne by all his posterity.
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic July 16, 2011. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.