Reflection: The Trickster’s Blessing September 24, 2017
Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17
A very long time ago – even before recorded history – ancient human beings made their living through hunting and gathering, as some people do even today. A good hunter was invaluable to the tribe, ensuring a steady supply of food. But over time, as human beings became more settled, they discovered agriculture, and the benefits of a steady supply of food from the earth. Of course, these activities interfered with each other, as they do today. Animals need room to roam. As soon as trees are cut down and fields plowed for seed, the animals that were once welcomed as a source of protein become nuisances that spoil the harvest. This created a conflict between the hunter and the farmer – a conflict played out in the Bible in its ancient stories: Cain the hunter vs. Abel the farmer; Esau with his fresh-killed meat vs. Jacob with his pot of home-grown lentils.
The conflict between sons that is a common theme in the Bible also reflects conflicts between nations. Each of the figures in these old, old stories represents a nation. Esau’s other name was Edom. He was the traditional ancestor of the Edomites, Israel’s longstanding enemy. Israelites, of course, are the descendants of Jacob, who was renamed Israel after his encounter with the living God. So not only do we have a conflict between two sons and two ways of living, but a conflict between nations.
Finally there is the conflict between favourites. Jacob and Esau were twins, but Esau was firstborn, and therefore the heir to his father’s wealth, and probably, his father’s favourite. The blessing of the firstborn rightfully belonged to Esau. But Jacob was his mother Rebecca’s favourite, and she schemed with him to steal that blessing, and the inheritance that went with it, from his brother.
Esau gave it up far too easily. Before the part of the story we heard today, Esau came in hungry from hunting, and wanted food right then and there; Jacob said he’d let him have some stew if Esau traded him his birthright. Believe it or not, Esau took the deal. He gave up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. His carelessness of the blessing was sufficient cause, according to this story, to justify Jacob’s deception of Isaac.
Of course, when Esau discovered that Jacob had stolen his blessing and his inheritance, he was furious. Jacob was forced to flee for fear of being murdered by his own twin. It is at this point that we enter the second part of the story.
Jacob the trickster’s tricks have backfired on him, and he is an exile from his homeland. He is heading for Haran, where his mother’s relatives live, looking for someone to take him in. Exhausted, he lies down to sleep, and who should turn up, but God! I’m not sure Jacob had much to do with God until this point – he was too busy making plans with his mother, not listening for God’s intentions. But it seems God has plans for Jacob – plans that might, at first, sound pretty much like what Jacob and Rebecca had plotted for. And yet, as the story continues, God’s version of Jacob’s future is much richer than his own. Jacob experiences what it’s like to be cheated out of what is promised him – his uncle Laban is as much a cheater as he is! Laban promises him his cousin Rachel as his wife, if Jacob will work 7 years for her. Jacob agrees, but 7 years later he wakes up after his wedding night to find he’s married to the older sister Leah instead. Laban then says he can marry Rachel if he works another 7 years. So Laban gets 14 years of work out of his nephew, and Jacob gets two wives instead of one. On his return to his homeland, Jacob reconciles with his brother Esau in time to say good-bye to his father Isaac and lay him and his mother Rebecca to rest. He has a huge family of one girl and twelve boys, and lives to see his younger son Joseph as second in command of Egypt.
All this, for Jacob the trickster. Why did God pick him? He’s not exactly a likeable guy is he? I find it fascinating that the Bible doesn’t whitewash its main characters. Nearly without exception, they murder, cheat, lie, make excuses for not doing what God wants, break promises, disobey God, break commandments and pretty much make a horrendous mess of things. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s sons, Moses, Miriam and Aaron, Samson, Samuel, Saul, David…the list goes on. So why them? Why does this amazing, just, merciful God visit them?
Perhaps it is not because of who they are, but because of who God is! As much as we might admire holy figures like the Dalai Lama or St Francis, they’re not much like you and I. But these guys – these Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs – if God can set their feet on right paths, then there’s hope for the rest of us! If God can build a beautiful, enduring culture out of the raw stuff of these ancestral figures, then God is pretty darn amazing!
One of the best student ministers we had when I was a teenager in Whitehorse was a man by the name of Rod Carter. Rod was an ex-con. I don’t remember exactly what it was he’d gone to prison for, but despite his prison record he had followed God’s leading into ministry. He ended up as a prison chaplain as well as a regular church minister – a really gifted, committed guy. Sometimes that checkered history we think might exclude us from leadership in God’s work is exactly what God needs to reach more people. I know a church who had a former embezzler as chair of the Board. No, they didn’t put him in charge of the finances – but he had a position of responsibility and authority. Any number of recovering addicts and alcoholics have found places in the church to serve – and their concrete experience of the power of God to renew life is a gift to the church. Sometimes our flaws are just what God needs. As the apostle Paul wrote: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”(1 Corinthians 2:9) Sometimes those who know their faults and who have shadows in their past make better leaders than those who feel they’ve never put a foot wrong. Having stumbled and fallen teaches us compassion and sympathy for others’ foibles and failings; it also teaches us a greater reliance on the mercy of God. These are valuable qualities in any area of Christian life.
So there is Jacob, this messed-up character, who is given a vision – a vision of angels, yes, but more importantly, a vision of God, standing right beside him. In Genesis, God does that – just shows up in person, walking and talking with people. So God comes to this man most people would call a loser and says, “It’s going to be OK, Jacob. You’re going to become a great nation, just like I promised your ancestor Abraham. This land will be yours, and I’m going to be right here with you until I’ve done what I’ve promised.”
Did you notice that at this point, God doesn’t ask anything of Jacob? It’s not at all about Jacob’s plans or projects, Jacob’s part in this equation. It’s all about what God is going to do. There’s no bargaining – if you do this, then I’ll do this – not on Jacob’s part, and not on God’s. There are no deals to be done with the Almighty. There is only the gift – the blessing.
Jacob’s response when he wakes up is a combination of praise and fear. Praise, because of the vision and the promise. Fear, because he has been visited by a power so much greater than him that all of his plans are left in the dust. And fear, perhaps, because he’s finally met his match – someone he cannot out-manoeuvre, out-bargain, charm or trick. God knows who he is, and God has chosen to bless him all the same. The awe of that stays with Jacob, and the seeds of change are sown.
It takes a while for the seeds God planted in that vision to grow. There will be bargains and deals and more trickery from Jacob yet – but in the end, the people of Israel live on, in his children and their descendants. They make a home in the land beside the Jordan, and even after generations of exile, they will find their way home again.
You see, when it comes to God’s plans for the world, it doesn’t matter who we are. What matters is who God is. God can make us much more than we could ever imagine. No excuses, no bargaining, no deals – God just shows up and says, “I’m going to bless you.” And always in Scripture, the one who is blessed becomes a blessing to others. Jacob, like Abraham and Isaac before him, becomes the father of nations. That is God’s primary calling for him. What is God’s calling for you? What blessing might you receive to share with the world around you? If you haven’t much noticed God’s presence in your life lately – if you haven’t been paying attention! – pray for God to show up in a tangible, concrete way– and you’ll find out what God has in store. Amen.