Jacob’s birth is odd. Having witnessed the birth of all my children, I can say that every birth is a peculiar affair, but this one is special. The second of twins, Jacob was born hand-first, clinging to his brother’s heel. Understandably, this is strange enough that it determines his name: Heelhook.
Heelhook would be a good name for a pirate, or an MMA fighter. Jacob, though, is more brains than brawn, at least when compared with Esau, the feral ginger of the wilds. We evangelical Bible folk have sort of bitten down on one particular nuance of Jacob’s name – the notion of being a liar.
The name itself can be literal – heelhook, or heel-grabber. It can also refer to deception – Jacob the Liar. Less morally defined, it can also refer to being crafty or tricky – Jacob the Fox. It can even refer to grappling, like the famous takedown called the Heelhook. Stodgy Bible dictionaries went with “supplanter,” but language like that belongs in a period film with manors and manners, not in a book about soul formation and the reformation of mission paradigms. You can’t say “supplanter” properly without a necktie, and there’s nothing buttoned up about Jacob’s story.
I suppose we can be excused for focusing on the deceptive and tricky aspects of the name, given what happens next in Jacob’s story.
29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted.
30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.)
31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.”
32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?”
33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob.
34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Now, there’s nothing particularly deceptive about what Jacob does here. But it’s manipulative and opportunistic, and that, perhaps more than lying, characterizes Jacob’s life. Jacob plays people and gets away with it. It’s no accident that this is the first scene Moses gives us in Jacob’s story. It opens with, “Once…,” and ends with Esau screwing himself over. Jacob took an opportunity, benefitted himself, and left someone else the worse for wear.
It makes you wonder, between being born and swindling Esau out of his inheritance rights, where did Jacob learn this way of being in the world? A few verses before, Jacob and Esau’s childhood is summed up in two sentences.
“When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.”
Doubtless, some of Jacob’s penchant for manipulation and deceit came naturally, but some of it grew in response to what he did and did not receive from his parents. Moses wants us to know, early on Jacob’s sense of self was shaped by having been deselected by his father, and chosen by his mother. The next two scenes Moses gives us bear this out.
The next 3 chapters of Genesis give us two vivid looks into how Jacob’s parents viewed the world and how to live in it – a view their observant, thoughtful son will surely inherit. This stretch of Scripture is bookended by God appearing, first to Isaac and then to Jacob, and uttering his blessing.
In the first appearing, God disrupts Isaac’s apparent plan to escape a regional famine by fleeing to Egypt. God tells him to stay where he is, to sojourn in the land, and that God would be with him and bless him, prospering him and establishing with him the oath God had sworn to Abraham, his father.
That should have inspired some confidence. A sense of invincibility, even. But instead of striding through the land, untouchable and secure, Isaac tells the locals that Rebekah is his sister, just as Abraham had done to Pharoah regarding Sarah. Isaac received a blessing from a deity he was somewhat familiar with, who had appeared to him, and could not translate these promises into confidence. He went with the family tradition and told the scary locals his wife was his sister.
It’s not long, however, until the gig is up, and Isaac and Rebekah are caught cavorting, as you do. Instead of consequences for the deception falling upon them, though, Isaac is further protected and blessed. Moses says the Lord blessed him and he became exceedingly wealthy. So powerful, in fact, that the local king had to ask him to leave, for fear of him and his assets displacing them.
So, Isaac goes to Beersheba, and God appears to him in the same night and confirms his blessing. We aren’t told if Isaac had shared the first conversation with his family, but this time he builds an altar, puts stakes down, digs a well, and holds a worship service.
But what does Jacob see? Jacob sees God promise protection and provision, and he sees Isaac scheme and lie as though no promises have been made. He sees being spoken to by a god who promises fidelity and friendship on one hand, and gaming the system at any cost on the other, lived into together as though they are not mutually exclusive. What does that do to his view of God, and in particular God and liars? God and lying? Jacob watches Isaac’s schemes pay off, followed by an encore appearance of the God of Abraham, reaffirming the blessing to Isaac, the liar.
Is this how blessing works? Is this how it’s received? Is this why it comes? Is this the kind of behavior this god blesses, and if so, is El the god of tricksters? A trickster himself, maybe?
Isaac has been a disaster of a father. Rebekah won’t prove more helpful. In fact, she’ll make things much worse.