(About a month and a half ago, I left a series on the character of Jacob hanging. I promised to continue with it, and despite the lag, I’m making good on it. This is also a continuing installment from our Sunday School discussions.)
One of the more lively discussions that has come up in our Genesis class is the question of whether Jacob should be considered a bad guy or not? The majority position today is overwhelmingly opposed to Jacob, arguing that he is the supreme example of the sinner graciously chosen by God and used over and against his natural shortcomings and character flaws. “God draws straight with crooked lines,” they say. But as we will see, there’s a much more than first meets the eye.
My friend and Anglican priest, Matthew Mason, has written a four-part series on this question: see here, here, here, and here. His work, as is my own on this point, is heavily influenced by James B. Jordan, who gives a strong defense of Jacob in his book Primeval Saints. Both Mason and Jordan’s works are helpful and largely overlapping with the case I will present, though I may not agree with them on every instance. My concern is, also, not to argue that Jacob is completely blameless or even without significant flaws, but simply that the Bible does not present him as a “bad guy” or “villain” but, quite the contrary, as God’s beloved who bravely perseveres in covenant faithfulness over and against hostility and oppression. If we can overcome some of our biases, we can see that Jacob is clearly a sympathetic character in the Bible, and when the New Testament states, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” (Rom. 9:13), this is not a new revelation. I’d like to look at some of the common misconceptions about Jacob and see if we can’t present a better picture.
It’s pretty common to hear that Jacob literally means “deceiver” or “liar.” This seems to be a case of reading backwards, after Jacob’s bad character is supposedly clear. The literal meaning of his name, however, is “heel,” and it is directly connected to his birth incident in Gen. 25:26. Gen. 27:36 gives the added explanation of “supplanter,” and the two are connected in the idea that Jacob grabs his brother’s heel in order to then overtake him. This “supplanting” could be the product of deception, but it is not limited to that.
Who Gets The “Blame”?
This question has a few layers. The first is one that you’ll see in the defenses of Jacob I listed above. Gen. 25:27 says that Jacob was a tam man, which in most other places (Noah and Job are both given this description) in the Scriptures is translated as “perfect” or “blameless.” Thus defenders of Jacob will say that he was a blameless man. While this is an interesting possibility, the reason that most English Bible-translators go for something different is that the immediate context suggests that it is being contrasted against Esau’s aggressive and impulsive character. Thus, they translate it as “mild-mannered.” The concept of “calm” and “under control” is probably the better idea, but you might also consider “shrewd” and “strategic” here. This does not tell us whether Jacob is necessarily moral or immoral, but it does show us that he is a thinking man who plans ahead.
With that said, however, it is interesting to note that nowhere does the Bible condemn Jacob for either “stealing” Esau’s birthright, nor for deceiving Isaac and taking the blessing. In fact, when talking about the birthright, the Bible explicitly condemns Esau. “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Gen. 25:34). Hebrews says even more:
…lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears. (Heb. 12:15-17)
When it comes to the actual inheriting of the blessing, Jacob himself wondered about this, but Rebekah offered to be a substitute for any judgment which might befall him: “‘Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be a deceiver to him; and I shall bring a curse on myself and not a blessing.’ But his mother said to him, ‘Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my voice, and go, get them for me'” (Gen. 27:12-13). Hebrews also comments on this scene, stating that Isaac blessed Jacob, “by faith” (Heb. 11:20). That’s an odd thought at first, but we should think through the blessing further.
Thinking Deeply About Jacob’s Taking The Blessing
Genesis 27 is a complex chapter, and I won’t try to say everything about it here. But consider a few things. Rebekah, not Jacob, is the one who comes up with the plan to trick Isaac (Gen. 27:5-10). The reason she decides to do this is because Isaac is planning on defying God’s will. God had previously chosen Jacob, and this was not a secret. Further, Isaac seems to sense his own guiltiness throughout the scene, especially in vs. 33 which says that he “trembled exceedingly.” This probably doesn’t just mean that he was mad, but rather that he was scared. After all, he makes no attempt to take back the blessing. It’s more likely that he was convicted by the deception, realizing that he was in the wrong and has now been found out.
Additionally, it is hard to believe that Isaac couldn’t have “taken back” the blessing and given it to Esau if he had wanted to. After all, the giving of the blessing was done by fraud and in private. Esau returned shortly after it had happened, and no one would have been able to make any kind of good legal case that Jacob’s ceremony was valid. There’s a difference between swearing to your own hurt and being lied to. What’s more than this, Isaac actually blesses Jacob a second time, in Gen. 28:3-4, and it is this blessing which more obviously passes on the Abrahamic covenant. It is much more reasonable to suppose that Isaac was convicted of his own wrongdoing through the deception and came to a change of heart which allowed him to willingly bless Jacob and to do so “by faith” as Hebrews 11 says.
There’s not enough time to explain all of the other stories which parallel and support this reading, but the theme of a righteously-inspired deception against the enemies of God’s covenant is all over the Old Testament. You can think about those Hebrew midwives at the beginning of Exodus, Rahab and the spies, David’s pretending to be mad, and God’s own use of lying spirits and false prophets to condemn wicked kings. This is a theme. There is also the example of Judah and Tamar, where a woman deceives her father-in-law because he was going to prevent her from receiving her inheritance, and in that event Judah confesses that Tamar was more righteous than he (Gen. 38:26)
It seems that the best explanation for the totality of the Biblical evidence is that while Jacob’s deception may have been morally “gray” (or perhaps even worse), the larger point is that Isaac was brought to a sort of repentance by it and later changed his mind.
Wrestling With God And With Men
Jacob’s subsequent history is often seen as a sort of “payback.” He is deceived by Laban. His wives have a hostile relationship with each other, and at least Leah seems to also have a hostile relationship towards Jacob. And then later on, several of Jacob’s sons go against his wishes and cause him much grief. Some of this probably was due to Jacob’s own inability to evenly “be there” for the wives and children, though we ought to be fair in remember that he did not actually ask for this situation. Still, Genesis itself does not seem to use these events to make Jacob look bad.
Instead, Jacob seems to be the suffering man of the covenant who has to persevere in the fact of great opposition and affliction. When he meets the Angel of the LORD Jabbok, he acts this conflict out quite literally, by wrestling with God. But what does God say about this? “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen. 32:28).
Jacob wrestled and prevailed. The name Israel is not a further curse, but instead a partial answer to Jacob’s request for a blessing. Israel is the one who wrestles with God but does not let go or give up. Instead, Israel perseveres and prevails. God could have cursed Jacob and explained that this was all judgment for his earlier sins. He does that to plenty of other people in the Bible. Instead, God appears to side with Jacob and to bless him.
There’s much more that could be said about this question. I don’t think we have to say that Jacob was 100% good and without any flaws or even missteps. However, the larger Biblical picture of him seems to actually be positive, and by the time we get to the New Testament he is said to be a man beloved of God who lives by faith. In light of this we should try to overcome our imbalanced traditions and see him in a new light.
Here are some of the class outlines from our discussion of Jacob:
- An Introduction to Jacob and Esau
- “Lying” for the Inheritance: Genesis 27
- A Ladder to Heaven
- Rachel vs. Leah
- Jacob vs. Laban
- Wrestling with God
- Seeing the Face of God