THIS IS A RE-POST OF CARL BALSAM’S BLOG YESTERDAY, WHICH WAS OUT OF ORDER. PLEASE READ AND ENJOY THIS!
During the depths of the Covid hibernation, I adopted Psalm 46 as my “go to” Psalm. [I commend it to you]. At the same time, in January and February (2020), the WCC men’s group studied the life of Jacob (via Zoom). I knew the basic story of Jacob but had never spent much focused time looking at his life. Learning again and reflecting more seriously about Jacob’s behavior, I pondered why he had the honor of having his name juxtaposed with God’s name in refrains such as the one above.? [Psalm 46: 7]
Jacob cheated his brother out of his birthright for a bowl of soup – he couldn’t even share a little soup with a famished Esau without, first, exacting an enormous cost. (Quite the sibling rivalry!) Birthrights were a big deal in the ancient world. Jacob was a selfish sibling! Then, Jacob schemed with his mom to steal his father, Isaac’s, blessing. Isaac was near death and nearly blind. Jacob, dressed in animal skins so he would feel and smell like his brother, Esau, a hairy hunter and man of the fields. The masquerade succeeded. Isaac, intending to bless Esau, was fooled and blessed Jacob, thereby robbing Esau of his rightful inheritance as head of the family clan (it was his right as the oldest son). Esau was stiffed twice. WOW!! I would not have picked Jacob to be on my team!!
However, my judgement is wrong, dead wrong. God picked Jacob. Jacob took his place in the pantheon of Israel’s patriarchs and became incorporated into their psalms and hymnology: “the God of Jacob is our fortress.” Why did God pick Jacob? I have no idea!!
But, wait. If I read on…there certainly are redeeming moments in Jacob’s life. Jacob loved deeply and steadfastly. He slaved for seven years in the field to gain the hand of his first love, Rachael, in marriage. But his uncle Laban gave Jacob some of his own medicine when he deceived him and required that he, first, marry his older daughter, Leah, whom Jacob did not love. It would require an additional seven years of field work to satisfy Laban and grant Jacob’s marriage to Rachael. Wow, fourteen years! What incredible love! [There is only one woman in this world that I would work fourteen years to marry but it only took two years of courtship to get a ”yes” from her Dad. So, I got off easy.]
Jacob also had some bizarre, yet defining, encounters where he demonstrated a genuine reverence for and sensitivity to God’s sovereign rule. Jacob had an Augmented Reality experience long before the Meta headsets were available (the well-known Jacob’s ladder vision – with ascending and descending angels). During this bizarre dream, God’s promise of blessing, previously given to Abraham and Isaac, was now confirmed to Jacob. (Gen 28) “All the families of the earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants.” Jacob’s response was to consecrate an altar, and he assigned it the name, Bethel, “House of God.” Jacob understood that he had had an encounter with the Almighty.
Later, Jacob was also humbled and received a “new name” through an encounter that changed the course of his remaining life. “(Gen 32) He wrestled with an unknown man – called an angel – Jacob would not relent but, in his struggle, his hip was struck and maimed by the opponent; Jacob refused to let go even with the pain of his injury and he begged for the man’s blessing. Jacob limped in pain the rest of his life, a daily reminder of this struggle. Jacob was both broken and blessed by this encounter. Jacob understood God to be present — no need to steal the blessing this time! Jacob said “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story.” The blessing included the change of Jacob’s name to “Israel.” God’s legacy promises to Jacob were repeated — through him God’s eventual blessing would extend to the whole world. We don’t understand encounters like this but this does speak to Jacob’s openness to God’s plan and why Jacob becomes revered by the Jewish nation (Israel).
Despite these encounters, Jacob, though blessed and commissioned, continued his blunders through his remaining years. In fact, the very next day, after the night of struggle, Jacob was to meet Esau after many, many years to reconcile with him for Jacob’s earlier deceit and treachery. Hoping that Esau’s anger had subsided after all this time had passed, Jacob still was a schemer: “with fear and distress” he divided his largesse of family and livestock and sent half of the animals, men, women and children in a procession to meet Esau to test Esau’s intent. If Esau was still angry at Jacob, he would need to thrash through the flocks, family and servants to get to Jacob who hoped that he and the other half might flee to safety before Esau could reach them. Not exactly an act of confidence or bravery after the promises made to Jacob by God the prior night.
What does of all of this mean for us? I have reflected on the Jacob narrative and other scriptures that reference this narrative and although I have more questions than answers, I have a few reflections. Jacob was selfish to a fault, capable of great and vicious deceit, yet capable of great love, sensitive to his encounters with God and, eventually, chosen by God to be a channel of blessing to the world. And… he continued making significant blunders even after those promises had been repeated. We are like Jacob; we repeatedly make bad choices and our hubris makes us think we are right. We have “mountain top” experiences (think of youth camp or special moments where we sense God’s call on our life) — only to return to “our life” and fall back into some of the “same ‘ol, same ‘ol behaviors.” The apostle Paul talks about this struggle in Romans 7:19, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” We are fallen people. God lavished his uncompromising love on Jacob despite his repeated sinful actions; God chose Jacob even though he did not deserve it — that is called “grace.” And, God does exactly the same for us, “For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:5)
So, I’m beginning to soften a bit to Jacob. Why? Because I see much of myself in him and I see much of others in him as well. We are capable of great acts of grace and integrity and, at the same time, great deceit, treachery and trampling on the truth. We don’t always love our neighbors as ourselves. Don’t you feel that tension? I certainly do. This conflict of grace and sin pervades families (like Jacob’s clan – and maybe yours?), churches (maybe even WCC?), schools and universities (yes, NPU) and every kind of group or organization that you can name. Our world is unhinged with conflict and poisoned by deception. But, we can take heart, because as the apostle John tells us “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (I Jn 4:4) There is a role for committed followers of Christ, who wish to see kingdom values modeled in our world. We pray it every Sunday, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”
I have never heard anyone use the descriptor “the God of Carl.” But wouldn’t it be wonderful if our lives were so soaked in God’s grace, so steeped in integrity, so gracious in disagreement and so affirming of each person’s common humanity that someone might see God in us and actually think of assigning a tagline like that. If God can transform and bless a compulsive cheater, like Jacob, then he can bless us and work in our lives and families and church and world, in and through us. We, too, are told that we are chosen, just like Jacob, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” [I Peter 2:9] We are called as “little Jacobs” to continue God’s line of blessing to our world. The last mention of Jacob in Scripture is found in Hebrews (11:21). “By faith, Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons and worshipped as he leaned on top of his staff.” Recall Jacob’s favoritism for his son, Joseph – his focused love and gift of a special coat, custom-made for Joseph to the exclusion of the other brothers. [You may have thought Jacob would have learned his lesson by then about the impact of favoritism – NO!] This preferential treatment of Joseph resulted in Jacob’s other sons’ sibling hatred of Joseph, selling him into slavery in Egypt where Joseph encountered mistreatment and imprisonment. Through unusual circumstances, Joseph rose to a level of substantial responsibility in the Egyptian government and was in place to save his father, Jacob, and his brothers and their families from a devastating famine. In the Hebrews reference, quoted above, we see Jacob, about to die, struggling to stand because of the ravages of old age and favoring that painful hip as a reminder of his struggle with God and, no doubt, recalling his missteps of the past. He blessed all of Joseph’s sons – no more scheming, no more favoritism, simply blessing “all.” Let’s be like “this Jacob” and be a blessing to all whom we encounter.
“The Lord Almighty is with us, the ‘God of Jacob’ is our fortress.” May we be energized by this promise.