SMH is social media for “shaking my head.” That’s how the story of Jacob’s twenty years in Paddan Aram (Genesis 29-31) will leave us. It sounds like an ancient reality show. There’s deception, jealousy, power plays, lying, cheating and stealing. For seven years it’s “The Bachelor.” Then it morphs into “Real Housewives of Paddan Aram.” Finally, it turns into “Survivor.” It’s a mess to say the least.
As you read through the narrative you wonder what God has to do with any of this. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, both were faithful men of God (48:15). No one would mistake them for being perfect (they could both tell a lie when they “had” to), but there was no doubt as to Who they served and that the way of faith characterized their lives. God’s choice of them to be His channel of blessing makes sense.
Then we get to Jacob. He and Esau are fraternal twins. Esau is born first—but barely. As Esau comes into the world, his brother’s hand is grasping his foot (25:26). Accordingly, he is given the name Jacob meaning, “he who grasps the heel.” The marginal reading of the NIV informs us that this is a Hebrew idiom for “he deceives.”
And that characterizes much of the first third of Jacob’s life. He is a con man, a manipulator, a calculating person who gets by not by trusting God, but through his cunning, scheming and deceitfulness. And God blesses him! Over and over! Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s hunger to obtain his birthright. He and his mother conspire to “pull the wool over” his father Isaac’s eyes and steal the blessing intended for Esau. And he gets away with these things! As we read we wonder where the justice is in all of this and why God is allowing Jacob to prosper like this.
It is helpful to realize that though the story rightfully disgusts us at one level, it is not the only layer to the story. God is working at another level to bring about His purposes. For example, He chooses Jacob/Israel to be His channel of blessing independent of his character and conduct. He makes this clear to Rebekah while the two brothers are still in her womb that He has chosen Isaac. He isn’t chosen because of his behavior but in spite of it! The nation of Israel will read Genesis and understand that they exist as an entity not because of their goodness or the goodness of their namesake, but because of God’s grace (Paul makes this same point in Romans 9:11-13). In being His chosen vessel, they have absolutely nothing to feel smug or boast about.
The same is true for Jacob being blessed and Rachel bearing children. In both cases there is a barrenness to overcome (Brueggemann). Jacob shows up in the land with nothing and leaves twenty year later extremely wealthy. It is not because of his various schemes or superstitions but because of God (31:10-13, 42). In the same way, Rachel bears a child who will save the nation because God remembers her (30:22). In all of this we’re to see that what looks like and is a real mess in so many ways at the human level, nonetheless is not helpless or hopeless because God is at work.
This is a section of Scripture that offers us solid encouragement. Despite all of the wrongs we encounter, the chaos we see, we can know that underneath it all—God is working His wonders. That’s something to shake our head about!