One of my favorite stories in scripture is that of the patriarch Jacob. Or, “that rascal,” as I like to call him. From birth, Jacob was never anything but a piece of work. His entire life was one giant con. Born trying to supplant his brother’s place (which is the meaning of his name), Jacob lived as a schemer to the end.
As a youngster, his infamous career began when he tricked his brother out of both birthright and blessing. The fallout was so severe it forced the young scoundrel to flee home.
Then the living God met him on the road in an dream encounter that we sometimes speak of as Jacob’s “conversion” at Beth-el, the house of God. However, if it was a conversion, it didn’t appear to change Jacob very much. He emerged from the vision and immediately began bargaining with God and setting his own terms for their relationship:
If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you (Genesis 28:20-22).
What a deal for God.
Moving down the road, Jacob’s conniving ways were about to advance exponentially. His fugitive journey led him to a school of treachery as he went to live with his uncle Laban, a double dealer who almost proved to be a match for Jacob in treachery. The story of their many years together is a tale of two tricksters continually trying to outdo each other.
And Jacob had more on his plate than duking it out with Laban. In his own tent he had to deal with two scrappy wives who scratched and clawed to gain an advantage in the family like prizefighters.
Ultimately, Jacob won the showdown with his shyster uncle Laban, packed up his contentious clan, and hit the road with a pile of booty.
Having left that frying pan, he turned to travel back home toward the fire that was his brother Esau, who had held grudges ever since Jacob left. Jacob shook in his sandals at the prospect of meeting the brute and getting the beating he deserved.
One night, while camping en route, a man (an angel? God himself?) ambushed the patriarch in the darkness and they wrestled through the night until Jacob emerged a crippled “victor” with a new name — Israel.
I guess you could call that transformation. I call it a busted hip and the knowledge that the only hope he had was in hanging on to God for dear life.
For the rest of Jacob’s days, he and the family dealt with the consequences and ongoing patterns of his lifetime of deception. The character traits engraved on Jacob’s face and visible in his constant limp flowed through the rest of the household, and until the day he died, Jacob worried and struggled to keep faith, hope, and love alive in a clan full of connivers.
The last story about Jacob before his death brings a smile. Son Joseph presents his two sons to their grandfather for his blessing. Manasseh, the firstborn, should be blessed with Jacob’s right hand. Instead the patriarch crosses his arms and places it on the head of the younger, Ephraim. Manasseh, the elder and rightful heir, gets the left hand — second best.
Joseph has a hissy fit and objects. He thinks the old man made a mistake because of his failing eyesight. This is the ultimate faux pas; it will scar his boys for life.
But Jacob insists. Here at the culmination of all his journeys, he wants to pass on what he’s learned about the only thing that really matters: It’s all about God’s choice, God’s blessing, God’s grace, God’s relentless promises. Maybe God is the ultimate Trickster.
I can just see that rascally twinkle in Jacob’s eye, as he puts one over on his own son and grandsons.
And I can hear Jacob chuckle a little at Joseph’s indignation. We chuckle with him. Joseph, who knew all about his dad and the ways of his family, probably broke down and cracked a smile himself. Perhaps a saint is nothing more than an old scoundrel we can’t help but smile at.
Fact is, Jacob was endlessly persistent in trying to get his own way and gaining advantage over others. But he was not nearly as persistent as the God who stuck with him and blessed him in spite of himself.
And I’d be willing to bet that if you asked God, he’d say, “One of my better stories.”
Jacob was not someone any right thinking person would admire. Deceiver, con artist, trickster, conniver, swindler, rascal and rogue. From the day he was born to the day he died.
And yet — “Jacob have I loved,” says the Lord.
Now there’s a story.