Biblical scholar Renita Weems has described Jacob as “the first real human being” in the Book of Genesis.
She goes on to say that with the appearance of Jacob on the scene, “we finally have someone with adjectives we can use — deceptive, clever, shrewd.”1 Before Jacob, she notes, characters seem to be more one-dimensional in that they “pretty much do what God says,” protesting only a bit here and there. Jacob, though, exhibits a much wider range of human behaviors and impulses, often in a marked departure from the high road that Abraham takes as the first patriarch. And although we might not want to admit it, we can probably identify with him more fully.
Deceptive, Clever, Shrewd
In Genesis 25:26 Jacob comes into the world gripping his brother Esau’s heel. In fact, the name Ya’aqov in Hebrew points to this meaning. In its verbal sense, it means “to follow” or “to come behind” while as a noun it means “heel.” Our first encounter with Jacob as a young man suggests that he was well named and that little has changed in the intervening years — he’s still struggling with his older brother. As Esau returns, famished, from a long day of hunting, the conniving Jacob persuades his hungry brother to exchange his birthright for a bowl of stew.
In Genesis 27, with Esau’s birthright in hand, Jacob and his mother devise a more audacious scheme. Disguised as Esau (wearing his brother’s clothing and attaching animal skins to his arms and neck), Jacob provides a “counterfeit” meal for his blind father to replace the one that Esau was supposed to prepare. He then announces to his blind father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me” (Genesis 27:19). While Isaac isn’t entirely convinced that he’s blessing the right son, he goes ahead and gives Jacob his blessing. In summing up what has just happened to him in Genesis 27:36, Esau alludes to yet another meaning of Jacob’s name when he says, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Jacob might also mean “someone who cheats.”
A trickster tale
The term “trickster” is used in folklore studies to describe wily heroes who use devious means to achieve their ends. Breaking rules, upsetting customs, moving from place to place, using disguises, engaging in deception (and are usually deceived themselves in turn), and telling lies are part of the trickster’s job description. According to Lewis Hyde, author of Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, trickster figures are the quintessential boundary crossers. No boundary — physical, moral, social, or even cosmic — is beyond the ken of the trickster.
In my introductory biblical studies courses, I introduce Jacob as the “trickster extraordinaire” of the Hebrew Bible. We then go on to compare him to other similar figures in culture and literature, from Reynard the Fox in medieval Europe, Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Anansi the West African spider-trickster, and Br’er Rabbit from African-American folktales, to Bugs Bunny, the Joker in Batman, andJack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean.
Jacob crosses every line that presents itself in the story. No rule, no tradition, no relationship appears to be out of bounds as he schemes to get what he wants. In short order, he alters the line of inheritance, disrupts the chain of blessing, disrespects his father, and puts his brother in a vulnerable position, both socially and economically. But Jacob’s win isn’t decisive — he doesn’t live happily ever after, as tricksters rarely do. In fact, in the next episode, Jacob seems to have met his match in his Uncle Laban who has some tricks of his own. And the cycle of trickery will continue beyond that — Jacob’s own sons will deceive him when they present him with the bloodied coat of his favorite son, Joseph. Tricksters win some, they lose some, and they come back to try again.
God loves tricksters, too
Maybe we can identify with Jacob precisely because he is a trickster. There is scarcely a culture in history that hasn’t contributed to the treasury of trickster tales. As humans, we can’t seem to get enough of the Jacobs, the Br’er Rabbits, and the Jack Sparrows of the world. We like to laugh with them, then at them, and we like to daydream about getting away with what they do. We also like the fact that tricksters never give up — they might disappear for a while, but we know that they’ll be back.
Enjoying Br’er Rabbit stories is one thing, but having tricksters in the Bible is quite another. Jacob is a particularly fascinating trickster in that God sticks with him notwithstanding his behavior. Just after having pulled off the heist of a lifetime, Jacob finds himself on the run, alone, in the wilderness, somewhere between the home that he has left behind and the refuge he seeks with his mother’s brother, Laban. He uses a rock as a pillow and falls asleep, unprotected, under the nighttime sky. Jacob then begins to dream…a ladder appears, busy with the traffic of angels and reaching to the heavens. God emerges to repeat the promise that God has made to both Abraham and Isaac in times past. Waking from the dream, Jacob is afraid for the first time. “Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” Maybe one of the reasons we identify with Jacob comes from our deep desire that God will stand by us too, despite everything.
They aren’t all bad…
There are other reasons too for our fascination with and attachment to trickster figures. According to Hyde, tricksters are not all bad. He suggests that they can in fact,
turn out to be indispensable culture heroes as well. Hermes the Thief invented the art of sacrifice, the trick of making fire, and even language itself. Coyote taught the race how to dress, sing, and shoot arrows. Eshu taught men and women a way to know what the gods are thinking.2
In other words, tricksters are creative. They expand our notions of what it means to be human by challenging our imaginative capacities.
In addition, tricksters challenge us to think about our social configurations and the rules we live by in new ways. As Hyde notes, “Tricksters always appear where cultures are trying to guard their eternal truths, their sacred cows. New cultures spring up whenever some trickster gets past the guard dogs and steals those cows.”3 This is precisely what Jacob does — by breaking the rules and forging a new path, he opens up the possibility for the “people” Israel that will descend from him.
1 Bill Moyers, Genesis: A Living Conversation (Doubleday: 1996).
2 “Seven Short Essays,” on the Lewis Hydewebsite, http://www.lewishyde.com/publications/trickster/tour-the-ideas.
Loving God,Like Jacob, who dreamed of your promises, you have filled us with dreams, too. Show us your promises in our dreams, and give us ability to follow our dreams. Amen.
Blessing and Honor ELW 854 Spirit of God, descend upon my heart ELW 800, UMH 500, NCH 290
Spirit of God, Robert Chilcott