The Old Testament readings in our lectionary beginning on Saturday of the 13th week (1) and all through the 14th week are about the Patriarch Jacob, his wives and sons, from the Genesis story. Saturday’s reading tells how Jacob stole the blessing of his father Isaac from his brother Esau, with the help of his mother, Rebekah. Then, through the 14th week we read stories of Jacob– his dream of God showing him a stairway to heaven at Bethel, his struggle in the dark wrestling with a mysterious stranger, his son Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt after being betrayed by his brothers, his entry into Egypt with his sons, finally on this coming Saturday his death and burial.
We read only a few readings from the long biblical account, and these tend to be somewhat edifying. But looking at the biblical account of Jacob and his wives and his sons as a whole makes you wonder about admiring or imitating them. So many of these biblical account are complicated and unedifying–like real life.
I’ve been reading a recent commentary on Genesis by Robert Alter, who approaches the story from the Jewish tradition. I like his approach to Jacob and his wives and his sons.
His name, Jacob, “can be construed as meaning ‘he who acts crookedly.’” Alter writes. He’s willing to lie and cheat to get what he wants. He’s a suspicious bargainer, even with God. He’s a sharp dealer with others, like his father-in -law Labon. He’s leery of people. Wrestling with the mysterious stranger on his journey mirrors the way he wrestles with life. He doesn’t measure up to someone like Abraham. Yet “God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Can the Jewish scriptures help us face our own times, complicated and unedifying as they are? I think they can. God engages humanity, sinful as it is, and mercifully guides it towards the Promised Land. “In you and your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing. Know that I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go, and bring you back to this land. I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you.”
Those short, significant interjections that occur through the Jewish scriptures are what we need to hear. A merciful God is with us. Otherwise, life becomes a grim story, meaning nothing.