The Flight of a Wily Prophet
They were all mystics, every one: it seems to have run in the family. Even that scoundrel Laban was a mystic, and his beautiful sister Rebekah too, with her archetypally spousal “I do!” (Gn 24:58). But mystics become prophets, and prophets do strange things sometimes. (Ask Ezekiel and Jeremiah!) When the Lord tells them something that is to be, they know they are to go with it and do their part to make it happen. The rest is up to God.
Was Jacob simply being wily? Or was he rather being prophetic, that day when he baited his brother Esau into foolishly selling his birthright under oath (everything had to be done legitimately) for a bowl of lentil stew? We might say it was the one in service of the other. Jacob knew from his mother that it was he, not his elder brother, who was to receive that fateful blessing from his father Isaac, and his mother had it from the very mouth of God himself (Gn 25:23)! It was from her that he learned the art of craftiness. They made a good pair, Rebekah and her preferred son Jacob.
We know the story: a ruse is set up, and it succeeds. Jacob is given the irreversible blessing, so heavily fraught with the weight of God’s sworn promise to Abraham. In all of Scripture there is not to be found a more emotionally and poignantly charged moment than that described here. We are told that the aged and blind Isaac was seized with a fit of uncontrollable trembling, and his son Esau burst into loud bitter sobbing. “Have you only that one blessing, father? Bless me too!”Father! Bless me too!’ ” (Gn 27:38). As we stand by and contemplate this soul-shaking scene we cannot help reflecting that the disasters, large or small, that we bring upon ourselves by our own hapless mistakes are harder to bear than those that come upon us in our innocence. Esau had sold his birthright for a bowl of stew, and now had to bear the pain of his foolishness. But the plan of God uses even our mistakes, and his will ultimately makes all things right (Gn 28:40).
The Emerging Protagonist
It has been said that every story has a Christ figure. Generally speaking, that is probably true. The promised Anointed One would be called God-Hero (Is 9:5), and he is the imaged hero in every good story. Of course this is pre-eminently true in the Bible stories, and so we cannot be surprised to find him emerging again and again in the story of the crafty – or prophetic – Jacob. “Search the Scriptures”, Jesus said, “… they also testify on my behalf” (Jn 5:39). Where? On every page. And how? Through image and symbol, just as within our own psyche, our uniquely personal dream world reveals itself through image and symbol. How else would spirit, the metaphysical, communicate itself to our limited powers of consciousness?
Was it, then, the imaged divine Hero, who lay there dreaming, pillowed on a stone at the shrine of Bethel, while the angels of God ascended and descended upon him (Gen 28:12 ff)? Jesus would seem to imply as much (Jn 1:51 f). When all the promises made to Abraham and Isaac and here confirmed to Jacob are fulfilled, then Nathanael and the other disciples will indeed see much more and even greater things than those they were seeing at that point (Jn 1:51).
Although Jacob’s journey to Haran had initially the flavor of a flight from the wrath of his brother, the focus of the sacred writer is now rather upon his mission of seeking a wife from among his own kin (Gn 28:1-5). The story is redolent of that of his father, Isaac, who, through the ministry of a servant, had sought and found a wife from among his kin at Haran. (Gn 24) The intention here is to ensure the purity of the line of the descendants of Abraham through Isaac. The theme of kinship in marriage remained a long tradition in Israel (cf Tb 6:18), a theme that we pass over lightly (to our loss), but is rich in its fragrance of divine and human love. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, during the years when he walked upon this earth, consistently referred to himself as the Son of Man, and we have it from the mouth of God himself (Dt 18:15,18) that the Messiah would be of our own kin. The implication is that he, the First-born of all creation (Col 1:15 f), has come to seek us, his very kin, to be his bride. The Old Testament Scriptures contain too many allusions to Israel as the bride of God to be cited here, and the New Testament writings more explicitly tell us again and again that Jesus is the divine Bridegroom, while the Book of Revelation brings us to the glorious wedding feast itself of the Lamb (Rv 19:7-8).
We are told that Rebekah’s ready “I do!” brought her to her kinsman, Isaac, and that “in his love for her Isaac found solace after the death of his mother Sarah” (Gen 24:58, 67). Now as Jacob arrives at Haran, the first of his kin that he encounters is the little girl, Rachel, who tends the sheep of her father, Laban, the brother of Rebekah. It is love at first sight. Here we can scarcely fail to discern the Christ-figure in Jacob, who single-handedly rolls away the stone from the mouth of the spring of life-giving water, where droves of sheep lay huddled, awaiting the arrival of the shepherds. We see him kissing the little girl and bursting into tears of pure and holy joy, while Rachel runs off to tell the good news to her family (Gn 29:9-12).
Metamorphosis of a Patriarch
Unlike his brother Esau, who enjoyed living out in the open and hunting game, Jacob was a simple man who kept to his tents (Gn 25:27). Yet within a short time after arriving in Haran, he finds himself bearing the scorching heat of the days and the biting frost of the nights in caring for the flocks and herds of his uncle Laban (31:40). Not only this, but he also finds himself caught in the intrigues of two wives and two concubines, and surrounded by a bevy of children calling him “Abba! Abba!”. The transition has not been an easy process; for, while Rachel was and remained the passionate love of his heart, he has been duped by Laban and given the elder sister, Leah, in marriage. The ensuing negotiations lead to his laboring fourteen years for the two wives and an additional six for some livestock, twenty years in all.
But we already know Jacob as the wily bearer of the covenant promise, and so we cannot be surprised to find him putting to good use his skill at crafty management in the circumstances at hand. But his tactics at increasing his own share in the flocks and herds win him the displeasure of his father-in-law and cousins. And so we find our wily prophet-become-patriarch seizing an opportune moment while Laban is away, gathering up his own family (which by this time has grown to four women, eleven sons and at least one daughter), along with his servants, his livestock and all that he has, (for by now he has become very wealthy) and taking to flight (31:20 ff). Pursued and overtaken by Laban, a settlement is made, and the company continues its determined way, for the patriarch has never for a moment lost sight of his assured destiny. He remains a mystic, and it is as such that he follows the lead of the God who has chosen him.
Searching the Scriptures
One might ask at this point, “Where now is the divine Hero, the divine Protagonist?” He is not hard to find. As we know, Rachel dies giving birth to the youngest son of our crafty prophet-become-patriarch, bringing the total of his sons up to twelve (35:16 ff). Jesus our Lord in the fullness of time would step into this pattern, founding his New Israel upon twelve chosen apostles. Just as Jacob (called Israel) engendered the first covenant Church, the nation of Israel, so Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, would engender the New Israel, the new covenant Church.
But there is so much more! In moving toward getting a perspective on the foundational presence of the divine Hero in the Jacob story, we might pause to take an overview of the Jesus story. Jesus has told us to search the Scriptures to discover the testimony which they give of him (Jn 5:39). The very word search would indicate that the prize would not be lying open to casual view, but that we must dig to find the treasure hidden in the field (Mt 13:44-46). Firstly, then, a look at the mystery of Jesus:
Jesus is in the form of God (Phil 2:6), King of kings and Lord of all. But he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, becoming the great Shepherd of the sheep (Jn 10; Heb 13:20) in the foreign land of earth. At great cost to himself he redeemed us, his bride. Through the folly of the cross he turned all human wisdom and power on its head, drawing to himself a great universal flock. In doing so he incurred the great fury of the antagonists from whom he was caught up (Rv 12:6), taking with him the whole host of the elect. Along the way he had had to wrestle with his own humanity in Gethsemani, but had been assured by an angel that the ultimate victory would be his. He re-entered the Promised Land (heaven), taking captivity itself captive (Eph 4:8). Meanwhile the antagonists come to his tomb on the third day and find it abandoned. They will try to wage war against him and his flock till the end of time (Rv 12:17), but he, the Prince of Peace will always offer them and us his peace and life, if only we will accept it.
Having this broad overview in mind, we can have an idea of what we are looking for in the Jacob story. Jacob knows that he is (in covenanted promise) the king of kings and bearer of all blessings (Gn 27:29; 28:13-15; 35:12): a very son of God. But he takes upon himself the yoke of a slave, laboring tirelessly at great personal cost to pay the price for his bride. He becomes a great shepherd of the sheep in this foreign land of Haran. By his crafty implementation of the wood he increases his wealth to great proportions. In so doing he incurs the fury of the antagonists, from whom he flees, taking with him his whole family, his servants, livestock and all that he has, to return to his promised land (Canaan). Along the way he wrestles with “some man” who assures him that the ultimate victory is his. Meanwhile the antagonists arrive at his tent on the third day (31:22) only to find that it has been abandoned. They strike out after him, but this crafty prophet-become-patriarch knows how to make peace both with Laban and with Esau.
Is all of this a mere coincidence, just a belabored attempt to find or fabricate an artificial correlation between Jesus and Jacob? But the sacred Scriptures do not deal with trivial coincidence: with symbol, with sign, with type and image, yes. But always and only with truth. Can the divine folly of the cross be imaged in the wily use of the wood of a poplar, almond or plane tree? Can a battle of wits image the great combat between good and evil? Can eternal glory and riches be imaged in earthly wealth and renown? Can the futile snatch of Eden’s serpent be imaged in the stroke at the hip by “some man”? Can resurrection be imaged in an escape tactic? Can heaven itself be imaged in a pagan land such as Canaan? If the crucified Son of God can be imaged in a bronze serpent raised on a pole in the desert (Jn 8:27), can we say that our fancy is running away with us when we say we can see the incarnate Wisdom itself imaged in a wily prophet? Perhaps this is why prophets do strange things: because prophecy itself is strange – that is, it is foreign to our limited way of thinking. The divine Power knows how to bend even lower than our human weakness, and so we cannot attain it. But we can try.
Flight in Another Mode
A look at the person of Jacob can show us many of the traits of Jesus himself. He is humble (Gn 32:11); he is simple, straightforward (25:27); he is honest (30:33); generous (31:39); he is obedient (28:5); he is patient (31:7). His rough-and-tumble sons bring many sorrows upon his noble heart but his love never fails. Nowhere, however, does he so prove himself a mystic, a patriarch and a prophet as at the end of his life when he gathers his twelve about him to speak to each one of the future of his tribe. Among the twelve two of these prophecies stand out as most powerful: his words to his favorite son, Joseph, “a wild colt, a wild ass” the first-born of his beloved Rachel, and those addressed to Judah. Upon the head of Joseph he confers the fullness of the great covenantal blessing which he himself had received from his father, Isaac (49:22-26). This blessing, we might say, carries all the good things of earth: wealth, power, prosperity, renown (49:8-12). Perhaps we could consider this blessing as an image of those desirable things of this earth that pass away, just as that covenant was destined to pass away.
But when he addresses Judah, he seems to soar above the earth in the ecstatic eloquence of his prophetic vision. Leah, the self-defined “unloved”, gives grateful praise to the Lord when she bears to Jacob this fourth son, and thus names him Judah, her grateful praise. It is Judah who will, in time, become the Root of David (Rv 5:5), and ancestor of the eternal King, Jesus Christ. Jacob’s words to Judah embody the whole Mystery of Christ from incarnation to final victory and beyond. His human mode of being is imaged as his donkey tethered to the vine (Israel — cf Ps 80, Is 5:1 ff), and as his pure-bred ass tethered to the choicest stem (virginal conception in the immaculate womb of Mary — cf Is 11:1 ff)). He shall wash his robes in the blood of grapes (Gn 49:11; cf Is 63:2), reference to his bloody confrontation with evil and with death, but he will remain forever the victorious Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Rv 5:5). His brothers (all people in heaven, on earth and under the earth) will bow down to him (Phil 2: 5-11), for the scepter shall never depart from Judah, nor the mace from between his legs. His eyes hold unfathomable mystery, for they are darker than wine and his teeth are whiter than milk.
Our wily prophet’s life has run its course. Now, as the Holy Book has it, he can draw his feet up onto his cot and go to join his fathers.
Scholars confuse us with their muddled search
To discover your eyes, O Leah, wife of Jacob;
But they will never find them
For they are lost in the field of Ephron, the cave of Machpelah
Yet one thing we have heard. And two do we know:
That they were wet with tears, but blessed
For they watch over us still
And have given us a king, and kings, and the great Eternal King,
And grateful praise to the Lord forever.
Thank you, dear Grandmother; rest in peace!
Note: Seven different editions of the Holy Bible have yielded seven different translations of the adjective describing Leah’s eyes as given in Gn 29:17. They are without sparkle, dull, weak; she is bleary-eyed; she has blue eyes, tender eyes, lovely eyes! For Leah’s burial place, see Gn
23:1-9; 49:31 f.