Immunity from Loss or Significance?
If God were to come to you and offer you either immunity from loss or a significant life for circles broader than your relational or familial networks, which would you choose?
God meets Jacob twice at Bethel and the encounters are worth comparing.
While Abraham’s anxiety focused on children, Jacob’s anxieties mostly focused upon security. Abraham’s life would be marked by the struggle to have a legitimate heir by his wife Sarah. Jacob’s story would be a struggle for security within the context of family threats. He was first threatened by Esau, then Laban, then Esau again and finally the fear of retribution for the murder and looting perpetrated by his sons against Shechem. Jacob’s constant worry about security would be matched by Yhwh’s faithfulness to deliver him time and time again.
The blessing at the first Bethel meeting had the following elements:
- God’s self-declaration: “I am Yhwh the God of Abraham…”
- Land: “I will give you and your descendants the land you’re sleeping on.”
- Descendants: “they will be like the dust of the earth, they will spread out…”
- Future Blessing: “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you…”
- Personal Blessing: “I am with you and will go with you”
- Safe Return: “I will bring you back to this land and will no leave you…”
The blessing at the second meeting in Bethel had these elements:
- Renaming: “Israel shall be your name”
- God’s Self-declaration: “I am El Shaddai”
- Re-assert the creation mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1 to the man and the woman, Genesis 9 to Noah and now here to Jacob. New beginning?)
- Descendants: “nations will come from you, kings from your loins…”
- Land: “The land of Abraham and Isaac… to your descendants.”
The El Shaddai self-declaration is significant here because if you trace it’s usage (there is plenty of scholarly debate as to what the term meant and how it should be translated) it consistently shows up in a covenantal context in Genesis:
- Gen 17 Yhwh to Abram together with his name change, with fruitful and multiply, assembly of nations, kings from you, everlasting covenant, land, will be their god.
- Gen 28 from Isaac to Jacob when leaving for Paddan-Aram together with “fruitful and multiply and assembly of peoples, and land.
- Gen 35: here
- Gen 43 Jacob to Judah at the hoped for return of Benjamin from Egypt.
- Gen 48 Jacob to Joseph recalling Bethel: fruitful and multiply, company of nations, land.
Strangeness of these Proleptic Blessings and Promises
Consider for example the promise of land reiterated to Jacob as it was given to Abraham. Jacob could in that moment protest “Like you gave land to Abraham and Isaac? Like they had claim to any land beyond where they were living and where they buried their dead? What kind of promising is this?”
If we step outside of the book we might observe an answer such as “the book is national mythology that establishes land and significance claims for a historical people.” That’s a fair comment, but you have to violate the story to make it. My question revolves around how the statement works within the story.
Clearly the proleptic blessings are significant, and the tension they create for their recipients (Abram and Jacob now most significantly) is powerful. As the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews suggests, they are looking for a place whose builder and architect is God.
Abram and Jacob are being asked to leverage their “best life now” into a vision which is far broader and more enduring than their short biological existences.
Addressing Two Jacobs
At the first meeting Yhwh (identifying himself with Jacob’s grandfather and father) reiterates the election blessing but combines it the security that young, fearful, vulnerable Jacob was especially looking for.
At the second meeting El Shaddai (the name most strongly associated with the election covenant) casts now middle aged Jacob in the context of the much longer story. The choice of the self-declaration of “El Shaddai” combined with the “be fruitful and multiply” as the only command in the blessing. The other elements very much casts this second Bethel meeting into the larger world re-creation/restoration theme. (The reference is made in Genesis 1, then to Noah, then to Abram and now to Jacob.)
Unlike the Abraham and Isaac stories, the Jacob story will have a third act in which aged Jacob is no longer the main character of the story but will be at the mercy of the machinations of his sons. Jacob’s name change, unlike Abram’s doesn’t seem to stick with the narrator nearly as well. The times when the narrator will refer to him as “Israel” will be noteworthy as the exception to the rule.
Who is the second Jacob?
The first Jacob was the young man who twisted deals, cheated kin and thought he could make a way for himself with his craftiness. This Jacob would learn the hard way that he could not manage every challenge that came his way. His anxiety was security and at critical steps it was Yhwh who intervened on his behalf both to hem him in and cripple him (Jabbok) but also to deliver him. Jacob wasn’t simply wrestling with human rivals but with a heavenly master. Jacob, like Abraham, needed to learn the truth about the limits of his power and in whose hands his future rested.
We meet the second Jacob in the fields near the city of Shechem. Upon hearing the news of Dinah’s rape (and abduction) “Jacob” keeps silent. In Genesis 35 when he hears about Reuben sleeping with Bilhah, Rachel’s slave and “his father’s concubine”, “Israel” will hear about it.
It is this second Jacob who when faced with the disaster wrought by the deception of his own sons responds to God’s call to return to Bethel and commands the family to be cleansed of their idols and their plunder.
It is the second Jacob, the one crippled by Yhwh who receives this articulation of the blessing. He is no longer focused on the anxieties of the young Jacob, he is looking further down the road.
Blessing and Loss
Revisiting the clean narrative question of last week’s lesson we are hard pressed to see an unencumbered vision of moralistic reward or punishment. Jacob has been richly blessed in terms of security, wealth and number of children, but he has also been surrounded with constant struggle. After the disaster as Shechem and the cleansing for Bethel he continues to suffer loss.
Family member Deborah, who had been the nurse of his mother, a sort of grandmother I imagine pased away and is buried. Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife who wanted SONS or death now gets her second son together with her death. Reuben, Jacob’s eldest son beds one of Jacob’s concubines which most commentators see as either a gesture for usurping Jacob’s position or a ploy in the struggle between Leah and Rachel.
Jacob’s second act is concluded with he and Esau burying their father together which splits Jacob’s and Esau’s genealogies.
In listening to North Americans I’m often struck by this presumptive definition of blessing. One of the strangest questions I hear even quite secularized, disenchanted North Americans make is “how could God let this happen.” Either our secularization or our disenchantment is not as deep as we imagined, or there is a deep assumption through our cultural individualism that God’s main tast is to offer us immunity from loss.
The one thing that is clear about this blessing in the context of Jacob’s relationship with El Shaddai is that it is not anything like immunity from loss. Jacob has been suffering gain and loss pretty much the whole time, and it will continue to happen in the third act of Jacob’s story (Joseph, Judah and the brothers). Jacob’s covenant with El Shaddai certainly seems to be far more about significance than immunity from loss.
Why is God Saying this now Anyway?
It strikes me as rather peculiar that in this re-articulation of the divine blessing the only imperative is “be fruitful and multiply”. Hasn’t Jacob already done most of his fruitful multiplying? He’s already got a bunch of kids.
What does God hope to deliver through Jacob through this meeting? Is he trying to give him comfort? Is he trying to encourage morality in him? Is he trying to get Jacob to do some additional specific thing?
What is God’s motivation for speaking now? What outcome does he hope to create with this encounter?
Jacob’s Best Life Now?
What if in the first Bethel meeting God would have said to Jacob:
“Ok, here is your life.
- You’re going to be a shit to pretty much everyone around you (except your mommy) and this is going to repeated come back to haunt you. (BTW your sons are going to start out being shits just like you did.)
- You will be wealthy.
- You will have many children and a number of wives.
- Neither your brother nor your uncle nor your hostile neighbors will kill you.
- You’ll perpetually be surrounded by conflict between you and others. Your wives will constantly quarrel. Your sons will quarrel nearly to the point of murder. Your sons will slaughter a village out of revenge and your eldest son will have sex with your concubine.
- You will always be anxious about your own safety and that of your loved ones.
So if Jacob were to given a choice early on whether he’d like a life free from conflict and stress or a life of significance and importance that will shape human history for centuries which one would he pick?
We can’t answer that question for Jacob. We might ponder it for ourselves. It seems important that in fact Jacob wasn’t given a choice. His conflicts if you recall go all the way back to the womb.
Many people who have lived lives of larger consequence to others in fact ponder this dilemma. Martin Luther King Jr. pondered this reality as he had to decide whether to engage in the struggle for racial equality or settle into a possible life of quiet academia.
In many other cases individuals don’t have a choice and have to make decisions about what to do with the difficult choices they are confronted with and how those decisions will in fact impact the world for generations to come.
Is there a message in the blessing?
I think there are a number of messages in the blessing.
First that Jacob has many choices to make in his life and as we’ve seen sometimes he’s chosen well and other times poorly. What we see, however, is that the long picture of what he will do in his life is not really his choice. He has been called by God and that calling will propel the story of his life in ways he cannot chance. How Jacob decides to deal with this reality emotionally will be up to him.
Second that what God is actually inviting him into is seeing his life as part of a much larger story. Jacob shouldn’t identify and focus his life simply on his moment by moment evaluation of “Am I enjoying what life is giving me today?”
What this repeated blessing does, besides some of the imperatives that are connected to it, is to invite Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to recalibrate who and what they are onto a far larger story, a story that goes far beyond their biological existence which is what we usually focus on. They are in fact being invited to play a part in God’s larger story of the story of the world.
“Be Fruitful and Multiply”
The command found in this articulation of the blessing in fact by virtue of when it comes invites Jacob to not take it too literally as biological procreation. It is better understood as an invitation to continue, even after his main procreational activities have ceased, in the re-creation story that began in creation, was continued by Noah and now is carried on by him. What Jacob is being asked to do is to continue to live and to continue to suffer.
Why to continue to suffer? Because it seems that everything Jacob does will involve conflict and suffering and that he must continue to engage in the story and continue to lean into believing that through the suffering God’s work of re-creation, of multiplying, of bringing kings into the world and blessing the world through them will continue.
This command in the middle of a life like this militates against defining one’s life and orienting one’s life simply around the question of “what makes works for my sense of peace and well-being today.” Jacob is not his own. He has been renamed to “Israel” but it seems Israel will have the same journey Jacob has had, or even worse.
Between Jacob Two and Jacob Three
The timing of the command “be fruitful and multiply” in fact comes at the end of Jacob’s second chapter in his story and before his third. The second Jacob was still the primary actor in the story but in the third his story will increasingly be controlled by his violent and quarrelsome sons. How can the command “be fruitful and multiply” make sense in the context of his increasing lack of power and consequence?
Just as the first Bethel meeting begins Jacob’s journey from Jacob 1 to Jacob 2. Jacob 2 is finalized at the Jabbok river crossing where he wrestles with God. Now Bethel 2 sets us up for the increasingly cruciform Jacob 3 who must live within the story of his sons.
Braiding the Strands
- The proleptic blessings offer little or no immunity from loss.
- The proleptic blessings invite the elect to prioritize and embrace significance over the threat, fear and reality of loss
- The elect find the story of significance and redemption unfolding in a context of powerlessness, suffering and loss.
You can’t braid these strands and not think “Jesus”