Jacob the Jerk

Leah’s sons were not as magnanimous with their father as Leah was. They resented the way their mother was treated. Moreover, when Rachel died, Jacob merely transferred his devotion to her sons, especially Joseph her first born. In Jacob’s heart this lad was indeed his firstborn, although he had been preceded by Leah’s six sons and Dinah as well as four sons from his concubines. The rich coat he made for Joseph not only showed his father’s favor but most probably was a priestly garment (Gen. 37:3). In those days the eldest son served as priest of the family, a prerogative of the firstborn and heir to the family name and fortune. By his insensitive and flagrant favoritism, not to mention his obvious dislike for the mother of six of his sons, Jacob created a volatile environment within his family. It did not help that the young Joseph enjoyed his position too much, tattling on his brothers when they did wrong (37:2) and informing them about the dreams in which the family bowed down to him (37:5-11). In his arrogance Jacob could not read the danger of the situation. If he had, he would not have sent Joseph unprotected to check up on his older brothers, who were near Shechem at the time taking care of their father’s herds.

It is here that we enter into what has been called the “Joseph Story” proper. When the brothers saw Joseph coming, all the rage that festered in their hearts over the years finally gave way. They were at the point of murder. However, Reuben stepped in and proposed they toss him in a pit, thinking that later he would rescue him (37:21ff.). On the surface, this places Reuben in a favorable light, especially when we consider that his position as the firstborn was most threatened by Joseph. This is true as far as it goes but one would expect him as firstborn to command respect with the brothers and deal with them plainly rather than plot to save his brother behind their backs. He comes off as weak. By contrast, Judah has more sway with the brothers for he is the one who comes up with the idea of selling Joseph for profit. The brothers take to this idea, and when Reuben returns, he finds an empty pit. Reuben failed in his responsibility as firstborn to protect his brother; he feels this and tears his clothes in anguish. They take Joseph’s coat, bloody it with animal blood, and present it to their father. The moment when Jacob recognizes his favorite son’s coat and concludes that he is dead is indeed moving; he breaks out into an inconsolable state of grief, so dour that it would dog him, so he thought, till life’s end when he “descends to sheol” (37:29-35). For the first time we feel for Jacob.

We must, however, step away from the pathos of this moment and view Jacob’s life up to this point with a cold, objective eye. What we find is not at all pleasant. He is a man of strife; he cheats and robs from his youth. He cannot be trusted by anyone, especially those in his own family. His attachment to Rachel because of her fine looks suggests that he is superficial, hopelessly led about by his senses. Indeed, he sets her up as an idol, and likewise after her death, her sons Joseph and Benjamin. He is incapable of loving his wife Leah or showing her sons common respect. There is nothing to draw God or man toward him. It remains a mystery for the ages that God favored Jacob over Esau or anyone else for that matter. Chaos swirls about him; he is the very hub of his household hell. Let us here revert to a colloquialism so as to describe this man: he is a jerk. When we hear the noble and august phrase “the God of Jacob,” it really means “the God of the Jerks!”

However repelled we may be by this man, we must consider the fact that Jacob wasn’t all that offensive to himself. In fact, like most of us, he rather liked himself. He simply didn’t have the advantage of seeing himself as he really was in all his squalor, printed in inspired script for all the ages to view and judge. And so it is; jerks tend not to see themselves as such. No doubt he would have come to a very different conclusion than we have above if he had heard the epithet “The God of Jacob.”

Now many of us are not theologically naive about sin and its serious effects in this world. All too often, however, our doctrine of sin becomes a theological point that we abstract from ourselves. We swiftly pardon our foibles, and may even subconsciously be entertained by them, but are just as swift to loath them in others. The fact is, until we see ourselves as jerks, we can never have the God of Jacob, for if God is not the God of the jerks he surely cannot be the God of Jacob. In our lucid moments we see this, and shake our heads and confess, how could God set His love on me? This is exactly the same question we ask about Jacob. We are Jacob! We are the jerks!

2 Responses to “Jacob the Jerk”

  1. Father John,

    Your treatise above takes me back many years to when a psychiatrist friend of mine told me that most people rarely if ever see themselves as other people see them.

    I presume your designation of seeing ones self as a “jerk” probably does not refer to many of our most pious and religious advocates of Jesus Christ.


  2. I mean exactly that it refers to many of our most pious and religious advocates of Jesus Christ. I would like to include myself in this group but I do not consider myself pious, though perhaps religious. I have come to the painful conclusion that I am pretty much Jacob in many ways …

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