In his book Simply Christian, N.T. Wright says this about the Bible: “It’s a big book, full of big stories with big characters. They have big ideas (not least about themselves) and make big mistakes. It’s about God and greed and grace; about life, lust, laughter and loneliness. It’s about births, beginnings, and betrayal; about siblings, squabbles, and sex; about power and prayer and prison and passion. And that’s only Genesis.”
Take the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: Can you imagine them on the Dr. Phil show? You can imagine Dr. Phil introducing the show: “Today we’re going to hear from Isaac, who says his dad almost barbequed him up on a mountain. Why? Because God told him to! Right. But Isaac’s own sons haven’t spoken to each other in years! Esau, how could you be so boneheaded that you could trade your inheritance for a bowl of stew? And Jacob, I see you smirking over there. But your deceptions, your lies, your scheming is starting to catch up with you. In fact, I’ve never seen a more dysfunctional family. Don’t you see the patterns of bad behavior that you’re passing down from one generation to the next? This family is a train wreck of biblical proportions!”
But that can be a kind of curious comfort for us. Our families aren’t perfect. We have shameful secrets in our past. And yet God sticks with us. Genesis is not a book of role models, spiritual heroes. It’s the story of a God who loves broken people, and who makes his grace and healing known in even the most difficult circumstances. It’s about how God never disowns us, never leaves us, even when we make a total mess of our lives, even when we can’t imagine how anything good can come out of it. It may be a dysfunctional family, but it’s still God’s family.
Deception runs like a scarlet threat through the narratives of Genesis. These stories are not morality tales, and the characters are certainly not consistent examples of faithfulness and integrity. Interpreting and applying these stories is no easy task, either. The LORD has already promised that Jacob will be the one through whom he will make good on his promise to Abraham, the promise to bring salvation to all nations through Abraham’s descendants. Yet Jacob, whose name is related to the Hebrew adjective “deceitful” (ʿāqōb, see Jer. 17:9) schemes and manipulates his way through life from day one, just as he tried to pull brother Esau back into the womb by the heel, as if Jacob’s success were completely in his own clutching hands. Jacob’s name becomes synonymous with treachery, as one reads in Jeremiah 9:4: “Beware of your friends; do not trust anyone in your clan. For every one of them is a deceiver [literally, “a deceiving Jacob”], and every friend a slanderer.”
But this is often a trait of God’s people. God promises us blessing, but we feel like we have to control, manage, and manipulate our way through life, otherwise we will be trampled underfoot. Perhaps we never stop to think that viewing life as this kind of cutthroat, Darwinian competition, an extended season of Survivor, is a game we lose just by playing. Like Jacob, we think of life as a zero-sum game: in order for me to win, you have to lose.
Jacob’s whole life is a game of cunning and conniving. Esau, famished and foolish, scoops out the last spoonful of hearty stew. Jacob had cooked it up along with a scheme to steal Esau’s birthright, his inheritance, his dignity.
One might be tempted to say Jacob got it from his mother’s side of the family, as Rebekah conspires to elevate her younger son at the expense of the elder. It is her brother Laban who initially bests Jacob at his own deceptive game when newlywed Jacob wakes up with ordinary Leah instead of supermodel Rachel (and Jacob unjustly punishes Leah by withholding from her the blessing of spousal love). But it runs in the family: Abraham was also a deceiver, telling Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister. Isaac repeats this lie himself (Gen. 26:7).
So Jacob comes by this manipulative nature naturally. Isaac and Rebekah played favorites—another destructive family trait (25:28). Isaac favored Esau, the hunter, who brought home wild game, but apparently couldn’t cook to save his life…or his birthright. Rebekah favored Jacob. She was that kind of mother. She’ll do whatever it takes to make Jacob number one. Pity whoever gets in her way.
Many more schemes followed. Nobody tangles with Jacob and comes out a winner. Jacob schemes to get control over most of Laban’s livestock. Jacob wins. Jacob always wins.
But left in his wake, there is a father, Isaac, taken advantage of, deceived.
There is a brother, Esau, slowly figuring out he’s been had.
There is a wife, Leah, scorned, unloved.
There is uncle/ father-in-law Laban, threatening to get out the 12 gauge if he ever catches Jacob on his land again. And this is the father of God’s people?
Thus the deception of old, blind, and vulnerable Isaac comes as no surprise. It is perhaps poetic justice. Yet the scene is as absurd as it is troubling.
In approaching this story, the preacher should seek to appreciate it as a masterpiece of narrative art, while not bringing the tools of the exegetical trade into the pulpit—easier said than done! The story is brimming with irony and ironic wordplay: Jacob not only tricks Esau out of his birthright (bĕkôrâ), he now adds the powerful patriarchal blessing (bĕrākâ) to his list of ill-gotten gains. The story unfolds with sad tragedy: the family the LORD has brought together in order to bless all the families of the earth, tears itself apart with rivalry, favoritism, and manipulation. The narrative includes slapstick comedy: The ruse itself is ridiculous. Smelly sheepskin? Really?! And no, Esau is not the brightest candle on the cake; but does he deserve this wretched treatment? Most of all, one should try to convey the narrative tension: will Jacob and Rebekah’s harebrained hair scheme actually work? Or will Jacob end up with a curse, rather than his father’s blessing? And will Jacob get away with all this scheming?
The reality is, our families, our congregations, our denominations can also be torn apart by rivalries and factions, despite our calling to receive (rather than grasp at) God’s blessing, in order to be a blessing to our neighbors by sharing God’s good news. We are a people who have a hard time letting go; we don’t readily trust God to make good on his promises. We are, like Jacob, a people who wrestle with God, in many different ways, a people who cannot find their way until they have been wrestled into obedience, and who come out of the contest with a new name, but also a limp. And yet the people who are defeated in this way God declares winners (Gen. 32:28, 31).
What kind of man is Jacob? This may be the deeper meaning of blind Isaac’s question in v. 18: “Who are you, my son?” It is worth stopping and dwelling on that question. What kind of people are God’s people, these deceivers and tricksters? These God-wrestlers? What kind of person are you?
Jacob is a complex combination of good and evil, of selfishness and obedience. He always comes out on top, but he leaves a trail of hurt and sadness in his wake, and one cannot imagine that he died with no regrets. He is a perfect picture the life of those who seek God’s blessing, and who seek to be a blessing; we are both justified and yet still sinners, to use Martin Luther’s apt phrase.
And yet these are the kind of people God calls to bear his name (first the name Israel, Gen. 32:28, then the name Christian, 1 Peter 4:16)—the people he calls to receive his blessing, and to become a blessing to others. Not people of perfect integrity. Not people with a perfect track record. But broken people. But it is precisely in our brokenness that God uses his people, and brings about his blessing in us, and through us, and often despite us. In the context of the whole of Scripture, it brings to mind how Jesus Christ blessed, and restored, and put into his service the most broken people around him. It recalls how Christ defeated death by allowing himself to be defeated on the cross, what Frederick Buechner famously called “The Magnificent Defeat.” Jesus even deceived the devil in a clever ruse, according to St. Augustine: “The Lord’s cross was the devil’s mousetrap: the bait which caught him was the death of the Lord,” (Sermon 261). Those who would follow him must often be broken before we can be whole, as we limp along, seeking to be faithful. It is our birthright to be a people who bring blessing to others, through the good news of God’s victorious defeat in Christ. But it’s a birthright that comes with new birth, birth from above, and not through our own striving and wrestling and manipulation.
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Jacob Deceives Isaac
Genesis 27 Commentary