Many Christians I know cannot stand Jacob. In technical terms, he’s what’s known as a “grade-A slime ball.” He steals from his brother, lies to his father, tricks his uncle and sleeps with his true love’s sister. He’s ambitious, conniving, manipulative and, let’s face it, everyone hates to see a cheater win.
There are many obvious reasons to dislike Jacob. But I’ve also come to suspect there’s a more hidden reason why Jacob rubs many of us wrong. Far beneath the surface of conscious thought, we’re maybe just a little jealous.
Growing up in the church, it seemed clear to me that good Christians weren’t supposed to want much for themselves. If you did, you weren’t supposed to admit it out loud. Ambitions are prideful, and competing desires lead to conflict. The course of Christian virtue is to sit down, shut up and be content with what you have.
The trouble is that hidden desires have a way of building pressure. Unspoken resentment and envy build up over years, turning relationships toxic, leaking out the sides of life in increasingly passive-aggressive responses.
Jacob appears to be a man who was born hungry and not that good at disguising it. He wants power. He wants leadership. He wants flocks. He wants Rachel. This hunger, and his unapologetic efforts to seize the things he wants, proves to be a constant source of conflict in his life.
Jacob struggles with the people around him for his own blessing. It’s hard to watch, not least because many of us identify with the other side. We imagine ourselves as Esau or Laban, for whom Jacob’s gains mean loss. We wonder why Jacob should be rewarded for breaking the unspoken religious code of settling for what you’ve got.
Here’s the thing — there are plenty of valid critiques we might make of Jacob’s methods. We might grieve the collateral damage of his restless struggle for more. But the one thing Genesis never condemns is Jacob’s core desire for blessing. Because blessing is, in fact, precisely what Jacob and his entire family were originally chosen for (Gen. 12:1-4).
The real turning point of Jacob’s story comes in Gen. 32:22-32, on the night when he finally realizes his lifelong struggle for blessing has been a struggle with the wrong source. Jacob has struggled to seize from his brother what only God truly had to give.
In the end, Jacob receives as a free gift of God the blessing he’s always longed for. Only then is he finally able to reconcile with his brother and the two of them live together in peace.
I wonder sometimes if our harsh judgments of Jacob don’t reflect a deep misunderstanding of God. God desires to bless, beyond all we can ask or imagine. God has good plans for our flourishing.
In relationship with such a God, passivity and indifference are not necessarily virtues. In Jacob, God finds a strength and passion to delight in. The challenge for Jacob is learning to direct his hunger toward the best kind of good.
Blessing doesn’t have to be stolen from others when you finally come to understand God is offering it as a gift. Because God is generous and full of abundance, life is not a zero-sum game.
There is a place in the divine story for bold, hungry people who have come to see that the thing they are looking for lies not in their brother’s hands but only in the hands of God. When that realization happens, the struggle can shift from a struggle for the blessing of one to a struggle for the blessing for all. Perhaps this is the redeemed possibility that God sees in Jacob’s life.
Meghan Larissa Good is teaching pastor at Trinity Mennonite Church in Glendale, Ariz., and author of The Bible Unwrapped: Making Sense of Scripture Today, published this month by Herald Press.