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Jacob the Trickster


This week the Adult Bible Study Guide draws our attention to what scholars call the Jacob Cycle in Genesis 25–30. Narratively paired and thematically contrasted, Jacob, along with his slightly older twin Esau, are characters who provide a case study in subversion and power. Esau, the firstborn, is physically strong and is the natural inheritor of the patriarchal spoils. In the story, Jacob is weak but wily. The lesson continues:  

The contrast between the two brothers is immediately fulfilled in their behavior and choices. Like Ishmael (Gen. 21:20), Esau is a skillful hunter, a man who loves to be outdoors in the open fields, whereas Jacob is a mild man who prefers dwelling at home. Esau is loved by his father, while Jacob is loved by his mother (Gen. 25:28). The spiritual and sensitive nature of Jacob contrasts with the tough and physical nature of Esau. The Hebrew word tam (translated “mild”), which qualifies Jacob, is the same word that characterizes Job (Job 8:20) and Noah (Gen. 6:9). Likewise, the verb yashab (translated “dwelling”), meaning “sitting,” suggests the quiet and meditative temperament of Jacob (compare Ps. 84:4, Ps. 91:1). 

Contemplative Jacob relies on his intellectual and spiritual skills to achieve his ends. As the fourth century Bishop of Milan Ambrose writes in his Jacob and the Happy Life, “Jacob received his brother’s clothing, because he excelled the elder in wisdom.” But it’s important to remember that Jacob does not act alone. His mother, Rebecca, who is also Esau’s mother, helps him deceive his father, Isaac, her husband. How can this duplicitous man and mother be honored in Jewish and Christian scripture? Exploring these tensions of faith and family in his PBS series Genesis: A Living Conversation, Bill Moyers, sets up the problem: 

By engineering Isaac’s blessing on Jacob, does Rebecca become the heroine of the story, or simply a schemer? And what of Esau, her passed-over son? 

. . .

The mother justifies the trickery because she has learned from a prophecy that her favorite son is the favorite of God, too. And she’s determined to be the instrument by which the divine plan unfolds, no matter what it means to her husband, her other son, or their family values. The further we go into Genesis in this series of conversations, the closer we get to home. Here now, a blessed deception.

In the less than 6-minute clip below, Moyers explores this morality tale further with “biochemist Leon R. Kass, writer Stephen Mitchell, theologians Elaine H. Pagels, Jean-Pierre M. Ruiz, Marianne Meye Thompson and Robin Darling Young, and psychotherapist Naomi H. Rosenblatt.”

This concept of Jacob as trickster—his name means supplanter—appeals to interpreters focused on the Bible as community crafting through biography. In his discourse on Jacob, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, longtime Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, further explores the central character question of the story: what kind of human is this man? But he also goes further to interpret Jacob’s trickery in light of Jewish history. What does being chosen by God really require and cost? 


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum

Title image: Esau and Jacob by Matthias Stom (1615–1649), public domain.

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