Jacob was born to be a deceiver. He came out of Rebekah’s womb “grasping the heel” of his older brother Esau, setting the pattern of deception his life would soon take. But he was also born of God’s promise, born to be the father of Nations and revered by his people. How can a trickster inherit such a high place of esteem without earning God’s approval through pious prayer and obedience? Elijah the prophet was also special to God; but it was not his patronage that was highly valued, it was his heart after God that won His favor. God rewarded Elijah’s obedience with the rare and holy gift of eternal life- but where was his covenant, his descendants that would live “eternally”? Jacob and Elijah are as different as night is to day; one is a trickster, the other a prophet. One relies on his wits, the other is totally dependant upon God’s guidance. Yet, they are both highly rewarded by God. How can this apparent contradiction in the degree of reverence and obedience required in a sincere relationship with God be explained?
When Rebekah, wife of Issac, was pregnant with twins she asked the Lord why they jostled her so much. The Lord answered by foretelling that both children would sire a nation, and the elder child would serve the younger. When Rebekah was in labor, the second child came out grasping the heel of the first, so they named him Jacob- which means “he grasps the heel” and figuratively means “he deceives”.
When we first come upon the grown figure of Jacob, he hardly seems a pious or God-fearing man. On the contrary, he is a self-absorbed and self-reliant guy, one who trusts mainly in his own cleverness. True, unlike Esau, who treats it with contempt, Jacob is keenly interested in the birthright: the rights and privileges belonging to the first-born as future replacement for his father Isaac as head of the family. But, though for this reason clearly superior to his older brother, Jacob is not yet fit for the covenant, and it seems likely that he is interested more in the privileges that attach to the birthright (gain and honor) than in its obligations (spiritual and moral leadership).
Jacob believes that he can solve the birth-order problem by himself, and that he can do so without his father’s knowledge by his cleverness alone (the sale of the birthright for a bowl of stew). But if one has no reverence for one’s father, how can one feel reverence for God? And how can one be a true heir of the way of Abraham if one relies solely on one’s own cleverness? Even after Rebecca compels Jacob to seek his father’s blessing, he reveals his lack of regard in doing so: asked by the confused old man how he has been able to provide food so quickly, Jacob answers, “Because the Lord your God caused it to happen for me.” In this first and only time Jacob speaks of God, he does not acknowledge Him as his own and has the gall to use the Lord God in his falsehood.
Sent off to seek a wife, Jacob goes empty-handed, trusting only to his wits. But the self-reliant and clever fellow will soon learn the limits of cleverness and self-reliance. Though he owns the birthright he has purchased and the blessing he has stolen, he has nothing to show for either. As he nears the border of Haran, Jacob has the vision of the angels and the ladder, a dream in which God addresses him personally, blesses him with the promise of land and offspring, and offers him a personal warrant of divine protection and faithfulness. When he awakens for good, early in the morning, Jacob erects as a pillar the stone on which he slept and anoints it with oil.
But he still relies on his instincts of getting the best of or bargaining. He vows the Bible’s first vow, but its character reflects the calculating character of its maker: If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.
It is hard to know what to make of the vow that is given after an unrequested and unconditional promise from God. But I really think that Jacob is “hedging his bets”. After all, Jacob is still Jacob the sly, the calculating, the self-reliant: Will God be able to deliver His promises? Am I right to trust dream-promises? What if they are mere projections of my own wishes? Jacob’s opening to the divine is not yet wholehearted.
Nonetheless, encouraged by his dream, Jacob goes to the home of his uncle Laban. This begins the account of what will be his twenty-year stay outside of Canaan. During this twenty-year period, God will not speak to him, nor will Jacob be moved to seek contact with God. He does not desire to have any relationship with God, or seek his guidance. Instead he relies on his own cleverness, and indeed, gets tricked repeately because of it. Yet he does not repent because of it.
When Jacob is going to meet Esau, we have seen his desire for the birthright, his love of Rachel, and his interest in wealth. Though he has become the head of a sizable clan, this was the doing of his jealous wives, mostly of the one he did not love or want. But here, with the prospect of death looming before him, suddenly the importance of his children rises vividly in his mind, even to the point of conflating his own being with theirs. Jacob, who once thought himself self-sufficient, now for the first time clearly sees himself as a link in the chain that connects fathers Abraham and Isaac to his own descendants. Recognition of mortality and concern for his descendants move Jacob closer to God.
When Jacob wrestles all night with the Angel of God, is shows that God is testing Jacobs stubborn streak. Jacob proves he’s still headstrong and God appears to him, renames him Israel, and pronounces on him the full blessing of Abraham. God seems to have an affinity for Jacob and changes his name from “deciever” to “he stuggles with God”, which aptly shows their connection. This is the height of Jacob’s relationship to God. Jacob, now as Israel, now returned to the promised land, is firmly established in God’s grace, having earned his place as a patriarch within the covenant. The birthright and the all-important covenant blessing are now rightly his; bestowed by God Himself. But he did nothing to earn its prestige except by trickery.
One of the first things you notice in Elijah’s life, is that he has regular communion with God. He relies soley on direction from God; to go to the widow women, to go to Ahab, and to go to Mt. Carmel. It is clear here that, unlike Jacob, if Elijah decided to rely on his own “wits” and cleverness many, many people would perish, and the Covenant would be at risk. Also, unlike Jacob, Elijah is holy enough to be the temple of the Spirit of the Lord which is shown when he ran ahead of Ahabs chariot.
With the exception of the great victory on Mt. Carmel over the priests of Baal, Elijah’s life had not been a bed of roses over the preceding years. First, he spent three and a half years as a fugitive, hiding out in a foreign country from an angry king. Then, after his great demonstration of the power of God where he killed 450 prophets of Baal, a death threat from the wicked Jezebel came. Now, even after being as faithful to God’s calling as anyone could possibly be, he receives a lesson in just how much he was missing God’s direction. While Elijah is depressed, God told him to go to Mt. Sinai and find a cave. But Elijah is weak and the Angel of the Lord comes to him, not to wrestle with him, but to feed him and encourage him. God also blesses him with the sound of sheer silence, or a gentle whisper. Clearly the Lord cherishes Elijah dearly.
After Elijah appoints his successor, Elisha, and kills 100 of Ahabs men on Mt. Carmel, he parts the Jordon with his cloak and a chariot of horses and fire take him up to heaven. No one else except for Enoch, Methusalah’s father has had this honor of eternal life. Yet I think most would agree that Elijah more then earned it. No one else has be so self- sacrificing, so representative of God’s word, as Elijah. Yet Jacob’s blessing was not based on his merit or his actions- but on Gods Soveriegn Freedom and His promise to Abraham. But in the end we can only conclude that God’s grace and blessing are unexpected and up to Him.