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Jacob the Patriarch

David Cowles

Dec 21, 2023

“Jacob was a bit of a rascal. He was a wimpy kid who cheated his brother and perhaps his employer to line his own pockets… (he) is ‘the patriarch for the rest of us.’” 

The relationship of Biblical stories to modern life is sometimes uncanny. Take the story of Jacob, for instance (Genesis 25–31). He is the third Patriarch of Israel, following Abraham and Isaac. His life story, like so many of our own, falls naturally into three distinct periods.

First, Jacob’s youth. Genesis tracks Jacob’s curriculum vitae from conception; it even provides details of his mother’s pregnancy. Jacob turns out to be the second born of two twins, though he struggled with his brother (Esau) in Rebecca’s womb, each boy trying his best to secure the right of primogenitor.

Like the not-always-so-cute twin boys down the street, Esau and Jacob competed for their parents’ affection. Esau, a ruddy athlete and an accomplished hunter, won Dad’s heart, while Jacob, the more introspective of the two, was the apple of Mom’s eye.

What Jacob could not win with strength in the womb, he won with cunning in the world. Through a series of ruses, he wrested the right of primogenitor from Esau. When Jacob came of age, childhood over, Isaac blessed him and sent him out into the world to win wife and wealth. 

Retracing the route of his family’s historic migration to Canaan, Jacob traveled back across the Euphrates to the city of Harar, once home to his grandfather, Abraham. There, he worked for his uncle, Laban. Over time, Jacob earned the right to wed Laban’s two daughters; after 20 years, he left his uncle’s employ, taking with him his spouses and his children, a retinue, and flocks of goats, sheep, camels, donkeys, etc. ‘Rabbit is rich!’ Jacob has aced adulthood.

But now he must return to his roots. He needs to reconcile with his brother and reconnect with his father. His narrative picks up right where it left off…after a 20-year hiatus. 

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Sidebar: In Jacob’s era, life expectancy was just a bit more than half what it is today; Jacob’s story reflects that. He was probably no older than 15 when he received his father’s blessing and headed off toward Harar to make his fortune. Likewise, his period of production & procreation spanned just 20 years, compared to our usual 40. That still left the average male up to 15 years to enjoy the fruits of his labor and to reflect on the meaning of his adventures. 

There’s a lot of Jacob in all of us. Compared to heroic Abraham and holy Isaac, Jacob was a bit of a rascal. He was a wimpy kid who cheated his brother and perhaps his employer to line his own pockets. It’s a plot straight out of Succession…or Washington, D.C. 

Most of us would be more than happy to receive a ‘Gentlemen’s C’ from St. Peter. Even a C- would do nicely, thank you. A few of us might aspire to sainthood (B’s) but I doubt if any of us is seriously striving to be a patriarch. (That takes an A and only three confirmed A’s have ever been given out…though rumor has it that Job, Jesus, Peter and Paul may be on the list as well). 

Enough of Jacob; let’s get back to us. By hook or by crook, we just managed to get through childhood when suddenly we found ourselves confronted with the need to earn a living and, perhaps, support a family. 

Like Jacob’s labors, our work in the world is all-consuming; we have little time for whatever existential concerns remain unresolved. But kids grow up, and careers come to an end, happily or otherwise, at retirement. We no longer bear the full weight of the world on our shoulders. We are free to turn our attention back to ourselves. Who we are is once again more important than what we do.

Now back to Jacob. He worked hard for Laban and produced great wealth, which benefited Laban and his family for 20 years, but he did it using Laban’s capital. When the time came for Jacob to depart with his ‘earnings’, Laban’s sons protested. Whose dollar is it? But Jacob didn’t wait around for a panel of ‘bent’ judges to rule against him; he did ‘what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 21:25). He took what he thought he deserved and made off for Canaan.

And so the first shot was fired in the war between capital and labor – a battle that is still raging today. Every time a union is formed, every time a strike is called, and every time a corporation pays a dividend to its shareholders or a bonus to its executives, you’re hearing the rumble of this war. 

Back in his home country, Jacob assumed the role of peacekeeper. He made a covenant with Laban, who had pursued him across the Euphrates. He reconciled with his brother Esau after conferring on him huge gifts of livestock. He slaughtered men who had raped his daughter, and he did his best to promote peace among his own warring sons. He followed the way of Voltaire: he tended his own garden. 

In this Jacob embodied the Eschaton, when ‘the wolf will lie down with the lamb’. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are all called to make peace – not to eliminate differences, but to transform intensity-dampening conflicts into intensity-enhancing contrasts.  

The world needs Abrahams and Issacs and Jobs, for sure, but Jacob offers a different model of sainthood. Jacob is ‘the patriarch for the rest of us’. Like us, he swims in uncharted waters, trying to find a channel between survival, self-interest, duty and fairness. How’d he do? I doubt many of us would give him a ‘10’. But he did good enough to please God, and what else matters?  


Image: 14th century. Fresco. Pomposa Abbey, Codorigo, Italy.

The story is from Genesis 27:1-40. The image does not follow it in a linear order. At left, Esau goes hunting with bow and arrow to get meat for a meal for his blind father, Isaac. At right, Jacob comes to his father and claims to be Esau with a dish he has prepared from the game he caught. Believing that this is Esau, Isaac gives him his blessing. In the middle, Esau has returned and is bringing his father another dish with game from his hunt. He will be distraught when he learns of Jacob's trick, which has left him without his father's blessing.


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