Chapter 10 of the series Myths and Dragons
Part 1 – Horus: A New Hope, A Wise Past
Part 2 – Jacob – Never Surrender, Never Learn
Part 3 – A Change Worth Dying For, A Culture Always Challenged
If we are to take stories as maps of behavior then we need to identify with the characters. Horus, Jacob and Jesus provide three similar but subtle and unique maps about the relationships between a father, a mother and a son. They also provide three of the steps in the mythological consciousness that frames our cultural heritage. We can read these three stories and examine what they say about how the individual relates to the social order that surrounds them and to the unknown world outside that protective social order.
The posts are made up of an introduction, a story, and one explanation (or midrash).
Questions for readers: Can you identify with the hero’s situation?
Is this story a good map for how we should behave?
The Jewish story of Jacob describes how a younger son joins the line of patriarchs that establish the tribes of Israel. Here is my shortened retelling. (The net provides other resources and versions of this story, like here or here. Two explanations that made me edit my version of the story can be found here and here.)
Jacob was his mother Rebekah’s favorite. Before he was born, she told him, God had said Jacob would inherit the promise of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac.
Esau, Jacob’s older twin-brother, thought nothing of it. Esau was a hairy brute, too busy and too strong to care. Jacob had been born holding the heel of Esau, but Esau was still first. Esau married young and Rebekah wasn’t all that impressed with Esau’s choices.
Jacob thought this inheritance was important enough to care about. In fact, he figured he’d better do something about it. An opportunity came up when Jacob was cooking. Esau appeared at the door, completely famished.
“Sell me your birthright first, and I’ll give you some food,” said Jacob.
Esau wasn’t concerned with the future. He was starving right then and there.
“Swear to me,” insisted Jacob.
Esau swore to him. Jacob served him the food, all the while grinning at his own cleverness.
When their father Isaac was close to death and his eyes were failing, he called for Esau. “Go hunting and prepare a meal. I want my last meals to be good ones. When I have eaten, I will give you my blessing.”
Rebekah heard this and told Jacob. “I have a plan,” she said. “While Esau’s away, I’ll prepare a meal for Isaac and you will serve it to him. Then you will get your father’s blessing.”
Jacob had some doubts, but his mother dressed him in his brother’s clothes, covered his arms in goatskin, and sent him into Isaac with the meal.
Isaac was surprised at how short a time it had taken his son. And when he heard his son’s voice, he had doubts.
“Are you sure you’re Esau?” Isaac asked.
Isaac felt the arms of his son, but found them as hairy as a goat. He ate the meal and was happy. He drew his son close. Isaac blessed his son and wished all the best for him. Jacob, hearing Esau return, gathered his things and quickly left the room.
Esau prepared a meal for his father and brought it to where Isaac was resting. When Esau greeted him with the meal, Isaac was confused.
“But if you’re Esau, then who did I just bless?”
“That’s twice now!” cried Esau. “Father, is there nothing left for me?”
Isaac then told his eldest son, “It sounds like your life is going to be more difficult. I worry you might be ruled by your emotions and you will end up having to fight for what you want. You’ll have to keep a close eye on your brother. But I fear the time will come when you will grow tired of him and his wits.”
“I could kill him,” Esau muttered.
Rebekah, listening to all this, told Jacob to go live with her brother Laban until Esau calmed down. She hoped Jacob could find a nice girl there to marry.
Isaac bid farewell to Jacob with some advice. “Pick a good wife from Laban’s daughters and settle down a bit, all right son?”
After Jacob left, Esau got to thinking. Maybe he could have been a little choosier about his wives. And about other things too. And maybe he should have never underestimated his brother.
During the trip to his uncle’s place, Jacob dreamed that God was at the top of a ladder leading into the sky. God reassured him that things were taken care of and he would bring Jacob back to his father’s land. Jacob was pretty impressed. He vowed to believe it and even change his ways.
Jacob arrived at Laban’s place only to fall in love, rather quickly, with Laban’s daughter Rachel. Laban, seeing an opportunity, made a deal with Jacob—seven years of work and then marriage to Rachel. Jacob agreed. He must have been in love. It makes you do things sometimes without thinking them through.
After the seven years, Jacob could hardly wait for the wedding party and the wedding night. He was so excited he didn’t notice that he’d actually slept with Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Jacob, for all his wits, didn’t see that coming. But to fix all this, Laban and Jacob made another deal – seven more years, and then marriage to Rachel. Jacob agreed.
Jacob finally married Rachel and he was happy. Sort of. Jacob had many sons and daughters between his wives and their servants. He also had about enough of Laban.
Jacob decided it was maybe time to be on his way. So he struck a last deal with Laban, in which he would take only a portion of the goats and sheep of the herds. What Jacob didn’t tell Laban was that he would breed the animals secretly and increase his own numbers.
After Jacob had left with his family and the new-found wealth of the increased herd, Laban followed after him. Rachel had taken some idols precious to Laban’s household. Jacob and Laban argued for a long time and then decided to make a pact. They agreed their dealings were done, and they wouldn’t tread on each other’s business any more. But if they were to meet again, then God would be the judge between them.
Jacob then figured he had to go to Esau. He wasn’t thrilled about the reunion though; Esau was apparently waiting for him with an army of men.
Jacob organized all his herds and estate before him as gifts to appease Esau and sent them ahead. That night, he dreamed again and wrestled with a man all night. By daybreak the man saw that Jacob would not relent, so he wounded Jacob. Jacob refused to let go until he got a blessing from his opponent. The man told Jacob that really Jacob had his blessing all along. The opponent then asked his name. When Jacob gave it to him without reservation, his opponent renamed him Israel. That night had quite an effect on Jacob.
The next day, when Esau was in sight, Jacob moved ahead of all his family and herds and estate. He bowed and offered himself in service to Esau along with all he had. Esau was overcome with emotion and invited Jacob back home. All seemed forgiven, and Jacob saw a change in Esau that was worthy of his respect, somewhat. He even compared his brother’s face to the face of God. Things seemed fine between them, but something still troubled Jacob. Esau was his brother again, but still a dangerous brute.
Jacob told his brother to go ahead and he would catch up. Jacob then moved north, away from his brother’s place. He bought some land near a city and then tried to settle down a little bit.
This son, although the chosen one that will carry the godly promise of social order, never seems to want to learn any wisdom from his Father figures. He never trusts that wisdom. If Jacob is to be taken as the divine child in this story, then it appears he is always at odds with the mythological Father. Whether it is Esau, Isaac, Laban, or God, Jacob the son is tricking, being tricked by, or wrestling with his opponent. He is trying to best the cultural order surrounding him for his own benefit. And it literally tears families apart, an understandable consequence of selfish behavior and biased blessings.
He does learn from and then conspire with Rebekah, the Mother figure. Through Rebekah, he is helped by nature and his own innate nature to fulfill the promise of inheritance. But how this is done undermines the expected and cultural order of things.
Jacob submits only when a woman is at stake (such as Rachel or Leah or their servants) or when he finds a ‘man’ that can easily destroy him but never ultimately would (such as when the wrestler touches him and gives him a limp).
After he is seriously injured enough to limp for the rest of his life, wrestling with some aspect of God, he is still proud; his first thoughts are not to serve or submit but instead to be blessed. However, when he does come to realize social order can be made of both power and mercy, he freely gives up his own name to it.
When he sees the face of God in his brother Esau and promises to be his brother’s servant, he then moves north to settle away from his brother. He does not think strength will prevail any challenge, as Esau seems to think. But Jacob does realize he must be responsible for his own living, ultimately. He does not trust Esau as a brother or as a capable leader worth following - one that reigns wisely with both power and compassion.
Jacob shows quite clearly that he is the rightful heir, but not because he follows his father’s tradition or because he submits to the social order of the world around him. If anything, he turns this around completely. He does not end up settling on his father’s land, even though he is accepted and welcomed by Esau. Instead, Jacob establishes a new place for his family and estate, a new way of life.
Jacob contends with the present, flawed order, as the divine child in story must, almost by definition. Otherwise, the individual does not change and the culture becomes stagnant. But he is both hero and villain, good example and bad example at once. Jacob wrestles with both God and man, and demonstrates he could bring down all social order, even if it means destroying himself in the process. However, he could submit to it as well and be blessed by it if it has both power and compassion. If he is accepted and blessed for who he is, as each child in a family must be, then a new legacy and a new promise can grow.
Each child in a family has the potential to struggle with their place, to bring change or to uphold the family line. Each child has the ability to re-establish order or undo it if not given a proper blessing and a meaningful place within the family.
What do you think?
Can you identify with the hero’s situation?
Is this story a good map for how we should behave?
Or is this a story about how we tend to behave?