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The Key That Fits the Lock, Part 15 Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 14 February 2013

We’ve meditated upon Abraham, that mysterious man of faith, and upon his peaceful son Isaac. Now it is time to look at the grandson Jacob, the man who will say, of the sorrows of his tumultuous life – I’m using the language of Browning’s dying bishop – “Evil and brief hath been my pilgrimage.”

The sacred author says that Jacob was a peaceable man, but the first thing we see him do is to seize upon his brother Esau’s heel as they are coming out of the womb. They are twins, but far from identical. Esau is hairy, and Jacob is smooth. Esau is one of those boys whom fathers indulge for their brazen activity; Esau is a great hunter, like Nimrod of unhappy memory, whom the fathers of the Church associated with the Tower of Babel. Jacob is one of those boys whom mothers indulge, for their sweet temper, and perhaps too for their feminine wiles.

Not once does the sacred author suggest that Jacob is a holy man. Indeed our sympathies are with Esau, when the lad sees that Jacob has cheated him out of his father Isaac’s blessing. The trick that Rebecca plays upon her husband nearly destroys that family. We must ask, then, why the Lord God would choose such a man as Jacob to be Israel: the whole of the people summed up in the name suggested by his wrestling match with an angel of the Lord.

God raises saints from among us, saints who shine with a beauty that wins the heart, or that lashes the envious and sends them in haste to slander and persecute. Such were Mother Teresa, Damien of Molokai, Joan of Arc, John Bosco, and countless more. But another way to look at it is that God raises saints from among us, with our flickering intellects and our slovenly ways. We are dust destined for glory, or mud, to be shaped into beauty. Jacob, we’ll see, has much to learn, and the lessons will be hard.

I believe, though, we can lay this to Jacob’s credit – he is a man of desire. The great Christian poets and theologians understand that our love for God directs our desires aright and stokes them, making us burn with a white heat. The problem with sinners is not that they desire too much, but that they desire far too little.  They are the reverse of the merchant man seeking fine pearls. They are content with costume jewelry. 

         Jacob’s Ladder by Marc Chagall, 1973

They do not climb Mount Tabor with Jesus. They stay down below, playing dice with the local ruffians for a penny a throw. That is why the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles in tongues of flame, and why the Lord appeared to Moses from within a bush that was burning but was not destroyed by the fire. Rather, it was made so holy that Moses had to turn his face aside.

With sloth, the most ignoble of the deadly sins, God says He will do little; He spews the Laodiceans from His mouth. Not so with desire. In this sense Jacob is the hunter, the seeker, and not Esau. When Esau came in from the fields, faint with hunger, Jacob offered to give him some of the pottage, the lentil stew he had boiled, but on condition that Esau sell him his birthright, for Esau had come from the womb first and was therefore the older brother. Esau, thoughtless, replies, “Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?” 

So Esau swears, evidently not taking the event seriously, whereupon the sacred author indulges a very rare bit of commentary: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.”  To this day, speakers of English use Esau to describe people who cannot see great blessings where they lie, and choose instead the cheap and dull.  We say they have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

In this light, then, without justifying Jacob’s trick, we can begin to see a pattern in the events of his life. Take for instance his famous dream. When Isaac sends Jacob off to Padan-aram, to find a wife from among his kinsmen – and not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan, as Esau had done at first – Jacob falls asleep in the field of Luz, and “he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached unto heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” 

Jacob’s Ladder – a favorite motif in Christian art and mysticism. Dante used it in the Paradiso to describe the spiritual athleticism of the great contemplatives. Spenser’s Red Cross Knight, on the Mount of Contemplation, sees the angels going up and down and greeting one another in friendship. Milton too has the image in mind when he portrays the activity of God’s messengers: “Thousands at His bidding speed / And post o’er land and ocean without rest.” The ladder suggests both distance and intimacy; it distinguishes and it unites.

It is also an invitation to the man of desire.  For the whole message of Scripture is that God descends, so that we may ascend. There is no sign placed at the bottom: Authorized Personnel Only. That is why Jacob then sees the Lord standing above the ladder, and the Lord declares Himself to Jacob in personal terms: “I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac.” Then God continues in Jacob the promise He made to father and grandfather: “The land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; and thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth. . .and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”

How that could be, the sacred author could not possibly have known.  But it is so.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
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written by Stanley Anderson, February 14, 2013
You wrote of Jacob, "he is a man of desire." It reminds me of one of my "wonderments" (a word I use in my own personal definition to describe ideas that I find fascinating to contemplate and of possible truth and value, but not entirely certain of their orthodoxy or doctrinal validity, and of which I gladly retract if shown to be heterodoxical).

I have long thought (in this "wonderment" fashion) that the Biblical concept of "Hope" differed from our earthly view of hope in that the earthly hope has two aspects, desire and uncertainty or doubt, whereas Biblical Hope has only the desire without the uncertainty or doubt. It is not so much that the Biblical Hope has unquestioned certainty about it, as that the certain/uncertain aspect simply doesn't enter into it. In other words it is simply the longing itself regardless of any infirmities or doubts we in our fallen state may have about the object of that longing.

And in C. S. Lewis' biography "Surprised by Joy" he describes his own personal definition of the word "Joy" to be an intense, almost to the point of painful, longing for "I know not what", and yet a sort of pain to be sought out and preferred above all other possible pleasures. In the book of course he describes how we misinterpret the object of this Joy as "that distant hillside" that evokes the Joy, or a strain of music or whatever that we think causes the longing. But if we are honest with ourselves, we always end up discovering that the "earthly" thing we thought was the object of our Joy is false (though we often try to convince ourselves that it is not and wallow in false pleasure -- as you wrote, "The problem with sinners is not that they desire too much, but that they desire far too little"). Lewis' conclusion is that the true object of Joy is of Heavenly origin and calls us to God if only we look long enough and are diligent enough to keep tossing out the false ends that we keep mistaking for the source of that Joy.

So I like to think that Lewis' Joy is a sort of pre-conversion form of Biblical Hope that simply does not yet know its true source.

And I like to think that the admonition to the church at Ephesus in Revelation, “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love” is actually about this concept of Biblical Hope, i.e., the desire for God that has not connection with earthly concepts of certainty or uncertainty, but simply “is” and yet something we can stoke in holiness and faith or ignore and forget in our fallen nature.
written by Achilles, February 14, 2013
Professor Esolen, thank you for another wonderful article! I was just reading Weight of Glory this morning and pondering that our desires are far too weak and then thinking of the poor feminists who would be content with so many trappings of manhood instead of their true glory. Your voice has been a true blessing to me, one of God’s wretched, and you and your family are in my daily prayers. Please pray for me that the good Lord grants me peace of soul, Achilles.
written by Tony Esolen, February 14, 2013
Thank you, gentlemen; Achilles, I will pray for you, be assured.

Stanley -- I think you have got hold of something powerful and illuminating there. Have you ever read Charles Peguy's poem, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope? It's a long poem, but well worth buying an edition of, and meditating upon. He portrays Hope as the little girl among the three great virtues, leading her sisters Faith and Love ...
written by Stanley Anderson, February 15, 2013
Haven't heard of it before. I tried looking it up on Amazon. I notice that it is translated. Not sure if there are multiple translations available, but if there are, do you recommend any in particular?
written by HV Observer, February 17, 2013
Dr. Esolen: Getting over to Dante -- this week's resignation of the Holy Father has brought forth comparisons to one of the earlier papal resignations, that of Pope Celestine V. As a translator of Dante, you know, of course, that the character in the antechamber of Inferno who had made "the great denial" supposedly is the same Pope Celestine (though not named). Pope Benedict did not share Dante's opinion of Celestine; he left his pallium on Celestine's grave (there are pictures of this event). So, who was right, do you think -- Benedict or Dante?

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