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.