It's a wonderful story, this story about Jacob trying to outwit his uncle Laban through manipulating food and genetics and so build himself a considerable family fortune right under the nose of his jealously watching cousins. I love the Jacob stories, and I know they are old favourites of Alasdair's too, because they are so incredibly down to earth and human. Jacob an inventive, deceitful, underhand trickster who has to learn the hard way what it means to be blessed and chosen to live his life with God. An anti hero who lures his brother into selling his birth right with a pot full of carefully prepared -lentils and deceives his old, blind and dying father with a couple of sheepskins and some lovely lam stew into giving him the blessing his father had meant for his brother Esau. A coward who after all that flees the wrath of his brother rather than to confront it.
But, justice is served where justice is due: On his wedding night Jacob himself finds out what it is like to be deceived. It is Lea, not Rachel who, after 7 years of hard work, emerges from under the veil after their wedding night forcing Jacob to work another 7 years for the woman he loves.
They are wonderful and exciting stories, each and every one of them! Great Sunday school material and I remember listening breathlessly whenever our Sunday school teacher launched into them. But of what use are they for an adult you might wonder? Jacob hardly qualifies as role model. Trickery, slippery and full of deceit it is hardly how we expect God's chosen behave. The world of nomadic tribalism hardly comparable to the world we live in. So what on earth is there to glean for us from these stories?
Well, let's look at the story a little bit closer: After years of being exploited by his uncle Laban, Jacob has decided its time to go home. He turns to his uncle Laban and asks for his blessing to break up the existing family arrangements and take part of the wealth he has helped build to return to the place he came from.
Uncle Laban does not like it at all!
"Through you I have been blessed" he says, "things have been going well for me ever since the day you walked into my house". So please, stay, and I will make it good for you. However, people who have been following the story from the start, will know Laban made a similar offer some years back when Jacob asked for the hand of Rachel and ended up with Lea in his bed. So can we blame Jacob that he doesn't seem to trust the sincerity of his uncle's words?
But it is equally understandable that Laban is not prepared to let the goose laying him golden eggs leave without putting up some resistance. His words to Jacob are pious, with the writer of the story hinting at the deeper meaning behind the story: "Fate was against me", says Laban, "but ever since you arrived God has blessed me". In other words: I have been blessed through you and because of your blessedness. Jacob who carries the Lord's blessing, has carried it with him right into the family of his uncle to become a blessing there himself.
"Yeah, right" says Jacob,"'! know all that, when I arrived you had hardly anything and now you there are these gigantic flocks of sheep and herds of goats around you. I have worked hard and I have looked after your animals very well, but now, if you'll excuse me, I really want to start my own family fortune.
"Of course", says Laban, and those of us who know about the preceding history can hear him think, between the lines:
"How much can I get out of him this time?"
"I only want just rewards" says Jacob, "let me take all the speckled, mottled and black animals that are born, and you'll get all the plain white ones. I'll be perfectly honest and it will be easy to check for you or anybody. Colour is a very straightforward and unambiguous criterion where sheep and goats are concerned, you can't go wrong....".
Laban agrees eagerly. He knows, like any other person in the sheep and goat business, that in general, only one third of a flock or herd will be other than white. And just to make sure he involves in a little bit of genetic manipulation by sending his sons with the coloured part of flock and herd on a three day trip away from the rest to make sure Jacob starts with a huge disadvantage.
There is no break of contract, surely, Jacob never stipulated which part of Laban's flock he would be managing.
But it is a very dirty trick.
Jacob in the meantime, who of course knows every trick in the shepherding book involves in his own bit of veterinary science and genetic manipulation. He feeds the animals willow wood, almond tree branches and sycamore wood.
He peels them, scores them, fiddles around with them and more speckled, mottled and coloured animals are born then ever before. On top of that he only feeds his magic mix to the stronger and healthier animals when they are ready to mate.
And so we have Laban getting his just desert and Jacob's sheep and goats multiplying like mad. Now Jacob can sit back and relax, praise the Lord and thank Him for everything he has accumulated through hard work, creative thinking and plain cunning.
Isn't that how the world works? A little bit of creativity, a little bit of manipulation, using science and practical insight where necessary to multiply our gain. Isn't that what is happening now, even more than in Jacob's time?
There is a large part of our world where people work without being paid what is their due, accumulating riches for others but living in abject poverty themselves. Science is used, for a large part, to serve economical gain, genetic manipulation, optimising harvests by spraying, feeding, tweaking what nature has provided. Our world wouldn't be able to work without it! Like Laban's sons we get jealous all too easily of anyone who seems to be taking away from what we consider to be ours? Even when they contributed to the growth of our wealth in the first place?
But let us leave the trickiness of international issues for a bit and concentrate on things that are closer to home: Aren't we all involved in trying to make a living and accumulate some wealth if we can? How many of us will go through that process completely untainted? Working hard and earning a living things are just not always black and white and invariably we will get involved in some of the greyer areas of business morals and job ethics. And there is nothing wrong with that. It's how life is. But sometimes, just sometimes there are some aspects to it that aren't.
The sons of Laban are well aware Jacob is doing a lot more than just wait for the lambs to be born and trust the Lord will look after him. His dealings incite envy and hatred in them and it gets so bad that Jacob needs to move away. Jacob has fled before, and always because his dealings weren't quite straight. His dirty dealings come back to haunt him, and will come back to haunt anybody in the end. There is nothing wrong with working hard and making the most of opportunities, nothing wrong with standing up for yourself and making a living, but it is where inventiveness and creativity are taken just that little bit too far where problems evolve.
The story shows that in real life nature, fate, our hard work are all involved in God's blessing coming true. And that nothing is ever entirely straightforward and clean where we work and try to build ourselves a life. At the same time it shows that it is God who blesses and God who needs to be trusted that things will work out. It is where Jacob takes things in his own two hands and abandons God's laws of righteous and just dealings where he gets into trouble. That is something Jacob has to learn. Not the what he did to the food so confesses Jacob later in the story, but God is the one who has endowed him with wealth, women and children.
A paradox that is part of every human life where work is done and wealth is gained. On the one hand it is us, working hard and trying to be clever about opportunities and possibilities to make life better for ourselves and our families, on the other hand there is God and the trust that he will bless us while we maintain our standards of Kingdom living.
Should Jacob have waited for God and not fiddled with his twigs? I don't think so. Could he have gone about things differently? Yes, he could have. He hasn't done anything illegal, he's only used the skills he had, put some twigs in a feeding trough, separated weaker from stronger animals. But he feels uncomfortable enough to feel he has to flee and that indicates he has somehow, somewhere crossed the boundary.
And I believe we probably all know the feeling. Of organising God's blessing while we are waiting for it. While we are doing that the question is how conscientious we are. What are our priorities? How far are we prepared to stretch the rules to our advantage? Whatever business you are in, or even if you are not in business at all, we all make decisions that involve ethics, values, and the following of the letter of the law. Where do our principles not give and where are prepared to water them down a bit for conveniences sake or to move just that little bit further up the ladder of profit and personal gain?
All too often we are like Jacob, keen to use our skills and knowledge for what serves us. And most of us will, at one time or other, get speckled and spotted in the process.
In the story Jacob is not judged for that even where he has to bear the consequences of his dealings. What the story is about is how being blessed and chosen work out in Jacob's, or anybodies life, how God journeys with people in a world where there is more grey than black and white, where people survive with their skills, their creativity and their inventiveness. Of course, the increase in material wealth is an outward sign that God is with Jacob. An increase that is contagious: Laban is blessed because Jacob is blessed. But the material is not the most important part, it is only a sign of something that is far bigger and more profound. Material wealth is never the aim of God's being with someone, it is always a means to something else. In this story and many other stories in scripture being blessed and growing wealth has everything to do with learning about the purpose of God's grace, about the whereto of his giving.
Jacob learns what it means to be blessed and chosen through trial and error. He discovers it is not about getting rich or gaining power. He finds that in the end he has little control over the how and where of the blessings he receives and how they will influence his life. Jacob discovers that when he tries to appropriate the blessing, or tries to get to what God has promised quicker by his own doubtful means and deceitful ways, trouble ensues: he has to flee, he looses out, time and time again until he has learned to just to receive and surrender to the way God will provide for him. Jacob, on his journey with God discovers that he receives the blessing only to become a blessing and not just for his own gain.
That he is blessed to become a blessing.
We, people living in a situation of unprecedented wealth and freedom, who get properly paid for the work we do, who have fresh and healthy food available to us in abundance and a lot of other things we may need or not need for our survival, have also received the responsibility to become a blessing with what we are blessed with. Of course, we have, one could say, built that wealth with our own hands. Like Jacob manipulated with twigs and food, we have put a lot of work and inventiveness into what we now have at our disposal. But biblically speaking however that is not where being blessed stops.
From the biblical perspective it will only be a true blessing when what we have been blessed with becomes a blessing for others and for the world.