Jacob: trickster or improviser? (September 18, 2022)

The Uniform Lesson for September 18, 2022.

Uniform Lesson for September 18, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Genesis 32:22-32

Malcolm Gladwell once wrote an essay about an unathletic basketball team from Silicon Valley that won the state championship. How? By “breaking the rules”; in this case, by running a full-court press all game long. Gladwell’s thesis is that underdogs win by subverting the rules and doing the unexpected. The title of the article was “How David Beats Goliath,” but it might just as well have been “How Jacob Beats Esau, Laban, and God”! This week’s story is a strange story that reminds me of lots of other strange stories — about Joseph and Jesus, about Ruth and Esther, and the Samaritan woman. These stories are about people who are chosen. They are also people with chutzpah. I’m wondering, what’s the connection between the two?

Jacob the trickster

Jacob is a rascal. He wheels and deals with his starving brother and his scheming uncle Laban. He deceives his own father to gain his blessing. He then runs away to a faraway country, only to sneak back in the dark, sending his wives and children and cattle ahead as buffer. Jacob’s a crook and a coward who, nevertheless, wins the blessing of his father, his uncle and his God (if that is indeed the identity of the unidentified opponent who wrestles with him by the banks of the Jabbok). Why would God choose a con artist like Jacob? Or is there some method in God’s madness?

This week, I’m wondering if this is a little of the chicken and the egg. God, as we have already seen, has a predilection for choosing the unchoose-able. A barren couple to populate the world. A shepherd boy to rule the nation. A peasant girl to give birth to the Messiah. And so, if such characters are to prevail, they must do so through a combination of trust and chutzpah. Right? If you’re the biggest and the best, you just crush everyone who gets in your way. But if you’re the littlest and the least, you have to trust and improvise — by running out to meet your opponent (David), by sleeping at the feet of your boss (Ruth), by teaching in parables, eating with the outcast, and dying on a cross (Jesus).

Yes, such heroes and heroines break some rules. But only to keep the most important rule — that is, using their blessing to bless others. While Jacob is still in the womb, God reveals that he will prevail (Genesis 25:23). But how does Jacob prevail? By scrapping and scraping and scheming every step of the way. Jacob is the grasper of the heel, the con artist. And the Scriptures seem to love him every step of the way. Is it because he’s chosen, or because he has chutzpah, or a little of both?

Jacob the striver

The Jacob we meet in Genesis 32 is still conniving. As stated, he sends everyone ahead of him as he stays behind. He sleeps on the far banks of the Jabbok to gain some protection from his brother. But, when it comes to the fight, it’s not Jacob who breaks the rules but his opponent: “when the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him” (v. 25). “Unfair!” we cry. The cheater has been cheated.

Or has he? Jacob, though wounded, now holds on — for life and for blessing. He will not let go, come hell or high water. And thus, he wins his final blessing, and a new name, Israel, which points to his striving (v. 28). Just as David prevailed against Goliath (by breaking the rules), and Jesus won out over the devil (by dying on the cross), so Jacob wins out with God by holding on when everything seems lost. God has a place for folks who hold on. Maybe because this God is a God who holds on to us — especially when the wounds open up, one’s legs get broken, and the price goes high.

The gift of improvisation

If God has a soft spot for scrappy fighters, then, perhaps, the church and the synagogue should follow suit. Not only should we welcome those whom the world overlooks and suspects, but we should be known as a community that holds on to God and one another when everyone else gives up. Yes, God chooses what is weak and foolish in the world to shame the powerful and the wise. Should not the church do the same? Or better, should not the church be the same?

For discussion:

What “tricksters” would you identify — in the church and in the world?

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