Read Scripture Devotional: Week 2
Week 2: From Conniving to Dependent
Note: While we follow the Read Scripture reading plan and use the app this year as a church I’ll occasionally post reflections to help people along the way.
I grew up hearing the stories about Jacob but somehow it’s only as an adult that I realize how strange it is that this story is in our Bible.
When I was a kid I thought the story of Jacob taking advantage of his dumb brother to steal his birthright (with nothing but soup no less!) was funny (Gen 25:29-34). But now it seems really pretty terrible. I thought that Jacob tricking his very elderly Father into blessing him by disguising his voice and wearing goat skins all over was even more hilarious. But now it just seems even more evil and pathetic to con an old man who can’t see anymore.
It’s then a beautiful dramatic irony that he’s conned so completely by his father-in-law Laban. Not only does Laban take advantage of Jacob’s willingness to work (7 years?!) for his daughter in marriage, he marries him off to his other daughter, then takes advantage of him again for more labor (another 7 years?!), then after that doesn’t pay him fair wages. In a sense Jacob is only getting what he deserves.
But then what he gets from God is help and grace. God essentially gives him a strange formula for making his livestock multiply and Jacob uses it to grow more wealthy and to diminish the wealth of his father-in-law. Jacob himself says, “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side,surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed” (Gen 31:42). Jacob sees that God intervened and is the only reason for his prosperity. But rather than trusting God after receiving God’s help he instead reverts back to his tricks. He tries to deceive his father-in-law and escape, and he does but only narrowly.
Why is such a strange story in the Bible? How is that supposed to be devotionally encouraging?
One thing I love about the Bible is that it doesn’t sugar-coat life. Jacob is a lying, conniving, trickster. What he deserves (and gets) is to be swindled in return. And yet what he receives from God is help. Why would God help Jacob? The answer is simple: the covenant grace of God. God has made a promise to Abraham and repeated it to Isaac. The human beings keep failing at their half of the covenant but God does not fail at his half of the covenant.
The story of Abraham’s family in Genesis, then, is not primarily a heroic story about how wonderful this family is. It’s the opposite. It’s about a sinful family who keep failing but who keep being sustained and saved by God. And in this way we learn to see our own lives better. We are not the heroes of our stories. We fail and fall just like Abraham’s family. Instead, it is through our failures that we find ourselves dependent on the steadfast covenant grace of God.
This lesson is driven home powerfully in Genesis 32 when Jacob is caught between his angry father-in-law and his potentially angry brother on the other. His tricks are about to catch up with him once and for all. But that night God appears and Jacob wrestles with God. God even dislocates Jacob’s hip. Then [the figure] said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Gen 32:26). Some see this story as Jacob beating God into giving him a blessing. But in light of all Genesis that seems silly and impossible. Instead, the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible points out: “Jacob prevailed not by strength but by declaring his dependence upon the blessing of God (32:26)—a vital lesson in grace.” Finally, at this late point in his life, Jacob gets it. He sees that rather than relying on more of his tricks he must cling as tightly as possible (even at the expense of great pain) on God.
Whatever you’re going through this week you and I face a choice: Will we see our true dependence on God and cling tightly to him no matter what? Or will we rely on tricks or smarts or our own plans? It’s a choice between God-dependence and self-dependence. It’s a choice we must make every day.