Opening The Old Testament
What Goes Around: Reflections on Genesis 29:15-28
July 27, 2014
I know one should never say that awful cliché, "What goes around, comes around." After all, what that means is that you always get back what you hand out; I do something terrible to you, and eventually something terrible will happen to me. For those of us Bible readers, a lingering look at the book of Job teaches that sometimes the cliché is simply false: Job's assault (from God and his wretched friends) had nothing at all to do with anything that he did. Still, there remains a nasty sort of pleasure when those certain someones get their comeuppance. So, revenge fans, listen up: Jacob is about to get it in spades.
One small article about sweet revenge cannot begin to plumb the depths of our not-so-secret desire to see others (rarely ourselves!) "get what they deserve." How many TV shows and movies are based squarely on the joy of watching the "bad guys" get it in the neck? I admit that I just loved "The A-Team" growing up, as George Peppard and his brilliant crew week after week found oh-so-clever ways to fool and embarrass all sorts of filthy and slimy kinds of crooks, spies, and plain bad folks. Such a delight it was to witness them suddenly realize that their dastardly deeds had not succeeded, but instead had been the source of their own demise. I slept well, knowing again that evil simply did not go unpunished. And not just unpunished, but exposed and humiliated to boot.
The biblical Jacob has nothing on the A-Team when it comes to getting even. At least in today's story, the wily trickster meets his match in the old country of Haran in the person of his uncle, Laban, a name that is the Hebrew word for "white." So, let's call him Whitey. We already know that Jacob in Hebrew means "taker" or "supplanter," the one who grabbed onto his brother, Esau's, heel as they tumbled out of Rebekah's womb. So let's call him "Grabber." The meeting of Whitey and Grabber has an important context.
Grabber has high-tailed it out of the land of promise after he has bamboozled his doltish brother out of his firstborn birthright by trading it for a bowl of "red stuff," as Esau so foolishly names the soup (Gen. 25:29-34). Then, Jacob with the careful connivance of his mother Rebekah, tricks his dying blind father, Isaac (whose name means "laughter," though one imagines that there is precious little joy in the scene of this trickery), out of the patriarchal blessing, first given to Abram so long before (Gen. 12). Jacob disguises himself in the clothes of Esau and hands his old man the prepared game that he so dearly loves, cooked less than lovingly by his wife. The blind Isaac claims he has in fact been fooled by the ruse, though some commentators are less than certain that he has in reality been taken in. They say that he knows his ridiculous older son should not receive the blessing, but he cannot simply hand it to the younger; custom will not allow it. So, he feigns being tricked in order to give the blessing to the clever one, Grabber. Whichever is the truth in the story, Grabber now possesses both birthright and blessing as he runs for his life from the justifiable rage of his brother.
He heads for the home country of Haran whence Abram left so many moons before at the call of the mysterious YHWH. Upon arrival there, he saw a well in a field surrounded by three flocks of sheep (Gen. 29:2). No watering of any sheep could occur until all the flocks were gathered; the way to share the water equally among all the shepherds was assured by the enormous size of the stone that blocked the mouth of the well. It took several strong shepherds to move the stone to allow the watering to commence. When a sufficient number of shepherds and flocks showed up, the men could move the stone to begin the watering, and when the watering had ended, the huge stone was replaced over the mouth of the well (Gen. 29:3-4). Apparently, this system had served the eastern shepherds well for many years.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.