On The Herculean Jacob

On The Herculean Jacob April 10, 2017

Jacob by 18 century icon painter (Iconostasis of Kizhi monastery, Russia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jacob by 18 century icon painter (Iconostasis of Kizhi monastery, Russia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Jacob had, before receiving his blessing from God, established himself superior in the world due to the labors he had gone through, from his struggle with his twin brother in the womb, to  the years of service to his father-in-law for the sake of his brides, to the conflict he would have to mediate between his wives, and finally, to the challenges he faced with Laban, he found himself in constant conflict in the world, until at last he had become victorious and was able to make peace with his family and in that peace find himself graced by God. Jacob was a man who had achieved greatness in his struggles, contending against the corruption of the world, seeking the glory which is found with God. He was elevated in return, making him a hero of the people of God, a man-god in the world. The people of Israel, following him, could at times be called gods, as God was to come into the world in their midst. “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment” (Ps. 82:1 RSV). God has chosen heroic Israel, Jacob, to be a central figure for the incarnation, and so the people of Israel were given special graces, so that they could share in the graces given to Jacob and be called gods with him. This was to reflect the way Israel would serve as the basis for God himself to be in the world, to take his place in the midst of the people of Israel, the gods graced by the God of Jacob:

Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.  O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah (Ps. 84:4-8 RSV).

Jacob , the strongman, represents the strength of grace given to Israel, to all those called to be of the Israel of God. The God of Jacob is the God who gives strength after strength, grace after grace, elevating those who receive his blessing to be gods among men, so that God truly is to the God of gods.

All who would be joined in with Christ, the seed of Israel, must follow the challenges of Israel. They must all be taken to the crossroads of life, where they will be shown two paths, one which leads to life eternal, and the other to perdition, as expressed in the Didache:

There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, your neighbour as yourself; and all things whatsoever you would should not occur to you, do not also do to another.[3]

The path of life is the path of love, and it is in following this path that grace is to be found.  In the power and authority of love is the power capable of transforming a lowly human sinner to a strong saint of God.  It is the irony that in humility and apparent weakness we find true strength and power, but that is the lesson of the cross, the lesson of Christ, who comes weak in the flesh so as to be strong with us and give us a blessing like he did with Jacob. If we wrestle with him in love, we will find ourselves touched by God, and the strength and power of God will come into us and lift us up as it did Jacob, making us great in God even if we are seen as weak and powerless in the world:

Be long-suffering and pitiful and guileless and gentle and good and always trembling at the words which you have heard. You shall not exalt yourself, nor give over-confidence to your soul. Your soul shall not be joined with lofty ones, but with just and lowly ones shall it have its intercourse. The workings that befall you receive as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass.[4]

The long-suffering Jacob, who endured years of struggle with his brother and then with his father-in-law, Laban, was able to find through the grace given to him at the end of those labors the happy, beatified life which he had long desired. He constantly did the bidding of others, overcoming any selfishness and greed of his part.  Because of his victory in his Herculean struggles, Jacob became Israel, the model of any who would seek to be elevated by God’s grace. Nonetheless, Jacob for his greatness, was still a man, and indeed, he still had imperfections, which is why he was suffer a blow in the thigh as a representation of the purging of sin that grace effected in him.

Jacob had thrown off the hydra of sin only by God’s grace. Nonetheless, he shows us God wants us to play our part. If Jacob had not willed to contend against sin and follow the path of righteousness, he would have taken the path of death, the path which none of us should want to take, and seen the many-headed beast multiply its heads as each sinful temptation leads to and encourages the next to be taken on and accepted, until at last, his soul would have been overwhelmed by the wickedness which can lead any person to perdition. Thus, the Didache also tells us of the road Jacob did not take, the road which we should also avoid, the path of death:

And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and full of curse: murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rapines, false witnessings, hypocrisies, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing requital, not pitying a poor man, not labouring for the afflicted, not knowing Him that made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him that is in want, afflicting him that is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.[5]

We, therefore, find ourselves daily at the crossroads. We must constantly choose, like Herculean Jacob, whether or not we will follow the path of virtue, struggle against sin and wrestle with God until we find ourselves victorious and receive deifying grace, or else, we will turn and follow the path of perdition, with each step, each sin, each vice making us that much closer to the second death. We must choose whether or not we will follow Jacob and become Israel, taken up by God through grace, strengthened by the virtue of love, capable of countless labors, feeding and cleansing the sheep of God by that same grace, or else if we will follow the path the giant of a man did not take, the path of vice, to the pit of despair which it leads. We must either open ourselves up to God, putting on the lion of Judah, or face the hound of hell, snapping at us, without the strength of grace needed to overcome it, and so find ourselves snapped in half in its jaws.  The choice is ours.  Let us hope and pray we choose wisely.


[1] St. Ambrose, “Jacob and the Happy Life” in St. Ambrose: Seven Exegetical Works. trans. Michael P. McHugh (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1972), 163-4.

[2] St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 58 on Genesis” in Homilies on Genesis 46-67, trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1992), 159.

[3] The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) in ANF(7): 377.

[4] Ibid., 378.

[5] Ibid., 379.


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