Even though most of his friends denied he ever said it, history credits P.T. Barnum for the line, “There’s a sucker born every minute,”. Here’s something he did say about the great masses who came to see his circus shows: “People like to be humbugged when, as in my case, there’s no humbuggery except that which consists in throwing up sky-rockets and issuing flaming bills and advertisements to attract public attention to shows which all acknowledge are always clean, moral, instructive, elevating, and give back to their patrons in every case several times their money’s worth.”
Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b;
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Romans 8:26-39
We’ve walked with Jacob these past few weeks and so far he’s had the look of a trickster. Now the tables have been turned giving him now the feel of a sucker in this story. Bill Moyers claims this story reads more like a Greek tragedy or a television soap opera because this is a story about the trickster finally meeting his match! Recognize a deal is struck in the story and seven years of work are patiently offered in good faith; then imagine Jacob’s embarrassment in waking up on the first morning of his honeymoon and discovering the woman next to you was not Rachel, but her older sister Leah!
Hard to believe? You’ve seen those Middle Eastern veils … the Bible tells us Leah’s beauty was her eyes. Uncle Laban gave Jacob the trickster (his future son-in-law) a healthy dose of Middle Eastern “bait and switch” at the altar. It was one old trickster playing the younger.
Maybe by citing Leah’s one beautiful trait was the Bible’s delicate way of suggesting she was plain or simply ordinary in contrast to her sister’s striking beauty. Middle Eastern women are admittedly very beautiful and the veil showcases the allure of those beautiful almond eyes.
By living the trickster life, walking through life as though he could walk between the raindrops, his needs were simple. He wanted nothing more than to marry Rachel, the love of his life. This is a complicated, ironic story driven by the Middle Eastern rule of primogeniture, the rule of the firstborns.
But let’s not miss the fact that Jacob was the product of his upbringing. He was a trickster and wasn’t afraid to bend the rules in his favor. Jacob had learned the lifestyle of lies and deceit from his dear mother. She wanted him to be the one who would carry the name and blessing of God into the future and she conspired with her fair-haired boy how he could trick both his older, dim-witted brother and her dim-sighted husband out of what should have been Esau’s birthright.
While Rebekah loved and preferred Jacob, Isaac’s favorite was Esau, the rightful heir. The Bible speaks plainly of the parents’ preference of one son over the other in the literary style of novelist John Irving, “Isaac loved Esau … but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28, NRSV). Scripted into their childhood was a parental battle over which of the sons would be the best and the brightest and who would receive the favored blessing of God.
Already we see the signs that Jacob was changing … he was now a man working to escape his past trying to change his way of life. Jacob had always been the fast-thinking one who could turn things in his favor. Love was drawing him to a new life and something in him had shifted. A lifelong con has a hard time changing old habits. Despite the revelation he received in the dream from last week’s sermon, Jacob wasn’t yet fully reformed. But in this stage of his journey, the young con met up with an older craftier con. The trap was soon set and Laban set in motion 14 years of Jacob’s committed labor in order to marry Rachel, Jacob’s true love.
All of us know there’s a terrible price to be paid when one wants to reform his or her life. What Jacob demonstrated in all this was his willingness to make an intentional break from his past. Once a con, now Jacob was doing the hard work of letting go of all that he had known as a young man. After being humbled by his uncle’s trick to save his oldest daughter’s pride, he submitted himself to this conniving uncle, and labored for another seven years; Jacob demonstrated how utterly serious he was as he suffered his pain quietly and went back to work so Rachel, his beloved, could be his.
What was happening was he was trying to outgrow the manipulative young man he had been in order to grow fully into his manhood. We’ve been hard on Jacob the last few weeks. It’s this story that sheds light on the larger story of Jacob’s life. Jacob was now changing and trying to become a man of substance. How hard is it to shed the reputation we’ve carved out in our past? Can people grow? Can they choose a new life?
In the harsh lessons of life, Jacob was learning that God’s grace was something he couldn’t manipulate or control. It was something that came to him freely like the air he breathed. He had pulled no strings to get it. God gave it freely to him like the dream itself. What Jacob was discovering was that God was at work trying to bless him into goodness.
C.S. Lewis, in his last published book, The Four Loves, distinguishes between “need love” and “gift love.” “Need-love” is born of emptiness and is always trying to suck substitutes in to fill that which is missing. “Gift love” is born of abundance and is like an artisan well, the more you draw from it, the more it has to give. The story of Jacob is the story of one man trying to make the shift from one kind of love to another.
The trickster had pulled his last trick and God was penetrating all his defenses. What Jacob was learning was that God didn’t need him to manipulate the world so that God might bless the world. In fact, all those tricks, all the lying and cheating and deceitfulness were hindrances that God had to overcome before God could use Jacob to bless the world.
Some things are worth waiting for. In spite of all his faults, Jacob was admirable when it came to understanding gift love. He then knew what he wanted in life. “So, Jacob served 7 years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days, because of the love he had for her.” What he learned from the commitment of loving Rachel was that the best things in life come when one gives the deepest part of their soul to get it.
Remember the Gospel story told by Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his great joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44, NRSV).
Jacob came to the end of his devices and all that was left was the one thing he couldn’t gain by manipulation. That becomes a concern of ethics that teaches us, “How a thing is done is just as important as the thing itself.”
When you get your eye on that one great prize and you’re willing to pay anything for it, you discover God stands ready to bless you beyond your wildest ideas.
© Dr. Keith D. Herron, 2023
 From The Bridgeport Standard, October 2, 1885
 Bill Moyers, Genesis, A Living Conversation, New York: Doubleday, 1996, 249
 From “A Conversation with John Claypool,” Baptists Today, March 2002