God laughs at our plans?

by thebibleprof

OK, we continue in the “tithing” series, this time with the Patriarch Jacob in the book of Genesis. Jacob was a scoundrel, there is no question about that. Grandson of Abraham the “tither to Melchizedek” (see the last blogpost), he is the next person who is said to offer a tithe to God (see Genesis 28:20-22). But, quite unlike the generosity of his grandfather, Jacob couches his tithe offer in an “if-then” statement: “if God [Hebrew, ‘elohim, often a generic term for “God” or “the gods,” but here, as elsewhere, a reference to the Hebrew God “Yahweh”] will be with me, and protect me, and give me food and clothing, and bring me back home [to Canaan] safely, then I will erect a memorial pillar to him, and give him a tenth of everything he gives me.” (Spoiler alert: Yahweh does all that and more, as we soon shall see.)

Now, I immediately must digress. The name “Jacob” did not originally mean “heel-grabber” or “supplanter” (i.e., “scoundrel,” “deceiver,” or the like). It was a perfectly good west Semitic name (probably ya’kub-‘il or the like), meaning “may God protect (my heel).” Of course, in the Jacob-Esau narratives, Jacob grabs the “heel” [Hebrew, ‘aqeb] of his twin brother Esau when they were born (Gen 25:26; also see Esau’s bitter comments in 27:36), and he twice gets the better of his brother Esau later in life. But the biblical storytellers do not give negative names to their villains, just for our convenience! They rather enjoy wordplays, just as many of us do (for example, we would not give the name “Harry” to a baby covered with hair [that is, “hairy”], but we might enjoy the ironic echo that given name might elicit). So the name “Jacob,” a perfectly positive name originally, eventually gained an ironic overtone when this particular “Jacob” acted just like a “heel” in later life. (My favorite line from the original “Dear Abby” [a sharp-tongued advice columnist, back in the day]: “time heals all wounds, and wounds all heels.”) So, in conclusion: the patriarch Jacob (name originally meaning “may [God] protect my heel [i.e., backside]” or the like) now needs some serious protection, particularly from the rear—an angry Esau (see Gen 27:41) who has effectively chased Jacob out of the land God had promised to Abraham’s progeny, and back to Mesopotamia, Abraham’s original homeland. No wonder Jacob offers God a tithe of whatever wealth he eventually might obtain—this is a standard offer in the ancient Near East for gratitude for divine blessings (again, see the last blogpost for details).

Now, back to our story. Jacob is on his way to upper Mesopotamia, eventually to live with his uncle Laban, and Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel (Jacob eventually marries both of them—don’t ask—after being deceived by his dear uncle concerning their marriageability [see Gen 29:16-30]). Jacob does eventually become quite wealthy, after living in Laban’s land for some twenty years. He eventually has some twelve sons (yes, the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel), and at least one daughter, Dinah. Yes, God has indeed protected Jacob’s “rear.” (By the way, we never hear about Jacob actually paying his promised tithe to God, but the later prominence of the shrine at Bethel—the spot where Jacob gave his original offer—implies that he probably did.)

Now, some twenty years later, Jacob is again on the run, this time from his angry uncle Laban (see Genesis ch. 31). But this time, he is running back to Canaan—yes, the very location where his brother Esau lives! So Jacob, as resourceful as ever, divides his considerable family and property into two groups, sending both of them ahead to meet “Lord Esau” (32:4). Jacob stays behind. Surely his problems are ahead of him, not behind him! (Laban had been effectively placated back at the end of the preceding chapter.) But, ahem, Jacob will soon have a new problem to face: an unexpected attack from his rear (see the famous passage found in Gen 32:22-32). Some sort of angel (or God?) wrestles with Jacob throughout the night, with the wrestling match ending at dawn, apparently without a clear winner. Jacob hangs on and insists his unknown opponent give him a blessing (v. 26b). To make a short story even shorter, Jacob ends up with a name change (“Israel”—probably originally meaning “may El persist, persevere,” but here understandably interpreted as “may he (continue to) persevere with El” [see v. 28]). By the way, it is not until ch. 35 that we read that Jacob returns to Bethel where God again blesses him (vv. 9-13), and Jacob puts up a stone pillar in his honor (v. 14—maybe he paid his tithe at that point, too—the text is silent on that point, although an offering of wine and olive oil is mentioned).

A quick observation: when you promise a tithe to God, and then later become quite wealthy, pay the tithe, so that you do not end up in an unexpected wrestling match with a divine opponent. But that might still take place. Then, hang on. You never know!

More seriously, this is not the main conclusion I want to draw from the Jacob story. Like life in general, walking with God (and perhaps wrestling with him) can be quite unpredictable. For those who have read ahead in Genesis, do recall that Jacob ends up living in, of all places, the land of Egypt—in another “soap opera” of a story—and he eventually ends up even “blessing” Pharaoh (see Gen 47:1-12, and especially vv. 7-10). Jacob does however return to Canaan, the Promised Land, but as a mummy—an embalmed body—to be interred in the ancestral burial place of Abraham and his family (see Gen 50:1-13). God was faithful to his servant Jacob. Except, perhaps, for that one unscheduled wrestling match at a place Jacob later named “Peniel”—“face of God”  (“where I saw God face to face, and my life was spared,” Gen 32:30). And there was that deception about Jacob’s favorite son Joseph, which went on for years and years. . . .

God sometimes laughs at our plans. But God is also faithful to his promises.

And just to be safe: when you promise a tithe or offering to God, and you later come into wealth and prominence, make sure you make good on what you have promised! You never know.