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Genesis, Jacob, the Thieves of '08
By John R. Coats,
Author of Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis

"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." --Koheleth, Ecclesiastes (About 300 BCE)

Maybe not under his sun. Under ours, new arrives with ferocious velocity -- tomorrow's breakthroughs are yesterday's news. Exhilarating, sexy, dizzying, and maybe a moment here and there when it's all just a bit much, when a touch of solace is needed from things that don't change? If that's you, then take heart because under both his ancient sun and ours can be found the unchanging human technologies of deceit, corruption, small-mindedness, toxic sibling rivalry, dysfunctional families, infidelity, betrayal, and stupidity. Which, given his iPodless, iPhoneless, iPadless age, was more to his point, I think. But, see for yourself -- pick most any translation from the last sixty years and start reading the book of Genesis.

Jacob is an obvious example of this crossover.  Even if you've not touched a Bible since grade school, you'll recognize in his early character the same attitudes found in the "all about me" boy-men now so ubiquitous in modern American culture. In fact, I suggest you know him better than you might imagine, given the likelihood that, in the last few years, the current iterations of Jacob's early character have slipped a great deal of your money in their pockets.

His name, Ya 'akov, means "heel-holder," a reference to his tiny hand grasping his twin brother's heel as they slide from the womb. Which sounds really sweet until you get to know him, and that fantastic obsession with being first, and start to question whether the darling image is less about brotherly love and more about his trying to pull his brother back in. That name is pure irony, of course, and a little funny. I mean, this classic "I gotta be first" personality being given a moniker such that "Hey, Jacob" and "Hey, Second Place" are pretty much the same thing. It's a permanent second place, too, at least by the ancient tradition that the position of clan leader, along with the lion's share of wealth and power, went to the first-born son. And that was Esau, whose qualifications for the position, Jacob knew, were a joke. But, then, so were those traditions. In fact, from a certain point of view they were hardly more than suggestions -- not unlike, in our own time, the ethical responsibilities of securities traders and brokerage houses to their clients, and to the societies which give them leave to conduct their affairs.

The central event in the first part of Jacob's story is the theft of his brother's inheritance by way of defrauding of his father, Isaac. In broad outline, here's what happened: When the time came for Isaac to pass the blessing, Jacob connived to fool his father into thinking he was Esau. First, his mother, Rebekah, determined that he would get the blessing, told Jacob to slaughter two lambs so that she could get the jump on making the stew that Isaac had requested from Esau. But Jacob folds. Esau was "a man of the field," and hairy to the touch while Jacob, not so hairy, was "a man of the tent" -- think bronze-age metrosexual. Nor were their voices the same. Isaac was old and nearly blind, not stupid, and if he caught on, it would mean banishment, even death. Saying she'll take the blame, Rebekah dresses Jacob in Esau's best clothes, wraps his hands and neck with the lambskins, gives Jacob the stew, and pushes him into his father's tent. After a moment's hesitation, Isaac lays his hands on Jacob and says the words of the blessing. And that's that. Jacob is in, Esau is out. The future that was to have been Esau's evaporates. 

Periodic plundering by robber barons is an American tradition.  Measured by lives ruined and overall damage to the economy, however, the current gaggle has pretty much put its predecessors to shame. They and the generations of thieves before them knew what the young Jacob knew, that with brains, ambition, a plan for maximizing results while minimizing personal risk and, finally, being possessed of that certain amphibian sensibility that relieves one of giving a damn, one can get what one wants.

So, three thousand years later, "Is there anything of which one can say, 'Look! This is something new?'" Well, sure -- iPods, iPhones, iPads, heart transplants, nukes, computers computing at the speed of light, the internet. The other stuff, the human stuff, "It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time." 

© 2010 John R. Coats, author of Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis

Author Bio
John R. Coats holds his master's degrees from Virginia Theological Seminary and Bennington College Writing Seminars. A former Episcopal priest, he was a principal speaker and seminar leader for the More To Life training program in the United States, Great Britain, and South Africa and an independent management consultant. He lives with his wife in Houston, Texas.

For more information please visit and connect with him on Facebook.