How the Ultimate Screw-up Got One of the Bible's Most Important Gigs

When you think "screw-up" in the context of the Bible, a whole slew of people probably come to mind.

There's king Saul, anointed of God, who disobeyed the LORD by keeping the plunder of Amalekites instead of destroying it, broke the law by offering sacrifice, and consulted with a medium.

There's Solomon who, despite a heaping amount of wisdom and vast wealth, turned from the LORD to foreign gods.

Moses, who took matters into his own hands by killing an Egyptian.

Adam and Eve, the original screw-ups, who ate from the one tree God forbade.

But perhaps the ultimate screw-up in all of scripture is none other than Jacob, son of Isaac.

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel (Rembrandt)

You know the stories. Beginning at birth he grabbed the heal of his twin brother on the way out of the womb earning him the name "supplanter". He later extorted his brother to gain the birthright, then tricked his near senile old man into giving him the blessing.

So naturally God chose him to be the father of His people.

Say what?

Call It Hubris

In third grade I declared that I wanted to be a writer and then like most kids do, promptly forgot about it. But around seventeen that desire returned in a ferocious way after reading The Sun Also Rises.

A few years later I had the privilege of taking a creative writing course with award-winning author Rilla Askew as my professor. She led us through an exploration of several genres including poetry, theatre, and short stories.

Call it naïveté or hubris, but I never doubted my abilities as a writer. I guess you could say I considered it my destiny—that I was born for this.

I think you know where this is headed.

We had a short story to write. Bring it to class Thursday with four copies to distribute to your assigned small group. They'll read it, and you read theirs. Make notes for peer review next Tuesday.

I spent a small amount of time contriving a, well, contrived plot with flat characters and a cliched melodramatic ending. Why should I have to work hard on it? I am a writer after all. 

The worst part is that I believed it was good. I printed off four copies, ready for my peers to praise me. "A word change here or there will do," they would say, "but otherwise it's perfect. Let's see if Rilla's agent can submit it somewhere. By they way, can I have your autograph?"

You already know this did not happen. But to their credit, my peer group—when they could have been harsh—were rather kind in telling me how shitty my story was.

I'm just glad that Rilla hadn't seen the first draft. Instead of her agent, she probably would have called her lawyer just to see if she had any grounds to sue me because of the poop I had flung her way.

Why Jacob?

I often wondered why God didn't choose Abraham or Isaac to be father to the twelve tribes. But I think I know the answer now: they were too good. Of course they made their share of mistakes. Of course they were sinful men like all men. But they weren't screw-ups like young Jacob.

God did not choose Abraham (or Isaac) because then we might think, It is because of his goodness, his worthiness that God chose him. Instead God chose Jacob to show that His people did nothing to earn His favor. He did not choose them because of their worth, He chose them because of His worth.

In the same way God does not call us because we are worthy. Yes, he gives us talents and passions, but He is still the source.

Unfounded Confidence

There were a lot of reasons my story fell flat. I was prideful. I thought it would be easy, so I didn't put in the work.

But it was one of the best things that happened to me.

It made me realize that just because I felt called to write, that didn't mean it would be easy. Instead it is a burden that I carry. It shattered my (unfounded) confidence, but at the same time it made me realize that my calling was beyond me.

Cheater, Cheater
"Who is it?"
 Jacob said to his father, "I am Esau your firstborn."
 Genesis 27:18b-19

Jacob lied about his identity to steal his father's blessing. Then he fled (Gen. 27:42-43).

Over a decade later God called Jacob to return to the land of his father (Gen. 31:3), but Jacob knew he would have to face Esau again. Near the end of the journey his opponent appeared. But this was not Esau; it was an angel of God.

And Jacob wrestled with the angel all night. You might think that an angel (the NIV refers to him as just "a man") would easily overpower a human, but not this human. Jacob was a skilled fighter because he had been wrestling with his own demons for so long.

Finally the angel said:
"Let me go, for it is daybreak."
 But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
The man asked him, "What is your name?"
 Genesis 32:26-27a

Sound familiar?

This time though, he answered with he truth: "'Jacob,' he answered" (Gen. 32:27b).

The angel knew what his name was. He wanted to see if Abraham's grandson would admit to it.

It is here that I should mention that the name Jacob colloquially means "cheater" or "the one who deceives" (NIV footnote). It would be like naming your son "pants on fire", "leg-puller" or "pumpkin-eater" (I don't recommend that). But Jacob finally owns up to who he is and his checkered past. And you know what God does?

He immediately changes Jacob's name to Israel.

Jacob said, "I'm the one who pulls people's legs. I've been doing it since the day I was born." And God said, "No more."

We're All Screw-ups

God has this ability to see past what we are to what we can be.

He is calling each of us to something greater, but it requires that we admit that we are cheaters, crappy writers, sinners—that we are inadequate. Once we do that, God can change our identities to morph us into who He wants us to be.

We shouldn't be confused or sad that God chose Jacob instead of Abraham or Isaac; instead we should rejoice. If God can use a screw-up like Jacob to father the twelve tribes (through which came Judah, the forefather of Jesus), then He can definitely use you.

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