“A tradition is generally a truth”
Hey, know this verse? Jeremiah 29:11!
11 For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans forwelfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.
Every Christian loves this verse – mostly without context. I mean, think about it – not only does it say that God will take care of you no matter what happens, but that everything bad retains some purpose in the grand scheme. We see parts of the plan, but not the whole plan. Of course, God speaks to Jeremiah in the context of the Babylonian exile. God brought judgement upon Judah; the longsuffering Father had enough of his children and their continual disobedience. After all, Israel means “to struggle”, and so it was that they constantly struggled against their own good and well-being. Let us observe this context:
10 “For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans forwelfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’
Of course, Jeremiah hears such messages at a time when all hope appears lost. The exile seemed a major blow precisely because the kingdoms of Israel held for so long, even under the burden of sin. The northern kingdom’s destruction and exile in 721 AD did not change anything; Judah fell in 586, a shadow of its former self with a puppet king. The dream was dead – or so they thought. Yet, out of the blue, the conquest of the Persians changed all that and brought new vitality to them. One tyrant gets felled by another – it is the way things go throughout history, and it probably won’t stop anytime soon.
Or, as I would call them, pretty big jerks. But God uses said jerks much as he uses even the righteous ones to fulfill his plans.
What do you know about Jacob, for example? Everyone praises the faith of Abraham, or the devotion of Noah, or any number of other figures, yet I find Jacob gets the short shrift. He’s the guy they named the nation after, for goodness sake! Why don’t we see him more in literature, sermons, and the like? My having read Genesis lately, I am beginning to see why: Jacob’s not a great guy. It’d be a stretch to call him a “saint” as people find themselves wont to do in these cases. I can provide you quite a few counter examples to giving Jacob/Israel a “saint” title, or “role-model of the year”:
1. Jacob deceives Esau, his own brother, into giving up his birthright (Gen. 25:19-34). Even if Esau’s a bit slow, being the firstborn gave you a clear advantage in antiquity – quite underhanded, I’d say.
2. Jacob steals the blessing of the firstborn from Esau near Isaac’s death (Genesis 27. To do this, Jacob tricks his own father, who is both blind and old, into blessing him. I guess we could call his mother, Rebekah, complicit in the deception, but Jacob’s not exactly setting himself apart here.
3. Jacob leaves to find himself a non-Hittite wife (intermarriage is always a big issue in the patriarchal narratives, just trust me on that one). His mother’s brother, Laban, tricks him into serving for seven years to get Rachel only to find himself with Leah instead (uh…how could you not tell the difference NSFW). Then he works another seven years for a second wife. After all this, Laban doesn’t let him leave, so Jacob sets up an elaborate plan to steal all his best livestock through a combination of painting and divination/magic (seriously, see the end of chapter 30 if you don’t believe me) and then run away back home. So yes, an eye for an eye! Truly the model of God’s chosen people (please detect sarcasm here).
4. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by Shechem son of Hamor the Hittite. Jacob’s response? Not forgiveness. Jacob convinces all of the people of that tribe to circumcise themselves so that Shechem can marry Dinah. Jacob plays the fool (as if he didn’t know) and they all do something really stupid to themselves. Although the next part isn’t Jacob’s fault directly, Simeon and Levi (his sons) come through town killing all the Shechemites for violating their sister. I guess they learned something from their father.
5. Then he heaps love and encouragement beyond all reason onto one/two of his sons, specifically Joseph and Benjamin, at the expense of the other 10/11 sons he has. This causes the others to detest Joseph, sell him into slavery, and then cause that whole Joseph narrative to play out.
I think I’ve established that Jacob is a really big jerk, all things said. He lies, he cheats, and he steals – not that he cares. Yet, when we look through this whole narrative, God doesn’t much care about all the deception. It does NOT say that God approves of it (when Abraham/Isaac deceive people, God makes it clear he doesn’t like it), but it does say that God will make Jacob – subsequently called Israel – into a great nation. Why does God use such a person to fulfill his plan? What possible quality could let Jacob into the same realm as any of these other guys? He’s one of a kind, that’s for sure, and not always in a good way. Yet God just keeps him moving along? What’s going on here? That nation’s name, by definition, involves conflict and struggle, as Genesis 32 demonstrates:
24 Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
Like Abraham and Isaac before him, God continually says that He will bless him and his descendants, and the whole world will be blessed through the growth of the Israelites. Even though Jacob in no way represents an ideal or a paragon of virtue, God stills deigns to bless Jacob as the future of His chosen people AND the future of humanity in Jesus Christ. I mean, seriously, that’s pretty darn awesome. Jacob’s a pretty underhanded guy, but so are we all. We all struggle with God, whether by habit or by willful choice, yet God still sticks with us through it all.
I suppose that makes the Gospel narrative make all the more sense. The Bible makes it clear that God has a plan for us all – whether or not we want to obey, follow that plan, or do anything else, we will inevitably find ourselves doing it. Part of God’s salvation plan, apparently, involves putting the most unlikely (and unlikable) people in high places. God arranges the pieces; we merely see the movements. That’s pretty awesome, I think.
Jeremiah 29:11 rings true after all…