As I have been working through Genesis in Hebrew, I have been engaging in a thought-experiment: what if we read this text as a prequel to the Exodus story? I know that it is not literally a prequel in the sense of a text that was conceived as a sequel filling in the backstory of Exodus — clearly many of the stories originate from earlier periods, and the canonical Book of Exodus itself “already” refers to the events of Genesis in some detail (e.g., the role of Joseph in Egyptian history). Notwithstanding the fact that the overall text has been “smoothed over” in that way, I still think it is productive to read the way that the stories have been assembled and presented as a way of rereading (possibly unrelated) cultural legends as anticipating Exodus.
Whatever the sources of these stories, they have been shaped in such a way as to connect them very directly to Exodus, and more importantly, to answer some questions a reader of Exodus might have — for instance, what claim could the people of Israel possibly have over this foreign land God has given them? Some of the stories are clearly meant to establish some kind of claim for Abraham’s family in the land of Canaan. They dig wells, they buy burial plots, etc. Very early in the Abraham story, we even have him coming into conflict with Pharaoh when he pulls his enigmatic “she’s my sister, not my wife” routine, which makes Egypt into a kind of immemorial enemy of the Israelites. Toward the end of the book, we also have the story of Joseph, which directly accounts for why the Israelites were even in Egypt and also establishes that Joseph was responsible for Pharoah’s great wealth and power — making the later Pharaoh’s betrayal all the more sickening. (At the same time, as prequels often do, the Joseph story arguably “breaks” the Exodus narrative by making him the engineer of the slave regime in the first place.)
In between, we have the story of Jacob. It seems to be a very unflattering portrayal of the figure who would be Israel’s namesake and the father of the twelve tribes. He is dishonest and conniving, betraying his own brother twice over. Most troublingly, he seems to “steal” God’s blessing. What possible question could this story be trying to answer or clarify about the later story? What is this story trying to “retcon” in the biblical narrative?
I believe one possible answer is that Jacob is the only biblical figure who wants it. Everyone else receives God’s call and either submits immediately (Noah, Abraham) or else tries to weasel out of it (Moses). The people of Israel as a whole are basically forced into the covenant at gunpoint — certainly we are not dealing with a real negotiation. But at a crucial moment in the biblical narrative, right at the point where the nation of Israel proper is about to be born, we finally get a character who fights for the blessing, who is willing to do anything to get it. Yes, he is immoral, but the biblical author has already established with the Sacrifice of Isaac that being willing to violate morality in the service of the LORD is no vice. By contrast, his brother is willing to trade that birthright for a hot meal, and his father — already established as a passive victim of his father’s faithfulness — does not seem to care one way or another what happens to the blessing that was imposed upon him.
In Jacob, we have a unique figure who is not blindly obedient and does not take the covenant for granted. His story opens up a space of human agency in a story that otherwise seems fully predestined. His story tells us, unambiguously, that yes, Israel does want, even demand the blessing of the LORD. In this way, the Jacob story pulls off the greatest achievement available in the prequel format: giving us a very unexpected plot development that nonetheless snaps everything into place.