Thursday, May 17, 2012


The Biblical story of Jacob and Esau---like so many other Bible stories---contains some wonderful 'advice' on how we can overcome problems and difficulties and realise our true potential. What a shame that so many Christians fail to understand that these stories were never meant to be taken literally---or only literally. Most of the stories in the Bible have an 'inner', metaphysical meaning.

The Bible says that the struggle between Jacob and Esau began right from their conception and birth:

Now Isaac pleaded with the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his plea, and Rebekah his wife conceived. But the children struggled together within her; and she said, ‘If all is well, why am I like this?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her: ‘Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.’ So when her days were fulfilled for her to give birth, indeed there were twins in her womb. And the first came out red. He was like a hairy garment all over; so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out, and his hand took hold of Esau’s heel; so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. (Gen 25:21-26 [NKJV])

Although fraternal twins, Jacob (the younger brother) and Esau were very different in appearance and personality. Esau (meaning ‘red’, ‘hairy’, ‘rough’, ‘shaggy’) was a ‘hairy man’ while Jacob was a ‘smooth-skinned man’ (Gen 27:11 [NKJV]). Jacob (meaning ‘one who takes by the heel’, ‘one who leaves behind’, ‘supplanter’), who God later renamed as Israel (meaning one who struggles with God’), was the second-born of the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah (see Gen 25:24-26), and the grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Jacob, who was a quiet and peaceful man, a ‘thinker,’ a shepherd, in stark contrast to his slightly older brother Esau, was born quickly after Esau, who was often irresponsible and foolhardy. We are told that his hand clutched his brother’s foot, meaning that the mind is meant to control the body, to exercise dominion over the physical (Esau).

Allegorically, and metaphysically, Jacob and Esau are the ‘twins’---or opposing ‘forces,’ ‘elements’ or ‘tendencies’---struggling within each one of us. Jacob [Hebrew ‘Yakub,’ name derived from the root ‘Yak’ or ‘One’, cf the monotheistic idea of the oneness of God or Life] represents our higher nature, our intellect, as well as book knowledge (as opposed to true ‘wisdom’), whereas Esau represents our physical nature, material power, materialistic thinking, that is, worldly things.

When 'Esau' is dominant in our life, the body, and the things of the body, prevail over the mind. However, when 'Jacob' is dominant in our life, the mind is dominant over the body, but there is still a long way to go as respects our inner development.  The mental or intellectual (‘Jacob’) must still become the spiritual (‘Israel’). That is why Jacob must depart on his (inner, spiritual) journey for Haran (which represents an exalted state of consciousness).

Esau foolishly sold his birthright to Jacob for a pottage of lentils (see Gen 25:29-34). The Esau part of us is only concerned with physical things---the body, lust, material possessions, and so forth. The physical side of us is depicted as a glutton, interested primarily in filling one’s stomach. Esau didn’t care about his birthright; he said it made no difference anyway, as he was about to die of hunger anyway. The symbolism is pretty clear. In addition, by means of a deceptive scheme set up by Rebekah, Jacob next managed to get Esau's blessing from the nearly-blind Isaac, then completing the transfer of the rights of the firstborn from Esau to Jacob (Gen 27:1-40). 

Esau's response was a plan to kill Jacob. That is the world’s typical response to any opposition or difficulty. That is the way of the gangster---and the ‘bankster.’ It is the way of the so-called ‘big end of town.’ Don’t mess with us, or we will fix you up ‘nice and proper.’ (I hear those words said---in various ways---quite often. I hear those words, or similar words, spoken by the 'biggies' in law firms, insurance companies, banks, and so forth. Yes, I really do.) The 'Esau consciousness'---so prevalent in our materialistic, consumeristic world today---knows only how to destroy that which threatens it.  That’s why we have endless wars and violence as well as many other social and economic problems (such as the 'Global Financial Crisis')---and also problems in our own personal lives. Yes, we---including me---act from an Esau consciousness more often than we care to think. Let’s not be self-righteous about all of this.

The Esau consciousness or mindset must be supplanted by the Jacob consciousness (that is, mental or intellectual dominion). However, the 'Jacob consciousness' is not the end-of-it. It will not bring us any lasting peace of mind. No, not at all. The Bible---indeed, all sacred scripture---depicts another, more exalted state of consciousness---namely, the 'Israel consciousness.' This state of mind or mindset is one of spiritual consciousness and spiritual dominion. What do I mean by that? By ‘spiritual’, I mean non-material, non-physical. I am speaking of wisdom as opposed to book knowledge---the wisdom that ‘knows’ that you are one with all other life, that you are life, and that you can never be less than life, the wisdom that ‘knows’ that you can overcome any problems and difficulties life presents provided you are prepared to be relieved of the bondage of self.

One of the most well-known stories of the Bible is Jacob's ‘stairway to heaven’ dream (also known as ‘Jacob's ladder’).  It occurred while Jacob was fleeing the wrath of Esau, his brother.  He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.  There above the ladder stood the Lord, who said, ‘I Am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac.’

Jacob’s ladder symbolises the Jacob mentality ascending step by step to an exalted spiritual consciousness, in which there is a conscious awareness of the Omnipresence and Allness of God---that is, that there is only life, and all life is one, divine, sacred and holy. You can call 'It' the 'Eternal Now,' if you like.

The Jacob mentality is still to become ‘Israel’ but it is well on its way. The great hymn, ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’, by Sarah Flower Adams---a Unitarian---was inspired by the story of Jacob’s ladder. Whether we know it or not, we are all seeking some kind of ladder to lead us to ‘God,’ whatever we understand ‘God’ to be. (May I suggest that you simply see ‘It’ as the ‘Other,’ as the ‘Power-not-oneself.’) Yes, no matter what our circumstances may be, no matter how many mistakes we’ve made in our lives, we can still ‘ascend’ Jacob’s ladder, with us at one end and God, as we understand God, at the 'top'---although I am not referering to higher and lower levels of reality. What is that ladder?  It is the thing we call meditation or prayer.

Perhaps the most mysterious incident in the Bible’s account of Jacob's life is the nightlong battle described in the closing verses of the 32nd chapter of Genesis.  Jacob is preparing for his encounter with Esau the next day.  We are told that ‘a man wrestled with him until dawn.’ Jacob is injured in the struggle, but is undefeated. At daybreak, Jacob's combatant pleads with him to let him go. Jacob says: ‘I will not let you until you bless me.’ The man accedes and confers upon him the name Israel, ‘because you have struggled with the divine and with men, and you have prevailed.’ (Israel---yisrael in the Hebrew---means ‘the one who prevails over the divine’).

Ultimately, when Jacob fully lets go and surrenders to the will of God---that is, accepts life on life’s own terms with the calm acceptance and knowledge that whatever is, is best---God (or the ‘Power-not-oneself’) takes over and Israel makes peace between Esau and Jacob.

Jacob becomes lame after his spiritual overcoming. He could never walk in earthly things with the same step again. So it is with each of us when we grow spiritually and move away from the earthly and material things of life. Yes, we will walk with a 'limp' of sorts---the proof that we have fought and overcome a mighty battle against the 'self' and all that would hold us in bondage and captivity. Yes, there is a 'price' to be paid for true freedom from the bondage of self and the silly but dangerous things of the world.

It was---and will be for each of us as well---a long and difficult struggle till dawn, but in the end we can indeed triumph over our lower selves, indeed over the very notion of ‘self’ itself.  The result---if we really want it, more than anything else? Well, for one thing, fear---even if it be present---will lose its grip and power over us, and we will come to know peace and serenity, and we will be able to accept life on its terms … and be happy! And, in the words of an old hymn, 'the things of earth will grow strangely dim.' Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Amen, brother!
    Nice analysis. You might also want to check out Ginsberg's "Legends of the Jews" on the sacredtexts website: It's a compilation of ancient Jewish stories & allegories that embellish the Biblical source text.


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