In All’s Well That Ends Well, William Shakespeare gives us the thought that “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”
Two centuries later, a French author by the name of Victor Hugo showed his readers that a legacy of honesty—without grace—can turn us into devils. In his 19th-century novel Les Misérables (i.e., The Miserable), Hugo tells the story of two men. One is a police inspector who would rather die than live in a world where a thief could go unpunished. The other is a thief by the name of Jean Valjean who, by receiving mercy, learns to give it to others.
Born Bad—Les Misérables’ redemptive answer for broken people has deep roots. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, gives us another example of a thief in need of mercy. While still a young man, Jacob, the future patriarch of Israel, lied to his father and impersonated his older brother in order to steal an inheritance that didn’t belong to him (Genesis 27).
An Undeserved Legacy—Yet, in spite of Jacob’s lack of honesty, he left a legacy that was far better than he deserved. Without explanation, the God of his fathers promised to take care of Jacob and to make him and his descendants a source of blessing to every family of the world (Genesis 28:12-15).
Along the way, Jacob admitted that he didn’t deserve such mercy. But he hadn’t yet found the limits of God’s kindness. Jacob saw God bend even lower. In the middle of a fear-filled night, he found himself wrapped in the arms of Divine humility, wrestling with God as if the Almighty were a mere man (Genesis 32:10, 24, 30).
Then Jacob experienced another mercy. As he clung to the mysterious wrestler, begging for a blessing, he was honored with a new name. For the rest of his life he would not be known only as a liar and thief but also as Israel, a man who struggled with God and lived to tell about it (Genesis 32:28-30).
The irony is that the God who changed Jacob’s name to Israel would continue to be known as the God of Jacob.
The God of Jacob—Twenty-five times the Bible refers to the God of Jacob. Many years after Jacob died, King David would write, “May the LORD answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you” (Psalm 20:1 NIV).
What was David thinking? Why would he link the name of God with a man who was born to be bad? Wouldn’t it have been more honoring to urge his readers to put their trust in the God of a better person?
Jacob, for example, had a son named Joseph who was a more honest man than his father. According to Genesis, Joseph remained true to his God even when betrayed by his older brothers; sold into Egyptian slavery; accused of wrongs he didn’t do; imprisoned; and forgotten. Joseph had so many reasons to be bitter, cynical, and vengeful. Yet he ended up being a hero not only to the Egyptian world of his day but also to the brothers who had once envied and hated him (Genesis 50:15-21).
There would, however, be a downside to thinking about the God of Joseph. Some of us might have a hard time identifying with him. Joseph was not only a better man than Jacob, he was probably a better person than us. Who among us would look at Joseph and say, “If God could forgive and bless Joseph, I’m sure He could forgive and bless a person like me?”
A God for People Like Us—The father of Joseph was the kind of man who people like us might prefer to remember as Jacob rather than Israel. Consider, for instance, the Samaritan woman who, 2,000 years later, met a Jewish man by the name of Jesus at a place called “Jacob’s well” (John 4:5-25).
As a rule, Jewish people wanted nothing to do with “Samaritan sinners.” Yet instead of dismissively ignoring her, Jesus spoke respectfully to her, even entrusting her with the news that He was the long-awaited Messiah.
Interestingly, this Samaritan woman made it a point to let Jesus know that she was an outsider to the Jewish community (John 4:9). Yet she spoke warmly of “our father Jacob” (John 4:12). Maybe she valued not only the legacy of “Jacob’s well” but also that he was both blessed and broken. Jesus, after all, surprised her by showing that He knew, without being told, that she had been married five times and that the man she was then living with was not her husband (John 4:15-19).
Whatever the woman’s reason for identifying with Jacob, she ran back to the men of her village to tell them about meeting a man who had shown such kindness to her while knowing everything she had ever done (John 4:28-30).
Father in heaven, thank You for the legacy of a man who—like the Samaritan woman who called him father—helps us to see You as the kind of merciful, uplifting God that people like us desperately need.