The Four J’s: Jacob the Trickster

This week on The Allender Center Podcast, Dr. Dan Allender continues “The Four J’s,” a series engaging the sweeping, chaotic, sometimes terrible and sometimes glorious stories of four characters in the Old Testament: Jacob, Joseph, Jeremiah, and Jonah. Dan visits the story of Jacob, a supplanter, deceiver, and manipulative trickster who is remembered as one of the central patriarchs of the people of God.

“It’s a story that is meant to create both intrigue and laughter.”

Dan traces Jacob’s story through early family dynamics with his parents and brother Esau, to marital negotiations with Laban (when one trickster meets another), to the climactic scene of Jacob wrestling God all through the night and demanding a blessing. “We’re talking about heartache upon heartache, deception upon deception, and complexity upon complexity—and this is a patriarch,” says Dan. “If there’s one core thing I want you to hear again and again through the process of considering Jacob’s life, it is that God seems to delight in using some of the most screwed up people for the very most significant roles of leadership.”

The ancient literary archetype of the trickster offers profound insight into the story of Jacob. Dan pulls from Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World to illuminate the ways that tricksters cross boundaries and upset societal norms to expose hidden truths and challenge the false polarities that divide our culture. A trickster is often a risk-taker, driven by desire, often forced to wander and live on the fringes of society in a way that exposes what might otherwise go unseen. “Another word for this is a prophet—that is somebody who exposes, who invites, who intrigues, whose storytelling and ways of being in the world simply disrupt our comprehension of how we normally live.”

The story of Jacob and the trickster archetype lead Dan into a conversation about rivalry, triangulation, favoritism, envy, conflict, and the dynamics that are at play in every family system. Dan also argues that the nature of the trickster illustrates part of the work of a good therapist, someone who bends structures of how we relate in order to step into hidden realms and name what often goes unsaid.

“What can we say about the nature of redemption by looking at the life of Jacob? Jesus tricks us. And the trickery is that his love inverts the very nature of what we expect. What we expect is judgment, and what we expect in redemption is something so full and complete that we don’t really continue to struggle with the same themes again and again and again until the very end of our lives. And yet redemption is so good, and another way of saying that is his love is so good, that when redemption is not complete, as it never is, somehow our story continues to be used for his utter goodness. Jacob is a character you need to engage for your own manipulative heart.”