Monday, December 28, 1998

Jacob swaps land for stew in shrewd deal

Biblical entrepreneur lives up to reputation


There has to be a world-beater of a title for a shrewd intellectual who is able to finesse his powerful older brother into selling him title to a priceless piece of real estate in exchange for a bowl of stew.

His name is Jacob, and on this holiday week we are about to bestow on him the title of Greatest Entrepreneur of the Old Testament.

The Bible - both the Old and New Testament - is rife with examples of the entrepreneurial spirit. Choosing the greatest examples of business acumen is a subjective exercise. Given that the Old Testament is the basis for three of the world's great religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - I spent a couple of hours recently in discussion with Rabbi Lee Lerner of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Shalom. Several worthy candidates came up in discussion. Of course, there was Moses, who negotiated the release of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

There was Solomon who convinced thousands of his subjects to participate in the building of his temple - one of the wonders of the world. In terms of the best sales person in the Old Testament, who can hold an apple to Eve, who persuaded Adam that he should trade eternal life for a bite of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Which just goes to show that the truism sex sells was just as relevant in those days as it is now.

Lerner's colleague, Prof. Jon Breslaw of Concordia University, credits Joseph, who was Jacob's favorite son, with being the world's first economist because he recognized the value of deficit financing.

As prime minister for Egypt's pharaoh, Joseph created a system whereby the state bought excess grain at low prices during the seven years of plenty. During the seven years of famine, the state sold the grain back to its citizens at a handsome profit to pay off the debt and to feed the treasury. But when all is said and done, Jacob is still the Bible's best example of entrepreneurial spirit. Even as he squirmed his way into the world through his mother's birth canal, Jacob showed signs of ambition - his tiny hand gripping the heel of his older twin, Esau, to make sure he didn't get too far ahead.

The Bible describes Esau as a "red" and "hairy" baby who would go on to become a man of the fields and a skillful hunter. You know - the type of rugged he-man you see in the beer commercial dragging his buddy to safety after a rafting accident. The Bible says that his dad, Isaac, "loved Esau because he ate of his game."

But it can truly be said that their mother, Rebecca, always liked Jacob best. He was the yin to Esau's yang - the fair-complexioned, erudite bookworm who spent his days in the tent reading and contemplating life. One shouldn't forget to mention that he was a whiz in the kitchen long before the Galloping Gourmet proved that real men know how to handle a mixmaster. The Bible doesn't specify where he culled his recipes. But that they were tasty, there can be no doubt.

Jacob, whose Hebrew name translates into "he supplants," must have known that one day his cooking skills would help him to do exactly that - replace his brother in the line of succession for what would become the land of Israel.

A famished Esau lumbers in from the fields to find that his domesticated brother, Jacob, has whipped up one of his mouth-watering stews.

"Let me eat some of that for I am famished," the Bible quotes him.

The wily Jacob sees his chance to move ahead of his brother in the line of succession for their father's properties. "First sell me your birthright," he says.

"Here I am about to die," replies Esau. "Of what use is a birthright to me?"

Esau sells his birthright. In return the Bible says that Jacob fed him bread and pottage of lentils. Without specifying the brew of choice, the Bible also says that Jacob gave Esau some spirits to drink - much like a modern-day sharpie might close a profitable deal with a Remy Martin.

But this fellow Jacob wasn't finished whittling his brother's position. Like any red-blooded businessman, he wasn't about to leave the job half finished. He didn't want to be just the legal heir. Jacob also wanted to receive the ceremonial blessing of his father, Isaac.

As Isaac's vision grew dimmer and he felt the fetid air of death tinging his nostrils, he called Esau to his bedside and bade him to hunt some game and prepare food for him to eat so that he might bless his eldest son before he died.

Rebecca overhead the conversation and told Jacob that the opportunity had now presented itself for him to receive the blessing in his brother's stead. She prepared a meal of veal for her elderly husband and helped Jacob dress in Esau's clothes. She put animal skins on his hands and on his neck to simulate the hirsute Esau and sent him in to feed and give wine to his blind father.

"Who are you, my son?" asked Isaac when he heard a noise in his room.

"I am Esau, your first-born," replied Jacob.

"The voice is Jacob's, but these are the hands of Esau," said Isaac as he stroked the animal skins. When Jacob came near and kissed him, Isaac smelled Esau's garments on him and said: "See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed."

And, says the Bible, Isaac blessed Jacob saying: "May God give you the dew of the heaven, of the fatness of the earth and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, and blessed be those who bless you."

Jacob certainly possessed that entrepreneurial sixth sense of danger. He knew when to fold his hand and look for a new game. Shortly after he garnered his father's blessing under false pretenses, Esau threatened to kill his younger brother for his deception. Jacob fled from Beersheba in present-day Israel to the family of Laban, his mother's brother who lived in Haran, which is in present-day Syria.

Like all entrepreneurs, Jacob had fantastic visions and self-confidence. On his way to see Uncle Laban, he stopped at a desolate spot for the night, took a stone and put it under his head as a pillow. He dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven with angels travelling up and down.

He saw God hovering at the top of the ladder and heard him say: "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants, and you shall spread abroad to the west, east, north and south. By you shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and bring you back to this land."

When he reaches the house of his Uncle Laban, he falls in love with his uncle's youngest daughter, Rachel, and asks for her hand in marriage. Laban, a crafty negotiator, strikes a bargain, telling Jacob that he can marry Rachel if he tends his flocks for him for seven years.

Like all good entrepreneurs, Jacob knows that short term pain equals long term gain, so he agrees. But when the seven years are up and it is time for Laban to pay, he pulls a double-cross and gives Jacob the hand of his eldest daughter, Leah, instead of the beautiful Rachel.

Laban justifies his ruse by saying that it is local custom for the eldest daughter to be given in marriage before the youngest. But Jacob can take Rachel as his bride within one week if he will agree to work for Laban another seven years.

Once again, we are witness to Jacob's fabulous ability to turn a difficult situation in his favor. He agrees to tend Laban's flock but he is, in the words of Rabbi Lerner, "really ticked off." For the seven-year period, he puts aside the sturdiest and best colored sheep for himself and breeds a huge flock. It's what Rabbi Lerner calls tongue-in-cheek the first known case of genetic engineering.

By the time his second seven-year stint is up, Jacob is richer than Laban, he has both of Laban's daughters in his bed and one of them, Rachel, secretly steals her father's household idols when they leave her father's homestead to return to Canaan.

Like all great entrepreneurs, Jacob goes on to have lots more adventures, including a wrestling match with God in disguise as he crosses the river Jabbok on his way back to Canaan from Haran.

They wrestle all night, but Jacob can't be pinned. At dawn, the tide turns and the spirit says to Jacob, "Let me go for the day is breaking." But, once again, Jacob senses he can wring a concession out of the unknown stranger.

"I will not let you go unless you bless me," he says.

In response the stranger says:

"Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed."

And, like all wise entrepreneurs, Jacob conciliates with those who are closest to him. He sends gifts to his brother Esau, once again bringing his elder brother into the family fold.

In case, you have the impression that Jacob was all work and no play. you will be pleased to note that he fathered a total of 12 boys with four women – the sisters Rachel and Leah, as well as their respective maids, Bilhah and Zilpah.

The sons went on to be the progenitors of the tweleve tribes of Israel.

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.