Have you ever been betrayed by someone you love deeply? Have you ever felt like your heart has been ripped out and shredded by someone you trusted? That’s the bitter part of betrayal – it hurts exactly because we loved and trusted someone. If we didn’t love and trust people, we would never experience the pain of betrayal. But then again, we wouldn’t experience the joy of love and the comfort of trust. It’s a bitter-sweet, two-edged sword.
As we read through parts of the Torah it’s sometimes easy to forget we’re reading God’s word and not a tabloid. We’re on to the third patriarch this week and Vayetzei gives us a glimpse into the somewhat sordid life of Yaakov (Jacob). Having betrayed his father and brother, Yaakov flees to his uncle Laban for refuge. Instead of finding a safe haven, the betrayer is betrayed and Yaakov finds himself with two wives, Rachel and Leah, one of whom he didn’t even want! Yaakov however gets his revenge by fleeing from his uncle and escaping with his wealth. It’s a story that is worthy of a modern-day soap opera.
But behind the twisted events of Jacob’s life lies an important lesson about trust. It’s almost as if there are two parallel stories running through this week’s parasha – the story of betrayal and lack of trust of humans and the story of a faithful God. Perhaps the reason why Jacob’s sordid life is paraded in front of us is to show us something deeper. Maybe this isn’t a second-rate soap opera after all…
It’s more exciting when you don’t know which way the story will turn.
I don’t watch films very often, but when I do I like plots that are unpredictable. It’s more exciting when you don’t know which way the story will turn. As Yaakov leaves his family and sets out on his journey, it’s easy to think that God has abandoned him. And let’s be honest, why not? Jacob had cheated and betrayed his father and brother and deserved to be disowned by God. But no, instead we find that God actually pitches up and gives Yaakov a vision of himself and of heaven! More than that, God takes this traitor and makes him an incredible promise, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you will go and bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:15). Furthermore, we learn that God is with Yaakov during his time of exile and hears the prayers of his wives. Despite Yaakov’s treachery, God tells him the right time to return to his family (31:3) and then even appears to Laban to ensure Yaakov’s safety as his uncle entertains murderous thoughts (31:29). Our parasha finishes just as it started with God appearing to Yaakov to let him know he’s on the right track (32:1-2).
Yaakov’s story begs the question: Why was God so good to such a scumbag? Why did God reward Yaakov’s treachery with faithfulness? His story flies in the face of what we all tend to commonly believe about God (if we believe in a God at all) – He rewards ‘good people’ and punishes ‘bad people’. Well, perhaps not. Perhaps it’s more complicated than that.
The story of Yaakov is actually the story of all of us.
The story of Yaakov is actually the story of all of us. Whether we like it or not and whether we would admit it or not, there’s a little bit of that scumbag Yaakov in all of us. Perhaps we haven’t cheated or stolen, but we’ve surely hurt someone, offended someone, even betrayed someone. Perhaps we’ve done a lot worse, like my Israeli friend who was involved in drugs and crime and ended up in an Israeli jail. Whatever we’ve done, the amazing thing is that God is not interested in throwing us away, just like He didn’t throw Yaakov away. And just like He constantly sought after Yaakov and watched over him, God has done and does the same for us. In fact, God loves us so much that He sent His Son, the Messiah Yeshua, to pay the price for all of the scumbag things we’ve done and to die on our behalf. To put it another way, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, the Messiah died for us” (Romans 5:8).
It’s easy to come to the wrong conclusion, as I believe Yaakov did at the end of our parasha. As we reach the end of Vayetzei, it’s clear that while Yaakov recognises God’s helping hand he is still relying on his own tricks to get him through, seemingly taking God’s incredible love and patience for granted. In next week’s parasha, God finally gets through to Yaakov by breaking him – literally. God had to bring Yaakov into a position where he was so weak that he had to acknowledge his need of a God who had been the one helping him all along. God loved Yaakov so much that as well as watching over him the whole time, he changed him to rely on him and leave behind his scumbag ways. And God deals that same way with us – the Messiah’s death and resurrection was designed to make us realise that we, like Yaakov, are scumbags who need some outside help. We need some help that will change us, just like Yaakov was changed, no matter what it costs.
I wonder what picture of God you have. Perhaps you feel that He’s far away and disinterested; perhaps you feel that He has a rather strong dislike for you. Maybe you feel that you’ve totally failed life and that He’d never accept you because you’ve been such a scumbag. Whatever you think, here’s the bottom line: there is Good News – God is willing to take us no matter what state we’re in. The Messiah has died for us; God’s just waiting for us to acknowledge our need for Him and to ask Him to forgive us. But He loves us much more than to leave us in our scumbag state. When we put our trust in the Messiah, God changes our hearts to listen to Him and to want to follow Him. God doesn’t differentiate between ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people, because we are all fundamentally bad people! In the words of Isaiah the Prophet, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Isaiah 64:6, emphasis added). Ouch!
We can’t have the good news without the bad news. The message of the Messiah is a message for scumbags. Regardless of whether you’ve been betrayed or have betrayed, God is waiting to forgive you and give you a new life. It’s the ultimate second chance that we all need. Why would we say no?
Betrayed (How to Recognise a Scumbag)