Unfortunately, Bailey's discussion of the links between the prodigal son story and the narratives of Jacob and Esau is vitiated (great word I learned from Calvin) by his misinterpretation of both Jacob and Rebekah. Jacob breaks faith with his father, as the prodigal did (according to Bailey), and Rebekah is not a great woman because she deceived her husband. I think both of these are exactly wrong.
It seems rather that Jesus is playing off the Jacob-Esau story but reversing nearly everything: Where Isaac is an unfaithful and selfish father, the parabolic father is self-effacing and generous; where Isaac was married to a righteous and courageous woman, the father in the parable is both father and mother to his sons; where Jacob is a righteous and perfect man, the prodigal is wicked, wanting to flee from a friendly father, without any threat from an elder brother; where Jacob prospers in exile, the prodigal is reduced to nothing; where Esau welcomes Jacob at his return, the prodigal's brother rejects him.
The reversal is so pervasive, however, that it has to be deliberate. Jesus is telling the story not of Jacob the man but Jacob the nation, and showing that at point after point Israel has not followed in the step of Israel. JESUS, not Israel, is the one who is playing the role of Jacob correctly - he's got the accent, the mannerisms; he's a supplanter and a trickster and a faithful man who is building his flocks. The best the Pharisees can hope for is to play the role of Esau, and be reconciled with the brother after long hostility, but they aren't even doing that role properly. They prefer the role of the earlier Esau, seeking to murder Jesus/Jacob.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Monday, January 12, 2004 at 02:04 PM
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