Near the end of Jacob’s life, we have a story that underscores the strange and counter-intuitive way in which God acts when he chooses who will serve him. In this account we see how Joseph brought his two sons to Jacob to be blessed, as was the custom, in much the same manner in which Isaac had passed on a blessing— supposedly—on Esau. This time however there was no deceit on the part of those being blessed, but Jacob was once again up to his old tricks. He had one last chance to make his mark as he made sure the blessing did not end up where culture and convention would dictate it should go. As he reached out his hands to bless his grandsons, he crossed his hands to place the primary blessing on the younger son (Genesis 48: 13-19). Even though Joseph complained, Jacob simply explained that he knew what he was doing (v. 19), doubtless because of his own history as the one who would be regarded as ‘lesser’ and yet ended up as the recipient of the blessing.
This principle is well established in the first book of the Bible and is reiterated and developed throughout the saga of the scriptures. It is as if God himself ‘crosses his hands’ when handing out his blessings so that the first are last and the last are first. As Peterson has it in his translation “This is the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first” (Matthew 19: 30). It seems so unfair—and that’s because it is. But all God’s blessings are un-earnable and unmanageable. If God is not merciful and gracious then we have no hope. The reason God ‘crosses his hands’ is to make a point.
As Paul explains in his letter to the Romans “God told Rebecca, “The firstborn of your twins will take second place.” Later that was turned into a stark epigram: “I loved Jacob; I hated Esau.” Is that grounds for complaining that God is unfair? Not so fast, please. God told Moses, “I’m in charge of mercy. I’m in charge of compassion.” Compassion doesn’t originate in our bleeding hearts or moral sweat, but in God’s mercy (Romans 9: 12-16 MSG). Mercy, after all, cannot be earned; and if it could, then it would no longer be mercy. Logically mercy can only be received by somebody who does not deserve it. God chooses people to represent him that are least qualified to do so.
Like a black velvet backdrop for a diamond necklace, the most unlikely people are the very people that God chooses to bring forward the message of grace. God wants to provide salvation for everyone, but he has specially chosen people the world overlooks as a way of best displaying the nature of grace. As Paul has it: “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God” (1 Corinthians 1: 26-31 MSG).
Grace is a wild and untameable thing. We can never control it, or acquire it, or do something to get it: it can only be received as a gift from God.