Good shrewd

My last post was a painful exercise in looking for positive, redemptive lessons from Jacob’s family’s deceit. On the positive side, a few biblical characters stand out. Let me briefly share the stories of four of my favorites as case studies.

Abigail

While tending the sheep of a wealthy man with huge flocks, a group of shepherds come upon a small army living off the land while hiding from King Saul. Even in a state of exile, constant vigilance and hunger,  David’s militia doesn’t take anything from Nabal’s flocks; instead, they provide protection. Innocent as doves. So it’s not unreasonable when David decides to approach Nabal to ask ask for help. Nabal weighs the politics and chooses to respond with insult rather than generosity. David is incensed, and his men strap on their weapons for vengeance.

Thankfully, this dead man walking has a shrewd wife who immediately recognizes the danger to her family. Abigail acts decisively, shows discernment and averts the danger through a mix of smooth talk, gifts and persuasive argument. She also picks her moment to inform her husband of the threat. The news of his close call causes Nabal’s heart to fail. In the end, God avenges David, who then pursues this amazing, newly-minted widow as his wife. (1 Samuel 25)

Daniel

When King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon sacks Jerusalem and carries off exiles, he sets aside a group of young men to become eunuchs—young men selected specifically for a handful of traits. Chief among them are a demonstration of wisdom, because they are intended to join the magi, astrologers and highly-educated men who advised the king.

Among this group, Daniel and his friends stand out. The first scene in the book of Daniel describes Daniel’s oblique approach to a challenge. Rather than fight Nebuchadnezzar on his instructions regarding diet, Daniel proposes a 10-day test for him and his friends. It turns out vegetables can be healthier for you than the king’s fattening foods. Who knew? Daniel’s discerning action causes him to rise to the top of the group and gives him enormous influence with an oppressing king. (Daniel 1)

Esther

The story of Esther opens with Queen Vashti losing a direct challenge to King Xerxes’ authority, as she attempts to protect her integrity. The Jewish exile, Esther, becomes queen and proves to be a shrewd student of Vashti’s mistake and the corporate culture. After establishing her place in the kingdom, Esther learns of a plot that will destroy her people and threaten her own life. Rather than reproduce Vashti’s error, Esther takes a sideways approach.

She patiently enacts a moves management plan over three days, appealing to the king’s love for a lavish feast, using Haman’s weaknesses to trap him and then springing the trap at just the right moment. In her moment of favor, she reveals her ethnic identity and closes with a big ask to save her people. (Esther 4-7)

Paul

Rick Lawrence says Saul was one of the shrewdly brutal characters in the New Testament, and God chose him for that quality. He’d studied under Gamaliel and was therefore a sharp mind and a lethal debater who became a fierce Pharisee enforcer. God sent him where Peter and the other apostles couldn’t and wouldn’t, as a messenger to the Gentiles.

In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul says he becomes all things to all people that he might win some. Some examples of how he applies shrewdness in these early days of the Church:

  • He preaches entirely different messages to Jews (Acts 13) and non-Jews (Acts 17). In the former, he shows his versatility with Moses and the prophets. In the latter, he draws from culture and quotes Greek poets.
  • When he’s arrested by the Romans in the temple, and a Jewish mob forms, he speaks to the people in Hebrew (Acts 22:2), calming the crowd.
  • Then he casually mentions his Roman citizenship once the Roman centurion stretches him out for a flogging (Acts 22:25), rendering the tribune paralyzed in indecision.
  • The next day, as he stands trial before the council of Pharisees and Sadducees, he pushes on the exact issue that will turn them on each other: “I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). The council dissolves in a great uproar.

Well, that was easier than sifting out positive lessons from evil examples! We’ll wrap this series up in my next post, drawing out some principles of shrewdness that might be most useful for a Christian leader in our context today.


Shrewd Series

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Studying shrewdness: Jacob’s legacy

Let’s continue our study of Jacob’s family line, recalling Jesus’ admonition that the people of the world are more shrewd in their context than we are. We should study and learn from their tactics, while not reproducing the motivations. In these two examples, the heart is certainly not admirable.

Episode 2b: Leah vs. Rachel

At the same time Jacob is the protagonist in the drama with Laban, he’s a secondary player in a battle of wits between two sisters who learned shrewdness from their father Laban (Gen 29:31-30:24). Placed in a competitive position by their father’s deceit, Leah and Rachel now play out an epic domestic battle over their husband’s love and attention, and the requirement their culture has placed on them to gain value by producing male children.

Redemptive lessons:

  1. Shrewd people recognize points of leverage. Leah and Rachel are brutal in their attacks on each other because they know each other so well. The same trait can work the other way as well. Rick Lawrence defined shrewdness as “expert application of the right force at the right time in the right place.” Expertise comes from familiarity, and these sisters certainly had that in spades.
  2. Shrewd people never stop with no. When God withholds the fruit of the womb from Rachel, she finds another way: offering her servant as a concubine. While Rachel’s act was selfish and rebellious, it’s not unfamiliar to Jacob, whose grandparents did the same thing (Gen 16). As I’ve said before, tenacity, resilience, creativity and resourcefulness are built into the megacompentency we recognize as shrewdness.
  3. Shrewd people are singleminded in their pursuit of a goal. They have clarity about what they want, and pursue it with passion. One reason many believers don’t practice the same art of shrewdness is that we don’t have a clear goal, and we’re not as committed to finding a way to get there as Leah and Rachel were.

Episode 3: Simeon and Levi vs. Shechem

The shrewdness gene goes completely out of control in this story from Genesis 34. Jacob, of all people, would curse his sons for their deception (Gen 49:5-7). While the clan camps outside the town of  Shechem, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by Prince Shechem. When the prince then asks to marry Dinah, the brothers agree, on the condition that all males in the city get circumcised. “While all of them were still in pain,” Simeon and Levi go into the city, kill all the males in the village, plunder their goods, wives and children, and rescue Dinah.

Is there anything redemptive we can apply from this brutal story?

  1. Shrewd people understand their adversary. Jacob’s sons recognize the lust and greed (Gen 34:23) of the people of Shechem and expertly pull those strings to convince them to do something radical: get every male circumcised. Like a good phone scam, they require a deposit in order to get all this wealth in return. We can also pay attention to the motivations of others. For instance, an innocently shrewd negotiator will match motivations of both parties so everyone wins.
  2. Shrewd people use empathy to advantage. Simeon and Levi attack at the point of greatest weakness and pain. How did Simeon and Levi understand the right moment? Through empathy; they were very familiar with the healing process of circumcision. We can also use study and personal empathy to find the right moment for action.
  3. Shrewd people find ways to lower defenses. Genesis 34:25 says Simeon and Levi also attack at the point of Shechem’s greatest sense of security. The dream of intermarriage and the resulting transfer of wealth slows down the men of Shechem. In this case, it was empty promises and deceit. But the same principle of finding the right moment and not pursuing a frontal attack can be applied innocently as well. Rather than try to convince someone of something when their resistance is highest, there are ways to lower their guard and win them over.

By the way, God can redeem curses and evil shrewdness. In Exodus 32, Levi’s descendants choose the Lord’s side even if it means opposing their brothers, and so Moses blesses them and sets them apart. In Numbers 3:12, God chooses the tribe to be his redemptive substitutes for the people of Israel, and makes them his priests.

So here’s the point: you can find redemptive lessons in any example of shrewdness, no matter how evil its application. It’s a matter of studying and flipping the story around. That was Jesus’ point. Where do you see shrewdness applied in your context? In your world? How can the story of Jacob and his extended family help you improve your skills at gleaning out the principles so you grow in shrewdness?


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Studying shrewdness: Where Jacob got it

The point of this series of blogs is that, while most people view shrewdness through a negative lens, it is a tactic that can be used for good or evil. Author of Shrewd, Rick Lawrence, describes it this way:

“Shrewdness is a weapons-grade relational tactic—a way of thinking and acting—that Jesus long ago urged His followers to use in their uprising against the powers and ‘spiritual forces of wickedness’ of this world. Shrewd people… first study how things work, and then leverage that knowledge to tip the balance in a favored direction. Shrewdness is the expert application of the right force at the right time in the right place.”  

As I emphasized in my last post, Jesus urged his followers to study the shrewd ‘people of this world’ to sharpen our skills, noting that shrewdness is more commonly practiced in the context of evil. For today, I want to start with some case studies from Scripture, and then we’ll move to examples from the world around us today.

Shrewdness is not a rare trait in the Bible. On the conniving side of the table, the clearest examples come in a streak of manipulation and deceit in Jacob’s family that runs from his mother Rebekah and her brother Laban through Jacob and his wives to his sons Simeon and Levi.

Episode 1: Jacob vs. Esau

Jacob is a twin who is born second but comes out of the womb trying to pull his brother back. So he earns the name “cheater.” Genesis 25 and 27 paints a picture of a young man who takes advantage of weakness in his brother—to steal Esau’s birthright—and naïveté in his father—to steal Esau’s blessing. But, lest we give Jacob too much credit, it’s his mother Rebekah spying on her husband, drawing her favorite son into the scheme and then planning and implementing the deception.

What positive lessons can we learn from this outright deceit?

  1. Value is in the eye of the beholder. A shrewd person understands value comes not from what we think something is worth, but what it’s worth to the prospective customer.
  2. Strategy involves managing tradeoffs. Michael Porter at Harvard Business School says that strategy is about trading one thing for another. If there is no trade off, there is no strategy. And if there is no need for a trade-off, there is no need for a strategy.
  3. The heart is an important motivator, even creating blind spots. A strong vision and a cause can be sufficient to overcome pain points, or even mental objections. Chip Heath and Dan Heath wrote in Switch that the heart is like an elephant, and the mind like the rider on top of the elephant. It’s important to engage the heart, because it has the power to override the will of the mind.

Episode 2: Jacob vs. Laban

So, deception runs in the family, but we find out just how broadly when Jacob flees to his uncle Laban’s house (Gen 28-31). It’s like Jacob is looking in a mirror at someone with the same traits, but wielded with far more skill. Jacob realizes the stakes when he wakes up the morning after his wedding and discovers he’s married the wrong daughter. Earning his true love will require Jacob to indenture himself again. While the first seven years had passed quickly because Jacob had a dream to anticipate, the second seven are all out battle with his crafty father-in-law. Then he agrees to a deal for another handful of years to provide for his own household. It’s a dangerous game, because Laban changes his wages ten times and tries to disadvantage Jacob at every turn. Jacob proves more than capable at building wealth in spite of the obstacles.

Lessons

  1. Shrewd people use every weapon at their disposal, even redeeming those others might question. There’s no indication that Jacob knew shepherding and breeding beforehand (Gen 25:27). I suspect he was a quick study of the latest science and theories (old wives tales?) about breeding, which he learned from the shrewdest person he knew, his uncle Laban.
  2. Shrewd people respect those who meet them on their terms. As Laban sees his own wealth trickling away and Jacob’s building (Gen 30:42-43), and then Jacob outsmarts him and sneaks away, Laban seeks a draw—he asks him to sign a covenant of equals. Lawrence says, “most shrewdly self-centered people have acclimated themselves to people who generally offer little resistance. Because of this, they’re soft—and that softness is exposed when they’re heartily engaged by someone who is innocently shrewd” (Shrewd, 160-161).
  3. God sees and uses the evils done to us. Jacob has a lot of tricks in his bag, but Genesis 31:4-12 says that God has seen what Laban has done to him, and has blessed Jacob’s maneuvers. It’s important to note that Jacob’s own character is challenged by Laban’s intense cunning. He begins to despise deceit and value honesty (Gen 30:33, 31:7, 31:38-42).

This is getting longer than I intended, so let’s pause there, and we’ll pick up in my next post with episodes 3 and 4 in Jacob’s family line.


Shrewd Series