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

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