Why does John include this theme about Jacob in this part of his Gospel (John 1:43-51).
It has been observed throughout church history that the conversation between Jesus and Nathanael is full of references to Jacob. Firstly, we have Jesus initial “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (a reference to Jacob’s two names and their meanings). Secondly there is Jesus’ more obvious reference to Jacob’s ladder, in relation to himself. (Gen. 28)
Theories abound as to why Jesus links Nathanael to Jacob, possibly in his name, in his character or what he had been doing under the fig tree. Whatever it was, Jesus uses this observation about Nathanael’s “Jacobness” to move the subject onto his own identity. Jesus is the one who, as Philip remarks “Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote.”(vs 45) He is the true Jacob upon whom the angels will ascend and descend.
Why then is this passage here? The clue lies in the timing of Jacob’s vision of a ladder and Jacob situation at the time. Jacob had travelled from his father’s house (Gen 28:1-2), to a far country to find a bride, after which he would return to his father’s house. (Gen 28:21) Now we are starting to sound a little more Johannine.
Of course, the immediate denouement of this revelation is the wedding at Cana. Here we have a hermeneutical spiral that reinforces John’s emphasis on Jacob in the preceding verses. The “days” of John’s first chapter point us to the feast of Pentecost (Shavuot) in which the giving of the law to Israel at Sinai and the revealing of God’s glory is celebrated. The Jewish culture at the time celebrated Shavuot on the third day after 4 days of preparation, exactly as John’s pattern describes in this first chapter. We see the theme of Shavuot picked up in the wedding at Cana. Shavuot is described in the Talmud as the “wedding day” between God and the Jewish people. God is the bridegroom and the people are the bride while the law represents the marriage contract. So, when Jesus turns 6 stone jars of water (representing the law) into wine (representing the new covenant),and in doing so fulfils the bridegroom’s obligation, he is pointing to his divine identity, he reveals his own glory, (John 2:11), and at the same time points to himself as the one in whom the law is fulfilled and made more perfect as contract between God and His Bride. This follow’s John’s ongoing theme of affirming the goodness of the old while pointing to the superiority of the new (“you have saved the best wine till now.”)
The initiation of a Jacob fulfilment theme in chapter 1 opens up some further possibilities for exploration. Was it John’s intention to hint at the relationship between Jacob’s two wives? “Weak-eyed” Leah (Gen 29:17) may represent John’s “the Jews”, or even the whole people of Israel, of whom only some recognised Jesus. While Rachel may represent the bride that Jacob truly desired and thus the Church. This would certainly agree with the apparent purpose of the Gospel as a whole. Furthermore, some of the Jacob motifs are picked up later in the following 2 chapters. Firstly, the bride and bridegroom are explicitly discussed in John’s speech in Chapter 3 while the “Father’s house” comes in later in the Gospel (Ch. 14). However, more intriguingly, Jacob’s meeting with Rachel at the well in Padan Arram is mirrored in detail when Jesus’ meets the Samaritan woman at the well. She of course explicitly asks him “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” This is the last explicit mention of Jacob in the Gospel and may be indicative of a thematic or narrative unit running from Chapter 1 through to 4.