Loki, with all his grave unbalance, understood rulers as I know I never will… I’d rather be a good man than a great king.
-Thor, refusing the throne in Thor 2: The Dark World
…when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.
Lately I’ve been watching Hollywood’s rendition of Marvel’s Thor and the differences between Thor and Loki there bears a rather striking resemblance to the biblical rival brothers, Jacob and Esau. The dynamic reflects two kinds of livings, the means-ends approach of Loki-Jacob who knows how to coordinate (or manipulate) appearances to serve their ends and the virtue-strength of character approach of Thor-Esau who embodies the “warrior” or honour code.
The Jacob-Esau Distinction
Jacob and Esau in the biblical account are the twin brothers born to Rebecca and Isaac. The biblical account tells us that Esau was born before Jacob with Jacob grasping at Esau’s heel. The bible describes thus:
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Jacob is thus portrayed as a sedentary almost effeminate man, while Esau is brimming with masculine vigour. As we will read on further, Jacob first gets Esau to sell his birthright as the first born with a pot of stew and later on, at his mother’s direction, manages to trick his nearly blind father Isaac into giving him the covenant blessings of the first born by disguising himself as Esau.
The Thor-Loki Distinction
For those who have watched Hollywood’s rendition of Marvel’s Thor, the parallel between Thor-Loki and Jacob-Esau is unmistakable. In the first movie Loki secretly sneaks into the armoury frost giants to disrupt Thor’s coronation, later he plants the idea into Thor’s head to defy his father to attack the world of the frost giants, causing the Thor to be banished to earth as a result. Loki later ascends the throne when his father Odin falls ill.
The difference naturally is that in the typical Hollywood style, Loki does not triumph in the end in the way in which Jacob did because Hollywood always prefer the good guys to win.
However there are other parallels which are striking. Loki is clearly favoured by his mother as Loki learns from her the art of creating illusions, compared to the warrior Thor who wields the Mjölnir, the lightning hammer, who is clearly favoured by his father. In the end with a surprising twist, Loki does seem to acquire the throne, or the rights of the first born, after all. At the end of Thor 2, Loki is seen on the throne but disguised as Odin. The parallel to Rebecca’s use of disguise and trickery to aid her favoured son, Jacob, acquire the birthright of the first born, the covenant blessings, is uncanny.
What does God care about?
Odin maybe called the “All-Father” however he is liable to illness and can be tricked by Loki. We would think that the God of Abraham might be a little wiser than a fictional Odin, so how are we to understand God blessing Jacob anyway who used trickery, at his mother’s direction no less, to procure God’s blessings? If God cannot be tricked, then does that mean that he favours people like Jacob (and Loki perhaps?) over people like Esau (and Thor)?
However St Paul’s reading of that episode reveals something interesting about the way God deals with people. St Paul places the reason for Jacob’s blessing, not in Jacob’s wiles or “goodness”, but simply in God’s election. God simply chose Jacob and there is no more fundamental explanation. It isn’t that God likes Jacob for who Jacob is, (“neither having done any good or evil”) it’s simply that Jacob can serve the purposes of God and God decided to use him for that end. The characters traits of Jacob and Esau becomes irrelevant in the light of God’s own purposes. In other words, God doesn’t care either way as long as they serve his purpose.
As far as God is concerned, he makes a covenant with Abraham, who passed on that covenant to Isaac, who has the right to pass it on to whomever he chose. God simply honours the terms of the covenant, but is surprisingly seemingly indifferent to questions of “substantive fairness”. Although Isaac intended to pass it on to Esau, through a trick he passed it on to Jacob, and God simply follows the letter of the covenant or technically what has happened.
Conclusion: The God of Abraham and the God of Philosophy
Thor and Loki embodies the two different outlook on life, Thor, honourable, virtuous and of substantive character, Loki who deals with illusions, coordinating appearances to realise his ends.
Unlike the God of philosophy/nature who possesses substantive attributes, a God of Abraham however who makes an appearance on earth in voices, visions and bushes must necessarily deal with appearances. Wherever he has appeared, whatever he has said, is sacred for they define him to us. It is a short path from the specificity of divine appearances and words to legalistic “technicalities” whereby God’s covenants are engaged to the very letter.
The commonwealth however maybe in need of both types of men, men who do the hard substantive work like Thor and which requires substantive virtue and strength of character, and men who knows how to coordinate appearances to harmonise relationship between man and man, and sometimes maybe even with God.
After all, even Thor admits that Loki understood politics better than him.