For a blog about prayer, I’ve been spending a lot of time doing Bible study on the character of Jacob. But I think there is a huge connection. The stories in the Bible are powerful and important, not because of the human characters, but because, in them, we see how God interacts with a variety of His created people. And that can help us as we come to God in prayer.
When we begin to understand that the “heroes” of the Bible are often ordinary people who encounter Almighty God, we see that little has changed in the course of history. God still chooses to bless and challenge ordinary people– for their own good, and as a witness to others.
In today’s world, we often reverse the importance of the characters in our own stories. Christians talk about “my God” or “our God”, as though God belongs to us or serves us. But the Bible doesn’t speak in those terms. God is not “Jacob’s God” or “Solomon’s God” or “Queen Esther’s God,” or even “Israel’s God.” Instead, He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– the God of Israel. He is pre-eminent. God exists, rules, creates, and acts on His own terms, not ours. And He exists, rules, and acts universally. No person, group, or nation can claim that God blesses them because of who they are or what they have done. Thus, there is no African God or Caucasian God or Chen Family God, or Jean’s God, or Muscovite God, etc. There is only One God– but He wants to be the intimate and personal God of every person on the African continent, and in Moscow, and everyone named Shirley, Clarence, Chen, Smith, Martinez, or Klein. He invites each of us into a personal relationship, but He remains Holy and Unchanging and Sovereign.
The very same God who wrestled with Jacob wants to be your best friend. He also wants to be your King and Lord of your life. When we pray to “the God of Jacob”– we are not praying to “Jacob’s God”. We are praying to the very passionate lover of our soul. He just happens to be the same God who loved Jacob enough to take him through a series of adventures many centuries ago; the same God who promised never to leave him; the same God who blessed him and preserved him and made him the father of a great nation. Just think of what He’s waiting to do for and through you!
The Bible is not a series of stories about super heroes, though it is often taught that way in Sunday School. Instead, it is the story of ordinary, flawed and hurting people who encounter a Holy and Majestic God. Jacob is one such person, and nearly half of the book of Genesis revolves around Jacob’s families– his parents and brother, his father-in-law’s household, and his own wives and children, extending to his grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.
Jacob grew into a man of great integrity and wisdom–a man of power and influence, wealth and consequence. But he was far from perfect, and his family caused him no end of headaches and heartaches. From the bickering and rivalry of his wives and their servants, to the violent clashes of his many sons, Jacob knew very little peace.
It is important to note that, while the “God of Jacob” protected him, blessed him, and gave him a new name, He did not make life smooth and comfortable for him. We are not given great insight into Jacob’s parenting style, but we know that he had a favorite son, Joseph, and that his favoritism caused resentment among the others . Unlike his own father, though, Jacob interacted with all his sons, giving them each responsibilities and training them to work together. On his deathbed, he had blessings for each son that tied in to his strengths and weaknesses. We know that Jacob was highly respected by his sons, and that in the end, they did not disperse and lose contact with each other, but lived together in the land of Goshen in Egypt– even after the time of the famine that drove them there.
Even in a family of blessing, there will always be some level of dysfunction, struggle, hardship, and pain. Favoritism, discord, envy, resentment, unforgiveness– it all starts in families among flawed people living in a fallen world.
So often, we try to present ourselves and our families “in our Sunday best”– we want people to be impressed by our show of piety or “good manners” or “problem-free” family life. We pretend that we never argue, never harbor bitterness, never have tantrums or meltdowns or sarcastic “episodes”. God is not looking for picture perfect families…He is looking for families who are honestly and earnestly seeking Him.
Surely, after his encounter with God, Jacob changed. He was a better man than before. But he was never the “perfect dad”, the “perfect husband”, or the “perfect man.” And his family wasn’t a model of decorum and harmony. But God did not turn his back on this dysfunctional family. He did not disown Jacob or cancel all the blessings He had promised. Instead, he solidified the promise he had made to Jacob’s grandfather and father, creating in Jacob’s sons the twelve tribes that would make up the nation of Israel. Just as Jacob’s family wasn’t perfect, the nation of Israel was never perfect– it still isn’t. But God has chosen to pour out His grace on imperfect people throughout history– it’s His specialty!
If you are experiencing disharmony or even angry clashes with family members– take heart and hope from reading about Jacob’s trials and triumphs. Remember to take your pain, resentment, hurt and worry to “the God of Jacob.” God was with Jacob through all his many struggles, including the heartaches of “losing” his favorite son, losing his beloved wives, suffering during the famine in Canaan, having to move to Egypt in his old age, and watching his sons struggle with their own families and trials. Out of each struggle, God brought renewal, hope, rescue, and promise. And remember, God will not abandon you (or your children) because your family experiences disharmony or you have wayward family members. Others may pass judgment on appearances, but God sees the heart– He’s in the business of fixing that which is dysfunctional– not promoting those who hide behind a “perfect” facade.
Jacob’s family was not perfect– but they were perfectly poised to show God’s power, protection, and grace!
I love this story of Jacob, and it gives me a great deal of hope for many reasons:
Jacob got a new name. This is significant throughout the entire Bible. Whenever someone gets a new name, it indicates that he/she has a new nature, a new future, a new relationship with God. Jacob was named for all the worst of his character attributes– he literally came out of the womb grabbing his brother’s heel, and his name means “heel-grabber” and “cheat”. But his new name, Israel, turns all of that on its head–Jacob “grabbed” hold of God and would not let go! He “struggled” with God, and God promised to be with him in all his struggles; to protect him, to bless him, to be on his side. When we come to Christ in faith, we may not get a new name, but we get a new nature, and a new relationship with God. Christ promises to be our advocate– he will struggle with us, uphold us, strengthen us, and bless us–all we need to do is grab hold of the grace that is offered!
God met with Jacob where he was– literally and figuratively. Sometimes, we meet someone who “struggles”– with every thing and everyone. Jacob had contentious relationships with nearly everyone in his life. He was accused, abused, cheated, hated, passed over, fought over, lied to, and aggravated. God didn’t come to him in glory and splendor– he came and wrestled with Jacob–down and dirty, gritty and unannounced. And when Jacob hung on and kept fighting, God let him. He even “cheated” by putting his hip socket out of joint to end the match. God could have showed up and overwhelmed Jacob with his glorious presence. He could have visited him as he did Abraham–stopping by for a meal and a visit. He could even have appeared in another dream. But he knew Jacob from the inside-out– he knew Jacob’s character and temperament; he knew Jacob’s fears and deepest needs. He grappled with a grappler, twisting and turning in sweaty combat. And when it was over, Jacob KNEW his God. He knew that God would not let go– would not send him away, would not let him sneak away in the middle of the night, would not destroy him. Instead, this God would hold him, struggle WITH him, and bless him afterward. I think we often forget that God is not just Holy and Awesome; he is not just a God who loves in a vague and universal way. God is very personal and intimate. He will engage with our doubts, our fears, our high-spirited, strong-willed natures, and he will embrace us with all the fierceness of death–even death on a cross.
God’s timing doesn’t always make sense, but it is always perfect. Jacob was leaving horrible situation, on the eve of a difficult confrontation with his brother, and, ultimately, on a difficult journey to reconciliation with his father. God didn’t need to give Jacob a pep talk, or a list of do’s and don’t’s. He gave him a new name and a new blessing to replace the past hurts and inspire Jacob to build a new life. Jacob was able to face his brother and father with renewed confidence that God would see him through.
Finally, it is in this story that God literally becomes “the God of Jacob” in a personal and profound sense. God still longs to be the God of __________”– fill in the blank with your own name! If you have been wrestling with God or against God, or just avoiding God, let this be the day that you receive the blessing of God’s grace. It’s yours for the asking. And likely, it will be less painful than Jacob’s encounter!
In the last post, we looked at how Jacob worked for 20 years for his corrupt father-in-law. Jacob has changed from the scheming young man who cheated his brother, lied to his father, and was sent away for his own safety. But that’s not the end of the story…
After 20 years of keeping Laban’s flocks, establishing his family, playing referee to his squabbling wives, and dealing with Laban’s greedy and capricious nature, Jacob is ready to leave. But we have a couple of curious incidents yet to explore in this relationship. In Genesis, chapter 30 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+30%3A25-43&version=NIV we are given a detailed plan by Jacob to develop and increase his flocks. Jacob outlines part of his plan to Laban, and Laban agrees. Jacob’s flocks will be speckled and spotted, while Laban’s will be “pure.” On the surface, it looks like Laban is getting the better end of the bargain, and, as Jacob points out, there will be no way he can “cheat” by claiming Laban’s animals as his. But Jacob’s plan has a couple of twists and turns.
As Jacob follows his plan, he ends up with the strongest and best of the flocks, while Laban’s flocks are weaker. Once again, Jacob uses a clever scheme to advance at the expense of someone close to him. At the beginning of chapter 31, we see the result– Laban and his sons are angry and resentful– they feel they have been cheated, and plan to retaliate. Jacob leaves in the middle of the night with his wives, children, and livestock, planning to return to his father in Canaan. Jacob explains to his wives that his “plan” was inspired by a dream in which God told him what to do to increase his flocks and then told him to return home. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+31%3A4-13&version=NIV
But is Jacob telling the truth? Has he really changed, or is this just another case of Jacob using his wits to get what he wants?
The Bible doesn’t give us direct confirmation, but indirectly, the story seems to back up Jacob’s statements. Though the Bible says that Jacob “deceived” his father-in-law by sneaking away in the night, and not telling him that he was going, it never says that he deceived Laban by separating the flock as he did, or by preparing to return to Canaan. Furthermore, when Laban pursues Jacob, God warns him in a dream to say nothing to Jacob (advice he quotes, but doesn’t actually take)! Laban also confessed (back in chapter 30) that, via divination, he has learned that he was blessed on account of Jacob.
Why am I taking time to dissect this relationship between Jacob and Laban a second time? What else can we learn from this story?
I think there is a great lesson about deception, and how it often backfires. But just as powerful, I think there is a lesson about how God looks beyond our actions to see our heart.
Laban was not only Jacob’s father-in-law– he was also Jacob’s uncle. They shared similar character traits– both were ambitious, clever, and driven to take advantage of any “edge” that might be to their advantage. God did not “choose” Jacob because of any of this– but neither did he condemn him for any of it. Instead, God appeared to Jacob, and Jacob responded in awe, worship, and obedience. God didn’t change Jacob’s nature; his drive to succeed, his innovation, his ambition. But he did change Jacob’s heart–Jacob didn’t leave his uncle in ruins, in spite of the treatment he and his family (Laban’s own daughters and grandchildren!) had received. Jacob used his cleverness to build a strong flock, but he also used it to prove to his uncle that he was not the liar or thief he had been labeled back in Canaan. Jacob listened to God in formulating his plans– both his clever plan to build the flock, and the plan to return home.
Laban, on the other hand, had seen the hand of God at work blessing him on account of Jacob. Years before, he had seen the hand of God leading his sister, Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. He had seen how God had blessed his daughters. He even saw that his ill-treatment of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel led to a loss of God’s blessing. But at no time is there any evidence that Laban ever acknowledged God, worshiped Him, thanked Him, or obeyed Him. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+31%3A14-55&version=NIV
In their final encounter, Laban accuses Jacob of theft and duplicity– Jacob confesses that he fears Laban, but then, he gives him a blistering rebuke. Laban’s response is a feeble argument that all Jacob has belongs (or should belong) to him– Laban! “All you see is MINE” (emphasis added). He also claims (even after God tells him to say nothing to Jacob) that he has the power to hurt Jacob. Laban is a controlling user– a bully and a manipulator. Laban is a powerful man who is ruthless in using that power to get what he wants. But all that power is not enough to challenge God– the same God who blessed Laban because of Jacob; the same God who warned him not to act against Jacob. The real power does not belong to Laban or to Jacob. Jacob has been learning this lesson–Laban never will. The most he learns is that Jacob will no longer be under his control and submit to his corrupt authority.
Perhaps you have been in a relationship with someone who is controlling and manipulative. Perhaps they have convinced you that they have all the power to keep you enslaved to their manipulation. There are two essential truths you need to remember:
God sees you. He sees the injustices done to you– and your response to them. He sees your heart– even when it is breaking under the weight of oppression. He asks that you trust HIS power and HIS timing as you are going through this deep valley. Abusers thrive on clever lies– that you can’t make it without them; that no one else will help you, love you, believe you…; that their actions are in your best interest…even going so far as saying that they are making sacrifices for you and that you “owe” them. Don’t let their lies overwhelm God’s truth–
God desires you to submit to HIM. Even when the road is tough and we don’t understand circumstances, God is making a way for you, just as He did for Jacob. God allowed Jacob to grow his flocks in spite of Laban’s crooked ways– He allowed Jacob to be both the agent of Laban’s success and the instrument of Laban’s downfall. Submission to God does NOT mean abject submission to an abuser or a manipulator. If God has shown you a way of escape (even running away without warning) or shown you a way to flourish under harsh circumstances– listen and obey!
The Biblical patriarch, Jacob, is known for many things– He was the son of Isaac and Rebekah, and grandson of Abraham. He was the brother of Esau. He cheated and/or schemed his way into taking both the blessing and birthright that belonged to his older brother. For this, he was sent away to live with his Uncle Laban, and told to choose a wife from among his extended family.
Jacob’s life took a dramatic turn when he left his small (but slightly dysfunctional) family behind to begin this new chapter. Growing up, Jacob had been the quiet one, the one who stayed around the house. This was no longer an option. Jacob faced a long journey, and years of work to establish his own family and career. On the way to Paddan Aram and the house of Laban, Jacob had his first encounter with God– the vision of “Jacob’s Ladder” at the place he would call “Bethel.” There, God confirmed his promise to establish Jacob, increase his family, and bless all people through him. No longer was Jacob a second son with only his wits to help him succeed (or cause trouble)– God had promised to be with him and watch over him wherever he may go! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+28%3A10-22&version=NKJV
With that promise and the hope of finding a welcome, Jacob arrived at the well where his uncles flocks were watered. Jacob would take over the work of herding and watering the many flocks of Laban. He worked for the first month without wages–setting a dangerous pattern. After the first month, Laban “generously” offered to pay Jacob, and even let Jacob set the terms! Jacob demanded no monetary wages; he wanted only to marry his beautiful cousin, Rachel, with whom he was deeply in love.
Seven years pass– Jacob has worked for almost nothing but the food he has eaten, and the promise of marriage with the daughter of Laban. And in a scene that seems strangely familiar, Jacob is presented with a feast, and his promised blessing– his wife. But Laban tricks him, substituting one daughter for another. Instead of Rachel, Jacob is bound to her sister, Leah.
When Jacob confronts his new father-in-law, he is given an excuse– tradition says the older daughter must be married first. Laban had seven years to explain this to Jacob, seven years to “break the bad news”, seven years to offer Jacob an alternative. Yet Laban chose to deceive his nephew and use his love for Rachel to get seven years of cheap labor. Worse, he chose to string Jacob (and Rachel) along for another seven years. The Bible gives us a clue as to one ulterior motive of Laban– Leah had “weak” or “delicate” eyes. It is possible that she had been rejected by other men or deemed ineligible for marriage. Without a prospective husband, Leah will be dependent on her father for life. But married to Jacob, Leah becomes one less responsibility for Laban. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+29%3A14-30&version=NIV
Laban gambles his daughters’ fate on Jacob’s character. Jacob could have cast Leah aside easily and forced her to return to her father’s house a ruined woman. He could have treated her as a servant, rather than a wife– he could have beaten her or “given” her to someone else. And Jacob could have decided Rachel was not worth another seven years of labor, or that he could not trust Laban to keep his word. He could have walked away. He could have taken his anger and frustration out on Leah or on the flocks. He could have returned to his father and started another family quarrel.
But this Jacob is not the same as the one who left Canaan. He serves another seven years, marries Rachel, and then works yet another six years for flocks to call his own. All the time working for a man who is greedy, deceitful, capricious, unjust, selfish, and oppressive. He doesn’t complain, doesn’t rebel, and doesn’t cheat, lie, sabotage or steal from this horrible boss and indifferent father-in-law. Instead, he shows that he has been transformed from the young Jacob who caused so much trouble for his brother and father back home.
May we choose to submit today to the God of Jacob, and remember that His promise to Jacob extends to all who trust Him– He will not leave us; He will see us and be with us wherever we go!
The Biblical story of Jacob and Esau has long baffled readers and scholars alike. I don’t pretend to have the answers to some of the tough questions it poses, but I’d like to take a close look at some of them.
Esau and Jacob were twins–the only sons of their parents–born just minutes apart. Yet their personalities, their destinies, and their relationships with God and others could not have been more different.
We spent the last post covering some of Jacob’s character flaws– his early years involved scheming and “cheating” this twin of his. Jacob’s life and actions are the focus of the story, after all. He is the one God chose to establish the nation he promised to Jacob’s father and grandfather. But why Jacob and not Esau?
In many ways, this story echoes that of the very first brothers in the Bible. God chose Abel’s sacrifice over his brother’s. We are not given an obvious reason why Cain’s sacrifice was unacceptable– or why Abel’s was. In this case, God does not give Rebecca a reason why her boys would fight throughout their lives or why the elder son would serve his younger brother. At one point, the Bible even says that God “loved” Jacob and “hated” Esau! So we are left with a big question–Does God play favorites? Does He give His favor capriciously? If so, why bother to worship, serve, and obey Him if, in the end, He has already chosen who will be blessed?
We may never have a full explanation of God’s ways– we are told that they are not our ways; that they are higher and wiser than our ways–but there are several things I want to consider that may shed some light.
God is timeless. He lives beyond the boundaries of linear time, and he sees the end from the beginning. As we read through the story of Jacob, we see his progression, and the changes he makes as he matures and as he encounters the great God of his fathers as it unfolds in time. His beginning shows little promise, but God already sees Jacob as Israel, as the father of twelve tribes of people, as the ancestor of Moses, of King David, and of the coming Messiah. He sees all of this before Jacob is even born! It is part of His eternal plan that Jacob, the cheater, the underdog, the “lesser” brother should become all of these things.
God sees inside the human heart. Esau’s character is not fully shown in this Biblical story, but we get a few clues: 1) Esau despised his birthright– he was flippant about his inheritance, trading it for a bowl of stew. 2) Esau took foreign wives who caused his parents distress–this detail may almost escape the modern reader. We do not tend to live with our extended family, but it was (and in some cases still is) common to the society in which Isaac lived. Esau did not consider his parents when bringing foreign women into the family. They had different customs and different gods. And Esau didn’t learn from the first two wives..when Rebecca commented on the Hittite women, Esau married a daughter of Ishmael, a woman likely to resent her father’s rival (remember Ishmael was banished on account of his resentment of Isaac!) 3) Esau plotted his brother’s death. His anger and resentment over the lost blessing caused him to plot murder. Jacob was sent away, not only to find an acceptable wife, but to keep him safe from his brother’s vengeance. Even though the two brothers later met in peace (Genesis 33), the meeting was filled with tension and the brothers were never close. 4) There is not one indication in the Bible that Esau ever sought the God of his fathers—no mention of him praying, offering a sacrifice, or acknowledging God. In fact, the sons and descendants of Esau (Edom) would attack and fight with the nation of Israel for centuries to come, finally being conquered and forced to serve the descendants of Jacob. https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-edomites
God does not “love” or “hate” in the same way that we do. God’s love is universal and eternal. God loves even those who reject, mock, and hate him. So when God says, “Jacob have I loved, and Esau I have hated”, He is not talking about his feelings for individuals (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Malachi+1%3A1-5&version=NIV and https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+9%3A6-16&version=MEV). Rather, He is talking about how He shows mercy. Jacob and Esau were real people, and God blessed both of them, and built both of them into great nations. But God showed mercy and favor on Israel for keeping his commandments, while destroying the nation of Edom because of its continuing wickedness. (God eventually showed wrath on the nation of Israel as well, sending its people into exile because of their unfaithfulness!) Even in their destruction, both nations retained a remnant and their peoples exist to this day.
God did not abandon Esau. When Jacob finally reconnects with his older brother, Esau is the head of a mighty army. Esau’s sons became the heads of tribes and kings of Edom. God allowed Esau to prosper and grow strong. But Esau never sought God; Edom never showed humility, wisdom, or reverence–only arrogance, might, and hatred. God shows mercy to those who don’t deserve it, and grace to those who desire it, but He will not allow injustice and arrogance to go unchecked forever.
Why do we pray to, sing praises to, and trust in the fortress of “the God of Jacob” (Psalm 46; Psalm 75, etc.)? Isn’t Jacob the one who cheated his brother and tricked his father to steal an inheritance? Wasn’t he a liar, and a thief?
Last time, https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/78948359/posts/2322587905, I wrote about Jacob as the “other son”, the one in the shadows. But Jacob wasn’t content to stay in the shadows. He waited and schemed, and used his brother’s and father’s character traits against them and to his own advantage. Jacob was crafty, and sly, and devious. These are not characteristics designed to build trust or inspire admiration. They are, however, characteristics many of us secretly admire. Jacob tricked his way to the top! He didn’t exactly “steal” his brother’s inheritance– he tricked his brother into giving it away! No bloodshed or fighting…Jacob simply used his brother’s weakness and vanity to get what he wanted. Some might say that Esau didn’t deserve to keep an inheritance he was willing to barter away for a measly bowl of stew. (https://biblia.com/bible/nlt/Ge25.27-34) Even the Bible says that Esau despised his birthright!
Later, Jacob steals his brother’s blessing, too. This time, he lies and deceives his dying father in the process. This Bible story is curious, and much has been written about whether Jacob and his mother set out to deceive Isaac, and why. Was Rachel trying to cheat her own son, Esau, out of his blessing, and lie to her husband in the process? Why would Jacob want to steal a blessing from his brother when he already had “taken” the birthright?
The Bible doesn’t always give us easy answers and complete explanations. What it does, however, is give us glimpses into the lives of real people and their very real encounters with God. Jacob’s family was a divided family. Isaac was prepared to give everything to Esau when he died. There is no evidence that he was prepared to give Jacob any kind of blessing– it had all been reserved for Esau. Whether this was in retaliation for Jacob’s earlier “trick”, we are not told. Whether Jacob and Rebecca intended for Jacob to appease his father with meat and get “a blessing” , and things got out of hand, or whether they intended that Esau should be cut out of both blessing and birthright, we don’t know. What we see is that Isaac meant to bless only Esau. When the “real” Esau showed up too late, there was nothing left for Isaac to give as a blessing. There was no plan for a secondary blessing– for either son. (Ironically, because Jacob was sent away, Isaac had a “going away” blessing for him that was also denied to Esau.. (see Genesis 28:1!)
Jacob’s days of cheating and using deception were to leave a lasting impact on his life. He was sent far away from his family, fearing his brother’s anger. He missed years of being with his mother and father; of having their advice, or letting them spend time with their grandchildren. Jacob ended up finding, in his Uncle Laban, a bigger cheat and liar than he had ever dreamed of being; a man whose craftiness cheated Jacob out of years of labor and saddled him with family problems for the rest of his life. Jacob’s heart was broken by the deception his own sons would perpetrate on him when they sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery. Cleverness, deceit, and crafty schemes may offer a temporary ticket to victory, power, and “the good life.” But such schemes have consequences that cause lasting pain and punishment.
But that’s not the end of the story. We see Jacob rise above his own earlier mistakes. Jacob never loses his cleverness or his desire to succeed, but he learns how to “cheat the cheater”– he becomes so successful and hard working that Laban can’t fault Jacob for having larger flocks and becoming rich. Jacob could rightfully show that he had not stolen any of his uncle’s flocks, and he made Laban rich, too. Jacob’s cleverness was not the problem– it was how he had used it; with lies and deception against his father and brother. Later in life, he uses the same cleverness to appease his brother, provide for his family, and establish his own growing dynasty.
And, at the end of his life, Jacob had blessings for each of his sons. Even though he had “favorites”, he made sure each son knew that he was loved and blessed by both his earthly and heavenly father. God also confirmed this by giving each “son” an inheritance among the burgeoning nation of Israel when they returned to the land of promise after their time in Egypt.
What caused this change? Some might say that Jacob “learned his lesson” (and he did!) at the hands of his uncle and with the passage of time. Some might say he matured with the responsibilities of fatherhood and his career. But the Bible gives us one other important factor– Jacob encountered God. Jacob even wrestled with God. But God cannot be cheated. God cannot be outwitted or tricked. God cannot be grabbed by the heel and tripped up by any scheme of man. Yet God blesses even the cheater. God loves even the liar. God chooses even the thief. God’s love and grace are greater by far than any birthright or blessing we can “grab” for ourselves. God doesn’t bless us because we are clever, and certainly not because we lie or cheat. But he gives us intelligence, cleverness, and, if we ask for it, the wisdom to know how to use our gifts in ways that please him and help others.
We can take refuge in the “God of Jacob”, because even in our sin, God wants to rescue us from ourselves and give us a better way.
Jacob is a multi-faceted Biblical character; he is full of flaws and makes bad life choices, yet God blesses him and chooses him over his brother to be one of the patriarchs of his chosen people. In fact, the nation of Israel takes its name from the new name God chooses to give to Jacob. So it is helpful to study Jacob’s life. We can learn a lot from his interactions with God and others.
Today, I want to look at Jacob’s (sometimes) dysfunctional home life. We think of the patriarchs as having blessed lives and few, if any, flaws. But God’s blessings are not earned. They are a free gift, freely given to imperfect people. Jacob’s father, Isaac, was the son of God’s promise to Abraham. But Isaac’s home life was not blissful. Isaac was taunted and resented by his older brother, Ishmael, leading to Ishmael being exiled. And he had several younger brothers who were sent away as they grew older (see https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+21%3A8-20&version=NIV and https://biblia.com/bible/Genesis25.1-6) He was devastated by the death of his mother, Sarah. And, while he was much-loved, and the son of promise, he was also indulged, isolated, and coddled. He was the “winner” among all his brothers.
As for Jacob’s mother, Rebecca– her family history was dominated by a cunning and dishonest older brother (more about him in a future post!) She was given a choice to leave her family and become Isaac’s wife (almost unheard of freedom for a woman at that time, and certainly not her brother’s idea!) She was a good wife to Isaac and was a great comfort to him in his grief after the death of his mother, Sarah. But when she became pregnant, she soon realized that something was happening inside her womb– something beyond her ability to understand; something that would test her (and Isaac) to their limit.
God had promised to make Abraham a great nation. And he promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah. Ishmael was the result of Abraham and Sarah trying to do things for God “their way,” when they got impatient and fearful. Isaac’s birth was confirmation that God’s blessings would come “His” way, and not through human efforts. Isaac knew all of this, but there was more he would need to learn about how God operates.
In Isaac’s family, God underscored the truth of His character– God blesses those whom he loves. God’s blessings are not earned; they do not come in predictable patterns or for reasons based solely on human logic. God’s favor rests not on the “deserving” but on those he chooses to bless. So Isaac and Rebecca have twin boys. According to human tradition, the eldest son inherits all the property and blessings and becomes the patriarch of the next generation. The younger son serves the elder or else leaves to start his own family. Over the centuries, this patterns has caused wars, as brother fights brother for control over land, rights, crowns, and more.
We have no record of Isaac consulting God over this situation, but Rebecca does– and she gets a surprising answer! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+25%3A+19-28&version=NIV Even in the womb, the boys are fighting, but God tells Rebecca that the oldest will serve the younger! Both boys will become strong nations, but they will be separated, and they will continue to struggle throughout their histories. It is the younger, seemingly weaker underdog who will be God’s choice to continue the line of promise begun with Abraham.
Even in their names, Jacob “loses” to Esau. Esau is named for his bright red hair, a mark of distinction, and a reason to stand out and be a leader. Jacob is named after his action of grabbing his brother by the heel as they come out of the womb. It is a disparaging name, a constant reminder that he is second, and lesser, and always lagging behind his brother.
Today, as I look at Jacob and Esau, I am reminded that I pray to the God of Jacob. He is the God of the underdog; the God who sees and hears the outcast and the downtrodden; God of the disparaged one; the one who feels left out or left behind, even in his own family– even by his own father. It’s not that Isaac hated Jacob or abused him or denied him. But his affection for his sons was shaped by human traditions and his own preferences. God’s love is pure and unchanging! I am comforted in knowing that when God sees me, He always looks with the eyes of perfect love!
Throughout the Bible there are stories of people –sometimes rather ordinary and even deeply flawed people–who end up in extraordinary and miraculous situations. I spent some time exploring Hannah, and her journey through barrenness and into motherhood. I’d like to go back several generations to look at the intriguing character of Jacob.
Jacob often appears as an adjunct character– son of Isaac, and grandson of the patriarch Abraham, he seems to be something of a mis-step in God’s promise to build a nation and bless the world. Jacob seems to bumble through life– the second son, living in the shadow of a heroic older brother; a cheap con-artist, whose deception rips his family in two; a sly cheat who finally meets his match in a dishonest and conniving father-in-law; a beleaguered husband and father, juggling two feuding sisters, their two servants, a dozen warring sons, a tragic daughter… It would be easy to confuse this Bible story with a modern TV sitcom or reality show about dysfunctional family life.
Yet… Jacob, like his grandfather, Abraham, saw God face to face, even wrestling with him on one occasion. God gave Jacob the vision of a stairway leading to Heaven; God gave Jacob his blessing, independent of the one from Isaac; he chose Jacob over Esau to carry on the line of patriarchs; God gave Jacob a new name– Israel– which became fixed as the name of God’s people. Generations later, King David prayed to and worshiped “the God of Jacob” as a refuge. Jesus even referred to His Father as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
What makes Jacob stand out? Why does nearly half of the book of Genesis cover the years of Jacob’s life? I want to spend some time in the coming days to look a bit closer at this flawed man, how God revealed aspects of His own character in his dealings with Jacob, and how knowing Jacob better can help us as we pray to “his” God (and ours).