Jacob, God’s Israel

Jacob is the towering, complex and more than life size character in the Old Testament.
His life was one of scheming, frustrations, pain, loneliness and yet spiritual.
None of his contemporaries understood his pain and despair during his life.
He had none to share his heart. He lived alone, fought alone and won alone.
He is the nation “Israel”, but he is often neglected between Abraham and Moses.
He had moments of fear and strong faith.
His family was in disorder, he silently fought to set it straight.
He was born in the Promised Land but spent most of his life in foreign lands and died in a foreign land.
Jacob was the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham.
That means, Jacob was in the special family God had singled out as his chosen people.
Jacob lived from approximately 2006 to 1859 B.C.
He had a respect for the spiritual covenants of his family, but his faith in the Lord was still immature.
His character was that of a schemer, liar, and manipulator.
He was trying to fulfill God’s plans using his human abilities. He was an independent man.

The name, ‘Jacob’ means "deceiver".
But later God renamed it as "Israel", which means "one who has struggled with God."
He is the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. He was a man with a striving for spiritual things.
Jacob was equal to us in human strengths and weaknesses.
He was far from perfection, but from this man we learn important lessons of faith, especially about God's grace.

His own father was the meek and obedient Isaac.
He was obedient to his father Abraham the point of sacrificing his life to God.
As a consequence, the promises God had established with Abraham were handed down to the patriarch’s posterity, Isaac, Jacob and to their descendants.

Family background

With the above introduction, let us study of the life of Jacob.
His family background starts with his great grandfather, Abraham, whom God chose to establish a covenant people.
After Abraham died, his son Isaac lived in the land of Canaan, the Promised Land.
Like his father, Isaac had his home in a tent.
He had many servants and flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. He was a rich man.
Isaac and his wife Rebekah had two children. The older was named Esau and the younger Jacob.

Both the children were taught about the faithfulness of father and grandfather towards Yahweh the Lord.
But as the brothers matured they took different paths.
Esau became a cunning hunter, while Jacob remained in the home.
Jacob is described in the Hebrew text as an ‘ish tam”, meaning a man, “whole, complete, perfect” (Genesis 25:27).

Thus Jacob came from a real dysfunctional family.
Jacob’s messed up family life helped shape him into being a manipulative person.
Jacob’s style of relating was one of manipulating others.
He tried to control life and depended on himself, not God.
God had to break Jacob of this bad pattern of relating.

The book of Genesis spends ten whole chapters on Jacob. (Chapters 25-36)
11 chapters of Genesis describe the period from creation to the flood and the tower of Babel (1-11)
14 chapters are on Abraham (12-25).
And after a brief mention of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael we begin the story of Jacob.

Family members

The family of Jacob consists of four members - his father Isaac, mother Rebekah, his elder brother Esau and Jacob himself.

Not much space is devoted to Isaac because he did not do anything significant.
Isaac was a weak man, a passive person. He did nothing significant.
He was failure as a patriarch to control his family affairs.
But he inherited the faith of his father, Abraham.

Isaac did not go out to find his own wife. This was an important event in those days.
In ancient Hebrew life style, men used to first meet their wives at some well or spring.
What happens at the well is indicative of the relationship.
For instance, Moses met his wife at the well. Jacob met his wife at a spring.
But Isaac didn’t even go to the well.
His father’s servant went and found a wife at the well for him and brought her home.

Rebekah the wife of Isaac and mother of Esau and Jacob was a manipulating lady.
She took over the family and Jacob’s life.
Among her two children, she favored Jacob who spent most of his time at home.
So Rebekah took over his life and arranged everything for him.
She arranged for him to get the blessing from his father, she arranges for his deliverance from the death threat of Esau and arranged his marriage by sending him to her brother Laban.

Esau was very fond of hunting; and he was rough and covered with hair.
The first thing that we learn about Esau is that he was a skillful hunter.
Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob, because Esau brought to his father what he had killed in hunting.

Esau was irresponsible and impulsive.
Esau was not considerate about the spiritual values of his fore fathers.
His serious crime was that he devalued the covenants of the family to God.
He didn’t take his birthright seriously.
And he sold the birthright and married two women who worshiped idols.
Neither he nor his wives did not belong to the chosen line of God.

The family
Thus, Jacob came from an unusual family.
His father was a weak character. His mother had a tendency to take control.
His brother, Esau was a natural man concerned with the things of this world.
But Jacob trifled not with sacred things.
He respected the covenants of his father and grandfather with God.
Jacob was quiet and thoughtful, staying at home, dwelling in a tent, and caring for the flocks of his father.

Life begins

Jacob’s life began with a struggle.
The struggle to enjoy God’s promises about him lasted throughout his days.
As a twin in the womb of Rebekah he jostled for position with Esau and was born grasping his brother’s heel.
When the children struggled within her she went to inquire of the LORD.
God told her that there were two nations within her womb who would become divided.
One would be stronger than the other, and the older would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). 

The struggle in the womb is a foreshadow of their troubled relationship.
Esau was born first and thereby became legal heir to the family birthright which included the Covenant between God and Abraham.
This birthright was a link in the line of descent through which the Promised Messiah was to come (Numbers 24:17-19).

The writer of Hebrews referred to Esau as a profane (godless) person (Hebrews 12:16).
Before their births, God knew that Esau's descendants would become enemies of Israel for generations to come and He knew Jacob was a man of integrity.
He had preordained that Jacob would be in the lineage of Jesus.
Jacob and Esau grew up together living a nomadic life.
Esau, being a hunter, was his father’s favorite, while Jacob was favored by his mother (Genesis 25:28).

The Stolen Birthright (Genesis 25)

In chapter 25: 28 we see that Isaac favored Esau because he “had a taste for game.”
Esau was the strong hunter. He was everything that Isaac was not.
And perhaps Isaac, a weak man, was trying to re-live his life through his son’s life.

In the Middle East, during those times, the older son receives twice as much as the younger of what the father has owned.
This was called his "birthright," for it was his right as the oldest born.
So Esau, as the older, had a "birthright" to a double portion of Isaac's possessions than Jacob.
But, verse 34 says: “Thus Esau despised his birthright”.

Esau, when he grew up, did not care for his birthright or the blessing which God had promised.
But Jacob wished greatly to have the birthright which would come to Esau when his father died.
Once, when Esau came home, hungry and tired from hunting in the fields.
He saw that Jacob had a bowl of food that he had just cooked for dinner.
And Esau pleaded to have a bowl of that particular food. (25:30)
Jacob was ready to share the food, but he bargained for Esau’s birthright.
Then Esau solemnly promised Jacob to give his birthright, all for a bowl of food.
It was not right for Jacob to deal so selfishly with his brother; but it was very wrong in Esau to care so little for his birthright and God's blessing.
The scripture makes no special comment on the action of Jacob, but the Bible records a negative comment on Esau: “Thus Esau despised his birthright. (25:34)

It is well to assume that Jacob knew that he was supposed to end up with the birthright eventually.
His mother told him what the Lord had told her.
But Jacob was depending on his intellect and manipulations to attain the promise of God.
He was not willing to wait on the Lord.

The Stolen Blessings (Genesis 27)

When Isaac was old and his eyesight faded he thought he was near to his death.
So he made secret arrangements with Esau to pass on to him the blessings due to the firstborn son (27:1-4).
Isaac was about to disregard God’s word.
Isaac was planning to give all his blessings to the ungodly son, who will never keep the covenant with God.
Isaac knew about the election of God, that Jacob is the chosen one by God to continue in the line of Abraham.
Still, he thought of blessing Esau with all his blessings and leave God’s election to God Himself.
This was not fair from the promised son of Abraham.

Esau did not honor his agreement with Jacob when he sold his birthright.
Esau ought to have told his father that the blessing did not belong to him, for he had sold it to his brother Jacob.
But he did not tell his father. He went out into the fields hunting, to find the kind of meat which his father liked the most.

On hearing the secret plan of Isaac and Esau, Rebekah devised a plan to deceive Isaac into blessing Jacob.
Isaac is fooled by the smell of the clothing and the hairy arms and blesses Jacob.
Thus, Rebekah and Jacob deceived Isaac and Jacob received his father’s blessing.
When Esau heard of the deception, he vowed to kill Jacob as soon as the period of mourning for his father’s death ended (27:41).
Rebekah informs Jacob that Esau is going to kill him and that he must flee from his home.
And she never saw Jacob again.

This is a good example of how Rebekah manipulated events to achieve what she thought was best.
She knew God had said that Esau would serve Jacob. Isaac knew it too.
But Isaac decided to ignore God’s election.
Still, it was not Rebekah’s duty to go around and trick Isaac in order to fulfill God’s plan.

This is not a close knit family. There are definite problems in the relationships.
Notice that Esau and Jacob do not interact. Esau and Rebekah do not interact.
Jacob interacted with his father in the guise of Esau.
And we do not find warm interaction between Isaac and Rebekah.
So chapter 27 shows us again that Jacob did not wait on God to fulfill His promise to Rebekah.

The Dream (28)

Rebekah came from the family of Nahor, Abraham's younger brother, who lived in Haran, a long distance to the northeast of Canaan.
Laban was Rebekah's brother.
So Jacob went out of Beersheba, on the border of the desert, and walked alone, carrying his staff in his hand.  (28:10)
This is the beginning of a long journey of many years.
Jacob was now leaving the Promised Land which was part of his blessing.
The way Jacob got the blessing was not the way of God.
But still, God is going to honor it.

On his way, he came to Bethel, a place among the mountains, more than sixty miles from his home.
And as he had no bed to lie down upon, he took a stone and rested his head upon it for a pillow, and lay down to sleep.
And while asleep he saw a marvelous vision. (28: 11-15).
Dreams were a way God communicated with Bible characters to reveal information and give direction.
He had a dream of a ladder to heaven with God at the top and angels ascending and descending.
God gave Jacob the assurance of His presence and reiterated His promise to Abraham (28:13-15).
And in the morning Jacob awakened from his sleep. He said: “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." (28:16)
And Jacob took the stone on which his head had rested, and he set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on it as an offering to God.
And Jacob renamed the place “Bethel,” meaning “house of God,” and he vowed to serve God.
And Jacob made a promise to God at that time, and said:

Genesis 28:20, 21
20   Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on,
21   "so that I come back to my father's house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God.
22   "And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God's house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You." (NKJV)

Jacob was vowing to live according to the Abrahamic covenant.
The vision assured Jacob that, in spite of all his cunning dealings with his brother and father, God still cares for him; God is watching over him and he is still in the plan of God.

And Jacob was in need of a heavenly vision. He had a love for his family and the Promised Land.
But unfortunately, he was out of both of them. It is not a willing departure, but a kind of chasing out.
Jacob lost his comfort zone, he was thrown out of it.
And Jacob never returned to the comfort of his family and the Promised Land.
Jacob returned to his Land after 20 years in Haran, but by that time, his mother died.
The following years he spent in the Promised Land were of fear and despair.
After he left his home, he was always followed by loneliness, fear, uncertainty, frustration, despair and a life in foreign lands at the mercy of strange kings.

Dealing With Laban (Genesis 29-31)

Let us go back to Jacob’s journey to Haran.
At Haran he met his manipulative uncle who later turned to his father in law.
The days in the house of Laban, Jacob went through frustrations, challenges, hard work and manipulations.

Laban was a manipulator too, a master in it.
Jacob finally met his match. He finally meets someone who is as deceitful as he is.
After Jacob settled in Haran, Laban offered him payment for the work as a shepherd looking after his flocks.
Chapters 29-31 tell how Jacob worked seven years for marrying Rachel.
But on his wedding night, Laban sent Leah into the tent instead of Rachel.
Jacob again worked seven more years for Rachel.
Then he worked another six or seven years to build a flock of his own to provide for his family.
There was much deception going on between Laban and Jacob as each tried to make his flocks grow larger.
But in the end God blessed Jacob and he became very prosperous.
He finally decides to sneak away from Laban.

While Jacob was living at Haran, eleven sons were born to him from Leah, Rachel, and their two handmaidens.
These sons would be the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
But only one of these was the child of Rachel.
This son was Joseph, who was dearer to Jacob than any other of his children.
He was the youngest, and the child of his beloved Rachel.
Rachel died while giving birth to the last member in the family, Benjamin.

After more than twenty years of hard labor under the scheming and jealous Laban, God commanded Jacob to leave Laban’s land and return to the land of Canaan. (31:1-15, 38
Jacob started his journey back to the Promised Land, with him his wives and children and all the vast flocks he had accumulated.
But his departure was not an easy walk. He was hotly pursued by his father in law, Laban.
But God warned Laban, "Be careful that you speak to Jacob neither good nor bad." (31:24)  
Jacob and Laban came to a respectful parting of the ways and established a boundary covenant, which would long divide the territory of the Israelites from the northern Aramaeans (31:44–45).
Laban and Jacob eventually parted company after swearing an oath not to invade one another’s lands.

Jacob’s life was never one of ease or devoid of challenges and conflicts.
Jacob says in effect to Laban at a moment of intense frustration during their last confrontation:

Genesis 31:38 - 42
38  "These twenty years I have been with you; your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried their young, and I have not eaten the rams of your flock.
 39 "That which was torn by beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it. You required it from my hand, whether stolen by day or stolen by night.
 40 "There I was! In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep departed from my eyes.
 41 "Thus I have been in your house twenty years; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times.
 42 "Unless the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God has seen my affliction and the labor of my hands, and rebuked you last night."  (NKJV)

We should focus on the last statement whenever we think of Jacob.
God was with him as had been promised.
In the face of every trial, Jacob remained faithful and retained the companionship of the Lord who watched over him.

The Wrestling Match with God (Genesis 32)

Jacob was returning and carrying with him those troubles incident to the conflict with Esau.
He had been partially responsible for his flight from Canaan.

On his way he met God once again.
Earlier he had a heavenly vision and received the promise of God to bless and protect him, on his way away from the Promised Land.
Now on his way towards the Promised Land he meets God once again.

He was expecting Esau to come against him to fulfill his vow to kill Jacob.
He got news that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men.
Jacob became exceedingly fearful, for it was a life crisis of staggering proportion.
His family and the covenant were facing annihilation. The promises of God were on trial.
All promises of God looked like empty words and hollow phrases.
But this life crisis set the stage for two events that would confirm forever the course of Jacob’s future. First, Jacob yearningly prayed to God for safety. The independent man became a dependent man.
Second, he wrestled that night for a desperately needed blessing from God. (32:9-13, 24-30).
He understood and acknowledged the inevitability of God’s grace.

At the river Jabbok, Jacob prayed intensely.

Genesis 32: 9 - 12
9     Then Jacob said, "O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the LORD who said to me, 'Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you':
 10 "I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies.
 11 "Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children.
 12 "For You said, 'I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.'" (NKJV)

Jacob acknowledged his unworthiness before God.
He pleaded for deliverance from the impending catastrophe.
He reminded God the promise that his posterity would be as innumerable as the sands of the sea.
How could this promise come to pass if Jacob and his family were annihilated?
How could the covenant continue if the bearers of the covenant were destroyed?

But that night God, who is still trying to get through to Jacob, met with Jacob.
Verse 24 says, “Jacob was left alone.”
It is such a little phrase, but it conveys an ocean of ideas.
Jacob had run out of resources. Jacob was finally been broken, at the end of his rope.
His life was a mess that he could not solve.
He is all alone and has to face Esau alone.
Jacob was finally broken to the point where he will now trust in God.

At Jabbok, Jacob faced a crossroads. He was at the brink of his faith and understanding.
He stood in the place his grandfather Abraham had stood when God asked for the life of Isaac.
Abraham could not understand how the promises of the covenant of a great posterity would be fulfilled.
But Abraham was obedient in the face of a test.
Jacob was transformed into a dependent man in the face of his ordeal.
He desired a blessing to strengthen his resolve and faith.
The threatening situation with Esau was more than he could comprehend.
He wanted and needed greater light, knowledge, and power.

That night, Jacob was joined by a heavenly Man who would wrestle with him for the rest of the night.
The details of Jacob’s wrestle are not made clear in the biblical record.
In faith he wrestled for a blessing with the heavenly angel.
They wrestled all night, and Jacob would not let the celestial sentinel go until he gave Jacob the requested blessing.
Jacob’s resolve was great, and his fortitude enduring.

The heavenly angel, before he left Jacob, gave him a new name, “Israel” which means “he fights with God.”
Jacob’s name was changed to Israel when he finally began to trust in God.
Israel was God’s covenant name for the new nation.
The name “Jacob” represents independence from God and “Israel” represents dependence on God.

After he met with God, instead of hiding behind his servants, wives and children, he goes out in front of them to face Esau alone. (33:3)
He now is depending on God and not his own resources.
Esau receives him openly and it seems that there are no hard feelings.
Thus, God has paved the way for Jacob to return to the Promised Land.

The rape Dinah

Genesis 34 records the rape of Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah, and the revenge her brothers Simeon and Levi carried out on the rapist’s entire community.
The revenge by his sons did not make him happy.
He was afraid that the neighboring nations will come against him and annihilate them.

Genesis 34:30 Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, "You have troubled me by making me obnoxious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and since I am few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and kill me. I shall be destroyed, my household and I."  (NKJV)

Jacob always lived in fear of his existence; he always expected an annihilation from his enemies.
It seems, he was not privileged with peace of mind throughout his life.

And after that, Jacob moved his family back to Bethel (35:1).
There God reappeared to Jacob and confirmed His blessing (35:9-13).

Genesis 35:11, 12
11   Also God said to him: "I am God Almighty. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall proceed from you, and kings shall come from your body.
 12 "The land which I gave Abraham and Isaac I give to you; and to your descendants after you I give this land."  (NKJV)

Death of Rachel

Jacob and his family later moved from Bethel to Eder.
On the way, Rachel gave birth to her second son, Jacob's twelfth - Benjamin.
But Rachel died in childbirth, on the way to Ephrath, that is, Bethlehem.
Jacob was reunited with his father, Isaac, in Mamre.
When his father died, both Jacob and Esau buried him.

Last days

Similar to his mother, Jacob also had favorites.
Rachel was his favorite wife, and her children - Joseph and Benjamin - were his favorite sons.
In fact, Joseph was so favored that his brothers became jealous and sold him into slavery.
The brothers of Joseph gave a false report to Jacob that he was killed by a wild animal.
They showed blood stained clothes of Joseph as proof for the tragic death of Joseph.
And Jacob responded like this: "For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning." (37:35)
He could not bear the loss of his favorite son; his favorite son is torn to death by wild animals.
And he lived in mourning till he heard that Joseph was alive, after many years.
God was with Joseph, and he eventually fared well in Egypt and rescued his family from famine.

The last days of Jacob was spend in Egypt.
In Egypt, Jacob might have had a prosperous and respected life, because of Joseph.
But Egypt was not the Promised Land. It was a foreign land under a gentile king.
Thus Jacob lived more years in strange lands than in the Promised Land.

Jacob died in Egypt and Joseph and his brothers took Jacob’s body back to Canaan to be buried alongside Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. (49:29 - 50:3).
At his death and burial, he missed his loved wife, Rachel.
Before his death, Jacob blessed his twelve sons and he requested them to bury him in the cave that Abraham had bought for burial.


God chooses x ordinary people, though they are not perfect, to accomplish His kingdom purposes.
God chooses and renews people and even gives new names.
God gave Abram the name Abraham and Jacob the name Israel.
They are types of all those who believe in Jesus Christ and become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). Though our sinful patterns might still plague us, in Christ we find forgiveness for our sins as well as power to overcome.
We are invited to participate in God's work in the world.

Jacob was raised in a disordered family which is not a role model for anyone.
His mother dominated and manipulated every one.
His father shared the faith of Abraham and the blessings.
But he was passive and did not care about the plan of God.
His brother was very worldly and respected no spiritual values of the family.
Jacob had no good role models to follow.
But these circumstances do not give Jacob an excuse for a wrong style of relating to people.

We too should learn from Jacob.
Our circumstances may be wrong. Our family may be wrong.
But we are not helpless victims.
We either react wrongly to our environment or we act correctly in spite of our environment.
Jacob reacted wrongly to his upbringing. Jacob wanted to control his life, so he manipulated people.
Jacob’s problem was that he thought he could make it without God.

Jacob did this. And we do this.
We think we can find happiness apart from God.
We think we are in control of our lives. But God will not allow us to succeed without him.
He will block our efforts to satisfy ourselves and lead us back to Him.
We see how he did this with Jacob. And we can see how He does this to us.

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