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We are going to study the life of Jacob today, and I find his story particularly intriguing because we get to see his whole family and how they interact. In modern language Jacob came from a real dysfunctional family, and we will see the influence bad parents can have on their children.
Just so you will know where we are headed in our study, it is my premise that 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. So, we are going to study what is revealed to us about the life of Jacob and his family and see how it is that God finally got through to him.
It is significant that the author of Genesis spends ten whole chapters on Jacob. He only spent 11 chapters describing the period from creation to the flood to the tower of Babel. He spends 14 chapters on Abraham (12-25) in which we see the establishment of God’s covenant with His people, the Jews. After a brief mention of the descendents of Ishmael (Abraham’s mistake, at least from a human perspective), we begin the saga of Jacob. It also significant that following the extended treatment of Jacob (the independent man), we have an extended section dealing with Joseph who was the epitome of faithfulness and dependence on God.
Before we deal directly with Jacob, we will look at the rest of the family.
His Father - Isaac
What about Isaac? If you read Genesis and look for all the things Isaac did. You’ll find that not much space is devoted to him and he really didn’t do anything significant.
I was making a chart of Genesis and plotting the main characters or patriarchs to show what their main contribution and character were, and all I could come up with to describe Isaac was “Passive Acceptance.” He accepted his father’s near sacrifice of him, which is good, but the main point of that event is Abraham’s faith. Isaac did nothing else of significance in the entire book.
Isaac didn’t go out to find his own wife. I’ve been told, that it is a literary device in ancient Hebrew literature to have men 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. He delivered her from the bandits. What he did there was a foreshadowing of his deliverance of Israel. Jacob met his wife at a spring. He had difficulty removing the stone so he could drink. That was a foreshadowing of the fact that Rachel’s womb would be closed and they would have difficulty having children. 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 back home. I think this gives the reader an early clue as to his passive nature.
We will see other clues as we read through the narrative.
His Mother - Rebekah
All this weakness in Isaac let Rebekah take over. It was her natural tendency. I say that because it is every woman’s tendency is to want to take over when the man does not lead. In Gen 3:16, when it says the woman’s desire will be for her husband, it means that the woman’s desire will be to rule over her husband, because the next phrase is, “but he will rule over you.”
Isaac’s natural tendency was to be passive, so she took over the family and Jacob’s life.
Rebekkah had problems. When her twins are born, she shows partiality to Jacob, the non-hairy weaker looking one. Gen 25:27 says Jacob spent most of his time at home. So Rebekah takes over his life and arranges everything for him. She teaches him how to cook. She arranges for him to get the blessing, she arranges for his deliverance from Esau by sending him to her brother Laban, telling him everything will work out fine.
I think if we go to Gen 24:15 we might see one reason that Rebekah was like this. Notice that the marriage arrangements made by Abraham’s servant for Isaac and Rebekah are all made with Laban. Why? Their father is not dead. Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, is only mentioned in vs 15 as being the father and in verse 50 where he just acquiesses and gives permission for Abraham’s servant to take Rebekah. All the negotiations were made with Laban. I don’t think it is reading too much into the text to conclude that Bethuel was an uninvolved father. We can see the results in Rebekah. She had no advocate, so she took over and became a controlling woman. When she got married, she took over her family.
His Brother - Esau
The first thing that we learn about Esau is that he was a skillful hunter. I’m not sure this is such a great compliment though. Henry Morris points out that hunting was unnecessary because with the large heard of sheep, there was plenty to eat. This may mean that Esau was always away hunting as opposed to being at home helping with the chores and the sheep. We might conclude that he was irresponsible.
We do know that Esau was impulsive. He didn’t take his birthright seriously. He lived for the moment and didn’t care about God’s laws concerning marrying foreign women. Esau later married a daughter of Ishmael to try to please his father (not God). But it was too late and, even this is a paradox, because it shows that Esau cannot escape being out of the chosen line. His new wife is not of the chosen line either.
So I think we can see that Jacob came from a fairly typical family. His mother had a tendency to want to take control. The father let her. His brother was just a natural man concerned with the things of this world. This is the kind of family that Hollywood models for us. For example, The Cosby Show.
So how did all this affect Jacob? We’ve already seen some of it as we talked about the rest of the family, but let’s work through the ten chapters and see what we can learn.
The Stolen Birthright
In verse 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. Whatever the reason, it was an illegitimate one because it is never good to play favorites. I’m sure this had its ill effects on Jacob. He probably had to manipulate his father to get attention.
I’m not so sure this is as great an indictment against Jacob as it is against Esau. The author of Genesis only has comments about Esau and says, “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (vs 34).
I do think we can assume that Jacob knew that he was supposed to end up with the birthright eventually. I’m sure his mother told him what the Lord had told her. What this event shows us is that Jacob was not willing to wait on the Lord.
The Importance of the Birthright
In chapter 26 we do see something significant. It is not what Isaac did, though. It is what God did for Isaac. Chapter 26 gives us examples of how God blessed Isaac. When the famine hit, God said He would be with Isaac and bless him—because of His promise to Abraham. Consequently, Isaac prospered in everything. Even though he lied to Abimelech about his wife being his sister, God looked out for him (10). His crops produced a hundredfold (12). He became rich (13). When the Philistines filled in his wells, he had no trouble digging and finding water (18-19). The significance of this chapter is that it demonstrates that the blessing which Isaac was to pass on in chapter 27 was something worth having. It wasn’t just a double portion of a sizable inheritance. It was the very blessing of God.
Chapter 26 sets the stage for what happens in chapter 27.
The Stolen Blessing
It is very interesting to take chapter 27 as a play and separate it into scenes. Notice the interchange between characters. Who deals with whom throughout the play? Fokkelman points out the following:
Isaac sends Esau to get game Rebekah tells Jacob to prepare food for Isaac Isaac blesses Jacob
Esau returns but is not blessed Rebekah warns of Esau’s anger Rebekah tells Isaac to send Jacob away Isaac Rebekah Isaac Isaac Rebekah Isaac Esau Jacob Jacob Esau Jacob Rebekah
Act One - (27:1-4) - Isaac tells Esau to go get game
- Isaac is about to disregard God’s word.
- Esau is not going to honor his agreement with Jacob when he sold his birthright.
- Rebekah overhears the conversation - Eavesdropping perhaps?
- We don’t have this directly stated, but Fokkelman points out that when the author represents “Rebekah as an eavesdropper behind the scenes [that] is more pregnant than dwelling upon her plans and intentions.” And of course, it is her idea to deceive Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing.
Act Two - (27:5-17) - Rebekah tells Jacob to deceive Isaac
This is a perfect example of how she manipulated events to achieve what she thought was best. She knew God had said that Esau would serve Jacob. She knew Isaac knew it too. When Isaac decided to ignore God’s word, it was not Rebekah’s duty to go around Isaac and trick him. We know that because of the results that were achieved, namely, a torn up family. If she had had any type of relationship with Isaac, then she should have been able to talk to him, but they obviously did not.
I think this also illustrates how Rebekah has denied her husband and her marriage. Her priority should be to become one with and to support her husband. But we see that her child is more important to her than her husband.
Act Three -- (27:18-29) - Isaac blesses Jacob
Isaac is fooled by the smell of the clothing and the hairy arms and blesses Jacob.
Act Four - (27:30-41) - Esau is cursed
Esau had not forgotten his promise to Jacob. He mentions it in vs 36.
Act Five - (27:42-45) - Rebekah warns Jacob
Rebekah tells Jacob that Esau is going to kill him and that he must leave.
Act Six - (27:46) - Rebekah convinces Isaac to send Jacob away.
Another prime example of her manipulative style is seen in 27:46. When Rebekah fears for Jacob’s life, she goes to Isaac, and by using a logical reason that Jacob needed a wife, she manipulates Isaac into sending Jacob away. Her real goal was to protect him, not to find him a wife.
Rebekah never saw Jacob again. That was her reward for her meddling.
This is not a close knit family. There are definite problems in the relationships.
- Notice that Esau and Jacob do not interact.
- Notice that Esau and Rebekah do not interact.
- It looks like we have Isaac and Jacob interacting, but remember that Isaac thinks it’s Esau.
- And finally and perhaps most importantly, Isaac and Rebekah do not interact until the whole thing is over and she wants Isaac to send Jacob away.
So chapter 27 shows us again that Jacob could not wait on God to fulfill His promise to Rebekah.
It is ironic but Jacob is now leaving the promised land which was part of his blessing. It ought to be obvious to Jacob that there is something wrong with this picture. It ought to indicate that the way Jacob got the blessing was not what God would have planned.
However, we see that in spite of Jacob’s deceitful way of obtaining the blessing, God is going to honor it. I think in vss 20-21 we see that Jacob is still being a manipulator and he is trying to manipulate God. “If God will do ________, then He will be my God.” God has just promised that He will bless Jacob, but Jacob doesn’t really believe Him. He is trying to cut a deal.
We can also see by Jacob’s bargain that he is focused on physical blessings. He is a very horizontal man.
Dealing With Laban
Jacob finally met his match. He finally meets someone who is as deceitful as he is. Laban had the same upbringing as Rebekah and he was a manipulator too. Perhaps the point is this: “There is always someone out there or some situation that you can’t handle.”
Chapters 29-31: tell how Jacob worked seven years for Rachel and then on his wedding night, Laban sent Leah into the tent instead of Rachel. He then 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 to get away from Laban.
- The father (Isaac) who goes against the oracle, ends up fulfilling it in the end with his own blessing.
- Jacob’s own efforts to become lord of his own family only lead him into slavery to Laban.
- Jacob, the younger brother, supplants the older brother. Laban says, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the first-born.” (29:26) You know that has to remind him of his own deception.
The Wrestling Match With God
In Genesis 32: we have the account of the wrestling match with God. Jacob is coming back to meet Esau and is wondering how his brother is going to react. When he left the land Esau was trying to kill him. He has sent his servants ahead (vs 3-5), bearing gifts to bribe Esau. He had resources he could use to save himself.
In verse 6 the messengers come back and say that Esau is coming to meet them with 400 men. It looks like Esau is bringing warriors to destroy them.
In verses 7-8 we see that Jacob devises another plan to save himself. He decides to divide his family putting Leah and her children and servants in one group and Rachel and her children and servants in another group. That way he can cut his losses if one group is destroyed.
Verses 9-12 show Jacob praying to God for deliverance. It looks like Jacob is going to finally give up and depend on God, but verses 13-23 show that he was really still trying to control the situation and save himself.
So I went back and re-studied his prayer in verses 9-12. It may be my imagination, but I think Jacob is trying to manipulate God in his prayer. In verse 9 he is claiming God’s promise that He would bless Jacob. In verse 10 he gives God the credit for his prosperity and then he again claims God’s promise to bless him in verses 11-12. It seems to me that Jacob was almost saying to God, “Come through for me God. You promised me. You owe me!”
So I don’t think his prayer was one of total dependence on God. Verse 13 proves it when we see he is going to continue with his plan to bribe Esau and to divide his family into two groups. The next few verses (13-23) lay out the elaborate scheme he had devised to protect himself.
But that night God, who is still trying to get through to Jacob, meets with Jacob. Verse 24 says, “Jacob was left alone.” It is such a little phrase, but I think it is very, very important. He had run out of resources. Jacob has finally been broken. Jacob is at the end of his rope. His life is a mess. He is all alone, he has exhausted his own resources and has to face Esau alone. I think Jacob is finally broken to the point where he will now trust in God.
What did God do to Jacob when He wanted to get hold of Jacob’s life? He revealed Himself to him.
As soon as we see that Jacob is alone, it says that “a man wrestled with him.” That man is God. We know that because Jacob is given a new name, “Israel” which means “he fights with God.”
Why does God say “let me go” in vs 26? Because daybreak would have revealed His face to Jacob and Jacob would have died. But Jacob wouldn’t let go. He says, “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob has finally come to the point where he would rather die than live without God’s blessing.
Notice also that 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. It is not a hard and fast rule, but it seems to me that there are certain places in the OT where God calls the nation, “Jacob,” instead of, “Israel,” and it is because they are acting independent.
Incidentally, after he meets with God, we turn to Gen 33:3 and see that although he left the people divided into two groups, instead of hiding behind them, he now goes out in front of them to face Esau alone. He now is depending on God and not his own resources. Esau receives him openly and it seems that there are no hard feelings. God has paved the way for Jacob to return to the promised land.
The story doesn’t end with the words, “And he lived happily ever after.” I’m sure Jacob continued to struggle with his tendency toward manipulation. But I think he had learned his lesson. What we’ve studied this morning gives us a good picture of possible circumstances and problems and the process involved in depending on God.
We’ve looked at Jacob’s family and Jacob himself this morning. So we need to ask the “So what” questions.
What about Jacob’s family? I think we can conclude that he was raised in a less than desirable family. His mother dominated and manipulated. His father was passive and did not follow God’s will. His brother was very worldly. He had no good role models to follow. So he developed a wrong style of relating to people.
Does this give Jacob an excuse? No! That is something we really need to emphasize because of the way our society thinks. We are not helpless victims. We either react wrongly to our environment or we act correctly I spite of our environment. Jacob reacted wrongly to his upbringing.
What was Jacob’s problem? He wanted to control his life, so he manipulated people. Jacob’s problem was he thought he could make it on his own without God.
We are just like Jacob because we try to handle life on our own without God.
- Maybe we are looking for a best friend who is going to be there when we need them.
- Maybe we are looking for that perfect job which is going to offer us security through a regular paycheck or give us enough money to buy the things we want.
- Maybe we manipulate our spouses or other people to get the things we want.
But all this doesn’t work. I continually go back to Hosea 2:5-6 which says
5 Their mother has been unfaithful and has conceived them in disgrace. She said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my oil and my drink.’ 6 Therefore I will block her path with thornbushes; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way. 7 She will chase after her lovers but not catch them; she will look for them but not find them. Then she will say, ‘I will go back to my husband as at first, for then I was better off than now.’
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. I think we can see how he did this with Jacob. And if we reflect on our own lives a little, I think we can see how He does this to us.