Question: "What should we learn from the life of Jacob?"
Answer: Jacob’s life began with a struggle. As a twin in the womb with Esau, he jostled for position and was born grasping his brother’s heel. Jacob’s name is translated as “he deceives” (Genesis 25:26). When his mother, Rebekah, asked God during her pregnancy what was happening to her, 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).
Jacob and Esau grew up together living a nomadic life. Esau became a fine hunter and loved to be out and about in the countryside while Jacob was a quiet, “stay-at–home” type (Genesis 25:27). Esau, being a hunter, was his father’s favorite as Isaac loved the wild game Esau brought home, while Jacob was favored by his mother (Genesis 25:28). This destructive favoritism would follow the family into the next generation, most notably with Jacob’s son Joseph. Such was Jacob’s favoritism for Joseph that it caused great resentment among his brothers and nearly cost Joseph his life.
When Isaac was old and his eyesight faded, he realized he was near to his death and made arrangements with Esau to pass on to him the blessings due to the firstborn son (Genesis 27:1-4). On hearing this, Rebekah hatched a plan to deceive Isaac into blessing Jacob instead. Thus, Jacob received his father’s blessing, and as Esau discovered, this was the second time he had been deceived by his brother (Genesis 27:36). Esau vowed he would kill Jacob for this as soon as the period of mourning was over for his father’s death (vs. 41).
Once again, Rebekah steps in and warns Jacob of his brother’s vow, and after influencing Isaac that Jacob should find himself a wife from among his own people, Jacob is sent off to his uncle Laban who lived in their ancestral home of Haran (vs. 43). During Jacob’s journey, he has a dream of a ladder to heaven with God at the top and angels ascending and descending. This imagery is mirrored in Jesus’ words to His disciple Nathanael (John 1:51). God gives Jacob His assurance of His presence and the fulfillment of His promise to Abraham (Genesis 28:13-15). As a result of this experience, Jacob renames the place “Bethel,” meaning “house of God,” and he makes a vow to serve God.
After Jacob settles in Haran, Laban offers him payment for the work he had been doing as a shepherd looking after his flocks. And Jacob agrees with Laban to work for seven years in return for Laban’s daughter Rachel, whom he loved deeply. However, Jacob was to discover that his uncle Laban could be just as much a deceiver as he had been. On Jacob’s wedding night, Laban substitutes his older daughter, Leah, for Rachel (Genesis 29:23-25). However, Jacob agrees to work a further seven years for Laban to marry Rachel, which he does a week after marrying Leah. And Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (vs. 30).
While Rachel remained barren, Leah gave birth to Jacob’s firstborn son, Reuben. Then followed the birth of 11 more sons from Rachel, Leah, and their two handmaidens. These sons would be the progenitors of the 12 tribes of Israel. Eventually, Jacob receives God’s command to return to the land of his fathers accompanied by His promise “And I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3). So, Jacob leaves Haran, taking with him his wives and children and all the vast flocks he had accumulated. When Laban learns that Jacob has left, he sets off in hot pursuit as he discovers his idols have been stolen. Continuing the legacy of deception, Rachel had taken them, but she manages to conceal them from her father during his search. Laban and Jacob eventually part company after swearing an oath not to invade one another’s lands or to harm any of its inhabitants.
Jacob’s next highlight comes when he has to face his brother Esau. Though twenty years had passed since they had last seen each other, the memory of Esau’s threat to kill Jacob had never left him (Genesis 32:11). Jacob sends messengers ahead of him with gifts, instructing them to tell Esau that he is following on. On this night, Jacob experiences the greatest highlight of his life when he wrestles with a man whom he later learns is God (vss. 22-31). During the wrestling he is blessed by God and given the promised new name of “Israel,” the name that would remain with his descendants and the land they were promised by God until the present day.
To Jacob’s relief, the reunion with Esau is a warm one. Nevertheless, Jacob isn’t fully trusting of his brother Esau and so, instead of meeting up with him as agreed, Jacob takes his family another route where they finally purchase a plot of land and settle in El Elohe Israel or “Mighty is the God of Israel.” Jacob the deceiver is always wary of others who might be trying to deceive him. Here we see that the mind of those who plot to deceive is always suspicious of the motives of others and can never fully be at rest.
The following chapter (Genesis 34) records the rape of Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah, and the revenge her brothers Simeon and Levi carry out on the rapist’s entire community. Once again, we see how the deviousness of the parents is passed on to the children in the way they overcome their enemy. Jacob is livid with his sons, and, in obedience to God’s guidance, he moves his family back to Bethel (Genesis 35:1), where God reappears to Jacob and confirms His blessing (Genesis 35:9-10). In Jacob’s meeting with God, he receives the promise that kings and many nations will come from him and that the land God had promised his forefathers would be his inheritance (vss. 11-12).
We may be inclined to consider Jacob’s name “deceiver” as fitting; however, we mustn’t overlook the fact that it was his mother, Rebekah, who conceived the plan to deceive Jacob’s father on the basis of God’s promise that the older would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). However, as Jacob went along with the plan, he reaped the consequences. “Like father, like son” is a phrase that would be appropriate for Jacob’s family as we read of his sons deceiving Hamor and his people in order to avenge the rape of their sister, Dinah. Nevertheless, God remained faithful to Jacob and, despite Jacob’s faults, God chose him to be the leader of a great nation that still bears his name today. But for this, it is unlikely that we would know much about Jacob, who appears to be in the middle of events while the key players are those around him. There is no great wisdom or bravery in Jacob to speak of, and we are tempted to see him as little more than God’s passive instrument. If we are tempted to think that, because we aren’t in the spotlight performing great acts for God, we are unimportant to Him, then we should consider the life of Jacob and know that, in spite of our failings, God can and will still use us in His plan.
When Jacob is fearful for his life and his family, he prays a humble prayer to God, reminding Him of the promise He had made to him for his safety (Genesis 32:9-12). The Bible is full of promises that God has made to those He has called. So, when we are in times of trouble and fearful of the outcome, like Jacob we should humbly call on God and remind Him of His promises to us, and as with Jacob, God will fulfill them.