Jacob is one of the most layered characters in the Bible. We learn about the various stages of his life, the conflicts in which he finds himself, and his dysfunctional family, which nonetheless became the starting point of the Israelite nation.
Jacob, Youngest Son of Isaac
There are many similarities between Jacob and his father, Isaac. Like Isaac, Jacob was born of a woman who was initially infertile. He, too, is the youngest of two sons, but he receives the greatest blessing and the carrier of the covenant line. Like Isaac, Jacob marries within the clan, finding his wives among the relatives in Haran.
But Jacob’s temperament seems very different from Isaac. Isaac patiently walked with his father to be sacrificed; Isaac was meditating when he first met his wife. Jacob, on the other hand, is a trickster from birth. Jacob is the prodigal, sowing trouble and reaping grief, and when he finally comes home safely, it is only by the grace of God.
Just as with Isaac, the LORD appeared personally to Jacob, to affirm his covenant. But Jacob’s response is more tentative than his father’s, even though he saw the glory and nearness of the LORD in a marvelous vision (Gen. 28). Jacob recognizes the divine presence and names the place Beth-El, “house of God”; but while he consecrates a commemorative stone, he conditions his allegiance to the LORD on a safe return. It takes over 20 years for Jacob to fulfill his vow. (See Gen. 35:7.)
Jacob and Esau
Ishmael and Isaac had differed in parentage, social status, and age. But Isaac’s sons, Esau and Jacob, were twins. Jacob was younger by minutes. This makes it all the more remarkable that the LORD continues his covenant only through one of them. Strangely, the youngest inherits the greater blessing. Why? The narrative mentions at least four elements that distinguish Jacob and Esau.
- Jacob tends flocks at home, while Esau is a roaming hunter. The precise meaning of the “softness” of Jacob (Heb. tam; Gen. 25:27) is a matter of debate.
- Esau naturally has the rights of an oldest son, and can expect the greater inheritance. He cares for it so little, that he is willing to let it go for a bowl of food. Esau’s aloofness is brought out stylistically in Gen. 25:34, with its staccato stringing together of verbs: wayyokhal, wayyesht, wayyaqom, wayyelakh, “he ate, drank, rose, and went.”
- Esau married two “local” (Hittite) women (26:34), against his parents wishes and in violation of the covenantal separation. Jacob will follow his father’s example and marry within the clan.
- Jacob had the love of his mother, and she helped him trick blind father Isaac into giving him the greater blessing.
But behind all these factors, the Bible acknowledges that ultimate this was the choice of the LORD. It was his plan all along to bless Jacob, the younger son, more than Esau. “The elder shall serve the younger,” the LORD had prophesied already before their birth (Gen. 25:23).
In the New Testament, Paul highlights God’s sovereign choice in continuing the covenant from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob, passing by Ishmael and Esau. He writes:
When Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
Through the scheming of family members, God’s “purpose of election” worked its way out in history. Traditionally, Calvinists often have quoted this passage in Romans 9 to emphasize that God’s election governs history. This is indeed an important point of Paul’s teaching here. It must be balanced, however, with the observation that Esau was not an innocent victim. He had callously despised the covenant and his birthright, and had to bear the consequences (see Heb. 12:16-17). Likewise, the LORD’s hatred and rejection of Esau’s family line was based on a centuries-long history of opposition. Note that the quote in Rom. 9:13 comes from Malachi 1, which looks back on centuries of hostility between Israelites and Edomites.
Jacob and Laban
Laban was Jacob’s uncle, the brother of his mother Rebecca. The family ties obligated Laban to take Jacob under his care, as an adoptive son, and in the culture of the time it make sense for Jacob to marry his cousins. Jacob’s apprenticeship at Laban’s farm was not unusual. What is unusual, is Laban’s hard-nosed trickery and manipulation. He manages to keep Jacob in his employ for 20 years without allowing him to earn independence. Jacob had the status of an adopted son, but was treated like a slave. Of course, Laban’s deceit brings great irony into the story. Jacob “earned” his covenant blessing through trickery, but gets paid back in spades.
Eventually, Jacob is so fed up with his treatment that he sneaks away with his entire family. Legally, of course, he could claim Laban’s daughters and grandchildren, as well as his own flock for which he had worked so hard. But Laban still considers this an act of hostility; his excuse for harshly pursuing Jacob is the disappearance of his household gods (teraphim). (As readers, we are shocked to learn that the covenant family still routinely engages in pagan practices.) Ironically, Laban is out-tricked by his own daughter, Rachel (31:34-35). It is also ironical that this time, Jacob is entirely clueless about the situation.
Laban and Jacob make a truce. The erection of a monument marks the northern boundary of the promised land. It also celebrates Jacob’s safe return from Haran, with his family and possessions intact, as a saving act of the covenant LORD.
Jacob, contender with God
The most puzzling event in the Jacob narrative is his encounter at Peniel (Gen. 32:24ff). Jacob is nervous about his return to Canaan, because his brother Esau may still be angry at him. He has taken all the precautions he can, but the situation is precarious. The night before crossing the boundary river, Jacob has an encounter. It is more than a dream, more than a vision. A mysterious man attacks Jacob and they fight the entire night.
The stranger has heavenly qualities, and Jacob realizes that his opponent is, somehow, God himself. Yet Jacob has the upper hand in the fight—except, at the very end, the stranger gives him a final, crippling blow to the hip. Jacob is encouraged and knows himself blessed. The river will be known as Peni-El, the “face of God”. Jacob himself receives the nickname Isra-El, “contender with God”. The precise intention of this name is not clear to me; but at the very least is hints at the rocky dynamic in the relationship between God and Jacob, which will carry on throughout the history of his descendants.
After facing off with God at night, “Israel” has no fear for the day, even though he must face his brother. The reunion is not hostile as Jacob had feared (and deserved), but friendly. He regards the meeting with his brother as another encounter with the “face of God”, now in his loving mercy (33:10).
It was not entirely Jacob’s fault that he ended up marrying both sisters, Leah and Rachel. But his strong preference for the younger and prettier Rachel over her older sister Leah resulted in much grief in the household. Especially because the LORD gave children to Leah and not to Rachel. As daughters of deceitful Laban and wives of trickster Jacob, the two sisters engage in their own tug-of-war. Just a Sarah had used her personal servant Hagar to overcome her barrenness, so Rachel employs her servant Bilhah as surrogate; Leah, even though she has several children of her own, counters by presenting her own maid Zilpah to Jacob. The competition even involves negotiations about aphrodisiacs and rights to share their husband’s bed (30:14-18). The relationships within the household deteriorate, and when Rachel finally conceives a child, they don’t improve at all.
So Jacob ends up with four wives, twelve sons, and a daughter. The oldest three sons disqualify themselves from being the principal heir by their immoral behavior. Reuben has the audacity to bed his father’s concubine (Gen. 35:22); Simeon and Levi kill an entire village through trickery, as revenge for the violation of their sister Dinah (Gen 34). As we find out in chapter 38, the next son in line, Judah, also has serious moral flaws. All in all, the family of Jacob is dysfunctional, a household full of envy and resentment. The worst example is yet to come, in the Joseph story. (See next installment.)
It is a sobering though that this family of twelve sons was the starting point of the Israelite tribes. The strength of the covenant family never came from the people themselves. Only God’s grace and his remarkable guidance hold them together.