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24. Dealing with Death (Genesis 23:1-20)


I have always loved challenges. As a mechanic I delight to delve into a problem that seemingly evades diagnosis. As a preacher I thrive on the passages that would normally be passed by. It would seem that I have come to the right passage for my personality as I approach the twenty-third chapter of Genesis. A preacher whom I greatly respect confesses that this is one text he would not preach by choice. In reading over a sermon he preached on this chapter I note that four-fifths of his sermon dealt with one-tenth of the text.

We should not be shocked to find the death of Sarah recorded as a part of the biography of Abraham; however, of the twenty verses in this chapter, less than two of them refer to the emotional response of Abraham to his wife’s death. No romanticist could tolerate this! The remaining eighteen verses have to do with the purchase of the plot where Sarah is buried.

I know that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but I want us to come to this text fully convinced that God has a word for us here. Furthermore, I believe that we must seek the greatest part of our instruction from the greater part of the passage—the purchase of the plot of ground in which Sarah is buried.

Preparation for Sarah’s Parting

While Sarah’s death is not recorded until Genesis 23, the previous chapter has prepared Abraham and us for the events of our passage. The “sacrifice” of Isaac on Mount Moriah brought Abraham to a firm faith in God’s power to raise the dead (cf. Hebrews 11:19). While this did not prove a necessity in the case of Isaac, it would be so with Sarah in the years ahead. A willingness to put Isaac to death enabled Abraham to accept the passing of his wife Sarah.

Furthermore, the last verses of chapter 22 record an incident which would bear upon the future:

Now it came about after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying, “Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: Uz his firstborn and Buz his brother and Kemuel the father of Aram and Chesed and Hazo and Pildash and Jidlaph and Bethuel.” And Bethuel become the father of Rebekah; these eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, also bore Tebah and Gaham and Tahash and Maacah ( Genesis 22:20-24; emphasis added).

In the providence of God a wife for Isaac had already been provided long before the need had arisen. God takes care of the future in advance. As a friend of mine has put it, “The ram is already in the bush” (cf. 22:13).

Beyond this, the report summarized in verses 20-24 reminded Abraham that his fatherland and family were far away. No doubt the news from “home” pulled at Abraham’s emotional heartstrings. When Sarah died there would be strong emotional reasons for taking her body “home” to bury it. These verses, then, remind us of the strong ties that still remained at Mesopotamia and the significance of Abraham’s decision to bury his wife in Canaan.

Abraham’s Faith Expressed
in His Response to Sarah’s Death

Godly Grief (vss. 1-2)

While our faith is not to be based upon our feelings, neither should it be divorced from our emotions. The first two verses provide the background to our chapter and also describe the grief of the patriarch:

Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her (Genesis 23:1-2).

As commentators over the centuries have noted, Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age is revealed. One hundred twenty-seven years is a ripe old age, but the death of Sarah would have seemed untimely because of her youthfulness. Even at the age of ninety she was a woman attractive enough to catch the eye of Abimelech (20:1-2). Sarah must have appeared to have found the fountain of youth. Her youthfulness and beauty would have concealed the fact that death was coming upon her.

Abraham seems to have been elsewhere at the time of Sarah’s death. While some fanciful explanations exist for this fact, it would be most easily explained by Abraham being out with his flocks or something similar. When he learned of the death of his wife he came to her side to mourn for her.

While the emphasis of the passage does not fall here, we do know that Abraham expressed the grief common to those who face the death of a loved one. Faith is not evidenced by a stoic, stainless steel attitude toward death. Some years ago Jackie Kennedy was lauded for her ‘‘faith” when she “stood up so well” during the death of her husband. History has pretty well provided evidence that Jackie’s lack of emotion at the funeral may have been due to a lack of feeling for her husband. We need only to remark that our Lord wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35).

The Purchase of a Plot (vss. 3-20)

Sarah’s death brought Abraham to a point of decision. The practical matter was: “Where shall I bury Sarah?” The principal issue, however, was this: “Where shall I be buried?” Most often when a burial plot is purchased for the first partner another is bought alongside for the surviving partner, and frequently a whole family plot is secured simultaneously. When Abraham decided upon the burial place for Sarah, he also determined the place of his burial and of his descendants.

Abraham thus approached the Hittites to purchase a burial plot for himself and his family. How strange it must have been for Abraham to petition the Hittites for a burial place in light of the often repeated promise of God:

On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite’ (Genesis 15:18-21).

Abraham was compelled to buy a portion of the land God had promised to give him and his descendants. Furthermore, he was to purchase the land from a people that God was going to give into his hand. How ironic that Abraham should humbly bow before these people and petition them for a piece of ground.

As we have noted, the majority of chapter 23 is devoted to the description of a legal transaction involving the purchase of a burial plot in Canaan. Only in the light of that culture and time can we grasp the transaction fully. It was a legal process that followed the practices of the Hittites precisely. Even my friend and fellow elder (who is a real estate attorney), could not have done it better.

Legal transactions were typically conducted at the city gate, where the city leaders were present and where witnesses were at hand (cf. Ruth 4:1ff). The terms of the agreement were determined by a sequence of negotiations fully within the customs and culture of the day. It may seem “foreign” to us, and so it is, but not to Abraham or the Hittites. Abraham’s dealings are a model of dignity and fair play.

Abraham’s request (vss. 3-4): Abraham had requested the sons of Heth (verse 3), the Hittites (verse 10), to provide him a place to bury Sarah. He acknowledged that his problem was his status as a “stranger and sojourner” among them (verse 4). At the bottom line this meant that he was not a property owner and had no permanent burial plot.

A generous offer (vss. 5-6): Abraham’s request was taken at face value. It seemed as though Abraham was only asking for the use of a burial place. A man of his station was not to be refused such a request. Abraham was considered a “prince of God.” These Canaanites recognized the hand of God upon this man and were inclined to treat him favorably, even as Abimelech had expressed previously (21:22ff) .

If Abraham wished the use of a burial place, anyone would gladly loan him the best they had. However, a borrowed grave was not acceptable to Abraham. There is really nothing wrong with a borrowed grave; our Lord was buried in one you recall (Matthew 27:60), but our Lord only needed His grave for three days, whereas Abraham needed his site for posterity (Genesis 25:9; 50:13). Nothing less than a permanent possession would satisfy Abraham.

A clarification (vss. 7-9): Abraham’s intentions were not yet understood. He desired a permanent possession, not a borrowed tomb. This land of Canaan was to be his home, not a mere stopping-off place. Consequently, Abraham asked the people to urge Ephron to sell him the cave of Machpelah, which was at the end of his field (verse 9). This was not to be a gift but a purchase at full value of the property.

A modification (vss. 10-11): Ephron, who was sitting among the city’s leaders, responded to Abraham’s request. The significant item is not the offer to give the land to Abraham, for this seems to have been mere formality; it was not an insincere offer so much as one which no one would accept with honor. The modification is in the quantity of land to be deeded over. Abraham asked only for the cave at the end of Ephron’s field, but Ephron specified that the deal was to be a package, the field and the cave. The significance of this will be suggested later.

An anticipated response (vss. 12-13): As expected, Abraham refused the offer of the gift but did accept the alteration of the agreement, and so the sale is well under way. The field with the cave will be sold to Abraham, and only the price needs to be established.

The price set and met (vss. 14-16): One must appreciate the beauty of the near-eastern culture to enjoy this final act of negotiation. Ephron was nobody’s fool. He persists in his offer to give Abraham the land free of charge, but he also places a value on the “gift” that is offered. This accomplishes two things: it names the price, yet in a very generous way, and it makes it almost impossible for Abraham to bargain over the price. If Ephron is so generous as to offer to give the land to Abraham, how could Abraham be so small as to dicker over the price? Abraham paid the price, and both men went away with what they had hoped for.

A final summary (vss. 17-20): Again in what seems to be very technical and legal terminology, the transaction is outlined. As was the custom, even the trees are mentioned in the deeding of the property (verse 17). A burial site was thus procured, and Abraham proceeded to lay his wife’s body to rest.


For Abraham the purchase of the cave of Machpelah was an expression of his faith in God. The writer to the Hebrews alluded to this when he wrote:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

By determining that Sarah, and later he and his descendants, would be buried in Canaan, Abraham “staked his claim” in the land which God had promised. The land where he would be buried was to be the homeland of his descendants. The place that God had promised him was the place where he must be buried.

Jeremiah expressed a similar faith when he purchased the field of Anathoth (Jeremiah 32:6ff). While God was to judge His people for their sins by driving them out of the promised land, so He would bring them back when they repented. The purchase of the field of Anathoth evidenced Jeremiah’s conviction that God would do as He had promised (Jeremiah 32:9-15).

Abraham’s purchase not only exemplified his hope for a better country, a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16), it also involved him more deeply in the present world in which he lived as a stranger and sojourner. Sojourners didn’t own property, but now Abraham did, of necessity. Strangers and sojourners do not have as great an involvement or obligation as do citizens and property owners. Abraham’s purchase gave him a “dual citizenship,” so to speak. Let me suggest how this was so.

We are told that according to Hittite law Abraham would not have been obligated to the king had he only purchased the cave at Machpelah rather than the field and the cave.200 By acquiring property as he did, Abraham thus deepened his commitment of faith in God but also extended his worldly obligations. I think this is significant. In his first epistle Peter instructs Christians on their attitude and conduct toward this present world in light of the fact that we are strangers and pilgrims:

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king (I Peter 2:11-17).

Christians are citizens in two worlds, not just one. While our inheritance is in heaven, “imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away” (I Peter 1:4), we have obligations in this present world. We must submit to earthly authorities and institutions (I Peter 2:11ff). We must also obey the laws of the land and pay our taxes (Romans 13:1-7).

Christians have often been accused of being “so heavenly minded, they are of no earthly good.” If I understand the Bible correctly, our heavenly mind is what makes us useful in the present. Abraham lived in the present in the light of the future. His future inheritance did not lessen his present obligations; it established his priorities. The fact that he would inherit the land of Canaan and “possess the gates of his enemies” (Genesis 22:17) did not mean he would be kept from purchasing property and bowing before constituted authority (cf. 23:7,12) and this at the very gates of those whom God would later put under his authority (15:20).

Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot provided Israel with roots in the promised land. Jacob, who died in Egypt, was buried in the cave which Abraham purchased (Genesis 50:1-14). When the Israelites were freed from Egyptian bondage, where else would they return but to their fatherland?

Interestingly, the land of Canaan had not yet been possessed when this book (Genesis) was written. But those who received it from the hand of Moses were those who looked forward to its conquest. None other than Caleb was given the privilege of taking the land which Abraham had purchased as an “earnest of his inheritance” (cf. Joshua 14:13). What motivation this story must have provided for the armies of Israel as they marched into Canaan to possess it!

For men today this event out of ancient biblical history has numerous implications:

(1) It indicates that in the Old Testament as well as in the New the grave is the symbol of hope to a true believer in God. The cave of Machpelah stood for centuries as a monument to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The empty tomb of our Lord guarantees the Christian that the grave is not our final resting place but an abode for the body until Christ returns for His own (I Corinthians 15; I Thessalonians 4).

What does the grave mean to you, my friend? Is it the end or only the beginning? Your relationship to the God of Abraham and to His Son, Jesus Christ, makes the difference.

(2) Where we invest our money demonstrates where we plan to spend our future. One of the five men martyred for his faith in Ecuador, Jim Elliot, once said: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Abraham believed that God’s promises were true. His investment in Canaan was the best purchase he ever made. In New Testament terminology he “laid up his treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20). The way we spend our money indicates the reality of our faith.

(3) The covenant of God should be the basis for our actions and decisions. Abraham’s faith was in God, but it was not a nebulous, groundless faith. He believed in the covenant which God had made and had often reiterated. It was Abraham’s faith in God’s ability to keep His covenant which prompted his purchase of the plot where he was to be buried.

Often times people ask why we remember the Lord’s table every week. The answer is at least two-fold. First, this is what our Lord commanded and the early church practiced (Luke 22:14-20; I Corinthians 11:23ff; Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7). Second, this is a weekly reminder of the covenant which our Lord has made with us—the new covenant in His blood (Luke 22:20). Our actions and decisions should be governed by the assurance that this covenant will be fully realized in the life of the believer. That, my friend, is something to be reminded of frequently.

(4) The burial of a loved one is a significant opportunity for a Christian to publicly express his faith. Frequently we are told that the purchase of the burial plot was done before the eyes of the sons of Heth (23:3,7,9,10, etc.). The significance of Abraham’s actions did not pass these Canaanites by. They knew him as a “prince of God.”

The occasion of the death of a loved one should always be viewed as an opportunity for Christian witness. What we say at such times is very important, but let us not forget that what we do is also vital. Abraham’s deeds in chapter 23 are as significant as his declarations.

While what I have to say at this point is only inferential at best, I believe it to be true. There is a very real need to balance two factors. Twice Abraham spoke of burying his dead “out of his sight” (23:4,8). The body of a deceased saint is not to be venerated or treated as some kind of sacred object. The dead body is only the shell in which the soul has abided. The body must be laid aside, out of sight. Some would do well to consider this.

On the other hand, the body is that which God has fashioned (Psalm 139:13-16), it has served as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 6:15, 19-20); it will be raised again and be transformed incorruptible (I Corinthians 15:35-49). Because of this the body should not be disposed of in such a way as to disregard the value it has been given by its Creator.

While we may decry the “high cost of death,” let me suggest that some may overreact to burial costs in such a way as to affect their Christian testimony. Unbelievers, who see no life after death, no resurrection, may well dispose of the body as cheaply and irreverently as possible. The Christian should give serious thought to this, however.

I do not think that Abraham was extravagant in the burial of his wife, but neither do I believe that he sought a bargain basement burial. Most scholars suspect the price of that plot was high.201 Abraham did not bargain over the price. He did not, excuse the expression, “Jew Ephron down.” The motivation of Abraham as well as his moderation should be considered in relationship to funerals. While our faith does not need frills nor our consciences silver-inlaid coffins, we must be careful not to reflect the values of a decadent society as we bury our dead.

200 “The situation is clarified by the Hittite law code found at Hettueas, Bogaskoi, in Asia Minor, which throws considerable light on the transaction. Law 46 stipulates that the holder of an entire field shall render the feudal obligations, but not he who holds only a small part. A later version stipulates that notice of the sale be made to the king and only those feudal services stipulated at that time are to be given. According to Law 47 lands held as gifts from the king do not incur feudal obligations, while sale of all a craftsman’s lands do carry it. On the other hand, if the larger portion of his holding is sold, the obligation passes to the buyer. One who usurps a field or is given a field by the people bears the obligation. By these various conditions it is seen that the land itself bears the obligation which posses to the new buyer.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 193.

201 There is much difference of opinion as to how high a price Abraham paid for the burial plot. Both the relative value of the silver and the size of the field are unknown. Since Moses did not state that the price was exceptionally high, we should draw such conclusions with caution.

25. How to Find a Godly Wife (Genesis 24:1-67)


Ann Landers received a letter from a reader that went like this:

Dear Ann Landers:

Why would any husband adore a lazy, messy, addlebrained wife? Her house looks as if they’d moved in yesterday. She never cooks a meal. Everything is in cans or frozen. Her kids eat sent-in food. Yet this slob’s husband treats her like a Dresden doll. He calls her “Poopsie” and “Pet,” and covers the telephone with a blanket when he goes to work so she can get her rest. On weekends he does the laundry and the marketing.

I get up at 6 a.m. and fix my husband’s breakfast. I make his shirts because the ones in the stores “don’t fit right.” If my husband ever emptied a wastebasket, I’d faint. Once when I phoned him at work and asked him to pick up a loaf of bread on his way home, he swore at me for five minutes. The more you do for a man, the less he appreciates you. I feel like an unpaid housekeeper, not a wife. What goes on anyway?

—The Moose (That’s what he calls me.)

Ann’s response is classic. She responded:

A marriage license is not a guarantee that the marriage is going to work, any more than a fishing license assures that you’ll catch fish. It merely gives you the legal right to try.202

I share this bit of sage wisdom with you because it surfaces a very pertinent caution as we approach Genesis 24. We all know that this chapter, the longest in the book of Genesis, is devoted to a description of the process of finding a wife for Isaac. Finding the right woman is absolutely essential. But as important as this is, finding the right person does not insure a godly marriage. As Ann Landers put it, “It only gives us the right to try.”

Excessive emphasis on finding the right wife or husband can have some disastrous effects for those already married. It is possible for someone to conclude that they have married the wrong person. I know of one well-known preacher who strongly implies that if you have not married the right person, you should get a divorce and try again.

We who are married need to study this passage for what it teaches us on the subject of servanthood and seeking the will of God. When it comes to the subject of marriage, there is much here to instruct us as parents who wish to prepare our children for marriage. But so far as our own partners are concerned, we need to place far more emphasis upon the matter of being the right partner rather than upon finding the right partner.

The thrust of our study, then, will be to study the search for Isaac’s wife within its cultural and historical setting and then to look into the implications of this passage for servanthood, seeking God’s will, and marriage.

The Servant Commissioned

Sarah had been dead three years, and Abraham was now 140 years old, “advanced in age” as Moses described it.203 While death was still 35 years away, Abraham had no reason to presume that he would live to such an age, so he began to make preparations for his passing. His greatest concern was the marriage of Isaac to a woman who would help him raise a godly seed, even as God had previously made clear:

For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him (Genesis 18:19).

Abraham entrusted the responsibility of finding a wife for Isaac to no one less than his oldest and most trusted servant. It is possible, though not stated, that this servant was Eliezer of Damascus. If this is true, the greatness of this servant is the more striking, for his task was for the benefit of the son of Abraham, who would inherit all that might have been his:

And Abram said, ‘O Lord GOD, what wilt Thou give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ (Genesis 15:2)

The devotion of this servant to his master and to his master’s God is one of the highlights of the chapter. His piety, prayer life, and practical wisdom set a high standard for the believer in any age.

The servant, whatever his name, was commissioned to secure a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. Only two stipulations were stated by Abraham: the wife must not be a Canaanite (24:3), and Isaac must not, under any circumstances, be taken back to Mesopotamia, from whence God had called him (24:6).

These two requirements promote separation while preventing isolation. Isaac’s presence in the land of Canaan, even when he did not possess it, evidenced his faith in God and developed devotion to and dependence upon God alone. It also served as a means of proclaiming to the Canaanites that Yahweh alone was God. Abraham and his offspring were missionaries in this sense.

While they lived among the Canaanites, they were not to become one with them by marriage. To move back to Mesopotamia would be isolation. To live among them but to marry a God-fearer would serve to insulate Isaac from too close a relation with these pagans. Thus, a wife must be secured from among the relatives of Abraham while, at the same time, Isaac was not allowed to return there himself.

The basis for Abraham’s decision to secure a wife for his son and the stipulations made are explained in verse 7:

The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me, and who swore to me, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give this land,’ He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there (Genesis 24:7).

First and foremost, Abraham’s actions were based upon revelation. God had promised to make Abraham a great nation and to bless all nations through him. It was not difficult to conclude that Abraham’s son must himself marry and bear children. Thus, while not a specific command, it was the will of God for Isaac to marry. Furthermore, it was determined that Isaac must remain in the land of Canaan. God had promised “this land” (verse 7) to Abraham and his offspring.

In addition, Abraham instructed his servant to seek out a wife for his son with the assurance that God would give divine guidance. “His angel” would be sent on ahead to prepare the way for the servant. Abraham thus acted upon revelation he had previously received, assured that additional guidance would be granted when needed. His faith was not presumption, however, for he allowed for the possibility that this mission might not be God’s means of securing a godly wife for Isaac: “… But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this my oath; only do not take my son back there” (Genesis 24:8).

What a wonderful example of faith in God as One Who guides His people. Abraham sent his servant, assured that God had led by His Word. Abraham sought a wife for his son, assured that God had prepared the way and would make that way clear. Abraham also allowed for the fact that God might not provide a wife in the way he had planned to procure her and thus made allowance for divine intervention in some other way.

While the oath that was sworn is unusual, occurring elsewhere only in Genesis 47:29, it is, without a doubt, a genuine act, probably common to that culture and time.204 We do know from the context that it was a solemn oath and one that must have been taken seriously by the servant. The significance of this mission is thereby underscored.

The Search Conducted

Imagine for a moment that you had been given the commission of Abraham’s servant. How would you possibly go about finding an acceptable wife for Isaac? What an awesome task this must have been. It may have appeared to be like finding a needle in a haystack. Naturally you would make adequate preparations, as the servant did, and journey to the land from which Abraham had come where his relatives still lived. The “city of Nahor” (verse 10) may have been Haran or near it (cf. 11:31-32).

A younger servant would probably have gone about this task in a very different manner. I can imagine him coming into town, advertising the fact that he worked for a very wealthy foreigner with a handsome, eligible son who was to be his only heir. His intention to find a bride would have been publicized, and only one lucky girl was to be chosen. To select such a bride the servant might have held a “Miss Mesopotamia” contest. Only those who were the most beautiful and talented would be allowed to enter, and the winner would become the wife of Isaac.

How different was the methodology of this godly servant. When his small caravan came to the “city of Nahor,” he immediately sought the will and guidance of God in prayer:

And he said, “O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today, and show lovingkindness to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water; now may it be that the girl to whom I say, ‘Please let down your jar so that I may drink,’ and who answers, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels also’—may she be the one whom Thou hast appointed for Thy servant Isaac; and by this I shall know that Thou hast shown lovingkindness to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).

Wisdom had brought him this far. He was in the right city, the “city of Nahor,” and he was at a good spot to observe the women of the city as they came to the spring for water. But how could he possibly discern the most important quality of a godly character? Months, even years, of observation might be required to discern the character of the women he interviewed.

The plan which this servant devised testifies to his wisdom and maturity. In one sense it seems to be a kind of “fleece” (cf. Judges 6:36-40) put out before the Lord. It would serve as a sign to the servant that this was the right woman to approach for his master as a wife for Isaac. In reality, the servant sought to test the woman rather than God. Camels are known to be very thirsty creatures, especially after a long trek in the desert. To give the servant a drink was one thing. To give a drink to the men and then to satisfy the thirst of the camels was an entirely different matter. The servant did not plan to ask the woman for water for his camels, only for himself. She could thus meet his request quite easily, while sensing no obligation to meet the total needs of the caravan. Any woman who was willing to “go the extra mile” in this matter was one of unusual character.

It was a wonderful plan, and the servant committed it to God in prayer. This unusual request reflected deep insight into human nature as well as dependence upon divine guidance. His petition was not to be denied. Indeed, it was answered even before the request was completed:

And it came about before he had finished speaking, that behold, Rebekah who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder. And the girl was very beautiful, a virgin, and no man had had relations with her; and she went down to the spring and filled her jar, and came up (Genesis 24:15-16).

Rebekah was, indeed, the right woman for Isaac. She was the daughter of Bethuel, Abraham’s nephew. Beyond this, she was a beautiful woman who had maintained her sexual purity—essential to the preservation of a godly seed. Seemingly, she was the first to appear and the only woman there at the moment. Everything the servant saw suggested that this woman was a candidate for the test he had devised.

Running to the woman, he asked for a drink. She quickly responded, lowering her jar and then returning time after time for more until the camels were satisfied. Not until the camels were thoroughly cared for did the servant speak up. While the woman’s evident beauty may have satisfied the standards of lesser men, the test was to be allowed to run its course. Adorning the woman with golden gifts, the servant proceeded to determine her ancestry. When this qualification was satisfied, the servant bowed in worship, giving the glory to God for His guidance and blessing:

Then the man bowed low and worshiped the LORD. And he said, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken His lovingkindness and His truth toward my master; as for me, the LORD has guided me in the way to the house of my master’s brothers’ (Genesis 24:26-27).

Securing Parental Consent

While the servant worshipped, Rebekah ran on ahead to report what had happened and to begin preparations for the guests that would be coming. Rebekah’s brother Laban is introduced to us here.205 His devotion to material wealth is suggested by his response:

And it came about that when he saw the ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s wrists, and when he heard the words of Rebekah his sister, saying, ‘This is what the man said to me,’ he went to the man; and behold, he was standing by the camels at the spring. And he said, ‘Come in, blessed of the LORD! Why do you stand outside since I have prepared the house, and a place for the camels?’ (Genesis 24:30-31)

Having found the woman who should be Isaac’s wife, the servant now had to convince the family that Abraham’s son Isaac was the right man for Rebekah. The fact that Rebekah would need to move far away was an obstacle which must be overcome by strong argumentation. This delicate task was skillfully handled by the servant. The urgency of his mission was indicated by his refusal to eat until the purpose of his journey was explained.

First, the servant identified himself as a representative of Abraham, Bethuel’s uncle (verse 34). This would have set aside many objections of these relatives, who were concerned to protect the purity of Rebekah’s descendants. Then the success of Abraham was reported. Abraham had not been foolish to leave Haran, for God had prospered him greatly. By inference, this testified to Isaac’s ability to provide abundantly for the needs of Rebekah, who was not living on a poverty level herself (cf. verses 59, 61). Isaac was said to be the sole heir of Abraham’s wealth (verse 36).

If the law of proportion can teach us anything, it must be that what is described in verses 37-49 is much more vital to the servant’s purposes than verses 34-36. The most compelling argument he could possibly provide was evidence that it was the will of God for Rebekah to become the wife of Isaac. He accomplished this by recounting all that took place from his commissioning by Abraham to the conclusion of his search at the spring. The conclusion of the servant’s presentation is compelling:

And I bowed low and worshiped the LORD, and blessed the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had guided me in the right way to take the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. So now if you are going to deal kindly and truly with my master, tell me, and if not, let me know, that I may turn to the right hand or the left (Genesis 24:48-49).

The forcefulness of the servant’s presentation was not missed. Laban and his father responded:

“… The matter comes from the LORD; so we cannot speak to you bad or good. Behold, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has spoken” (Genesis 24:50-51).

With permission granted for Rebekah to marry Isaac, the dowry gifts were brought forth and presented to the members of the family (vs. 53). Again the servant acknowledged the hand of God in these affairs and worshipped Him gratefully (verse 52). With these matters disposed of, they ate and drank, and the servant and his party spent the night.

In the morning when the servant expressed his desire to be on his way back to his master, Rebekah’s mother and brother expressed their wish to delay her departure. No doubt they knew that they might never see Rebekah again, and so they wished to have some time to say their farewells. The servant, however, pressed them to let her go immediately, and so Rebekah was consulted on the matter. Since she was willing to leave without delay, they sent her off with a blessing.

This blessing, combined with the response to the servant’s claim that God had led him to Rebekah, helps me to understand why Abraham insisted that Isaac’s wife be obtained from his close relatives in Mesopotamia. To some extent Bethuel and his household must have shared a faith in the God of Abraham. They quickly responded to the evidence of divine guidance as recounted by the servant (verses 37-49, 50-51). Their blessing on Rebekah is, in my estimation, a reflection of their faith in Abraham’s God and His covenant. The blessing they pronounced too closely parallels God’s covenant promise to Abraham to be coincidental:206



“And I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Gen. 17:16)

“May you, our sister, become thousands of ten thousands, And may your descendants possess the gate of those who hate them” (Gen. 24:60)


“Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies” (Gen. 22:17)

The Return

The mission had been accomplished, and now Rebekah walks in the steps of her great uncle Abraham. She, like he, was led by God to leave her homeland and relatives to go to the land of Canaan.

Isaac had been in the field meditating207 as the evening hours approached (verse 63). As he lifted up his eyes he beheld the caravan approaching. While it is somewhat conjectural, I believe that Isaac, like the servant earlier, had been praying about this task of finding a wife. Isaac could not have been unaware of the mission on which the servant had been sent, and surely Isaac could not have been uninterested in its outcome. For this reason I believe that Isaac was engaged in prayer for the servant that his mission would prosper. As in the case of the servant, Isaac’s prayer was answered even before it was completed.

Rebekah looked with interest upon the man who was approaching them. She asked the servant about him and learned that this man was her future husband. Appropriately, she covered herself with her veil.

Verse 66 may seem incidental, but I think it reports a very essential step in the process of seeking a wife for Isaac. Abraham was convinced that Isaac needed a wife like Rebekah. The servant, too, was assured that Rebekah was the one for Isaac and had succeeded in convincing her family of this fact. However, let us not overlook the fact that Isaac, too, needed to be assured that Rebekah was the woman God had provided for him. The servant’s report, while not repeated, must have been almost identical to the one recorded in verses 37-48. We know from verse 67 that Isaac was assured that Rebekah was God’s good and perfect gift for him.

Much is compressed into the final verse of this chapter. Isaac took Rebekah into his mother’s tent, and she became his wife. His love for her blossomed and continued to grow. His marriage gave Isaac consolation for the death of his mother.


Genesis 24 is a chapter that is rich in lessons for our lives, but I would like to focus upon three avenues of truth contained in our text: servanthood, guidance, and marriage.


Some have seen in Genesis 24 a type of the Trinity. Abraham is a type of the Father, Isaac of the Son, and the servant of the Holy Spirit. While this may be a good devotional thought, it does not seem to me to be the heart of the message for Christians today. Also, the analogy seems to break down frequently.

Rather than seeing him as a type of the Spirit, I see the servant as a model for every Christian, for servanthood is one of the fundamental characteristics of Christian service:

“But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).

The servant of Abraham was marked by his eager obedience and his attention to the instructions given him. He diligently pursued his task, not eating or resting until it was completed. There was a sense of urgency, perhaps a realization that his master believed there might not be much time left. At least he was convinced that his master felt the matter was one of urgency. The servant’s diplomacy was evident in his dealings with Rebekah and her relatives. Perhaps the two most striking features of this servant are his wisdom and devotion. Abraham had obviously given this man great authority, for he was in control of all he possessed (24:2). In this task he was also given a great deal of freedom to use his own discretion in finding a godly wife. Only two lines of boundary were drawn: he could not take a wife from the Canaanites, and he could not take Isaac back to Mesopotamia. The plan which the servant devised to determine the character of the women at the spring was a masterpiece.

Perhaps the most striking feature of all was his devotion to his master and to his master’s Master. Prayer and worship marked this man out as being head and shoulders above his peers. He was a man with a personal trust in God and who gave God the glory. This godly servant leaves us with an example in servanthood surpassed only by the “suffering servant,” the Messiah, our Lord, Jesus Christ.


Most of us have already found the mate for our married lives. As a result we should consider this passage in the broader context of the guidance which God gives to His children. Perhaps no Old Testament passage illustrates the guiding hand of God as well as this portion in the book of Genesis.

First, we see that God directs men to get under way through the Scriptures. Nowhere is Abraham given a direct imperative to seek a wife for his son, but he does act on the basis of a clear inference from revelation. Abraham was to become a mighty nation through his son Isaac. Obviously Isaac must have children, and this necessitated a wife. Since his offspring would need to be faithful to God and to keep His covenant (cf. 18:19), the wife would need to be a godly woman. This implied that she could not be a Canaanite. Also, since God had promised “this land,” Isaac must not return to Mesopotamia.

Second, we see that God guides His children once under way by “his angel” (24:7). I believe that all true Christians are led by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14). He prepares the way for us to walk in His will and to sense His leading. We must proceed in faith just as Abraham did, knowing that God does guide.

Third, the will of God was discerned through prayer. The servant submitted a plan to God whereby the woman who was to be Isaac’s wife would become evident. This was no fleece but rather a test of character. The servant could thereby determine the character of the women he would meet. God providentially (through circumstances) brought the right woman to the servant, and by her generous act of watering the camels she evidenced that she was His choice for Isaac’s wife.

Finally, the will of God was discerned through wisdom. No doubt Abraham sent this servant, his oldest and most trusted employee, because of his discernment. He obediently went to the “city of Nahor” and stationed himself beside the well where all the women of the city must come daily. Humbly he prayed for guidance, but wisely he proposed a plan which would test the character of the women he would encounter. There was no spectacular revelation, nor did there need to be. Wisdom could discern a woman of great worth.


For those of us who are not married or who are and have children who must face this choice, a number of principles undergird this story of the selection of a godly wife for Isaac.

First, a godly mate should be sought only when it is certain that marriage will achieve the purposes God has for our lives. Isaac needed a wife because he must become a husband and father to fulfill his part in the outworking of the Abrahamic covenant. While it is the norm for men to marry, let us not forget that the Bible informs us that it is sometimes God’s purpose to keep some of His servants single (I Corinthians 7:8-24). Marriage should only be sought for those who will achieve God’s purpose by having a mate and, perhaps, a family.

Second, if we would have a godly mate we must wait for God’s time. How often I have witnessed men and women marrying hastily, fearing that the time for marriage was quickly passing them by. They married those who were unbelievers or uncommitted because they concluded that anyone was better than no one. Isaac was 40 years old when he married. By some standards that was about 10 years late (cf. Genesis 11:14,18,22). It is well worth waiting for the mate of God’s choice.

Third, if we would have a godly mate we must look in the right place. Abraham instructed his servant not to look for a wife among the Canaanites. He knew that his relatives feared God and that their offspring would share a common faith. That is where the servant went to look, no matter if it were many dusty miles distant.

I do not know why Christians think they will find a godly mate in a singles bar or some other such place. I do not fault any Christian for attending a Christian college or attending a church group with the hope of finding a marriage partner there. If we wish a godly mate, let us look where godly Christians should be. If God does not provide one in this way, He can certainly do so in His own sovereign way.

Fourth, if you would have a godly mate you must seek godly qualities. I notice that Abraham’s servant did not evaluate Rebekah on the basis of her physical appearance. If he had she would have passed with flying colors (cf. 24:16). To the servant beauty was a desirable thing, but it was not fundamental. The woman he sought must be one who trusted in the God of Abraham and who had maintained sexual purity. Fundamentally, she must be a woman who manifested Christian character as reflected in her response to the request for water. This servant knew from experience and wisdom the qualities which are most important to a successful marriage. Just being a woman who believed in the God of Abraham was not sufficient. Just because one is a Christian does not make them a good candidate for marriage.

Fifth, he who would find a godly mate should be willing to heed the counsel of older and wiser Christians. Do you notice how little Isaac had to do with the process of finding a wife? Isaac, if left to himself, may never have found Rebekah. The first pretty girl or the first woman to profess a faith in God might have seemed adequate. The servant was unwilling to settle for second rate. Not only were Abraham and his servant a part of the process, but Rebekah’s family also had to be convinced of God’s leading. Anyone who fails to heed the counsel of godly Christians who are older and wiser is on the path to heartache.

Finally, he who would have a godly mate must be willing to put emotional feelings last. Look again with me at verse 67:

Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her; thus Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death (Genesis 24:67).

Do you notice that love came last, not first, in this chapter? Isaac learned to love his wife in time. Love came after marriage, not before it. That leads me to a principle which many Christian counselors often stress: ROMANTIC LOVE IS NEVER THE BASIS FOR MARRIAGE—MARRIAGE IS THE BASIS FOR ROMANTIC LOVE.

Here we see a good reason for a Christian making the decision never to date an unbeliever. A Christian should carefully screen any person before he or she would even consider going out on a date with them. Dating frequently leads to emotional involvement and physical attraction. Romantic love is a wonderful emotional feeling, but it will never sustain a marriage. Do not put yourself in a situation where romantic love can grow until you are certain that you want it to grow.

Everything in our culture runs contrary to this principle. Romantic feelings are exploited by Madison Avenue and are continually set before us in an exciting light on the television screen. Love is a wonderful thing, a gift from God, but let love come last, not first, if we would find a godly mate.

I believe that God has a special person chosen from eternity past as a mate for those for whom He has purposed marriage. I believe that God will surely guide us to that mate by using Scripture, prayer, counsel, wisdom, and providential intervention. I believe that we will be able to recognize this person, convinced most of all by the fact that they have manifested a godly character. May God help us to encourage our children and our friends to trust God and obey Him in the selection of a mate. For those of us who are married, may God enable us to be the godly mate that His Word says we should be.

202 Ann Landers, “Men vs. Women--and Vice Versa,” Reader’s Digest, March, 1969, p. 59.

203 A nearly identical expression is to be found in Genesis 18:11, referring to Abraham’s agedness at 100. Later, in 25:8 Abraham is said to have died at a “ripe old age” of 175.

204 Some explanations of this oath have gone beyond the facts. The remarks of Stigers seem to reflect the most careful and balanced explanation: “Genesis 24:2 and 47:29 have a strange form of the oath, the hand of the one from whom an oath is taken being put under the thigh of the person taking the oath. No data from contemporary times have as yet come to light to explain this action, but conceivably it might appear one day from the land of Haran from which Abraham came, or perhaps from Canaan. But--and this is important--no explanation of the meaning of the manner is presented; however, it does appear to represent a serious, important matter going beyond the casual promise. It is related not to show its importance, but as part of an understood, legitimate custom, though unexplained, which no second party legitimately could refuse, and therefore we must perceive this to be an eyewitness account.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 16.

205 Students of Scripture have observed that Laban, the brother, seems to wield more authority than Bethuel, the father. Stigers remarks help explain this phenomenon:

The response of the family is interesting, for not the father, but the brother, speaks first. We may conclude then, that Laban has the stronger position and a definite function in the family equal to that of the father. Afterward, it was Laban and the girl’s mother who received gifts. The Nuzu tablets throw light on the arrangement. What is seen in Rebekah’s household is a fratriarchy or the exercise of family authority in Hurrian society by which one son has jurisdiction over his brothers and sisters. So Laban with his mother decides to put the matter of prompt departure up to Rebekah (v. 58). This independence of action is also reflected in the Nuzu documents concerning the wife of one Hurazzi who said, ‘With my consent my brother Akkuleni gave me as wife to Hurazzi.’ This parallels the biblical incident as to circumstances of the question to the bride, the decision by Laban to ask her, and her answer. (Stigers, Genesis, p. 201.)

206 I must therefore disagree with Kidner, who views the similarity as accidental or unintentional: “The family of Rebekah little knew that their conventional blessing echoed God’s pregnant words to Abraham (22:17).” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 149. Rather, I would concur with Stigers, who writes: “When they called for a myriad of thousands for Rebekah, they were asking for boundless numbers of God’s people, in harmony with 12:2a and 22:17. When they spoke of descendants possessing the gates of their enemies, they were calling for, even predicting, the ultimate triumph of the people of God, the Israelites (cf. Rev. 4:10; 12:5; 20:4). It is thus seen why Abraham sent to Padan-Aram for a wife for Isaac: these people shared the same hope.” Stigers, Genesis, p. 201.

In the light of Joshua 24:2, we must not make too much of the “faith” of Abraham’s relatives in Mesopotamia: “. . . Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.’” We know, for example, that Laban possessed household gods, which Rachel took when Jacob left to return to Canaan (Genesis 31:30-32). Nevertheless, it seems that Bethuel and Laban acknowledged the God of Abraham (cf. 24:51) and were thus somewhat less affected by the pagan religions than the Canaanites.

207 “The verb translated meditate (suah) is found as yet only here, so its meaning is uncertain. But as LXX understood it so, and a similar form siah can mean this, the translation is eminently reasonable.” Kidner, Genesis, p. 149.

Related Topics: Christian Home

26. The Principle of Divine Election (Genesis 25:1-34)


During my first full year of teaching school I was chosen to be the representative from our school to the board of the district teacher’s association. Unfortunately that year there was a rather fierce battle over teachers’ salaries, and I found myself right in the middle of it. I chose to side with the moderate majority who were willing to accept the offer of the school board, an offer that was very close to what we had asked for. A small minority of angry young teachers decided that they would not settle for anything less than all they had demanded.

The matter came to a head when all the teachers gathered to vote on the issue. I had told the chairman of the meeting that I intended to propose that we accept the school board’s offer. This meant that the opposition would have to defeat my motion before submitting theirs—something almost impossible to accomplish. The chairman knew who those of the minority were who opposed this and that they would attempt to get their motion on the floor first. When the critical moment finally came, several quickly rose to their feet, seeking the floor. I rose also, but more deliberately than the others. I shall never forget the smug, triumphant feeling of having the chairman call upon me first, to the groans of the few hostile members of the association.

The chairman obviously called upon me because he knew that I would submit a motion that reflected the desires of the majority of the teachers. In doing this he effectively defeated the rebel faction with one parliamentary blow. Some people view the doctrine of divine election as operating in the same way that I have explained the events of that teachers’ meeting years ago. God, like the chairman of the meeting, knows who is going to do what, and on the basis of His prior knowledge He chooses the person who will do what He desires. The chosen under such a system may feel the same smugness about their “calling” as I did on that afternoon when I was recognized by the chairman.

Another view of election places the matter almost entirely in man’s hands. In its most blatant form it is said: God votes for us; Satan votes against us; and we cast the deciding vote.

Neither of these views is completely consistent with the biblical doctrine of election. No Old Testament passage puts the whole matter into its proper perspective more clearly than Genesis 25. I can confidently say this because the Apostle Paul chose to use the events of this chapter in Romans 9 as the best illustration of the doctrine of divine election. In our lesson we shall see the relationship between God’s choices and man’s conduct, between the divine will and the human will.

Abraham’s Death
and His Descendants

Certainly what we find in the first verse of chapter 25 is unexpected: “Now Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.”

Over the centuries a number of Bible scholars have maintained that this marriage between Abraham and Keturah did not take place after the death of Sarah. A number of reasons can be cited in support of this conclusion:

First, the verb translated “took” can as easily be rendered “had taken,” as the margin of the NIV indicates.

Second, Keturah is referred to as a concubine in I Chronicles 1:32, which also fits nicely with the word “concubines” in verse 6 of our passage. A concubine held a position somewhat above that of a slave, yet she was not free, nor did she have the status or rights of a wife. The master did have sexual relations with the concubine. Her children held an inferior status to those born of a wife, but they could be elevated to the position of a full heir at the will of the master. Why would Keturah be called a concubine unless Sarah were still alive and this marriage was of a lesser type?

Third, the sons of this union were said to have been “sent away” (verse 6). This could hardly be true of the children of a full marriage, but it would be completely consistent with the children of a concubine. These children would have been sent away in just the same fashion as Ishmael. According to the Code of Hammurabi the sons of a concubine could be sent away, the compensation for which was the granting of their full freedom.208

Finally, Abraham was said to have been old, beyond having children at age 100 (cf. Genesis 18:11). Paul referred to Abraham as being “as good as dead” (Romans 4:19) so far as bearing children was concerned. Those who are mentioned here would have had to have been born to a man at least 140 years old if Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died and Isaac was married to Rebekah. These children listed in verse 3 would have been more of a miracle than Isaac.

The point of verses 1-6 is to establish the fact that Abraham was, in fact, the father of many nations, but that it was Isaac through whom the blessings and promises of the Abrahamic Covenant would be realized. Thus the promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:4 was fulfilled: “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.”

Consistent with his faith in the promises of God, Abraham gave gifts to his other children and sent them off, out of Isaac’s way (verse 6).

After a rich and full life Abraham died at the age of 175. This, too, was in fulfillment of the word of God to Abraham: “And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15).

One wonders if Abraham did not include Ishmael among those who received gifts while he was living (cf. verse 6). Nevertheless, Ishmael did return to bury his father in cooperation with Isaac (verse 9). At least a temporary truce was made to facilitate the burial of their father. They buried him in the cave of Machpelah in the field that Abraham had purchased for Sarah, himself, and their descendants (cf. Genesis 23).

Although Abraham was dead, the purposes and promises of God remained in effect. In verse 11 Moses reminds us of this truth: “And it came about after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac; and Isaac lived by Beer-lahai-roi.

Through Isaac the covenantal promises were to be carried on. The work of God continues, even when the saints pass away. The torch has been passed from father to son, from Abraham to Isaac.

Ishmael’s Death
and His Descendants

If the first verses of chapter 25 demonstrate the faithfulness of God in keeping the promises of Genesis 17:4, then Genesis 25:12-18 reveals God’s fulfillment of Genesis 17:20:

And as for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

Abraham had always had a special place in his heart for his first son Ishmael. Only with reluctance and under great pressure did Abraham send this son away. Abraham would have been content for God’s purposes and promises to have been fulfilled in Ishmael. He petitioned God to look with favor upon this boy (17:18). God refused to substitute this child of self-effort for the child of promise, but He did promise to make him a great nation. Verses 13-16 record the names of the sons of Ishmael, who were the twelve promised princes. Once again God kept His promise to His servant Abraham.

Ishmael died at the age of 137 and was buried. Notice that he was not said to have been placed in the cave of Machpelah, for this was a monument of hope for the people of the promise. The land of Canaan was not to be the possession of Ishmael nor of his descendants; rather we are told:

And they settled from Havilah to Shur which is east of Egypt as one goes toward Assyria; he settled in defiance of all his relatives (Genesis 25:18).

In this verse one more promise is shown to be fulfilled, the promise God made to Hagar years before:

And he will be a wild donkey of a man, His hand will be against everyone, And everyone’s hand will be against him; And he will live to the east of all his brothers (Genesis 16:12).

The Descendants of Isaac

The process of election has been apparent in the previous verses. God chose Sarah, not Hagar or Keturah, to be the mother of the child of promise. God likewise chose Isaac long before he was ever born to be the heir of Abraham. While Abraham had several wives and many children, only Isaac was to be the one through whom the promised blessings would come. In verses 19-26 we see that the process of election continues. Here it is Jacob who is designated as the child of promise as opposed to his twin brother Esau, the one who by a natural course of events would have been the heir of promise.

Isaac married Rebekah when he was 40, but it was 20 years later before she bore him children. Isaac interceded with God on Rebekah’s behalf, and she became pregnant in answer to his prayers (verse 21). During her pregnancy Rebekah was perplexed by the intense struggle209 that took place within her womb, so she inquired of God to determine the reason.210 The answer from the Lord verified the significance of the activity within Rebekah’s womb:

And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples shall be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).

Without all the sophisticated medical tests employed today, God informed Rebekah that she was to give birth to twins. Each of the children would be the father of a nation of people. Of these two nations, one would prevail over the other. Of these two sons, the older would not, as was the custom, become preeminent. Normally, the first-born son would have been the heir through whom the covenant blessings would have passed. While the father could designate a younger son to be the owner of the birthright (cf. Genesis 48:13-20), this was the exception, not the rule. Also, the oldest son could sell his birthright, as Esau did.211

This prophecy is a very significant revelation not only for Rebekah but also for Christians in our age because it indicates the principle of divine election. Before the birth of the children God determined that it would be the younger child who would possess the birthright and thus be the heir of Isaac so far as the covenant promises were concerned.

In Romans 9 the Apostle Paul referred to this incident as an illustration of the principle of election:

And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac, for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger’ (Romans 9:10-12).

While we must acknowledge that God in His omniscience knew all of the deeds of both these sons from eternity past, Paul says that the choice of Jacob over Esau had nothing to do with their works. Jacob was chosen in the womb and without regard to the works he would do in the future. In other words, God’s election212 was not based upon “foreknowledge”213 as it is sometimes taught. God’s choice was determined by His will, not by man’s works. Personally, I think that Esau was the more likeable of the two. (At least Isaac would agree with me on this point.)

The events surrounding the birth of the twins gave further evidence to the truth of the words of the Lord spoken to Rebekah before their birth:

When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. And afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she gave birth to them (Genesis 25:24-26).

Esau was born first, and he came from the womb red and hairy. The Hebrew word to describe the color of Esau sounded similar to Edom and may have prepared the way for his nickname as it was decided in verse 30. The name Esau somewhat resembles the sound of the word meaning ‘hairy.’

Jacob came forth from the womb grasping the heel of his brother Esau. Jacob’s name was suggested by the Hebrew word for ‘heel.’ Later events, such as the barter of the birthright in verses 27-34, indicate that the name, taken in its negative sense, referred to Jacob’s grasping and conniving nature.

The Barter of the Birthright

In the life of Abraham the birth of Ishmael was an event which taught the patriarch that God’s blessings are not wrought by self-effort but by trusting God. In Jacob’s life the incident in which he outwitted his brother into selling his birthright served the same purpose. It was a shrewd bargain that Jacob struck, but it was not the means of bringing about God’s blessing.

In addition to the events surrounding the birth of the twins, three factors played heavily in the relationship of the two boys. First, the boys had very different dispositions. Esau seems to have been a masculine, outdoor-type man who loved to do the things a father could take pride in. He was a skillful hunter, and he knew how to handle himself in the outdoors. In our culture I believe Esau would have been a football hero in high school and college. He might even have played for the Dallas Cowboys. He was a real macho man, the kind of son a father would swell with pride to talk about among his friends.

Jacob was entirely different. While Esau seems to have been aggressive, daring, and flamboyant, Jacob appears to be just the opposite: quiet, pensive, more interested in staying at home than in venturing out and making great physical conquests. Not that he had no ambition to get ahead, quite the contrary; but Jacob couldn’t see the sense in tracking about the wilderness just to bag some game. In the solitude of his tent Jacob could mentally reason out how to get ahead without getting his hands dirty and without taking dangerous risks.

The second factor which tended to separate the two sons was the divided loyalty between their parents. Isaac seems to have been the outdoor-type himself; at least he had an appetite for the wild game that Esau brought home (verse 28). Esau was the kind of son that Isaac could proudly take with him wherever he went. Rebekah, on the other hand, favored Jacob. She probably thought Esau was crude and uncultured. Jacob was a much more refined person, gentle and kind, the type of son a mother would be proud of. Besides, Jacob probably spent more time at home than Esau did. Each parent seems to have identified too much with a particular son, thus creating divisions which would be devastating. This favoritism also brought about disharmony between Isaac and his wife. Later Rebekah was to conspire with Jacob to deceive her husband (chapter 27).

The third factor which Moses recorded for us in chapter 25 was the underhanded means by which Jacob wrested the birthright from his brother. While Esau had been out in the field, Jacob had been at home preparing a stew. Weary and famished, though hardly at death’s door, Esau was enticed by the fragrant aroma of the meal. Esau greedily pled for some of “that red stuff.” Rather than showing his brother the hospitality due even a stranger, Jacob saw this as an opportunity to gain the advantage. Here Jacob’s greedy, grasping disposition rose to the forefront. Without a hint of shame Jacob bartered, “… First sell me your birthright” (25:31). With this Esau’s carnal nature emerged, “… Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” (25:32). With an exaggerated estimation of his physical condition and need and a minimal appreciation for the value of his birthright, Esau was willing to exchange his destiny for a dinner.

Jacob was not willing to let Esau take the occasion as casually as he was inclined to; therefore, he made him swear a solemn oath declaring the sale of the birthright. This done, the meal was served, and Esau went on his way. As Moses concluded his report of this event, we find his estimation of Esau’s character: “… Thus Esau despised his birthright” (25:34). And so it is that the writer to the Hebrews can speak of Esau as a man who has no appreciation whatsoever for spiritual and eternal things:

See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal (Hebrews 12:15-16).


One cannot avoid the fact that this chapter clearly teaches the principle of divine election. Out of all the sons of Abraham, God chose Isaac to be the heir of promise and this even before the birth of the boy (17:21). Isaac, not Ishmael nor Zimran nor Jokshan nor Medan nor any of the other sons of Abraham was to be the heir of promise. Sarah, not Hagar nor Keturah was to be the mother of this child.

God’s choice is not determined by His knowledge of the good works that the chosen will later accomplish. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob all had very visible faults. Their conduct often was not any more sterling than that of any other person. At times others even appeared more righteous than they (cf. Abimelech in Genesis 20). While we are chosen “unto good works” (Ephesians 2:10), it is not because of our good works that we are chosen. Jacob was chosen before his birth without regard to future deeds (Romans 9:11). In theological terminology, God elects men and women unconditionally without regard to that which they will do. That is pure grace.

Some conclude from this fact that those who are not among the elect are forever lost because God did not choose them. There is, of course, truth in this statement (cf. Proverbs 16:4; Revelation 17:8; I Peter 2:6). While election to salvation is never on account of works, election to eternal damnation is. The emphasis of the Word of God is not that men go to Hell because God did not choose them, but that men suffer eternally because they have not chosen God.

That truth is precisely what Moses stressed in this chapter. Throughout these verses the principle of election is evident. And yet, at the conclusion of the account Moses did not report that Esau sold his birthright because God had predetermined this to happen, but because Esau “despised his birthright” (verse 34).

Election is unconditional. God chooses men because of His love and grace, not because of man’s future good deeds. While good works do not give us the reason for a man’s election to a place of blessing in God’s program, a man’s evil deeds are adequate reason for his rejection by God.

Dr. B. B. Warfield has stated this in the clearest fashion:

When Christ stood at the door of Lazarus’ tomb and cried, “Lazarus come forth!” only Lazarus, of all the dead that lay in the gloom of the grave that day in Palestine, or throughout the world, heard his mighty voice which raises the dead, and came forth. Shall we say that the election of Lazarus to be called forth from the tomb consigned all this immense multitude of the dead to hopeless, physical decay? It left them no doubt in the death in which they were holden and to all that comes out of this death. But it was not it which brought death upon them, or which kept them in its power. When God calls out of the human race, lying dead in their trespasses and sins, some here, some there, some everywhere, a great multitude which no man can number, to raise them by His almighty grace out of their death in sin and bring them to glory, his electing grace is glorified in the salvation it works. It has nothing to do with the death of the sinner, but only with the living again of the sinner whom it calls into life. The one and single work of election is salvation.214

In Revelation 16 we are told of the judgement that is poured out upon those who have rejected God and worshipped the beast. These words spoken by the angel of God express the truth that the non-elect receive the judgment they deserve:

And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous art Thou, who art and who wast, O holy one, because Thou didst judge these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets and Thou hast given them blood to drink. They deserve it” (Revelation 16:5-6).

The message of the Bible is that all of us deserve the eternal wrath of God for our sins (Romans 3:10-18,23; 6:23). The message of the gospel is that God has provided a solution for the sins of man. That solution is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross of Calvary where He bore the punishment that we deserve. He offers us the righteousness we lack (Romans 3:21-26; II Corinthians 5:21). It is true that those who are saved are those whom God has chosen from eternity past (Acts 13:48; 16:14; Ephesians 1:11, etc.). It is also true that all who are saved are those who have personally believed in Jesus Christ as their Substitute and their Savior. Every person who calls upon Him for salvation will be saved.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).

For “Whoever will call upon the name of the LORD will be saved” (Romans 10:13).

Like Isaac, the world in which we live prefers the Esaus and dislikes the Jacobs. The models which the media places before us are not the Jacobs, but the Esaus, the “macho men,” the tough guys. The world says to us, “You only go around once, so you’d better grab all the gusto you can get.” They have taken the words out of Esau’s mouth. They wish us to forget the future, to trade off our eternal destiny for a beer or for our belly or for some short-lived physical pleasure. If it feels good, do it. If it tastes good, eat it. Don’t believe it.

I see in this chapter an example of two wrong responses to the sovereignty of God in the matter of divine election. The first is that of Isaac, who attempted to resist the will of God as it was revealed to his wife Rebekah. While I am not certain that the twins, Jacob and Esau, knew of the election of the younger, I find it hard to imagine that Rebekah did not inform Isaac of this prophecy. In spite of this revelation Isaac persisted to favor Esau, and it would seem from later events that he attempted to pronounce the blessing upon him as well. I believe that just as Abraham attempted to convince God to choose Ishmael for the heir of promise (Genesis 17:18), Isaac hoped that God would change His mind concerning Esau. The lesson came hard, but it was finally learned.

In his last days Jacob (now called Israel) pronounced a blessing upon the two sons of Joseph. Joseph set the two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, before his father with the oldest at his father’s right hand and the youngest at his left. Jacob, however, crossed his hands so that his right hand was laid upon Ephraim’s head rather than upon Manasseh’s. Joseph thought this was a mistake caused by his father’s poor eyesight, and he attempted to rectify the ‘error.’ Jacob then informed his son Joseph that this was no error but an indication that the younger son would be the greater (Genesis 48:8-20). At last Jacob (Israel) had come to accept the fact that God’s election does not necessarily follow human conventions.

Rebekah misapplied the doctrine of election in a different way. I am convinced that she justified her partiality to her son Jacob on the basis of his election to be the heir of promise. It must have had a very spiritual ring to it, but it was just as wrong as the partiality Isaac had for Esau. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was no basis for discrimination against Esau or for pampering Jacob.

If this assumption is true, then it has some far-reaching implications for us, my friends. If the prophecy concerning Jacob’s election did not justify favoritism to him at Esau’s expense, why is it that prophecy concerning Israel justifies partiality to the Jews at the expense of the Arabs? We have been so anxious to “bless” Abraham in order to be blessed (Genesis 12:3), that we have failed to condemn many of the actions of the Jews which have been unjust, immoral, and godless. Why are we so anxious to condemn an Arab attack as aggression and to defend an Israeli attack as defensive or retaliatory?

What I am suggesting is this: We dare not discriminate against any nation, Jewish or Gentile. We should bless the Jews and the nation Israel, but this does not necessitate our condoning that which is clearly sin. Let us remember that at this time in Israel’s history they are rejecting God and His Christ, Jesus the Messiah. While we may commend the bravery of the Jews and their intestinal fortitude, let us not in the process call evil good, and in the end inadvertently discriminate against the Arab peoples. Our eagerness to hastily and uncritically endorse every action of the nation of Israel must be questioned on both moral and biblical grounds.

Finally, it is noteworthy to observe that the biggest “crook” in our chapter is a believer. While Esau may have been crude, he was no crook. I think it is too often true today that Christian businessmen and Christian employees are crooked, just as Jacob was. We call ourselves shrewd, but that is only a euphemism for unethical practices. One reason why I think Christians can be as crooked as Jacob is that they are so convinced of the importance of the ends they seek that they feel that any means to achieve them are justified.

Jacob was one who, unlike Esau, valued the birthright. He valued it so highly that he was willing to stoop to the level he did to obtain it. Many of us convince ourselves that much of the money we make is going to missions, or the church, or the poor, and so we “launder” our money in Christian ministry. The goal is never more important than godliness, my friend. In fact, the Christian’s goal is godliness (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 4:15). Jacob was to learn that blessing resulted from prevailing with God, not prevailing over men. That is a lesson we too must learn.

208 “The Code of Hammurabi declares that children of slaves not legitimized, though not sharing in the estate, must be set free”. Law 171, as referred to by Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 185.

209 The Hebrew term for the struggle implies an intense activity in the womb which Rebekah understood to be far greater than normal, and thus of great significance.

210 We would like to have had more details here to satisfy our curiosity. How did Rebekah inquire of the Lord? Bush’s remarks seem closest to the mark:

“There are very different opinions as to the manner in which she made this inquiry. Some think it was simply by secret prayer; but the phrase to inquire of the Lord, in general usage signifies more than praying, and from its being said that she went to inquire, it is more probable that she resorted to some established piece, or some qualified person for the purpose of consultation. We are told, I Samuel 9:9, that ‘Beforetime in Israel when a man went to inquire of God, thus he spake, Come and let us go to the seer; for he that is now called a prophet, was beforetime called a seer.’ As Abraham was now living, and no doubt sustained the character of a prophet, Genesis 20:7, she may have gone to him, and inquired of the Lord through his means”. George Bush, Notes on Genesis (Minneapolis: James and Klock Publishing Co., Reprint, 1976), II, p. 62.

211 “Now the sale of the birthright--or, as it was here, its exchange--was an accepted custom in the patriarchal period. At a later time the supplanting of the firstborn was forbidden (Deut. 21:15-17), but it has been pointed out above that exchange or sale of the birthright was done in Nuzu, explaining patriarchal custom. At Nuzu it is recorded that one Gurpazah traded his inheritance for immediate possession of three sheep from his brother Tupkitilla.” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 211.

212 Election here, as I understand it, does not refer to the selection of only Jacob to be saved (although his salvation was certainly due to election), but of Jacob to be the son through whom the blessings promised to Abraham would be passed on. Paul refers to this incident to illustrate the principle of election, and then applies it to that election which ordains individuals to salvation.

213 Some teach that God’s election is determined on the basis of His foreknowledge. In its simplest terms, God is said to choose those whom He knows in advance will choose Him. Our salvation is thus determined by our (first) choice, while God only seconds it. This makes man sovereign in salvation, not God. The problem with such a doctrine is that it denies the fact that God’s choice determines ours, and not the reverse: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; . . .” (John 15:16). “. . . and as Many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). “. . . and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14).

Furthermore, the word “to foreknow” sometimes means “to determine beforehand,” even as the word “know” sometimes means “to choose” (cf. Genesis 18:19; Jeremiah 1:5; Romans 8:29, 11:2, I Peter 1:20). Thus, to foreknow (or elect) refers to the selection of those to be saved, while predestination pertains to the destiny of these people. Foreknowledge selects the people; predestination the program.

214 B. B. Warfield, “Election,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, edited by John E. Meeter (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), Vol. 1, pp. 296-97).

Related Topics: Election

27. Isaac Walks in His Father’s Steps (Genesis 26:1-35)


There is a world of difference between a rerun and an instant replay. A rerun is simply seeing the same thing over again. An instant replay is seeing something over, but not all of it. It is looking at certain events again, usually much more carefully. The critics have tended to view Genesis 26 as a rerun, and not a very good one at that. They, of course, are right in recognizing the similarities between Isaac’s experiences in this chapter and those in the life of Abraham in the previous chapters. However, they misinterpret the similarities in such a way as to suggest that they do little, if anything, to benefit us.215 Indeed, they even question the historicity of these events in the life of Isaac.216

I would like us to focus our attention on chapter 26 as though it were an instant replay. This is the only chapter in the book of Genesis devoted exclusively to Isaac. While he is mentioned in other chapters, he is not the focus of attention. Here Isaac’s life is summed up in the events described, all of which have a striking parallel in the life of his father Abraham. These similarities are, I believe, the key to rightly understanding and applying this passage to our own lives.

A Reiteration of
the Abrahamic Covenant

Early in the life of Abraham a famine set in motion a sequence of events which greatly shaped the life of the patriarch. Likewise, a famine occurred early in the record of the life of Isaac:

Now there was a famine in the land, besides the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham. So Isaac went to Gerar, to Abimelech king of the Philistines (Genesis 26:1).

This famine is specified to be a different one than that which happened during the life of Abraham. Taking this at face value, we cannot agree with the critics, who see only one famine variously reported. In an attempt to preserve his wealth in the form of many cattle, Isaac went to Gerar to avoid the famine. While in Gerar, or perhaps even before, Isaac decided to go down to Egypt just as his father had done (Genesis 12:10ff.). This was not according to the plan which God had for Isaac, and so He appeared to him with this word of instruction and promise:

Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. And I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My Laws (Genesis 26:2b-5).217

In verse 3 God commanded Isaac to remain in Gerar for a time. In verse 2 I understand God to have promised Isaac that He would guide him to the land where he should go in God’s good time. The remainder of God’s revelation is a reiteration of the Abrahamic covenant. To us these words are not only familiar but almost redundant. Again and again we have seen God confirm and clarify His covenant with Abraham (cf. Genesis 13:14-17; 15:1, 18-21; 17:1-7ff.; 21:12; 22:17-18), but let us not overlook the fact that, so far as we are told, this is the first time God has spoken thus to Isaac. For him this was no dull recital but a thrilling assurance that what God had promised Abraham, He now promised his son. This is a covenant with Isaac.

Verse 5 reminds us that the blessings of the covenant are, to some degree, a result of Abraham’s faithfulness and obedience to God. Surely, even more so, the fulfillment of the covenantal promises is based upon God’s faithfulness to Abraham. Of this Isaac was a witness (cf. chapter 22). Implied in verse 5 is the necessity for Isaac to believe God’s promise, accept it as a personal relationship, and to live obediently, even as his father had. The first step in this life of obedience was to remain in Gerar, which Isaac did (verse 6).

It is significant that Moses, who recorded in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Law) the giving of the Law, used the terms “charge, commandments, statutes and laws” with regard to Abraham’s relationship with God. I agree with Leupold, who remarks:

By the use of these terms Moses, who purposes to use them all very frequently in his later books, indicates that “laws, commandments, charges, and statutes” are nothing new but were involved already in patriarchal religion.218

A Repetition of Abraham’s Sin

What? Again? I’m afraid so. Strange as it may seem, the same old sin of deception raises its ugly head for the third time in chapter 26. If nothing else proves it, this does—Isaac is a son of his father. Frightened concerning his own safety, Isaac succumbs to the temptation to pass off his wife as his sister. In doing this he was willing to risk Rebekah’s purity as the price for his personal protection.

The similarities between this sin of Isaac and that of his father Abraham are numerous. Both sinned in the presence of Abimelech, and both were rebuked by the ruler of the Philistines. Both had a beautiful wife and feared for their own safety, thinking that they might be killed so that someone could marry their wife. Both lied by saying that their wife was their sister. It would also appear that neither Abraham nor Isaac recognized the gravity of their sin or fully repented of it.

The differences between the sin of Abraham and that of Isaac cannot be overlooked. These differences verify the fact that two different deceptions took place in the land of the Philistines: one by Abraham and the other by his son. There seems to be little doubt that there are two different “Abimelechs” in these chapters of Genesis. Many years had passed since Abraham stood without adequate excuse before Abimelech. We would be on safe ground to assume that the term “Abimelech” is a title of office, like “Pharaoh,” rather than a given name. The same could be said for the term “Phicol.” Another consideration is that sons were often named after their grandfathers.219 Either of these possibilities would readily explain the fact that the names “Abimelech” and “Phicol” (cf. verse 26) are found in chapter 26 as well as in chapter 20.

Abraham’s policy of deception was just that: a policy established before he entered into any danger (Genesis 12:11-13; 20:13). From the very outset Abraham introduced Sarah as his sister. Isaac, however, waited until he was approached concerning Rebekah. At this point his confidence left him, and he resorted to a lie:

When the men of the place asked about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he was afraid to say, “My wife,” thinking “The men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful” (Genesis 26:7).

We are not told what part Rebekah played in all of this. It is possible that she refused to actively cooperate, thus creating suspicions in the minds of the Philistines. Sarah was taken as a wife twice, but physical intimacy was divinely restrained. In the case of Rebekah, no one took her for a wife. God sharply warned Abimelech when he took Sarah, but here Abimelech learned of the deception by observing the conduct of Isaac with Rebekah. He did not treat her like a sister, but like a wife. There may well have been a hint of doubt already entertained by Abimelech and perhaps others of the Philistines, for when he saw Isaac caressing220 Rebekah he said, “… Behold, certainly she is your wife! …” (verse 9).221

Abimelech’s ethics appear to be based on a higher standard than Isaac’s. God had not spoken threateningly here to Abimelech as He had done when Sarah was taken into the Philistine ruler’s harem. Then Abimelech had been told that he was “as good as dead” (Genesis 20:3) if he so much as touched Sarah. There is no sword hanging proverbially over the head of Abimelech here. Nevertheless, he viewed the taking of a man’s wife as sin, and one of great consequence. Abimelech seemed to regard marital purity higher than Isaac did.

After discovering Isaac’s deception, Abimelech ordered that neither Isaac nor his wife was to be harmed (Genesis 26:11). Isaac was not instructed to leave, nor was he encouraged to stay. He was simply tolerated.

Return to the Place of Blessing

In verse 2 God had promised to guide Isaac to the place where he should dwell. Little did Isaac realize just how God was to lead him back to the place of His promise and presence. To a large degree it was by means of adversity and opposition.

On the surface, opposition seemed like the last thing which Isaac experienced. Staying on in Gerar after Abimelech had confronted him, Isaac harvested a bumper crop:

Now Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. And the LORD blessed him, and the man became rich, and continued to grow richer until he became very wealthy; for he had possessions of flocks and herds and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him (Genesis 26:12-14).

In spite of Isaac’s deception, God poured out His blessings upon him. For reasons we shall discuss later, Abimelech failed to recognize Isaac’s prosperity as the blessing of God. All he knew was that Isaac was a powerful figure—one whom he did not want to contend with. Abimelech knew also that the Philistines were growing uneasy about Isaac’s presence in the land.

Isaac was rather threatening personally not only because of his prosperity and power but also because of his father Abraham:

Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines stopped up by filling them with earth (Genesis 26:15).

Digging a well was considered tantamount to a claim of ownership of the land on which it was located.222 It enabled a man to dwell there and to sustain herds. Rather than recognize this claim, the Philistines sought to wipe it out by filling up the wells dug by Abraham. Their desire to overthrow all claim on their land was so intense that they would rather fill in a well, an asset of great value in such an arid land, than to allow this claim to remain unchallenged.

The sentiments of the Philistines were concisely expressed in Abimelech’s terse suggestion that Isaac depart from Gerar (verse 16). Rather than fight for possession of this property, Isaac retreated. The meek would inherit this land, but in God’s good time.

It would seem that Isaac had developed a strategy by which he determined where he was to sojourn. Essentially, Isaac refused to stay where there was conflict and hostility. Being a man with many animals to tend, he must be at a place where water was available in abundance. He not only re-opened the wells once dug by his father, but he dug other wells also. If a well was dug that produced water and use of this well was not disputed, Isaac was inclined to stay at that place.

While Isaac may not have realized it for some time, it was the disputes over the ownership of the wells he dug or reopened that served to guide him in the direction of the land of promise. To Isaac these wells were a necessity for survival, but to the Philistines these were a claim to the land. Opposition was thus humanly explainable, but it was a divinely ordained means of guidance as well.

In the valley of Gerar Isaac dug a well that produced “living water,” that is, water that originated from a spring—running water, not simply water that was contained. The Philistine herdsmen disputed with the herdsmen of Isaac over it, so Isaac moved on. Another well was dug, and there was yet another dispute (verse 21). Finally a well was dug that brought about no opposition. I would imagine that this was due somewhat to the distance Isaac had traveled from the Philistines. This well was named “Rehoboth,” signifying the hope Isaac had that this was the place God had designated for him to stay.

The parallel between Isaac’s life and that of his father is again evident in this account of the disputes over the wells and Isaac’s response. Due to their prosperity Abraham and Isaac needed much room for their flocks and a source of water. Prosperity brought contention between Lot’s herdsmen and those of Abraham (Genesis 13:5ff.) just as it did between Isaac’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Gerar. Isaac, like his father, chose to keep the peace by giving preference to the other party.

I have come to understand verses 23-25 as the key to the interpretation of chapter 26. Here a very strange thing happens. Up to this time Isaac’s decision as to where he should stay was based upon the finding of abundant water and the absence of hostilities. But now, having dug a well that was uncontested, we would have expected Isaac to dwell there. Instead we are told that he moved on to Beersheba, with no reason stated for this move: “Then he went up from there to Beersheba” (verse 23).

I believe that a significant change has occurred in Isaac’s thinking. Circumstances had previously shaped most of his decisions, but now something deeper and more noble seems to be giving direction in his life. Beersheba was the first place that Abraham had gone with Isaac after they came down from the “sacrifice” on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:19). Isaac knew that God had promised to give him the land promised to his father Abraham (26:3-5). I believe he had finally come to see that through all the opposition over the wells he had dug, God had been guiding him back to the land of promise, back to those places where Abraham had walked in fellowship with God. Personally, I believe that Isaac went up to Beersheba because he sensed on a spiritual level that this was where God wanted him to be. If God had previously been “driving” Isaac through opposition, now Isaac was willing to be led.

The decision was shown to be the right one, for God immediately spoke words of reassurance:

And the LORD appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bless you, and multiply your descendants, For the sake of My servant Abraham” (Genesis 26:24).

Verse 25 is of particular interest. Notice especially the order in which Isaac set up residence in Beersheba:

So he built an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD, and pitched his tent there; and there Isaac’s servants dug a well (Genesis 26:25).

Previously the touchstone for knowing the will of God had been circumstances—in particular, Isaac stayed wherever he dug a well, found sufficient water, and was not opposed. Yet in this verse the sequence of events is reversed. First Isaac built an altar; then he worshipped, after which he pitched his tent. Finally, he dug a well.

There is a great lesson in faith and guidance here, I believe. The place for God’s people is the place of God’s presence. The place of intimacy, worship, and communion with God is the place to abide. There we should dwell, and there we may be assured of God’s provision for our needs. Material needs are thus considered last, while spiritual needs are primary. Is this not what our Lord referred to when He said:

But seek first His kingdom, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you (Matthew 6:33).

The Witness of Abimelech

From this point on everything seems to take on a different hue. Previously Isaac had been directed more providentially, but now that Isaac’s priorities have been rearranged, the blessings and guidance of God are far more evident in his life.

Abimelech, Ahuzzath, and Phicol all paid a state visit to Isaac. Isaac’s irritation as well as his curiosity can be seen in his interrogation: “… Why have you come to me, since you hate me, and have sent me away from you?” (Genesis 26:27)

Let’s face it, the situation was unusual. When he was in very close contact with Abimelech and the Philistines, the blessing of God on Isaac was present (cf. verse 12). The response of the people of the land was envy and animosity. They asked Isaac to leave their country. Now they were willing to come all this way simply to enter into a treaty with Isaac. What brought about this change of heart and mind?

Isaac’s conduct while with them was such that his testimony was far from sterling. He lied about his wife, passing her off as his sister. The Philistines could not imagine that his prosperity was the result of divine blessing, but rather they attributed it to just good luck. Now that Isaac’s priorities were changed and his life operating along spiritual guidelines, the blessing of God was evident. The covenant which God had made with Abraham was understood, at least in a practical way, to have passed on to his son. Abimelech realized that the hand of God was upon Isaac and that a favorable relationship with him was highly desirable:

And they said, “We see plainly that the LORD has been with you; so we said, ‘Let there now be an oath between us, even between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good, and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the LORD’” (Genesis 26:28-29; emphasis mine).

The prosperity of a godly man can easily be seen to be the blessing of God. Now as opposed to previous times this is seen to be true of Isaac.

The Witness of the Well

Surely the right place for Isaac to be was Beersheba. First, God had spoken in such a way as to confirm the decision of Isaac, a divine witness to the wisdom of this move. Then, Abimelech and two of his officials witnessed in a backhanded fashion to the blessing of God in Beersheba. Finally, there is the witness of the well. The place where God wants us to be is also the place of provision:

Now it came about on the same day, that Isaac’s servants came in and told him about the well which they had dug, and said to him, ‘”We have found water.” So he called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day (Genesis 26:32-33).

What was once Isaac’s first concern was now his last, but water was still essential for his survival with such large herds. God would not let His servant do without that which he needed to prosper, and so the efforts expended in digging the well were blessed and water was struck. Mark it well: the place of God’s presence is also the place of God’s provision.

Regret Due to Esau’s Marriages

Serving God does not guarantee a trouble-free life and one of rose-strewn paths. There were still heartaches for Isaac and Rebekah; Esau was the source of much of their sorrow and grief:

And when Esau was forty years old he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite; and they made life miserable for Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 26:34-35).

These verses help us to realize that even when we are rightly related to God, troubles will still be a part of our experience. These trials may be the result of our own sinfulness or that which is common to mankind. These verses provide the backdrop to the drama of chapter 27, which will be our next lesson.


This chapter underscores the two most common systems of guidance which are available to Christians of every age: living by principles or by providence. When we walk in accordance with the principles given in the Word of God, we walk closest to Him. When we walk by providence we shall still arrive where God wants us to be, but without the joy of being an active participant in the process. Instead, we are the passive object which God moves from point to point by circumstances. There is little joy or intimacy with God in this system.

Perhaps the most important lesson of this chapter is that which is taught by the most evident characteristic of the chapter. The one chapter which capsulizes the life of Isaac does so in a manner which shows that he walked in the footprints of his father Abraham. The liberal critics of the Bible note this similarity well, but they conclude from it that the chapter has little that is original or authentic, and so the chapter is largely passed by.

Hopefully this will not be the case for the serious Christian. I believe that God has much to teach us by observing that Isaac’s life was a replay of his father’s experiences with God. God made a covenant with Abraham; He confirmed it with Isaac. Abraham lied about his wife to Abimelech; Isaac repeated this sin before another Abimelech. Abimelech sought a treaty with Abraham, seeing that the hand of God’s blessing was upon him; so, years later, Abimelech did likewise with Isaac. The similarities seem to go on and on.

May I suggest to you that this should tell us something vital to our own Christian experience. There is a process, a long and extensive one, which God employs to bring a person first to Himself and then to maturity. It begins when that individual enters into a covenant relationship with God. For Abraham and Isaac the covenant was the Abrahamic covenant. For Christians today it is the new covenant instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ when He shed His blood on the cross of Calvary in order to provide for our forgiveness of sins and for our salvation:

And having taken some bread, when He had given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me,” And in the some way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

Everyone must begin his relationship at this very place, the place of personal relationship with God through acceptance of the covenant He has offered. And from this beginning we embark upon a spiritual voyage that is, in many ways, very similar to that of previous saints. When we are able to look back over our lives from the vantage point of eternity, I suspect that we will be amazed how similar the path has been for us compared to that of others before and after us. There are no shortcuts in the sanctification process.

As parents this is a very significant truth. Our children must walk in our footsteps if they are to be a part of the kingdom of God. Our children must begin at the point we did. They must come to a personal relationship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Then they must be allowed to make the same mistakes we did in order that they may come to a more mature faith and trust in the God who has called them.

If you are at all like me, you would prefer that your children not make the same mistakes you did, and I hope it is not necessary. I am simply pointing out the fact that Isaac did walk in a path nearly identical to that of his father. Let us be willing to allow our children to fail and to grow in the way God has purposed. Much as we would prefer it otherwise, our children cannot begin to relate to God on the level of our own walk. They must start at the beginning. That is the way it is.

Let me balance this somewhat by saying that the way we can best help our own children is by making certain that our footsteps are such that we would want our children to walk in them. If Isaac’s experience was, to some degree, a reflection of his father’s life, what a frightening thought that is. If our children’s lives are to mirror our own, what an awesome responsibility we have as parents to walk a path of obedience and submission to the will of God.

Finally, let me share with you a possible explanation for the way in which God dealt with the sins of Abraham and his son Isaac. I find myself disappointed and rather distraught by the thought that God did not come down on these men harder for their unchivalrous deception concerning their wives. I would have expected God to confront them sharply for their sin. If I had been an elder in their church, I would have strongly urged disciplinary action. Why, then, did God not respond more forcefully?

I think I am slowly beginning to understand the reason. Deception is sin, and God hates the lying tongue (cf. Proverbs 6:17). But lying here was a symptomatic sin and not the root sin. God did not smash the red warning light (deception) because He was concerned about getting to the root of the problem. The root sin, as I perceive it, was unbelief or lack of faith. In each case of deception, Abraham and Isaac lied out of fear (cf. 12:11-13; 20:11; 26:7). This fear was the product of an inadequate concept of God. They did not grasp the sovereignty or the omnipotence of God in such a way as to believe that God could protect them under any and every circumstance. Having solved the problem of too little faith, the sin of deception will not be an issue any longer.

It is my personal opinion that we sometimes become preoccupied with “symptom sins,” rushing about trying, as someone in our church said, to stomp them like roaches. While sin should always be taken seriously, many of our sins will be dealt with by an adequate conception of who God really is. The fundamental sin is that of unbelief, not only for those who are unsaved but also for those who are truly saved.

215 “This chapter finds little elucidation in various expositions. It is not touched upon in Understanding Genesis nor in Expositor’s Bible. By others it is rather a casual intrusion that does little to further the story or make any contribution to the development of thought after chapter 25.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), D. 211.

216 “It is sometimes wondered how it was that Isaac did exactly what his father before him had done, and the similarity of the circumstances has led some to think that this is only a variant of the former story. Would it not be truer to say that this episode is entirely consonant with what we know of human nature and its tendencies? What would be more natural than that Isaac should attempt to do what his father had done before him? Surely a little knowledge of human nature as distinct from abstract theory is sufficient to warrant a belief in the historical character of this narrative. Besides, assuming that it is a variant of the other story, we naturally ask which of them is the true version; they cannot both be true, for as they now are they do not refer to the same event. The names and circumstances are different in spite of similarities.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 239.

217 Kidner says further, “The heaped-up terms (cf., e.g., Dt. 11:1) suggest the complete servant, responsible and biddable. They also dispel any idea that law and promise are in necessary conflict (cf. Jas. 2:22; Gal. 3:21)”. Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 153.

218 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 720.

219 “Naming sons after grandfathers (‘papponymy’) was customary at various times. In a nearly contemporary example from Egypt the royal house and a provincial governing family retained this pattern side by side for four generations, so that Ammenemes I appointed Khnumhotep I, and his grandson Ammenemes II appointed Khnumhotep II. Alternating with them, Sesostris I and II appointed Nakht I and II, and certain negotiations were repeated as well.” Kidner, Genesis, p. 154, fn. 1.

220 The word used here, which is rendered “caressing” by the NASV, is interesting because its root is the same word from which the name Isaac is derived. Isaac (to laugh) was caressing (“sporting,” KJV) Rebekah. In Genesis 39:17 and Exodus 32:6 this word is employed by Moses to refer to “play,” which has rather obvious sexual overtones.

221 “The king’s mode of stating the case implies suspicions that he has held right along: ‘Look (here), she certainly is thy wife,’ a shade of thought caught by Meek when he renders: ‘So she really is your wife.’” Leupold, Genesis, II, p. 722.

222 “The digging of wells was a virtual claim to the possession of the land, and it was this in particular that the Philistines resented.” Griffith Thomas, Genesis, p. 240.

Related Topics: Christian Home

28. Working Like the Devil, Serving the Lord (Genesis 27:1-46)


C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A little lie is like a little pregnancy.” How aptly that statement summarizes the events of Genesis 27. Isaac, with the cooperation of Esau, conspires to thwart the purpose of God to fulfill His covenant with Abraham through Jacob. Rebekah, aided by her son Jacob, seeks to outwit and outmaneuver Isaac and Esau to maintain for Jacob the right of the firstborn, which he purchased from Esau.

The secular songwriter has caught the spirit of some Christian service and surely the heartbeat of this chapter in the song entitled, “Working Like the Devil, Serving the Lord.” It is difficult to discern who surpasses the rest in this web of scheming and deceit: Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, or Esau.223 The family unit has been split into two factions, each headed by a parent who wants to live out his own expectations through his son, at the expense of the others. It is indeed a tragic story and yet one that rings true to life and reveals much of what we are like today.

The Conspiracy of Isaac and Esau

There are several overriding themes which are interwoven in these four verses. These themes characterize the attempt of Isaac and Esau to regain the blessings of God as promised to Abraham, spoken to Isaac, and unscrupulously secured by Jacob. Recognition of these themes will enable us to grasp the significance of this turning point in the lives of these four members of the patriarchal family.

The first theme is that of urgency. There is obvious haste in what takes place. Our impression is that Isaac stands with one proverbial foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. He is old, perhaps dying, and the blessing must quickly be pronounced upon Esau before it is too late.

On the surface this urgency seems to be well founded. Isaac is old, perhaps 137 years old if our calculations are accurate.224 It comes as no surprise that Isaac suffers from some of the infirmities of old age, such as poor eyesight (verse 1). Isaac was far from death’s door, however, for we learn from Genesis 35:28 that it was more than forty years later before he died at the ripe old age of 180! We should point out that his half brother Ishmael did die at age 137 (Genesis 25:17). Perhaps Isaac was not wrong to consider that his days were numbered, but in his desire to see his favorite son receive the Abrahamic blessings he stooped to unspiritual actions.

The second impression I have of verses 1-4 is that of secrecy. Normally the blessing would have been given before the entire family because it was, in reality, an oral will which legally determined the disposition of all that the father possessed.225 Distribution of family wealth and headship would best be carried out in the presence of all who were concerned. Thus we later find Jacob giving his blessing in the presence of all his sons (Genesis 49).

No such atmosphere is to be sensed in the conversation between Isaac and Esau. Neither Jacob nor Rebekah were present, and this was hardly an oversight. Had it not been for the attentive ear of Rebekah, the entire matter would seemingly have been completed with only two parties involved.

The third impression which can hardly be missed is that of conspiracy. This follows closely on the heels of the secrecy already described. Conspiracy and secrecy go hand in hand. There can be little doubt that Isaac intended at this clandestine feast to convey his blessings upon Esau to the exclusion of Jacob altogether. (This is why Isaac had no blessing left to convey upon Esau, cf. verses 37-38.)

Here was a premeditated plot to thwart the plan and purpose of God for Jacob. It is inconceivable that Isaac was ignorant of the revelation of God to Rebekah:

And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples shall be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).

If for no other reason, Rebekah’s fallen nature (a malady common to all) would have dictated the disclosure of this divine revelation. Can you really imagine in this on-going contest between Rebekah and Isaac that she would not appeal to this revelation from God as the biblical basis for the favoritism shown toward “her” son Jacob? To me it is inconceivable.

Then again, can you imagine that Isaac was ignorant of the sale of Esau’s birthright to his brother? Isaac was not being informed for the first time of this when Esau cried out in despair,

Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me these two times? He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing. (Genesis 27:36).

The final and compelling evidence of Esau’s disqualification for spiritual headship is his marriage to two Canaanite wives:

And when Esau was forty years old he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite (Genesis 26:34).

Totally disdaining spiritual purity, Esau did not hesitate to intermarry with the Canaanites. God’s purposes for His people could never be achieved through such a person.

In spite of all these elements, Isaac sought to overrule the verdict of God that the elder serve the younger. He anticipated doing so by a magical misuse of the pronouncement of the blessing before his death. Normally the birthright belonged to the eldest son. This entitled him to a double share of the property in addition to the privilege of assuming the father’s position of headship in the family. For the descendants of Abraham it determined the one through whom the covenant blessings would be given.226

Under certain circumstances the possessor of this birthright could be dispossessed. Such a change would normally be formalized at the giving of the oral blessing at the time of approaching death. Thus Jacob gave Ephraim precedence over Manasseh (Genesis 48:8ff.), and he gave Reuben’s rights of the firstborn to Judah because of his misuse of his position (Genesis 49:3ff.). And so it would appear that Isaac intended to manipulate God by reversing the decree of God and the rightful ownership of the rights of the first-born as purchased (although unethically) by Jacob. This he purposed to do by giving his oral blessing to Esau:

May peoples serve you, And nations bow down to you; Be master of your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, And blessed be those who bless you (Genesis 27:29, cf. Genesis 12:3).

Either by a genuine or a contrived sense of urgency Isaac sought to secretly overturn God’s revealed will and Jacob’s rightful possession by a clandestine conveyance of an oral blessing. By his willful participation Esau disregarded the legal agreement he had made with his brother. In both instances a dinner provided the occasion for such deception. To sit at the table of Abraham (and even Lot) was to be afforded hospitality and protection, but to sit at the table with Isaac and his sons was to face the dangers of deception and false dealing.227

The Counter-Conspiracy of Rebekah and Jacob

Our Lord once said to His disciples, “… all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). There is perhaps no clearer illustration of this principle than what can be seen in Genesis 27:5-17. Isaac sought to further his own interests by means of cunning and deceit. God’s method of dealing with this was to give Isaac a wife who was far more skillful at manipulation than he. What a master of deceit this woman was.

Rebekah could easily have met the job requirements for a position with the CIA. She served as a counter-spy in the service of her son. She posed as the faithful, loving wife, but under all of this she sought to further Jacob’s interests, even at the expense of her husband Isaac. Rebekah, not Jacob, was the mastermind behind the “mission impossible” of outwitting Isaac and obtaining his blessing for Jacob.

Rebekah did not just happen to overhear the whisperings of Isaac and Esau as they plotted the diversion of divine promises to the elder son. The text tells us that she “was listening.” The Hebrew form that is used in the original text suggests that this was a habit, a pattern of behavior, not a happenstance.228 Esau had hardly gotten outside the house before Rebekah had the wheels in motion to overthrow this conspiracy with a bigger one of her own.

When you stop to think about it, the plan was an incredible one. Only a sense of desperation or a very devious mind (or both!) could hope such a plot would succeed. How could a son with a totally different disposition and physical appearance possibly manage to convince his father that he was his older brother?

In my estimation such a plan could hardly have been something conceived on the spur of the moment. I tend to think that Rebekah had been thinking about this possibility for some time and that many of the props were already in place for this theatrical production. How could she possibly have considered minute details such as the goatskin gloves and neck coverings in so short a time? And how, in a few moments time, could they have been fashioned so expertly so as to have fooled Isaac? Did she just happen to have Esau’s garments at hand even though he was married and perhaps not living at home? Rebekah was too shrewd to leave these matters to chance or to last minute accomplishment. I think this production had been staged far in advance of its performance.

I find the protests of Jacob to be of particular interest. What constitutes the basis for his objections? Moses has recorded them for us:

And Jacob answered his mother Rebekah, “Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy men and I am a smooth man. Perhaps my father will feel me, then I shall be as a deceiver in his sight; and I shall bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing” (Genesis 27:11-12).

I am taken aback by the utter absence of any moral considerations here. Jacob does not rebuke his mother for the evil which she has proposed. One simple statement would have summed up the matter concisely: “It is not right.” But no moral verdict is pronounced, and worse yet, it is not even considered. Situational ethics always seem to boil down to the premise that emergencies overrule ethics. How desperately wicked such thinking is.

Jacob’s objections are based upon two considerations, both of which deal with pragmatics rather than principle. The first is simply that such a scheme is too incredible to possibly work. Jacob’s best reason for avoiding Rebekah’s scheme was that it was likely to fail, but Rebekah was too shrewd to propose a scheme that she had not worked out to the minutest detail. The second objection was based upon a consideration of what would happen if the plot did fail. In other words, Jacob was concerned about the consequences of failure. Godly men make decisions based first and foremost upon principle, while the ungodly act only on the basis of practicality. We say that crime doesn’t pay, but the criminal knows full well that it does, and so the crime rate continues to spiral upward. The law and the government which enforces it serve as the only deterrent to evil, for penalty counts far more than principle to those who are evil (cf. Romans 13:2-4; I Timothy 1:9).

Rebekah had a ready answer for this objection. She promised to assume the negative consequences personally if anything were to go wrong. And let me add that she did suffer greatly for the part she played in this scheme. What neither Rebekah nor her son considered, however, were the consequences for their sin even if they did succeed, which they did. Their plan went off without a hitch, but the results were the opposite of what they had hoped for.

One question remains: “What should Rebekah have done in these circumstances?” Isaac was wrong in what he conspired to do. Jacob was the son whom God chose to be the “heir of promise.” Nevertheless, evil must not be resisted with evil; it must be overcome by good (Romans 12:21).

The first thing Rebekah should have done was to speak honestly and forthrightly to her husband about his contemplated sin. Submission to authority never includes silence toward evil. We are to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), even to those in authority over us (cf. Acts 16:35-40).

Having fulfilled her responsibility to warn her husband of the consequences of the evil he had planned, Rebekah should have been content to leave the disposition of the matter to God, Who is all-powerful and all-wise. Her actions betrayed her lack of faith in the sovereignty of God. She should have acted as Gideon’s father did when the people purposed to put his son to death for tearing down the altar of Baal:

…Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? … If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his altar (Judges 6:31).

If God is God, then let Him act on His own behalf, particularly in those times when we are unable to act in a way that is consistent with His Word.

Jacob Believes the Big Lie

Adolph Hitler believed in using the “big lie.” Little misrepresentations and lies might arouse suspicion, but the “big lie” would be so incredible that people would assume it must be true. It was Mark Twain, I believe, who said that fiction was believable and that non-fiction was beyond belief. When Jacob posed as his elder brother it was nothing less than an ancient application of the principle of the “big lie.”

Perhaps Jacob never intended this lie to become as big as it did, but nevertheless, it grew bigger and bigger with every statement he made. It began with the words “I am Esau your first-born” (verse 19). From this, lie began to be piled upon lie: “I have done as you told me” (verse 19); “eat of my game” (verse 19). In response to Isaac’s penetrating question, “Are you really my son Esau?,” Jacob replied, “I am” (verse 24). However, the lie that virtually sends chills up my spine as I read it is found in verse 20:

And Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have it so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the LORD your God caused it to happen to me.”

Don’t you expect a bolt of lightning to come from on high and with one “zot” remove this deceiver once for all time? Well, before you come down too quickly on Jacob, think of how Christians today do precisely the same thing. Jacob excused his sin by claiming that God was his partner in its performance. We frequently say, “The Lord led me to …” when often it is something we have always wanted to do and we have finally worked up the courage (or the folly) to go ahead with it. “The Lord told me to …” “The Lord has blessed us by …” Be careful with such statements. They may be evidence of the same kind of thinking that caused Jacob to tell his father God had prospered him by giving him a goat rather than wild game. With what pious words we seek to conceal our sin!

There is something strangely pathetic about Isaac in this chapter. He seems destined to fail, as would any man attempting to overrule God. His vulnerability is the result of several forces. First of all, Isaac is the victim of old age. His eyes are dim (verse 1) so that he cannot distinguish between what is genuine and what is artificial. His senses are somewhat dulled by age as well, or so it would seem. He did not perceive the difference between goat and game. He could not differentiate between goat skin and that of his son Esau.

Then, too, Isaac’s judgment seems to have been impaired by his haste. It was obvious that Isaac wanted to get this over with as soon as possible. He wanted the blessing to go to Esau so that it would be done—finished. Had there not been this sense of haste, Isaac might have insisted that his “other son” be present for the blessing too. Good judgment now, as then, is suspended in the name of urgency.

The fact cannot be overlooked that the decision Isaac reached was one based upon all five of his senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. The garments which Rebekah had on hand were those of Esau, and they smelled like him, too. Some have politely suggested that the smell was more like cologne, but frankly, I doubt it. Like Dr. J. Vernon McGee, I think it was another kind of smell.229 It was not the smell of Esau’s deodorant but the smell resulting from the lack of it that gave him away. Even the dulled senses of Isaac could not miss the smell of his son. Imagine it—Isaac, in the final analysis, was led by his nose.

I find Isaac’s error informative in the light of our scientific age that insists upon making decisions solely on the basis of empirical evidence. If we cannot see it, hear it, feel it, or smell it, it does not exist. Let me say that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3) has constituted all men sinners. Every aspect of our being has been tainted by sin: intellect, emotions, and will. A man whose heart is at enmity with God can look at empirical facts and come up with a conclusion that is totally false. The problem is not with the facts; the problem is with man, whose head and heart lead him astray. Such was the case with Isaac; so it is today.

Isaac Learns and Esau Burns

The Bible is a wonderful book in that what is true can also be beautiful. While the Scriptures are given to edify and to exhort us, this is done by literature which is skillfully written. There is a distinct sense of drama in this narrative. It is so familiar to most of us that we fail to sense it, but it is there none the less. We are kept in suspense till the very last moment to see if Jacob can survive the interrogation and inspection of his father. The blessing is not pronounced until the last, causing us to fear that at any moment Esau will barge into the room, expose the fraud of his brother, and bring a curse upon him, while he receives the blessing for himself. Moses tells us that Jacob had just left when his brother came to his father with his meal (verse 30).

While Isaac loved the taste of Jacob’s “game,” Jacob savored the taste of his victory over Esau. He left triumphant and with a sigh of relief. Esau must have arrived at his father’s bedside with an expectant look, sensing that the blessing was almost in his grasp. What a smug sense of satisfaction and revenge Esau must have been flirting with. And Isaac? At long last he had outwitted his wife and had blessed Esau, or so he thought.

All of this was shattered when Esau approached his father with the words: “Let my father rise, and eat of his son’s game, that you may bless me” (verse 31).

How puzzled Esau must have been at the terrified look in his father’s eyes and at the way he trembled violently upon his bed. What could possibly have gone wrong? A sense of dread must have slowly fallen over Esau as it became more and more clear that his brother had once again gotten the best of him. The irony of it all was that since Isaac had tried to give everything to Esau, there was nothing left that could be considered a blessing to his favorite son, for all had been given to Jacob.

The consequences for Rebekah and Jacob are recorded in verses 41-45, but the tragic results of the conspiracy of Isaac and Esau are seen sooner. Isaac had sought to give all to his favorite son Esau at Jacob’s expense. Instead, he gave all to Jacob at Esau’s expense. Isaac set his heart on that which was contrary to the revealed will of God, and because of this his world came crashing down upon him when God’s purposes prevailed. Esau despised spiritual things and thus sold his destiny for a dinner. Then he attempted to get it back by renouncing his solemn oath and conspiring with his father to dishonestly regain what he had lost through his own profanity. Esau learned that there comes a point of no return in every man’s life when regret cannot bring a reversal of past decisions. As I understand the Bible, all who have rejected Christ as Savior will live in eternal regret and remorse, but this will not overturn the consequences of living with their decision to live in independence from God (cf. Luke 16:19-31; Philippians 2:9-11; II Thessalonians 1:6-10; Revelation 20:11-15).

Rebekah and Jacob Have a Price to Pay

For Rebekah and her son Jacob the price tag for their success was as costly as that of Isaac and Esau for their defeat. I have never seen anyone come away from the end results of sin with a smile on their face. Sin does not pay. Jacob and Rebekah can tearfully testify to this fact.

Rebekah loved Jacob more than life itself and, seemingly, more than Isaac. She sought his success (which happened to correspond with the revealed will of God) at any price, even deception and deceit. The price she paid was separation from her son, which appears to have lasted for the rest of her life.230 So far as we can detect, once Jacob left for Haran he never saw his mother again. Rebekah underestimated the consequences of this sin, for she thought that Jacob would only need to be gone for a short time—until the death of Isaac (27:44). But Isaac lived for a good forty years until he died at age 180 (35:28).

Jacob faced the inevitable results of sin also. He must have felt an alienation from his father, whom he had not only deceived but also mocked (cf. 27:12, marginal note in the NASV). He now had a brother who despised him and who looked for the day when he could put him to death (verse 41). And worst of all, he had to leave the mother he loved. In addition to this, all that he had gained in a material way he was unable to enjoy because he had to leave it behind to flee for his life. Sin does not pay!


Several doctrines which are illustrated by this chapter should be highlighted. First, we learn more about the sovereignty of God. Consistent with other passages of Scripture, we see that God is in complete control of His universe, even when men attempt to overrule His decrees:

The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9).

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the LORD, it will stand (Proverbs 19:21).

For the wrath of man shall praise Thee; … (Psalm 76:10).

From this passage in Genesis a principle can be formulated concerning the sovereignty of God: Man’s sin can never frustrate the will of God, but it can fulfill it.

The purpose of God as expressed to Rebekah in Genesis 25:23 was perfectly accomplished without one alteration. The sins of Isaac and Esau and Rebekah and Jacob did not in any way thwart God’s will from being done. In fact, their sins were employed by God in such a way as to achieve the will of God. God’s sovereignty is never thwarted by man’s sin. To the contrary, God is able to achieve His purposes by employing man’s sinful acts to further His plans.

This is not to say that God makes man sin in order to achieve His purposes. Nor is it even to imply that God regards disobedience any less sinful because He turns evil into good. The sins of each party in this chapter are not glossed over or excused. No one has passed the responsibility for their actions on to God. No one can place the burden of guilt on God because of His decree. Sin is due to man’s depravity.

Had all acted in obedience, God would have employed some other means to bring about the blessing of Jacob instead of Esau. God did not create a situation in which men had to sin in order for His will to be done. Neither will He ever do so. We never have to sin as Christians (I Corinthians 10:13; cf. James 1:13). While God “causes all things to work together for good” (Romans 8:28), He does not create evil in order to bring resulting good. We are responsible for our sin, not God. He allows it; He uses it; but He does not necessitate it.

How, then, might God have achieved the blessing of Jacob apart from the sins of this patriarchal family? Let me say very frankly that I do not know, nor do I need to know. But this I am fully assured of: Isaac could no more have pronounced a blessing upon Esau contrary to the will of God than Balaam could have cursed Israel (cf. Numbers 22-24). God will not allow men to frustrate His purposes.

Second, we learn about the doctrine of sin. Sin always produces separation. It separates men from men, and men from God (cf. John 15:18ff; II Thessalonians 1:5-10).

Third, we learn more on the doctrine of the depravity of man. Man’s sinfulness is manifested in the distortion that it brings into every area of his life: his intellect, his emotions, and his will. The empirical method is a good one, but our depravity has touched our intellect in such a way as to twist our thinking so that we can take the right facts and turn them to wrong conclusions. The empirical method, when employed by sinful men, will often lead them astray.

Only when our true motive is to learn the will of God and to do it and when our minds are transformed (Romans 12:2) by the Spirit of God through the Word of God can we expect to rightly interpret the facts before us.

From Genesis 27 I have become convinced of a truth I have never realized: It is Possible to Practice Faith in a Way that is Inconsistent with it.

Generally we would all suppose that actions based upon faith are righteous, while those things which are done apart from faith are evil. There is certainly an element of truth here, but I could hardly believe what I read in the book of Hebrews concerning the blessing of Jacob and Esau by Isaac: “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come” (Hebrews 11:20).

Would it ever have occurred to you that Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau was an act of faith? In what sense can this be true? Surely the deception and disobedience of Isaac is not being called “righteous” by the writer to the Hebrews. How can these events in Genesis 27 be, in any sense, acts of faith on the part of Isaac?

I think that I am beginning to understand the answer to this question. Look for a moment at what is found just a few verses later in Hebrews 11:

By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace (Hebrews 11:31).

Rahab, as we know, lied about the two spies (Joshua 2:3-7). She did this believing that God was with them and with the nation Israel. She knew that God would prosper His people and destroy those who were their enemies. In this sense, she had faith in the God of Israel and was saved from destruction. Her act of lying was not commended by God, nor should it be seen as anything less than sin.231 And yet it stemmed from her faith. Her faith in God was manifested to some degree in her deception.

The same can be said for Isaac. Isaac believed in God. He believed in the covenant promises of God. He believed that the one upon whom the blessing was pronounced would be blessed indeed. He believed this so confidently that he was willing to deceive and even to disobey to have those benefits fall upon his favorite son Esau.

In this sense, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in faith. He pronounced the blessing in the faith that God would honor it and that its recipient would be blessed. Isaac’s actions stemmed from faith; but, at the same time, they were not appropriate to that faith.

I believe that the same thing is possible (and probably all too common) for Christians today. Our faith in God may lead us to witness, but we may use methods which are inconsistent with the gospel we proclaim. Our faith may cause us to share the way of salvation, but we may corrupt that gospel in order to cause no offense to the last. We suppose that we are furthering the cause of Christ, but we are corrupting the gospel, which is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). Our goal may be biblical (e.g., the salvation of others), and so may our motivation (faith), but our means may be totally wrong. That should be food for considerable thought.

One final word must be said about the matter of Christian ethics. Jacob was guilty of practicing situational ethics. He considered the plan of his mother from the vantage point of practicality but not from the biblical perspective of principle. He worried about whether the plan would work but not if it was right. He agonized over the consequences of the plan if it failed but not the morality of such a plan in the first place.

I think we find a parallel in our own times in the matter of sexual conduct and morality. Sexual conduct seems often to be considered only in the light of availability and opportunity, not in the light of biblical morality. Sexual immorality has often been discouraged because of the consequences of disease and the shame and inconvenience of an unwanted pregnancy Now, however, society has come up with penicillin and the pill and, if all else fails, the abortion clinic. The younger generation feels little sense of reluctance to engage in immorality because they are assured, like Jacob was, that there will be no negative consequences. Let us teach our children what is right, and let us help our children to see that sin always has a price tag that is far too great to seriously consider disobedience to God.

223 “This makes all four participants in the present scene almost equally at fault. Isaac, whether he knew of the sale or not, knew God’s birth-oracle of 25:23, yet set himself to use God’s power to thwart it (see verse 29). This is the outlook of magic, not religion. Esau, in agreeing to the plan, broke his own oath of 25:33. Rebekah and Jacob, with a just cause, made no approach to God or man, no gesture of faith or love, and reaped the appropriate fruit of hatred.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 155.

224 Stigers, after a consideration of Genesis 47:9; 45:11; 41:26-27; 41:46; 30:22ff.; and 29:18,27 calculates that Jacob would have been 77 years old when he left for Padan-Aram. If this is correct, Isaac would be 137 years old here, since we know he was 60 years old when the twins were born (25:26). Cf. Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 211.

225 “From excavations at Nuzu in central Mesopotamia we learn that the oral blessing or will had legal validity and would stand up even in the courts. Nuzu tablet P56 mentions a lawsuit between three brothers in which two of them contested the right of a third to marry a certain Zululishtar. The young man won his case by arguing that this marriage was provided for in his father’s deathbed blessing.” Howard Vos, Genesis and Archaeology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), p. 96. The information cited by Vos comes from Cyrus Gordon, “Biblical Customs and the Nuzu Tablets,” The Biblical Archaeologist, February, 1940, p. 8.

226 “The birthright was more than a title to the family inheritance; it involved a spiritual position. The place of the individual in the covenant status of Israel was part of the birthright and it was this aspect which made the foolishness of Esau so profound.” W. White, Jr. “Birthright,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975-1976), I, p. 617.

227 Leupold rightly comments, “He that knows the duplicity and treachery of the human heart will not find it difficult to understand how a man will circumvent a word of God, no matter how clear it be, if his heart is really set on what is at variance with that word.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II., p. 737.

228 “The participle shoma’ath . . . indicates a continuing watchfulness on her part to protect Jacob’s interests.” Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis, p. 217.

229 Cf. J. Vernon McGee, Genesis (Pasadena: Through the Bible Books, 1975), II, p. 302.

230 Rebekah paved the way for Jacob’s exodus in verse 46, but we shall delay a more detailed comment on this verse until the message on chapter 28. Suffice it to say that she still persisted at the manipulation of her husband, which she does with great skill.

231 Some would differ here. There are those who would say that during war deception (lying) is not sin--and this was a time of war. Thus, Rahab was not guilty of sin in this instance. I happen to disagree with that conclusion, although I do believe that deception in a time of war is not considered sin. We must realize that the writer to the Hebrews spoke only of Rahab’s reception of the spies, not of her deception, when he wrote of her faith.

Related Topics: Spiritual Gifts

29. The Seeker Is Sought (Genesis 28:1-22)


God has a way of shaping the lives of His children even before they have entered into a relationship with him. One of my seminary professors, whom I greatly admire, serves to illustrate this dramatically. While an unbeliever, he attended college and was faced with a decision as to his major. He was (and is) an exceptional golfer and decided to major in whatever subject was available which would leave his afternoons free to play golf. That subject happened to be Greek. After his conversion he went on to theological seminary and eventually became the head of the Greek department there for many years.

I am inclined to look at the life of Jacob in a similar way. I do not see any evidence of his conversion before Genesis 28. In Genesis 27:20 Jacob referred to the God of Abraham and of Isaac as “your God.” It is here in chapter 28 that Jacob affirmed, “The LORD will be my God” (Genesis 28:21). Jacob appears to be on the road to Haran much as Saul made his way to Damascus (cf. Acts 9:1ff.), religious but not related to God by a personal faith and commitment. Both Saul and Jacob were stopped short by a vision which was to change the course of their lives.

Jacob’s Farewell
and Esau’s Frustration

While the consequences for failure to pull off the deception of Isaac had been carefully considered, neither Rebekah nor Jacob had weighed the cost of success. Isaac had been deceived and mocked (cf. 27:12, marginal note in NASV) due to the frailties of his age. Esau was deeply resentful, looking forward to the time when he could kill his brother (27:41). Rebekah must have found the gap between herself and her husband (not to mention Esau) widened by her deception of her mate. More than this, Rebekah now perceived that Jacob would have to leave until emotions cooled, although she had no conception of how long this separation must last.

In Genesis 27:42-45 Rebekah began to expedite the plan which she had already formulated in her mind. She must see to it that Jacob escaped the passions of Esau. She would arrange for him to spend time with her brother Laban, far from Esau, and so she began to pave the way for Jacob’s escape. First, she prepared Jacob for his departure by explaining the need for it (verses 42-45). Just a few days, she reasoned,232 would be needed for things to settle down (verse 44). Instead it was twenty years before Jacob would return (cf. 31:38), and that, it appears, was after she died.

The final verse of chapter 27 describes the skillful manipulation of Isaac by Rebekah, leading him to the inevitable conclusion that Jacob should be sent away to Haran, the city of her brother Laban:

And Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am tired of living because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife from the daughters of Heth, like these, from the daughters of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (Genesis 27:46)

How different was Rebekah’s approach from what Sarah could have been predicted to do. I think Sarah would have given Abraham an ultimatum: “Send my son to my brother Laban in Haran or else!” This she would have demanded, poking her bony finger in the face of Abraham all the while (cf. 16:5; 21:10). Rebekah believed in the subtle but sure approach. She never told Isaac what to do; she just spelled things out in such a way that Isaac could reasonably do nothing else. She let it be known how distressed she was over the Canaanite women whom Esau had taken as wives (cf. 26:34-35). Then she insinuated that if Jacob did the same she would not be fit to live with. Little wonder then that Isaac did what is recorded in the first two verses of chapter 28:

So Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and charged him, and said to him, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father; and from there take to yourself a wife from the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother” (Genesis 28:1-2).

Two things are striking about this word of instruction from the lips of Isaac. First, it is unprecedented. Nowhere previously has this instruction been given. We see this from Esau’s response to the events of the early verses of chapter 28:

Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram, to take to himself a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he charged him, saying, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and had gone to Paddan-aram. So Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan displeased his father Isaac; and Esau went to Ishmael, and married, besides the wives that he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth (Genesis 28:6-9).

We must therefore conclude that neither Jacob nor Esau had ever previously been taught that marriage to a Canaanite woman would be inconsistent with the will of God and unsatisfactory to their parents.

Second, this charge to Jacob was untimely. We must admit that the occasion of Jacob going to Paddan-aram to seek a wife is a good one for this instruction, but we must not overlook how late in the life of these two sons this is. We have previously stated that Jacob was 77 years old when he went down to Haran.233 This would mean that Jacob did not marry until he was 84, since he had to work seven years for his wife (29:18,20).

We must remember that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah (25:20), as was Esau when he took his two Hittite wives (26:34). For Esau this instruction came 37 years late. Imagine his frustration at finally learning the reason for his parents’ grief about his marriage. Surely Isaac’s words in verses 1 and 2 are too little and too late for Esau, and none too soon for Jacob.

Coupled with the fact that marriage was a secondary reason for Jacob’s departure to Haran, while survival was primary, we begin to grasp the casual attitude of Isaac toward the spiritual training of his sons. To him these matters must have been of minimal import to come as little and as late as they did.

The blessing of Jacob is somewhat more positive. While Isaac had blessed Jacob in the previous chapter, he had done so as though it were Esau. That blessing does not reach the clarity and the particularity of verses 3 and 4:

And may God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May He also give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you; that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.

Only by allusion did Isaac convey the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant to Jacob in chapter 27. Here it is stated in very specific terms. Isaac has finally resigned himself to the fact that God is going to bless Jacob and not Esau. His words reflect this acceptance of things as they must be and as God said they would be.

Television and the movies have conditioned us to delight in the destruction of the villain. He gets his just desserts, and usually in a way that befits his dastardly deeds. We all know that the good guy will win (or at least this used to be true), but we must watch until we have had the pleasure of seeing the bad guy get what is coming to him. Likewise, when we come to these verses concerning the response of Esau to what has happened between Isaac and Jacob, we tend to think of Esau as the villain. We expect to see his downfall, and we plan to savor it when it comes.

Because of this, we must be reminded that Jacob was not chosen because he was the hero, nor was Esau rejected because he was the villain. Genesis 25, especially in the light of Paul’s explanation in Romans 9, forces us to conclude that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau without regard to the deeds of either (Romans 9:11-12). Esau is not a man who, because of his actions described here and elsewhere, was rejected by God. Esau is not any different from any unbeliever whose heart has not been enlivened and whose mind has not been enlightened to respond to divine realities. Esau in his unbelief is no more depraved nor any less sensitive to spiritual things than any other son or daughter of Adam who suffers from inherent sin:

There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one (Romans 3:10-12).

Let us therefore put aside all sense of smugness and superiority when we come to consider this tragic figure, for whom we should all feel a deep sense of pity. Let us all acknowledge that, but for the grace of God, there go we. Here is a man who cannot comprehend the love of God and is unconvinced about the love of his father. Here is one who fails to grasp spiritual realities but who also has not been taught them by his parents.

Thirty-seven years too late Esau has learned at least one of the reasons why he felt unloved: his wives displeased his parents. I say “parents,” but you will observe that Esau is not reported to have cared about his mother’s sentiments toward him, only his father’s (verse 8). He had long since given up hope of being loved and accepted by Rebekah. Desperately he sought to win the approval of his father.

If having a non-Canaanite wife was all that it took to please his father, that was a small price to pay for the approval he craved. Failing to see any problem in his actions, Esau took Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael (verse 9). This woman was no Canaanite; she was of the family of Abraham. What could be more pleasing to Isaac than this? But Esau did not understand the matter of purity. Ishmael had been rejected to carry out the line of Abraham because he was a child of self effort (21:12, cf. Galatians 4:22-23). He was a product of fleshly striving, not spiritual dependence. Marriage to a descendant of Ishmael failed to achieve Esau’s intended goal. Without realizing it, he typified in this act the very thing which God most condemned, fleshly striving. Just as Abraham acted on his own to achieve a son, so Esau acted in a fleshly way to win the approval of his father. How appropriate this marriage was, and how ineffectual.

Jacob’s Departure and His Dream

On his journey to Paddan-aram, Jacob was accompanied only by his staff (32:10) and his thoughts. It would not seem difficult to speculate with fair accuracy as to what these thoughts were about. Surely he must have considered the wisdom of his actions in deceiving his father. He must have compared his expectations in this plot with the outcome of it. He should have felt guilt at the thought of his treatment of his brother and father. He undoubtedly grieved at having to leave his mother. He must have wondered what kind of reception he would have from Laban. He would not be able to overlook the fact that he had nothing to offer Laban as a dowry for a wife. What would his wife be like? When would he ever be able to return home?

Whatever his thoughts must have been, I believe that Jacob was finally at the end of himself. I believe that he came to realize that he would never prosper on the basis of his schemes and struggles. His self-assurance was probably at an all-time low. This was the ideal time for God to break into his life, for now Jacob knew how much he needed God in order to be blessed as his father had been.

Night seems to have overtaken Jacob before he arrived at the city of Luz. The city gates would have been closed for the night, so Jacob, as shepherds customarily did, slept under the stars. He found a suitable spot, took a stone from nearby, and propped himself up for the night. In his sleep he had an awe-inspiring vision. He saw a ladder reaching from heaven to earth, with angels ascending and descending upon it. Above this ladder was God, who spoke these words to him:

I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you (Genesis 28:13-15).

This vision has been the victim of many interpreters. Its significance has been said to be deep and profound. I think not. I believe that it was intended to be understood very simply, just as Jacob did. My interpretation of its meaning and significance will be based upon four considerations: (a) the words of God to Jacob; (b) the words immediately spoken by Jacob; (c) the words spoken on a later occasion by Jacob; and (d) the words of our Lord in John 1:51.

The words spoken by God are very similar to previous declarations to Abraham and to Isaac. Isaac’s pronouncement that passed on the blessing of Abraham to Jacob (verse 4) was now confirmed by God Himself. While there are various aspects to these covenant blessings, foremost seems to be the references to the land:

… the land on which you lie; I will give it to you … (verse 13)

… and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south … (verse 14)

… and will bring you back to this land … (verse 15)

Jacob perceived the significance of the place, too, for he immediately narrowed his thinking to the awesomeness of the place where he lay:

… surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it (verse 16).

… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (verse 17).

Later on in his life Jacob looked back upon this vision, still realizing the manner in which God signified the special nature of that place:

I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; now arise, leave this land, and return to the land of your birth (Genesis 31:13).

As Jacob, in obedience to this command, approached the land of promise, he received a report that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men (Genesis 32:6). Jacob prayed for protection as he went forward, based upon the promise of God in the vision at Bethel:

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, mother with children. For thou didst say, “I will surely prosper you, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude” (Genesis 32:11-12).

These statements of God and Jacob fit together nicely, especially in the light of the context of the vision. Jacob was about to leave the land of promise for a twenty year sojourn in Paddan-aram. He might be tempted never to return to this land again. By means of this dramatic vision God impressed Jacob with the significance of this land. It was the place where heaven and earth met. It was the place where God would come down to man and where men would find access to God. It was, as Jacob asserted, “the gate of heaven.” Throughout those twenty years Jacob would never forget this dream. He would realize that ultimately, to be in the will of God, he must be in the place of God’s choosing, the land of promise. It was in the land that God’s blessings would be poured out upon God’s people. While Jacob must leave, he must surely return.

How eagerly the first recipients of this record must have read it. The books of the Law were written by Moses and thus must have been completed before his death and before the entrance of Israel into the promised land. What a sense of anticipation the Israelites must have had as they looked across the river Jordan knowing that, in some special way, God’s presence was to be revealed in that place. The experience on Mount Sinai surely gave substance to this hope.

In the first chapter of John’s gospel Jesus had invited Philip to follow him (1:43). Philip likewise sought out Nathanael, assuring him that he had found the Messiah. This Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth (verse 45). Nathanael wondered at how the Messiah could come from such a place as Nazareth (verse 46). When Jesus saw Nathanael coming, He identified him as a man “in whom is no guile” (verse 47). Further, Jesus indicated that He had seen Nathanael while he was “under the fig tree” (verse 48). This was enough to convince Nathanael that Philip was right—Jesus was the Messiah!

Our Lord did not stop at this, however. While commending his belief, He went on to give even greater revelation concerning Himself:

And He said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51).

Nathanael had put too much stock in place. How could Messiah come from Nazareth? Jesus had been born in Bethlehem. God had revealed Himself to man in Israel. But while Jacob had focused upon the ground, the place where the ladder was situated, Jesus drew Nathanael’s attention to the ladder itself. He, Jesus of Nazareth, was the ladder. It was not the place where the ladder stood which was now most important but the person who was the ladder. Jacob saw God above the ladder; Jesus revealed God as the ladder. Ultimately it was Jesus Christ who bridged the gap between heaven and earth. It is through Him that God has come down to man. It is through Him that man will have access to God. Jacob saw what he needed to see at that moment in his life. Jesus revealed to Nathanael that there was much more to be seen than what Jacob had perceived in his day.

Jacob’s Declaration

Jacob’s response to this dramatic disclosure of the divine purposes and promises of God can be summarized by three statements.

Jacob Set Up a Pillar

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on its top. And he called the name of the place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz (Genesis 28:18-19).

The pillar was to serve as a memorial. It marked a place to which he would return to build an altar and worship God.

Jacob Made a Profession of Faith

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the LORD will be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21).

Some are inclined to view the “ifs” of these words as evidence of Jacob’s bargaining nature. It is as though Jacob is striking a deal with God. While Jacob’s faith is certainly immature at this point, I am inclined to view the “ifs” more in the sense of “since,” along with others.234

Jacob Made a Promise

And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house; and of all that Thou dost give me I will surely give a tenth to Thee (Genesis 28:22).

Jacob planned to return, consistent with the thrust of the vision he had seen. At that time he would build an altar and give a tithe to God. While the Scriptures record the building of the altar (35:7), no reference can be found to the giving of the tithe. It may be, however, that this tithe was involved in the sacrifices which would be offered upon the altar. There was no command to tithe; this was a voluntary act on Jacob’s behalf.


This chapter has some very sobering lessons for us as parents. Isaac’s apathy in the matter of instructing his sons may sound uncomfortably familiar. In addition to this I find Isaac’s love to be contingent upon Esau’s performance. Isaac “loved Esau because,… ” we are told (25:28). Interestingly, in this same verse we are told only that Rebekah loved Jacob. No conditions are expressed. Look at the insecurity of Esau. Here was a 77-year-old man, still desperately trying to win the love and approval of his father—and with good reason, for his father loved on the basis of his performance.

Then, also, it would seem that as a favored son Esau was pampered by his father. Nowhere are we ever told of the discipline of either of Isaac’s sons. Discipline, as the Bible repeatedly informs us, is one manifestation of genuine love (cf. Proverbs 3:12; 13:24; Hebrews 12:5-11). I cannot help but feel that some words of admonition and correction in the life of Esau would have assured him of his father’s love. Discipline is not the enemy of love but the evidence of it.

Both Jacob and Esau illustrate the futility of scheming and self-effort in achieving divine acceptance. Here Esau’s sincere and diligent efforts to win approval by marrying a daughter of Ishmael are worthless. While his sincerity is evident, his actions do not conform with the requirements of faith. Sincere effort which is not based upon divine revelation is folly.

All of Jacob’s efforts to achieve the blessing of God are in vain as well. It was only by entering into a relationship with the covenant God of Abraham and Isaac that Jacob could experience the blessings of God. The basis for such a relationship was the revealed word of God. I find it amusing that while Jacob could not find God by striving, he was found by God while in his sleep. Surely God is trying to tell us something by this. It is by resting in Him and in His Word that we can be blessed. This does not mean the absence of activity on our part,235 but it does mean that self-effort will always be futile.

Two further lessons from this text should be pointed out. First, place is important. It surely was important so far as Jacob was concerned. Experiencing the blessing of God meant being in the place where God had promised to bless. I hear people say things such as, “I can worship God just as well out on the lake as I can in a church.” But the Word of God tells us, “… not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some …” (Hebrews 10:25). There are surely certain places where it would be difficult, even impossible, for a Christian to be for the glory of God.

Second, a profession of faith does not mean our immediate entrance into blissful experiences and rose-petal-strewn pathways. For twenty years after this conversion experience Jacob was to live away from his mother and father, away from the land of promise. For twenty years Jacob was to be administered a large dose of his own medicine, dealt out by an uncle who was even more deceitful than he. Entering into a relationship with God does not guarantee only good times and happy experiences; but it does assure us of the forgiveness of sins, the hope of eternal life, and the presence of God in our everyday lives.

232 It is possible that Rebekah did realize that Jacob’s separation would be long-term. Was she then making his exit more palatable by saying it was only for a “few days” (27:44)? Surely it would take more than this to travel that distance and return.

233 Cf. Lesson 28, footnote 2, or Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 211.

234 E. G. Stigers, Genesis, p. 228. Cf. also H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 780.

235 Here we see Jacob resting in God, later he will wrestle with God (32:24-30). These two aspects of the Christian life are not contradictory. We are saved only by resting in His Word and His work on our behalf. But God delights to bless His children when they actively prevail with Him in prayer.

30. I Led Two Wives (Genesis 29:1-30)


Although not from the proverbial horse’s mouth, I heard a story which has the ring of truth to it. A classic car lover was looking for a particular model of Studebaker. In the normal course of his scanning the newspaper, he saw an ad that seemed impossible to believe. Just the car he wanted was advertised, but for a mere $100. Knowing the car should have sold for thousands, he concluded that the car was either in a basket, or there was a misprint. Finally his curiosity got the best of him and he called. A woman answered the phone and assured him that the car was in excellent shape and that there was no mistake about the price.

With the scent of a bargain in the air the car connoisseur hurried over to investigate. To his delight the car proved to be everything the woman reported it to be. It was beautiful. Of course he told her that he would take it—for $100. Twinges of guilt finally became so strong that the man had to confess to the woman, “Ma’am, I have to tell you that this car is worth far more than $100. You should get much more than that for this automobile.” “Oh, I know that,” she replied, “but you see my husband has left me to run off with his secretary. He sent me the title to the car and told me to sell it and send him the money. That’s what I intend to do with the $100.”

It is difficult to hear a story like this without savoring the taste of poetic justice that it contains. I think that most of us get that same feeling when we read Genesis 29. Jacob, the double-dealer, gets a double deal. Jacob, the deceiver, gets outwitted by his uncle Laban. We suppose that Leah was some kind of defective model of womanhood who should have been subject to a factory recall, and we are amused to find that he has to spend the rest of his life stuck with her, although he finally does get to marry the girl he loves.

I would like to challenge much of our interpretation of this chapter, for it does not seem that our conclusions fit the facts, only our desire to watch Jacob get what he deserves. There is that element, of course, but it is not the main theme of the story. Let us approach this episode in the life of Jacob with a view to the gracious dealings of God in the life of this patriarch-to-be.

Love at First Sight

Jacob left Bethel with a lightness in his step236 and a new lease on life. Before his encounter with God, he could only refer to his father’s God as “your God” (27:20). Now, Yahweh was Jacob’s God (28:21). He had seen the vision of the ladder from heaven and heard the promise of God of His presence, provision, and protection. He had the assurance of his return to the land and the blessings of Abraham (28:10-17). There was a new sense of direction, a new hope, and a new meaning to life. He was still going on to Haran, but God was with him.

Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the sons of the east. And he looked, and saw a well in the field, and behold, three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for from that well they watered the flocks. Now the stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, they would then roll the stone from the mouth of the well, and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place on the mouth of the well (Genesis 29:1-3).

As he approached Haran, Jacob came upon a well which was in a field. It was a different well, I believe, from that one to which the servant of Abraham came (cf. Genesis 24:11). That well was a spring located outside the city to which the women came to draw drinking water (24:11,13). The well to which Jacob came was one in a field well away from the city, and it was more of a cistern from which the cattle drank directly. This well was covered by a large stone, which tended to keep it from being polluted or filled with sand. Perhaps more importantly, it restricted the use of that well to particular times and only to authorized persons. The shepherds, perhaps young lads, sat about the well waiting for the time when they could water their sheep. Jacob engaged these shepherds in conversation:

And Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where are you from?” And they said, “We are from Haran.” And he said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” And they said, “We know him.” And he said to them, “Is it well with him?” And they said, “It is well, and behold, Rachel his daughter is coming with the sheep” (Genesis 29:4-6).

Jacob wanted to learn how far he was from his destination. The shepherds’ response told him he was very near to Haran. His question about Laban’s welfare was not academic. He had a vital interest in the present state of affairs in Laban’s family. To some degree, the success of his journey could be measured by the shepherds’ reply. To Jacob’s relief Laban was doing well, and, more than this, he had a daughter who was to arrive at the well soon. It was best to wait for her to be directed to his home.

In the meantime, Jacob inquired about a matter which struck him as quite unusual:

And he said, “Behold, it is still high day; it is not time for the livestock to be gathered. Water the sheep, and go pasture them.” But they said, “We cannot, until all the flocks are gathered, and they roll the stone from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep” (Genesis 29:7-8).

The sheep would not be gathered in for the night until much later, as it was still early in the day. It made little sense to Jacob for these shepherds to be sitting about the well waiting until later to water their sheep when they could water them now and take them back to pasture for several hours. The practical thing to do was to water the sheep now and not to wait until later.

The shepherds were not at all impressed by the question or informed as to the care of sheep. Indeed, his question may have seemed foolish to them. Of course Jacob was right. Even these boys knew that sheep grew faster grazing on the grassland rather than standing about the well where the grass had long before been consumed. However, the well was not, it seems, to be used at their convenience.

A well was a valuable resource, much as an oil well would be today. As such, it had to belong to somebody, and that person would prescribe how and when the well was to be used, and probably at what price. The agreement between the well owner and the shepherds seems to be that the well could be used once a day. The shepherds must first be gathered at the well with their flocks. Then the owner or his hired servants (“they,” verse 8) would roll the large stone away and the sheep could be watered, perhaps in the order that the flocks arrived. This would explain why the shepherds and their flocks were there so early. In this way, what was most profitable (this is what Jacob’s question was getting at) was not practical. The owner’s stipulations must be adhered to.

During the course of this conversation Rachel arrived. With this, Jacob had little interest in the shepherd boys, for she was a relative and a lovely young girl:

While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. And it came about, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went up, and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted his voice and wept. And Jacob told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and that he was Rebekah’s son, and she ran and told her father (Genesis 29:9-12).

Some commentators actually suggest that Jacob suggested to the shepherds that they water their sheep immediately in order to get rid of them before Rachel arrived so that he could meet her alone.237 This hardly seems to be the case. He would not have known her age or beauty and surely would have wanted to meet her under proper circumstances.

I am, however, interested in the sequence of events that occurred when Jacob and Rachel met. I would have expected Jacob to introduce himself first, then to kiss her, and finally to water her sheep. Just the reverse is reported.238 First Jacob watered the sheep of Laban, casting aside any consideration of what he had been told by the shepherds. Then he kissed her—the first instance of “kissing cousins.” Finally, he introduced himself as her relative. If this order of events is correct, Jacob cast all convention aside, and Rachel might have been somewhat swept off her feet by such a romantic gesture. All of this, I must remind you, is reading considerably between the lines.

And so the two have met. It may not have been “love at first sight,” but it could have been. The meeting of these two sets the stage for the next phase of their relationship.

Seven Years Till Wedding Night

When Rachel ran home with her report of meeting Jacob, Laban was quick to respond:

So it came about, when Laban heard the news of Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Then he related to Laban all these things. And Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh.” And he stayed with him a month (Genesis 29:13-14).

Laban’s greeting suggests no more to me than the fact that he extended the normal hospitality which should have been expected, especially for a near relative.239 Jacob, we are told, “related to Laban all these things” (verse 13). We might wonder what “these things” were. We should reasonably expect that Jacob reported about his family and their health. Primarily, Laban would have wished to know about his sister Rebekah. I think that Jacob also reported the events which led to his journey to Paddan-aram, including the deception of his father. I would imagine that Jacob would also have mentioned that he came to seek a wife. This report was sufficient for Laban to be convinced that Jacob was who he claimed to be and, therefore, a near kin to him. This close proximity of relationship was not without its significance to Laban,240 but later events will suggest this more convincingly.

Jacob’s month-long stay with Laban had at least two results. First, it brought Jacob and Rachel into close contact and helped to kindle a deep affection for each other. Jacob now had a reason to stay with Laban. And as for Laban, this month proved Jacob to be a most valuable worker. While Jacob possessed nothing but the promise of future wealth and blessing, he was a good worker. He would make a fine son-in-law and could stay on to work for Laban in place of the traditional dowry. This month brought both Laban and Jacob to the conclusion that a continuing relationship between them could be of mutual advantage.

At the end of that month, Laban sought to formalize the relationship between himself and Jacob:

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” (Genesis 29:15).

While Laban is not reported to have any sons at this point in time, he did have an older daughter, who was to play a crucial role in the events that were to follow:

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the oldest was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful of form and face (Genesis 29:16-17).

Few women have been so misunderstood as Leah. Even her name does her a great disservice, for it means “wild cow.”241 The statement that she had “weak eyes” (verse 17) seems to many to portray Leah as a homely girl with pop-bottle glasses, who cannot see three feet in front of her. This kind of thinking is completely unjustified.

First, the word rendered “weak” (rak) is never used in a demeaning way, as is here suggested. Never is the term used with reference to any defect.242 For example, in Genesis 18:7 Moses used this word, and there it is translated “tender”: “Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf, and gave it to the servant; and he hurried to prepare it” (emphasis added).

Moses used the word again in chapter 33 with reference to the young children, who were too frail to be hurried: “But he said to him, ‘My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds which are nursing are a care to me. And if they are driven hard one day, all the flocks will die’” (Genesis 33:13; emphasis added).

If we are to take the word rak, which is rendered “weak” in 29:17, in its normal sense, then, we cannot think in terms of defect but in terms of delicacy. In contrast with Rachel, who may have had fire or a sparkle in her eyes, Leah had gentle eyes.

I must warn you in advance that I am inclined to go one step further than any commentator I am aware of. I think that we must also consider the meaning of the term “eyes.” Strange as it may seem, this word used for the physical organs of sight often refers to much more than the physical eye. It also depicts one’s character, just as the expression “kidneys” refers to human emotions and thoughts (cf. Psalm 7:9; 16:7; 26:2; Revelation 2:23). In the Old Testament, then, we find these kinds of references to the eyes:

And you shall consume all the peoples whom the LORD your God will deliver to you; your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you (Deuteronomy 7:16).

Beware, lest there is a base thought in your heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the LORD against you, and it will be a sin in you (Deuteronomy 15:9).

Perhaps the most interesting use of the word “eye” is in two verses, both of which contain the word “eye” and the word “refined” (Hebrew, rak):

The man who is refined and very delicate among you shall be hostile toward {lit. his eye shall be evil toward, margin, NASV} his brother and toward the wife he cherishes and toward the rest of his children who remain (Deuteronomy 28:54).

The refined and delicate woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground for delicateness and refinement, shall be hostile toward {lit. her eye shall be evil toward, margin, NASV} the husband she cherishes and toward her son and daughter (Deuteronomy 28:56).

It is an established fact that the eyes are used in the Old and New Testament as “shewing mental qualities” such as arrogance, humility, mockery, and pity.243 I believe that it is in this sense that the eyes of Leah are spoken of. In connection with the word rak, I would conclude that the disposition of Leah was one of gentleness and tenderness, while Rachel seems to have had a more fiery and aggressive temperament. Regardless of whether or not my conclusions are accepted, the idea of defect in Leah is highly suspect and without precedent in the scriptural use of these terms.

Rachel is characterized only by her physical attractiveness. She was “beautiful of form and face” (verse 17). Moses may be drawing our attention to this fact because it was the major source of attraction for Jacob. There seems to be, then, a significant contrast here between Rachel and Rebekah. Rebekah was selected for Isaac by Abraham’s servant on the basis of divine guidance and because of personal qualities which assured him that she would be a fine wife for Isaac. Rachel, on the other hand, was selected by Jacob for himself, but without any mention of her personal qualities, only a description of her beauty. Rebekah’s beauty was an additional plus, an unexpected fringe benefit; Rachel’s beauty was the essence of her selection. The red warning lights should already be flashing in our minds.

On this questionable basis Jacob chose Rachel, the younger, over Leah, the older, and proposed the terms of the payment of the dowry:

Now Jacob loved Rachel, so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (Genesis 29:18).

Laban’s response was positive but somewhat vague:

… It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to another man; stay with me (Genesis 29:19).

I do not know for certain that Laban had already purposed to deceive Jacob by switching wives, but his response certainly left him room for it. It was positive enough for Jacob to know that his offer had been accepted. It was, I think, a premium price but one that Jacob didn’t mind paying:

So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her (Genesis 29:20).

Nevertheless, Laban did not specify that the seven years of service would immediately or necessarily bring about a marriage to Rachel. He simply implied it, and in his romantic state of ecstasy Jacob assumed what he wished to believe.

Some suppose that at 77 years of age Jacob could have cared less about waiting seven years to marry. I would be inclined to disagree. The point of verse 20 is that Rachel was well worth the high price which Jacob had agreed to pay for her—a price measured in years of service rather than dollars. Jacob’s statement to Laban in the next verse strongly implies that he was eager and anxious to consummate the marriage for which he had long waited.

Shock at First Light

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is completed, that I may go in to her” (Genesis 29:21).

It is difficult to read this verse without concluding that there was a great deal of romantic passion in that 77-year-old man. His physical desire for Rachel is certainly to be expected. Ironically, it is this physical appetite, much like Isaac’s desire for wild game (25:28; 27:3-4), that caused Jacob to act too hastily and bind himself to a life-long commitment.

And Laban gathered all the men of the place, and made a feast. Now it came about in the evening that he took his daughter Leah, and brought her to him; and Jacob went in to her. Laban also gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah as a maid. So it came about in the morning that, behold, it was Leah! And he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served with you? Why then have you deceived me?” (Genesis 29:22-25)

It is with great discretion that Moses has described this most delicate and intimate matter. Where Hollywood would have inserted pages of elaboration Moses has given us a parenthetical statement about the maid which Laban gave his daughter. We must therefore deal with this subject in a manner which is consistent with the emphasis of the text and with standards of righteousness.

For seven years Jacob had waited for this day. His eagerness is natural and normal. At the feast he may have had sufficient wine to somewhat dull his senses. The guests would be aware of his entrance into the tent (and the matrimonial bed where Leah waited) and also of his exit, thus indicating that the marriage had been consummated by the union of the bride and groom (cf. Judges 14:10-15:2; Psalm 19:5). The same passion which dominated Jacob as he chose his bride now ruled as he entered into that tent. It is hardly a wonder that Jacob should have made the mistake that he did.

Early the next morning Jacob awoke. What a beautiful day! What a wonderful night! What an exciting future! What a shock as the sunlight burst into the tent to reveal that the woman in his arms was Leah, not Rachel! What irony that Jacob should repeat the identical words of Pharaoh to Abraham (12:18) and almost the same expression of Abimelech to Abraham (20:9) and Abimelech to Isaac (26:10): “What is this you have done to me?” While it is not recorded, it is easy to believe that Isaac also asked this of Jacob after his great deception. The shoe is now on the other foot; the deceiver has now been deceived. Those who choose to live by the sword die by it.

Laban was not taken back by Jacob’s rebuke. He had probably planned his response to this question long before this confrontation took place.

But Laban said, “It is not the practice in our place, to marry off the younger before the first-born. Complete the bridal week of this one, and we will give you the other also for the service which you shall serve with me for another seven years.” And Jacob did so and completed her week, and he gave him his daughter Rachel as his wife. Laban also gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maid. So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and indeed he loved Rachel more than Leah, and he served with Laban for another seven years (Genesis 29:26-30).

The end result was that Laban married off both his daughters. Also, he managed to get a premium price for both. Jacob ended up with two wives rather than one, and he worked twice as hard to get what he desired.


Fewer passages contain more lessons for living than this chapter. Let me suggest some of these under several headings.

The Consequences of Sin

Previously we have noted that one of the consequences of the sin of Jacob’s deceiving Isaac was his physical and emotional separation from those he loved. A second consequence is the moral parallel to Newton’s law of motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In our Lord’s words, “… all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Jacob chose to get ahead in life by means of deception. Jacob learned the sad lesson that those who seek to deceive shall be deceived.

The tragedy of this chapter is that all that took place was unnecessary. All we need to do is to contrast the acquisition of Rachel with that of Rebekah. The resources of Abraham made it possible for Isaac to have a wife in a very short period of time (cf. 24:54ff.). One reason for this was the fact that the servant had the dowry from the riches of Abraham, Isaac’s father. One of the consequences of Jacob’s sin was that he had to leave Canaan—to flee empty-handed. Since Jacob sinned, he was separated from the wealth of his father and had only the work of his own hands. The fourteen years of Jacob’s labor would have been unnecessary, I believe, had it not been for his deception of Isaac. Perhaps Isaac sent Jacob away without any of his wealth to teach him the value of hard work. Or perhaps it was to force Jacob to stay away a long time by working for a wife. This we do not know, but it does seem that this 14-year delay was unnecessary and purely the result of sin. What a price to pay!

There is one striking difference between the consequences of sin today and those of Jacob. Our sins, like his, separate us from God now and eternally (e.g. Psalm 66:18; II Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 20:12-15). However, while the work of Jacob’s hands was able to earn him a wife, the works of our hands cannot earn any of God’s blessings or salvation:

For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment … (Isaiah 64:6).

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).

The good news of the gospel is that we who are sinners and cannot help ourselves can be saved by trusting in the work which Jesus Christ has done on our behalf. It is by trusting in His death as our substitute and in His righteousness that we can experience the blessings of God now and in eternity.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The Grace of God

Some may view the events of this chapter as God’s getting even with Jacob. Others would merely interpret them as a kind of poetic justice. I prefer to understand them as an evidence of the marvelous grace of God at work in the life of Jacob. God did not bring these events to pass to punish Jacob but to instruct him. Punishment has been born by our Savior on the cross, but discipline is the corrective training which furthers us on the path leading to godliness (cf. Hebrews 12).

Jacob learned the value of convention. The agreement which regulated the use of the well (verses 2-3, 7-8) seemed to mean little to Jacob. In the excitement of meeting Rachel he decided to use the well regardless of the rules for its use. He may also have disregarded some conventions in the way that he greeted Rachel (verses 10-12). He certainly chose to disregard the convention of marrying the first-born first. I do not believe that Laban was telling Jacob anything new but reminding him of something that could not, and should not, be taken lightly or disregarded.

In addition to all this, Jacob experienced the grace of God in the delay of 14 plus years. It was this delay which contributed to the preservation of Jacob’s life by keeping him away from the anger of Esau, who had purposed to kill him.

Amazingly, the grace of God was manifested in this event by the gift of Leah as a wife to Jacob. This is probably the last thought to cross our minds, but I believe that it is a defensible position. First, we must acknowledge that, in the providence of God (and in spite of the deceptiveness of Laban), Leah was Jacob’s wife. Furthermore, it was Leah, not Rachel, who became the mother of Judah, who was to be the heir through whom the Messiah would come (cf. 49:8-12). Also it was Levi, a son of Leah, who provided the priestly line in later years. It seems noteworthy that both Leah and her handmaid had at least twice the number of children as compared to Rachel and her maid (cf. 29:31-30:24; 46:15,18,22,25). The firstborn was always to have a double portion; and so it would seem Leah did, so far as children are concerned.

One final factor remains which evidences the superiority of Leah to Rachel. Rachel dies at an early age, yet she was the younger sister. When she died, she was buried on the way to Bethlehem (35:19). Yet when Leah died later, she was buried with Jacob in the cave at Machpelah (49:31). Leah was not a blight to Jacob but a blessing.


How different was the process by which Isaac obtained Rebekah as a wife from that means through which Jacob acquired Rachel. Isaac was subject to his father, and it was through the wisdom of his father and his servant, through the financial means of Abraham, and through prayer that she was obtained. Jacob went off on his own with none of his father’s resources. He chose the woman with the greatest beauty and bargained with Laban for her.

To me there is no doubt but what Jacob was guided more by his hormones than any other factor. He did not pray about this matter, so far as we are told. He did not give any consideration to matters of character. He did not seek counsel. In fact, he sought to overturn the customs of the day and the preferences of Laban.

We live in a very romantically-oriented day. We find ourselves cheering for Rachel and booing Leah. God seems to have been on the other side. What is romantic is not always right—often it is wrong. Romanticism caused Jacob to use the well when and how he saw fit, regardless of the rules set by the owner. Romanticism led Jacob to chose Rachel, not Leah. Romanticism so controlled Jacob that under its spell he spent an entire night with the wrong woman. We must beware of those decisions which are determined by romantic impressions or feelings.


Few things are as important to women today as beauty. Perhaps nothing is more important to men today than beauty. Rachel was a wonderfully-endowed woman. There is nothing wrong with that. Sarah was beautiful, and so was Rebekah. But outward beauty must always be considered a secondary consideration. Jacob looked at Rachel’s exterior and investigated no further into her character. The writer, King Lemuel, was not in error when he gave this counsel:

Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised (Proverbs 31:30).

This same theme is prominent in the New Testament (cf. I Timothy 2:9-10; I Peter 3:1-6).

Men and boys, this is a word for us. We all want to be seen with the beautiful girls. We all have dreamed of dating them. Some have made great sacrifices to marry a showpiece. Let us look first for character, and if we find it, let us look no further. If we find character with charm and beauty, let us consider ourselves fortunate.

It was not outward beauty which made that first night such a beautiful thing between Jacob and Rachel—it was Jacob’s love for her, and (I am convinced) her love for him. It is love, not beauty, which makes for heaven in the bedroom. Let us not forget it.

Ladies, I realize that our society has placed a premium on glamour and beauty. I understand that much of your sense of self-worth is based upon your outward attractiveness and “sex appeal.” However, that is wrong. Our ultimate worth is that estimation which comes from God. God was not impressed with Rachel’s good looks. After all, He gave that to her in the first place. God looked upon the heart and blessed Leah. Her worth, while never fully realized by her husband, was great in the eyes of God. May all of us learn to be content with ourselves as God made us, and may we find our real worth in the realm of the spirit.

But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance, or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as men sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).

For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (I Corinthians 4:7)

236 Literally, the text here reads, “Then Jacob lifted up his feet . . .”

237 W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 270; C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), Vol. I, p. 285.

238 In the New International Version the translators attempt to correct this seeming lack of etiquette by translating verse 13, “He had told Rachel that he was a relative . . .” Perhaps so, but not necessarily. Surely the text does not demand such a rendering.

239 Leupold strains a bit to suggest that Laban’s expressions of affections were overdone: “Without a doubt, the man was glad to meet a nephew and ‘embraced him’ in all sincerity and ‘kissed him repeatedly’ with true affection. Yet the Piel stem yenashseq does not mean just ‘give a kiss’ as does the kai wayyishshoq (v. 11). Perhaps the overplus of affection displayed carries with it a trace of insincerity, for the truest affection does not make a display of itself.” H. C. Leupold, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 790.

240 At this point Laban was not reported to have any sons. He may very well have hoped to adopt Jacob as a son, making him his heir, and also providing security for himself in his old age. Such arrangements were not unusual in that time. This we shall describe more fully in a later lesson.

241 Leupold, Genesis, II, p. 793.

242 Thus Stigers states: “The comparison is with the less beautiful as the degree of contrast, not with the one who is sickly. The word rak is usually used to connote delicateness in upbringing (Deut. 28:50) and of women (28:56), not of physical defects of a pathological sort.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 230.

243 Francis Brown; S. R. Driver; and Charles Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), p. 744.

Related Topics: Christian Home

31. The Battle of the Brides (Genesis 29:31-30:24)

(A Study of Love, Sex, Marriage, and Children)


One of my seminary professors, Dr. Bruce Waltke, used to compare Isaac with Jacob by likening Isaac to a slow leak, while Jacob was a blow-out. That’s not bad, and neither is it far from the truth. The story of Jacob’s marriage and family life leaves a great deal to be desired. In fact, our passage reads much like a modern-day soap opera. The story told is one of competition between two women and their maids, which results in Jacob being shuttled from bedroom to bedroom, tent to tent. Modern-day soap operas deal with a very similar kind of plot. However, God’s “soap” is not intended to encourage us to think sinful thoughts or to commit illicit acts but rather to “clean up our own acts” and to live righteously before Him.

Let us remember that Jacob is, at this point in time, living outside the land of promise. While God has promised His presence, protection, and provision, He is also at work in Jacob’s life to purge out many of the sinful patterns that have characterized him in the past. Consequently, while God is with Jacob, all does not go well with him in these days. Many of the consequences of his previous sins catch up with him. His choice of Rachel on primarily physical grounds and his insistence that he have her, even after he has married Leah, leads to a most distressing home and family life.

As we approach this passage, let us be aware of the fact that Moses has not arranged the events chronologically but topically. With only a little simple mathematics we can quickly discern that too many children are born in these verses to have been born one after the other. There must be some overlap in the births.244 By arranging the births as he has, Moses enables us to feel more intensely the division and competition between Leah and Rachel. We read these verses like someone watching a tennis match, we look first at the one contestant, then at the other, and so on. That is just the way this account is written so that we might be able to identify with these two women, both of whom desperately want to be assured of Jacob’s love and affection.

Leah Longs for Love:

In her early years of child-rearing we find Leah at the high point of her spiritual life.245 God’s loving intervention in her life is evident to her, and she gratefully acknowledges it:

Now the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived and bore a son and named him Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has seen my affliction; surely now my husband will love me” (Genesis 29:31-32).

What a pathetic predicament Leah is in. She is married to a man who never wanted her for a wife and who refuses to give her the love she desperately needs. God lovingly reached out to Leah by giving her a much-desired son, Reuben. Reuben means something like “see, a son” (cf. margin, NASV). It was a great joy for Leah to be able to provide Jacob with a man child, who would become his heir. This child kindled Leah’s hope of being loved by Jacob, whose love for Rachel was so strong that he hardly acknowledged Leah’s existence. The barrenness of Rachel at least drove Jacob to the tent of Leah to provide himself with sons who would prosper him.

Leah’s hopes for a small portion of Jacob’s affection were not realized, as is seen by her response to her second son’s birth:

Then she conceived again and bore a son and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also.” So she named him Simeon (Genesis 29:33).

No change in Jacob’s attitudes or actions had been perceived by Leah, and so when the second son was born she acknowledged the child as the tender response of a loving God Who knew the very thoughts of her heart. The name Simeon, “he hears,” gave testimony to Leah’s awareness of the grace of her God.

With the birth of her third son, Leah’s hope for Jacob’s tenderness and affection was once again aroused:

And she conceived again and bore a son and said, “Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore he was named Levi (Genesis 29:34).

Two things have changed since the birth of Reuben, the firstborn. First, Leah has now provided Jacob with three sons, not just one. The mere quantity of children she has borne should impress Jacob with her value to him, especially since Rachel had produced none. Second, her hopes have become much more realistic. She no longer aspires to the high level of love which Jacob had for Rachel but merely for the attachment which any man should have for a wife who is so fruitful. If I understand her words correctly, the attachment which Leah desires is not so much that of affection but of obligation. How can Jacob not feel more kindly toward her because of these sons she has given him?

While three sons did little to change Jacob’s heart, the birth of the fourth was the occasion for Leah’s most devout expression of praise and thanksgiving toward the God Who had heard her prayers:

And she conceived again and bore a son and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing (Genesis 29:35).

Previously, Leah had been grateful to God for the children He had given, but uppermost in her thoughts was the effect this might have upon Jacob. She sought his love so desperately. The pinnacle of Leah’s piety was that point at which she came to recognize that to be loved and led by God was a far greater thing than to be loved by any man. While Jacob’s affection was still something she greatly desired, she was content with the abundant love of God. In Him she was abundantly blessed. To Him she would give praise. And thus it was that the name Judah, which, in effect, meant “praise the Lord,” was given to her fourth son.

Rachel Fumes at Leah’s Fertility

Praising God was easy for Leah with four sons at her side; however, seeing her sister’s blessing only aroused jealousy in Rachel:

Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she became jealous of her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die.” Then Jacob’s anger burned against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:1-2)

On this occasion neither Rachel nor Jacob responded in what could be called a pious manner. Rachel, desperately jealous of Leah’s fruitfulness, demanded children of Jacob. Rather than recognize her barrenness as coming from the hand of God, she sought to shift the blame to Jacob. It was all his fault, she insisted.

Jacob did not respond well to this kind of demand. Of course, he was right in the logic of what he said. It was God who kept Rachel from bearing children. Jacob was not able to overrule the hand of God. However, Jacob’s attitude is suspect. His hot response seems far removed from true righteous indignation. I think it was much more one of outrage: “Don’t blame me for your barrenness, Rachel, blame God.” Her demand struck hard at Jacob’s virility and male ego, so Jacob struck back just as fiercely. The fact that he employed spiritual language and used God to rebuke her does not mean that his spirit was right in what he did. We often employ pious words to cut people to the quick.

Like Rachel, Rebekah had been barren, but Isaac’s response was quite different from Jacob’s. He prayed on behalf of Rebekah, and on his behalf God gave his wife children (Genesis 25:21). No such prayers are mentioned here, nor are we told that God answered the prayers of Jacob. We are only told that God heard the petitions of the wives (30:17,22). Elkanah gave Hannah special treatment and tenderness because of her inability to bear children (I Samuel 1:5,8), but no such gentleness characterizes Jacob.

While we are told that Jacob had a great love for Rachel (29:18,20,30), it is not very evident at this difficult time in Rachel’s life. Her jealousy implies that she lacks assurance of Jacob’s love. She fears not having children, and because of that she makes a desperate proposal:

And she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children.” So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore a son. Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me, and has indeed heard my voice and has given me a son.” Therefore she named him Dan (Genesis 30:3-6).

There are definite similarities between this proposal and that of Sarai in Genesis 16. Each intended to adopt the child born from the union of her husband and her maid, but here the similarity stops. Sarai made her proposal at a time when Abram had no children (16:1), while Jacob already had several sons through Leah before Rachel’s proposal. While Sarai’s proposal came more from circumstances which seemed to demand desperate measures, Rachel’s demand stemmed from her own pride and jealousy. She must have children of her own, and she would take any steps necessary to get them.

The results were as Rachel had hoped, and her response to the birth of this boy sounded most spiritual. One would think that Rachel had done a most wonderful and sacrificial thing in giving her maid to Jacob. Her words were intended to give credit to God for all that she and He had accomplished together. The name Dan meant “judged.” She claimed that God had judged the matter of her dispute with her sister Leah and had sided with her as proven by the birth of this child. Nowhere are we told that God opened the womb of Bilhah, however. After all, wasn’t the birth of a child the natural result of such a union? Humanly speaking, God would have had to intervene into the normal course of affairs to have prevented this birth, but Rachel was anxious to have God on her side.

The statement made by Rachel on the occasion of the birth of Bilhah’s second son is more reflective, I believe, of her true spiritual state at this time:

And Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. So Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and I have indeed prevailed.” And she named him Naphtali (Genesis 30:7-8).

Rachel saw herself in a great struggle, not with God, but with her sister. This she described as a wrestling match246 which she won. Her main interest and concern is that in the birth of this second child she has won out over Leah. How, I am not sure, for how can two adopted sons win out over four of Leah’s sons? Here God is neither mentioned nor praised. Rachel is preoccupied with the contest between herself and Leah, and she claims to have won. At this point in her life Rachel does not strike me as a spiritual woman in humble submission to the will of God.

Leah Learns a Lesson

How far Leah falls from her grateful acceptance of God’s blessings in previous verses. Rachel, while undoubtedly wrong in proposing that Jacob sleep with Bilhah, at least can be understood to have been reacting to her barrenness; but Leah already has four sons of her own. There was no need to give her maid Zilpah to Jacob for a wife—other than the fact that this was what Rachel had done. Leah and Rachel are in a head-to-head confrontation. If Rachel can employ her maid in this contest, so can she.

When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. Then Leah said, “How fortunate!” So she named him Gad. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. Then Leah said, “Happy am I! For women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher (Genesis 30:9-13).

Leah’s speech betrays her here. Not once is God mentioned. In the fervent heat of this battle between two wives, little thought is given to the ethics of their actions, only to the expected results. She who previously had viewed her children as a gift from a gracious and caring God now sees these sons as merely good fortune—“How lucky I am,” “How fortunate,” and “How happy am I.” Religious devotion has been thrown to the wind. For anyone keeping score, Leah was ahead of Rachel 4 to 2, but that was not enough. Now she has added two more points to the scoreboard. However, in the process of gaining ground on her sister she has forfeited the godliness she once demonstrated. The focus of her thinking has shifted from God’s estimation of her actions to the praise she would be given by other women (verse 13).

The Purchase of a Potion

Reuben’s innocent discovery of an ancient “love-producing potion” provided the occasion for another confrontation and contest between Jacob’s two wives:

Now in the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But she said to her, “Is it a small matter for you to take my husband? And would you take my son’s mandrakes also?” So Rachel said, “Therefore he may lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, then Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. And God gave heed to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Then Leah said, “God has given me my wages, because I gave my maid to my husband.” So she named him Issachar (Genesis 30:14-18).

Mandrakes were berries found in that part of the world which were thought to stimulate the desire for “love-making” and also to enhance the chances of conception.247 Leah, I suppose, was more interested in these berries for the former quality, Rachel for the latter. While temporarily not bearing children, Leah’s greatest need was to get Jacob into her tent where nature could take its course. Rachel, on the other hand, had Jacob with her nearly every night, but she seemed unable to become pregnant.

We may tend to be amused at the credulity of these women who supposed that such a love potion would be of any benefit. However, before we become too smug in our sophisticated and enlightened day, let me remind you that millions, perhaps billions, are spent on cosmetics by Americans each year. Every day the tooth paste and the perfume commercials convince us that whiter teeth or cleaner breath or a more “come hither” perfume will do what nothing else can to enhance our love life. So you see, things have not really changed so much over the centuries after all.

Rachel greatly desired to use some of these berries and asked Leah for some of them. Leah’s strong retort reminds us that, in her mind, it was Rachel who had stolen her husband from her. She viewed herself as Jacob’s legitimate wife rather than Rachel, who was merely his romantic preference.

Knowing what it was that Leah wanted from those mandrakes, Rachel proposed a bargain. Leah needed something to get Jacob interested in her, to get him to want to come into her tent. Since Rachel nearly always was the one with whom Jacob spent the night, she could assure Leah that Jacob would sleep with her this night. Thus, whether Leah was appealing or not, she would get what she wanted: Jacob, alone, for the night. In exchange for this one night, Rachel got the mandrakes, which she hoped would enable her to conceive.

What a sad state of affairs Jacob’s marriage had come to. He had so failed as a husband that his wife had to resort to a form of prostitution to purchase his services as her husband. And Rachel was so lacking in faith that she put her trust in mandrakes rather than the God Who made them. Rachel, it would appear, attempted to produce sons like Jacob sought to produce sheep, by the use of magical devices (cf. 30:37-43).

Her night with Jacob did bring about what Leah had hoped for, another son. It was not because of mandrakes but because God had compassion on her that she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. It must be in spite of her bargaining with Rachel and not because of it that God blessed Leah.

I believe that Leah wrongly interpreted the meaning of God’s gift of that fifth son. It was, in my mind, a gift of God’s grace in response to her pitiable circumstances that the son was begotten; but Leah chose to interpret this son as evidence of God’s approval and blessing of her giving her maid Zilpah to Jacob (verse 18). In her days, as in ours, true believers are all too quick to credit God with the “successes” of life which are a result of our sins. We seek to sanctify our sins by saying that God was behind it all. My friends, I sincerely believe that God is given too much credit whenever we make Him our partner in sin. Pious words do not necessarily prove pious works.

Finally, Leah is reported to give birth to a sixth son and also a daughter:

And Leah conceived again and bore a sixth son to Jacob. Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good gift; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun. And afterward she bore a daughter and named her Dinah (Genesis 30:19-21).

Leah does not return to that high level of praise which we witnessed in Genesis 29:35, but she has certainly recovered some grasp of the grace of God as seen in the gift of the sixth son. The fact that this son was a good gift from God suggested a hope still flickering in the heart of Leah that her husband would somehow, someday, come to value her as a person and to regard her as a wife. The translators of the NASV have chosen to render Leah’s words with the idea of Jacob’s dwelling with her. Thus, it would appear that she desires Jacob to spend more time in her tent as compared with the disproportionate time spent with Rachel. Perhaps, now, with six sons coming from her Jacob will regard her more highly.248

The report of Dinah’s birth is intended to introduce her to us in preparation for the tragic events of Genesis 34. Other daughters were born (cf. 46:15), but she is the one who receives the greatest attention.

Rachel is Remembered

After all of Rachel’s devices and schemes have been exhausted, yet without any children from her own womb, God grants her the desire of her heart:

Then God remembered Rachel, and God gave heed to her and opened her womb. So she conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she named him Joseph, saying, “May the LORD give me another son” (Genesis 30:22-23).

Prayer does not immediately occur to Rachel as the solution to her stigma of barrenness, but it does seem to be her last resort. I never cease to be amazed at myself and others who leave prayer in the category of “last ditch” actions.

The name “Joseph” is significant in two ways. The Hebrew word ’asap, “has taken away,” has reference to the removal of the barrenness which had so plagued Rachel. A similar sounding word, yosep,249 “may … add,” expresses the further hope of Rachel that she be given the privilege of having yet another son to present to her husband.

It must have been nearly seven years after her marriage to Jacob that Rachel finally bore him a son. There may be significance to this delay. Jacob, due to his deception and deceit, was delayed in the process of getting a wife for himself. Perhaps Rachel was delayed in her attempts to have a child for the same reasons. She, too, was willing to employ questionable methods to obtain a son. Only after all these futile efforts were thwarted and shown to be without result does God open Rachel’s womb, and that may be in answer to her prayers. Rachel is yet to have another child, but he will come at the cost of her own life (35:16ff.).


The implications of this text are so numerous that I can only mention some and suggest that you give them more thought.

The nation Israel, which first read this book from the pen of Moses, learned the wisdom of the Law, which forbade a man to marry a woman and her sister (Leviticus 18:18). Furthermore, this account of the origin of the twelve tribes of Israel must have proved to be most humbling to the nation, for it was hardly a story which inspired national pride. Perhaps at the time of the exodus and during the days of the conquest of the land the people began to think too highly of themselves (cf. Deuteronomy 6:10ff.). They might falsely have concluded that God had blessed them because of their greatness and noble “roots.” This story would serve to remind them that their “roots” were no basis for pride whatsoever. They must never trust in their heritage, as the Jews of Jesus’ day did (cf. John 8:33,39), but in the God of their heritage. This is why God instructed them to recite their origins at the presentation of the first-fruits:

And you shall answer and say before the LORD your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation” (Deuteronomy 26:5).

We may be inclined to read this account of the struggles between Leah and Rachel and think of it as the “long ago” and the “far away” and thus of little application to us. Such could not be farther from the truth. There are differences between the culture of that day and our own, but, as one of my friends observed, the only difference between the practice of Jacob in his day and that in our own is that he lived with his four wives simultaneously, while we live with ours consecutively. We do with divorce what Jacob did with polygamy.

A distinct cultural turnover in values has occurred since that day as well. Women of that era tended to determine their value on the basis of how many children they could produce for their husbands. This seems to underlie the words of Leah: “Happy am I! For women will call me happy …” (Genesis 30:13).

Nowadays, women consider children a burden rather than a blessing. Children are considered a hindrance to fulfillment rather than its means. Consequently, birth control devices are thought to be the key to freedom, and abortion is a necessity for a woman’s happiness.

I would like to suggest that life’s meaning should not be equated with either. Rachel and Leah were both in error by making a good gift from God (children) the ultimate touchstone of fulfillment and happiness. Leah could tell you that this did not prove out. So, today, a career will not bring a woman (or a man) fulfillment either. Leah was far closer to the truth at the time of Judah’s birth, for then she looked to God for her worth, meaning, and approval rather than to any man, including her husband. The worship of God is man’s highest and most noble end. Neither children nor careers will replace it. The biblical position seems to be that mothers who raise their children to be faithful worshippers of God have fulfilled their calling in life (cf. I Timothy 2:15).

Now I wish to press on to several lessons from this text pertaining to love, sex, marriage, and children.

(1) Sex, love, marriage, and family can never be fully satisfying unless enjoyed within the confines of the will of God and the Word of God. I see the family life of Jacob as a disaster. I believe that Moses is showing us by inference that while Jacob is outside the land of promise he may belong to God and be assured of His presence, protection, provision, and future promises; but he can never be happy there. Love, sex, marriage, and family are all gifts from a good and loving God, but their enjoyment cannot be complete apart from fellowship with Him.

(2) While love without sex may be frustrating, sex without love is folly. This is a lesson which we learn from Jacob. Surely those years with Rachel where sex was not possible or permissible were frustrating (cf. Genesis 29:21), but sex without love is just as bad. Jacob engaged in sex with his wife Leah, but there was no fulfillment in it. In fact, it degenerated to mere prostitution where Leah had to purchase his presence.

I do not think that this kind of bargaining with sex occurred only in the distant past. In our present day sex is often a commodity which is bargained for various considerations. That is mere prostitution. Sex without love is tragedy.

I feel that I must digress for a moment here on the relationship between sex and love, for this is not at all understood, even by Bible-believing Christians. I have read somewhere that “whoever” created men and women and sex must have been a very poor engineer. Men respond very quickly to physical stimuli; women do not. Men reach the peak of their sexual desire earlier in life; women, later. Secular thinking would suppose that this is poor design and that man and woman should precisely correspond in these and other areas. I disagree. These differences are by design. God made man and woman distinctly different so that the ultimate in physical pleasure can only be obtained by a deliberate and conscious love which makes sacrifices of itself for the pleasure of the other. Without sacrifice, love-making deteriorates into mere self-seeking gratification at the expense of the other partner. Love and sex must go together.

(3) Neither sex nor children can create love. Leah would be quick to tell us that she learned no amount of sex could ever earn the love of her husband. Even after six boys, she was still unloved. Love cannot be manufactured through sex.

This is a truth that I desperately desire my girls to learn. I see so many instances of girls who long to be loved giving their bodies in the vain search for love. Sex will produce children, but it will never produce love. I fear that many prostitutes were driven to their profession by the feeling that they were unloved. All they had to give, they supposed, was their body.

I have seen many marriages where the couple had very serious marital problems, and they decided to have children in order to hold the marriage together. This does not work either, for producing children does not produce love. Children are not creators of love but its consumer.

(4) He, or she, who places sex on an extremely high level of priority becomes its slave. I may be wrong, but Jacob’s love for Rachel seems to be largely based upon her physical attractiveness. Jacob appears to have been guided more by his hormones than anything else.

Our society informs men and boys that their masculinity is largely indicated by the number of conquests they can make among women. The more they make, the more of a man they are. Jacob did rather well by these standards. He circulated among his four wives frequently enough to produce a growing family, but look at what happened to him in the process. He was not the master of his harem, but he was mastered by his harem. He was pushed from bed to bed by his wives. He was purchased for the night. The passivity of Jacob in these verses is an indictment of his lack of leadership. He was a slave of sex and marriage, not its sovereign.

(5) Marriage cannot run for long on the fuel of romantic love. I believe that the love of Jacob for Rachel was primarily romantic. Romantic love is not necessarily wrong, for most couples who come to me for counseling and marriage have this same kind of love. I would be very uneasy if they did not. But in our premarriage counseling program we begin to prepare the couple for the stage of “disillusionment,” or the time that is commonly called “when the honeymoon is over.” In the humdrum and pressures of married life, romantic love is not sufficient to carry the relationship along for long. The woman whom we used to see after she had spent hours of preparation for being with us and who looked “fit to kill” is now the woman who has been up all night with a sick child. She comes to the table in a bathrobe and curlers and looks like she has been killed. Romance can quickly come and go.

Jacob does not seem to have worked at deepening and broadening his love. Instead it would appear that his love was largely on the romantic plane. No wonder Rachel should look with jealous eyes at Leah. No wonder she seemed so threatened and desperate. She felt unloved, just as Leah did. Love needs to be meticulously maintained and vigorously strengthened. Jacob must have failed here. May God enable us not to fail in our love, sex, and marriage as Jacob did.

244 “. . . it becomes apparent that in the history of the births, the intention to arrange them according to the mothers prevails over the chronological order, so that it by no means follows, that because the passage, ‘when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children,’ occurs after Leah is said to have had four sons, therefore it was not till after the birth of Leah’s fourth child that Rachel became aware of her own barrenness. There is nothing on the part of the grammar to prevent our arranging the course of events thus.” C. F. Keil, and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), I. p. 291.

245 “It is impossible also to avoid noticing what seems to be a declension in Leah’s spiritual life from the time of the birth of her fifth son (xxx. 17-21). In connection with the first four the Lord’s hand was very definitely perceived, but now there is no longer any reference to the Covenant Name Jehovah, and the expressions indicate what is almost only purely personal and even selfish as two sons and a daughter are born to her.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 277.

246 The “mighty wrestlings” of Rachel in verse 8 are literally the “wrestlings of God” (margin, NASV). It is significant, however, to note that the word used for Jacob’s wrestling with the angel in 32:24 is not the same as that found here.

247 “. . . the yellow berries of the mandrake about of the size of a nutmeg. The Hebrew knows them as duda’im, which according to its root signifies ‘love apples.’ The ancients and perhaps, the early Hebrews, too, regarded this fruit as an aphrodisiac and as promoting fertility.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 811.

248 Some have suggested that the rendering “dwell,” such as that of the NASV, might better be translated “marriage gift”:

“Two Hebrew roots, z-b-d and z-b-l are played upon in the two halves of this verse, and it now appears that they are linked by meaning as well as sound, in the light of the Akkadian zubullu, ‘bridegroom’s gift.’” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 162.

“The translation of ‘marriage gift’ is taken because z-b-l has this meaning in Akkadian, and Padan-Aram being in the area of influence, is to be preferred to the meaning of ‘dwell’ from Ugaritic texts. What greater mark of the husband’s affection is there than to be presented with a gift from him!” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 234.

249 Cf. Derek Kidner, Genesis, p. 162.

Related Topics: Christian Home

32. Jacob Gets Laban’s Goat (Genesis 30:25-31:16)


A good many years ago while I was a student in college, I did something which surprised my friends, and years later, continues to surprise me. My two roommates and I lived in the upper stories of an old house close to the college campus. Living on the lower level were an older man and his wife, serving somewhat as house parents. One day the older gentleman came upstairs and asked two of us to help him load a piece of furniture into a rented trailer. All told, it must have taken five minutes for us to carry that item from the third floor to the trailer.

When we had finished, he expressed his sincere thanks and held out a crisp new ten dollar bill. Of course he never dreamed that we would accept it. Naturally, none of my roommates did. I took the money as if it were manna from heaven, expressing my sincere thanks to this man, who stood with his mouth gaping. It never occurred to me that this money was anything but God’s provision for a hungry student.

I can only imagine what must have taken place when that poor man attempted to explain to his wife how he managed to give away that ten dollar bill. The lesson which I suspect his wife brought home to him was probably this: Don’t ever try to out-con a con. Those most susceptible to being conned out of their money are those who have at least a fair portion of the con artist in themselves.

The events of our portion of Scripture seem to depict two cons, each trying to out-con the other. In the grace and providence of God it will be Jacob who comes out the winner, but for reasons completely different from those which he expected. Many of us, like Jacob, have a tendency to give God the credit for prospering our sinful efforts to get ahead. It was in spite of Jacob’s conniving that he left Laban as a wealthy man. It was neither his spirituality nor his shrewdness which got him ahead in life.

Laban’s New Deal

Now it came about when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own place and to my own country. Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me depart; for you yourself know my service which I have rendered you.” But Laban said to him, “If now it pleases you, stay with me; I have divined that the LORD has blessed me on your account.” And he continued, “Name me your wages, and I will give it.” But he said to him, “You yourself know how I have served you and how your cattle have fared with me. For you had little before I came, and it has increased to a multitude; and the LORD has blessed you wherever I turned. But now, when shall I provide for my own household also?” So he said, “What shall I give you?” And Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this one thing for me, I will again pasture and keep your flock: Let me pass through your entire flock today, removing from there every speckled and spotted sheep, and every black one among the lambs, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and such shall be my wages. So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come concerning my wages. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, will be considered stolen.” And Laban said, “Good, let it be according to your word.” So he removed on that day the striped and spotted male goats and all the speckled and spotted female goats, every one with white in it, and all the black ones among the sheep, and gave them into the care of his sons. And he put a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks (Genesis 30:25-36).

The fourteen years of service for Leah and Rachel must have been fulfilled shortly after the birth of Joseph. Just as Jacob reminded Laban that it was time to take his wife (29:21), so he must seek his release so that he might return to his homeland and family. Several factors would have contributed to Jacob’s desire to leave. First, his feelings toward Laban might not have been very positive at this point. He had been deceived, and his return had already been delayed seven years longer than he had expected. There certainly would have been a desire to return to his family. While we do not know if Rebekah was still alive, at least Isaac was. And, finally, God had revealed to him that he would someday return to the promised land where he would be blessed (28:10-22).

Having fulfilled his obligation to Laban, Jacob was free to go, but Laban was reluctant to see this happen. He had come to realize250 that his prosperity was the result of Jacob’s presence (verse 27). If Jacob were to stay, Laban reasoned, it would be on the basis of the profit motive. All of Jacob’s labor over those fourteen years had been in lieu of a dowry. He had nothing to show for his labor except for his wives and family. It was now time to re-negotiate Jacob’s contract, and Laban asked him to name his terms.

Jacob was in no hurry to do this. He first strengthened his position by underscoring in Laban’s mind the value he would be to him, just as it had been evident in the past (verses 29-30). Jacob now had a family to provide for, and thus his wages must be adequate to meet their needs. Jacob must think of the future. Laban’s offer, he suggests, will have to be a good one.

Now that Laban is prepared to accept a hard bargain, Jacob names his terms. And frankly, Laban must have breathed a sigh of relief, for the request was one that was easy to accept. Normally goats in that land were black or dark brown, seldom white or spotted with white. On the other hand, the sheep were nearly always white, infrequently black or spotted.251 Jacob offered to continue working as a tender of the flocks if he were but to receive the rarer of the offspring.

Jacob would examine the flocks that day, removing all the speckled and spotted animals, and these would be set aside as Laban’s property. These animals would be taken three days’ distance and kept by Laban’s sons. Only those newly born spotted or striped would become Jacob’s property. At some later time the herd would be examined, and the spotted or striped animals would go to Jacob, while the rest would be Laban’s. Removing the spotted and striped which were in the flock benefited Laban in two ways. First, it left these animals to him, not Jacob. Also, it lessened the chances of other spotted or striped animals being conceived, since these would not be mating with the flock.

It was too good to be true, Laban must have thought. How could he possibly lose? However, it was an open-ended agreement, which encouraged Jacob to attempt to manipulate the outcome and also left God free to overrule the normal course of nature in order to bless Jacob. The agreement was solidified, and the flocks were divided, with Jacob tending the unspotted, unspeckled, and unstriped animals of Laban.

Jacob’s Wheeling and Dealing

Jacob and Laban must both have departed while chuckling to themselves. Both thought the agreement was one that they could manipulate to their own advantage and at the expense of the other. Rather than conscientiously tending the flocks of Laban while looking to God for the increase, Jacob decided that this was something he could handle best by resorting to his schemes and devices. He employed three techniques which appeared to result in great success:

Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white stripes in them, exposing the white which was in the rods. And he set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the gutters, even in the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink; and they mated when they came to drink. So the flocks mated by the rods, and the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. And Jacob separated the lambs, and made the flocks face toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban; and he put his own herds apart, and did not put them with Laban’s flock. Moreover, it came about whenever the stronger of the flock were mating, that Jacob would place the rods in the sight of the flock in the gutters, so that they might mate by the rods, but when the flock was feeble, he did not put them in; so the feebler were Laban’s and the stronger Jacob’s. So the man became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks and female and male servants and camels and donkeys (Genesis 30:37-43).

The first method Jacob used (verses 37-39) was peeled poles, which were supposed to have some kind of prenatal influence on the flocks. Jacob supposed that if the flocks had a visual impression of stripes while they were mating and conceiving, the offspring would assume this same form. So all about the trenches, which served as watering troughs, Jacob placed these peeled poles; and every appearance would incline him to believe that his scheme was working, for the resulting offspring were striped, speckled, or spotted (verse 39).

The second phase of Jacob’s plan to predispose the outcome of his labors was to segregate the flocks. The striped, speckled, and spotted offspring (which belonged to Jacob) were put off by themselves. The rest of the flock was faced toward those animals which were either striped or all black (verse 40). While the peeled poles were artificial, the striped animals were the “real McCoy.” Surely by seeing these animals, the rest of the flock would get the idea.

The third phase was a stroke of genius (verses 41-42). It was a kind of selective breeding. We are told that lambing took place twice during the year, once in the fall and once in the spring.252 Those born in the fall were thought to be hardier, since they must endure the harsh winter. Jacob placed his peeled poles only in front of the superior animals and not before the weaker. In Jacob’s mind the result was that the strong animals went to him, while the weak went to Laban (verse 42).

From everything that has been said, we would naturally conclude that the great prosperity of Jacob (verse 43) was due to his shrewd techniques for manipulating the outcome of the mating of the flocks. So it would seem. So it seemed to Jacob. There is only one problem: it didn’t work because it couldn’t work. From a spiritual perspective, it did not work because God does not bless carnal effort. From a physical point of view all of Jacob’s schemes were of no avail because they operated on one assumption, and that assumption was scientifically erroneous. Each of the three techniques Jacob employed was predicated on the belief that visual impressions at the time of conception affected the outcome at birth. In the first and third techniques it was the peeled poles which were thought to produce striped offspring. No one believes that this is true today, and no farmer uses this technique to upgrade his cattle. The second device of Jacob was based on the same premise, but it employed the black and striped of the flock to create the visual impressions.

Only later will we be told the real reason for Jacob’s prosperity. But mark this well—Jacob did not prosper because he pulled one over on Laban. Jacob’s success was not the product of his schemes.

Laban’s Hard Feelings

Just as Jacob’s deception of his father had adverse side effects (27:30ff.), so Jacob’s newly obtained prosperity produced its problems:

Now Jacob heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, “Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s and from what belonged to our father he has made all this wealth.” And Jacob saw the attitude of Laban, and behold, it was not friendly toward his as formerly (Genesis 31:1-2).

Two significant changes have occurred since Jacob first arrived at Paddan-aram, and the intersection of these precipitated a family crisis. First, Jacob, who arrived penniless (cf. 32:10), had now become prosperous, and this at the expense of Laban. Secondly, when Jacob first arrived there was no mention of Laban having any sons, but now he has sons of his own.

In addition to these hard facts we must consider one more factor which we have learned from archaeology. A man who did not have sons of his own could adopt a near relative, who would then become his son. At times this “son” would be given a daughter in marriage by his new “father.” If the father later had sons of his own, the inheritance would have to be divided among these heirs in some fashion. The son who had the rights of the firstborn and, therefore, headship over the family, would in that culture, be given the household gods, which would signify his headship.253

From these facts we can read somewhat between the lines of the story and surmise with some degree of confidence the cause of the change in attitude toward Jacob and his family. Initially Laban would have looked on Jacob as his son, his heir; but when sons of his own came, this was no longer needed. In fact, Jacob was now a competitor for the family inheritance. When Jacob prospered at Laban’s expense, it is easy to understand why Laban’s sons looked on him with disfavor, for all their inheritance was fleeing before their very eyes. Thus, the change in attitude on the part of Laban and his sons brought about a change of plans for Jacob. Not only did circumstances seem to dictate this change, but God revealed to Jacob that it was time to return to his homeland:

Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to his flock in the field, and said to them, “I see your father’s attitude, that it is not friendly toward me as formerly, but the God of my father has been with me. And you know that I have served your father with all my strength. Yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times; however, God did not allow him to hurt me. If he spoke thus, ‘The speckled shall be your wages, then all the flock brought forth speckled; and if he spoke thus, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock brought forth striped. Thus God has taken away your father’s livestock and given them to me. And it came about at the time when the flock were mating that I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the male goats which were mating were striped, speckled and mottled. Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Lift up, now, your eyes and see that all the male goats which are mating are striped, speckled, and mottled; for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; now arise, leave this land, and return to the land of your birth.’” And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not reckoned by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and has also entirely consumed our purchase price. Surely all the wealth which God has taken away from our father belongs to us and our children; now then, do whatever God has said to you” (Genesis 31:3-16).

The last recorded revelation that Jacob had received was twenty years previous while he was still in the land of promise (28:10ff.). Now Jacob receives a divine directive which is particularly related to his return to the land. The impression is given that Jacob received no other revelation during those twenty years. Jacob’s actions would seem to confirm this conclusion, for little was said of God and His will until this time.

What circumstances suggested Jacob do, God instructed Jacob to do. He was to return to his homeland and to his relatives. Jacob did not worry about convincing his father-in-law (cf. verses 17ff.), but he did find it necessary to have the support of his wives. They must now choose between their father and their husband. In order to have a private conversation, Jacob called his wives to him in the field.

A Dirty Deal

Jacob’s first line of defense was to the effect that their father had given him a dirty deal (verses 5-9). Things were not as they used to be. For some unknown reason Laban’s attitude had strangely changed toward Jacob. While not favored by Laban, God has been on Jacob’s side. I would assume that the inference is that this could be seen by his prosperity.

In Jacob’s defense he puts himself in a very favorable light. He is the knight in shining armor, while Laban is the real villain. Jacob has worked hard (verse 6), but Laban has been the cheater (verse 7). Continually Laban changed the terms of their agreement (verse 8). The evidence of Jacob’s integrity is that God had vindicated him by giving him the flocks of Laban. That proved his innocence.

A Divine Directive

Besides this, God had spoken to Jacob confirming His blessing and directing him to return to the land of promise (verses 10-13). Jacob then reported the content of the dream he recently had,254 which further confirmed the righteousness of his actions and the rightness of his return to his homeland.

All that Jacob saw in this dream was a divine directive to return home. The vision of the striped, speckled, and mottled goats seemed to justify all that he had done to manipulate the mating and offspring of the flocks. This same God, Who gave him the upper hand over Laban, had also revealed Himself at Bethel (verse 13) and was instructing Jacob to return.

At least Jacob was able to convince his wives that it was right to leave Laban. They recognized that they no longer were in their father’s favor. He favored his sons and considered Jacob and his wives only a liability. Laban sold these daughters to Jacob and then spent the proceeds on himself. There was no love lost between these women and their father. They would not find it hard to leave Laban.

While what Jacob understood was true in part, he did not see nearly enough in this vision. God had not commended him for his attempts to manipulate matters against Laban to his own advantage. In fact, the prosperity which he experienced had nothing to do with his fervent efforts. All of his poles and peeling and segregating were of no profit whatever. A careful look at the words describing the dream will make this clear. Notice how God drew Jacob’s attention to the fact that the males that were mating were striped, speckled, and mottled (verse 10, 12).

Previously we asserted that all of Jacob’s efforts were based upon a faulty premise—that a visual impression during conception would influence the animal born. In the vision which Jacob had from God there were no peeled poles, no segregated flocks, but only male goats mating that were striped, speckled, and mottled. Now what lesson was God getting across to Jacob, or at least to us?

What determined the offspring of the flocks was not the circumstances (visual impressions) at conception but the characteristics of the male that mated with the female goats. Jacob’s attention was drawn to the fact that all the male goats which were mating were striped, speckled, and mottled. To put it another way, only the striped, speckled, and mottled males were mating, none of the rest.

Now this we know to be a very significant factor in determining the characteristics of the offspring. “Like father, like son,” we say. While Jacob operated upon an entirely false premise, God was working on a premise that is scientifically proven. How was it that only the striped, speckled, and mottled males were mating? Simple. God appointed it to be so in order that Laban’s wealth would be passed on to Jacob.

Think of it. All of Jacob’s efforts were of no benefit. All that time peeling poles and separating flocks and striving to outdo Laban was all for naught. What seemed at the moment to be the work of Jacob’s hands and the outcome of his schemes was nothing of the sort. It was the hand of God in spite of his scheming, not because of it.


The parallels between Jacob’s sojourn in Paddan-aram and Israel’s bondage in Egypt must have been evident to the nation as they first read this account from the pen of Moses. Jacob’s sin necessitated this departure just as Joseph’s journey was the result of many sins. Jacob went to Paddan-aram a poor man, but he left with a large family and great wealth. Joseph was sent to Egypt a virtual slave; but when the nation emerged at the exodus, they were many, and they had considerable wealth. Just as Laban was judged of God by his wealth being given to Jacob, so Egypt was judged by the wealth that was taken out at the exodus.

While these similarities are rather striking, there remains yet one further parallel which would be very instructive to the nation Israel. Jacob’s wealth did not come through his scheming but in spite of it. Jacob was not blessed of God because of his godliness but due to God’s grace. So also, the Israelites were to understand that their blessings were a gift from God, apart from the sin-stained works of their own hands. God deals with His people in grace.

So far as I can tell, Jacob never fully grasped the folly of his fervent efforts to outwit his uncle Laban. He never fully perceived the sinfulness of his motives and methods. To him the end justified the means. He believed that the one who prospered was blessed of God. Prosperity, to Jacob, proved piety. It was Moses who, in recording this account, allowed us to see more deeply into the issues involved. We must conclude that success cannot be equated with spirituality.

Religion is as distinct from Christianity as Jacob’s pole-peeling was from God’s sovereign grace in the life of Jacob. Countless men and women are trying to work their way into God’s heaven by their own devices. Some of these would include church membership, baptism, confirmation, communion, church leadership, charity, and so on. Now all of these activities may have great value to the one who is already a Christian, but they are useless to the one who is trying to win God’s approval and blessing by doing them. The appearance of benefit may be there but not the reality of it. People may think we are Christians. They may commend our devotion to duty. But self-effort is mere pole-peeling so far as God is concerned.

The only way to enter God’s heaven is to recognize that we are undeserving of it. We must come to distrust anything we are or do to merit the favor and blessing of God. The work of salvation is God’s sovereign work. It has been accomplished by His Son, Jesus Christ. He bore the penalty for our sins. He provided the righteousness which God requires. Salvation comes when we trust in nothing more and nothing less than the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for our eternal blessings.

I wonder how many times genuine Christians foolishly conclude that the success which we experience is proof of God’s blessing and approval of our carnal and unspiritual methods. Do we, like Jacob, suppose that any method that appears to work must be acceptable to God? As I look about me and as I observe many of the techniques that are commonly accepted by evangelicals today, I must admit that it appears that results are more important to us than righteousness. While we may be successful in convincing ourselves and perhaps others, God knows our hearts, and He will eventually make us stand and give account of our deeds. As someone has rightly pointed out, we are not commanded to be victorious, only obedient. We are not commanded to be fruitful, only to abide (John 15:1-8).

Perhaps we may try to excuse our deceitfulness by insisting that we live in a “crooked and perverse generation” (Philippians 2:15). We have come to believe that the only way to survive in such a society is to out-con the cons. Jacob may well have thus satisfied his conscience, reminding himself of the fact that Laban could not be dealt with on a straightforward basis. But this is not what the apostle Paul taught:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, … (Philippians 2:14-16).

Finally, many of us, like Jacob, fail to “adorn the doctrine of God” (Titus 2:10) in our work lives. We enter into an agreement with our employer but then conclude that he is not so interested in our future as we are. We begin to look out for our own interests at the expense of our boss. We begin to build our own little empires just as Jacob set his flock apart from Laban’s. We begin to spend an enormous portion of our time trying to figure out how we can get more of what belongs to the company. Rather than working diligently and leaving our well-being in God’s hands, we take matters into our own hands. While we may, like Jacob, stay within the letter of the law, we get ahead at the expense of another. Such conduct is not to the glory of God. Such does not “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). May God enable us to trust in Him and in His grace rather than in our schemes and in the work of our hands.

250 It is possible that Laban learned this through the pagan process of divination, as is suggested by the term employed. This is not mandatory, however, and thus scholars are divided as to which possibility is most likely. One way or the other, Laban learned that God’s hand was upon Jacob. It seems hard to believe that Laban should have had to resort to divination to determine this. If it were divination, surely Jacob’s testimony was gravely deficient.

251 C. F. Keil, and F. Delitzsch. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), I, p. 292.

252 Ibid., p. 294.

253 “The adoption tablet of Nashwi son of Arshenni. He adopted Wullu son of Puhishenni. As long as Nashwi lives, Wullu shall give (him) food and clothing. When Nashwi dies, Wullu shall be the heir. Should Nashwi beget a son, (the latter) shall divide equally with Wullu but (only) Nashwi’s son shall take Nashwi’s gods. But if there be no son of Nashwi’s, then Wullu shall take Nashwi’s gods. And (Nashwi) has given his daughter Nahuya as wife to Wullu. And if Wullu takes another wife, he forfeits Nashwi’s land and buildings. Whoever breaks the contract shall pay one mina of silver (and) one mina of gold.”

After citing this translation of tablet G51 from a Nuzu tablet, Vos goes on to suggest this interpretation of what took place in the Jacob-Laban contest:

“The interpretation would then run something like this. Laban adopted Jacob (at least he made him a member of his household and made him heir, sealing the transaction by giving Jacob a daughter to be his wife. As long as Laban lived, Jacob had the responsibility of caring for him. When Laben died Jacob would inherit Laban’s estate in full if Laban failed to have any sons. If Laban had natural sons, each would receive an equal share of the property, and one of them would receive the household gods, which signified headship of the family.” Howard F. Vos, Genesis and Archaeology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), p. 99. Cf. also Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 231.

254 Some suggest that this dream might have occurred earlier, but that is difficult to accept. Cf. Keil and Delitzsch, I, pp. 295-96.

33. The Difference Between Legality and Morality (Genesis 31:17-55)


I have a friend who has a wise word on most any subject. One day someone asked me for a good definition of ethics. I could not think of one so I called my friend. “I have just been thinking about that subject,” he replied when I asked him. “Ethics is the difference between morality and legality. Ethics is the difference between what I ought to do and what the law demands I must do.” I have never heard a better explanation of ethics, and so I share it with you.

As I do this I realize that Jacob totally lacked any ethical system at this point in his life. For Jacob, legality was equated with morality. That is, anything which was not contrary to the law was no problem for his conscience. The purchase of the birthright from Esau was meticulously legal (cf. Genesis 25:31-33) but unethical. So, too, the deception of Isaac in order to obtain the blessing was legal. In fact, it even brought about what God had promised would happen but in a way that was displeasing to God (Genesis 27). Jacob’s proposal to work seven years for Rachel, the younger daughter, was legal, but it was not really acceptable to Laban (Genesis 29:18-19, 26). Finally, Jacob’s contract with Laban and his manipulation of the flocks in order to prosper at Laban’s expense was hardly ethical, but it was strictly legal—so much so, in fact, that he could later challenge Laban to accuse him of any infractions of their agreement (31:36-42).

It was Jacob’s lack of any ethical framework to guide and govern his conduct which resulted in a very painful parting when it came time to leave Paddan-aram and return to the land of promise. The consequences of questionable ethics are clearly seen in this final encounter between Jacob and his uncle Laban. We shall find, I believe, that things have changed little from the life and times of Jacob, for ethics are few and far between in our day as well. It is my intention to consider the basis for ethical conduct and the consequences of their absence as we study the events in the life of Jacob as he makes his exodus from Paddan-aram.

Jacob’s Escape

Then Jacob arose and put his children and his wives upon camels; and he drove away all his livestock and all his property which he had gathered, his acquired livestock which he had gathered in Paddan-aram, to go to the land of Canaan to his father Isaac. When Laban had gone to shear his flock, then Rachel stole the household idols that were her father’s. And Jacob deceived Laban the Syrian, by not telling him that he was fleeing. So he fled with all that he had; and he arose and crossed the Euphrates River, and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead (Genesis 31:17-21).

Circumstances strongly suggested that it was time for Jacob to return to the land of promise (31:1-2), and by divine revelation God commanded Jacob to do just that (31:3). Having received the assurance that his wives were in support of this move (31:14-16), Jacob hastily packed up all of their goods and left for home. It does not appear to be accidental that he departed at a time when Laban was busily occupied in shearing his flock. Leaving without any warning, Jacob reasoned, was the way to depart without any resistance from Laban, who might have refused to release Jacob’s wives or his flocks.

What Jacob did not know was that Rachel had stolen Laban’s gods just before they departed. Many speculations are made concerning Rachel’s motives, but the reason best supported by the text and by archaeology is that Rachel stole the household gods in order to establish a future claim on Laban’s family inheritance. The household gods were a token of rightful claim to the possessions and the headship of the family.255 Rachel must have felt justified in stealing these gods and in expecting to share in the family inheritance. After all, this is what she and Leah had just affirmed to Jacob:

Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not reckoned by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and has also entirely consumed our purchase price. Surely all the wealth which God has taken away from our father belongs to us and our children; now then, do whatever God has said to you (Genesis 31:14b-16).

In Rachel’s mind getting Laban’s wealth was God’s will. If that were so with the matter of the flocks which Jacob had been tending, why should it not be true of the estate at Laban’s death? I believe that Rachel felt entirely justified in stealing the family gods for this reason. It is interesting, however, that she did not tell Jacob of her theft.

Two wrongs are thus committed in the departure of Jacob and his family from Paddan-aram. First, Jacob has left without telling Laban about it and at a time when it would have been inconvenient for him to prevent it. Second, Rachel had stolen Laban’s family gods, which were the token of the right to claim a portion of Laban’s inheritance and the headship of the family. Jacob was doing the will of God in returning to the land of promise, but he was not doing so in God’s way.

Laban’s Pursuit

When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, then he took his kinsmen with him, and pursued him a distance of seven days’ journey; and he overtook him in the hill country of Gilead. And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream of the night, and said to him, “Be careful that you do not speak to Jacob either good or bad.” And Laban caught up with Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsmen camped in the hill country of Gilead. Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done by deceiving me and carrying away my daughters like captives of the sword? Why did you flee secretly and deceive me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with joy and with songs, with timbrel and with lyre; and did not allow me to kiss my sons and my daughters? Now you have done foolishly. It is in my power to do you harm, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to speak either good or bad to Jacob.’ And now you have indeed gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?” (Genesis 31:22-30)

What Jacob could not know was the impact his stealthy retreat would have upon Laban when combined with the theft of his gods. If you were Laban you would have come to the same conclusion. His gods were gone, and so was Jacob, hastily and secretly. Surely this must have been because Jacob had stolen his gods. What other conclusion could Laban have come to? While Laban attempts to throw a smoke screen by playing the part of the offended father and grandfather (verses 26-28), his real interest was in regaining possession of his gods (verses 30).

Catching up with Jacob was no easy matter, for he had gained three days’ lead time. By the time Laban had rushed home, discovered the loss of his gods, and gathered the relatives (who, I would gather, were armed for battle), a fourth day must have been lost. After seven days Laban caught up with Jacob, but his intentions were certainly altered by the divine warning contained in the dream he had the night before the two men met face to face. The message Laban received was a simple one: “Be careful that you do not speak to Jacob either good or bad” (verse 24). From a similar expression in 24:50 we must understand God to be warning Laban not to attempt to change Jacob’s course of action, let alone to bring harm to him in any way.

When Laban confronted Jacob the following day, God’s warning did not prevent him from rebuking him for his hasty departure, which deprived him from any kind of farewell. It was not the departure that Laban protested, for Jacob’s desire to return home was understandable (cf. verse 30). What troubled Laban was the way in which Jacob left. Jacob had “stolen away” (literally “stolen the heart of Laban,” verse 20, also verses 26-27), while at the same time Rachel had stolen his gods.

Laban works very hard at playing the part of the offended father and grandfather whose deep affection for his daughters and grandchildren caused him much agony when he found they had secretly left without any good-bye’s. Most of his protest is voiced on this note, but there seems to be a considerable lack of sincerity here. Had not Rachel and Leah indicated that he showed little concern for them any longer (verses 14-16)? The real bone of contention was the stolen gods: “… but why did you steal my gods?” (verse 30). This was the bottom line. This was the reason for the hot pursuit accompanied by other relatives who were probably prepared to fight. This explains why God warned Laban not to do anything harmful to Jacob. If Jacob got away with his gods, he could someday return and make a claim to his estate. This could not be tolerated.

Jacob’s response was not made from a position of strength. His first words are a rather weak defense of his stealthy escape, while his remaining words are in response to the matter of the stolen gods, of which he had no personal knowledge:

Then Jacob answered and said to Laban, “Because I was afraid, for I said, ‘Lest you would take your daughters from me by force.’ The one with whom you find your gods shall not live; in the presence of our kinsmen point out what is yours among my belongings and take it for yourself.” For Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them (Genesis 31:31-32).

Jacob’s conduct was the result of fear just as the deception of his father Isaac (26:7,9) and his grandfather Abraham (12:11-13; 20:11) had been. Jacob did not have sufficient faith that God would deliver him from the hand of his own father-in-law. In his fear he had to question the truthfulness of the words which God had spoken to him at Bethel:

And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you (Genesis 28:15).

Jacob had not yet come to the place where he could trust God to accomplish His word without some back-up system which included Jacob’s manipulation or deception. Having gotten the upper hand over Laban in the last six years, Jacob was not certain that Laban would let him go without a fight. Perhaps he would not let his daughters go either.

This was not a discussion that Jacob was eager to prolong, for he had very little reasoning that could justify his recent actions. Feeling certain that he was innocent of the charge of stealing Laban’s gods, Jacob turned the conversation to this issue. Laban was urged to make a diligent search of Jacob’s goods to try and find his gods. Whoever was caught with them would die. Jacob obviously had no idea that his favorite, his beloved Rachel, was the culprit. That Laban was most interested in his gods, not in good-bye’s, is seen by his subsequent actions:

So Laban went into Jacob’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the tent of the two maids, but he did not find them. Then he went out of Leah’s tent and entered Rachel’s tent. Now Rachel had taken the household idols and put them in the camel’s saddle, and she sat on them. And Laban felt through all the tent, but did not find them. And she said to her father, “Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the manner of women is upon me.” So he searched, but did not find the household idols (Genesis 31:33-35)

Obviously Laban did not suspect Rachel either. He first searched Jacob’s tent. Who would be more likely to have stolen his gods than Jacob? Was he not the one who had come to Paddan-aram because of his desire to inherit the headship of Isaac’s family and to have the rights of the first-born? The theft of the family gods would give Jacob preeminence over Laban’s household just as his deception had gained it over Isaac’s household.

Having searched carefully in Jacob’s tent, Laban went on to Leah’s tent and then to the two maids. Only last did he come to the tent of Rachel. She was the least suspect of all, and yet she was the guilty party. She successfully concealed her theft by a clever distraction. She sat on the very saddle which hid the gods of Laban. When he had searched every other part of the tent, she explained that she must remain seated because of her monthly infirmity, common to women. Laban did not wish to press that matter any further, and so Rachel’s theft was not discovered. I do not know when nor if Rachel told Jacob of her theft, but I can well imagine what his response must have been.

Had Rachel’s deed been discovered, a very different sequence of events would have followed. As it was, Jacob’s sheepishness over his secret escape was overshadowed by his righteous indignation. He reveled in his innocence in addition to the assurance he gained from Laban’s report that God had spoken to him in the night, preventing harm to Jacob. In the light of these events Jacob now seemed to have the upper hand; he held the winning cards, and he planned to use them to greatest advantage. The years of friction between these two men now boiled over as Jacob scalded Laban with “holy” anger.

Then Jacob became angry and contended with Laban; and Jacob answered and said to Laban, “What is my transgression? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me? Though you have felt through all my goods, what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my kinsmen, that they may decide between us two. These twenty years I have been with you, your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried, nor have I eaten the rams of your flocks. That which was torn of beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it myself. You required it of my hand whether stolen by day or stolen by night. Thus I was: by day the heat consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes. These twenty years I have been in your house; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you changed my wages ten times. If the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had not been for me, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed. God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, so he rendered judgment last night” (Genesis 31:36-42).

Jacob recognized Laban’s “hurt feelings” as a mere facade. The real reason for his hot pursuit was the thought of being wronged by Jacob. Laban concluded that Jacob had finally stepped over the line. Up till this point he had always managed to stay one step within the law. While he had bent the rules mercilessly, he had not yet broken them. With the disappearance of the family gods from his household, Laban thought Jacob had finally gone one step too far in his greed. But now Laban was caught empty-handed. His charges could not be justified. The evidence was lacking. Jacob, in ancient fashion, demanded a writ of habeas corpus. Laban was forced to produce the evidence. He must put up or shut up, and Jacob was the one who delighted to tell him which of the two he must do.

Not only was there no evidence found in his search, but Laban had been consistently wrong in many other areas. These Jacob was eager to elaborate upon. Never had Laban’s herds suffered from Jacob’s neglect, nor had he even eaten at Laban’s expense. The animals that were lost to natural causes Jacob replaced, even though he was not responsible. Laban insisted upon this, and Jacob did so without protest—until now. Jacob worked hard, suffering the hardships of a shepherd’s life, and all this while Laban continued to change his wages repeatedly.

Having gotten his years of frustration off his chest, Jacob used his trump card, triumphantly capping off his defense by asserting that God was on his side (verse 42). Had God not been looking out for him, Laban might have gotten away with his double dealing. All his prosperity, Jacob maintained, was God’s blessing on his life. God had seen his affliction, it was true (cf. verse 12), but Jacob went too far when he added “and the toil of my hands” (verse 42). Nowhere had God ever indicated to Jacob that His blessing was in any way related to Jacob’s works. In fact, God had revealed to Jacob that just the opposite was the case (verses 10-13). The warning which God had issued to Laban on the previous night was proof to Jacob that God was on his side. God had rendered judgment, and Jacob maintained that he had been proven innocent.

The Covenant of Peace

I come away from Jacob’s defense with the uneasy feeling that he has grossly overstated his case. God did see all that Laban had done to Jacob. Jacob’s prosperity was from God’s hand, but it had little or nothing to do with Jacob’s piety or productive genius. God had been blessing him on the basis of grace, but Jacob had used God’s intervention as the basis for his self-defense. Jacob maintained that he had prevailed and that God had intervened because he was spiritual, while Laban was carnal. I find myself unconvinced by Jacob’s best efforts. Laban does not appear to be overly impressed either. While he has not been able to prove Jacob’s dishonesty, he still is convinced of it. Thus, he initiates the covenant that is made:

Then Laban answered and said to Jacob, “The daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine. But what can I do this day to these my daughters or to their children whom they have borne? So now come, let us make a covenant, you and I, and let it be a witness between you and me.” Then Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather stones.” So they took stones and made a heap, and they ate there by the heap. Now Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha, but Jacob called it Galeed. And Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me this day.” Therefore it was named Galeed; and Mizpah, for he said, “May the LORD watch between you and me when we are absent one from the other. If you mistreat my daughters, or if you take wives besides my daughters, although no man is with us, see, God is witness between you and me.” And Laban said to Jacob, “Behold this heap and behold the pillar which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass by this heap to you for harm, and you will not pass by this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the fear of his father Isaac. Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal; and they ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain. And early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his sons and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned to his place (Genesis 31:43-55).

All that Jacob took with him was really Laban’s, he insisted—his wives, his children, and his herds (verse 43)—but what could he do to resist? If he could not retrieve his household gods, the least Laban can do is to make a covenant with Jacob which would guarantee that he will never make use of those gods to further encroach upon his possessions in the future. Notice that the treaty is initiated by Laban and that its terms are spelled out by him. Since Laban has not succeeded in holding Jacob in check, Laban now calls upon Jacob’s God to do so.

A stone was set up as a pillar (verse 45), and a pile of stones was erected as a monument (verse 46). Also, a covenant meal was shared by Jacob and Laban and the other relatives (verse 54). Laban managed to get Jacob to swear before his God to several particulars. First, Jacob promised never to mistreat Laban’s daughters and never to take any other wives in addition to them (verse 50). Second, each covenanted that they would not pass that point to harm the other (verse 52). Having agreed to these matters, Laban said a last farewell to his daughters and their children. Blessing them, he returned to his home (verse 55). The long and often stormy relationship between Laban and Jacob had come to an end.


Jacob seems to have come away from this encounter with Laban as the unchallenged winner, but did he really? While Jacob may have convinced himself and his wives of his innocence, he has not convinced us, nor has he changed the mind of Laban. Laban was still certain that Jacob was a crook, but being warned by God, he could do little to stop him. The treaty which he initiated was his only hope. And that treaty was no tribute to Jacob’s character.

Now stop and think about it for a moment. Laban had lived in close association with Jacob for twenty years, and he was convinced of his lack of integrity. He believed that Jacob stole his gods. He believed that Jacob had underhandedly gotten possession of his flocks. He felt compelled to get Jacob to swear a holy oath that he would not mistreat his wives or someday return to Laban with hostile intent. Does this sound like a man who was convinced that Jacob was a godly man? Just as the covenants between Abimelech and Abraham (21:22-24), and later Abimelech and Isaac (26:26-31), were evidence of the carnal state of these patriarchs, so this treaty with Laban reveals the character flaws of Jacob. He was a man who could not be trusted. He would, at least, keep the letter of the law, and thus Laban spelled out assurances which he felt were needed. What a poor testimony to the character of Jacob.

And yet Jacob seems to be convinced of his integrity. He is certain that God is on his side because of his uprightness. How could Jacob have been so mistaken? I have come to believe that the answer is to be found in the fact that Jacob was a legalist. Jacob prided himself on being a man who kept the letter of the law. Never, to his knowledge at least, had he ever broken his word. He had made a deal with Laban, and he had always lived up to it. Oh, he had peeled those poles all right, but that was not a breach of their agreement.

Jacob, I believe, had no real system of ethics. He equated morality with legality. Whatever was within the law was morally right so far as he was concerned. Thus, he could stand before Laban with justified righteous indignation and demand that any evidence of wrongdoing on his part be put forth. He could claim with great assurance that God was on his side. How could this not be true when Jacob had always lived within the law?

But here is the heart of the error of legalism, for legalism equates morality with legality. It believes that righteousness and the keeping of the law are one and the same thing. A man may have no system of ethics whatever, but so long as he does not break the law he feels morally pure. He feels confident of the approval and blessing of God.

With this mentality Jacob was hardly different from the Jews of Jesus’ day. They felt that being a descendant of Abraham assured them of God’s favor (cf. John 8:39). They were confident that a meticulous keeping of the law made them acceptable to God. This puts the Sermon on the Mount in an entirely different light for me. Jesus spoke these words to Jews who were legalists. They felt that a mere living within the law was sufficient to merit them a righteousness acceptable to God. Our Lord went on to show them that a much greater righteousness was necessary (cf. Matthew 5:20). A genuine faith was not so much a matter of form as of faith. Those who were genuinely members of the kingdom were those whose hearts were pure before God. Thus our Lord dealt more with motives than with methods. He dealt more with function than mere forms.

The law was only a minimum standard; it was not intended to make men feel righteous but to demonstrate to men how far from God’s holiness they fell. The New Testament does not tell us that the standards set by the Old are no longer valid (Matthew 5:17), for those who walk in the Spirit will fulfill the requirement (singular) of the law (Romans 8:4). Legalism is sinful because men love to set human standards which, if they are kept, produce a man’s righteousness. Christian liberty views the standard for our thoughts and actions to be our Lord Himself, for it is to His image that we are being conformed (Romans 8:29).

Jacob may have felt self-righteous, but Laban was totally unconvinced. He resorted to legalism (that is, a legal covenant) because that was all he could trust Jacob to do—keep a few rules. Many Christians today are no different than Jacob. They (we?), too, are legalists. We think that we are pious and holy because we do not smoke or chew or curse. But ask those who have to work for us or those who have to employ us, and they will do just as Laban did—get it all down in writing. You see, even with all our pious talk the world knows better, for they have to live with us too. While we may keep a certain list of do’s and don’t’s, we may undermine and manipulate; we may deceive and destroy; we may seek our success at the expense of others. True righteousness, I believe, involves much more than keeping a few rules to the letter. It is a matter of the heart. No wonder so many unbelievers (and Christians) are reluctant to do business with Christians. They know that while God may be with us, we do not always act in a godly way.

Ethics, as I have said, is the difference between legality and morality. We live in a day when Christians and non-Christians alike think that whatever is legal is legitimate Christian activity. We, like Jacob, have our own pole-peeling and wheeling and dealing, which we think God is obliged to bless. No wonder the world is trying to legalize homosexuality and abortion and the like. To them, legality is morality. If it isn’t illegal, it is moral, they suppose.

The Bible does draw lines, clear lines at times. There are absolutes, and there are rules. But in addition to these, perhaps I should say above all these, is another standard of conduct which we shall call ethics or convictions. Many Christians seem to have too few of these, and yet this is what sets a true Christian apart in the eyes of the world. How many of us are viewed by the world as Jacob was by Laban? How many of us have convictions that cause us to avoid certain practices, even if they are legal? Christian ethics should be so high that legalistic rules are never necessary, at least for those who are righteous (I Timothy 1:9-10).

The bottom line for Jacob was that of faith. He tried to sneak off without telling Laban because he was afraid (verse 31). He trusted God but not enough to do that which was honorable in the sight of all men. He did not think that God could spare him and his family if he acted honorably before Laban. His God, in the words of J. B. Phillips, was “too small.” Isn’t that the case for most of us? The reason why we are reluctant to live by firm convictions is that we do not trust God to be able to bless us under these added restrictions. Have we forgotten how Elijah had barrels of water poured on his sacrifice so that those who watched could only give God the glory (cf. I Kings 18, especially verses 33-35)? Is this not the reason why we desperately try to dispensationalize the Sermon on the Mount, so that we do not have to try to live by its teachings? A faith that is firm does not fear to live in such a way that only God can be given the glory.

What a lesson this must have been to the ancient Israelites who received the law of God from the author of Genesis. While God gave Israel the law, He did not do so to provide a standard of righteousness which would convince men of their sinfulness, of their need of a sacrifice, and their need of a Savior Who would pay the penalty for their sins and provide the righteousness they could not produce for themselves by the work of their hands.

Jacob’s actions were wrong for another reason, I believe. While Jacob was willing to keep his deception within the law, his actions taught others to try to get ahead by stepping outside the law. This is what happened, I believe, to Rachel. She had learned well from her husband. She stole Laban’s household gods (verse 19), but in the very next verse we are told that “Jacob stole the heart of Laban …” (verse 20, margin, NASV). The same Hebrew word is employed for the acts of Rachel and Jacob. Do you think this is a coincidence? I do not. Jacob stole the heart of Laban but barely within the letter of the law. Rachel stole the gods of Laban, just outside the law. She did not see the fine distinctions of her husband. Our deception, even if within the law, leads others to go beyond us.

Finally, Jacob’s actions here remind me that one may be doing the will of God but in a way that is offensive to the character of God. God had commanded Jacob to leave Paddan-aram and return to the land of promise (verse 3). In this sense Jacob was doing God’s will for his life. But he was not doing the will of God in God’s way. Sometimes we get so caught up in the fact that what we are doing is right that we forget to ask if how we are doing God’s will is right. Our methods must always be consistent with our Master if our actions will be honoring to Him.

255 “. . . Rachel may well have had a partly religious motive (cf. 35:2,4), but the fact that possession of them could strengthen one’s claim to the inheritance (as the Nusi tablets disclose)+ gives the most likely clue to her action.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 165. +Kidner here refers to Biblical Archaeologist, 1940, p. 5.

Stigers goes into more detail, saying, “According to the Nuzu tablets, a natural son is to take the gods, the teraphim: ‘If Nashwi has a son of his own, he shall divide the estate equally with Wullu, but the son of Nashwi shall take the gods of Nashwi.’*

“Another text, a new will of Hashwi, indicates that Wullu has died and Wullu’s oldest son is to receive the household gods.** In yet another text a reassignment of shares of the estate is made, but the oldest son alone is given possession of the household gods.***” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 242. (It should be added that Stigers does not agree with my conclusion that Rachel’s primary motivation for stealing Laban’s gods was to secure an inheritance for Jacob after Laban’s death. Cf. Stigers, p. 242.) *Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 219-220, **Anne E. Draffkorn, “Ilani-Elohim,” Journal of Biblical Literature, LXXVI (1957), p. 220. Cf. O. J. Gadd, “Tablets from Kirkuk,” Review d’Assyriologie et d’Archaeologie Orientale, XXII (1926), Text #5; ***L. L. Lachemann, Excavations at Nuzu, “Miscellaneous Texts, Part 2: The Palace and Temple Archives” (HSS XIV: 1950), para. 2, p. 108.

Related Topics: Ethics