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Lesson 55: A Family At War (Genesis 29:31-30:24)

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A substitute teacher had been instructed by the school officials not to let students leave the classroom except in the most dire emergencies. One morning the substitute heard a seventh-grader shriek, “Oh, no!” She ran up to the desk, pleading, “I have to run down to Room 102 and tell my brother to eat peanut butter when he goes home for lunch today.” The sub replied, “Surely what your brother eats for lunch is not that important.”

The girl persisted, “Tommy has the first lunch and I have the last. If I don’t tell him before he gets home to eat peanut butter, he’ll have the roast beef that Mom is saving for Dad’s dinner. Then when Dad gets home he’ll say that Mom has to quit her new job because she didn’t have time to get his dinner ready again and Mom will call him a chauvinist pig and tell him to eat out again. Then he’ll come home really late and Mom will say she wants a divorce and she’ll sleep at Grandma’s again....” The sub let her go. (Reader’s Digest, 2/82.)

We may chuckle at the story, but family strife is no laughing matter. Sadly, even many Christian families are war zones. The Christian home should be the place, above all others, where God’s love and kindness are put into practice on a daily basis. Yet all too often, selfishness, bickering, anger, abusive speech, and even physical violence mark even Christian homes. We must obey the principles of God’s Word if we want families where there is peace, not war.

Family conflict is not a recent phenomenon. It has been with the human race since the fall. Our text shows us a portrait of a family at war. It’s startling when we realize that this was the family which God promised to bless and to use to bless all nations, the family from which the Savior would come. And yet a battle was raging. The story reads like a tennis match, with the advantage moving from court to court as the opponents desperately try to defeat one another.

While it’s a bleak picture, the theme of God’s grace runs through it as a strong undercurrent. Jacob wasn’t living in submission to the Lord at this time. His wives were thoroughly self‑centered. And yet God blessed Jacob with eleven sons and one daughter (the twelfth son is born later), forming the basis for the nation which numbered over two million in Moses’ day. Perhaps Moses included this story to humble the nation by showing them that God’s blessing on them was totally due to His grace, not to anything in them or their forefathers.

The story is a case study of a family at war. It is a powerful commentary on the problems of polygamy. While God tolerated polygamy, it was not His original intent, nor is it ever presented favorably in the Bible. While most Americans are not polygamous (we have our wives consecutively, not all at once), the story reveals family members violating God’s principles and paying the consequences.

If we violate God’s principles for the family, we will have strife.

To apply this story, I’m going to bring Jacob forward in time. If he came to me for counsel, I would ask, “Jacob, what’s the problem?” He would answer, “The problem, Steve, is my wives. They’re constantly bickering. All I want is some peace and quiet when I get home after a hard day’s work. I don’t want to listen to, ‘She said this to me,’ and ‘I said this to her.’ I just want some peace. And Rachel is always upset when her monthly cycle starts and she’s not pregnant. She blames me for it‑‑can you believe that? As if I’m God or something! And Leah’s always complaining that I don’t love her like I love Rachel. Give me a break: We’ve had six sons and a daughter together. What does she want, anyway?” Here’s what I would say to Jacob, in condensed form:

1. The husband should lovingly take responsibility for the direction of his family under God.

The Bible clearly teaches that the husband is the head of the wife (Eph. 5:23), which means that he is given authority under God in the family. This concept is under attack in our day. But biblical authority does not mean barking orders like a sergeant. In biblical authority, the one in authority is always under the authority of Christ, accountable to Him. God grants authority for one main reason: the blessing and protection of those under authority. To use authority for personal advantage is to abuse it. Thus the main concept of authority is not power, but responsibility. God holds the husband accountable for lovingly taking the responsibility of leading his family under God’s authority.

I’m going to shoot straight, Jacob: You are passive. You’re blaming your wives for the problems for which God holds you accountable. You’re just taking the path of least resistance, doing whatever your wives want, to buy a moment’s peace.

Take Rachel’s inability to conceive. Why didn’t you take the initiative to pray for her, as your father Isaac did when your mother had that problem? When Rachel gave you Bilhah, her maid, you passively went along with the plan. Why didn’t you say, “That plan got my grandfather Abraham into a lot of trouble. We shouldn’t do it”? You did the same when Leah offered her maid, Zilpah. When Leah hired you for the night, why didn’t you call a family meeting and deal with the conflict? As your wives named each son to chalk up a memorial for her victory over the other, why didn’t you put a stop to it? You just let things drift as you were tossed from wife to wife at their bidding. I know you wanted peace. But,

A. A husband’s passivity buys instant peace at the price of long‑range problems.

I know, you’re thinking, “What could I do? I was caught in the middle.” I understand that every man wants some peace and quiet when he comes home from a hard day’s work. But part of the job of a leader is to help resolve problems. You can’t hide out at work and hope that the problems at home will go away. You come home late to an angry, frustrated wife, who has been dealing with the problems herself. She unloads on you. You either try to pacify her to get her off your back or you get angry and fight back. Either way, you’re not facing your responsibility to help solve the problems God’s way.

When Rachel saw her sister having children, she grew jealous. She was afraid she might lose your love. So she blamed you by saying, “Give me children, or else I die” (30:1). Rather than being understanding and gently leading her to seek the Lord and confront her sin, you responded in anger and blamed her: “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (30:2).

But you need to see why Rachel was barren. God gave Leah children and withheld them from Rachel because you wrongfully neglected Leah (29:31)! You’ve been blaming others for problems which stem from your own passivity. You’re saying, “It’s not my fault! It’s Rachel’s fault or God’s fault, but I don’t have anything to do with it!” But Jacob, if there’s a problem in your family, it’s your problem! You’re responsible to deal with it, and you’d better not shrug it off by blaming your wife. Your anger and blame are just a cover for your passivity.

I know, Jacob, you had no way of knowing that the reason for Rachel’s barrenness was your poor treatment of Leah. I also realize that you can’t undo the past, where you were tricked into marrying two wives. But your entering into a polygamous marriage without ever seeking God’s will reflects your pattern of spiritual passivity. Your passivity got you into this mess, and your continuing passivity has only bought you momentary peace at the price of long‑ range problems. But, before you rush off and start barking orders at your family, you need to understand that the opposite of being passive is not being aggressive. Rather, it is active, biblical love:

B. A husband’s job description is to love his wife even as Christ sacrificially loved the church.

It’s obvious that Leah desperately wants your love. She tried to gain it by giving you sons (29:32, 33, 34), but it didn’t work. But a wife should not need to earn or deserve her husband’s love any more than the church has to earn Christ’s love. I know, Leah’s not as beautiful as Rachel, and you feel like you were trapped into marrying her. But the fact is, you are married to her, and the command is clear: “Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.” The church isn’t always lovely, but thank God, He loves her anyway. Your job is to love your wife with a view to her becoming all that God wants her to be. God’s grace toward us should be the model for how we treat one another in our families. Being the head of your home means that you should be first in demonstrating Christlike love toward each family member.

C. A husband should set the spiritual climate in the family by taking the initiative in seeking God’s solution to problems.

Isn’t it significant, Jacob, that “the Lord saw that Leah was unloved” (29:31), but you didn’t! The Lord sees every family and every problem in every family. As the head of the family, it’s your responsibility to seek the Lord for wisdom for His solutions to your family’s problems. It’s not just an interesting coincidence that both your grandfather, Abraham, and your father, Isaac, had barren wives, just as you did. God allows these kinds of problems to teach us to depend on Him and to seek Him.

As the spiritual leader, you need to take the initiative in helping your family depend on the Lord and gain His perspective on problems. You do that, in part, by leading them in prayer for whatever problems they’re facing. Prayer helps your family learn that we are dependent on the Lord. It helps them look to the Lord when problems hit. So you must often pray with them and for them.

But, also, you must instruct your family in the ways of the Lord and correct them when necessary. When Rachel blamed you for her barrenness, you could have helped her see her need to deal with her jealousy toward Leah and to seek the Lord who is the giver of life. Your anger prevented her from learning that. When she suggested that you take her maid, Bilhah, you should have told her about how your grandfather got into all sorts of problems by taking his wife’s maid, Hagar, and helped her to wait on the Lord for a child.

When your wives argued over the mandrakes and worked out a deal for you to sleep with Leah, you should have confronted their jealous quarrels. You should have corrected their silly notion that a plant could produce fertility. You should have confessed your wrong in favoring Rachel and neglecting Leah, and sought Leah’s forgiveness. But instead, you passively went along with their deal, without a word of instruction or correction. A husband is responsible to set the spiritual climate in his family and to lead the family to seek God’s solution to problems.

That’s a condensed version of what I would have told Jacob. But let’s suppose his wives came to me. When I ask them what the problem is, they say, “The problem is that passive excuse for a husband that we have. The man just won’t deal with problems. He goes to work early, comes home late, and wants dinner, peace and quiet, and to make lots of babies. He won’t listen when we try to tell him how we feel. He just gets angry and defensive. We don’t feel loved. If any problems are going to get solved, we have to deal with it ourselves; he won’t do anything.” Here, again in condensed form, is what I would tell Jacob’s wives:

2. The wife should submit to her husband as to the Lord, winning him (if need be) by her godly behavior.

Both of you are trying to manipulate Jacob into doing what you think he ought to be doing. But neither of you is facing up to your responsibility to submit to him and to model godliness before him. As long as you’re manipulating, you’re not submitting to him or to the Lord.

A. A wife’s manipulation buys short‑term results and long‑ term frustration.

Leah, you joined in your father’s scheme to deceive Jacob. I realize that you loved Jacob and wanted to be married to him. I know that you were obeying your father and going along with the cultural custom. But you were being manipulative. You got what you wanted‑‑you’re married to Jacob--but, it’s not what you hoped for, so you’re frustrated. You don’t have the love and intimacy you thought your manipulation would bring.

You’re like a lot of wives in our culture who are starved for the love they want from their husbands. Some of them manipulated their husbands into marriage by going to bed with them before the wedding. They thought that the intimacy of sex before marriage would secure them a husband. It did, but he’s not the man they bargained for. He’s wrapped up with his job and emotionally distant from her. She thought having children might help the marriage, but he just lets her take care of the work of raising the kids and can’t understand it when she is too tired for sex. She feels like getting a job herself and dumping the kids in day care.

And Rachel, you used manipulation in giving your maid, Bilhah, to Jacob to bear children on your behalf. You thought you won a great victory over your sister (30:6, 8), but as you know, it was a hollow victory. It didn’t get you what you wanted, even though it got short‑term results. Both of you need to stop the manipulation and submit to your husband as to the Lord.

I know what you’re thinking: “What about my needs? I need to feel loved. How will my needs be met?”

B. A wife must focus on pleasing God, not on having her needs met by marriage or children.

If you focus on meeting your needs, even by the good things God gives, such as marriage and children, you’ll come up empty, because your focus is wrong. In seeking to gain your life, you’ll lose it. But if, instead, you will focus on living in a manner pleasing to God, beginning on the thought level, moving outward to your words and deeds, God Himself will meet your deepest needs. If anything will change your husband, it will be when he sees your quiet spirit of contentment in God (1 Pet. 3:1-6). Your desperate attempts to get your needs met through your husband’s love are counter-productive. Focus on pleasing God.

As sisters, you’ve got to deal with your rivalry for what it is: sin. God’s command is clear: You must love one another, not compete with one another. You’re not loving your children when you use them to try to gain your husband’s love. If you’ll both learn to focus on pleasing God, you won’t have to use manipulation to gain your husband’s love and you won’t have to use your kids to try to fulfill your own needs. Instead, you can love them for who they are.

That’s what I would tell Jacob’s wives. Then I would call both parties together and tell them something like this (again, I’m condensing things and being more blunt than I would be in person):

3. The husband and wife must both submit to the practical Lordship of Christ in daily life.

Your family has a smattering of spirituality, but no one is living practically under the Lordship of Christ on a daily basis. Leah, at first you seemed to be seeking the Lord, as seen in the naming of your sons, especially Judah (“Praise”). But your rivalry with your sister took its toll on your walk with God, so that when you gave Jacob your maid, you left God out of the picture. You named her sons, “Lucky,” and “Happy” (30:11, 13). While you later acknowledged God in things (30:18, 20), you were just using Him for your own ends, not submitting to Him.

And Rachel, you mistakenly thought that God was on your side in your wrestling match with your sister (30:8). You both invoke God to help you in your battle against each other. But God is far from such petty selfishness and rivalry. Rachel, when God didn’t seem to be answering your prayers, you resorted to magical mandrakes, thinking that they could do for you what God wasn’t doing. You’re giving the Lord lip service, but you’re not bowing to His Lordship in your daily life.

And Jacob, you say you had a spiritual experience at Bethel a few years ago. But an experience with God is worthless if you don’t develop a daily walk with Him. You can’t drift for years and expect that experience to carry you. You need to be seeking God’s wisdom about the problems on your job and in your family. You need to be actively trusting Him concerning all these practical matters you face each day. You need to obey Him, not just talk about Him. You’ve got to quit being spiritually passive. Walk with God yourself and take the responsibility to help your family members walk with God. Each of you needs personally to submit to the Lord in these matters of daily life.


You’ve been eavesdropping on how I would counsel Jacob’s family. Even though you’re not in a polygamous marriage, maybe, here and there, you’ve picked up some parallels which you can apply to your situation. I conclude with a story and a Scripture.

A boy once asked, “Dad, how do wars begin?” “Well, take World War I,” said his father. “That got started when Germany invaded Belgium.” Immediately his wife interrupted: “Tell the boy the truth. It began because somebody was murdered.” The husband snapped back, “Are you answering the question, or am I?” Turning her back upon him in a huff, the wife stomped out of the room and slammed the door. When the dishes stopped rattling in the cupboard, an uneasy silence followed, broken at length by the boy. “Daddy, you don’t have to tell me any more; I know now.”

The Scripture comes from James 4:1‑3 (Living Bible): “What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Isn’t it because there is a whole army of evil desires within you? You want what you don’t have, so you kill to get it. You long for what others have, and can’t afford it, so you start a fight to take it away from them. And yet the reason you don’t have what you want is that you don’t ask God for it. And even when you do ask you don’t get it because your whole aim is wrong‑‑you want only what will give you pleasure.”

If your family is at war, don’t apply this message to the other members of your family. Ask God to help you apply it to yourself!

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a passive man change? Where would you counsel him to start?
  2. What is the significance of the fact that a husband is never commanded to be the head of his wife, but only to love her?
  3. What should a godly wife do when her husband abuses his authority by mistreating her and the children?
  4. When does a wife’s attempt to influence her husband spiritually cross the line into manipulation?
  5. Can a wife confront her husband when he is wrong and still be submissive? How?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Marriage

Lesson 56: How To Handle Prosperity (Genesis 30:25 31:16)

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Although it’s not as prominent since the fall of Jim and Tammy Bakker ten years ago, there are still many Christians, some here in Flagstaff, who teach that financial prosperity is the Christian’s divine right. “We’re King’s Kids,” they say, “and Kings Kids don’t drive old Volkswagens; they drive new Cadillacs.” They encourage people to claim by faith their right to financial prosperity.

On the other side of the spectrum, but much less popular, are those who argue that material wealth is incompatible with the Christian faith. Tony Campolo, for example, has argued that it is sinful to drive a Mercedes, because Jesus would never have done so. He and others of his persuasion champion the rights of the poor and urge believers to give away everything above a subsistence level.

These competing voices have created much confusion, guilt, and wrong thinking about the Christian view of prosperity. We need God’s perspective on how to handle prosperity. You may be thinking, “I’d love to have that problem!” But as Americans, even the poorest among us is prosperous by the world’s standards. We all need to understand how to handle the prosperity we do, in fact, have.

Our text does not provide a comprehensive biblical answer to this matter, but it does reveal Jacob’s life as God begins to prosper him. He had fled to Haran with nothing (32:10). Now, as he prepares to leave with his wives, children, and possessions, the text describes him as “exceedingly prosperous” (30:43). At this point the Lord appears to Jacob and directs him back to the land of Canaan, reminding him, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; ...” (31:13). If you go back to Jacob’s experience at Bethel, you find that God promised to give Jacob the land of Canaan and to multiply his descendants, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham (28:13‑15). But God didn’t make these promises so that Jacob would be happy and comfortable. The goal of God’s promise to prosper Abraham and his descendants was that in them all the families of the earth would be blessed (12:3; 28:15). The blessed people were to become the channel for God’s blessing to all people.

So the prosperity which God gives His people is never to be squandered on selfish living, but rather to be used for furthering His purpose of blessing all people. In God’s reminding Jacob of his vow at Bethel and in Jacob’s wives’ words, “Now, then, do whatever God has said to you” (31:16), the Lord is saying to us:

Since God gives prosperity to be used for His purpose, the prosperous must listen to and obey the Lord.

This is a difficult text to understand. The danger with such texts is that in the attempt to explain things, we’ll lose the application that God wants to make in our lives. I don’t want to do that, so I’m going to try to explain the passage in the process of developing three observations about prosperity which stem from this text. While this is not a comprehensive treatment of the subject, I hope it will give us a perspective on prosperity which will help clear up some confusion.

1. Prosperity comes from the Lord.

America takes pride in the “self‑made man.” The American dream is that if you work hard and smart enough, you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and make a fortune. But the teaching of the Bible is clear: Prosperity comes from the Lord, not from our ingenuity, hard work, or breaks. If we prosper, it is because God has prospered us. We don’t have anything except that which we’ve been given by the Lord (1 Cor. 4:7). All we have belongs to Him and must be used as He directs.

Jacob seems to have realized this principle‑‑in part. In 31:5 he tells his wives, “... the God of my father has been with me.” In 31:7 he attests, “God did not allow [Laban] to hurt me.” And in 31:9 he acknowledges, “Thus God has taken away your father’s livestock and given them to me.” Of course this could just be the common tendency we all have of thinking that God is on our side. But in light of Jacob’s Bethel experience, I sense that he really does see God’s hand on him over these difficult 20 years of working for Laban. In part he knows that his prosperity has come from the Lord.

I say, “in part,” because the scheming side of Jacob’s personality is still quite evident. He’s still trying to pull his own strings, to work things out for his own advantage. He finally out‑cons Laban, the con. Another pastor titled his sermon on this chapter, “Jacob Gets Laban’s Goat.” That’s what’s happening here as two schemers vie for advantage.

Rachel bore Joseph (30:25) toward the end of Jacob’s second seven years of indentured service to Laban. His obligation being fulfilled, Jacob began yearning for home, so he approached Laban about returning to Canaan. Laban was the type of guy who is all for the Lord as long as it means prosperity. But he also had his other gods for good measure, just to keep all the bases covered. He’s like people in our day who gladly add Jesus to their shelf of gods as long as He brings them success and happiness. So Laban says to Jacob, “Stick around a while, Jacob! I have divined that the Lord has blessed me on your account. Name your wages.” (30:27, 28).

Jacob has dealt with this guy for 14 years, so he’s not naive. He first builds his case by listing how much he has done for Laban; but the time has come where Jacob needs to provide for his own family (30:29‑30). So Laban says, “All right, what’s the bottom line?” Jacob makes a proposal that sounds to Laban too good to be true. He says, “I’ll keep pasturing your flock for a while. What I want out of the deal is all the spotted, speckled, and black sheep and all the spotted and speckled goats.” Apparently these animals were more rare. Laban knows a good deal when he sees one, so he quickly agrees to it, thinking that he can’t lose. But to make sure that he doesn’t lose, he goes to the flock and removes all these kinds of animals and puts them in charge of his sons, three days’ journey away from Jacob and the rest of Laban’s flock.

Already Laban is changing the deal, because Jacob thought that all those sheep would be his that day (30:32). But Laban says, in effect, “Right, later on today, after I’ve removed them all, you can have what’s left.” (Some understand the flock entrusted to Laban’s sons to belong to Jacob, but removed by Laban so that Jacob couldn’t use them for breeding.) Laban later would change the terms of the deal every chance he got (“ten times,” 31:7‑8, an expression meaning “many times”).

Jacob wasn’t one to sit around bemoaning a setback. So he went to work implementing the latest scheme of animal husbandry which he’d read about in one of the farming journals. He took some fresh tree branches and peeled the bark away from part of them, so that they were striped, exposing the white wood underneath. Then he put them in front of the watering troughs where the sheep and goats mated. The theory was that a visual impression on the mother at the time of conception would affect the appearance of the animals conceived.

It’s like the women who were chatting. One of them said, “The day my daughter was conceived I had been painting with red paint when a red fire engine drove by. I knocked over the paint can and got red paint all over. Sure enough, my daughter was born with red hair.” Another woman in the group said, “That’s ridiculous. My mother told me that the day I was conceived she dropped and broke a whole stack of phonograph records, but it didn’t affect me, affect me, affect me, affect me ...”

Well, that’s the idea behind Jacob’s breeding scheme, and it seemed to work. He also used some sort of selective breeding, separating out the speckled, spotted, and black sheep and then breeding the strongest of the flock for himself. He wasn’t being dishonest, but he was looking out for himself. Both Jacob and Laban were out for their own advantage. This time, Jacob won.

If you’d asked, Jacob would have said that his success was due to a combination of hard work, ingenuity, his own integrity, and the Lord’s help. But the key to the story is the dream in which the Lord reveals to Jacob that his prosperity had nothing to do with Jacob and everything to do with the Lord. In the dream, the male goats which were mating were the striped, speckled, and mottled goats (31:10, 12). The Lord calls this to Jacob’s attention as if to say, “It’s not your crazy scheme which is working. I’m the one who is causing these goats to mate, because I see how Laban has been treating you.” God determined that the type of sheep and goats which Laban had agreed to pay to Jacob would multiply according to natural genetic laws. Jacob’s peeled branches had nothing to do with it.

Neither did Jacob’s hard work or integrity, as important as those factors are. Jacob was a hard worker, and hard work often brings financial success. The Bible commends hard work. But even when we work hard, we need to realize that any success we enjoy comes from the Lord, not from our hard work. Let’s face it, some people work hard all their lives and never get rich. And while integrity is important for our testimony as God’s people, rather than fostering success, integrity often militates against it. The scoundrel often prospers, while the man of integrity misses out on some easy money. So the bottom line is always the same: Prosperity comes from the Lord alone.

Moses’ readers needed to understand that. There were some parallels between Jacob’s situation with Laban and their situation in Egypt. Jacob went to Haran without anything, just as Israel went to Egypt without much. Jacob became prosperous as God gave Laban’s wealth to him, just as Israel became prosperous when God gave Egypt’s wealth to them. They needed to remember that any prosperity they enjoyed, whether from Egypt or after they entered the promised land, came from the Lord, not from themselves.

This applies to us as well. It’s the principle of stewardship, that we are not owners of anything, but only managers. God owns it all and as owner, He directs how it should be used. We tend to think that whatever we have is ours because we worked hard for it, and so we have the right to spend it as we please. If we’re real generous, we’ll give God ten percent. Then we squander the rest on ourselves. But that’s not God’s perspective on prosperity. All prosperity comes to us from the Lord. Thus,

2. Prosperity must be used for God’s purpose.

When God gives prosperity, it’s not for our enjoyment alone. He gives prosperity so that those He blesses will bless others. God promised to bless Abraham and his descendants so that they would be His channel of blessing to all nations. That’s why God reminds Jacob, “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” (31:13). The Lord is calling Jacob back to His purpose. He’s saying, “I’ve kept My part of the deal. I protected and blessed you. Now, you keep your part of the deal by returning to the land which I’m going to use in My purpose of blessing all nations through your descendants.”

I’m not sure to what extent Jacob understood this. My guess is that he was pretty foggy on God’s purpose. He was inclined to enjoy the blessings and forget that those God blessed were to become a blessing to others.

Moses’ readers were in the same place. They had come out of Egypt after spoiling the Egyptians. They were now ready to go into the promised land and live in cities and houses they hadn’t built, to drink from cisterns they hadn’t dug, to tend vineyards and olive trees they hadn’t planted. Moses’ warning to them was to beware, lest in their prosperity they forget the Lord and think, “My power and the strength of my hand made me this wealth” (Deut. 6:11, 8:7‑18).

We’re right there, too, aren’t we? God has blessed Americans with more material prosperity than just about any nation in history. Even the poorest of us are rich by world standards. You only have to drive about 300 miles south of here to discover the contrast. It’s incredible what a difference it makes to drive across an imaginary line that separates the United States from Mexico! When you cross that line, you are no longer middle class; you’ve just become rich.

The question is, Are we being good stewards with the wealth God has given us? God’s purpose is to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham, who is, ultimately, Christ. Those of us who know Christ are to be channels of God’s blessing. But if we squander the prosperity God gives us on ourselves, while the Scriptures go untranslated and nations go unreached because of a lack of funds to take the gospel to them, we’re not being good stewards. I’ve never heard of a mission agency that says, “We’ve got more money than opportunities right now. Please don’t send any more money until we have more opportunities.”

I must add a caution: We’re all prone to judge the guy who has more than we have and decide that he is living extravagantly, while I’m sacrificing for Jesus. The truth is, we’re just envious of his success. Each believer answers to the Lord, and we are not to judge our brother. Nor are we to impose legalistic standards, so that the most “spiritual” are those who drive the most beat up cars and live in the most run-down houses. God’s command to the rich (which is most of us) is not to be conceited or to fix our hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. We are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share (1 Tim. 6:17, 18).

While it’s wrong to judge my brother, it is right to judge myself. Am I managing what God has entrusted to me so that I am a channel of His purpose of blessing the nations through Christ? Or could I be squandering God’s blessings on myself, while the nations perish for lack of money to send out workers and supplies to spread the gospel? Prosperity comes from the Lord and must be used for His purpose.

3. Prosperity requires that we listen to and obey the Lord.

As far as the text reveals, the Lord didn’t speak to Jacob during the 20 years he struggled under Laban. But as soon as Jacob “became exceedingly prosperous” (30:43), the Lord told him to return to Canaan (31:3; verse 3 is probably a synopsis of the dream which Jacob relates more fully in 31:10‑13). To his credit, Jacob listened (“Here I am,” 31:11) and obeyed, after getting his wives on board.

There are two dangers with regard to prosperity. The first is that before the Lord prospers us, while we’re struggling, we will think that God doesn’t care about our problems. Jacob could have wondered what happened to God during his 20 frustrating years under Laban’s thumb. The Lord didn’t tell Jacob until that time was over that He had seen all that Laban had been doing (31:12). When you’re struggling financially, it’s easy to think that God doesn’t care, because He doesn’t seem to be answering your prayers. But He uses the difficult times to teach us to trust and obey Him. He always cares for His people!

The second danger with regard to prosperity is the inherent danger of wealth. Money itself is not evil, but when mixed with sinful human nature, it’s always dangerous. When you’re prosperous, it’s easy to grow independent and forget the Lord. There is the danger of using God as long as He gives us what we want, but discarding Him if He doesn’t, as Laban was doing. We’re all prone to greed and covetousness, wanting what others have, even though we’ve got plenty. Before Jacob came, Laban and his sons didn’t have much (30:30). Yet when Jacob grew rich, they accused him of taking away their father’s wealth, which was due to Jacob’s labor in the first place (31:1)!

That’s another danger of wealth--family conflict. Laban and his sons grew hostile toward Jacob when his wealth increased (31:2). Jacob’s wives were angry at their father, who used them to better his own financial position (31:15). Laban wasn’t as worried about losing his daughters and grandchildren when Jacob moved away as he was about losing his wealth. The greed that lurks in every sinful heart can create bitterness and conflict in a family.

Because prosperity carries with it these built‑in dangers, we who are prosperous must be careful to listen to and obey the Lord. It would have been easy for Jacob to get comfortable in Haran and forget about the land of promise. Maybe God put Laban and his sons there so Jacob wouldn’t get too comfortable! It’s easy to get comfortable in our abundant prosperity and forget about God’s purpose of blessing every people and nation through the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, who became poor for our sake, that we through His poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). We need to listen to and obey Him who has blessed us so that we will become a blessing to others.


John Wesley preached the sensible formula, “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Some wag pointed out that many modern Christians have concluded that two out of three is not bad! In 1991, among nine U.S. denominations, the highest per capita giving was $887 among the Episcopalians; the lowest was $241 by the American Baptists. If these church members were tithing, it means that their annual incomes ranged from $8,887 to $2,410! Other studies indicate that in general, conservative Protestants in America give about 3 percent of their income. Mormons give about 6 percent. Theologian Carl Henry noted that even among the Southern Baptists, who are noted for their extensive missionary programs, the average is less than $10 per member per year for missions giving. He wrote, “Think of it--less than it takes for a restaurant meal on bargain night to save a world without Christ, a world of over four billion people, half of whom have yet to hear the gospel” (in “Pulpit Helps,” 2/89).

I can’t tell you how much to give or judge you on the matter. But I am telling you that you need to judge yourself as a steward of God’s blessings who will give an account to Him someday. If you have squandered on yourself what He has entrusted to you, then you have not been a good steward and need to change some habits. If you’re in debt because of poor spending habits, you’re not being a good steward and you’re not free to give generously to God’s work. C. S. Lewis said, “I do not believe I can settle how much you ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditures on comfort, luxuries, amusements, etc. are up to the standards common among others with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.” (Source unknown.)

God has given us prosperity to be used for His purpose. We each need to hear what the Lord is saying to us (not to our fellow Christians), and obey Him. That’s how we should handle our prosperity.

Discussion Questions

  1. How should an American Christian determine how much to spend on himself and his family versus how much to give away?
  2. Is it wrong for a Christian to live in luxury? How do we determine what luxury is?
  3. Do Luke 12:33 & 14:33 apply to all Christians or just some? What does Jesus mean?
  4. Should all Christians adopt a “missionary” lifestyle (living on the same income level most missionaries do) and give the rest to the Lord’s work? Why/why not?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Finance, Spiritual Life

Lesson 57: Between A Rock and A Hard Place (Genesis 31:17-55)

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A farmer went to the Farmer’s Market each week to sell, among other things, the cottage cheese and apple butter made on his farm. He carried these in two large tubs from which he ladled the product into smaller containers for the customers. One day he got to market and discovered that he had forgotten one ladle, so he tried to use the same ladle for both products. But before long the two tubs were so mixed together that he couldn’t tell which was which.

As Christians we are supposed to be distinct from the world, but many professing Christians have blended in with the world so much that it’s hard to tell the difference between them and it. I admit, it’s not always easy to relate to the world in a Christian manner. I’ve often felt like I was between a rock and a hard place, not knowing quite how to act or what to say in some situations. I’ve often blown it. But it’s comforting to know that as long as I’m seeking the Lord, He will protect me when I’m between that rock and hard place and will work patiently with me as I’m in the process of maturing.

In Genesis 31, Jacob is between a rock and a hard place. He has left Haran and is heading back to Canaan in obedience to the Lord. Behind him is his crafty father‑in‑law, Laban. Before him is his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated and run from 20 years before. Jacob, in a blundering sort of way, is attempting to break away from Laban and to get back to the place God wants him to be, which means facing Esau. So Jacob is trying to obey God, but he’s caught between the rock of Laban and the hard place of Esau, both of whom represent the world. But in spite of Jacob’s immaturity and mistakes, God’s protective hand is on him. So there are two themes in this story: (1) God’s protection of His people from the world in spite of their blunders; and, (2) The need for God’s people to separate themselves from the world, as seen in Jacob’s separation from Laban and return to the place God wants him.

God protects His people as they seek to live separately from the world.

There are parallels between Jacob’s situation and that of Moses’ readers. Just as God protected Jacob in his departure from Haran to return to Canaan, so He had protected the nation Israel in its departure from Egypt to return to Canaan. Just as Jacob and his family still had a lot of rough edges, so Israel had many shortcomings and sins. Yet God graciously had His hand on both Jacob and the nation. And He graciously has His protective hand on us as we seek to live separately from the world, in spite of our blunders.

1. God graciously protects His people from the world.

We need God’s gracious protection for two reasons:

A. We need God’s gracious protection because the world is a cunning enemy.

Laban represents the world, and he is a crafty fellow. He’s the kind of guy who gives you a friendly slap on the back and takes your wallet at the same time. He tosses around spiritual language as if he believes in the Lord, but obviously he’s a polytheist who will use whatever god suits his current advantage. He’s a pious hypocrite who would have you believe he’s the world’s most loving father, when really all he cares about is his own pocketbook.

Jacob had noticed Laban’s hostile attitude toward him lately (31:2, 5). He had desired to return to his homeland (30:25). God had confirmed that desire with a specific command for Jacob to return (31:3, 13). But Laban wasn’t the sort of guy you just tell, “Bye, Laban, it’s been nice knowing you!” Jacob knew that parting wouldn’t be easy because Laban knew that Jacob was largely responsible for his prosperity. But now Jacob sees his opening: Laban has gone three days’ journey away to shear his sheep (30:36). So Jacob hastily loads his things and heads south.

Three days later, Laban hears about it. He knows where Jacob is headed, so he and his men take off after him. It takes him seven days to overtake him, and by then Jacob is almost home. Since he had gone about 300 miles in ten days, Jacob was making tracks! Probably Laban was planning to use force with Jacob, but God intervened by telling Laban in a dream not to harm Jacob. Not to “speak to him either good or bad” (31:24, 29) is a Hebrew expression that means, “Don’t use either flattery or threats to try to persuade Jacob to return” (see also 24:50). If the Lord hadn’t stopped Laban, Jacob probably would have returned home empty handed, at best.

Laban’s opening salvo is to accuse Jacob of kidnapping his daughters (he doesn’t call them “Jacob’s wives”). With great bombast he claims that he would have sent them away with a joyous party. At this point, perhaps Jacob and his wives rolled their eyes as if to say, “Yeah, right!” So Laban changes tactics and bullies Jacob by claiming that he could hurt him if he wanted to, but, he admits, God had intervened, so he decided to be nice and back off. He’s trying to take credit for being Mr. Nice Guy, when really, God forced it on him! Next he condescendingly says, “You’ve left because you were homesick.” Then he acts hurt by asking, “But why did you steal my gods?” (31:30). What a manipulative deceiver!

Jacob is confident that no one has stolen Laban’s gods, so he lets him search all his belongings. When Laban doesn’t find the hidden idols, which Rachel is sitting on, twenty years of Jacob’s pent up anger boils over. After Jacob’s angry defense, Laban sees he’s beat. But he never admits it. Instead, he plays the wounded hero by falsely claiming that Jacob’s wives, children, flocks, and everything in sight are not Jacob’s, but Laban’s (31:43)! But, he’s going to be bighearted and let Jacob have it all, as long as he agrees to a treaty. Finally, he kisses his sons (= “grandsons”) and daughters, blesses them and returns home. G. Campbell Morgan deflates Laban by observing that “the last sight we have of him is the interesting spectacle of a man kissing his sons and daughters, after having wronged them through all the long years” (The Analyzed Bible [Baker], p. 196).

What a picture of craftiness! But that’s the world, isn’t it? The god of this world is a master of deceit and treachery. Those who serve the god of this world are like Laban: self‑ seeking, out to do whatever they have to do to get what they want, and sounding both threatening and pious in the process. The world accuses those in the church of hypocrisy, but they are no better and usually much worse. Because the world is such a cunning enemy, we could not survive without God’s gracious protection.

B. We need God’s gracious protection because we are so much like the world.

We need the Lord to protect us from ourselves! Yes, Laban was a con artist, but so were Jacob and Rachel. Rachel stole her father’s household idols and nearly got herself killed when Jacob stupidly blustered to Laban, “The one with whom you find your gods shall not live” (31:32). Jacob unknowingly almost lost his favorite wife!

Why would Rachel steal her father’s idols? Probably she still mixed idolatry with her worship of the Lord, and she didn’t want to go to a strange new land without covering all her bases. The gods may come in handy if Yahweh didn’t come through in some future situation. Also, the Nuzi tablets, discovered in that region, dating from about 400 years after Jacob, indicate that the possessor of the father’s household idols was the heir to his estate. By stealing the idols, Rachel may have been trying to secure the inheritance which she felt her father had wrongfully taken from her (31:14). This would explain Laban’s anger over the matter and Jacob’s extreme penalty for the culprit.

The point is, Rachel was acting just like the world. She was about to be separated from Laban, the embodiment of the world; and yet she was trying to take the world’s security blanket along on the trip, in case God didn’t come through. Before we condemn her, we need to see that when we use God to make us happy, and mingle the world’s wisdom, such as psychology, with our faith as if trusting in the living God were not sufficient, we’re acting like Rachel.

For his part, Jacob wasn’t honorable in the way he left Laban. He should have politely, but firmly, stated his intentions and followed through, trusting God to protect him. While Rachel stole her father’s idols, Jacob stole Laban’s heart (literal, 31:20, 26). Jacob is still the schemer, trying to pull his own strings and get himself out of another tight situation.

In spite of all this, God graciously protected both Rachel and Jacob. God used this situation to get Laban to initiate a peace treaty with Jacob, which served to establish a northern border for Jacob, so that he never was tempted to return to Haran. It slammed the door on that part of his life and locked him into the forward course toward Canaan, in spite of his fears of Esau.

When our kids were younger, they enjoyed playing in the waves at the beach. They didn’t realize how powerful some of those waves can be. They were so excited with the fun they were having that they were oblivious to the danger. But what they didn’t know was that Marla and I never took our eyes off of them. We were always watching to protect them from the waves.

God watches each of His children that way. I think that when we get to heaven, God is going to replay some scenes from our lives so that we will see how, time and time again, He graciously protected us from situations where we could have destroyed ourselves because, like Rachel stealing Laban’s idols, we were so much like the world.

So in spite of Jacob’s blundering obedience and Rachel’s theft and deception, God graciously protected them. You may wonder, “Why?” Donald Grey Barnhouse observes, “If we are perplexed by the blessing of God in the midst of the most sinful environment, we must remember that there would be no blessing whatsoever if human merit were the prerequisite to God’s display of power and bestowal of blessing. Here we see the grace of God manifest in utmost splendor. In spite of thievery and deception, God protected His own” (Genesis [Zondervan], 2:109).

That shouldn’t lead us to tempt the Lord. J. Vernon McGee once told of a man who had become so caught up with the idea of God’s sovereign protection of the believer under every circumstance that he said, “You know, Dr. McGee, I am so convinced that God is keeping me no matter what I do, that I think I could step out into the midst of the busiest rush hour traffic and if my time had not come, I would be perfectly safe.” Dr. McGee replied, “If you step out into traffic at rush hour, brother, your time has come!” God protects us, but we can’t presume on His grace. That leads to the second lesson in our text:

2. God’s people need to seek to live separately from the world.

Jacob is slowly learning. His natural tendency, as we’ve seen, is to trust in his own schemes instead of the Lord. Here, he flees in fear of Laban (31:31), but at least he’s going in obedience to the Lord, in spite of his fears of facing Esau once he got back to Canaan. We might call it, “blundering obedience.”

If you’ve walked with the Lord for any time at all, you see yourself here. You’ve done things which, at the time you would have claimed, were done in obedience. But now as you look back on those times, you realize how blundering you were in your attempts at following the Lord. So even if Jacob wasn’t trusting totally, he was attempting to trust God by separating from Laban and heading homeward. Jacob teaches us two lessons about our need to live separately from the world:

A. Separation from the world requires a decisive break.

Jacob didn’t do it in the wisest way, but at least he made the decision and left Laban. I’ve never known anyone to drift gradually and unconsciously out of worldliness. It takes a decisive commitment and then a prolonged struggle. But it doesn’t just happen unawares.

I’m not sure that we teach this well enough to young believers. You cannot serve God and Mammon. There can be no partnership between righteousness and lawlessness. Light cannot fellowship with darkness (2 Cor. 6:14). When you commit yourself to following Jesus Christ, you must decisively make a break with this evil world.

That commitment should be expressed in baptism. Baptism is like a wedding ceremony, where a couple makes a public commitment to forsake all others and be faithful to one another. That is not to say that there won’t be temptations and, in some cases, infidelity. But when that happens, a person must come back to that original commitment and seek to restore the marriage relationship.

It’s the same way in following Christ. When you’re baptized, you’re making a public commitment that says, “I am forsaking this evil world and cleaving to Jesus Christ, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Yes, there will be temptations. There will probably be times when you are unfaithful to Him. But when that happens, remember that you made a decisive break with the world, turn back to Christ, and restore your relationship with Him.

The problem with many Christians is that they’ve never made that break with the world. They’re trying to get the best of both worlds, like Rachel heading for Canaan with her father’s idols. But that’s like having one foot on the dock and the other on a boat that’s leaving. You can only do that for a short while, and then you’re going to get wet.

I encounter many professing Christians who are acting like Rachel. They are “using God” to make them happy or help them, but they have not surrendered totally to His lordship. They keep their stash of idols to pull out in case God doesn’t work. But they’re actually following self, not Jesus as Lord. But biblical Christianity requires making a radical break from serving self to seeking first His kingdom and righteousness. Whether following Jesus makes you feel good or gets you nailed to a cross, a true Christian daily denies self and follows Jesus because He is the true and living God. It requires a decision to break from the world.

B. Separation from the world means reverencing God as the only Lord of your life.

There’s a humorous contrast here between Laban’s idols and Jacob’s God. Laban pursues Jacob to retrieve his gods. What good are gods that can be stolen? But in his pursuit to get his gods, the living God appears to Laban in a dream and warns him to leave Jacob alone. That should have tipped off Laban about the value of his idols. But the supreme irony is what happened to his gods‑‑they got sat on, and that by a woman claiming to be on her menstrual cycle! The satire of that would not have been lost on Moses’ readers, who viewed such a woman as unclean. And Laban never found them. He had to go home and make some new ones!

The covenant of verse 49 is not, as often used, a blessing for friends who are parting. It shows the mutual distrust between these men. They are calling on God to punish the man who violates the treaty. Laban sanctimoniously puts himself in a position of superiority over Jacob by invoking him not to mistreat his daughters (31:50). Jacob had not been mistreating them in the past, as that implies. It’s like the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

When they ratify the treaty, Laban calls on Yahweh to be the witness between him and Jacob when they are apart (31:49). You may think it strange that Laban, who was looking for his stolen gods, invokes the true God to make good on this treaty. But, it’s not, really. The Lord is just one of Laban’s pantheon. In verse 53, he invokes the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor, the God of their father. But their father was an idolater who didn’t worship the true God (Josh. 24:2). So Laban, the polytheist, is just covering all his bases, invoking all the relevant gods.

But Jacob shines at this point. He doesn’t go along with Laban’s invocation and swear by all Laban’s gods (which included the living God). Instead, he swears “by the fear of his father Isaac” (31:53, see also 31:42). That is a name for the Lord, whom Isaac had always reverenced. So Jacob is separating himself from Laban’s polytheism and affirming that he will reverence the Lord alone. At this point he is beginning to live separately from Laban and all he represents. Jacob is reverencing God as the only Lord of his life.


That’s the key to living in this world without being of it: To “set apart Christ as Lord in your heart” (1 Pet. 3:15). Instead of using God and whatever else works to make you happy, your focus should be to submit to God in everything, to please Him in every thought, word, and deed, and to die to self. Then, instead of drifting downstream with the American way of life, and even the American Christian way of life, you can evaluate it by God’s Word and resist it.

I wonder, to which of the three main characters in this story are you most spiritually alike? Some may be like Laban: You’ll use God as long as He helps you prosper, but if He doesn’t seem to be working, you’ll try something else. Self is really your God, and you need to turn from your idolatry and submit to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Some may be like Rachel: You may know the true God, but you’re carrying your idols from the old life with you. It’s kind of hard to tell whether you’re in Christ or in the world. You need to make a decisive break with the world and trash the things in your life that you know are not pleasing to God.

Others may be like Jacob: You’re seeking to obey God and extricate yourself from the ways of the world. You need to keep growing in the direction of reverencing God as your only Lord, and not go back to the things that formerly enslaved you. At times you’ll feel like you’re between a rock and a hard place in seeking to live separately from the world. But you’ll have the joy of knowing that the God of Jacob is protecting you as you do.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is a list of dos and don’ts not adequate in keeping Christians from worldliness?
  2. How can we emphasize the need to turn from sin at the outset of salvation without falling into a works-salvation?
  3. Often those who emphasize separation from the world end up being legalistic. How can we properly emphasize separation and yet avoid legalism?
  4. Is it possible for a Christian to fit in socially (on the job, in the neighborhood, at school, etc.) and yet maintain proper separation from the world? How?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Faith, Sanctification, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 58: When Fear Grips You (Genesis 32:1-21)

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Someone has observed, “A good scare is worth more to a man than good advice.” (Peter’s Quotations [Bantam Books], p. 190.) We all have many recurring fears, but when those fears come to a head in a good scare, we learn a lot about ourselves and about life.

Most of us fear getting cancer. Frankly, I’d rather die suddenly. A few years ago I had a couple of lumps removed from my body. The doctor thought they were benign, but routinely sent them in for a biopsy. A week later, I called to see whether the nurse could remove my stitches or whether I needed to see the doctor. The receptionist put me on hold and then came back on the line to say, “The doctor wants to talk to you about the biopsy.” “Okay,” I replied weakly. I hung up and thought, “The only reason he would need to talk to me is if the biopsy revealed a malignancy. I must have cancer!” I was scared! As it turned out, nothing was wrong. But in the hours between hanging up the phone and seeing the doctor, I learned some things about my fear of death and my faith in God.

Moses’ readers needed to learn how to face fear. Years before, spies had brought back a report of giants who lived in Canaan, which God had promised to them. Because of their unbelief and disobedience, a generation had died in the wilderness. But the rumors of those giants had not died. They had grown bigger with the years. Now God’s people were on the verge of going into that land and facing those giants. They had to know how to deal with their fears. The story of Jacob’s fear in meeting Esau taught them and teaches us that ...

When fear grips you, rely on God’s provision, not on your plans.

Jacob here gets the scare of his life. Twenty years before he had fled for his life to Haran after taking his brother’s birthright and blessing. Now he was returning to Canaan in obedience to God. God had just preserved his family and possessions from the angry Laban. But every step he took in the direction of Canaan seemed to thunder in Jacob’s ears, “Esau! Esau! Esau!” Jacob knew that he would have to face his brother who had planned to kill him.

So Jacob sent messengers to Esau with a carefully worded message to let him know that Jacob wasn’t coming back to try to dominate Esau. He was coming as Esau’s servant, seeking his favor (32:4‑5). As he nervously waited for his messengers to return, he must have thought, “Surely Esau will be friendly by now. After all, it’s been 20 years. And, since God commanded me to return, He must have calmed Esau’s anger.” The messengers returned and said, “We came to your brother Esau, and furthermore he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him” (32:6). Jacob froze with fear!

1. Fear grips us all at times.

Let’s face it, there are a lot of things in our world to be afraid of! To some extent, we all fear death‑‑either our own or the death of loved ones. We fear the unknown future. We fear for our children and their safety. We may fear being victimized by crime or by accidents caused by drunk drivers. Just when we sort of got over the fear of nuclear war, now they’re throwing at us the fear that our planet will be hit by a giant asteroid!

The first mention of fear in the Bible is just after Adam and Eve sinned. When God came looking for them in the garden, they hid themselves because they were afraid. Sin results in guilt and guilt causes fear toward God and toward the one we’ve wronged. We fear the retaliation we know we deserve. That was the root of Jacob’s fear. Even though 20 years had passed, Jacob’s conscience came stalking when he thought of facing Esau, especially when he heard that Esau was riding toward him with 400 men! He flashed back to that day when he tricked Esau and his father out of Esau’s blessing. He could hear Esau’s anguished cry as he discovered what had happened. He could remember the murderous looks his brother had given him before he fled to Haran. It all came back when he heard that Esau was coming.

We would like to think that if we just let our sin and guilt alone, that over time it will just fade away. But before we can enjoy the peace and promises of God, we’ve got to be reconciled to our brother (Matt. 5:23‑24). We’ve got to confess our sin to God and seek the forgiveness of those we’ve wronged. But what do we usually do when fear grips us? We usually do what Jacob did:

2. When fear grips us, our tendency is to rely on our plans.

Jacob, the schemer, is making progress: Here he not only plans, he also prays! It’s the first reference to Jacob praying and it’s a good prayer, as we’ll see. Because Jacob prays, many commentators argue that his planning is an example of prudent action, that he was just “trusting God and keeping his powder dry,” as Cromwell’s saying goes. But Jacob’s faith was mixed with fear, and his plans are more tied to his fear than to his faith.

One reason I argue this is that Jacob prayed for God’s protection, but he failed to pray for God’s direction. His plans were not in response to waiting on God. In fact, Jacob’s plan of dividing his people into two camps ignored God’s provision of the camp of angels to protect him. In verse 1, Jacob encounters God’s angels as he comes back to the borders of Canaan. It was not just one or two angels, but a whole regiment. It should have shown Jacob that Almighty God was guarding him. Jacob named the place “Two Camps” (“Mahanaim”), referring to his little camp and to God’s camp of angels.

But when Jacob hears of Esau and his men marching toward him, he panics and divides his own group into two camps (32:7, where the Hebrew root for Mahanaim is repeated), thinking that if Esau attacks one camp, the other might be able to escape. But he is forgetting about God’s camp of angels and substituting his own two camps for God’s two camps. With God’s two camps (the angels and Jacob’s), Jacob was perfectly safe. But Jacob’s two-camp plan had a major flaw‑‑it left God out!

The expected results of Jacob’s plan also show that it was not of the Lord. When Jacob had God’s two camps, he was perfectly safe. No one could have gotten past an army of angels to touch Jacob, his family, or his possessions. But when Jacob traded God’s two camps for his own two camps, the best he could hope for was that one camp would be wiped out while the other might escape (but also might not!). That’s the problem when we start planning without waiting on God. Our best plans, as clever as they may be, always fall short of God’s perfect provision.

Another clue that Jacob’s plans were not of the Lord is the groveling flattery that he uses to try to pacify Esau. He goes far beyond common courtesy or custom by repeating over and over the phrases, “my lord, Esau” and “your servant, Jacob” (see 32:4, 5, 18, 20). It’s more than ironic that the man who schemed and manipulated for so long to gain preeminence over his brother is now babbling, “my lord, Esau” and “your servant, Jacob” as he thinks about meeting him face to face! All his schemes for grabbing power and privilege over Esau have backfired.

There is a final reason to argue that Jacob’s plans were not of the Lord and that he was relying more on them than on the God to whom he prayed. In verse 21, there is a word play in the Hebrew text which causes the reader to flash back to verse 1. It says, “So the present (Hebrew = “hamminhah”) passed on before him, while he himself spent that night in the camp (Hebrew = “bammahaneh”). Which camp? Verse 1 reminds us: The camp of God, where an army of angels surrounded him. If Jacob had remembered that he was in God’s “mahaneh” (camp), he wouldn’t have needed his “minhah” (present). The word play makes the point subtly here, but it’s spelled out plainly in chapter 33, where we find that Jacob’s elaborate gift was unnecessary. Esau didn’t even want it. (This insight is from Alan Ross, The Bible Knowledge Commentary [Victor Books], 1:80.)

So while Jacob is growing in faith, as his prayer reveals, he’s still up to his old tricks, trying to scheme his way out of a tight spot. It’s not wrong to pray and then plan. There is a proper sense in which prayer without action is not enough. God expects us to plan and to take action. But the problem comes when we don’t seek the Lord concerning our plans and then we rely more on our plans than on the Lord. W. H. Griffith Thomas writes (Genesis: A Devotional Commentary [Eerdmans], pp. 298‑299),

The soul that is truly and fully occupied with God will never be at a loss to know the true relation between prayer and work, work and prayer; for in answer to prayer comes the spirit of wisdom, the spirit of a sound mind, the spirit of courage and fearlessness, the spirit of calm restfulness and equally calm progress. It will know when to “stand still” and when to “go forward,” because God is its all in all.

So it’s not wrong to plan; it’s wrong to plan without relying on God and then to rely on our plans. Instead,

3. When fear grips us, we must rely on God’s provision.

A. God’s provision is completely adequate for our needs.

If Jacob had kept his mind on God’s provision at Mahanaim, he could have confidently marched at the front of his family and flocks as he met Esau. He could have confidently thought, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). But as it was, he cowered in the rear, letting everyone else go first as cannon fodder.

Note three things about the adequacy of God’s provision:

(1) The when of God’s provision: Just when we need it. Jacob was between the rock of Laban and the hard place of Esau. He has just left Laban, who could have done him great harm, had it not been for God’s intervention. In a matter of days, he will hear the news of Esau’s threatening approach. But before Jacob even knows the magnitude of that problem, God graciously gives him assurance of His protection by sending His angels to meet him on the way. It’s a beautiful example of how God meets our needs before we even know we have them, but at just the right time.

God often provides at the eleventh hour. He has to bring us to that point, because so often we lean on our own schemes until that eleventh hour, when we’re forced to say, “If God doesn’t come through now, we’re doomed.” Of course! That’s always true, but we don’t realize it until every human prop has been knocked out from under us.

King Hezekiah was a godly man, but the Lord allowed Sennacherib to surround Jerusalem with his army to the point that it looked sure that the city would fall. The Assyrian generals were taunting Hezekiah’s trust in the Lord as a futile hope. But then, in response to his desperate prayer, the angel of the Lord in one night wiped out 185,000 Assyrian troops and delivered Jerusalem.

That’s when God provides‑‑just when we need it. George Muller, whose orphanages fed and clothed up to 2,000 orphans at a time without appeals for money to anyone except the Lord, and without any human source of funding, was often brought down to the very hour of need before the provisions came in from some unexpected source. God provides when we need it, not always before.

(2) The where of God’s provision: On the path of obedience. God’s angels met Jacob as he “went on his way” to Canaan in obedience to the Lord. God had just protected Jacob from Laban behind him; now He would protect him from Esau in front of him. God sent His angels there to show that He protects His obedient servants, no matter how threatening the enemy. This is not to say that all who obey the Lord never get harmed. There are some difficult and frightening situations even on the path of obedience. Both the Bible and church history show that sometimes God’s servants get martyred. But when that is His sovereign purpose, it is not because His protection was lacking. If we are obeying God, we can trust that either His angels will protect us or they will usher us into His presence.

In Peace Child [Regal Books], Don Richardson tells of the frightening reception the Sawi tribe gave him when he brought his wife and infant son to live among them. He had made earlier contacts himself, and had built a crude house for his family with the help of several natives, who seemed friendly. But he wasn’t quite prepared for the reception when he brought his family up the river for the first time.

The whole village turned out, their faces done up with garish white paint which made their eye sockets look like gaping black holes. They were waving their barbed spears and beating drums of lizard skin glued on with human blood, which trickled down the sides. They were wildly dancing and seemingly going crazy as they surrounded the Richardsons. Don wondered if he had miscalculated their earlier friendliness. Would he and his family be safe among these wild savages? He writes (p. 139), “Suddenly, in the blue glow of twilight, a Presence stronger than the presence of the multitude enveloped us. The same Presence that had first drawn us to trust in Christ, and then wooed us across continents and oceans to this very jungle clearing.” As he sensed the Lord’s presence and thought about why he had come to this people, in obedience to the Lord, he was flooded with God’s peace. That’s where you can count on God’s provision‑‑on the path of obedience to Him.

(3) The what of God’s provision: What we need in each situation. God knew that Jacob needed protection here, so He sent a regiment of His angels. Who needs to fear Esau and his 400 men when you’ve got the army of the Lord of hosts protecting you? I think the army of angels was just for show, to bolster Jacob’s weak faith. Years later, how many angels did the Lord have to send to wipe out Sennacherib’s 185,000 men? Just one! A single angel easily could have protected Jacob from Esau’s 400 men. So the Lord sent the regiment of angels to encourage Jacob.

But Jacob needed more than angels to shore up his sagging faith. Jacob’s problem, which most of us can relate to, was that he didn’t yet understand that the real battle is spiritual, not physical. Jacob was saying, “Angels! That’s nice! Now, let’s divide the camp into two sections so that if one gets massacred, the other will escape. Yes, let’s pray about it, too! Now, where was I? Oh, yes, let’s get a nice gift for Esau. How about 550 animals, arranged in groups, to appease him?” Jacob is a flurry of activity trying to get his plan together. And when he finally meets Esau, what happens? Esau runs to meet him, embraces him, kisses him and weeps. Then he says, “What’s all this stuff?” Jacob had wasted his time with his elaborate scheme. God’s provision was sufficient without Jacob’s frenzy of activity.

God’s provision is always directed toward our particular need. When Adam needed clothing, God provided it. When the problem was a flood, He directed Noah to make the ark. When Hagar needed water, God directed her to a well. When the Israelites later needed food, He sent manna. When they needed water, He caused it to flow from the rock. And, of course, God met our greatest need in the person of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, “who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). You don’t have any need and never could have a need that God hasn’t already met in Christ. And He tailors the blessing to each situation, showing us how Christ is adequate for all of life. So when fear grips us, we must rely on God’s provision for us in Christ. How?

B. We rely on God’s provision through believing prayer.

Notice five aspects of Jacob’s prayer:

(1) He approaches God as Yahweh, the covenant God of his fathers. He could have improved things a notch further by praying, “my God,” but this isn’t bad for a first prayer. He is approaching God as the One who entered into a covenant relationship with his fathers, who can be counted on to keep that covenant. We approach God through the new covenant established by the Lord Jesus Christ.

(2) He bases his prayer on God’s word. Twice he reminds God of what He said (32:9, 12). He reminds God that he is obeying what the Lord told him to do. Based on that and on God’s previous promise to prosper him and multiply his descendants, Jacob asks for deliverance from Esau. God delights to have us take His Word and pray it back to Him, claiming the promises He has made to us.

(3) He appeals to God on the basis of grace, not merit. He admits his own unworthiness and thanks the Lord for all His past mercies and blessings. If you ever come to the Lord on the basis of how good you’ve been, you’re on shaky ground. We can only come to God because of His abundant grace shown to us in the Lord Jesus Christ.

(4) He presents his request honestly and fervently from the heart. “Deliver me ... from the hand of Esau; for I fear him ...” (32:11). If Jacob had focused on the camp of angels, he wouldn’t have been fearing. But God didn’t scold him for his lack of faith. He accepted his troubled child into His arms and listened to his cry for help. You can bring your requests honestly before God, admitting, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” He knows your fears; He wants you to bring them honestly and fervently to Him.

(5) He prays for God’s purpose. He asked God to fulfill His promises concerning the seed of Abraham (32:12). Jacob is arguing his case based on the revealed purpose of God. The Lord is always eager to hear us pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If your prayer is aimed at fulfilling God’s purpose in Christ, you will gain a ready hearing in His presence.


Most parents have been awakened in the night by one of their toddlers who is afraid. When that happens, you assure the child, tuck him back into bed and pray with him. But a young child’s response is so natural: When you’re afraid in the dark, you go to Daddy. Whatever your fears, take them to your Heavenly Father. Rely on His provision, not on your plans. As Paul put it (Phil. 4:6-7), “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we know whether a fear is a legitimate warning to be heeded or a feeling to be overcome by faith?
  2. When does proper concern cross over into sinful anxiety?
  3. How can we know whether we’ve gone too far in relying on our plans rather than on the Lord?
  4. How can we trust God with our fears if we aren’t sure He’s going to deliver us? After all, Peter was delivered, but James was beheaded (Acts 12).

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

Lesson 59: Broken, But Blessed (Genesis 32:22-32)

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It’s been said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Even if you’ve never paid much attention to God before, a severe crisis has a way of turning you to Him. You realize that unless God comes through, you are not going to make it. And so you cry out, “Oh, God, help me!”

Some of you may be there right now. It may be a health problem; unless God intervenes, there’s no hope. Perhaps it’s a serious marital or family problem, a financial problem or a desperate need for work. It may be a personal problem, such as loneliness, guilt, anger, bitterness, or anxiety. It could be some life-dominating sin, such as alcohol, drugs, pornography, or gambling. But whatever the problem, you know that you need God, and you’re calling to Him for help.

In Genesis 32, Jacob faced that kind of crisis. He was returning to Canaan in obedience to God, but that meant he would have to face his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated 20 years before. Jacob didn’t know how Esau would receive him. When Jacob’s messengers came back and said that Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob froze with fear. Esau could easily wipe out everything that was of value to Jacob, including Jacob! And so he prayed, “Oh, God, deliver me from Esau!” (32:9‑12).

What Jacob didn’t know, and what we often don’t realize in situations like that, is how God goes about helping us. What we have in mind is that God would somehow remove our problem or make our enemy go away. But God doesn’t do it that way. God answered Jacob’s prayer for protection from Esau by wrestling with Jacob until He left him limping as he approached his brother. His plan had been that if Esau attacked one camp, Jacob (in the other camp) could escape. But now he couldn’t run from Esau if he tried! He was totally dependent on the Lord.

The way God helps us is by breaking us of our inherent self-dependence so that we lean totally on Him. In that context, we can properly receive His blessings. Our problem, like Jacob’s, is that all too often we want to use God and His blessings to further our own ends. All his life Jacob had been using God and people to get what he wanted for himself. But now God brings Jacob to see that you don’t use God‑‑ you submit to Him. When we submit to God, He blesses us.

God must break us of our self-dependence so that He can bless us as we cling to Him in our brokenness.

Brokenness is the path to blessing. Before God can use a man greatly, He must break him, because we all have a built‑in propensity to trust in ourselves. Thus,

1. God must break us of our self‑dependence.

God’s wrestling match with Jacob was not a dream or vision--dreams and visions don’t leave a man with a wrenched hip. Jacob’s opponent was the angel of the Lord, Jesus Christ in a preincarnate form. It was a physical fight with physical injury inflicted on Jacob, and yet there were obvious spiritual lessons impressed on him through this unforgettable experience.

It must have been terrifying for Jacob. He was already nervous about Esau’s approach. He had sent ahead his elaborate gift of hundreds of animals. Then he tried to bed down for the night. But he couldn’t sleep, so he woke up his family and moved them across the ford of the Jabbok. Then Jacob went back alone for a final check, to make sure nothing had been left behind. It’s dark and spooky on the desert at night. Suddenly, out of the dark, a hand grabbed Jacob. Jacob must have just about had a heart attack! Who was this? A bandit, trying to rob him? An assassin, sent by Esau? Instinctively, Jacob began to wrestle with this mysterious assailant, struggling for his very life.

We need to be clear that God was the aggressor here. Jacob was defending himself. Some preachers develop this text as a fine example of wrestling all night in prayer with God. But that is not the lesson behind the struggle. Jacob wasn’t laying hold of God to gain something from Him; God was laying hold of Jacob to gain something from him, namely, to bring Jacob to the end of his self‑dependence.

All his life, Jacob had thought that Esau and Laban were his adversaries. He had struggled and schemed to get the blessings he thought these men were taking from him, blessings that God had promised to give him anyway. But now, at some point in the struggle, he discovers to his horror that none other than God was his adversary. Actually, Jacob was his own adversary; but God had to wrestle him into submission to reveal this to him.

We’re all like Jacob. We think that the enemy, the problem, is out there. “The problem is my wife ... my husband ... my parents ... my boss ... my poor circumstances. God, please take care of the problem for me.” But the enemy or problem isn’t primarily out there. The problem is in me, my flesh, my sinful, selfish nature that dominates my life. So God has to reveal to me the power of my flesh before I can be delivered from it.

A. God’s breaking process reveals to us the power of our flesh.

Obviously, God could have crippled Jacob in the first minute of this contest. When He finally wanted to, He just touched Jacob’s hip and Jacob felt excruciating pain as his hip was wrenched. So why didn’t God do it sooner? Why did He allow the match to go on all night long?

God wanted to show Jacob the power of his self‑will. If you’ve ever wrestled, you know how exhausting it is to grapple with an opponent of equal or greater strength. A few minutes is enough. But Jacob kept at it all night! The Lord kept waiting to see if Jacob would surrender, but he kept fighting.

At what point do you suppose Jacob recognized that his opponent was not a mere man? Later (32:30) he acknowledged that it was God. The text doesn’t tell us, but I’m sure that if he didn’t know before, Jacob knew as soon as the Lord crippled him. But the Lord didn’t use that power until He saw that Jacob would not yield (32:25). The flesh dies hard! Only God can tame it. Until God crippled him, Jacob wouldn’t give in. God let him wrestle all night so that Jacob could see how strong his self‑will really was.

To make sure that Jacob has learned the lesson, the Lord asks him a question which, at first, doesn’t seem to fit the context. Jacob is finally subdued, and he clings to the Lord and says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The Lord responds, “What is your name?” (32:27). Remember, the Lord never asks questions to gain information. He knew the answer. He wanted Jacob to confess not just his name, but his character. He had to say, “My name is Jacob‑‑the supplanter, the conniver, the schemer.” Only after Jacob acknowledged that could the Lord bless him.

Part of the process of knowing God involves knowing ourselves. Until God reveals the power of our sinful nature to us, we tend to think that we’re not so bad. I was raised in the church, so I’ve always known that I was sinner. But yet I didn’t know it. I was inclined to think, “I’m not a terrible sinner; in fact, as far as sinners go, I’m a pretty good sinner.” But the more I’ve grown in the Lord, the more I’ve seen, as Paul said, that “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18). Until the Lord reveals that to us (and He often has to do it through an all-night wrestling match!) we depend more on ourselves than on Him. God’s breaking process reveals to us the power of our flesh.

B. God’s breaking process reveals to us the power of our God.

Before the Lord touched Jacob and crippled him, Jacob probably thought that the fight was pretty evenly matched. But then in one light touch, the Lord wiped Jacob out. Suddenly he saw that God was the lion and Jacob was the mouse. God had just been playing with him!

Until God breaks us, so that we walk with a limp, we have a tendency to view Him as a benign old grandfather, nice to have around, but not very strong. Until that time, we view obedience to God as an option available to us. But we’re in control, directing things as we think best. We choose our careers, our lifestyles, and our schedules, all centered around what will make us happy. God is a nice, harmless grandfather to have around when you need Him. Then the lion roars and in one easy swipe, He cripples us. We learn His awesome power. We learn that obedience is not an option; it’s our only reasonable course of action.

The frailty of our bodies should make us aware of our weakness and of our need to submit to God. Every time we’re sick or get injured, or when we feel the aches and pains of older age, we should acknowledge, “I am not God. I am weak and frail. Only God is God and I must depend totally on Him and live in submission to Him.”

A few years ago, the popular Australian actor, Paul Hogan, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while he was lifting weights. Although he was in a semicomatose state for five days, he dismissed the attack as “just a freak thing that was wasted on me if it was supposed to provide some sort of revelation” (Newsweek [12/8/86], p. 79). Wake up, mate! You can be a specimen of fitness and health, but you’re only a heartbeat away from standing before Almighty God. If He touches your body, you’d better acknowledge your weakness and depend on His strength! You can either submit to Him and be blessed, or fight Him and suffer the consequences. But you’ll never win if you wrestle with God.

Some people resist God’s breaking process and grow bitter. Jacob could have gone that direction here. When the Lord crippled him, he could have angrily shouted, “Now look what you’ve done! I’ve got to go face my angry brother, and you’ve crippled me so that I can’t fight or run!” Jacob could have grown bitter, not better. But he didn’t. Instead, when the Lord said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking,” Jacob clung to Him and gave that marvelous reply: “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (32:26). This shows that

2. God blesses us as we cling to Him in our brokenness.

Often our greatest victories come out of the ashes of our greatest defeats. As soon as Jacob was crippled, he was able to hang on to the Lord for dear life. He knew now that if God didn’t bless him, he had no hope. He couldn’t trust in himself any longer, because he was crippled. He had to cling to the Lord, and in clinging to the Lord in his brokenness, Jacob received the blessing he had been scheming to get all his life.

A. We won’t cling to the Lord until we’re broken.

There’s a paradox here, in that Jacob seems to have incredible strength in clinging to the Lord after he is wounded. Of course, the Lord could have loosened Jacob’s grip and gotten away. But the Lord loves it when His children cling to Him in their brokenness and say, “I won’t let You go until You bless me.”

But we’re all like Jacob: We won’t cling to the Lord with all our strength until we have to. As long as there’s an ounce of self‑dependence left, we’ll trust in ourselves. We can see this in the life of Peter. He was the natural leader of the twelve, always the spokesman. On a few occasions, he even had the audacity to correct the Lord. When Jesus predicted, “You will all fall away because of Me this night,” Peter set the record straight: “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” (Matt. 26:33). Peter still didn’t realize the power of his sinful nature; he wasn’t weak enough to cling in dependence to the Lord. The Lord had to allow Peter to go through that dark night of the soul so that, crippled in himself, Peter would cling to the Lord in his brokenness. It was a broken, but dependent, Peter who boldly preached in the Lord’s power on the Day of Pentecost.

The same is true in coming to Christ for salvation. Many people don’t see their need to trust in Christ as Savior because they hang on to their belief in their own goodness. Their pride blinds them to their great need before God.

Andrew Bonar said that in the highlands of Scotland, sheep sometimes wander off among the rocky crags and get trapped on dangerous ledges. Attracted by the sweet grass, they leap down ten or twelve feet to get to it, but they can’t get back up. A shepherd will allow the helpless animal to remain there for days until it becomes so weak it’s unable to stand up. Finally, he ties a rope around his waist and goes over the edge to the rocky shelf and rescues the one that has strayed. Someone asked Bonar, “Why doesn’t the shepherd go down right away?” He replied, “Sheep are so foolish that they would dash right over the precipice and be killed if the herdsman didn’t wait until their strength was nearly gone.” (In “Our Daily Bread,” Winter, 1980.)

So if you’re thinking, “I’m not a terrible sinner. In fact, I’m a basically good person,” God may have to let you go through some serious problems, until you see your desperate need for Christ. He came to save sinners, not pretty good people. Sometimes God has to let you hit the bottom, where you see that you cannot do anything to save yourself. It’s when God cripples us and we see how weak we really are that we cling to Him until He blesses us.

B. Even in clinging, we’re prone to use God, not to submit to Him.

After the Lord asks Jacob his name and gives him a new name, Jacob asks the Lord to tell him His name (32:29). But the Lord replies, “Why is it that you ask my name?” Again, the Lord wasn’t wondering about the answer to that question. He wanted Jacob to think about it, because the answer would teach Jacob something about himself.

I think that the Lord refused to tell Jacob His name because Jacob had the wrong motive in wanting to know. Jacob obviously knew that this was the Lord, as verse 30 shows. But the name reveals something about the Person. I think, in line with his lifelong tendency, Jacob wanted to know God’s name to get a handle on Him that he could use in the future. Even though he was now clinging to God, Jacob was prone to keep on using God as he always had done. But to keep Jacob submissive and seeking, the Lord refuses.

So even though we’ve had an experience where God has humbled us, we always have to be on guard against our tendency to use God rather than to submit to Him. The Lord is far above us, and while He graciously consents to reveal Himself to those who obey Him (John 14:21), He will remain distant to those who simply want to know Him so that they can use Him for their own purposes.

C. Clinging to God in our brokenness is the key to power with God and with others.

When Jacob clings to the Lord and demands that He bless him, the Lord gives him a new name. To the Hebrews, the name reflects the character. So God, speaking prophetically, gives Jacob a new character: Instead of Jacob, he is to become Israel. Instead of supplanter, he is to become a prevailer. The name “Israel” either means, “he who strives [or, prevails] with God,” or “God strives” [or, prevails]. Both meanings are true: Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed in the sense of hanging on until God blessed him. But, first, God prevailed over Jacob by crippling his stubborn self-dependence. Jacob’s prevailing with men is a prediction of how God will now conquer Jacob’s enemies (the most pressing being Esau) by His power rather than through Jacob’s conniving ways.

If we come into the proper relationship with God, of clinging to Him in our brokenness, then we have power with Him. We prevail with Him who has prevailed over us. And since God is over all, if we can prevail with Him, then we prevail over all others. As Jacob went limping to face Esau, he was more powerful in God’s strength and his own weakness than he ever could have been in his own scheming and strength.

So above all else, devote yourself to seeking God’s blessing. When you’ve got that, you’ve got everything! When you prevail with God through His prevailing over you, He will take care of your problems and enemies. Then you’re not using God to solve your problems; you’re submitting to God and clinging by faith to Him.

That was the lesson for Moses’ readers, the nation Israel, poised to enter the land of Canaan. They would not gain victory in Canaan in the usual way nations gained victory, but rather through prevailing with God. The Canaanites could not prevent Israel from God’s blessings in the land any more than Esau had prevented Jacob from entering the land. It was God who would defeat the Canaanites for them if they trusted Him. It was also God who would oppose Israel if they failed to submit to Him. Weak in themselves, they could lay hold of God’s strength, and no one could prevail against them.


Two concluding applications:

(1) Take time to get alone with God. It was when Jacob was left alone that the Lord came to wrestle with him (32:24). Calvin states, “Would we bring down the pride of the flesh, we must draw near to God” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 202). When you get alone with the Lord, ask Him to break you of your sinful self‑dependence, and then cling to Him in your brokenness until He blesses you. When He breaks us and prevails over us, then He will allow us to prevail over our problems.

(2) Use your victories which come out of God’s breaking you, to teach others. When Jacob’s family asked him why he was limping, he could have concealed the lesson to save face: “Just a little arthritis, I guess.” But he was willing to let us in on what he learned. In verse 32, Moses explains a Hebrew custom which even continues to this day among orthodox Jews. They do not eat the sinew of the hip of animals because that is where God touched Jacob. That custom should serve as an object lesson to God’s people of the truth Jacob learned, that God breaks us of our self‑dependence so that He can bless us. As the Lord teaches that to you, pass it on to others. Your greatest problems can become your greatest victories if, when God breaks you, you cling to Him.

Discussion Questions

  1. Brokenness can be a key factor in restoring strained relationships. Discuss how.
  2. Some say we need proper self‑confidence to get things done. Is this biblical? Consider 2 Cor. 3:5-6; Phil. 4:13; John 15:5.
  3. If God wants us to know Him, why does He withhold knowledge of Himself (as He did here with Jacob)?
  4. So often we use the Bible as a problem‑solving manual. Is this wrong? What cautions do we need to have in this approach?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 60: Forward, Halt! (Genesis 33:1-20)

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My drill instructor in Coast Guard boot camp believed in the value of marching. We marched a lot. When you’re marching as a company, it’s not easy to be the one giving the orders. To do that, you’ve got to think on your feet and look ahead to know what you’re going to say. It’s easy to get flustered.

On one occasion, our recruit company commander was marching us along under the scrutiny of our drill instructor. He yelled out an order that was not correct. When you do that, the way to rescind the order is to say, “As you were.” But being already flustered by yelling the wrong command and seeing us begin to respond, this recruit forgot “as you were,” and yelled instead, “Cancel that order!” From the back, the deep voice of our drill instructor broke us all into laughter when he bellowed, “Cancel that order? What do you think this is, some blankety‑blank McDonald’s?”

If Jacob had been calling out marching orders to his family as they returned to Canaan, in Genesis 33 his orders would have been, “Forward, halt!” Jacob gets a bit flustered as he finally meets Esau and his 400 men. He has just spent the night wrestling with the Lord, where God broke Jacob of his self‑dependence. He’s walking with a limp as he approaches the dreaded meeting with his estranged brother. Under the pressure of the moment, he resorts to his old scheming ways and takes matters into his own hands, but it’s mixed up with some positive aspects of his newly discovered trust in the Lord. So the result is a mixture of living by the flesh and of living by faith.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that commentators and preachers have some different views of Jacob’s actions in this chapter. Some extol him as a godly man who models how we ought to be reconciled to our enemies and live by faith. Others chide Jacob as a sorry example of the life of faith, using chapter 34, which shows the results of his actions in chapter 33, as their proof. Who is right?

I take the middle ground. I think there are some positive changes in Jacob, but they aren’t complete. He’s still the same old schemer in many ways, but God is working on him. He’s changed as a result of Peniel, but he’s still unchanged in many ways. The flesh still dominates much of him, but he’s beginning to live by faith.

In this regard the Bible is realistic, because that’s how it is with most of us. I don’t know anyone who has been totally sanctified as the result of one dramatic spiritual experience. I know many who claim to be totally different, but you don’t have to be around them very long before you realize that they’ve got the same basic problems. A spiritual experience is fine, but, we need to recognize that Christianity is a lifelong walk with God, not a flash in the pan. As A. W. Pink writes (Gleanings in Genesis [Moody Press], p. 295), “It is one thing to be privileged with a special visitation from or manifestation of God to us, but it is quite another to live in the power of it.” So Jacob’s experience in Genesis 33 teaches us that ...

Having begun to live by faith, we must be careful to continue.

Satan usually doesn’t get us off track in one fell swoop, but by degrees. As with John Bunyan’s pilgrim, we wander slightly off into Bypath Meadow, thinking that it’s a pleasant route that will take us parallel with the road to the Celestial City. But it takes us farther and farther away, until we’re caught by the Giant Despair and wonder how we ended up in his dungeon.

If you look ahead, Jacob’s situation at the end of chapter 34 is terrible. His daughter has been raped by the prince of Shechem. In retaliation, Jacob’s sons have treacherously promised the men of Shechem a peace treaty, only to murder them all after they complied with the terms of the treaty. And Jacob is afraid that the other people of the land will destroy him and everything he has.

How did he get into that mess? It began in chapter 33, with little instances of disobedience. The events in chapter 33 probably add up to eight to ten years. Over these years, the little instances of unbelief and disobedience are gradually taking Jacob off the path. These events led to the catastrophe of chapter 34. To explain the text, I want to trace Jacob’s mixture of faith and the flesh in Genesis 33; then I’ll conclude with some applications.

1. Jacob lived both by the flesh and by faith in his reconciliation with Esau (33:1‑16).

As the sun rises on Peniel, Jacob comes limping from his wrestling match with the Lord. He looks up and sees Esau and his 400 men coming toward him in the distance. I wish that Jacob would have said, “Lord, You’ve crippled me so I’m helpless unless You intervene. You’ve promised to bless me. I’m trusting You to work.” But instead, the old Jacob takes over: He divides his children and wives, putting the least favorite in the front so that the more favored can possibly escape the massacre he still fears. Jacob is still relying on his own wits to get him out of another tight situation. If his trust had been completely in the Lord, he wouldn’t have had to resort to his escape plan.

Several commentators point out that after God changed Abraham’s name from Abram, the new name is used consistently. But after God gave Jacob his new name, Israel, the Holy Spirit, who superintended Moses’s writing of Genesis, saw fit after this to use the name Jacob 45 times, while the name Israel is used of him only 23 times, and it even has to be reaffirmed in chapter 35. While we probably shouldn’t put too much emphasis on this, it may hint that Jacob was not living up to his new position and privilege as a man who had prevailed with God.

Jacob’s scheming and lack of trust in the Lord is further seen in his groveling approach to his brother. Some commentators commend Jacob for his humble courtesy, but I think that he goes beyond proper respect. His obsequious “my lord, your servant” language is manipulative, at best (33:5, 8, 13, 14 [twice], 15). He meets Esau by bowing seven times, a greeting normally reserved for kings. All the wives and children bow down. There is a place for proper respect, but Jacob is going overboard. Esau didn’t expect that kind of stuff. He calls Jacob, “my brother” (33:9). He’s real; Jacob is the phony.

Jacob’s lack of trust in the Lord is seen also in his insistence that Esau accept his elaborate gift. It was a matter of custom that you didn’t accept a gift from an enemy, so Jacob wanted to make sure that Esau was not still at odds with him. But he was really trusting the gift to appease Esau (33:8). Some commentators say that this is a model of reconciliation, that sometimes it is not wise to bring up old hurts or talk about the problems of the past. I don’t agree. I think this was a superficial reconciliation at best, because Jacob never verbally confessed the wrongs he had committed against Esau, nor did he ask for forgiveness.

It’s like when a husband wrongs his wife. To make peace, he brings home some flowers and a gift. That may be a way of waving a white flag, opening the door for peace talks. But if the gift is all that’s done, there hasn’t been adequate reconciliation. The husband needs to specify how he wronged his wife and ask forgiveness. They need to talk about what happened so that they understand each other. Otherwise, she’s going to say to herself, “He thinks he can just run roughshod over me and then bring me a gift to make everything right. But he’s not willing to deal with the real problem.”

Jacob utters a truth beyond his understanding when he tells Esau, “I see your face as one sees the face of God” (33:10). What Jacob meant is that in Esau’s favorable reception, Jacob saw God’s favor. But beyond that, Jacob’s words point out the truth that when you’re at odds with your brother, he represents God to you. If you’re not right with him, it’s a pointed reminder that you’re not right with God. As John puts it (1 John 4:20), “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

Jacob’s flesh also rears its head in his response to Esau’s offer to travel together (33:12‑16). It would not have been right for Jacob to go with Esau, since God clearly had told Jacob to go to Canaan, not to Seir. So Jacob was right to refuse, but he was wrong in the way he refused. He makes up an excuse about his children and flocks being too weak to travel at Esau’s pace. He pushed them hard to escape from Laban, but now he uses their weakness as an excuse to avoid going with Esau. He lies by telling Esau that he will follow him to Seir (33:14).

Some commentators come to Jacob’s defense, saying that he intended to go to Seir, and maybe he did, since the text is not comprehensive. I find that an overly optimistic view of Jacob, because as soon as Esau is out of sight, Jacob turns around, goes back over the Jabbok, and heads a few miles north to Succoth, where he settles for a few years. We’ve all been in similar situations, where we were asked to join an activity which would compromise our faith. In an effort not to offend the person asking, it’s easy to fall into deception. But the right thing to do is to be straightforward in a kind manner. Jacob could have said, “I appreciate your kind offer for me to go with you to Seir, but God has commanded me to go to Canaan.”

With so much of Jacob that’s of the flesh, you may be wondering if he did anything by faith. I see several things. First, Jacob goes out in front of his family to meet Esau (33:3). This represents a change from the night before, when he put his family across the Jabbok (toward Esau’s approach), while he returned to the more safe side. But after wrestling with the Lord and being crippled, he hobbles out in front of his family, which reveals his faith, mingled as it was with his faithless schemes.

Also, Jacob’s faith is seen in his witness to God’s grace in his life. When Esau asks about the children, Jacob is careful to acknowledge the Lord when he says that they are “the children whom God has graciously given your servant” (33:5). In reference to his gift, Jacob says, “Please take my gift ... because God has dealt graciously with me” (33:11).

Jacob’s faith is probably also seen in his refusal to accompany Esau, even though his method of refusal was wrong. I say “probably” because it may be argued that Jacob didn’t trust his brother and was afraid that Esau would play along with the reconciliation for a while and then kill Jacob. But perhaps Jacob saw that since his brother was a secular man who had no concern for God’s purpose concerning Canaan, there could be no true fellowship between them. So he refused to go with him.

So Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau is a mixture of living by the flesh and of living by faith. In many ways, Esau is outwardly the better man. It’s sad that often non‑Christians, who have no interest in the things of God, are much nicer people than those who claim to be following God. Esau probably brought along the 400 men to meet Jacob just in case his brother was up to his old tricks. But when he sees that Jacob isn’t meeting him with an army, he leaps off his camel, runs to Jacob, hugs and kisses him and weeps. He doesn’t hold a grudge in spite of Jacob’s past treachery. And Esau isn’t greedy. Although he finally accepts Jacob’s gift, he says, “I have plenty, my brother. Let what you have be your own.” The trouble is, Esau was not at all concerned for the things of God. Spurgeon pointedly observes, “It is an awful contentment when a man can be satisfied without God” (Spurgeon’s Expository Encyclopedia [Baker], 5:354).

2. Jacob lived both by the flesh and by faith in his decision to dwell at Succoth and Shechem (33:17‑20).

As I said, the “by faith” part of Jacob’s turning back to Succoth was in not accompanying Esau. But that’s about as far as his faith went. For the most part, it was the old Jacob, living by the flesh. As Derek Kidner observes, “Succoth was a backward step, spiritually as well as geographically” (Genesis [IVP], pp. 171‑ 172). It lies to the east of the Jordan River, thus outside the boundary of Canaan. Thus, Succoth represents incomplete obedience on Jacob’s part.

In 31:3, the Lord had told Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” In 31:13, in repeating the command, the Lord said, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me.” It would seem that Jacob should have returned to that place of his vision and vow. In 35:1, after the disastrous events of chapter 34, the Lord specifically commands Jacob to go to Bethel. So it seems that at the least, God had wanted Jacob to return to Canaan but, more likely, to go to Bethel. But instead, Jacob settled at Succoth, and then bought land at Shechem.

The text doesn’t give us a motive for Jacob’s incomplete obedience, but it may hint at one. Verse 18 states, “Now Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem.” (The King James Version takes the adverb “safely” as a proper noun, “Shalem.”) Jacob may have felt safe there, but feared returning to the southern part of Canaan, where his father was, because of continuing fears of Esau, who frequented that region. In spite of Esau’s warm greeting, Jacob probably didn’t trust him. Those who are treacherous, like Jacob, often think others will be treacherous.

But while Jacob was afraid of Esau, he wasn’t afraid of staying in Succoth, outside the land, or of buying property in Shechem, where his family would be morally polluted. He was afraid of the wrong things! God had promised to protect Jacob if he obeyed; but Jacob felt he was more safe in a place of partial obedience than to risk trusting the Lord by obeying completely.

What about the altar Jacob erected in Shechem? Again, commentators are on both extremes. Some say it is a marvelous example of Jacob’s faith, while others condemn him for being hypocritical, living in disobedience while he puts on an outward show of religion by claiming that God is his God.

My observation of Christians (including myself) tells me that Jacob was doing what we all do. He was making an attempt to follow the Lord, but at the same time he was not obeying the Lord completely. By calling the altar “God, the God of Israel,” he was acknowledging his gratitude to God for bringing him safely back to the land. But by not going all the way to Bethel, he was catering to his fleshly fear of Esau. He was the new man, Israel; but he was still the old man, Jacob. We do the same thing. We begin by faith in the Lord, but then live by the flesh.


I conclude with four applications:

1. Be on guard to your own bent toward the flesh. We all have our unique areas of weakness. Jacob’s bent was his scheming. Abraham and Isaac were prone toward lying under pressure. Moses tended to take strong action, but in his own strength, as seen in his killing the Egyptian and later in striking the rock. David had a weakness for women. You and I have our own bent. It’s like the default mode on my computer‑‑it’s the mode you fall into automatically. You’ve got to be on guard, and cling to the Lord especially in that area. Be in the Word--it will reveal to you the thoughts and intentions of your heart (Heb. 4:12) so that you can be on guard.

Also, know your strengths. Usually our areas of greatest strength are related to our areas of greatest weakness. The Apostle Paul was strong as a man of purpose and conviction, but he tended to run over weak people, like John Mark. He had to learn to accept Mark, in spite of his desertion on the first missionary journey. Your strengths will show you your weaknesses, so that you can be on guard.

2. Even though you enjoy God’s protection, you must constantly seek His direction. Jacob came safely to Succoth and Shechem, under God’s protection. But he failed to seek God’s direction, and wrongly settled where he shouldn’t. Granted, Shechem was in the land of Canaan, but Jacob never asked the Lord if this was where He wanted him to live. He falsely mistook God’s protection for His approval.

Sometimes I’m amazed at how Christians make major decisions, like where to live, on the most trivial basis, without consulting the Lord. Often, the last thing they think about is the spiritual well‑being of their family. I’ve heard of Christians deciding to move to some isolated location because they want to get away from people. But is there a good church in this small town? Did they bother to find out if God was directing them to get away from people? As I recall, Christ died for lost people, not for deer and bear and forests. He may want some of His children to abandon the crowds, but I have a hunch that most Christians who head for the wilderness haven’t bothered to check with the Lord.

I once sold a car to a guy who was living in a tiny motel room next to Mother’s Bar in Sunset Beach, California. Since he was from the midwest, I asked him how he happened to settle there. He told me that he came west after a divorce and was driving down Pacific Coast Highway when he saw Mother’s Bar. He stopped in for a drink, liked the place, and decided to stay. What a way to pick a place to live! As believers, the Lord’s purpose and direction should be the major factor in determining where we live.

3. Be alert to spiritual danger, especially as it affects your children. Shechem was probably a trading center, a place where caravans stopped and exchanged goods. Jacob looked around and thought, “It’s as good as any other place.” So he settled there, but he didn’t think about how it would affect his children. The ten years or so he was there were the years his children grew up. Apparently he hadn’t warned Dinah of the dangers of mingling with the local young people. As a result, she got raped and her brothers took brutal revenge.

Think through the implications of your behavior on your children. You may do things which don’t damage you too much, at least outwardly, but it can wipe out your kids. Jacob’s settling in Shechem resulted in the tragedy of chapter 34. His showing favoritism to Joseph built resentment in his other sons, resulting in their selling him into slavery a few years later. We have to be examples of godliness to our kids both in word and deed, and warn them of spiritual dangers.

Your nonverbal actions send loud signals to your kids. If you act selfishly, your kids get the message and learn to be selfish. Even in little ways, you need to show your children that you care for them and want them to grow spiritually. Pray often with your kids. Turn off the tube and read good books to them. Give them your time and attention. Put down your newspaper and listen when they tell you about something that’s important to them. You can and should say “I love you,” but if you don’t show it by giving them your attention, they won’t feel it. If you model godly love, there’s a better chance your kids will hear your verbal teaching about spiritual matters.

4. Be careful of justifying partial obedience. Your little compromise becomes their flagrant disobedience. You can talk about God all day long, but if you don’t live consistently, your kids aren’t going to buy your advice. You can set up your altar in Shechem, even out of the right motives, but if God wants you in Bethel, it doesn’t ring true. And kids are experts at spotting phoniness! You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to live in reality with Jesus Christ, which means obedience, even when it’s not easy. When you sin against your kids, confess it to them and seek their forgiveness. Be real in your growing walk with God!

Everything I’m saying is summed up by Paul in Colossians 2:6, 7: “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” You began with Him by faith in obedience to the gospel. Keep it up! Instead of “Forward, halt!” make it, “Forward, march!”

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a person know if he’s living by faith or by the flesh? What signposts can he look for?
  2. Is spirituality an all‑or‑none matter or a progressive matter?
  3. In restoring a broken relationship, should we always talk through past wrongs, or is it okay just to “forget about the past”?
  4. In declining an unacceptable social offer from a non‑Christian, must we be totally honest or are excuses sometimes okay?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Spiritual Life

Lesson 61: Fatal Attraction (Genesis 34:1-31)

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A few years ago, there was a popular movie called “Fatal Attraction.” I did not see it (because it was R-rated), but it was about a man whose involvement with a prostitute almost got him murdered. Genesis 34 is the original version of “Fatal Attraction.” A young man’s lust for a teenage girl results not only in his murder, but also in the murder of his father and all the men in his town. The script has lust, rape, anger, deception, greed, murder, and family conflict. Who needs the movies or TV--it’s all right here in the Bible!

You may wonder, “Why is a sordid chapter like this in the Bible?” If a Jewish writer, like Moses, had wanted to make the nation’s founding fathers look good, either he would have left this story out or doctored it up, because it isn’t a pretty picture. While Shechem’s date rape of Dinah was wrong, it was nothing compared to the treachery and brutality of Jacob’s sons, who even used their religion to trick these friendly men. After slaughtering them, they looted their goods and took their wives and children as slaves. God’s chosen people weren’t exactly being a channel for His blessing to the nations!

Since “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), this text has lessons for us. I think Moses included this chapter in all its repulsiveness to warn God’s people of the danger of becoming assimilated with the world. The nation Israel was about to go into the land of Canaan. The greatest danger facing them was not fighting the giants in the land. It was the danger of being seduced into blending in with the Canaanites. The same is true for us today:

Assimilation with the world is the greatest danger facing God’s people.

If Satan can get God’s people to act as bad or worse than those who do not know Christ, the world shrugs off the gospel. It’s even more tragic when Christians use the faith to take advantage of others, as Jacob’s sons did here. When believers are fatally attracted to the world, it is fatal for the world, which misses the gospel. Our text reveals three aspects about this fatal danger:

1. Assimilation with the world is a great danger because it is a subtle danger.

The greatest dangers in life are always subtle, not frontal. With a frontal danger, you’re on guard; you’re not as vulnerable. But with a subtle danger, like the proverbial frog in the kettle, you’re not aware of it until it’s too late. When Jacob returned to Canaan, Satan didn’t use an army or a band of robbers to try to get him. Instead, he used Jacob’s fear of Esau to get him to settle in the north, near Shechem. It was inside the borders of Canaan, so Jacob could rationalize that he had obeyed God by returning to the land. But it wasn’t Bethel, where Jacob needed to fulfill his vow to the Lord. It wasn’t Hebron, where his father Isaac was still living. Jacob’s settling on the outskirts of Shechem reminds us of Lot pitching his tent near Sodom. Although Jacob built an altar there, he wasn’t where God wanted him to be.

The Shechemites were friendly toward Jacob. Although the young man for whom the town was named violated Jacob’s daughter, he wanted to make things right. He said he loved her and wanted to marry her. He was willing to pay a handsome dowry. He and his father offered to form a friendly alliance, intermarrying with Jacob’s people and letting them trade and own property (34:9‑10). The appeal was for Jacob to “become one people” with them (34:16, 22). It sounded attractive.

Jacob thought he was in great danger in facing Esau; actually, he was quite safe then, surrounded by a regiment of angels. Here, Jacob thought he was quite safe with these friendly people, but he was in great danger. If he had accepted the Shechemites’ offer, God’s people would have been absorbed into the Canaanite culture and would have ceased to exist. We pray for the church in countries where there is persecution, and rightly so. But the greatest danger to God’s people is not persecution; it’s assimilation. Persecution has a way of weeding out the lukewarm. We who are prone to blend in with our hedonistic culture are in greater spiritual danger than those who are persecuted.

I am convinced that the primary way Satan has seduced American Christians is through television. We average over three hours of TV per day per person. That’s almost one full day in seven spent watching the tube! American teenagers view about 14,000 sexual references a year on television. Weekend daytime programs for children portray an average of 25 acts of violence per hour. A decade ago, Newsweek (11/24/86, p. 76) reported, “Many social scientists think that television’s portrayal of family life may be the single most influential factor in how we conduct it.” They cited a study by the National Institute of Mental Health that “a majority of adults and children use TV to learn how to handle their own domestic roles.”

Back when “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “Father Knows Best” were the prime-time hits, the negative influence may have been negligible. Those days are long gone! This month TV breaks new ground by having the star of “Ellen” come out with the fact that she is a lesbian. Previous episodes have featured her and others on the show having promiscuous sex. The American Family Association’s Journal gives a brief synopsis of some of each week’s programs. I was going to read a few of these to you, but they are so gross I decided I should not. But popular programs such as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “ER,” “NYPD Blue,” “Living Single,” “Burke’s Law,” “Frasier,” and many more, are pure raunch.

Studies have shown that those who identify themselves as evangelical Christians watch the same amount and the same programs as the society at large! I’m going to make a statement that may make you angry, but I will defend it: If you as a professing Christian watch that kind of programming on a regular basis, you are not a godly person and you will not raise godly children! You are being assimilated into our godless culture, whether you realize it or not. To watch such fare is to disobey Ephesians 5:3, 4: “But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”

So we’ve got to be on guard, because Satan is a subtle foe. He doesn’t usually saunter up and say, “Would you like to ruin your life and the lives of your family? Follow me.” He’s subtle, seducing us when we think there is no danger.

2. Assimilation with the world is a great danger because it happens in the course of everyday family life.

Shechem may have been good for Jacob’s finances, but it was disaster for his family. His seed of disobedience in not going all the way to Bethel resulted in this harvest of shameful events in Shechem. And it all came about in the course of everyday family living. Dinah, Jacob’s daughter by Leah, was about 14 or 15. Like any teenage girl, she wanted some girl friends, so she started wandering over to Shechem. As she hung out there, she scored big‑‑the prince, for whom the town was named, fell for her.

What 14 or 15 year‑old girl wouldn’t be thrilled by that? It would be like a freshman girl being asked to the homecoming dance by the captain of the football team. Dinah was probably a bit naive, so she allowed herself to get into a situation with Shechem where the two of them were alone. His passion got the best of him, and he raped her.

When word of what happened got back to Jacob, he didn’t know quite what to do. But his sons got mad, and then they got more than even! When Shechem and his father came seeking Dinah’s hand in marriage, Jacob’s sons told them deceitfully that if they and all the men in their town would be circumcised, Shechem could take Dinah in marriage. Shechem, who was highly respected, persuaded his townsmen to comply by convincing them that it would be financially profitable. When all the men of Shechem were at the height of their pain from the operation, Simeon and Levi took their swords, came upon the city unawares, and killed every male. Then Jacob’s sons looted the town and took all the women and children as slaves.

It was terrible revenge. Even though God would later command Israel to wipe out the Canaanites, He had not done that here. There is no way of justifying what they did. The whole incident was like an avalanche which begins with a little stone and ends up burying a whole town. It never would have happened if Dinah had not visited there, which would not have happened if Jacob had not settled there. And it all came about in the course of everyday family life. Perhaps as Dinah went out the door she called, “I’ll be back later; I’m going over to my friend’s house.” Little did anyone suspect the events which would transpire.

As God’s people, we’re locked into a life and death struggle with our enemy, the devil. When you think about spiritual warfare, you may conjure up images of missionaries confronting witch doctors or of evil governments persecuting Christians. But do you think of everyday family life? You should! The family is under attack from the enemy, and the battlefield is made up of everyday events like a teenager going over to a friend’s house.

My question is, why did Jacob and Leah let a girl of Dinah’s age go alone to a pagan city to be with pagan friends? Why no word of warning? And then, after the disaster of her being raped, it seems that Jacob was going to let her be married to Shechem. (He didn’t know of his sons’ evil plan.) Jacob’s father had warned him sternly not to take a bride for himself from among the Canaanites (28:1), but he doesn’t seem concerned that Dinah is going to be married to this Canaanite man!

Parents are responsible before God for where their kids go, what they do, and who they spend time with. Wrong friendships can lead Christian kids into terrible situations where they lack the wisdom or willpower to resist evil. Shechem was a pagan young man with no moral scruples living in a town that was just the same. What do you expect when you let your 14 year‑old daughter visit such a place alone? I think one reason Jacob wasn’t as angry about this incident as his sons were is that he knew it was as much his fault as anybody else’s.

I also suspect that Jacob didn’t have enough of a relationship with Dinah to have warned and corrected her anyway. She was Leah’s daughter, and Jacob wasn’t overly fond of Leah. In that culture, daughters weren’t as highly valued as sons. My guess is that Jacob hadn’t spent much time with Dinah. So when she wanted to go visit the girls in Shechem, either he didn’t know about it until after the fact or he didn’t say anything. His passivity was a major factor in his daughter getting raped.

All of us are influenced by our relationships. It’s normal and proper for teenagers to develop friendships with others their own age. But if they get in with the wrong crowd, it can have devastating results. That’s why it’s so important for parents to maintain a close relationship with their kids during their teen years. They need the influence of godly parents, and that influence is imparted through a close relationship.

“Impossible!” you say. A lot of parents expect their teenagers to rebel and they assume that they have to give up friendship with their kids during the teen years. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that common notion. It’s not inevitable that teenagers rebel against their parents. I didn’t‑‑I never felt a need to. If parents treat their teenagers with respect and love, there doesn’t have to be a rupture in relationship. The teen years are a critical time when kids desperately need the wisdom and counsel of their parents, to keep them from making some very damaging mistakes. Your parental counsel will be heard to the degree that your love is felt.

Thus, assimilation with the world is a great danger because it’s subtle and it happens in the course of normal family life.

3. Assimilation with the world is a great danger because it is an aggressive danger.

It’s subtle, but it’s not passive. If you’re passive against an aggressive foe, you’ll lose. We’re engaged in warfare, and you don’t win wars by being passive. Dwight Eisenhower once said, “War is a terrible thing. But if you’re going to get into it, you’ve got to get into it all the way.” One writer put it, “Casual Christians will become Christian casualties.” (John Blattner, Pastoral Renewal [11/87], p. 15.)

Throughout this chapter, Jacob is passive. He never warns or stops Dinah before it’s too late. When he hears of her defilement, he is silent. He doesn’t give any direction to his sons as to how they should deal with things. He’s passive in dealing with Hamor and Shechem, letting his sons do all the talking. It seems he would have let Dinah marry Shechem after he was circumcised, even though he still would have been as pagan as before. Although he rebukes his sons, it’s based more on his own fear of retaliation than on moral principle (note the emphasis on “me” and “I” in verse 30). If he was grieved over Dinah’s defilement or his sons’ godless revenge, it’s not recorded. At least his sons grieved over what happened to their sister (34:7).

One of Satan’s most aggressive schemes for wiping out God’s people has been intermarriage with unbelievers. Let me state it plainly: It is sin for a Christian to marry a non‑Christian. I’ve had girls tell me, “But I’ve prayed about it; I have a peace about it.” But you don’t need to pray about whether you should marry a non‑Christian any more than you need to pray about whether you should commit adultery. I’ve seen Christian girls neutralized by marrying nice non‑Christian guys. Often they get involved sexually, just as Dinah did. True, she was raped; but why was she alone with a guy like Shechem in the first place?

Whenever a Christian girl goes out with a non‑Christian guy, she is on the defense; he is on the offense, trying to see how far he can get sexually. Any football fan knows, you don’t win if you are always on the defense. It’s only a matter of time until the guy will wear down her resistance and she will lose her purity. (This applies just as much to Christian guys as to girls.) So don’t even date a non‑Christian! And choose friends of the same sex who want to follow Christ. Nobody plans the kind of disaster we have in Genesis 34. It began when Dinah went out to visit her worldly girlfriends.


How do you fight the subtle, yet aggressive danger of assimilation with the world, especially as it seeks to undermine your family life? Here are three commitments that will help:

First, commit yourself to proper separation. As God’s people, we are not to live in monasteries. But there is a place for proper separation from evil people, evil activities, and evil environments. Paul warned, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals’“ (1 Cor. 15:33). If you want to be godly, don’t choose ungodly people as your best friends. If you think you’ll influence them and not vice versa, then you’re deceived and you’re disregarding the apostle’s warning.

Paul also wrote, “I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil” (Rom. 16:19). Not many of us could claim to be innocent in what is evil! I’ve heard Christian parents say, “My kids are going to find out about the world sooner or later, so I’m not going to shelter them.” That’s tragic! I can hear Jacob and Leah saying the same thing as Dinah trotted off to Shechem. Read the Bible to your kids and they’ll find out all they need to know about sexual immorality, lust, greed, and every other sin. But they’ll learn about it in a context where the results of sin are clearly spelled out.

I’ll shoot straight: Some of you watch TV shows and videos which neither you nor your kids should watch. Some of you have magazines in your home which belong in the trash. In the context of mental lust, Jesus said, “If your eye offends you, pluck it out and throw it away .... If your right hand offends you, cut it off and throw it away ...” (Matt. 5:29‑30). He used those radical images to make the point that we dare not dally with sin. God wants us to be holy in our thought life. And that means that we’ve got to separate ourselves from the things which defile us and hinder our fellowship with our holy God.

Second, commit yourself to proper insulation. By this I mean that we need to wrap our minds with the Word of God so that our thinking and attitudes are shaped by God, not by this evil world. Unless our minds are steeped in the Word, we’re going to be swayed by the world. If you read your Bible 15 minutes a day, and watch TV for 3 hours, guess which will influence you the most!

Take, for example, the worldly view of sin. You can see it here with Shechem and his father. Neither one admits that Shechem’s rape of Dinah was wrong. He’s just a red‑blooded young man! Boys will be boys! That’s a worldly view of sin: “Teenagers will be teenagers! Every generation has to sow some wild oats!”

Or take Jacob’s sons’ actions. It was right to be angry about the sin, but they were angry for the wrong reason: They were not concerned about God’s glory. Their family pride was offended: “Should he treat our sister as a harlot?” While they were bothered by Shechem’s sin against Dinah, they were oblivious to their own sins of deception, vengeance, murder, and theft. In their deception, they are truly Jacob’s sons (34:13). Years before, Jacob should have been dealing with his own and his sons’ sins.

My point is, if we pick up our values and how we relate to others from the world, especially from TV, we will justify sins like pride, envy, anger, deception, and sexual immorality, because the world shrugs off all those sins. Our kids will learn to be defiant to authority, because TV portrays parents as a bit slow, at best. We will learn to relate to others by selfishness and put-downs, because that’s how they do it on TV. It is only when we turn to the Bible that we learn how to please God in our thought life, our words, our actions, and our relationships.

If you’re a father, I urge you to read the Bible to your family on a regular basis. Every Christian needs to memorize verses that tell us how to think, how to speak, and how to relate to one another. Properly insulated with godly thoughts and attitudes, we can be in the world without being of the world.

Third, commit yourself to proper intention, or purpose. Jacob’s sons had the wrong purpose: They were out to teach the Shechemites, “Don’t mess with us!” Things would have been different if they had been focused on God’s purpose‑‑to be a channel of His blessing to all people! This situation should have been an opportunity for witness on behalf of their covenant‑keeping God. Instead, they used God’s covenant sign (circumcision) as the means of deceiving these lost men and sending them to a godless eternity!

When we go out into the world, we’ve got to keep our purpose uppermost in our minds. We’re not there to judge the world. We’re not there to cavort with the world in its sin. We’re there to represent our Savior, who came to seek and to save those who are lost. Go into the world with the proper separation from evil, the proper insulation of biblical thinking, and the proper intention of witness for Christ, and you won’t be assimilated into it. The world won’t be a fatal attraction for you, or you for it.

Discussion Questions

  1. How much should Christians separate themselves and their kids from the world? Where do we draw the lines?
  2. Agree/disagree: Teenagers need not rebel?
  3. How should Christians respond to a crime against a family member such as rape? Is it wrong to seek justice? Vengeance?
  4. Why do Christians who seek not to be worldly often seem weird?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 62: Getting Out of a Spiritual Slump (Genesis 35:1-29)

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Anyone who follows baseball knows that occasional slumps are part of the game. If you’re the Cubs, they’re a major part of the game! The New York Mets began their history as notoriously inept. During one especially bad time, Mets manager, Casey Stengel, got a cake for his birthday. Someone asked why Marv Thornberry, their first baseman, hadn’t received a cake for his birthday. Stengel quipped, “We were afraid he might drop it.”

If you’ve walked with the Lord for any time at all, you’ve gone through spiritual slumps, when the Lord seems distant. You hit a plateau where you seem to get stuck. Usually you’re not aware of it right away. But at some point, you realize that you aren’t as excited about the Lord as you used to be. You’re still going to church, reading your Bible, and praying, but you’ve lost your first love. It’s easy for that to happen after you’ve been a Christian for many years. Maybe you’re burned out from serving in the church, so you kick back. Slowly the air leaks out of your spiritual tires and you realize that you’re in a spiritual slump.

Jacob was there. Thirty years before, the Lord had met Jacob in a special way at Bethel, as he fled from his angry brother, Esau. Jacob made a vow that if God brought him back safely to the land of Canaan, then He would be his God. God kept His part of the deal: Jacob had prospered financially under Laban, in spite of Laban’s greed and deception. Jacob had been blessed with eleven sons and a daughter. After wrestling him into submission at Peniel, the Lord had protected him in his dreaded meeting with Esau and brought him safely back to Canaan.

But Jacob stopped short of returning to Bethel, the place of his vow to God. Whether it was continuing fear of Esau, attraction to the good life in Shechem, or other factors, we can’t be sure. But Jacob settled short of the place God wanted him to be. It wasn’t that he abandoned God during those ten or so years. He erected an altar there (Gen. 33:20). But even though he went through the outward motions, the reality of Bethel and of Peniel had faded. Jacob went through a decade of spiritual slump which climaxed in the rape of Dinah and the terrible slaughter of the Shechemites by his sons.

The trick isn’t getting into a spiritual slump‑‑most of us have done that without much trouble! The trick is getting out. How do you start growing again? Genesis 35 shows us how Jacob began to grow after his slump. In a nutshell,

We get out of a spiritual slump by responding obediently to God’s Word.

God spoke and Jacob responded obediently. There are four facets to Jacob’s obedience which we can apply personally:

1. Obey God’s present commands.

Genesis 35:1 ought to encourage anyone in a spiritual slump. After the events of chapter 34, you would have expected the Lord to say, “Jacob, that’s it! You and your family have messed up once too often! I chose you to be a blessing to all nations, but instead you deceived and slaughtered them! I’m going to find someone else to be My covenant people!” But instead the Lord graciously says to Jacob, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and live there; and make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.”

That’s encouraging! God wants us to come back to Him and grow, even after a decade of spiritual slump, even after a disaster like Genesis 34! Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, the Lord is looking for His straying children to return to Him, and He always welcomes them back with open arms. His grace should motivate us to respond obediently to Him.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “It’s great that God spoke to Jacob. But God hasn’t spoken to me.” Ah, but He has! First bow your heart before Him and confess your spiritual apathy. Then, open your Bible and ask Him to speak to you from His Word and show you what to do. And then do as Jacob did‑‑obey.

One way you’ll know that the Lord has spoken to you is that you’ll have an immediate sense of the need for personal and family cleansing. You’ll be aware that there are things you have allowed into your life that have to go, because they are not pleasing to God. As soon as God told Jacob to go back to Bethel, he had to do some spiritual house cleaning (35:2). God didn’t have to tell him to get rid of the idols. Jacob knew that if he was going to meet with God, there had to be cleansing. He couldn’t let his family haul their idols to Bethel.

Here is the number one family on the face of the earth, as far as God’s dealings go. The Lord has been working with Jacob for over 30 years, and with his father and grandfather before him. And yet here we discover that his family is loaded with idols and earrings which had some sort of idolatrous significance (35:4). Rachel had stolen her father’s household gods (31:19); the rest of the family apparently had more of their own. Probably they had added a few more when they looted Shechem. Jacob had known about it, but just let it ride until now. But when God told him to return to Bethel, he confronted his family’s sin. For the first time we see Jacob taking the proper leadership of his family!

It’s easy to sit here and think, “This doesn’t apply to me. I don’t have any idols--I’m a Christian, not a pagan!” But idols aren’t just little statues you bow down to. An idol is anything that takes the place of God in your life and blocks you from growing in the Lord and doing His will. For some, the idol is career success. Everything else, even the family, is subordinated to that goal. For others, it’s affluence, collecting all the junk Madison Avenue tells us we need to be happy. Some worship personal fulfillment, even if it means divorcing their mate. For some, it’s the pursuit of leisure. They don’t have time for personal or family devotions. No time for getting to know their lost neighbors or for calling on church visitors. They’re too busy to work with the young people in the church or to be involved in a Bible study. But they’ve got time for TV, sports, or whatever.

It’s also easy to sit here and think, “I hope so-and-so is listening to this! He’s such a materialistic guy.” But each of us needs to take the log out of our own eye. The most stubborn idol we have to get rid of is self in all its manifestations. There are three things in the process of rooting out our idols (see vs. 2). First, we must identify and put away anything that hinders our drawing near to God (“Put away your foreign gods”). Second, we must cleanse ourselves, by confessing our sins and appropriating God’s forgiveness (“purify yourselves”). Third, we must change our outward behavior, which usually involves changing our schedules (“change your garments”). The way to get out of a spiritual slump is, in response to His grace, obey what God is telling you to do right now.

2. Fulfill your past commitments.

God had begun with Jacob 30 years before at Bethel, where he had made some commitments to the Lord. They were immature commitments in many ways, because Jacob was bargaining with God, and no sinner should do that. Jacob had promised God that if He would provide for him and bring him back safely, he would let God be his God, he would set up Bethel as God’s house and give a tenth to God. Although immature, God took Jacob’s commitments and began to work with him. He wanted Jacob’s obedience and worship. So here, the Lord doesn’t mention the house or the ten percent. He commands Jacob to return to Bethel and fulfill his commitment to worship. Jacob had to return to his original commitment to the Lord.

God has a way of bringing us back to commitments we made to Him years before. That’s why it’s good to encourage your children to commit themselves to the Lord, even if they don’t understand much. I “invited Jesus to come into my heart” when I was three. I didn’t understand total depravity or substitutionary atonement. But the Lord was at work in my heart. When I was in grade school, I remember responding when an evangelist at church asked those who wanted to be sure about going to heaven to raise their hand. In fourth and fifth grades, I went to a church camp in Crestline, California. I don’t remember anything any speaker said. All I remember is getting into nettle playing by the creek, having a crush on a couple of girls and on one of the girl counselors, choosing Philippians 4:13 as my life verse, and throwing a stick on the fire signifying dedicating my life to the Lord. Little did I know that God would bring me back to that same community to pastor a church for 15 years!

Most of us make commitments to the Lord early in our relationship with Him. Maybe it was at camp or at a church service. Maybe it was during a crisis, when you promised the Lord that if He would get you out of that jam, you would follow Him. It’s good to dust off those commitments once in a while and go back spiritually to the place where God met you then.

You have to do that in marriage once in a while, don’t you? It’s wonderful when you first fall in love! Remember how you felt toward each other? Remember that romantic moment when she told you she’d marry you? That was wonderful, but there isn’t anybody who maintains those intense feelings through the years of marriage. Sometimes, when marriage has grown a bit stale, it’s good to go back, either in your mind, or perhaps, even as a couple to the very spot, and renew those early commitments.

It’s the same spiritually. You’ve got to rekindle the romance you used to have with God. Get alone with Him and tell Him that you love Him. Clean out the junk in your life that has gotten you off track. Think about the things you’ve promised to do for Him. And recommit yourself to do them now, by His grace. That leads to the third factor in shaking off a spiritual slump:

3. Remember God’s past and continuing compassion.

Much of this chapter focuses on God’s past and continuing mercies to Jacob. God’s past mercy in protecting him from Esau is mentioned three times (35:1, 3, 7). The Lord mercifully protected Jacob’s family from vengeance for slaughtering the Shechemites by sending “a terror” on the Canaanites (35:5). When the Lord appears to Jacob again at Bethel, He doesn’t say much new, except that kings shall come forth from him (35:11). Everything else has been revealed before. The Lord reconfirms Jacob’s new name (35:10). He reveals to Jacob His name “El Shaddai;” but that wasn’t new; Abraham and Isaac knew God by that name (17:1; 28:3). It means, “God Almighty,” and pointed Jacob toward the fact that God was sufficient for all his needs.

The Lord goes on to remind Jacob that He will keep the promises He gave years before: To multiply Jacob’s descendants and give them the land. After God leaves, Jacob does the same thing he did 30 years before: He sets up a pillar and pours out an offering on it. Even the list of Jacob’s twelve sons (35:23‑26) fits the context here as a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness. As the heads of the future twelve tribes of the nation, they are like the down payment of God’s promises. As Jacob knelt before God at Bethel, this time not alone, but with a great company, how could he help but thank God for His abundant compassion?

Sometimes we think that to get out of a spiritual slump we’ve got to discover some new spiritual truths. That’s seldom the case. Usually all we need is to be reminded of the old truths we already know. We need to remember God’s past and continuing mercies toward us in Christ. We need to recall that in spite of our sin and spiritual dullness, the Lord is faithful, that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6).

That’s one reason frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper is so important. I hear Christians say, “It becomes too commonplace and loses its meaning to do so often.” I’ll grant that any spiritual discipline can become commonplace and lose its significance if we let it. Daily prayer and Bible reading aren’t always exciting. A person could even get bored coming to church every week, in spite of my interesting sermons! But we need frequent reminders of the simple truth of God’s mercy toward us in Christ. The kindness of God leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).

So to get out of a spiritual slump, we need to obey God’s present commands, fulfill our past commitments, and remember God’s continuing compassion. There’s a fourth element:

4. Trust God with your present concerns.

God had spoken to Jacob ten years before at Peniel, but not since, as far as the text reveals. During that time, Jacob had become comfortable in his partial obedience in Shechem. Then the tragedies of Dinah’s rape and his sons’ bloody revenge shook Jacob out of his complacency. Suddenly, he was ready to listen and God spoke again. In verse 1, the Lord brings to Jacob’s mind how He had appeared to him when he fled from Esau. In verse 3, Jacob refers to that time as the day of his distress. It often takes a day of distress to get our attention so that we’ll snap out of our spiritual slump.

But then we mistakenly think that since we’ve turned the corner and now we’re obeying God that He will give us (or even owes us) a trouble‑free life. But obedience to God doesn’t mean that He will reward us with a life free from trials. It’s often the trials that keep us clinging to Him so that we don’t fall back into another slump. It’s significant that in this chapter which records Jacob’s spiritual recovery, there are no less than four tragedies which bring sorrow into Jacob’s life.

The first is the death of Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse (35:8). She was only mentioned before (not by name) when she left Haran with Rebekah, who was going to marry Isaac (24:59). If she had cared for Rebekah as an infant, she would be very old by now, probably about 170. It is not revealed when she joined Jacob’s company, but her presence probably indicates that Rebekah had died sometime during Jacob’s years in Haran. As close as he was to his mother, the death of her beloved nurse would have been tough for Jacob. The name given to Deborah’s burial place, “The Oak of Weeping,” shows his grief.

The second sorrow to hit Jacob was the greatest of his life: his beloved Rachel died in childbirth (35:16‑20). (Jacob’s journey from Bethel toward Hebron was probably not a violation of God’s command in 35:1, which meant, “Stay at Bethel long enough to fulfill your vows.” See also the command in 31:3.) Jacob had loved Rachel at first sight. He had worked seven years for her and then, when he got cheated with Leah, he worked seven more for Rachel. Although his grief is passed over in Genesis 35, it is revealed about 40 years later, when Jacob on his deathbed poignantly recalls, “... when I came from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, in the land of Canaan on the journey, ... and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath” (Gen. 48:7).

Jacob’s third sorrow is mentioned on the heels of Rachel’s death: Reuben, his firstborn son, committed incest with Rachel’s maid, Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine. This was probably Reuben’s attempt to grab the family inheritance for himself, much as Absalom in his rebellion publicly went in to David’s concubines, and Adonijah later attempted to usurp power from his brother, Solomon, with the same scheme. Reuben’s crass sin must have stung Jacob deeply (Gen. 49:4).

Jacob’s final sorrow in this chapter is the death of his aged father, Isaac. The text might make us think that Jacob arrived just before Isaac’s death. But from other chronological notices in Genesis, we learn that Jacob lived in Hebron with Isaac about twelve years before Isaac died. But Isaac’s death is presented here to wrap up this part of Jacob’s history. It was another sorrow for Jacob, as another link with the past was removed.

While the text doesn’t develop it in each situation, there are hints that Jacob bore these trials with renewed trust in God. His renaming Benjamin in spite of Rachel’s death seems to have been an act of faith. She had named him Benoni, “son of my sorrow,” but through his tears Jacob named him “son of my right hand.” There are two pillars in this chapter, the first at Bethel where he poured out his offering (35:14), the second at Rachel’s grave (35:20). They seem to be linked as monuments of growth, the first signifying Jacob’s thankfulness for God’s faithfulness, the second his faith in God’s promise in spite of his loss. Jacob’s faith may be hinted at when the text says, “Then Israel journeyed on” (35:21), using his new name of strength. At first glance I would have labeled Jacob’s silence in response to Reuben’s sin as another example of his passivity. But again the text states, “and Israel heard” (35:22). This seems to hint that he handled this shocking news in his new strength with God. He waited until the final blessings on his sons to deal with it (49:3‑4); but then he did deal with it by depriving Reuben of his birthright.

The point is that coming out of a spiritual slump doesn’t guarantee that life ahead will be rosy. Obedience doesn’t mean a trouble‑free life. But in the inevitable trials God uses to shake us out of spiritual indifference and to keep us trusting Him, we have the God of Jacob as “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1, 7, 11). It is significant that in chapter 34, with all its sin, God is not mentioned at all. But in chapter 35, God’s name appears 11 times, plus 12 more times in the names Israel, Bethel, El-Bethel, and El-Shaddai (James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 2:348, points this out). Trials can either make us self-focused or God-focused. If we allow the trials to help us put God back in the rightful center of our lives, we will recover from a spiritual slump, as Jacob did.


There is an old rabbinical legend about a man named Simon who lived in Krakow, Poland. Simon repeatedly had a vivid dream in which there was a great treasure buried under a bridge in Prague, many miles away. Being a poor man, he finally decided to make the long trip to Prague to search for this treasure. When he arrived and went to the bridge, a sentry saw him probing around and demanded to know what he was doing. Simon told the sentry about his dreams and his long journey from Krakow.

“You foolish man,” the sentry replied. “Don’t you know that you can’t believe your dreams? Why I’ve dreamed many times about a man in Krakow named Simon who has a treasure buried under his kitchen stove, but I’ve never been so dumb as to go to Krakow in search of it. Now get along!”

So Simon returned to Krakow, looked under his kitchen stove, and discovered a treasure which enabled him to live comfortably for the rest of his life. The rabbis always ended the story by saying: The treasure was always in Krakow, but the knowledge of it was in Prague.

Sometimes the very thing we’re looking for is right under our noses, but we’ve got to go the long, hard way around to discover it. God’s place of blessing for Jacob was in Bethel, but he had to go to Haran for twenty hard years and spend another ten in Shechem before he came back to Bethel. Some would say that those were all wasted years. Were they? In one sense, yes, in that if Jacob had learned to trust and obey the Lord sooner, those years could have been avoided or shortened. But in another sense, they were necessary in the process of shaping Jacob.

We have all of God’s treasures in Jesus Christ and in the written Word which reveals Him. He is El Shaddai, the All‑Sufficient One. Sometimes God uses a spiritual slump to make us wake up to the riches that have been right under our noses all the time. If you’ve been in a slump, shake it off by responding obediently to God’s Word.

Discussion Questions

  1. Can spiritual slumps be avoided? How?
  2. What are some American Christian “idols”? How can we “guard ourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21)?
  3. How can we keep fresh at regular spiritual disciplines?
  4. How would you respond to someone who asked, “If obedience to God doesn’t result in a life with less trials, why obey?”

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Discipleship, Spiritual Life

Lesson 63: A Successful Man Who Failed With God (Genesis 36:1-43)

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Near my boyhood home there was a small cemetery that had been there since before the turn of the century. Sometimes I would go there and walk along the rows, reading the inscriptions on the tombstones. The most fascinating one was an old, weathered, wooden tombstone which read, “Injun Joe,” and listed his death in the 1850’s.

Most of the tombstones had a brief description of the person, such as “Beloved Mother” or “Dear Father,” plus the dates they lived. I used to try to imagine what those people had been like. I wondered what they had done with their lives. The people buried there had meant much to their families and friends in their day, but now they were gone and unknown, except for this gravestone and the memories they left behind in the minds of their loved ones.

While I haven’t spent much time walking through cemeteries and reading tombstones, it isn’t a bad idea, now and then, to do that. It makes me stop and think about the fact that, unless the Lord returns, someday soon there will be a grave with my name on it, the years I lived, and a brief inscription. How do I want to be remembered? What do I want to accomplish in my brief years on earth? Am I living for the things that really count? The clock in the game of life is always running‑‑there are no time outs!

Even if you read your Bible, I’ll bet that Genesis 36 is a chapter you don’t spend much time thinking about. It’s one of those chapters that makes you wonder, if you’re honest, why it’s in the Bible. There are a bunch of names which mean nothing to us and about whom we can learn almost nothing. They lived and died almost 4,000 years ago, linked together with the common thread of being Esau’s descendants. But pondering this chapter can be like a walk through a cemetery: It can make us stop and think about the meaning of life and success.

Esau, the man whose generations are listed here, was a most successful man by worldly standards. He was the founder of a dynasty and a nation, the father of rulers and kings. He enjoyed financial prosperity. He had good-looking women in his harem. He had political power. He was a famous man in his time and for hundreds of years after. And he was a nice guy, the kind who would make a great neighbor or friend. But Esau lived for this world, and in so doing, he failed miserably where it matters most--with God. He was a successful man who went to hell.

This chapter is in the Bible for at least two reasons. First, Moses was writing to people who were about to conquer the land of Canaan. The Edomites, Esau’s descendants, lived on the borders of that land. When Israel had sought to pass over their land en route to Canaan, the Edomite king refused, even though Moses promised to pay for any food or water they consumed (Num. 20:14‑21). Perhaps once Israel was established in the land, someone would say, “Let’s teach those Edomites a lesson!” But God commanded Israel not to provoke Edom and said that He would not give Israel any of their land (Deut. 2:2‑5). So Israel needed to know who these people were so that they would treat them as the Lord had commanded.

A second reason for this chapter is to make Israel and us consider the outcome of Esau’s profane life, especially as contrasted with Jacob’s life. There is an obvious contrast between chapter 36, which outlines the wealth, success and power of Esau and his descendants and 37:1, which says with understatement, “Now Jacob lived in the land where his father had sojourned, in the land of Canaan.” While Esau was out conquering the land of Edom, founding a nation, fathering kings, and making a great worldly success of himself, Jacob was quietly living in a land he didn’t even own, the land where his fathers had sojourned. While Esau’s descendants were mighty chieftains, famous in their day, Jacob’s descendants were down in Egypt, enslaved to Pharaoh.

So the chapter in its context portrays two roads set before us all: The road to earthly success, fame, and power, which can bring quick, visible results; and, the road of obedience to the will of God, which is much slower and less visible in terms of the payoff. The worldly road focuses on the things which are seen, which, from God’s perspective, are destined to perish; God’s road focuses on the things which are not seen, but which are eternal and cannot be taken from us (see 2 Cor. 4:18). So the chapter teaches:

If we succeed by worldly standards, but fail with God, we fail where it really matters.

The text reveals four areas where Esau and his descendants succeeded in this world, but failed terribly in light of eternity:

1. A beautiful family by the world’s standards does not equal a family blessed by God.

Esau’s turn away from God is seen in that he took his wives from the daughters of Canaan (36:2). Esau’s grandfather, Abraham, had made his servant swear by the Lord that he would not take a wife for Isaac from the daughters of the Canaanites (24:3). But Esau shrugged off the strong warning of his godly grandfather and chose his wives from the Canaanites (26:34). Later, still lacking spiritual discernment, he took a wife from the descendants of Ishmael (28:9).

It’s significant that there is no mention of barren wives when it comes to Esau’s line. Abraham had God’s promise of many descendants, but his wife Sarah was barren. Isaac had the same promises, but Rebekah could not conceive for the first twenty years of their marriage. Jacob’s favored wife, Rachel, was barren for a long time. But Esau’s wives bore him five sons and a number of daughters with no trouble (36:4‑6).

Esau represents the natural man‑‑strong, capable, independent, able to cope with life’s problems with his own resources. Who needs to depend on God for things when you can take care of it yourself? Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their barren wives, represent God’s way of working. He humbles our pride by shutting us up with problems we are incapable of solving‑‑ problems like barren wives in the face of promises to make us into a great nation. Then, when we call on Him, He proves Himself mighty to save.

Esau had a beautiful family by the world’s standards. He was the founder of a dynasty. To be one of Esau’s descendants in that culture was like being a Ford, Rockefeller, or Kennedy in our day. Esau’s sons and grandsons became chiefs and kings. Esau’s wives were no doubt beautiful women, as their names indicate. Their names present a problem, in that the names given in earlier chapters do not correspond with the names listed here. In 26:34, it is said that Esau married Judith, daughter of Beeri the Hittite and Basemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite. In 28:9 it reports that he added Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael, sister of Nabaioth. But in 36:2‑3, different daughters’ names are connected with each father.

The best solution to this problem is that the wives probably took different names, either when they moved from Canaan to Edom, or with changes in them over time (a common practice; Esau became known as “Red” [“Edom”] over the incident with the red stew which he traded for his birthright.) Names weren’t given just because they sounded nice‑‑they had meaning. So, perhaps, Basemath (“the perfumed one”) later took on the name Adah (“ornament,” “the adorned one”), as her focus shifted from perfume to jewelry and clothes. Mahalath (“the musical one”) took over as the perfume queen and changed her name to Basemath when she developed a formula for homemade Chanel No. 5. Judith (“the praised one”), a young teenager when Esau married her, grew tall and became known as Oholibamah (“tent height,” i.e., “tall, stately”). Note that each of their names focuses on some outward feature of beauty or sensuality.

There is another problem: In 26:34, Judith’s father is called Beeri the Hittite. Beeri means “well‑man.” In 36:2 he is called Anah. But it is mentioned that he is the Anah who found the hot springs (hence, he could easily be nicknamed Beeri, “well‑man”). Also, Anah (Beeri) is called a Hittite (26:34); a Hivite (36:2); and a Horite (36:20). Hittite is a broad term, roughly equivalent to Canaanite. Hivite is a branch of the Hittites, and Horite means “cave‑dweller.” So the terms are not contradictory, but explanatory in a more particular sense, much as we might refer to the same man as an American, an Arizonan, and a Phoenician (resident of Phoenix).

While the precise meaning of many of these names is uncertain, it’s interesting that most of the names are not spiritual, but rather reflect the natural surroundings (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis [Baker], 2:932-933; James Boice, Genesis [Zondervan], 2:356). I’ve already mentioned this in reference to Esau’s wives. Eliphaz (36:4) means “pure gold.” Zerah (36:13) means “rising” or “east.” Dishon (36:21) means “gazelle.” Only two names out of 81 may hint at a belief in the true God: Reuel (36:10), Esau’s son by Basemath, means “friend of God”; Jeush (36:14), Oholibamah’s son, means “The Lord helps.” But even these may have been connected with idolatry. One later king has a name of a false god, Baal‑hanan (36:38).

The point is, Esau’s family was outwardly attractive. His wives were beautiful women who bore him children. His kids were born leaders, talented and strong. Esau was a likable, popular man. He was a skilled outdoorsman, a man who loved the taste of game, a man caught up with the enjoyment of the good life. But there was one big problem: God was not a part of this family. Esau, the grandson of the godly Abraham, the favorite son of peaceful Isaac, was a thoroughly secular man who lived for the pleasure of the here and now. He was a successful man whose sons and grandsons after him were successful men, by worldly standards. But they all failed at what matters most because they left God out of their lives.

The most important thing you can impart to your kids is not how to be a worldly success. It’s easy to encourage our kids to succeed in the wrong ways. They may make the football team or be the homecoming queen. They may score well on the SAT and go to the best colleges and get the best paying jobs. But if they fail with God, all that stuff doesn’t matter at all. We need to instill in our kids what it means to succeed with God.

There’s a second lesson we can learn by strolling through Esau’s family cemetery:

2. Material prosperity does not equal spiritual prosperity.

Esau moved east because he was too prosperous to stay near Jacob (36:6‑8). This took place before Jacob returned. Esau realized that the inheritance was going to Jacob, so he looked for a new place to live. It was nice of Esau to be so agreeable. But, sadly, he had no vision for God’s promises to Abraham concerning Canaan. Ever since God called Abraham, He repeatedly emphasized Canaan as the land He would give to Abraham’s descendants. But for Esau, any nice land would do. He had no spiritual vision. He was living for himself, not for God’s purpose. He was materially rich, but spiritually poor.

To his credit, Esau was not greedy. When he saw Jacob after their twenty years apart, he declined Jacob’s gift by saying, “I have plenty, my brother. Keep your things.” But it’s possible to be generous, contented people, but still to be living for material things, not for God. The danger is that our material prosperity dulls our senses with regard to our desperate need for God. The Lord warned the church in Laodicea, “... you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). We American Christians, who have been so blessed materially, need to be careful to become rich toward God by laying up treasures in heaven (Luke 12:13‑34).

These tombstones reveal a third lesson about God’s perspective on success and failure:

3. Political power does not equal power with God.

Esau and his descendants were men of great political power. They are called chiefs (36:15 ff.; 40 ff.) and kings (36:31 ff.). It is pointedly stated that these men reigned as kings in Edom before any king reigned in Israel (36:31). Critics leap upon this verse as proof that Genesis must have been written after the beginning of the monarchy, some 300 years after Moses. But in the previous chapter God had prophesied to Jacob that kings would come forth from him (35:11), a promise which had also been made to Abraham (17:6, 16).

Clearly, the point of 36:31 is to show that Esau’s sons, who walked away from God, had the distinction of being kings long before Jacob’s sons to whom it was promised. Jacob’s sons were a nation of slaves at the same time that Esau’s sons were kings. Esau’s sons could have looked at Jacob’s sons and scoffed, “Where is your God and His promises?”

Isn’t that how it often seems‑‑that the world is winning, while God’s people are losing? We’ll reign with Christ someday, but meanwhile the church is often persecuted and disregarded by powerful political leaders who laugh at God. But we need to remember that political power and power with God are two different things. The world may boast now in its political power, but He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord scoffs at them (Ps. 2:4). It is the Lord who “removes kings and establishes kings” (Dan. 2:21). While it is fine for Christian people to be involved in politics, we need to keep things in perspective. Political power is always subject to Him who is “ruler over the realm of mankind,” who “bestows it on whom He wishes” (Dan. 4:17). True power is having power with God.

Esau’s kingdom, Edom, later caused great trouble to Israel. There were frequent wars between the two nations. Edom cheered those who attacked God’s people (Ps. 137:7; Obadiah). Amalek, Esau’s grandson (36:12), became the founder of a people who were a perennial enemy of Israel (Exod. 17:8‑16). There is a repeated emphasis in Genesis 36, that Esau is Edom (36:1, 8, 9, 19, and 43; also, the name Edom and its synonym, Seir, are used frequently). The significance of this otherwise unnecessary repetition seems to be that God wanted His people to see what results when a man lives apart from Him. From this one man, Esau, an outwardly good man, a likable man, a successful man from the world’s perspective, came the godless nation Edom, which often plagued the people of God. So God says, “Remember: Esau is Edom!”

There’s a final lesson we can learn about success and failure from our stroll through Esau’s cemetery:

4. Temporal fame does not equal eternal recognition by God.

In their day, Esau was more famous than Jacob. At the end of their lives, Jacob had about 70 descendants living under Pharaoh’s umbrella. Esau had conquered Edom and established a dynasty there. By Moses’s day (over 400 years later), Israel was a fledgling nation of slaves, recently escaped from Egypt, owning no land of their own. Edom was an established kingdom which had the power to refuse Israel passage over their land.

But this tour through the graveyard of Genesis 36 shows us that God, not man, writes the final chapter of history. These once‑ famous names don’t mean a thing to our world today, but Israel’s name is in the news almost daily. These men, successful by the world’s measure, passed off the scene and were soon forgotten as others clamored to take their place. Today we don’t know anything more about them than is written here. Fame is a fleeting thing.

The Edomite race endured until the time of Christ, when they were known as Idumeans. They disappeared from history in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed. But before that, some famous Idumeans, descendants of Esau, ruled over Israel: Herod the Great and his successor, Herod Antipas. They were wealthy, power‑hungry, cruel despots. Herod the Great slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem in his attempt to kill the newborn King of the Jews. Herod Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded and mocked Jesus just prior to the crucifixion.

In a way it was a replay of history, when Esau’s descendant, Herod, who at that time had far more worldly prosperity, power, and fame, and Jacob’s descendant, Jesus, faced each other. God’s side didn’t seem to be winning. Jacob’s descendant went to the cross, while Esau’s descendant relaxed in his luxurious palace. But God would write the final chapter on that part of history as well. The great Herod, like his ancestor Esau, was a successful man who went to hell. Jesus Christ, the descendant of Jacob, was raised from the dead and is coming again to reign in power and glory.

What really matters is recognition by God, not by this world. We live in a culture that worships fame. If a famous person becomes a Christian, we rush his life story into print and hustle him onto the TV talk shows. The guy may be a babe in Christ, who doesn’t know anything about the Bible, but we listen to his every word as if he’s a spiritual authority.

But the recognition that counts will come soon, when we stand before the Lord Jesus Christ and hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” The most awful thing would be to be famous on this earth‑‑even famous as a Christian‑‑and to stand before the Lord and say, “Lord, Lord, I’ve done all these things in Your name,” but to hear Him say, “Depart from Me; I never knew you.”


On the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, a man spent five years and a lifetime of savings building a 62‑foot steel yacht that weighed 126 tons. On the day of its launching, he invited a local band to play and the whole town turned out to help him celebrate. He planned a voyage around the world as soon as the boat was launched. The band played, the bottle of champagne was smashed across the bow, and the ship was lowered into the water. But it sank to the bottom of the harbor! What good is a beautiful boat that doesn’t float? That man wasted five years and a lot of money building a useless thing‑‑a boat that didn’t float. What good is a successful life that ends, whether in 25 or 85 years, if the person is not ready for eternity? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

Our tour through Esau’s cemetery is over. I hope it’s made you think about the question, “What am I living for?” While we still live, we all have a choice: To join Jacob and his descendants in waiting patiently for God to fulfill His covenant promises to us, as we labor for His coming kingdom. Or, to look over at Esau, prospering in the world, and join him in the pursuit of secular success. If we succeed by worldly standards, but fail with God, we have failed where it really matters. Whether we fail or succeed by worldly standards, if we succeed with God, we will have true and lasting success.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we train our kids to aim for spiritual, not worldly, success? Should we encourage them toward worldly success?
  2. Is financial success an unmitigated blessing, a mixed blessing, or a curse? Give biblical support.
  3. Are Christians wasting their time to run for political office or to work for political causes? Why/why not?
  4. Why does the Christian world give such high esteem to famous people who profess faith in Christ? What is the root of such adulation? What are some of its results?

Copyright 1997, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Failure, Spiritual Life, Temptation

Lesson 64: If God is Sovereign, Why Am I in the Pits? (Genesis 37:1-36)

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It is impossible to live in this world and not be hurt by someone else’s sin. You may have been verbally, physically, or sexually abused as a child. Many have been damaged by someone’s drinking or drug abuse. If you’re married, you’ve been hurt by your spouse. Your children may have rebelled and caused you deep pain. Most of us have been the victims of crime.

When you have been wounded by someone else’s sin, you’ve probably wondered, “Where is God in all this? If God is all-powerful and loving, why is He allowing this terrible sin against me? If He is in control, why do wicked men literally get away with murder? If God is sovereign, why am I in the pits?”

Joseph could have asked that question. Due to his brothers’ sin, he was literally in a pit. From there things didn’t get better. His brothers didn’t kill him, as they originally planned, but they did sell their 17-year-old brother into slavery in a foreign land. As that caravan made its way south toward Egypt, perhaps passing within a few miles of Joseph’s home in Hebron, he must have been overwhelmed with grief and loneliness as he wondered if he would ever see his father again. He must have wrestled with fear, anger, and feelings of rejection as he thought about his brothers’ cruelty toward him. He must have wondered, “If God is sovereign, why am I in the pits?”

It’s interesting that God is not mentioned in Genesis 37. A skeptic might say, “See, God isn’t there when you need Him. If He cared about you, He would stop sinful men from carrying out their terrible plans.” But even though God is not mentioned by name, His sovereign providence runs like a strong river through this chapter, carrying even the sinful plans of man downstream in His overall purpose.

The basis for seeing God’s sovereign hand behind the events of Genesis 37 is found in His earlier word to Abraham (Gen. 15:13‑14, 16):

And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions.... Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.”

God had this whole thing planned years before! Our next study in Genesis 38 will reveal why God wanted to get His people into Egypt: They were becoming thoroughly corrupt in Canaan. To preserve the nation from assimilation with the Canaanites, He put them into Egypt, where they became slaves for 400 years. This solidified them as a people under God and prepared them for conquering Canaan when the time for God’s judgment was ripe. But the point is clear: God was sovereignly orchestrating all these events according to His eternal plan.

“But,” you ask, “doesn’t that make God responsible for man’s sin?” The biblical answer is clearly, “No!” Men are responsible for their sin and yet God uses men and their sin to accomplish His sovereign purpose. George Bush (a 19th century commentator, not the former President) describes God’s providence as “that overruling Power which is ‘wonderful in counsel and mighty in operation’‑‑which controls the free and voluntary action of intelligent creatures, even when prompted by a spirit of malevolence and rebellion, so as to render them subservient to the accomplishment of those very plans which they are intent upon defeating, while the guilt of the agents remains resting upon them in all its unabated aggravations” (Notes on Genesis [Klock & Klock reprint], 2:219).

There are many verses in the Bible that show that God is sovereign even over men’s sin, yet they are responsible for it (Jer. 8:10; 13:13; 19:3, 9, 15; 25:9; Acts 2:23; 4:27‑28, plus many others). If it boggles your mind as to how God can grant man freedom of choice and yet turn man’s sin so that it accomplishes the very thing they were trying to thwart, then join Paul in exclaiming, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33). The bottom line of this marvelous story in Genesis 37 is,

Since God is sovereign over all, we can trust Him even when things seem to go against us.

There are three main characters in this drama, each of whom demonstrate the sovereignty of God in spite of their sin or imperfection: Jacob, who is insensitive and foolish; Joseph, who is naive; and, Joseph’s brothers, hardened in their sin. But the real central character is God, who is providentially at work behind the scenes.

1. God is sovereign even when parents are insensitive and foolish.

As we’ve already seen, Jacob wasn’t the world’s greatest father. He made many mistakes with his family. He allowed his wives to engage in a war over who could have the most children, thus creating a climate of rivalry in the family. He seemingly would have let Dinah marry the pagan who raped her. He didn’t deal with the treachery and brutality of his sons after Dinah’s rape. And here he is blind to his other sons’ hatred toward Joseph, whom he openly favors. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have sent Joseph into this dangerous situation. Jacob was an insensitive and foolish father.

Before we point our finger at Jacob, we need to realize how easily this sort of situation develops. Put it into modern terms: A couple has several children early in their marriage. Not having any experience at being parents, they’re overly strict and make a lot of mistakes. At that point in life they didn’t have much money, so they couldn’t do much for them financially. As teenagers, the kids begin to hang around with the wrong crowd. They do some things to get in trouble with the law. They balk at going to church with their parents. They gradually reject their parents’ values and adopt the values of their friends.

Then, later in life, along comes the youngest of the family. He’s a model child‑‑loving, sensitive, obedient. He loves the Lord and wants to please his parents. He makes good grades in school and never gets in trouble. By this time, they’ve got a bit more money than when the older kids were growing up. So, for his sixteenth birthday, they buy him a new car. How will the older children respond to their goody‑two‑shoes brother?

That’s what’s happening here. Joseph’s older brothers are a bunch of rowdy guys who slaughtered a whole village because one guy raped their sister. They don’t fear God. They’re just like the Canaanites around them. But Joseph was a good kid. Besides, he was the first son of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, who had died in childbirth with Benjamin. Joseph was an obedient, responsible young man. You can’t prove it, but Jacob may have put him in charge of his older brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, in their duties over the flocks (implied in 37:2; see Bush, p. 220). His special coat (probably a long‑sleeved, full-length coat) set Joseph apart as “Dad’s favorite.” It may have indicated that Jacob had chosen him as the heir, since Reuben had forfeited that privilege by his flagrant sin (35:22). His brothers hated that coat! The first thing they did when Joseph later came to check up on them was to strip it off him.

In the line of his duties, Joseph brought back a bad report about his brothers to their father (37:3). The sum of all this was that the brothers couldn’t even speak peaceably to Joseph (37:4). And yet Jacob seems strangely blind to the depth of hatred which his favoritism toward Joseph stirred up in his other sons.

Before we condemn Jacob, let’s admit: It’s easy for fathers, especially, to get out of touch with their children. You leave the house early in the morning and don’t get home until dinner. After dinner, the kids are busy with homework and other things. You sit down with the paper or in front of the TV. And so it goes. Your kids are in their world, you’re in yours. You’ve lost touch with the things that are shaping their lives. It’s easy to be right where Jacob was, to be an insensitive parent!

But the point is, while Jacob was not right, and while we need to work at avoiding the same mistakes, God is still sovereign, even when parents are insensitive and foolish. Jacob should have been wise enough not to have shown favoritism to Joseph and to have protected him from this explosive situation. He wasn’t, and he was responsible. But God was still in control.

Maybe your parents did (or now are doing) some dumb things toward you. You can get mad and bitter at them (or even at God) for all the wrong things they’ve done. You can blame them for not protecting you from things that damaged your life or for showing favoritism to your brothers and sisters or for being passive parents. Or you can trust that God has sovereignly put you in your family. Even though you don’t understand everything, you can thank Him because you know that He will work all these bad things out for ultimate good. You can ask Him to take away your bitterness and make you the channel of His love.

But, no matter what our family background or circumstances, we’re responsible to obey the Lord. Joseph’s life shows that it is possible to obey the Lord, even when we’re mistreated and others around us are disobedient. Even if you come from a rotten background, God expects you to deal with your sin by confessing and forsaking it as you obey Him in response to His grace and love as shown to you in Christ. In this drama, God’s sovereignty operates in a second area:

2. God is sovereign even when teenagers are naive.

Joseph had two dreams in which the obvious point was that he would be elevated above his brothers. He told his family about those dreams. Some think he was wrong to do this. I would say that he was naive. He was a 17‑year‑old who lacked the wisdom and maturity that come with a few more years of life. To have shared these dreams in confidence with his father or with a trusted older friend may have been wise. To share them with his brothers, who were already threatened by his favored position in the family, was naive and unwise.

Many times a person like Joseph, who is very competent (as his later history shows), threatens others without even knowing it. It doesn’t seem that Joseph shared these dreams to get a reaction out of his brothers. He seems innocent of any wrong motives. Even as he goes to check on them out in the fields, you get the feeling that he didn’t expect any trouble. He thought they would be glad to see him. He even wore that hated coat. If he’d had any sense at all he would have left the coat at home.

But I don’t know any adult who can look back on his teenage years and say, “I didn’t do anything dumb.” We’ve all done stupid, immature, naive things in our younger days. It’s part of growing up. Hopefully, if we have wise parents and listen to the counsel of older Christians, we’ll minimize those youthful mistakes. But we all do a certain amount of stupid, naive things in our youth, in spite of wise counsel.

But God is sovereign even when teenagers are naive. I assume that God gave Joseph these dreams, since they were prophetically true. Why didn’t God wait until later, when Joseph would have had the wisdom to keep his mouth shut? I don’t know. But I do know that Joseph’s naivete didn’t thwart God’s sovereign plan. While we should seek to live wisely, when we don’t, we can trust that God will overrule and use even the dumb things we did in our earlier years, if we will submit to Him.

There is a third group of characters who show that:

3. God is sovereign even when people are hardened in sin.

Here I’m focusing on Joseph’s brothers. When Jacob foolishly sends Joseph to check up on them, he’s tossing a match on an explosive situation. First you’ve got the darling of his father, a kid who shows up these worldly brothers with his sterling behavior. Then dad unwisely puts junior over his older brothers and gives him a coat to make it obvious. Then kid brother has the gall of reporting two dreams where his brothers bow down to him. You can see how the least little spark will set off the explosion that has been building in these brothers, whose tempers we already have seen after Dinah’s rape.

So when they see Joseph coming at a distance (they could see that cursed coat!), they plot together to kill him and throw him into a pit and say that a wild beast must have devoured him. At this point Reuben, the oldest, intervenes and persuades his brothers not to shed blood, but just to throw Joseph into the pit. He planned to free him later and restore him to his father (37:22), perhaps as a way to get back on his dad’s good side (after sleeping with his concubine). Once Joseph was in the pit, Reuben went off, perhaps to check on the flocks, while the rest of the brothers callously sat down to eat their lunch.

As they were munching their sandwiches and discussing whether to leave him to die in the pit or to finish him off themselves, a caravan of traders came along. (The terms Ishmaelite and Midianite seem to be overlapping or it was a mixed group. In Judges 8:24, Midianites are called Ishmaelites.) Judah gets a brainstorm: “There’s no profit for us if we let Joseph die in this pit. Let’s sell him to these traders. That way we won’t have the guilt of killing our own brother and we’ll make a couple of shekels each besides.” It strikes everyone as a great idea.

Isn’t it amazing how we can salve our consciences against some terrible sin by rationalizing that at least it isn’t as bad as it could have been? Compared to murdering your brother, selling him into slavery doesn’t sound too bad. You can hear them saying, “It will be better for Joseph and better for us this way.” Twenty years later, the brothers still vividly remember poor Joseph’s pleading with them not to do this terrible thing (Gen. 42:21), but here they’re rationalizing their sin by saying, “After all, he is our brother.” Comparative morality is no morality at all!

Meanwhile, Reuben comes back to the pit, finds it empty, and panics. At this point we can discern his true motive in wanting to protect Joseph: He really was more concerned about protecting himself. As the oldest, he would have to answer to his father for whatever happened to his little brother. He was already in hot water with Jacob over the matter of sleeping with his concubine. He would have assumed that Joseph had escaped from the pit and fled for home, where he would tell Dad what happened. Joseph hadn’t known that Reuben was planning to rescue him. Now Reuben would be in even more trouble! That’s why, when he hears what his brothers did, Reuben is quick to agree to their scheme. If he really was concerned about his brother, he could have gone after the caravan and redeemed him.

These brothers were hardened not only toward Joseph, but also toward their father. The old man was devastated when he saw Joseph’s bloodstained coat and assumed that he had been killed by a wild beast. Can’t you picture them all gathered around the weeping man, patting him on the back, saying, “There, there! It’s going to be all right. Remember Romans 8:28, Dad!” How calloused can you get!

But still God was sovereign. You can see it in several points. First, Joseph did not find his brothers where they were supposed to be. As he wandered around in a field, a man “happened” to come along who knew where the brothers went, so Joseph was able to find them (37:15‑17). Then, Joseph arrived just as this caravan came along, sparking Judah’s idea, which got Joseph into Egypt. You can also see a hint of God’s providence in the ironic boast of the brothers, “Then let us see what will become of his dreams!” (37:20). What became of his dreams is that they were precisely fulfilled! God had His hand on this whole process, in spite of the brothers’ calloused sin, for which they were responsible. God sovereignly put Joseph into Potiphar’s house and orchestrated the events that followed there, in spite of Potiphar’s wife’s sin against Joseph. God was sovereign in the timing of the cupbearer’s remembering Joseph before Pharaoh.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence of God’s sovereign hand in these events is the remarkable parallel between Joseph’s history and that of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Joseph was loved by his father and sent to seek the welfare of his brethren, so Jesus was loved and sent by the Father. Just as Joseph’s brothers hated him because he spoke the truth about their sin and he convicted them of sin by his righteous life, so with Jesus. Just as Joseph’s brothers sold him for a few pieces of silver, so Jesus was betrayed for the same. Joseph’s brothers sought to get rid of him so that he would not reign over them, but their action resulted in that becoming true. Their rejection of him resulted in his later becoming their savior from the famine. Even so, the Jewish leaders did not want Jesus to reign over them. But their killing Him resulted in His becoming the Savior of all men, exalted in His resurrection as Lord of all at the right hand of the Father, just as Joseph was second under Pharaoh.

Joseph easily could have thought, “If only I hadn’t met that guy in the field, I wouldn’t have found my brothers and all this wouldn’t have happened!” But his wandering in the field and meeting that man weren’t bad luck. Even though God is not mentioned in this chapter, He is obviously at work. Often when God is most silent, He is most present. Years later, Joseph could say to his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result” (Gen. 50:20). We may see the reason for God’s dealings after a few years, or maybe not until eternity. But, like Joseph, we need to trust God, even when we don’t understand. The bottom line is, We can trust God no matter what happens to us because His sovereign, loving hand is on us even in the little “happenstances” of life.


A dad was holding his three-year-old securely in his arms as he stood in the shallow end of the pool. As the dad walked slowly toward the deep end, he gently chanted, “Deeper and deeper and deeper.” As the water rose higher on the child, his face reflected more and more panic, and he clung all the more tightly to his father, whose feet easily touched the bottom. If the little boy had been able to analyze his situation, he would have realized that there was no reason to panic. The water’s depth in any part of the pool was over his head. Even in the shallowest part, if his dad had not held him up, he would have drowned. His safety anywhere in that pool depended on his dad. So he should have been able to trust him in the deeper water just as easily as in the shallow. (LEADERSHIP, Winter, 1988.)

In various situations, we may feel that we’re in over our head. A terrible tragedy hits us out of no where. We lose our job, someone dies, someone wrongs us, and we feel as if we’re going to be swamped. But, the truth is, we’ve always been held up by the grace and love of our Heavenly Father. If He let us go, we’d drown even in the shallow end. If we’re in deeper waters, we’re still in His strong arms. God is never out of His depth, and so we can trust Him even when the waters seem deeper than we’ve ever been before. If you’re in the pits, remember, God is sovereign over all the details of your life. You can trust Him to work it all together for good! If you’ve never trusted Him before, why not begin now?

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a person from a terrible background overcome bitterness toward God, knowing that He allowed it to happen?
  2. If even our sin can’t thwart God’s plan, then what’s to keep a person from a careless attitude toward sin?
  3. A father tells you that his child was molested and murdered and asks, “How can you expect me to believe in a good, all‑powerful God?” What would you say?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1997, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Faith, Hamartiology (Sin), Suffering, Trials, Persecution