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7. Jacob (Genesis 27:1-35:29)

Genesis 27:1—35:29


I have preached quite a few funerals in my life — for all kinds of people, who lived in many different kinds of circumstances. When I do a funeral, I always attempt to begin with a biographical sketch of the deceased. I try to focus on some of their positive qualities and to recall some fond memories. I then go on to proclaim the gospel, whether or not that person was saved. It is usually not too difficult to find something positive to say about the person who has died. I did have one occasion where I could think of almost nothing really positive to say, but I believe doing Jacob’s funeral would have proven even more challenging. I could probably follow the example of one of my relatives. She always found something positive to say about everyone. Even of the Devil, she would probably have said, “Well, at least he’s persistent!” I think I could say that about Jacob, or, “Well, at least he’s consistent!”

One of my friends told me not to be too hard on Jacob, because he found that he identified with him. I know just how my friend feels. I can easily identify with Jacob. He is a kind of Old Testament “Peter,” with all the polish rubbed off. And yet this man Jacob is one of the most important men in the Book of Genesis. Almost half of Genesis deals with Jacob and the time period in which he lived. In our text, God will rename Jacob, calling him “Israel.” Jacob is the forefather of the nation Israel. Very often in the Old Testament God refers to Israel as “Jacob,” and it isn’t really that difficult to see why.

As famous as Jacob is, his life was really a mess. Near the end of his life, Jacob is brought before Pharaoh, who asks how many years he has lived:

7 Then Joseph brought in his father Jacob and presented him before Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh. 8 Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How long have you lived?” 9 Jacob said to Pharaoh, “All the years of my travels are one hundred and thirty. All the years of my life have been few and painful; the years of my travels are not as long as those of my ancestors.” 10 Then Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from his presence (Genesis 47:7-10).

Why would Jacob say such a thing? He was a man who was promised the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant, patriarch of the nation Israel. We shall find the answer to this question as we study his life. As we consider Jacob, we will learn a great deal about God, and about ourselves as well.

As I’ve already indicated, the life and times of Jacob receives more attention in Genesis than any other person in the book. This lesson is titled, “Jacob,” and the next and final lesson in the Book of Genesis will be titled, “Joseph.” The truth of the matter is that Joseph’s life is important primarily because of its impact upon Jacob and his sons. Thus, our next lesson will be about Jacob, too.

Our study, “From Creation to the Cross,” is a survey of the turning points in the “unfolding drama of redemption” from Genesis through the Gospels. We cannot study any of our texts in depth, but we must limit ourselves to an overview. The same holds true for the life of Jacob. In this lesson I will limit my message to an overview of the major turning points in the life of Jacob.78

Jacob, Womb Wrestler

Genesis 25:20-26

Jacob’s struggles began in his mother’s womb. Rebekah was not able to become pregnant until Isaac interceded with God on her behalf. Then she conceived, and it soon became obvious that something unusual was going on within her. When she inquired of the Lord about this, the Lord informed her that there were not just twins in her womb, but that there were two nations, and that the older of these twins would serve the younger. When the boys were born, Esau emerged first, followed by Jacob clinging to Esau’s heel. The birth of Jacob was an early indication of things to come.

Jacob Purchases Esau’s Birthright

Genesis 25:27-34

When the boys grew up, Esau became a hunter and outdoorsman. He also had a taste for wild game, just like his father. Esau was Isaac’s favorite son. Jacob, on the other hand, was his mother’s boy. On one occasion, Esau came in from the field tired and hungry. Jacob had just cooked up a fine stew, and Esau asked for some. Jacob “sold” his stew to his older brother in exchange for his birthright, which Esau despised. It seems that while Esau was surely wrong to despise his birthright, Jacob is not heartily condemned for his actions. Esau was not deceived in this transaction. Jacob seems to have done something very shrewd, yet safely inside the line of what was legal. The acquisition of Isaac’s blessing was a very different matter.

Obtaining Isaac’s Blessing Under False Pretenses

Genesis 27

This incident sets the course of Jacob’s life. It is a story filled with intrigue. There is a struggle between Isaac (who wants to bless his son Esau, rather than Jacob) and his wife Rebekah (who wants to be sure that Jacob is blessed). Both husband and wife seem willing to deceive (or at least underhandedly work against) their mate. When Abraham knew that his days were numbered, he sought to obtain a wife for his son, Isaac. But when Isaac felt death was not far away,79 he sought to pronounce his blessing upon Esau. It is almost inconceivable to think that Isaac was unaware of God’s words to his wife that “the older would serve the younger” (25:23). For one thing, I cannot imagine Rebekah not telling Isaac this time after time to buttress her efforts to help Jacob gain dominance over his “older” brother, Esau.

Isaac called his son Esau to him and announced his intention to bless him. He asked his son to go hunt some game, and then to prepare his favorite dish (this was, after all, their common bond – see 25:28), after which he would bless him. All of this seems intended to exclude both Rebekah and “her” son, Jacob. But like Sarah (see 18:10), Rebekah had been listening on the other side of the tent walls (27:5). She quickly called Jacob, told him what his father was about to do, and then proposed a plan to circumvent his efforts. Jacob was no more concerned about the morality of his actions than was his mother. His reservations revolved around the logistics of this scheme and the consequences for him if he were caught. His mother assured him that deceiving Isaac was possible and that she would bear the consequences if they were caught.

What a scene that must have been. Jacob was all decked out in his brother’s clothes, probably three3 sizes too large for him. And to top it all off, he had the skins of goats wrapped around his arms and neck. Isaac was not easily convinced. He sensed that the voice was that of Jacob, and not Esau, and yet Jacob assured his father that he was Esau. When Isaac was surprised that his son would find game so quickly, Jacob was quick to give the answer, “Because the Lord your God brought it to me” (27:20). At least twice Jacob assured his father than he was Esau, his oldest son (27:19, 24). Isaac was suspicious, but when he drew near and smelled the clothing of his son Esau, he was satisfied and pronounced this blessing on Jacob:

27 So Jacob went over and kissed him. When Isaac caught the scent of his clothing, he blessed him, saying,

“Yes, my son smells
like the scent of an open field
which the Lord has blessed.
28 May God give you
the dew of the sky
and the richness of the earth,
and plenty of grain and new wine.
29 May peoples serve you
and nations bow down to you.
You will be lord over your brothers,
and the sons of your mother will bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed,
and those who bless you be blessed(Genesis 27:27-29).

Note especially the last two lines of verse 29. It comes as close as Isaac dares to a repetition of the last part of the covenant the God made with Abraham:

1 Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household
to the land that I will show you.
2 Then I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you,
and I will make your name great,
in order that you might be a prime example of divine blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
but the one who treats you lightly I must curse,
and all the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name”
(Genesis 12:1-3, emphasis mine).

It would seem that Isaac is attempting to make Esau the heir of the Abrahamic Covenant, rather than Jacob. It would also seem that Isaac is seeking to reverse the words God had spoken to his wife Rebekah:

22 But the children struggled inside her, and she said, “If it is going to be like this, I’m not so sure I want to be pregnant!” So she asked the Lord 23 and the Lord said to her,
Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples will be separated from within you.
One people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 24:22-23, emphasis mine).

It is only after Isaac learns that he has been deceived, and that his blessing had been pronounced on Jacob that he gives these two blessings; the first to Esau, and the second to Jacob:

39 So his father Isaac said to him [Esau],
“Indeed, your home will be
away from the richness of the earth,
and away from the dew of the sky above.
40 You will live by your sword
but you will serve your brother.
When you grow restless,
you will tear off his yoke
from your neck” (Genesis 27:39-40).80

1 So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him… . 3 May the Sovereign God bless you! May he make you fruitful and give you a multitude of descendants! Then you will become a large nation. 4 May he give you and your descendants the blessing he gave to Abraham, so that you may possess the land God gave to Abraham, the land where you have been living as a temporary resident” (Genesis 28:1a, 3-4).

I believe that it is these last two blessings to which the writer to the Hebrews refers:

By faith also Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning the future (Hebrews 11:20).

I do not think that we can say Isaac gave the first blessing (to Jacob) in faith. Isaac was attempting to undermine God’s choice of Jacob. That can hardly be an act of faith. I think Isaac’s faith is evident when his devious plan is exposed and providentially overruled. It is then that Isaac pronounces the “blessing” on Esau in 27:39-40, which subjects Esau to his younger brother. It is only then that Isaac blesses Jacob by pronouncing upon him the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant. By faith Isaac finally pronounces blessings in accord with God’s revealed word.

1 There was a famine in the land, subsequent to the earlier famine that occurred in the days of Abraham. Isaac went to Abimelech king of the Philistines at Gerar. 2 The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; settle down in the land that I will point out you. 3 Stay in this land. Then I will be with you and will bless you, for I will give all these lands to you and to your descendants, and I will fulfill the solemn promise I made to your father Abraham. 4 I will multiply your descendants so they will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, and I will give them all these lands. All the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants. 5 All this will come to pass because Abraham obeyed me and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” 6 So Isaac settled in Gerar (Genesis 26:1-5).

What I wish to emphasize here is the purpose for which Moses gives us such a detailed account of the deception of Isaac by his son Jacob. I would like to suggest to you that the purpose is set out for the reader, by the words that immediately precede this account (Genesis 26:34-35) as well as those that follow it (Genesis 27:41—28:10):

34 When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, as well as Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite. 35 They caused Isaac and Rebekah great anxiety (Genesis 26:34-35).

41 So Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing his father had given to his brother. Esau said privately, “The time of mourning for my father is near; then I will kill my brother Jacob!” 42 When Rebekah heard what her older son Esau had said, she quickly summoned her younger son Jacob and told him, “Look, your brother Esau is planning to get revenge by killing you. 43 Now then, my son, do what I say. Run away immediately to my brother Laban in Haran. Live with him for a little while until your brother’s rage subsides. 45 Stay there until your brother’s anger against you subsides and he forgets what you did to him. Then I’ll send someone to bring you back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?” 46 Then Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am deeply depressed because of these daughters of Heth. If Jacob were to marry one of these daughters of Heth who live in this land, I would want to die!” 1 So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him. Then he commanded him, “You must not marry a Canaanite woman! 2 Leave immediately for Paddan Aram! Go to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and find yourself a wife there, among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. 3 May the Sovereign God bless you! May he make you fruitful and give you a multitude of descendants! Then you will become a large nation. 4 May he give you and your descendants the blessing he gave to Abraham, so that you may possess the land God gave to Abraham, the land where you have been living as a temporary resident.” 5 So Isaac sent Jacob on his way, and he went to Paddan Aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean and brother of Rebekah, the mother of Jacob and Esau. 6 Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him off to Paddan Aram to find a wife there. As he blessed him, Isaac commanded him, “You must not marry a Canaanite woman.” 7 Jacob obeyed his father and mother and left for Paddan Aram. 8 Then Esau realized that the Canaanite women were displeasing to his father Isaac. 9 So Esau went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael, along with the wives he already had (Genesis 27:42—28:10).

I find that the story of Jacob’s deception of Isaac is placed within the larger context of marriage. The last two verses of chapter 26 inform us that Esau was 40 years old when he had married two Hittite women, and that this caused Isaac and Rebekah great grief. You will recall that Isaac was also 40 years old when he married Rebekah (25:20). If Esau is 40, then Jacob also is 40, yet he has no wife. It is through him that the covenant blessings to Abraham and his descendants will pass. Where, then, will Jacob obtain a wife? Genesis 24 is a rather detailed description of how Abraham obtained a wife for Isaac from among his own relatives, rather than from among the Canaanites. Abraham also strongly emphasized that under no circumstances was Isaac to return to Paddan Aram.

After Jacob has deceived his father and stolen his brother’s blessing, Esau becomes so angry that he intends to kill Jacob. He is only waiting for his father’s death (a somewhat more distant event than either Esau or Isaac supposed). Rebekah hears of Esau’s intentions and sets out to save her son’s life. When she speaks to Jacob in 27:42-45, she says nothing to him about marriage. She only warns Jacob of Esau’s plan to kill him. She urges her son Jacob to flee to her brother Laban in Paddan Aram, where he is to stay for “a few days” until Esau’s anger subsides.

The marriage of Jacob is the pretext for sending him away from his brother Esau in order to spare his life. When Rebekah speaks to her husband Isaac, she says nothing of Esau’s plan to kill Jacob. She points out that Esau has married the daughters of Heth, and that she could not live if this were to happen to her son Jacob. In response, Isaac calls Jacob and sends him to Paddan Aram to acquire a wife from the daughters of his uncle Laban. Isaac does not seek to keep Jacob from going to Paddan Aram, as Abraham kept him from going there. He does not warn him not to stay there. He simply sends him on his way.

The point of all this is that neither Isaac nor Rebekah took this marriage matter as seriously as they should have. It was more of a pretext than a matter of primary importance. Granted, Isaac and Rebekah wrung their hands when Esau married two Hittite women, but they did not seem to have given him any instruction on this matter. They left him to figure it out for himself (28:6-9). Now, Esau is married, but Jacob is not. Still, his parents do nothing to secure a wife for him. It is only after Rebekah learns that Esau plans to kill Jacob that she and Isaac send Jacob away. The deceiving of Isaac and the theft of Isaac’s blessing is the reason why Jacob went to Paddan Aram. Jacob did not go about getting a wife in a godly manner. His circumstances forced him into a situation in which he providentially obtained his wives from his mother’s family. What a contrast this is to chapter 24, where Abraham so purposefully sought to obtain a wife for his son. It was circumstances, not faith, nor obedience, which caused Jacob to obtain his wife in Paddan Aram. It is my feeling that if God had not compelled Jacob to return to Canaan, he would have stayed on in Paddan Aram indefinitely, away from the land of blessing.

To Paddan Aram and Back

Genesis 28:10—35:29

Jacob hastily leaves Canaan for Paddan Aram, eager to be away from his brother’s anger. On his way, he came to Bethel,81 where he spent the night. During the night, Jacob received a most important vision:

11 He reached a certain place, where he decided to camp because the sun had gone down. He took one of the stones and placed it near his head. Then he fell asleep in that place 12 and had a dream. He saw a stairway erected on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens. The angels of God were going up and coming down it 13 and the Lord stood at its top. He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the ground you are lying on. 14 Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. All the families of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using your name and that of your descendants. 15 I am with you! I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you!” 16 Then Jacob woke up and thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, but I did not realize it!” 17 He was afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! This is nothing else than the house of God! This is the gate of heaven!” 18 Early in the morning Jacob took the stone he had placed near his head and set it up as a sacred stone. Then he poured oil on top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel, although the former name of the town was Luz. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God is with me and protects me on this journey I am taking and gives me food to eat and clothing to wear, 21 and I return safely to my father’s home, then the Lord will become my God. 22 Then this stone that I have set up as a sacred stone will be the house of God, and I will surely give you back a tenth of everything you give me” (Genesis 28:11-22).82

Jacob’s vision served several important purposes. On the one hand, it was a direct divine announcement to Jacob that he was the heir of the Abrahamic Covenant (28:13-15). In addition, it contained a promise from God that although he was leaving Canaan, God would protect him outside the land and would bring him safely home. It was also a declaration not only of God’s choice of Abraham, Isaac, and now Jacob, but of His choice of this land as the place where God would meet man. This was a message Jacob seized upon. God was in this place in a special way, and Jacob had not realized it until now. This was the “gate of heaven” (28:17).

The inference should be clear. There was no place else on earth like this land, the land of Canaan. God was there in a special way. This was the land that God now promised to give to Jacob and to his descendants. This was also the land that Jacob was about to leave. There was only one logical conclusion to reach from this dream: If God was somehow uniquely present in this place, then Jacob would most certainly need to return here. He may have needed to leave this place for a while, but God would protect him and would bring him safely back. Nowhere else should become Jacob’s permanent home.

Jacob’s response to this dream was somewhat less than satisfactory. He did not praise God for the blessing He just pronounced on him. He did not vow to return to this place, no matter what. The best he can do is to make a promise, based upon a number of “if’s:”

If God would go with him,

If God would protect him on his journey,

If God would provide for his needs, and

If God would bring him back to Canaan safely,

Then Jacob would make the Lord his God (verses 20-21).

Then Jacob would give a tenth (or a tithe) to Him (verse 22).

Having said this, Jacob set up a stone as a memorial and made his way to Paddan Aram.

Like Abraham’s servant, Jacob finds his wife at a well near Laban’s home. Moses tells us about an incident that took place at this well, which gives us much insight into Jacob’s character. Jacob arrives at a well in the field. It may have been the very same well that Abraham’s servant came to years before. Three flocks of sheep were lying down beside the well. The well was covered by a large stone, and no one seemed to be doing anything to uncover the well so that the flocks could be watered. Jacob watched for some time, and then he could not help but ask why they didn’t uncover the well, water their flocks, and then put them out to graze. It looked like they were wasting time.

The shepherds had a very reasonable answer. They were waiting for others who would come and remove the stone; then they would water their flocks. Afterwards, those who uncovered the well would cover it again. I understand this explanation this way:

“This is not our well. It belongs to another. We have to purchase water from him. Every day we line up by the well with our flocks, and then the owner sends his servants to uncover the well. When they uncover the well, then we water our flocks. When we are done, they cover the well again and leave. This we do day after day.”

This was not a “self-service” well. You had to purchase its water. Shepherds had no right to uncover the well and to help themselves. They had to wait for the owner or his servants to give them access to the water. They had to pay for what they used. It was perfectly logical, but it made no sense to Jacob. When Rachel arrived with her father’s flock, Jacob decided to wait no longer. He removed the stone and watered her flocks. (What an interesting reversal from the previous visit by Abraham’s servant. On this occasion, Jacob’s mother gave water to the servant, and then she watered his camels.)

This story tells us a great deal about Jacob. This fellow didn’t care about “the rules.” He did not care how things were done. If something did not make sense to him – or if it was inconvenient – then Jacob would willfully bypass the rules. Jacob could well have written the lyrics to a contemporary song, “I did it my way.” So he did, and he usually paid a high price for doing so.

I believe that Moses intends for us to compare and contrast Jacob’s conduct at this well with the conduct of Abraham’s servant at the well in chapter 24. In chapter 24, it was not Isaac who was at the well, but Abraham’s servant. The servant prayed that God would lead him to the right wife for Isaac, and then he praised God for doing so. Abraham’s servant sought for a woman who was a relative of Abraham, but also for a woman of character. Jacob, on the other hand, immediately falls in love with Rachel, based on her looks and personality, and not on her character. He does not pray before he meets Rachel, just as he does not pray after he finds her. Instead, Isaac weeps and kisses Rachel.

Jacob gets more than he bargains for when he negotiates with Laban for a wife. He intends to marry Rachel, and when he bargains with Laban, that is what he thinks he is going to get. When Jacob asks for Rachel’s hand in marriage, Laban’s words are carefully chosen: “I’d rather give her to you than to another man. Stay with me” (29:19b). I chuckle every time I read the rest of Jacob’s wedding story. Jacob takes his new wife into his tent, where his marriage is consummated. In the morning, Jacob wakes up and beholds his new bride in the light of day, only to find out he has married Leah. He is incensed; he is filled with righteous indignation, and he expresses this to Laban:

25 In the morning Jacob discovered it was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What in the world have you done to me! Didn’t I work for you in exchange for Rachel? Why have you tricked me?” 26 “It is not our custom here,” Laban replied, “to give the younger daughter in marriage before the firstborn. 27 Complete my older daughter’s bridal week. Then we will give you the younger one too, in exchange for seven more years of work” (Genesis 29:25-27).

Laban was one shrewd fellow. He probably knew Jacob loved Rachel so much that he would work yet another seven years for her. He makes no apologies for his actions, pointing out what I believe Jacob already knew to be the custom: the oldest daughter was married off first, and then the younger daughter(s). Once again, Jacob was not interested in following the rules, but only in getting what he wanted. Perhaps, too, Jacob could not avoid seeing the poetic justice in what had happened.83 He had deceived his father in order to obtain his blessing, and by so doing, he substituted himself (the younger) for Esau (the older). Now, God allowed Laban to substitute the older (Leah) for the younger (Rachel). Jacob was getting a dose of his own medicine.

It is important to see that Jacob’s choice of Rachel over Leah was much like Isaac’s choice of Esau over Jacob. God’s blessings were in accord with neither Isaac’s nor Jacob’s preferences. God blessed Jacob over Esau, even as He blessed Leah over Rachel. Leah bore six sons and one daughter, and her handmaid bore Jacob two more sons, while Rachel bore only two sons, and her maid another two (Genesis 35:22-27). Compared individually, Leah had three times as many children as Rachel (six to two). Collectively, Leah and her handmaid produced twice as many sons for Jacob as did Rachel and her handmaid (8 to 4).

There is more to it than this, however. Rachel died earlier than Leah and was buried along the road (Genesis 35:19), while Leah lived longer and was buried in the family burial place (49:29-32). To me, Leah had more spiritual perception than Rachel (compare 29:32, 33, 35; 30:8). For example, it was Rachel who stole her father’s household idols (31:19). She also seemed to be very much like her husband (see 30:8). You will note that Rachel’s two sons Joseph and Benjamin do not play a major role in the spiritual leadership of the nation Israel, while Levi and Judah (both Leah’s sons) do.

Through a very complicated and competitive process, Jacob acquired two wives and two concubines while in Paddan Aram. These four women bore Jacob the twelve sons who would become the patriarchs of the nation Israel.84 During his 20-year sojourn in Paddan Aram, Jacob became a wealthy man, largely at the expense of Laban and his sons. His prosperity came in a different way than he originally thought. For the first 14 years of his stay with Laban, Jacob worked for Laban as payment for his two wives. But when Jacob was ready to leave with his wives, Laban urged him to stay and to name his wages, for Jacob had made him a wealthy man (30:26-30). Jacob offered Laban a deal he could hardly refuse. Laban was not to pay him anything, but simply to give him the speckled and spotted sheep and goats, and the black lambs. Since these were the rare offspring, Laban thought he could hardly lose, and so he agreed.85

Jacob was not content to leave his prosperity to God, and so he devised a clever scheme by which he thought he would gain at Laban’s expense. He assumed that he could influence the offspring of Laban’s cattle by manipulating their environment. And so he took freshly cut branches and peeled them, so that they would be striped, and then he placed them in close proximity to the strongest and best of Laban’s flocks (30:37-43). From all appearances, his scheme seemed to be working:

37 But Jacob took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond, and plane trees. He made white streaks by peeling them, making the white inner wood in the branches visible. 38 Then he set up the peeled branches in all the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink. He set up the branches in front of the flocks when they were in heat and came to drink. 39 When the sheep mated in front of the branches, they gave birth to young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. 40 Jacob removed these lambs, but he made the rest of the flock face the streaked and completely dark-colored animals in Laban’s flock. So he made separate flocks for himself and did not mix them with Laban’s flocks. 41 When the stronger females were in heat, Jacob would set up the branches in the troughs in front of the flock, so they would mate near the branches. 42 But if the animals were weaker, he did not set the branches there. So the weaker animals ended up belonging to Laban and the stronger animals to Jacob. 43 In this way Jacob became extremely prosperous. He owned large flocks, male and female servants, camels, and donkeys (Genesis 30:37-43).

In my mind’s eye, I can see Jacob peeling pole after pole, smiling to himself as he thought of how clever he was. He was finally getting even with Laban; in fact, he was gaining the upper hand. Day and night Jacob must have worked at this scheme, willing to put out the extra effort because he was making himself prosperous. And then one day God let him know the true cause of his prosperity:

10 “Once during breeding season I saw in a dream that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled, and spotted. 11 In the dream the angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ ‘Here I am!’ I replied. 12 Then he said, ‘Observe that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, or spotted, for I have observed all that Laban has done to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the sacred stone and made a vow to me. Now leave this land immediately and return to your native land’” (Genesis 31:10-13).

What a shocking revelation this was! His prosperity had absolutely nothing to do with all those branches he had peeled and strategically placed among the flocks. In his dream, God pointed out that only the “streaked, speckled, and spotted” goats were mating. The offspring were streaked, speckled, or spotted because only the streaked, speckled, or spotted males were mating. It had nothing at all to do with being around those peeled branches. God caused this to happen because of His covenant promise to Jacob, and because Laban had dealt in an unfair manner with Jacob. All of Jacob’s efforts were wasted efforts. They counted for nothing at all. His “works” counted for nothing so far as his blessings were concerned, just as our works count for nothing so far as our salvation is concerned (see Titus 3:3-7).

Once again in Genesis prosperity brings about a separation (see Genesis 13:6-13; 26:12-17; see also 36:6-8). Laban’s wealth, acquired largely due to Jacob’s presence for those first 14 years, was now largely transferred from Laban and his sons to Jacob. Laban’s sons were all too aware of this and were very bitter toward Jacob (31:1-2). It was at this time that God spoke to Jacob, instructing him to return to the land of Canaan (31:3). I don’t believe Jacob would have been willing to leave Paddan Aram if his relationship with Laban and his sons had not become so strained. But now he was more than ready. He gathered his wives, children, and cattle and left without saying a word to Laban.

When Laban learned that Jacob and his family and flocks had fled, he was incensed that Jacob would deceive him in this way. He was even more distressed to discover that Jacob’s absence corresponded with the absence of his family idols (31:19, 30). I believe Laban may have seriously considered killing Jacob, thereby retrieving his daughters, grandchildren, and cattle. God put a quick end to any such thoughts by warning Laban in a dream not to even speak harshly to Jacob (31:24, 29). Because of this warning, Laban gently rebuked Jacob, and then sought to recover his lost idols. Due to Rachel’s cunning, Laban did not find them. After getting an earful of Jacob’s outpouring of “righteous indignation,” Laban pressed Jacob to make a covenant – a sort of non-aggression treaty – with him, and then the two went their separate ways.

Jacob’s return to Canaan was not all that the reader would wish it to be. God had instructed Jacob to return to his homeland and to his relatives:

The Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives. I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3).

We would have expected Jacob to return to Bethel, the place of his dream (28:10-22), but Jacob seems to be in no hurry to get there. Along the way the “angels of God” meet Jacob and his family (32:1-2). Jacob’s main concern is his brother Esau, who had determined to kill him before he fled to Paddan Aram. Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to notify Esau that he was soon to arrive. His messengers returned to inform Jacob that Esau was on his way to meet him, with 400 armed men. Surely Jacob assumed that his brother was about to attack.

Jacob was frightened and divided his entourage into two groups, thinking that if one group were attacked, the other might escape and survive. He then prayed for God’s protection:

9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O Lord, you said to me, ‘Return to your land and to your relatives and I will make you prosper.’ 10 I am not worthy of all the faithful love you have shown your servant. With only my walking stick I crossed the Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 11 Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, as well as the mothers with their children. 12 But you said, ‘I will certainly make you prosper, and will make your descendants like the sand on the seashore, too numerous to count’” (Genesis 32:9-12).

Having prayed, Jacob arranged a gift for his brother, composed of several groups or “waves” of cattle. All of this Jacob hoped would appease his brother’s anger and result in his brother’s acceptance.

That night Jacob had a most unusual wrestling match with God (Genesis 32:22-32). I must confess that it is a difficult incident to understand. It is not hard to think of Jacob wrestling. He did this in the womb (25:22-23), and in much of his life, he struggled to gain the advantage over someone. His wife, Rachel, was much the same way (see 29:8). Two things have puzzled me about this wrestling match. The first is that there was any contest at all. Couldn’t God overcome Jacob in a wrestling match? Of course He could, and He did. With a mere touch, He dislocated Jacob’s hip joint. I believe God wanted to give Jacob the impression that he had prevailed and that he had the upper hand, just to see what he would ask for when he seemed to have the advantage. Jacob is not willing to let go until God had blessed him. This is certainly progress from the Jacob we saw earlier, decked out in his brother’s clothing, neck and arms covered with animal skins. He was right to understand that blessings come from God.

The other thing that has always troubled me about this account is that God said, “What is your name?” He answered, “Jacob.” “No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:27b-28). How can anyone fight with God and prevail over Him? One possibility is that God is not speaking with reference to the past, but with reference to the future. This “blessing” that God pronounces upon Jacob is that he, the one who had characteristically wrestled with both God and man, would now prevail with God and man. It was not his struggling that earned him God’s blessing, but rather God’s grace. Jacob should now see that his struggle was not with others, but with God. We should hardly chalk this incident up as a victory over God for Jacob, in the sense that this man successfully opposed God, and won. Jacob rightly grasped the significance of that moment: he had seen God and had lived to tell about it.

The sad thing about this wrestling match with God is that it seems to have had very little permanent impact on Jacob. The Jacob we see after this amazing incident is largely the same old Jacob we have seen all along. After this wrestling match was over, Jacob did seem to change his course in one positive way: when his family set out to meet Esau, Jacob moved to the front, rather than to hide out at the back (see 23:3).

The meeting with Esau went amazingly well. Jacob found a brother who welcomed him with open arms, even though he had deceived him and stolen his blessing. The armed men who accompanied Esau seem to be those he brought with him to protect Jacob, not to kill him. Jacob strongly resisted Esau’s kind offer to accompany him, urging his brother to go on ahead, and assuring him that he would catch up. It is my personal opinion that Jacob still feared his brother and did not wish to be close to him for any period of time. Jacob argued that his pace would only hold his brother up and that he would prefer to drive his flocks at a slower pace, for their benefit. And with this, Esau mounts up and rides off to his home in Seir.

What follows is not very encouraging. It seems very much like Jacob lied to Esau when he promised to come to him soon (33:14):

16 So that same day Esau made his way back to Seir. 17 But Jacob traveled to Succoth, where he built himself a house and made shelters for his livestock. That is why the place was called Succoth.18 After he left Paddan Aram, Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem in the land of Canaan, and he camped near the city. 19 Then he purchased the portion of the field where he had pitched his tent; he bought it from the sons of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money. 20 There he set up an altar and called it “The God of Israel is God” (Genesis 33:18-20, emphasis mine).

Why would Jacob have “built himself a house” and “made shelters for his livestock” at Succoth (33:17) if he was planning to go directly to Seir where Esau lived? We are then told that Jacob arrived at the city of Shechem, and from what we read in chapter 34, it would seem as though Jacob intended to stay there indefinitely. I think it is reasonable to conclude that Jacob didn’t intend to go anywhere close to where Esau lived because he was afraid of him. Had it not been for a very ugly incident at Shechem, I doubt that Joseph would have ever returned to his father.

Leah’s daughter, Dinah, went into the city of Shechem to visit with some of the young women there (34:1). While she was in the city, Shechem, the mayor’s son, saw Dinah, took her, and raped her (34:2). Jacob heard about this incident when his sons were out in the field, but he did nothing about it. Shechem was very attracted to Dinah and wanted to marry her. He had his father meet with Jacob to see if a marriage could be arranged. Jacob was willing to do so, but this would have meant the end of the nation Israel before it really got started. If they had remained in Shechem, intermarrying with the Canaanites, the nation Israel would have been absorbed by the Canaanites, which is exactly what Haman, Shechem’s father, promised his fellow-citizens (34:20-24).

Leah’s brothers were deeply incensed by the crime that Shechem had committed against their sister, and they were not about to let him get away with it. Deceitfully, Simeon and Levi insisted that they could not allow their sister to marry anyone who was not circumcised. The same would hold true for any other Israelite woman. And so the men of Shechem consented to be circumcised. By the third day after their circumcision the men of Shechem were in great agony, and definitely not in any condition to fight. Simeon and Levi went into the city of Shechem and slaughtered all the men, taking their wives, children, and possessions as spoil. They began by killing Haman and his son Shechem and retrieving their sister Dinah (34:16).

Jacob was greatly angered by the action taken by his sons. He feared reprisals from “friends and family” of those who his sons had killed. Jacob was primarily concerned with the repercussions of this slaughter, and not with the moral issues involved. His sons put it very well, “Should he treat our sister like a common prostitute?” (34:31b).

If Jacob had intended to live near Shechem, this was no longer possible. They must flee from that place before any relatives attempted to seek revenge for this slaughter. God once again spoke to Jacob, telling him to leave:

Then God said to Jacob, “Go up at once to Bethel and live there. Make an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau” (35:1).

And so Jacob and his family quickly departed for Bethel. Once again, Jacob is driven my by a crisis rather than by principle.

More than twenty years after his flight from Canaan and his brother Esau, Jacob finally returns to Bethel, the place where God had first appeared to him. Here Jacob built an altar. It was also here that Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died and was buried beneath the oak tree (35:8). God once again appeared to Jacob, reaffirming His covenant:

9 God appeared to Jacob again after he returned from Paddan Aram and blessed him 10 God said to him, “Your name is Jacob, but your name will no longer be called Jacob; Israel will be your name.” So God named him Israel. 11 Then God said to him, “I am the Sovereign God. Be fruitful and multiply! A nation—even a company of nations—will descend from you; kings will be among your descendants! 12 The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you. To your descendants I will also give this land.” 13 Then God went up from the place where he spoke with him. 14 So Jacob set up a sacred stone pillar in the place where God spoke with him. He poured out a drink offering on it and then he poured oil on it. 15 Jacob named the place where God spoke with him Bethel (Genesis 35:9-15).

As Jacob went on from Bethel, Rachel went into labor and delivered her second son, whom she named “Ben-oni” (son of my sorrow), but Jacob changed his name to Benjamin (son of my right hand). Rachel died and was buried along the way (35:19-20). We know that Leah died later and was buried in the family burial plot (49:29-32). We are not told how the reunion with Isaac went, but only that Jacob and Esau jointly buried him after his death at the ripe old age of 180 (35:28-29).


The story of Jacob is far from over. Moses will continue to describe God’s working in his life until the last chapter of Genesis. There are some lessons to be learned from Jacob, which can be seen from our text. Let me close this message by pointing out some of these lessons.

There is a correspondence between Jacob’s sojourn in Paddan Aram and his later sojourn in Egypt, along with his family. Several details strike me about Jacob’s departure and later return to Bethel. First, Jacob went to Paddan Aram as a penniless individual; he returned with great wealth, wives, and children. Similarly, Jacob and his family went to Egypt during a famine, with little wealth, but when the nation Israel left Egypt, they came away with considerable wealth. Second, Jacob returned to Canaan with much of Laban’s wealth, because Laban sought to mistreat him (31:1, 11-12). Much of the wealth the Israelites brought out of Egypt was given them by the Egyptians, who were eager to see them leave. The wealth they were given was really “back pay” for all their labors. Third, Jacob was met by the angels of God (32:1-2). The Israelites were likewise cared for by angels (Exodus 14:19; 23:20, 23; 32:34; 33:2; Numbers 20:16; Psalm 78:25, 49). Fourth, Jacob left Canaan because of the anger and hostility of his brother (chapters 27-28; 35:1). Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt because of his brothers’ hatred (Genesis 37). When he returned, his brother and he were reconciled (chapter 33). Joseph and his brothers were likewise reconciled (Genesis 45). Fifth, Jacob had his family put off all their foreign gods (35:2-4). The Israelites were likewise instructed to put away the
gods their fathers had worshipped in Egypt (Joshua 24:14; see also Amos 5:25-26). Sixth, God brought terror upon all those who might have opposed Jacob’s return (35:5). So, too, the nations heard of God’s triumph over Egypt at the exodus and were terrified (Exodus 15:14-16; Numbers 22:3-4; Joshua 2:10-11).

Jacob’s sojourn in Paddan Aram was a prelude to, and a prototype of, Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. It was intended to demonstrate how God kept His covenant promises, protecting and providing for His people. As God cared for Jacob (Israel), so He would care for the nation Israel.

In our Lord’s day, the Jews took great pride in their identification with Abraham. They boasted in the fact that they were Abraham’s offspring (see Matthew 3:9; John 8:33, 39). Nowhere that I can think of does anyone boast in the fact that they are Jacob’s offspring. God chose to name Jacob “Israel” because the Israelites would be like their forefather. In many ways, Israel’s history is a rerun of Jacob’s life. How many times God’s purposes and promises for Israel are fulfilled providentially, and not by the obedience of faith. The life of Jacob is not a life of faith, but a life of wrestling and struggling, with God and man. Jacob does not provide us with an example of a man of faith, but his life surely illustrates the faithfulness of God, in spite of man’s unfaithfulness:

If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, since he cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:12).

Jacob teaches us a great deal about “getting ahead in life.” Jacob was a man who knew all about asserting himself, about “looking out for number one.” He was more than willing to get ahead at the expense of others. Up to this point in his life, I see no humility, and no servanthood. He grasped every opportunity to further his own personal interests, at the expense of others. His life is a vivid contrast to what we are taught in the Book of Philippians:

3 Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. 4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. 5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,

6 who though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
8 He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross!
9 As a result God exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow
—in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess
to the glory of God the Father
that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:3-11).

What a contrast Jacob is to our Lord (above), and to men like Timothy and Epaphroditus:86

19 Now I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you quickly, so that I too may be encouraged by hearing news about you. 20 For there is no one here like him who will readily demonstrate his deep concern for you. 21 Others are busy with their own concerns, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But you know his qualifications, that like a son working with his father, he served with me in advancing the gospel. 23 So I hope to send him as soon as I know more about my situation, 24 though I am confident in the Lord that I too will be coming soon (Philippians 2:19-24, emphasis mine).

Jacob has not yet learned the Christian paradox that one saves his life by giving it up, and he gains most by giving. Unfortunately, Jacob is typical of many successful people today – he sought to succeed by outwitting others. And the irony of it all is that Jacob’s deception and scheming contributed nothing to his success, which was all of God, and all of grace. The only thing his scheming brought him was broken relationships and adversity.

There is surely a lesson in our text concerning marriage and the family. We learn from Esau the dangers of intermarriage. This was a significant threat to the nation Israel, because it was through the Jews that the promised Messiah would come. It was also dangerous because foreign wives would turn the hearts of the Israelites to worship their gods. Who we choose for our life’s mate is very important today as well. To marry outside the faith is not only wrong (see 1 Corinthians 7:39; see also 2 Corinthians 6:14-18), it has very painful consequences. Let us learn from Jacob that we should not choose a wife on the basis of appearances, but rather on the basis of godly character.

I think we can also see that polygamy creates all kinds of problems. We read of how Jacob loved Rachel, but not Leah, and our hearts go out to Leah, the unloved wife. On the other hand, we must ask ourselves, “What do we expect?” Marriage was never designed to be anything other than a “one man, one woman” relationship. I am to love my wife, which means I must value and treasure her above all others. How can any man have two wives and love them equally? The choice to marry a woman includes a determination to value her above anyone else. This can only happen with one woman. Polygamy always has its problems.

We certainly can learn something about parenting from the bad example of Isaac and Rebekah. The first mistake is that both Isaac and Rebekah favored one of their children, so much so that one must wonder if the child isn’t more loved than their mate. Rebekah is certainly not submissive to her husband, but Isaac is being underhanded in his dealings with his wife. Neither Isaac nor Rebekah seemed to teach their children about walking with God and about choosing a godly wife. They agonized over the consequences of bad parenting, but did nothing to correct it. Much of their sorrow was of their own doing, because their sins were amplified in the lives of their sons.

Jacob seems to live out what I would call “crisis Christianity.” In his day-to-day life, he lives very much like the pagans, giving little attention to the things of God. He employs fleshly means to get ahead, rather than faith, exercised through humility and servanthood. It is only when his back is to the wall and he has no other choice that he seems to call on God to rescue him. There is no hint of a daily walk in fellowship with God. There are several very significant spiritual high points in his life (such as his dream at Bethel), but these produce no permanent change.

How many of us live much the same kind of life? We go our merry way, employing our own devices, seeking to further our interests. Only when our plans collapse, or when real danger looms on the horizon, do we turn to God. Only then do we pray and read His Word. From time to time, we may have a “mountain top” spiritual experience or encounter with God, but no permanent fruit results. Let us not be like Jacob, turning to God only in times of crisis. Let us abide in Him, walking by faith, and not by sight, placing the interests of others above our own.

77 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on December 10, 2000.

78 A more detailed exposition of Genesis by this author is available at the Biblical Studies Foundation Website, to be found at

79 Isaac seriously miscalculated the time of his death. He was right at 100 years old when he thought he was dying and blessed Jacob (He was 60 when Rebekah had the twins, 25:26; and the boys were about 40 when Jacob fled, 26:34). Isaac was 180 years old when he died (35:29).

80 While much of the “blessing” pronounced upon Esau is more of a curse, there is the promise of verse 40 that Esau will someday “tear off the yoke” that is around his neck. This is consistent with the Abrahamic Covenant, which promised blessing through Abraham’s offspring to all the nations. It also seems consistent with the words of Amos 9:11-12; see also Acts 15:16-18.

81 This is where Abraham worshipped the Lord; see 12:8; 13:3.

82 The reader should recognize that Jesus referred to this dream as a prophecy concerning Himself (John 1:50-51). There, our Lord speaks of Himself as the stairway, the Mediator between heaven and earth, between men and God. If Jacob was greatly impressed with where the stairway was placed, he would really have been impressed with what the stairway symbolized.

83 Joseph’s brothers realized that their circumstances were the result of their previous sin (see Genesis 42:18-22).

84 Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, give him a double portion, as though he were the firstborn.

85 Jacob later accuses Laban of changing his wages ten times (Genesis 31:41).

86 See Philippians 2:25-30.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)

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