Updated: Oct 26, 2022
Reflections on the Life and Transformation of the Patriarch Jacob
By Richard Allen – October 24, 2022
The Patriarch Jacob is one of the most colorful characters in all the Bible. His name actually means “grabber,” or “supplanter” in Hebrew. Yet in spite of his name, he was one of the chosen ones whom God blessed and whose name was later changed by God to Israel! Let me use two verses from Genesis in the Old Testament, and Hebrews in the New Testament to define the parameters of Jacob’s life-long transformation. In God’s purpose, He changed Jacob from a “deal-making self-sufficient Grabber” to a “faithful, dependent on God Leaner!” First, the birth of Jacob and his twin brother Esau happened this way:
“And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out with his hand grabbing Esau's heel, so his name was called Jacob (literally the grabber). Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them” (Genesis 25:21-26).
These verses from Genesis 25 mark the beginning of Jacob’s life, striving with brother Esau, the firstborn. No surprise here, he had been grabbing and wrestling with his brother in the womb. Now, look at a verse marking the end of his life:
“By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff” (Hebrews 11:21).
The irony in these two passages is, that Jacob’s behavior at birth toward his older brother, Esau, defines a major portion of his life. He was a “grabber, a manipulator, a deal maker” and not always above board in his dealings. As we look at the later passage in Hebrews, as Jacob was dying at the ripe old age of 147, his behavior was quite different. He was no longer the deal maker from previous years, but a humble man of faith resigned to trust God, even after he had been relocated into the land of Egypt – a land that was not his home. The story of God transforming Jacob is a major theme in the Book of Genesis. It is also the story of his maturing faith and how the Patriarch Jacob became Israel.
Immediately, let me respond to those skeptical of the interpretation given by the writer of Hebrews regarding Jacob leaning on his staff (Hebrews 11:21). They point out that the writer of Hebrews was quoting from Genesis 47:31 where the Old Testament (Hebrew) text actually says: “Then Israel bowed himself upon the head of his bed.” The fact is, both the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) that was quoted most by New Testament writers and by the writer of Hebrews clearly state that “Jacob worshipped, leaning on his staff.” For those who trust Scripture, this should settle the debate. I have long been guided by the rule: “The Old Testament is the New concealed, and the New Testament is the Old revealed.” The editorial committee for the New International Version of the Holy Bible thought the interpretation given by the inspired writer of Hebrews (using the same word in the Septuagint), adequate to translate Genesis 47:31 – Staff!
So, why would the writer of Hebrews bother to mention: “By faith, Jacob, while dying, blessed the sons of Joseph – leaning on his staff” – all in the context of Hebrews Chapter 11? This chapter, often called “Faith’s Hall of Fame” is filled with miraculous and trying achievements by faithful saints in the Old Testament. So, what was so special about Jacob, by faith blessing the two sons of Joseph – while leaning on His staff? In order to answer this question, we need to review the prior events of Jacob’s life in the context of his all too human beginning as a grabber-swindler-wheeler-dealer trying to make his way in this world by fulfilling God’s purposes through the flesh, by hook or by crook!
The irony of it is that Rebecca was told that her two sons would be two nations – Edom and Israel – and that God’s actual plan was to have the older son serve the younger. This prophecy, as quoted above, given to Rebecca was no doubt understood in their family – at least by Rebecca and Jacob – and most likely by Isaac and Esau as well. Talk about dysfunctional families, here are two parents, each choosing a favorite son to promote, hoping for God’s blessing. The major events of Esau’s and Jacob’s lives appear to reveal the differences in their personalities and focus. Esau was a hunter, a man of the world who stalked wild game and provided meat for the table through his physical prowess. On the other hand, Jacob’s heart oriented him to stay close to home, his focus being husbandry and raising livestock. In the Biblical narrative, Jacob was the offspring whom God loved and chose to bless, to be the covenant bearer in fulfillment of promises first given to Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. But Jacob didn’t pursue God’s purposes in an honorable way, which is God’s way. Jacob’s grandfather Abraham also made similar mistakes. Abraham clearly understood God’s promise that by his seed: “All the nations of the earth would be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). So, Abraham tried to accomplish God’s purposes through fleshly means – and ended up bringing a godless man, Ishmael, into the world.
Having learned that “the older would serve the younger” from his mother Rebecca, Jacob also pursued God’s purpose through worldly means. Rather than waiting for God, Jacob the grabber tried using deceit and temptation to accomplish God’s plan. We first see this is in Jacob taking advantage of his brother’s lusty appetites for worldly things, tempting him with a “red stew” – all to manipulate Esau into giving up his birthright. Apparently, Esau was not always successful in his fleshly pursuits – and on those occasions he came home weary and famished – with no wild game to prepare. It was just such an occasion in which Jacob tempted him, offering some type of red lentil stew:
“Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom). Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34).
While both Old and New Testament Scripture condemns Esau for “despising his birthright” (see Hebrews 12:16-17), Jacob taking advantage of Esau does not speak well of him, but rather sets Jacob on a collision course wherein God will providentially transform Jacob from a Grabber to a Leaner. The irony is that Jacob would end up facing the same type of deceit from his father-in-law, as Laban lied and cheated him for the next 20 years of his life. This is what I call: Reciprocal Providence. God was still working to fulfill His purpose through a broken instrument such as Jacob, but in the process, God took Jacob through His providential school of “hard knocks” to learn three spiritual lessons: 1.) How I behave toward others will come back on me with a vengeance. And, 2.) If I’m to fulfill God’s purposes, I will need to do things God’s way – and not through human means. Finally, 3.) Even if I act in the flesh using human means, God can still use my poor choices for His purpose and glory.
Without slamming Isaac, it certainly appears that his affection for his son Esau didn’t come from spiritual considerations. Rather, it sure looks like Isaac favored Esau because he was a “man’s-man,” a “mighty hunter” who regularly brought him wild game to eat, most likely sharing with dad the exploits of his hunts. How often I’ve seen this in my own life, as well as the lives of other parents, living vicariously through the lives our children. Jacob was more of a man given to husbandry, that is raising flocks of livestock. While Scripture doesn’t clearly spell it out, it would be hard to imagine that Rebecca would not have shared God’s revelation to her that “the older would serve the younger” with her husband (Genesis 25:23). This begs the question: “Why was Isaac anxious to “give Esau the blessing?” The simple answer might be how their culture established expectations for father and son regarding the “first-born” and Isaac’s desire to bless him and fulfill his status as primo-geniture (first born).
As the story unfolds, we read of mother Rebecca working behind the scenes with Jacob to redirect Isaac’s blessing to Jacob, using animal skins to make Jacob’s arms feel like his older “hairy brother.” This was done to dupe an elderly half-blind father (Isaac) into giving Jacob the blessing of the first born (Genesis 27:1 to 28:5). This is the breaking point, as the family is fractured, and afterward Jacob is sent to his mother’s brother, Laban. Jacob clearly knew that “he’d done his brother wrong,” as we see him fearfully making plans to return home 20 years later (Genesis 32:6-8). But for now, Jacob is still “wheelin’ and dealin,’ ” still grabbing as he seeks to use human means to bring about God’s covenant blessing. Little does he know, he’d also been enrolled in God’s school of “reciprocal providence,” where he would ultimately find out, that God: “Uses all things to accomplish His will in our lives – even our sins” (Romans 8:28). However, there will be a cost for this advanced education. I’m sure Jacob thought that he was just “grabbing for the brass ring” once more as he fled, fearing Esau’s anger. But as he propped up a stone for a pillow at a place that he later called Bethel – “the House of God” (Genesis 28:10-22) – God appeared to him in an amazing dream. For the first time, Jacob must have realized that God himself was directing his education – using real life courses that would transform him from a Grabber to a Leaner!
Next, we’ll look at more of Jacob’s amazing transformation as his education in God’s school continues.