Jacob, like his grandfather Abraham, is a central character in the history of the people of Israel. So central, in fact, that the Israelites derive their very name from Jacob, but I’ll get to that latter.
Jacob had a long-147 years-and eventful life. Some instances stand out more that others, but all are worth reading for yourself. His story is told in Genesis chapters 25-50. He had many adventures in the land of Canaan, but there are 3 themes if like to explore in his life
Jacob fathers one daughter and twelve sons, these sons later becoming the twelve tribes of Israel. One of his sons was Joseph, the Joseph of multi colored coat game, but his story comes later.
- 1. Jacob the dreamer
While not the first story about Jacob, that would be his birth in chapter 25, this is one of the most well known. The story takes place in chapter 28 of Genesis, and involves what is probably the most famous ladder in history.
And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:11-17
This can be seen as a prophecy of Christ talking on our humanity (John 1:14) and becoming like us in all things but sin (Heb 4:15), therefore uniting heaven and earth and bridging the divide between the two.
By sending His Son, God gave us the perfect mediator (1 Tim 2:5) between heaven and earth and fulfilling the dream that Jesus’ ancestor had at Beth’El.
In the dream, God appeared to Jacob, and reaffirms the covenant that He made with Abraham and Isaac. He promises to give the land to Jacob and his descendants,to multitude of descendants, and that all the earth will be blessed by his descendants.
- 2. Jacob the Deceiver
After the death of Abraham, in Genesis 25, Isaac and Rebekah have twin sons. Jacob, who is the younger twin, comes out of the womb holding on to the heel of his older brother Esau. This was an indication of things to come. God even told Rebekah that there would be strife with between her two sons.
And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided;the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” Genesis 25:23
As they grew up, Isaac favored Esau and Rebekah favored Jacob. It doesn’t say so in the Bible, but when Jacob deceives his brother, it seems to be premeditated and possible assisted by Rebekah (just my opinion).
Once when Jacob was boiling pottage, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red pottage, for I am famished!” (Therefore his name was called E’dom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.”So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
Seems like Esau didn’t even understand how much he was giving up for a bowl of lentils. Had he known, I’m pretty sure he would’ve held out for a better deal. Either that or he was the worlds worst negotiator.
This was phase one of the deception, even though Esau sold his birthright, that didn’t mean Isaac was going to go along with it. Phase two came when it was time for Isaac to give his blessings to his sons, just before he died.
When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called Esau his older son, and said to him, “My son”; and he answered, “Here I am.” He said, “Behold, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me, and prepare for me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me that I may eat; that I may bless you before I die.” Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father speak to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food, that I may eat it, and bless you before the LORD before I die.’ Now therefore, my son, obey my word as I command you. Go to the flock, and fetch me two good kids, that I may prepare from them savory food for your father, such as he loves; and you shall bring it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.” But Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “Behold, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man. Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him, and bring a curse upon myself and not a blessing.” His mother said to him, ” Upon me be your curse, my son; only obey my word, and go, fetch them to me.” So he went and took them and brought them to his mother; and his mother prepared savory food, such as his father loved. Then Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her older son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son; and the skins of the kids she put upon his hands and upon the smooth part of his neck; and she gave the savory food and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob. So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?” Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your first-born. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, that you may bless me.” But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the LORD your God granted me success.” Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob went near to Isaac his father, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” And he did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him. He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.” Then he said, “Bring it to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said, “See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed! May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you.Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.Cursed be every one who curses you, and blessed be every one who blesses you!” Genesis 27:1-29
In verse one, we read that Isaac is blind and almost dead, so now seems like the perfect time to finalize the stealing of Esau’s birthright and blessing. If there was any doubt about Rebekah’s involvement before, that doubt is now erased. She comes up with the plan to supplant her one son with the other, maybe she was innocent in the first phase but she seems like the instigator of the second phase.
Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him, and Esau said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” But the words of Esau her older son were told to Rebekah; so she sent and called Jacob her younger son, and said to him, “Behold, your brother Esau comforts himself by planning to kill you. Now therefore, my son, obey my voice; arise, flee to La’ban my brother in Haran,
When Esau actually comes home, both him and Isaac are not happy about what has happened, to put it mildly. Esau plans on killing his brother as soon as his father dies, and Rebekah hears of this so she urges Jacob to flee to her brother.
Jacob in Haran
In between Jacob’s trickery with Esau and his arrival at Haran was the dream and ladder in Beth’El. After leaving Beth’El, he arrives at Haran. But Jacob was either unaware of, or didn’t care, that you reap what you sow.
So Jacob goes to his uncle Laban, and there he falls in love with his youngest daughter, Rachel.
Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east.While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep; for she kept them. Now when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father. When Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister’s son, he ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month. Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful and lovely. Jacob loved Rachel; and he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. Then Jacob said to La’ban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.”
In hindsight, Jacob probably should’ve seen it coming, after what he had done to his brother, but there he was in Haran for seven years and then the rug gets pulled out from under him.
So Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) And in the morning, behold, it was Leah; and Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the first-born. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to wife. (Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.) So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.
It was customary for a bride to remain veiled on the wedding night and inside the tent was dark, so that Jacob was blind to the rise until the morning light. This echoes how he took advantage of his father’s blindness in stealing his brother’s blessing.
Laban failed to mention, over the course of seven years, that it was customary for the eldest daughter to be married first, this too echoes Jacob and Esau, except in this instance it is the elder supplanting the junior.
Jacob learned his lesson, and we should learn from it too
Jacob learned the hard way that we should alway live the golden rule. Jesus summed it up twice in the Gospels, and in the Matthew quote, He goes as far as to say that this is a summation of the law and the prophets; in essence it is the sum total of the moral law.
So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.
And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.
I’m sure Jacob wished he had been treated fairly by his uncle, but he had been unfair to his own brother. He had deceived his brother and his father, and in doing so he set himself up to reap what he had sown.
There are many examples of this principle on scripture itself, both in the Old and New Testaments;
and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.For you repay a manaccording to his work.
“I the LORD search the mindand test the heart,to give to every man according to his ways,according to the fruit of his doings.”
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.
But as careful as we should be in our dealings with others, it shouldn’t be just for fear of divine payback. We should be fair with all we deal with because that is the way of the Gospel. Remember that Christ didn’t say “don’t do what you don’t want done to you,” He said “Do unto others…” It’s a positive command to be fair and upright in all our dealings.
Jesus touched on this in His calling of Nathanael. He told Nathanael, “behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.” (John 1:47) Considering that Israelites get there name from Jacob (who later has his name changed to Israel), it seems like Jesus was making a point here that Nathanael wasn’t beguiling like his ancestor Jacob, that just because our forefathers behaved a certain way doesn’t give us license to do so as well.
- 3. Jacob to fighter
After being hoodwinked by his uncle, and spending an extra six years tending his flocks, Jacob catches wind that he’s worn out his welcome so he packs his things and leaves in the middle of the night.
Laban catches up to him ( and was rebuked by God for being angry with Jacob) and there is an airing of grievances. After This episode they make a peace treaty and go their seperate ways (Genesis 31).
Now Jacob has to deal with another problem; as he is traveling back to his homeland, he is told that his brother is coming and with an army. Considering that they parted on less than friendly terms Jacob is frightened by this news and pleads with God for deliverance. In his prayer, he remembers the promises of God that were made during his dream at Beth’El.
And Jacob said,”O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the mercy and all the faithfulness which you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I beg you, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and slay us all, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will do you good, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’ ”
Jacob has grown, in his 20 years across the Jordan. He recognizes that all he has comes from God, and his very life is on God’s hands. He is a much different person than the young man that deceived his father, and fled his older brother. He is afraid, but he trusts in God for deliverance, just like we should when we face our own trials.
So Jacob sends many gifts to his brother, and calls him his lord and says of himself that he is Esau’s servant. Then he sends his wives and children across the stream at Jabbok, while he spends the night alone on the other side.
And Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.
This is one of the most mysterious stories on the entire Bible. Here the text says “a man” and even reading the Hebrew word here doesn’t shine anymore light on his identity. By saying “a man” it seems like the author is saying that it wasn’t another dream, or a vision, or some kind of spirit, but that it was a truly physical being.
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and Jacob’s thigh was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel,for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peni’el,saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
Whoever, or whatever, this “man” was, he changed Jacob’s name to Israel. Like many of the biblical name changes, this signifies a shift from the deceitful young man to the faithful man who grapples with God and morality. This new name means “he who strives (struggles) with God”, meaning this may have been God that Jacob was wrestling, or that he struggled with serving God.
Jacob seems to think it was God Himself, as evidenced by his comment in verse 30. Hosea 12:4 identifies the “man” as an angel of God. Some people have also identified the man as a pre-Incarnate Christ, along the lines of theories about Malchezidek (Genesis14) and the fourth man in the fire (Daniel 3:25).
Allegorically, the angel is a type of Christ, and his defeat points to the Passion of Christ, who allowed his own people to prevail over him. And just as the victorious Jacob was blessed and injured at the same time, so with the people of Israel: some are blessed to believe in Christ, while others are crippled in unbelief. (St. Augustine, City of God 16, 39)
St Ambrose said, “morally, to wrestle with God is to struggle for virtue.” And it seems the catechism agrees with him on that point;
CCC 2573 God renews his promise to Jacob, the ancestor of the twelve tribes of Israel. Before confronting his elder brother Esau, Jacob wrestles all night with a mysterious figure who refuses to reveal his name, but he blesses him before leaving him at dawn. From this account, the spiritual tradition of the Church has retained the symbol of prayer as a battle of faith and as the triumph of perseverance.
I like St Ambrose’s reading of this story, that Jacob was wrestling with God and struggling to attain virtue. We should all grapple with God and His law, and fight our inclinations to sin.
Just like all the other stories in the Old Testament, there is a moral here that can be applied to our lives today. If I were to take anything from this wrestling match its this; get on the mat and engage with God, He is not some far off deity that watches from a distance like the god of Deism, He is a God that engages with humanity.
His engagement with us went so far as to take on human flesh and die for us. Don’t ever forget that.
Looking at these three events in Jacob’s life, I see three main things to takeaway from it.
- God had a plan for Jacob’s life, just as he has a plan for our lives.
- Live the golden rule. Not just because we reap what we sow, but because we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves.
- Just like Jacob wouldn’t let go, we need to persevere in prayer and in faith. We need to struggle and grapple with concupiscence to attain the virtue and holiness that God desires for us.
(All posts in this series can be found at this Page )