Jacob (Genesis 25:19-49:33)
The names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob appear often as a group, because they all received covenantal promises from God and shared the same faith. But Jacob was far different from his grandfather, Abraham. Ever wily, Jacob lived much of his life according to his craftiness and ingenious wit. No stranger to conflict, Jacob was driven by a passion to get what he wanted for himself. This struggle was hard work indeed and eventually led him to the signature point of his existence, a wrestling match with a mysterious man in whom Jacob saw God face to face (Gen. 32:24, 30). Out of his weakness, Jacob called out in faith for God’s blessing and was transformed by grace.
Jacob’s occupational life as a shepherd is of interest to the theology of work. It takes on added significance, however, when set in the larger context of his life that moves in broad stokes from alienation to reconciliation. We have seen with Abraham that the work he did was an inseparable part of his sense of purpose stemming from his relationship with God. The same is true of Jacob, and the lesson holds for us as well.
Although it was God’s plan for Jacob to succeed Isaac (Gen. 25:23), Rebekah and Jacob’s use of deception and theft to obtain it put the family in serious jeopardy. Their unethical treatment of husband and brother in order to secure their future at the expense of trusting God resulted in a deep and long-lived alienation in the family enterprise.
God’s covenantal blessings were gifts to be received, not grasped. They carried the responsibility that they be used for others, not hoarded. This was lost on Jacob. Though Jacob had faith (unlike his brother Esau), he depended on his own abilities to secure the rights he valued. Jacob exploited hungry Esau into selling him the birthright (Gen. 25:29-34). It is good that Jacob valued the birthright, but deeply faithless for him to secure it for himself, especially in the manner he did so. Following the advice of his mother Rebekah (who also pursued right ends by wrong means), Jacob deceived his father. His life as a fugitive from the family testifies to the odious nature of his behavior.
Jacob began a long period of genuine belief in God’s covenantal promises, yet he failed to live in confidence of what God would do for him. Mature, godly people who have learned to let their faith transform their choices (and not the other way around) are in a position to serve out of their strength. Courageous and astute decisions that result in success may be rightly praised for their sheer effectiveness. But when profit comes at the expense of exploiting and deceiving others, something is wrong. Beyond the fact that unethical methods are wrong in themselves, they also may reveal the fundamental fears of those who employ them. Jacob’s relentless drive to gain benefits for himself reveals how his fears made him resistant to God’s transforming grace. To the extent we come to believe in God’s promises, we will be less inclined toward manipulating circumstances to benefit ourselves; we always need to be aware of how readily we can fool even ourselves about the purity of our motives.
In escaping from Esau, Jacob ended up at the family farm of Laban, his mother’s brother. Jacob worked for Laban for twenty-one frustrating years, during which Laban broke a string of promises to him. Despite this, Jacob succeeded in marrying two of Laban’s daughters and starting a family. Jacob wanted to return home, but Laban convinced him to stay on and work for him with the promise that he could “name [his own] wages” (Gen. 30:28). Clearly Jacob had been a good worker, and Laban had been blessed through his association with Jacob.
During this time Jacob had learned the trade of breeding animals, and he used this skill to get back at Laban. Through his breeding techniques, he was able to gain a great deal of wealth at Laban’s expense. It got to the point that Laban’s sons were complaining that “Jacob has taken all that was our father's; he has gained all this wealth from what belonged to our father” (Gen. 31:1-2). Jacob noticed that Laban’s attitude toward him was not what it had been. Yet Jacob claimed the gain as a gift from God, saying, “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty-handed” (Gen. 31:42).
Jacob felt that he had been dealt with poorly by Laban. His response, through his schemes, was to make yet another enemy, similar to the way he had exploited Esau. This is a repeated pattern in Jacob’s life. It seems that anything was fair game, and although he ostensibly gave God the credit, it is clear that he did these things as a schemer. We don’t see much integration of his faith with his work at this point, and it is interesting that when Hebrews recognizes Jacob as a man of faith, it mentions only his actions at the end of his life (Heb. 11:21).
After increasing tension with his father-in-law and a business separation in which both men acted less than admirably, Jacob left Laban. Having obtained his position by Laban's dirty trick years ago, Jacob now saw an opportunity to legitimize his position by coming to an agreement with his estranged brother Esau. But he expected the negotiations to be tense. Wracked with fear that Esau would come to the meeting with his four hundred armed men, Jacob split his family and animals into two groups to help ensure some measure of survival. He prayed for protection and sent an enormous gift of animals on ahead of him to pacify Esau before the encounter. But the night before he arrived at the meeting point, the trickster Jacob was visited by a shadowy figure out to surprise him. God himself attacked him in the form of a strongman, against whom Jacob was forced to wrestle all night. God, it turns out, is not only the God of worship and religion, but the God of work and family enterprises, and he is not above turning the tables on a slippery operator like Jacob. He pressed his advantage to the point of permanently injuring Jacob’s hip, yet Jacob in his weakness said that he would not give up until his attacker had blessed him.
In this interview with Larry Linenschmidt at the Hill Country Institute in Austin, Texas, Katherine Leary Alsdorf speaks freely about struggling with failure. She credits the gospel with changing everything — her life and career.
This became the turning point of Jacob’s life. He had known years of struggling with people, yet all along Jacob had also been struggling in his relationship with God. Here at last, he met God and received his blessing amid the struggle. Jacob received a new name, Israel, and even renamed the location to honor the fact that there he had seen God face to face (Gen. 32:30). The once-ominous meeting with Esau followed in the morning and contradicted Jacob’s fearful expectation in the most delightful way imaginable. Esau ran to Jacob and embraced him. Esau graciously tried to refuse Jacob's gifts, though Jacob insisted he take them. A transformed Jacob said to Esau, “Truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).
The ambiguous identity of Jacob’s wrestling opponent is a deliberate feature of the story. It highlights the inseparable elements of Jacob’s struggling with both God and man. Jacob models for us a truth at the core of our faith: our relationships with God and people are linked. Our reconciliation with God makes possible our reconciliation with others. Likewise, in that human reconciliation, we come to see and know God better. The work of reconciliation applies to families, friends, churches, companies, even people groups and nations. Christ alone can be our peace, but we are his ambassadors for it. Springing from God’s initial promise to Abraham, this is a blessing that ought to touch the whole world.