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Jacob's Transformation

Jacob wresting with angel

by Dennis Pollock

In many ways Jacob is not a particularly likeable character. He wore his weaknesses on his sleeves, and he didn’t seem, at least in his early years, to have the ability to win friends and influence people. Jacob certainly would never have won any “parent of the year” awards. Yet this man is considered a patriarch of Israel, and was given one of the greatest and most puzzling commendations ever given to any Biblical character: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (Romans 9:13). Indeed this was God’s stated position even before Jacob’s and Esau’s births.

When we look at the Scriptures’ descriptions of Jacob and his brother Esau, we find little to recommend such a commendation. The Bible describes Esau as “a skillful hunter, a man of the field,” whereas Jacob is called “a mild man, dwelling in tents.” Esau was the outdoorsman, a real man’s man who would have greeted you with a firm handshake, looked you squarely in the eyes when he talked to you, and been a great fellow to have around in an emergency. Esau was good with his hands (and probably his fists) and was the pride of his daddy, Isaac.

Jacob, on the other hand, was more of a momma’s boy, and today we might have labeled him something of a nerd. He was quiet, thoughtful, and more than a little sneaky. Quiet reflection was far more appealing to him than rugged adventure. Had he lived today he would probably have shunned sports and been more at home in the library than at the football game. He would not have impressed most people on first sight, or any multiple sights after that. But his momma loved her rather timid son, and identified with him far more than the rugged Esau.

God's Preference

God’s preference for Jacob had little to do with the basic moral principles of the two brothers. It would have been much easier to understand if Jacob were a model of virtue, constantly sharing his goods with the poor, visiting the sick, and driving little old ladies to the hospital (in an ox-drawn cart, of course!). It would have made sense if, in contrast, Esau spent his days beating up old men, kicking dogs, and making lewd comments to the young ladies of his neighborhood. The Scriptures do not give us any such impression. If anything, Jacob seems more devious and, in some respects, less virtuous than Esau. His name meant “deceiver” and he fully lived up to it. All of this makes God’s proclamation of love and preference for Jacob all the more confusing.

It would be confusing, that is, if it were not for the fact that the Scriptures tell us plainly what it was about Esau that brought God’s disfavor. We find in the Genesis record that Esau, after one of his long, arduous hunting trips, came back home famished. There was his nerdy brother cooking up a delicious pot of lentil stew (lentils may not sound that exciting to you, but to ravenous Esau they looked like a juicy steak). Esau begged his brother for some of the stew, but Jacob saw an opportunity for a quick and easy profit, and didn’t yield the stew without first engaging his brother in a round of “Let’s make a Deal.”

He asked for the birthright, the privilege of a double portion of his father’s inheritance, which always went to the firstborn. (Even though the boys were twins, firstborn status went to the one that exited first.) The fact that Jacob immediately asked for such a prize indicates he had been thinking about this for some time. The privilege of the firstborn was something he coveted, and here was his chance. Esau took the bait. “Look, I am about to die, so what is this birthright to me?” Of course he wasn’t truly starving, but to impulsive Esau, his present hunger outweighed any future benefits of the right of firstborn. The agreement was made, Esau got himself a bowl of beans, and Jacob was now considered firstborn.

What's Missing?

There is something distinctly missing from the story. There is no regret mentioned. Most of us have done some pretty stupid things and made some bad bargains. But almost always, we quickly realized our foolishness and asked ourselves that terrible question, “What have I done?” There was no such question from Esau. The Bible simply tells us that Esau “ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34).

It would seem that this rugged outdoorsman had grown too self-sufficient. He was a hunter, game was plentiful – what need had he with papa’s inheritance? He could make his way in this world. Let Jacob have the double portion. By his wits and his hands he would end up with far more than his wimpy brother, regardless. “Profane” is a word we rarely use anymore. We do sometimes hear the term “profanity,” and in the minds of most people, profanity is the using of crude language. But the Bible tags Esau with the label of profane for a different reason:

… looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. (Hebrews 12:15,16)

We have two descriptions that reveal Esau’s basic problem. First he “despised his birthright,” and secondly he was a “profane person.” Esau simply had no use for a special blessing that should have been his. And God had no use for such a man. Esaus have always abounded, and can be seen in every church today. They are decent men, hard working providers for their families, and quick to volunteer for physical duties around the church. They know all the latest ball game scores, can tell a great joke, but tend to fall asleep in church.

In many ways they are like a spiritual version of grits. (You non-southerners may not know what grits are, but essentially grits are a tasteless corn product which is amazingly popular down south.) Esaus are not opposed to the things of the Spirit; they simply have no heart for them. They don’t mind going to church as long as no one actually expects them to be fervent in their faith. They are happier at the baseball game or the fish fry than during the worship time or in the prayer meeting. And if the time ever comes when they must choose between lentils and birthrights, lentils will prevail every time.

Jacob’s Development

Jacob was no Mother Teresa. He was greedy, he was sneaky, and he was devious. But he did have enough sense to want God’s best for his life. Later we read that he and his mom conspired together to deceive his father and receive the patriarchal blessing that would have gone Esau. His motives were all wrong and his methods were carnal. But with all his imperfections he was not profane. He valued birthrights over beans, God’s blessings over the earth’s bounty.

He did not go unpunished. It is both humorous and pathetic, that, in God’s timing, his mother sends him away before Esau can murder him, telling him, “Arise, flee to my brother Laban in Haran, and stay with him a few days until your brother’s fury turns away” (Genesis 27:43,44). Rebekah’s “few days” turned out to be twenty years, and these were not particularly fun years. Jacob, the deceiver, discovers Laban, the mega-deceiver. Jacob had been only an amateur; Laban was world class in the deception game. Jacob first got a taste of what he was in for on the morning following his wedding night to Rachel, the love of his life. At least he thought he was getting married to Rachel. After working seven years for his beloved their wedding night finally arrived. As the morning light first entered their tent, to his horror Jacob realized that his night of love and passion had been with Rachel’s rather plain sister, Leah. (Jacob was obviously not much of a communicator, at least in the bedroom, to have only found this out in the morning!)

Running to Laban he was told it was “not the custom” of his people to give the younger daughter first in marriage before the elder one was married. If Jacob was to have his sweetie, he would have to work another seven years for her. Mr. Deceiver, meet Mega-deceiver. God so often works on our flaws by exposing us to someone, perhaps a boss or fellow worker, who has the same flaws as we have, only in far greater measure. With our every complaint we are reminding ourselves of the work needed to be done in our own hearts and lives. During Jacob’s twenty years with Laban he is cheated and tricked in every possible way. After God finally gives him permission to leave, Laban catches up with him, and Jacob pours out the frustrations of twenty years of deception:

"These twenty years I have been with you … That which was torn by beasts I did not bring to you; I bore the loss of it. You required it from my hand, whether stolen by day or stolen by night. There I was! In the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep departed from my eyes. Thus I have been in your house twenty years; I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times.” (Genesis 31:38-41)

Scholarship

Because he was truly loved and called by God, he had been given a free, tuition paid scholarship to that college which every man and woman of God must attend before fulfilling their mission – Hard Times University. The lessons were painful, the curriculum was tough, but in the end God accomplished his purposes. Jacob’s graduation exercises occurred on his way back home. His brother Esau is riding to meet him with 400 armed men. Fearful for his life, Jacob divides his wives, slaves, and livestock into two camps, and then spends some time in prayer. His prayer time is interrupted when the angel of the Lord appears, and a strange wrestling match ensues.

All night long the two go at it. At one point the angel, just to let Jacob know that the only reason the match continues is because he is allowing it, touches Jacob’s thigh and renders his leg useless by putting it out of joint. Jacob still refuses to surrender. Finally it is morning and the angel decides it is time to leave. But Jacob will not let go. He clings stubbornly to his opponent with all his might. “I will not let you go unless You bless me!”

Prince with God

In some ways Jacob has not changed. He still wants all the blessings of God he can get. But after twenty years he has learned a vital lesson. You don’t get God’s best by deceiving others; they come when you go straight to the source. This time there was no deceit, just a dogged clinging to the One who is the Source of all blessing. The angel asks him a strange question: “What is your name?” Now the angel was not suffering from memory loss here. He wanted Jacob to say it. Jacob, after twenty years of painful self discovery, did not hesitate. “My name is Jacob (deceiver).” This was no self-esteem problem. He simply knew who he was – and he confessed it.

The angel of the Lord informs him that his graduation day has come. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob (deceiver), but Israel (Prince with God), for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). The story of Jacob and Esau reveals that perhaps the sin that is more damning than any other is the rather colorless sin of apathy. The man or woman whose heart is so full of the pleasures of life that it has no room for the things of Christ Jesus is in the most dangerous place of all.

We may begin, as Jacob did, with faulty motives and lousy methods. But if we will hold on to Christ and allow Him to do His incredible work in our lives, we, too, can see our graduation day. Our Lord Jesus has always been in the name-changing business. He turns Simons into Peters, Sauls into Pauls, and Jacobs into Israels. As you yield to His grace in your life, He will do the same for you.

Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose again to bring about change in your life. Not small change, but incredible change – which includes the forgiveness of your sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, eternal life, and a place in the family of God. This change is so radical that when it happens for you, He declares that you have been born again.

 


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