Jacob: The Man Who Became the Prince of Israel

from sermon series
“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”

by Pastor Dave Strem

Used by permission

After Adam and Eve introduced sin and rebellion into the world, God responded in a redemptive, reconciliatory way.  He judged their sin by removing them from the garden and then covered them with the skins of an animal, showing them that someone else had to die to cover their nakedness (sin), and promised them a deliverer who would save them from the burden of their sin and the curses associated with their fall.  Adam and Eve had children and worked hard as God commanded them to do.  And all seemed well, but something happened to drastically change the course of human history.  Cain rejected God’s admonition to resist sin, by repenting, and then murdered his brother.  Cain’s sin was different than Adam’s and Eve’s.  Adam and Eve were deceived into sinning against God’s word and their own innocence.  Their sin was entirely spiritual.  They believed the serpent rather than God.  They did not seek to harm anyone and they repented when God rebuked them.  Cain deliberately rejected God’s rebuke and purposely sought to harm his brother.  Cain’s act was the first aggressively harmful deed.  The chaos and wickedness that Cain introduced into the world that day continued until the whole world was filled with corruption and violence (Genesis 6:11-12).  The story of Noah and the flood is the result of this corruption. 

     After the flood, Noah’s descendents repopulated the earth but without the excessive violence and corruption that characterized the pre-flood days.  But there was still rebellion.  Centuries after the time of Noah God’s redemptive plan entered a new phase.  He started to center His redemptive focus into a particular lineage.  Genesis 12 through 50 record this history.  “Then the LORD told Abram, ‘leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.  I will cause you to become the father of a great nation.  I will bless you and make you famous, and I will make you a blessing to others.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.  All the families of the earth will be blessed through you’” (Genesis 12:1-3).  God honored His promises to Abraham and passed them to his son, Isaac, who passed them to his son, Jacob. 

     The two main facets of the Abrahamic promises are the promises for a coming deliverer and a nation.  The deliverer is Jesus Christ and the nation is Israel.  The promise of a deliverer was not unique to the Abrahamic promises.  The very first promise after the fall of Adam and Eve was of a ‘seed’ who would crush the head of the serpent, God’s and humankinds’ enemy.  The Abrahamic promises made it clear that this ‘seed’ would be somehow connected with what God was going to do through Abraham and his progeny.  The promise of a special nation was new.  As history revealed to us, Israel became a conduit of God’s special verbal revelation to the world.  Israel was to be the keepers of God’s written word and all His redemptive activities on their behalf.  He was going to teach the world about Himself and His ways in a way that was more focused and direct than He had in the prepatriarchal days.  Jacob was the third of the three patriarchs of Israel, the one whose loins produced the 12 tribes of Israel.  The remaining portion of this paper will center on Jacob.

     What do you know about the man Jacob?  Although Abraham is the first and chief patriarch, more space is given to Jacob’s life than Abraham’s.  Over half of the book of Genesis records events that occurred during the lifetime of Jacob.  Why did the writer of Genesis (Moses) think that so much attention should be given to Jacob and his lifetime?  There are two main reasons.  First, Jacob is the one who directly fathered the 12 sons through whom the 12 tribes of Israel would be named.  So it seems reasonable that the writer would want to chronicle the events surrounding their lives.  Second, it records how God formed Jacob into a man of faith, the prince of Israel, who started out being a greedy, grasping, scheming individual and who ended up valuing and longing for that ‘city of God’ that was yet future.  Hebrews 11:21 says that, “It was by faith that Jacob, when he was old and dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons and bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff.”  Jacob is remembered in the Hall of Faith as one who worshipped God.  That is a good reason to be remembered.  If someone put that on my tombstone, I would like that, even if it said nothing else about me.  Jacob died in faith, worshipping God. 

     But this was not always true about Jacob.  If one were to read the account of Jacob’s life from Genesis 25 through Genesis 38, one would be left with the impression that Jacob was nowhere near God.  He and his family were a mess.  Meyer captures the contradictions in Jacob: “If we can understand the life of Jacob, we can understand the history of his people.  The extremes which startle us in them are all in him.  Like them, he is the most successful schemer of his times; and like them, he has that deep spirituality, that far-seeing faith, which are the grandest of all qualities, and make a man capable of the highest culture that a human spirit can receive.  Like them, he spends the greatest part of his life in exile, and amid trying conditions of toil and sorrow; and like them, he is inalienably attached to that dear land, his only hold on which was by the promise of God and the graves of the heroic dead” (p. 69).  Only the last chapters of his life (Genesis 46 through 49) paint a different picture of Jacob.  In truth, a study of Jacob is more a study of God’s gracious dealings with a self-willed, grasping individual than it is about Jacob.  We read things about God’s involvement in Jacob’s life that we do not read about in anyone else’s life. 

     Jacob did not have a lot of good examples when he was growing up.  Isaac, his father, was the least spiritual of the patriarchs.  He was basically materialistic.  He lived more by his senses than by faith.  He was actually determined to give the promised blessing to Esau, despite knowing that Jacob was God’s choice, and despite Esau’s blatant worldly disregard for the wishes of his parents when he married two Hittite women.  Isaac lived much of his life devoid of the spiritual life.  And while Rebekah, Jacob’s mother, had more respect for God’s plan, when confronted by the crisis of Isaac’s wicked intent to give Esau the blessing, responded by using deceit to gain the blessing for Jacob.  Jacob learned materialism and cunning from his parents.

     With these examples he flees from his brother Esau.  “Esau hated Jacob because he had stolen his blessing, and he said to himself, ‘My father will soon be dead and gone.  Then I will kill Jacob’” (Genesis 27:41).  Isaac and Rebekah send him to Haran, several hundred miles away, so that he could escape Esau and find a woman to marry that was not like the local, idolatrous, sexual, and brash Hittite women.  On the way, God meets him in a dream.  This is what Jacob saw.  “As he slept, he dreamed of a stairway that reached from earth to heaven.  And he saw the angels of God going up and down on it.  At the top of the stairway stood the LORD, and he said, ‘I am the LORD, the God of your grandfather Abraham and the God of your father, Isaac.  The ground you are lying on belongs to you.  I will give it to you and your descendants.  Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth!  They will cover the land from east to west and from north to south.  All the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.  What’s more, I will be with you, and I will protect you wherever you go.  I will someday bring you safely back to this land.  I will be with you constantly until I have finished giving you everything I have promised” (Genesis 28:12-15).  How did Jacob respond.  Firstly, with respect: “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it…What an awesome place this is!  It is none other than the house of God—the gateway to heaven” (28:16-17)!  He built a memorial pillar and named it Bethel, which means ‘house of God’.  Great !  Jacob got it.  Unfortunately, no!  Listen to what he said: “If God will be with me and protect me on this journey and give me food and clothing, and if he will bring me back safely to my father, then I will make the LORD my God.  This memorial pillar will become a place for worshipping God, and I will give God a tenth of everything he gives me” (28:20-22).  God was not at the center of what Jacob said, Jacob was.  “God, If you do for me, I will acknowledge you.”  Isn’t this straight self-centeredness?  What is not stated but is implied is the unspoken part—“But if you won’t bless me, then forget you.”

     Genesis 29:1 finds Jacob leaving Bethel.  If you just had contact with God won’t you want to linger for awhile?  Savor the experience, maybe further it?  Jacob hurried away!  Oh, my!  This experience did not seem to sink down too far into his soul.  In his mind, He left God behind in Bethel.  And he hurried away!  How sad.  The future of Jacob showed the negative consequences.  His whole life could have been different.  God approached him early in his life and wanted to guide him through it.  But Jacob hurried away.

     The next twenty years Jacob spends in Haran working for uncle Laban.  And God blessed his efforts.  But there was also deceit and resentment there.  Laban tricked Jacob into marrying both of his daughters and working his flocks.  Jacob had to work 14 years for Laban.  In that time he married Leah and Rachel and had many children and made Laban a rich man.  After the 14 years Jacob wanted to go back to Beersheba, back home.  Laban knew that he was rich because of Jacob.  He knew that God was blessing Jacob.  He wanted Jacob to stay.  They reached an agreement that satisfied both men.  Jacob could keep all the speckled, spotted, or dark-colored sheep for himself.  The others would continue to belong to Laban.  And Jacob would manage both flocks.  Laban cheated.  He had his sons remove “all the male goats that were speckled and spotted, the females that were speckled and spotted with any white patches, and all the dark-colored sheep” (30:35).  Jacob responded in less than an honorable way.  He selectively bred the flocks to make his share grow and Laban’s wither.  He did this for six years.  After six years he was a very wealthy man, with many servants, camels, and donkeys.  Resentment began to grow in Laban’s sons who saw their inheritance diminishing before their eyes.  They incited Laban to confront Jacob.  God told him to return to the land of his father and grandfather, to return to where “I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3).  Where did God tell Jacob he would be with him in a special way?  Bethel.  Did he go to Bethel?  What happens next in Jacob’s life was another crossroads experience that could have changed his life, and history, forever.

     Genesis 32 tells us about this crossroads experience.  Jacob sent messengers to his brother Esau with this message: “Humble greetings from your servant Jacob!  I have been living with Uncle Laban until recently, and now I own oxen, donkeys, sheep, goats, and many servants, both men and women.  I have sent these messengers to inform you of my coming, hoping that you will be friendly to us” (32:4-5).    The messengers returned with news from Esau—Esau was on his way with an army of 400 men.  An army of 400 men?!  Jacob was terrified.  Genesis 32:7-12 records his response.  “Jacob was terrified at the news.  He divided his household, along with the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps.  He thought, ‘If Esau attacks one group, perhaps the other can escape.’  Then Jacob prayed, ‘O God of my grandfather Abraham and my father, Isaac—O LORD, you told me to return to my land and to my relatives, and you promised to treat me kindly.  I am not worthy of all the faithfulness and unfailing love you have shown to me, your servant.  When I left home, I owned nothing except a walking stick, and now my household fills two camps!  O LORD, please rescue me from my brother Esau.  I am afraid that he is coming to kill me, along with my wives and children.  But you promised to treat me kindly and to multiply my descendants until they become as numerous as the sands along the seashore—too many to count.’”  This was the first time recorded that Jacob sought the Lord.  He recognized that God had been faithful to the promises given at Bethel.  In response to Jacob’s prayer for protection, God visited Jacob in a very unusual way.  While Jacob was alone near the Jabbok River, the angel of the Lord came to him and wrestled with him.  What were they fighting over?  Genesis 32:26 says they were fighting over a blessing: “Then the man said, ‘Let me go, for it is dawn.’  But Jacob panted, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” 

     Meyer has some insightful things to say about Jacob’s wrestling match.  “Remember that the conflict originated not with Jacob, but with the angel…. This passage is often quoted as an instance of Jacob’s earnestness in prayer.  It is nothing of the sort.  It was not Jacob who wished to obtain something from God, but it was that He—the angel of Jehovah—had a controversy with this double-dealing and crafty child of His.  He was desirous to break up his self-sufficiency forever, and to give scope for the development of the Israel that lay cramped and coffined within…. Then Jacob went from resisting to clinging.  As the day broke, the Angel wanted to leave; but He could not because Jacob clung to Him with a death grip.  The request to be let go indicates how tenaciously the limping patriarch clung to Him for support.  He had abandoned the posture of defense and resistance, and had fastened himself on to the Angel—as a terrified child clasps its arms tightly around its father’s neck” (p. 89).  It seems to be the case that God would not bless Jacob personally until he first sought God and not just His blessings.  God blessed Jacob as patriarch, intricate to the overall plan to bring blessing to the world, but he refused to bless Jacob the man.  And that was why God got dirty and wrestled with Jacob the man.  God was not just content with using Jacob as a piece of His redemptive puzzle.  He wanted Jacob’s heart, as well.

     Later that day, Jacob had his meeting with Esau.  They made peace with each other and made plans to meet again in Seir, which became known as Edom, which was south of Judah’s future territory.  Esau left the meeting expecting Jacob to follow.  Jacob did not.  He went the other way.  Unfortunately, he did not only go the opposite way from Seir but Bethel as well.  Bethel is the place where God told him His presence and blessing would be, the place “for worshipping God.”  Jacob should have gone there.  God promised to be there.  But instead Jacob took his family to Shechem.  Jacob bought land to settle just outside the town and pitched his tents there.  This turned out to be a terrible mistake.  Much like Lot’s settling near Sodom turned bad, so did Jacob’s settling near Shechem.  Soon after they settled, Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was raped and two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, committed murder to avenge the rape.

     If Jacob had gone to Bethel in the first place, none of the terrible incidents in Shechem would have happened.  Now God comes to Jacob again and tells him to go to Bethel.  And what does Jacob find there?  “God appeared to Jacob once again…. God blessed him and said, ‘Your name is no longer Jacob; you will now be called Israel’” (35:9-10).  Jacob set up another stone pillar memorial in remembrance of God’s speaking to him there.  After reading verse 15 you are left with the feeling, “Wonderful, Jacob is now home and all is well.”  Then you read verses 16-22: “Leaving Bethel, they traveled on toward Ephrath (later became Bethlehem)…. and camped at the tower of Eder.”  At Ephrath, Rachel died in childbirth and at Eder, Reuben slept (had sex with) with Bilhah, his father’s concubine.  Jacob continued away from Bethel and settled near his father Isaac in Hebron, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem.  After Isaac’s death, Jacob moved again.  Genesis 37 finds him in Shechem, again.  Shechem is where Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. 

     He should have never left Bethel.  Why did he not settle there?  God was there for him.  Was Bethel inhabitable?  Could it have supported Jacob’s flocks?  Unger says the following about Bethel: “A town about twelve miles N. of Jerusalem, originally Luz (Genesis 28:19).  It was here that Abraham encamped (Genesis 12:8; 13:3), and the district is still pronounced as suitable for pasturage.”  Jacob could have lived there.  It may have been more difficult, and perhaps the pastures were not as large and spacious as Shechem’s, but it could have been done.  And most importantly, God was there for Jacob.  Bad things seemed to happen to Jacob when he was not there.

     Between Genesis 36 and Genesis 41 the story is mainly about Joseph.  Jacob enters again in Genesis 42.  From his interaction with Pharaoh and Joseph, we see a different man.  The many hardships Jacob endured molded him into a man who worshiped God, into a man that Hebrews 11:21 describes as “bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff.”  Jacob had become the prince of Israel, worthy of being the patriarch of a nation.

     The story of Jacob is much more about God than it is about Jacob.  Although God had a plan to bless the whole world through a special nation He was going to form, He never lost sight of the individuals that were instrumental in that plan.  He cared about them as individuals, not just as instruments of His will. 

     What can we learn from God’s dealings with Jacob?  God’s grace, God’s glorious grace doesn’t give up on us.  God says, “I can work with you.  I know your background in college, I know what you did when you were a teenager, I know where you’re at right now and what you’re struggling with and what you’re going through right now, but I can work with you right where you’re at to restore you, to bring health to your soul.  To bring strength to your life.  You may be having an affair, but I haven’t given up on you.  I want you to have an affair with me instead of that other woman or that other man.  I want you to walk with me.  I want you to trust me.  I want you to chase after me the same way you chased after that new car.  I haven’t given up on you.  I can work with you.” 

     Just because God is gracious does not mean that we can do what we want.  We saw that with Jacob.  Just as Jacob was blessed when he went to Bethel, we have to do certain things, also.  Firstly, don’t wrestle with God, walk with him.  Don’t contend with God, conference with him.  Don’t challenge Him, choose His ways.  Align yourself with his plans, with his ways, with his patterns.  Walk with God.  To live wonderfully in a fallen world, you must let your life reflect the graces of God.  Let us learn from Jacob’s life.  Let us learn from both the good and bad parts of his life.  But may it be said of us, as it was said of him, “Jacob…bowed in worship as he leaned on his staff.”  

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