Lessons from the Life of Jacob

Do you ever get the feeling that life is a struggle? We live in a competitive world and the trouble with the rat race is that, even if you win, you are still a rat.

Jacobís story is the story of a struggle. He came out of the womb that way. He was a twin. His twin brother was named Esau and the Bible tells us that these two brothers began their struggle in the womb. It was a struggle that was to continue through their descendants for two thousand years.

When the two brothers were born, the second-born son was holding onto the heel of the first-born. This was considered to be a significant omen and this child was named Jacob, meaning "heel-grabber." This was an idiom for a con-artist; someone who is out to "trip you up." We have a similar idiom today when we speak of "pulling someone's leg."

Jacob's role as a heel-grabber is seen in his dealings with his older brother. The first such indication is when Esau, the outdoorsman to Jacobís stay-at-home approach to life, came in from the fields to find Jacob with a tasty pot of stew. We are not told whether or not Jacob had craftily planned the incident or whether he happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right temptation. The result was the same in any case -- Esau was persuaded to sell his birthright for a pot of stew. No used car salesman ever made such a deal.

The heel-grabbing came to full fruition when their father, Isaac, determined to give to Esau the family blessing. While Esau was away, Jacob was coaxed by his mother to don a disguise that would fool his aged and blind father into thinking he was Esau. By means of this deception, he was able to steal the family blessing.

For Esau, this was the last straw. As far as he was concerned, Jacob had swindled him for the last time. He swore revenge and Jacob was forced to leave his home, fleeing from the wrath of Esau, never to see his beloved mother again.

It was while he was on the run, that Jacob had his first significant encounter with God.

And Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran.

And he came to a certain place, and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place (Genesis 28:10-11).

As we begin reading this section, there is nothing within the context to prepare us for the impending event. The circumstances seem far from the supernatural. Indeed, they seem to be laced with the dreariness of the natural and the secular.

Jacob is in the midst of a journey. He has set out from Beersheba and he is headed for Haran. He is alone upon the road and the reason that he is alone and the reason he is upon the road is because he is a fugitive from his own family.

He comes to a place near the city of Luz. We do not know what the name means and it doesn't appear to have meant much to Jacob, either. There is nothing compelling about this place. It is just a place to stop for the evening. When this night is over, Jacob will give this place a new name. It shall be called Bethel - the House of God - the Gate of Heaven.



And he had a dream, and behold, a ladder set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven: and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.(Genesis 28:12).

There are three aspects to this dream. Each of the three aspects is introduced by the word "behold."

1. A Ladder.

The dream involved a vision of a ladder. This seems odd because there is no mention earlier in Genesis of a ladder. The word used here for ladder is sullam. It is a hapaxlegomenon. It is only used this one time in the Old Testament. It seems to come from the more common verb, selah, to lift up. It has been suggested that the same word would have been used to indicate a stairway, perhaps pointing to the ziggurats of Mesopotamia, but there are more definite words for stairway (ma'alah would be the normal word for "stairway").

2. The Angels of God.

Even more foreign is the concept of angels of God ascending and descending. Angels have already been pictured at this point in the Genesis narrative. Angels came and visited Abraham. Angels were involved in the rescue of Lot from Sodom. And the Angel of the Lord has been seen interacting both with Hagar and with Abraham. Certainly, they have been shown to be divine messengers. But here, for the first time, they are seen in the midst of delivering messages to and from heaven.

This picture of the angels of God ascending and descending is found in only one other place in the Bible. It is John 1:51 when Jesus speaks to Nathanael.

And He said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." (John 1:51).

In the words of Jesus, there is no mention of the ladder. The angels are ascending and descending on the Son of Man. He IS the ladder. Thus, if the ladder represents God's presence upon earth, then Jesus is seen as the One who is "God with us."

3. The Lord Stood Above It.

At the bottom of the Ladder was Jacob. At the top of the Ladder was the Lord. The ladder, therefore, served as the connecting link between them.



The promise which is given to Jacob is essentially the same one which was given to Abraham and to Isaac.




"I am God Almighty" (Gen 17:1).

"I am the God of your father Abraham" (Gen 26:24).

"I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac" (Gen 28:13).

"For all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever" (Gene 13:15).

"For to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands" (Gen 26:3).

"The land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants" (Gen 28:13).

"And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth" (Gen 13:16).

"And I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven" (Gen 26:4).

"Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth" (Gen 28:14).

"And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12:3).

"And by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 26:4).

"And in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Gen 28:14).

"Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you" (Gen 15:1).

"Do not fear, for I am with you" (Gen 26:24).

"And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go" Gen 28:15).

However, there are also some differences. Isaac had been told by God to stay in the land (Genesis 26:2). Jacob, on the other hand, is told that the Lord will be with him and shall accompany him on his extended journey out of the land and that ultimately he shall be brought back to the land of promise.

This is to be the basis of Jacob's believing all of the earlier promises. The reason he can believe that he will receive the inheritance of land from which he is presently fleeing and that his descendants shall be as numerous as the dust when he hasn't even a wife and that his descendants shall be a blessing to all of the families of the earth when he has stolen a blessing from his own brother is because God will be with him.

This is what the vision of the ladder is all about. It is a sign that God is with him. It is not there for God's sake. It is there for Jacob's sake.

The miracle is not that there was a ladder. The miracle was that Jacob could SEE the ladder. It was that he could see the manner in which God had communicated Himself to men.



When Jacob arrives in Haran, he meets up with his Uncle Laban. He also meets up with Uncle Labanís two daughters and he falls head over heels in love with the younger one. Her name is Rachael. Apparently, Rachael was a real looker. Jacob found her gorgeous. The Bible tells us that she was beautiful of form and face (Genesis 29:17).

By contrast, we read that Leah's eyes were weak (29:17). I donít think it is speaking of her lack of 20/20 vision or that she needed glasses. Rather, this seems to be a euphemism for someone who is an "eye sore."

It has been said that the reason most women would rather have beauty than brains is because most guys can see better than they can think. That was the situation in Jacobís case. He fell in love with Rachael on the spot and did not give Leah another look. He entered into marital negotiations with her father to obtain her hand in marriage.

Jacob was penniless in a day and an age when a woman would be entitled to a dowry. And so, he agreed to work for his Uncle Laban for a period of seven years. Those seven years seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her (Genesis 29:20).

When the time came for the marriage, the father of the bride held a wedding party. Weddings in that day involved celebration that make our weddings tame by comparison. We are accustomed to the wedding ceremony followed by a reception. In that day, the reception could last from several days up to a week. There was singing and there was celebration and there was honeymooning and when the next morning came, Jacob awoke to find his new bride. There was only one problem. It was the wrong bride. It was the one whose eyes were weak. It was Leah.

Jacob the trickster had been tricked. Jacob the heel-grabber had been tripped up. Laban had slipped in the wrong daughter in the makings of this three-way romantic triangle.

And so, Jacob agrees to work for another seven years in order to obtain his beloved Rachael. And then, in later years, he continues to work for Laban for a percentage of the increase of the crops.

As we read of Jacobís life during these years, we find ourselves wondering what God is doing in his life. We read of his growing prosperity and we are not quite sure if it is God that is blessing him or if his success is the result of his own conniving and scheming. We read of no ladders from heaven. We see no altars being built. There are no messages from the Almighty. It is almost as though heaven has grown silent.

The years pass and Jacob and his growing family finally turn their steps toward home. Jacob has lived the life of a nomad for over 20 years and now he is coming home. There is only one problem. Esau is back home and the matter between them in unresolved.

In his typical scheming and manipulative fashion, Jacob arranges his plans to mollify Esau and his anger.

3 Then Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He also commanded them saying, "Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: 'Thus says your servant Jacob, "I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now; 5 and I have oxen and donkeys and flocks and male and female servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your sight."'" (Genesis 32:3-5).

Notice how his message is crafted. He calls Esau, "My Lord." He reminds Esau that a lot of time has passed. He hints at the possibility of financial gain. As I read this, I get the idea that Jacob is still scheming. He is still Jacob, the heel-grabber.

It is not long before a message comes back to him. It is a message that brings him news of Esau. Esau is coming to meet him. And Esau has with him a force of 400 men. That doesnít sound like good news.

7 Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed; and he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies; 8 for he said, "If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the company which is left will escape." (Genesis 32:7-8).

Jacob once again begins to plan and scheme. He assumes the worst. Esau is coming and it is likely that the 400 men who are with him are not merely coming to enjoy the view.



Having made his plans and having taken all possible precautions, Jacob then turns to the Lord in prayer. It might be nitpicking to suggest that he should have prayed first, for arenít most of us just as prone to act first and pray later?

And yet, I find something in Jacobís prayer that is appealing. It does not come across as pseudo-spiritual. It is instead honest and forthright in expressing the doubts and fears of the one who offers it. Notice several things about Jacobís prayer.

  1. Jacob points out that he got into this situation by obeying the direction of the Lord: And Jacob said, "O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who didst say to me, 'Return to your country and to your relatives, and I will prosper youí" (32:9).
  2. There are times when you can do everything right and still have wrong things happen to you. On the other hand, we must admit that, in the bigger picture, Jacob got into this situation because he had cheated and tricked and lied to get that which originally belonged to his brother.

    There is a lesson here. It is that just because God forgives sin does not mean you will not sometimes reap the natural consequences of your actions.

  3. Jacob recognizes his own unworthiness: I am unworthy of all the lovingkindness and of all the faithfulness which Thou hast shown to Thy servant; for with my staff only I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two companies (32:10).
  4. Jacob had no allusions about himself. He was a heel-grabber and he knew it. He had prospered while in Haran, but that prosperity was not a sign of his goodness or his faithfulness. It was a sign of Godís goodness and Godís faithfulness and Godís grace.

  5. Jacob prays for deliverance: Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me, the mothers with the children (32:11).
  6. Jacob prays according to the promise of God: For Thou didst say, 'I will surely prosper you, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude (32:12).

Jacob is saying in effect, "You promised that my descendants would be a great multitude and they cannot be a great multitude if Esau kills him, so therefore You must deliver me if You are going to keep Your word."



So he spent the night there. Then he selected from what he had with him a present for his brother Esau (Genesis 32:13).

Jacob sends a gift to Esau. It is a gift that is designed to asuage Esauís anger and is to satisfy Esauís wrath. It is no small gift.

ē 200 female goats

ē 20 male goats

ē 200 female sheep

ē 20 rams

ē 30 milking camels and their colts

ē 40 cows

ē 10 bulls

ē 20 female donkeys

ē 10 male donkeys.

Over 500 animals make up this gift. Neither does Jacob merely send all these animals in a single clump. His delivery shows him for the kind of salesmanship he has. He organizes them into various waves so that first Esau hears about the first group and then the second and then the third.

Do you see what he is trying to do? He is seeking to appease the anger of Esau. What Jacob tries to do for himself, Jesus did on our behalf. He appeased the righteous anger of God against us. He did not do it by sending wave after wave of gifts. He did it by sending Himself. Jesus was the answer to Godís anger against sin. The righteous wrath of God was appeased; the righteous judgment of God against sin was satisfied upon the cross.



22 Now he arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 And he took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had. 24 Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. (Genesis 32:22-24).

Once he has sent the various waves of animals as a gift to his brother, Jacob continues his unrelenting restlessness. He lays down. Restless. He gets up. Restless. He moves his family across the ford of the river. Restless. He is alone. And suddenly we see that he is not alone.

The name of the River where this all took place is the River Jabbok. The word Jabbok means "to wrestle." It seems as though Jacob was wrestling alone with himself and then suddenly he was no longer along and he was wrestling with an unknown figure in the night.

What began as a physical struggle seemed to take on epic proportions as it continued throughout the entire night. It must have seemed endless to Jacob, but he would not quit. This was the story of his life. He had come into this world as the heel-grabber, grasping for what he could get. It had cost him everything. His family. His mother. His brother, even in their motherís wonb. But he had not given up. As a foreigner in a faraway land, he had persisted until today he was a rich man. He had not given up then and he does not give up now.

All his life had been a struggle and a striving and a wrestling. With his father. With his brother. With his uncle Laban. But the real struggle had always been with this one with whom he now grappled -- this unknown adversary in the night.

Jacob had been worried about his encounter with Esau. Now he has an encounter in the middle of the night with one that is much greater than Esau. Jacob had been wrestling all his life. But now he comes to understand that his real struggle has been a spiritual one.



25 And when he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob's thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, "Let me go, for the dawn is breaking." But he said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." (Genesis 32:25-26).

Jacobís victory is not one of strength, but of desparation. It is a struggle of faith. He holds on to the angel and refuses to let go. The One to whom he holds is not bound by Jacobís strength, but by Jacobís faith. Jacob wants what he has always wanted -- the blessing of God. He holds to the One who can give the blessing. He holds to the One who is the blessing.

Jacobís victory was not one of power. Rather, it was a victory of grace. He was given that for which he was undeserving to be given and which he was powerless to take.

27 So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob."

28 And he said, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed." (Genesis 22:27-28).

Jacobís name is changed. No longer will he be Jacob the heel-grabber; Jacob the con-artist. From this time on, he shall be known as Israel because he has ISRA-ed with EL -- that is, he has stiven with God.

How can God say this? How can God say that Jacob was able to strive with God and with men and prevail? How can anyone strive with God and prevail? In the same way that my little 4-year old grandson can strive with me and prevail. It is not that Jacob is on an equal footing with God. It is that God wants Jacob to want that which only God can provide. He wants that from you, too.

God wants you to hunger and thirst for His kingdom. He wants you to seek Him with all of your strength and with all of your will. He calls you to come and to wrestle with Him, not in a bad sense, but in the sense that my little grandson comes to wrestle and to hug and to embrace his grandfather.

Notice that the angel warns Jacob that the sun is about to rise. Why was it significant for the angel to be released before daybreak? We are not told, but I suspect that it was not for the angelís sake, but for Jacobís sake. Jacob was in danger of seeing that which no man can see and live. He would name the place accordingly.

29 Then Jacob asked him and said, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, "I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved." (Genesis 32:29-30).

What Jacob did in the Old Testament, Jesus has done by coming to earth.



Wrestled with an angel

Wrestled with sin and with Satan

Was a victor by grace

His victory obtained grace for us

His hip was thrown out of joint

All His bones were out of joint

He won by losing but refusing to let go

He won by losing His life on the cross

He released the angel before the sun arose

The sun hid its face as he was on the cross

He saw the face of God

He died that we might see God

As a memorial, the Israelites did not eat the sinew of the joint

As a memorial, we are called to come and eat at the Lordís table

How about you? Have you been struggling? Looking for success? Longing to find that someone special in your life? Searching for that elusive something that will fill the emptiness of your soul? With what have you been struggling? Who is your opponent? Is it a person? Or a situation? Or something about yourself? Whatever you have thought it to be, that is not the object of your true struggle. Your true struggle is with Him. It is with the same One with whom Jacob struggled. It is with the One who comes...

- in the dead of the night.

- in the life of loneliness.

- in the doubt of despair.

He comes and He confronts you and before you realize it, you are wrestling with him in a titanic struggle.

What kind of struggle is it? It is a struggle for that which God has for you. "Lord, why donít you just hand it to me?" He answers, "Because you wonít hold to it if I do." What God wants for you is to hunger and thirst for that which He has for you. He wants you to want... What? What is the goal of this struggle? What is the prize for which Jacob has been toiling his entire life?

It is the realization of the promise of God. Jacob wanted what God had for him. And God wants you to want that, too. What is it? What does God want you to want? What is the prize? What is the goal? It is God Himself.

13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14).


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