Jacob’s story is that of a man who has a long, gradual conversion to trusting in God. I find him fascinating, and have been reading his story recently, particularly how he comes to trust in God. Some lessons I think we can learn from his story are below (and I elaborate on them underneath!)
- it can take a lifetime of receiving God’s blessing before you recognise that it is him you need to put your hope in.
- it takes an intervention from God, or a miracle, to bring someone to faith.
- even after putting faith in God, life is not perfect.
Jacob’s father Isaac was definitely a God-fearing man, but look at Jacob’s response to Isaac when questioned about a meal Jacob offered him in Genesis 27:20 (in the process of stealing Esau’s blessing):
“How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” [Jacob] answered, “Because the Lord your God granted me success.”
It would appear that Jacob does not identify with his father’s God (there is, of course, the possibility that this is what Esau would have said, but later dialogue suggests that this is his belief too).
Esau’s subsequent plot for revenge and his mother’s desire for him not to marry one of the local women cause him to flee to his uncle’s land. On his way there, he has the famous dream of the ladder. God renews the promise he made to Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 28:13):
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 offspring. Your offspring 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 in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 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 what I have promised you.
But Jacob doesn’t get it. Despite the promise, his side of the bargain is conditional. Jacob’s faith is dependent on God meeting his needs.
“If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
Nevertheless, God still provides. In order for the promise to happen, Jacob will need a wife. It doesn’t take him long. His cousin Rachel arrives and it’s apparent even from the off that he’s smitten (what guy wouldn’t roll a heavy stone from the mouth of a well to try and impress a pretty girl?). The prospect of marrying Rachel excited him to the point that he was willing to sacrifice seven years of his life to hard labour (Laban doesn’t even negotiate when Jacob suggests this- he knows he’s got him hooked).
Being unfavoured by his father, sent away by his mother, and being under a vendetta from his brother, it is entirely possible that his desire for Rachel was motivated by the need to be accepted by someone, and so Rachel was, for him, a redeemer. Unfortunately, after the seven years, he was tricked into marrying the older, less desirable sister, Leah, before being allowed to marry Rachel the following week in exchange for another seven years’ service. He learned the hard way the problems with putting all your hope in humanity. His life was far from happy once he had what he wanted. He had two wives bickering with each other, and his boss was persistently mistreating him, moving the goalposts and commanding impossible tasks. Unsurprisingly, he flees.
Laban follows him and accuses him of stealing his household gods (which Rachel had done). His reply suggests that he’s beginning to get who God is (Genesis 31:42):
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. God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night.
Encounter with God (Genesis 32:22-32)
On his way back to his father’s household, he resolves to make amends with his brother. However, on the way he has an encounter with God which changes him forever. A man suddenly appears, and the two wrestle until dawn. Jacob becomes injured and, despite this, struggles on. He recognises that the man is, in fact, God. He refuses to let go until he blesses him. Through all his struggles over the previous 20 years (the re-naming to Israel probably means “He strives with God”), he has learned that it is God’s blessing that matters and finally puts his trust in him.
The transformation is immediately apparent. He meets his brother (Genesis 33) and his humility is astonishing.
His life is not perfect. Rachel dies in childbirth not long after this episode, and because of his playing favourites with his sons, Joseph is sent off to Egypt (and subsequently takes centre stage in Genesis), sparking off the events that would eventually lead to God’s promises to him fulfilled. He wouldn’t see the fruits of his lifetime of struggle, but it didn’t matter in the end: he knew that God’s grace was the most important treasure.