We are beginning a new series from the life of Jacob, called Transforming Jacob. Jacob is a fascinating person and sometimes we do not look closely at his life because it is hard to understand what he is doing. Is Jacob a good guy or a bad guy? Is he doing right or is he doing wrong? But what I really want us to see is what God is doing through Jacob. I want us to look at how God is going to transform Jacob to be the patriarch through whom will come the 12 tribes of Israel and through whom will ultimately come the Savior of the world. To understand Jacob, you need to understand his past. Genesis records how it all begins for this man named Jacob.
Jacob’s Beginnings (Genesis 25:19-26)
The course for Jacob’s life is declared by the Lord before his birth. In Genesis 25 we are told that Rebekah is pregnant with two boys. But they are struggling in the womb. The Lord explains that these two boys are two nations and two peoples. There is a key prophecy that is given about these two boys. One will be stronger than the other and the older will serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). Now it is important to note that this is now how it worked with the Hebrew people in ancient times. The oldest was the strongest and the younger children served the oldest. The oldest was given the greater blessing and was given birthright, which was the greater portion of the inheritance and to become head of the family.
This reversal is symbolized in the birth of these two boys. The oldest was called Esau because he came out red and hairy. But look at verse 26. The younger brother came out of the womb with his hand holding Esau’s heel. So they called his name Jacob. You can imagine how Isaac and Rebekah told everyone this story of how they named this boy Jacob because he was holding on to his brother’s heel when he was born. But this name is going to mean much more as we look at the early years of Jacob.
Jacob, the Shrewd (Genesis 25:27-34)
The first account we are given about Esau and Jacob waits until they are much older. We are told that Esau is a skillful hunter and Jacob stayed home among the tents. Jacob was cooking stew when Esau came back famished and exhausted after being out in the field. Esau asks Jacob for some of his red stew. Look at what Jacob does in verse 31. “Sell me your birthright now.” This is a ridiculous ask from Jacob. But Esau exchanges his portion of his inheritance for a meal. I just recently did a lesson on this decision that Esau made, so I will not spend our time on Esau here. Rather, I want us to focus on how quickly Jacob is willing to take advantage of Esau. Jacob wanted what Esau had and used this opportunity to get what he wanted from his brother.
Jacob, the Swindler (Genesis 27:1-41)
In Genesis 27 we see that Isaac is nearing the end of his life and needs to get his affairs in order. So it is time for him to give out the blessings to his sons. Isaac calls for Esau to go into the field and hunt so that they can eat a tasty meal and Isaac can give Esau the blessing of the firstborn. Rebekah hears this and prepares a meal and tells Jacob to give it to Isaac, “so that he may bless you before he dies” (27:10).
Now I want us to take a moment and consider who is right. I think we need to see Isaac as doing wrong in this moment because the Lord made it clear that the older was to serve the younger. But Genesis 25:28 revealed that Isaac loved Esau but Rebekah loved Jacob. So Isaac is going forward with giving the blessing to Esau, when God said it was to be Jacob before either of the boys were born. Now we cannot tell by the account if Rebekah is acting merely because she loved Jacob or because she knew the blessing belonged to Jacob. But we need to see this conflict as well as Isaac’s desire to bless Esau regardless sets up the problems that are coming. After Jacob receives the blessing rather than Esau, listen to what Esau says in Genesis 27:36.
Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” (Genesis 27:36 ESV)
Notice that Esau points to Jacob’s name but in a negative sense. Jacob is rightly named because he is a cheater or swindler. The NIV says Jacob had taken advantage of Esau. The NASB says that Jacob betrayed him. The LSB says that Jacob has supplanted him. The NET reads that Jacob has tripped him up these two times. So now Jacob is painted as the swindler.
This section of Genesis also reveals Jacob to be a liar. When Isaac asks who it is, Jacob says, “I am Esau your firstborn” (27:19). Then Isaac later asks, “Are you really my son Esau?” Jacob replies, “I am” (27:24). He is willing to repeatedly lie to his father who cannot see.
Jacob On The Run (Genesis 28-31)
Now this changes everything for Jacob’s life. Rebekah tells Jacob to run away because Esau is going to kill him (27:42-43). Jacob must leave home because of what he has done. Rebekah tells Jacob that when Esau’s anger subsides then she will call for him to come back home. Now Jacob does not know this at this moment. But that summons is never going to happen. Rebekah is never going to call Jacob back home. So Jacob is sent to Haran to live with his uncle, Laban. Jacob is going to spend the next 20 years working for Laban. Two chapters, Genesis 29-30, cover 20 years of time. It is not going to be an easy time for Jacob. But it is during these 20 years that the Lord is going to do his work on Jacob.
Genesis 28 tells us much about where Jacob is with his relationship with the Lord. While on his way to Haran, the Lord gives Jacob a dream where there is a stairway reaching to the top of the sky and the angels of God were going up and down on it (28:12). But what God says to Jacob in this dream is important. The Lord promises to give Jacob and his offspring this land. His offspring will be the like the dust of the earth, spread out in all directions, and all the families of the earth will be blessed (28:13-14). Not only this, the Lord promises to be with Jacob, watch over him, and bring him back to this place. Finally, the Lord says he will not leave Jacob until he does for Jacob what he has promised (28:15). I want us to see that God acts first toward swindling, lying Jacob who takes advantage of people. God acts first with his promise.
Jacob wakes up and realizes that this is the house of God and the gate of heaven. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). Now look at what Jacob says in verses 20-22. If God will be with him, watch over him, and provide for him and if he can return safely to his family, then the Lord will be my God. So here is God saying that he will work with his man who is on the run for his life because of what he did. Jacob’s response is that if the Lord will be faithful, then he will be faithful to the Lord. Now this is important. God being faithful to Jacob did not mean that Jacob’s life would be easy. In fact, Jacob’s life will not be easy.
In Genesis 29 Jacob gets a taste of what he had done to Esau. Jacob works for his uncle for seven years so that he can marry Rachel. But his uncle swindles him so that he marries Leah rather than Rachel. So Jacob will be required to work another seven years to pay for marrying Rachel. Laban takes advantage of Jacob, even though they are family, swindles him, and lies to him just like Jacob had done to his own brother. Have you ever noticed how God will do this? God will have you experience what you have done toward others so you can see what it is like? This is what Jacob is experiencing right now. Further, Genesis 29-30 record a lot of strife and hatred as his wives and their handmaids war with each other. There is no peace in Jacob’s life right now.
In Genesis 30 Jacob’s uncle continues to try to swindle Jacob out of his wages. Jacob is ready to leave to go back toward home. Jacob asks for certain sheep to be his wages, but Laban works to make sure that Jacob ends up with nothing before he leaves. But even in his hardships, Jacob is seeing the hand of God. In Genesis 30:30 Jacob tells Laban that the Lord has blessed Laban through the work of Jacob’s hands. Jacob does not say he was a really good sheep herder. Rather, the Lord is the reason for our prosperity. Further, in Genesis 30:33 we see that Jacob has worked to be a different person since God’s promise. Notice that Jacob tells Laban that his honesty will be his testimony for his work and wages. Can you imagine Jacob speaking about his own honesty and integrity? Clearly we are starting to see Jacob change. Jacob says that he can look back at his 20 years of working for Laban and all he will see is honesty.
In Genesis 31 Laban continues to lie about Jacob and continues to try to swindle his wages away from Jacob. So the Lord tells Jacob to return to his homeland and the Lord will be with him (31:3). Jacob tells Rachel and Leah what the plan is. I want us to see how Jacob is able to see God’s hand in his life. Jacob says in Genesis 31:5 that the God of my father has been with me. Please notice that he does not say that this is his God at this point. Also in Genesis 31:7 he says that Laban tried to cheat him but God did not permit him to harm me. Remember that the Lord said he would be with Jacob and Jacob is seeing that the Lord is being faithful to him.
Further, Jacob realizes that all that he has at this moment is because God has been with him and protected him. Look at what Jacob says to Laban in Genesis 31:38-42. In particular Jacob says that if God had not been on his side, he surely would have been sent away empty-handed from Laban’s swindling. Look at the end of verse 42. “God saw my affliction and the labor of my hands and rebuked you last night.” So Jacob is slowly turning his eyes upward as he sees God’s hand at work in his life.
So what are some messages for us to consider from Jacob’s beginnings? First, your past can be trash but that does not mean that God did help you and carry you through those hardships. Sometimes we can think that having to live a hard life or go down a hard path means that God has abandoned us. We unfortunately make the equation that God is only with us if our lives are comfortable and going exactly the way we planned. But that is not what God promises. God did not promise Jacob that his life would be easy. God promised Jacob that he would be with him and would carry out his plans through him. Jacob is doing something in his life that is very important for us to do. Jacob is able to see God’s hand through all the pain and suffering of his 20 years of life. He sees that the Lord has blessed him wherever he has turned. David makes the same point when he penned Psalm 23. David does not say that the Lord is his shepherd who always leads him on the mountaintops of glory. Rather, the Lord is his shepherd who leads him through the valley of the shadow of death. Just because your past was terrible does not mean God was not with you through those storms. We need to look for God’s hand and praise him for his help through those times.
Second, just because your past is trash does not mean God does not have a bright future for you. Too often we can want to give up on God and even give up on our lives when our lives are wrecked. But everything that happens to Jacob is not the end of his story. All of Jacob’s bad decisions are not the end of his story. God has more for him. God told Jacob as he was running for his life that he would not leave him (Genesis 28:15). God does not want us to get stuck in our past, allowing our future to be ruined because we decide to still live in the past. Just as God leads us into the valley of the shadow of death, he will lead us out of that valley.
Finally, God is showing his faithful love to you so that you will be faithful to him. God always comes first to us asking us to respond his love and saving grace. The apostle John said it like this: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19 ESV). God wants us to see his faithful love and respond in love. God does not tell us to love him first and then he will respond in love. Rather, God says to each of us that he loves us and asks us to love him in return. One of the most famous scriptures states this truth. God loved the world so that he gave his only Son (John 3:16). God comes to us and promises to be with us and never leave us so that we will trust him and change our lives for him.