Lessons from the Life of Jacob

Lesson 1: Where Jacob fits in God’s narrative of salvation history

     God is love and He created man to enjoy a love relationship with Him. God created Adam and Eve intending that they live in harmony with one another. Sin corrupted this blessed environment bringing a curse that destroyed man’s ideal relationship with God. Man was put out of the Garden of Eden and began to live his life under a curse. Hard labor, antagonism, blame, jealousy, pain, and death now characterized man’s existence. The consequence of sin and separation from God is found from Genesis 3 – 11 climaxing with the curse of Babel that spread man throughout the world.

     The history of God redeeming man from sin begins with His election of Abraham (Genesis 12). God made a covenant with Abraham that would ultimately bridge the separation between Him and man brought about by sin. Promises of a land of inheritance, a multitude of descendants, an everlasting covenant, and a blessing to all the nations are pronounced by God to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. The rest of Genesis contains narrative stories of Abraham’s descendants as related to the fulfillment of these promises. God, through the seed of Abraham, will provide the opportunity of salvation from sin to all mankind. This promise provides the key to understanding all of Scripture.

     Jacob is the son of Isaac, who was the son God promised Abraham (Genesis 15:1-5; 18:10-14; 21:1-3). God repeated the promise He gave to Abraham to Isaac in Genesis 26:2-5. Isaac had twin sons Jacob and Esau, and though Esau was the firstborn and rightful heir, it was Jacob whom God chose to continue the promise through (Genesis 27:27-29; 28:3-4, 13-15; 32:26-29; 35:9-13). The story of Jacob teaches us many valuable lessons (Genesis 25:19-35:22).

 

     Genesis is built around stories that are divided into ten sections set apart by the Hebrew term “toledoth.” “Toledoth” means “story” or “history” and refers to “the account of the succession from.”[1] Toledoth is “a signal of the survival and continuity of God’s plan for creation despite the ravages of human sin.” [2]

     There is a chiastic outline of the Jacob narrative highlighted by the Hebrew terms “berakah” (blessing) and “bekorah” (birthright) which are found frequently in the narrative.  Chiasm is a literary device commonly used by the Jews to assist in telling stories. It was essentially a memory device that is a sort of inverted parallel of the major events in Jacob’s life. The outline is as follows:

A. oracle sought; struggle in childbirth; Jacob born

B. Interlude: Rebekah in foreign palace; pact with foreigners

C. Jacob fears Esau and flees

D. messengers

E. arrival in Haran

F. Jacob’s wives are fertile

F. Jacob’s flocks are fertile

E. Flight from Haran

D. Messengers

C. Jacob returns and fears Esau

B. Interlude: Dinah in foreign palace; pact with foreigners

A. Oracle fulfilled: struggle in childbirth; Jacob becomes Israel

 

Discussion Questions

1.     Imagine and discuss what man’s existence with God was like in the Garden of Eden.

2.     What disrupted that existence, and how did it affect man’s relationship with God?

3.     How would you describe life of fallen humanity without God after the fall?

4.     How did God initiate His plan to restore all that had been lost by sin?

5.     What did God’s covenant promises to Abraham consist of?

6.     Where does Jacob fit in God’s narrative of salvation history?

7.     What are some advantages of understanding literary devices and the structure of a text?

8.     What might chiasm in the Jacob narrative imply about the author and his intentions? 

 

Lesson 2: Birthright and Blessing

     In Genesis 25:19-28, Rebekah, Isaac’s wife was barren, but God answered the prayer of Isaac that she might bear children. She became pregnant with twins, Jacob and Esau. Esau was born first, meaning he was entitled to the bulk of his father’s inheritance, position, and blessing. “According to Hebrew law the first-born should always possess the birthright, which involved a double portion of the property. “It carried with it also the privilege of leadership in the family and tribe.”[3] Strangely, however, God had foretold that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob) in Genesis 25:23. This prophecy began to be fulfilled when Esau traded his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup (Genesis 25:29-34). The prophecy continues to develop in Genesis 27 where Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing that was intended for Esau. Upon finding out about the hoax, Esau vowed to kill Isaac (27:41). In order to protect Jacob, Rebekah talked Isaac into sending him to her brother Laban that Jacob might find a wife from among her people. On his journey Jacob had a dream (28:10-22). God confirmed and established the covenant He had made with Abraham to Jacob (28:13-15). God renewed the covenant promising to give the land to Jacob and to make him the father of a great multitude.

     Twenty years later as Jacob is returning to the promised land of inheritance. Out of fear and dread regarding Esau’s vow to kill Jacob, he sets forth all his possessions offering them to Esau in hopes of appeasing his brother’s wrath against him. So in essence, he now offered back to Esau the birthright he had unscrupulously attained. The lesson in this part of the story is that birthright to the eternal inheritance awaiting God’s children is given only by God, and not based on human achievement. The plans and schemes, nationality, and good works of man cannot procure God’s blessing and inheritance. It is only given by God to those who have faith in His Son Jesus (1 Peter 1:3-9; Ephesians 1:11-14). This story may have perhaps served to prepare some insightful Jews to the fact that though they were God’s firstborn son, birthrights have little to do with inheriting God’s favor or assuring one’s standing before God, but to receive eternal inheritance comes only through being born again by faith in Christ (John 1:12; 3:3-5).

 

 

Discussion Questions

1.     Why do you think God did a countercultural thing by having the second born child take the preeminence over the firstborn child?

2.     Do you think Rebekah may have been trying to help God out (similarly to Sarah trying to help God by offering Hagar to Abraham) after his prophecy about the older serving the younger by her efforts to trick Isaac into blessing Jacob rather than Esau?

3.     Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. What is your bowl of soup?

4.     Discuss the importance of the birthright and the significance of what Esau gave up.

5.     Discuss the irony of Jacob scheming for the birthright, and then first, leaving the land, and secondly, upon his return offering all his possessions to Esau.

6.     How might this have laid the groundwork, or have been a type or shadow of things to come when the gospel came through Jesus?

7.     How might this story be a benefit to someone who may have been raised in a Christian family who always went to church?

8.     What does this story tell us about how one receives eternal inheritance from God?   

 

Lesson 3: Election

     Another important theme from the Jacob story is election. There are many unusual circumstances surrounding the births and lives of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph that help to illustrate the principle of election. Each of these three characters, all direct descendants of Abraham, were supernaturally born to previously barren women. Isaac was born to Sarah (Genesis 21:1-2); Rebekah gave birth to Esau and Jacob (Genesis 25:21); and Jacob’s wife Rachel was barren until God “opened her womb” and she gave birth to Joseph (Genesis 29:31). In each instance God intervened supernaturally in order to continue the family line of Abraham to keep His covenant with him.

     None of these three men mentioned in the last paragraph was the firstborn son in their family, and the cultural principle of primo-geniture or right of the biologically firstborn was ignored by God. Biological preeminence was considered the cultural norm as the firstborn received most of the father’s power, authority, blessing, and material goods. In each of these cases, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph received blessings and favor from their father that would have ordinarily gone to the firstborn son in the family. Furthermore, Isaac gained superiority over Ishmael, Jacob gained preeminence over Esau, and Joseph gained supremacy over Reuben and the rest of his brothers. So in each case the older, firstborn son ended up serving his younger brother. The son that would have been regarded as the greatest and most important by cultural norms was less significant in these narratives.

     All of these sons were especially beloved and favored above the other siblings in their families. Each was ultimately preeminent in their father’s mind over their firstborn brothers. Isaac was favored by Sarah over Ishmael, and later by Abraham as well (Genesis 22:2). Jacob was his mother’s favorite and received a greater blessing from his father, showing his preeminence. Joseph was his father’s favorite (Genesis 37:3) and it was likely that the special robe he had received from his father may have been a sign that he was going to receive his father’s inheritance.  Each was especially beloved by their parents.

     What might we learn from election in all of this? Jacob’s election by God had nothing to do with who was the firstborn, or the nature of his or his brother’s character or behavior. God elected Jacob to be the one through whom He would continue the covenant promises before he or Esau were even born (Romans 9:10-13). In Genesis 25:23 God tells Rebekah that there were two nations in her womb. Esau would become the nation of Edom, a nation whose history finds it fighting against the people of God (Obadiah 1:9; Malachi 1:2-3; Genesis 36:12; Exodus 17:8-15; Deuteronomy 25:17-19). The nation descending from Jacob was, of course, the nation of Israel: God’s elect through whom He made His covenant promises to bless the world.

     Election in the patriarchal narratives seems to be primarily to serve God’s purposes in bringing forth His redemptive plan for the world as initiated by His covenant promises to Abraham and his descendants. The genealogies found in Matthew and Luke tracing Abraham to Jesus bears this fact out, and is taught explicitly by Paul in Galatians 3:14-18). God chose for His covenant purposes that which was unexpected, unlikely, unthinkable, and unusual. Jacob was not the kind of person that one might expect God to select for His purposes, but there is much in the life of Jacob to illustrate God’s ability to carry out His purposes in spite of man, rather than because of Him. It is almost as if God chose Jacob to reveal that it is God who is at work to bring about redemption, and His will cannot and will not be overturned, deterred, or thwarted by human beings and their weaknesses or circumstances. God’s overarching purpose in bringing about His covenant promises through Israel was ultimately not for the purpose of blessing Israel only, but for the purpose of blessing all nations through Jesus Christ. To view Romans 9, then, as referring to election for individual salvation is a mistake based on the error of reading the text through the lenses of Luther and Calvin rather than Paul. The elect in Christ is the new humanity created from every nation that has accepted Christ by faith.

Discussion Questions

1.     Why do you think the barrenness of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel is relevant to what God was doing in this narrative?

2.     What do you believe is the significance that neither Isaac, Jacob, nor Joseph were the firstborn sons in their families?

3.     Do you see any spiritual significance in the fact that Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph were all especially loved and favored above their siblings?

4.     What does scripture tell us about the nation of Edom, the descendants of Esau?

5.     God told Rebekah there were two nations in her womb (Genesis 25:23). Did God’s foreknowledge have anything to do with His choosing Jacob?

6.     What was it about Jacob’s character, actions, and relationships that moved God to choose him to be the one through whom the covenant would continue?

7.     Why do you think God chose Jacob?

8.     Discuss the purpose of God’s narrative of salvation history of saving the world, as opposed to the idea that God’s plan is about individual salvation.

Lesson 4: Struggles with God and man

     The question of the Jacob story is, “What will become of God’s covenant promises?”[4] Jacob is now running away from the land of promise fearing for his life after he has stolen Esau’s birthright and blessing (27:41-43). Jacob appears to be nothing of the kind of person that Abraham was. “He seems more intent on seizing the moment for his own selfish purposes than on obeying the God of Abraham. His name, which means “Supplanter” or “Cheater,” is justly deserved. “So now the story depends on this new character. What of the covenant and its promises now?”[5]

     Deceit and deception are key elements interwoven in the struggles in Jacob’s life. While Abraham is known as the father of the faithful for his unflinching trust in God, Jacob seems to be a model of guile, selfishness, and independence, crafting and scheming from his very birth. The sad and pathetic destruction of family relationships is a repeating theme throughout Jacob’s life.[6] His struggles with Esau over the birthright (Genesis 25) and with his father over the blessing (Genesis 27) have already been documented in this paper. As he moves to his uncle Laban’s household, we find Jacob continually struggling for the next twenty years with one (Laban) who seems to be his equal in trying to scheme to get the advantage over the other. Laban deceived Jacob by substituting Rachel with his older daughter Leah. He also tried to control Jacob and keep him there for economic advantage, but Jacob countered him by increasing his wealth at Laban’s expense. During his time Jacob also struggled with his wives over affection and children (Genesis 29-30). There is constant strife with people during Jacob’s life, especially in family relationships. 

 

     Jacob’s life of struggle seems to come to a head as he returns to his homeland of Canaan. At the Jabbok River, Jacob spends the night alone after sending his family and possessions forward to meet Esau. During the night Jacob wrestles with one whom he later understands to be God, or at least a theophany of God. Through this struggle with God Jacob the deceiver becomes Israel the prevailer. He learns that through all his struggles with human nature, God has continuously been present in his life, bringing him through all he has survived in order to carry out His covenant promises. Jacob leaves the struggle with God alive, yet marked by God for the rest of his life as one whom God perseveres with, is faithful to, and is unwavering in His purposes toward. 

 

     The deceitfulness of Jacob carries on to the subsequent generation. His sons deceive Shechem (Genesis 34) in taking out vengeance in regard to their sister. And later in his life, Jacob is deceived by his sons when they sell Joseph into slavery and tell him Joseph is dead (Genesis 37).

 

     From the time man was put out of the Garden of Eden, there has been conflict, strife, and dissension among men. Throughout Genesis, beginning with Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) there is one conflict after another among families.

Discussion Questions

1.     Describe the breakdown of family relationships in Jacob’s life.

2.     Do you see any correlation between Jacob’s character and his struggles with others?

3.     Discuss how selfishness has affected your relationships.

4.     How did Jacob resolve his conflicts with Laban and Esau?

5.     Discuss the concept of showing grace in conflict.

6.     Are there any struggles you are having with God or people?

7.     What might you do to resolve them?

8.     What do you think was the significance of God changing Jacob’s name to Israel?

Lesson 5: The Presence of God

     As has been previously noted, Jacob received the blessing from his father Isaac and was sent to Laban, his mother’s brother, to find a wife for himself among his mother’s kinfolks (Genesis 28:1-5). While Jacob was on his way to Paddam Aram (Bethel) God confirmed or reiterated with Jacob the covenant that He had previously made with Abraham and Isaac in a dream (Genesis 28:13-15). Following the covenant and promises through the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is critical to one’s understanding of the bible and Christianity. There are a number of significant details pertinent to our discussion that took place the night God confirmed the covenant in that dream where he saw a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels descending and ascending on it (Genesis 28:12). He saw the Lord, who spoke the words He had spoken long ago to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham (Genesis 28:13-14). God told Jacob that He would be with him wherever he went and would bring him back to the Promised Land (verse 15). Jacob’s response to the dream was “surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it. “How awesome is this place. “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” (verses 16-17). The next day he set up a stone as a pillar, poured oil on it, and called the name of the place “Bethel” (house of God). 

     The ladder was a symbol of uninterrupted fellowship with God and man: an emblem of mediation and reconciliation. It represented the providence of God in keeping His covenant through Jacob. It revealed the ministry of angels in God’s providence and faithfulness in keeping His promises. Jesus said in John 1:51, “Hereafter you shall see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” The fact that the ladder seen by Jacob in the dream is in the context of God confirming the covenant with him, likely reveals that it would be through Jesus, God’s Son, who came down from heaven, and returned there after His resurrection, that the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises would take place.

     God was with Jacob in this discouraging time of his life, and wanted Jacob to rest assured in His faithfulness to His covenant and word. “Jacob’s vision at Bethel was a demonstration of pure grace, for God appeared to assure him of his promise of protection and provision- in spite of the way that Jacob had secured the blessing.”[7] God has always desired to dwell among His people, beginning with Him walking and talking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God is a relational being who desires a relationship with His people.

     Jacob declared, “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” The house of God here is a precursor or type of God’s dwelling with His people. This is seen in the construction of the tabernacle (35-39), which concludes with the descent of God’s glory upon the tabernacle, which “filled the tabernacle” (40:35).  Similarly, Solomon’s temple was filled with the glory of God (1 Kings 8:11). The temple was later destroyed because of Israel’s unfaithfulness; the people were carried away captive; and they no longer enjoyed the presence of the living God in their midst.

     In John 1:1-3, 14 the eternal Word of God took on Himself a human body and came to the earth to reveal God to man. Through Jesus, God came to be with us. After Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross and His glorious resurrection, He said, “I will be with you always;” and “I will not leave you alone.” Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to be with them. It is this complex of ideas and images in the history of God dwelling with His people in the tabernacle and the temple that Paul picks up in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and 6:19.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s

Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will

destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.

Discussion Questions

1.     Why do you think God chose to bless Jacob and pronounce His covenant promises to him at this time in his life?

2.     Jacob said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I didn’t know it” (Genesis 28:16-17). What causes us sometimes to be oblivious to the presence of God in our lives?

3.     What was the ladder in Jacob’s dream a symbol of? How was it fulfilled?

4.     Describe the relationship God had with man in the Garden of Eden.

5.     God’s relationship with man was broken by sin. How does Jacob play a role in God’s story to redeem man from sin?

6.     God was working in Jacob’s life, sometimes in spite of Jacob. Discuss how God might work in your life in spite of you.

7.     Jacob named the place “Bethel” or “house of God.” Discuss how God came to live among His people.

8.     Describe the blessings of having God living in our hearts through His Holy Spirit.      

Lesson 6: Transformation

     After twenty years away from home, Jacob finally set out to return to the land of promise. Upon his return, he sought and found reconciliation with his brother Esau. On the way to meet Esau, he wrestled with God, who changed his name from Jacob (deceiver) to Israel (the one who strives with God). The change of Jacob’s name signified a change of character due to his relationship with God. “It leaves us with a picture of Jacob a changed man… “No longer does he dither at the prospect of meeting his brother, but he boldly puts himself at the head of the column going to meet Esau.”[8]

     The patriarchal promises are partially fulfilled. The land promise will awaits future fulfillment, but God is working His plan as the descendants of Abraham are increasing in number just as He had promised.

      It is fascinating that Jacob wrestled for God’s blessing, the very thing which he had previously and deceptively attempted to manipulate for himself. After wrestling all through the night until morning, Jacob finally walked away with the blessing, but he walked with a limp the rest of his life. In dislocating his hip, God taught him to cling to and lean upon, not on himself, but on God.

     Despite the difficulties in Jacob’s life, the real struggle throughout his life has been with God. Jacob has tried to control the outcomes of events during his life, but now he realizes that God is the one in control. Jacob learns to submit to God to receive the blessing and live at peace with God and man. This finally occurs at Peniel in Genesis 32.

     In summarizing the Jacob narrative, time and time again God in His grace overrules the weakness and sinfulness of His elect. Slowly, but surely, God was continuing to fulfill His promise to Abraham turn his small family into a mighty nation (Genesis 15:5). Jacob stumbled from one family conflict to another, demonstrating the triumph of grace over all obstacles. Jacob’s sinning, scheming, and plotting, is a model of how God’s grace succeeds even in the most unpromising people and circumstances. The gospel triumphs not through might or through human goodness but through God’s relentless grace.

 

     The rest of Jacob’s story reveals a life controlled by God. He is reconciled with Esau, displeased by his sons’ behavior, faithfully gets rid of idols, heartbroken at the loss of his favorite son Joseph, and finally winds up in Egypt where he is reunited with Joseph and his family is saved from a severe famine. At his death he requests that his body be buried in the cave of Machpelah, placing himself within the promise God made to Abraham.

Discussion Questions

1.     What do you believe took place in the story of Jacob wrestling with God?

2.     What do you think contributed to Jacob’s change of heart?

3.     Why do you think God crippled Jacob for the rest of his life?

4.     In what ways did Jacob change from trying to control outcomes to trusting God to determine and control the outcomes of his life?

5.     Discuss how God’s grace was shown to Jacob.

6.     God’s presence was transforming to Jacob. How might it be so for us?

7.     What are some of the evidences that after wrestling with God, Jacob was a changed man?

8.     Share an experience where you have wrestled with God and been changed.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Arnold, Bill T. and Beyer, Bryan E. Encountering the Old Testmant.

Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999.

 

Bartholomew, Craig G. and Goheen, Michael W. The Drama of Scripture.

 Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.

 

Hester, H.I. The Heart of Hebrew History.

Liberty: The Quality Press Inc, 1962.

 

Lasor, William Sanford, Hubbard, David Allan, and Bush, Frederic William. Old Testament Survey Second Edition.

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1996.

 

Ross, Allen, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Genesis, Exodus. Edited by Philip W. Comfort.

Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008.

 

Wenham, Gordan J. Exploring the Old Testament A Guide to the Pentateuch Volume One.

Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

 



[1] Allen Ross and Philip W. Comfort: Editor, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Genesis, Exodus, (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 2008), 21.

[2] William Sanford Lasor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey Second Edition, (Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 16.

[3] H.I. Hester, The Heart of Hebrew History, (The Quality Press Inc., 1962) 97.

[4] Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer, Encountering the Old Testmant, (Baker Books, 1999), 97.

[5] Ibid, 97.

[6] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, (Baker Academic, 2004), 58.

[7] Op cit, 169.

[8] Gordan J. Wenham, Exploring the Old Testament A Guide to the Pentateuch Volume One, (InterVarsity Press, 2003), 50.

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