So, I’m currently in a Bible study of the book of Genesis, and we’ve been studying Jacob. I’ve decided that he’s kind of misunderstood, in a couple of respects. On the one hand, he can easily be seen as a sneak and a trickster, and he is. Jacob is the guy who convinces his older brother Esau to sell his birthright for a bowl of stew, and then implements a somewhat elaborate plan to trick his blind father into believing he is his brother so he’ll give him Esau’s blessing. Not really a stand-up guy, is he? It’s easy to wonder why God would choose him over his stronger, more honest brother to be the recipient of the Promise (the Promised Land, wealth, blessing, the presence of God, and innumerable descendants, including the Messiah). But there are two truths I’m encountering over and over as I make my way through the first book of the Bible, and the ideas continue on through the rest of Scripture, as well. For one, God uses flawed people to accomplish his purposes. If he didn’t, there’d be no one left to choose from. And what I am especially noticing as I read is that what God values most in a person is faith– believing what God says. Believing it and valuing it enough to act on it.
Faith is what sets Jacob apart from his brother. He believed the Promise God had given his father and grandfather, believed it enough to want it badly and pursue it for himself, though he employed wrong means to get it. Esau, on the other hand, placed little value on God’s promises. If he did believe they were true, he felt they were of little use to him in the present, especially since his family didn’t even own the promised land yet. He valued his present comfort more and chose instant gratification over the things of God. He wanted what he wanted, and he wanted it now. Sound a bit like our own culture today? Just imagine God offering you a whole bunch of good things for your future, and you telling him you’d rather have a Big Mac. (Though that’s essentially what we do a lot of the time when we choose to focus our days on momentary pleasures rather than on him. I know I do.) Jacob’s stew wasn’t the only food around- Esau himself had just come back from hunting. And it wasn’t just a momentary lapse in judgement- the Bible describes Esau as “godless” and mentions his poor choices in several areas of his life- choices that showed he valued physical pleasures more than the things of God. Esau had some good qualities- he was skillful, strong, successful, had a good relationship with his father- but none of these things amounted to anything without a heart that valued God. He was lost without God. His brother Jacob was deceptive and pursued the things of God in ways that were wrong. But he pursued the things of God, and God blessed him for that, chose him for that reason.
When Jacob’s not getting a bad rap for the way he stole the birthright and the blessing from his brother, he’s getting sympathy for working hard for seven years (do you know anyone who would be willing to wait that long for somebody?) to win the hand of Rachel, only to be tricked by Rachel’s father into marrying his other daughter instead, and then having to work another seven years to get Rachel, too. I don’t know if I feel that sorry for the guy, though, as admirable as his love and work ethic may have been. He was a trickster, and he got tricked. It didn’t end there, either. In return, he tricked his father-in-law out of some of his wealth (although, to be fair, much of it should have been Jacob’s anyway, had it not been for his father-in-law’s unfair treatment of him over the years). Then fast-forward a few decades. Remember Joseph? (Think Donny Osmond, with the rainbow coat.) Jacob was the father, deceived by his sons into thinking his favorite son was dead, for years. Deception is not the only sin that seems to keep on giving, by the way. Jacob’s parents had a problem with favoritism, which they evidently passed on to Jacob, and it created a huge mess of problems in both families. Oh, and Jacob’s father and grandfather had a problem with deception, too, constantly telling kings that their wives were their sisters because they were afraid of getting killed. More messes resulted. A good encouragement to overcome our sins before they become a generational cycle…
So Jacob, like most of the people in the Bible, was a bit of a mess. But he believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, even if he wasn’t always righteous in reality. God honored Jacob, even joining his sacred name with him and calling himself “The God of Jacob,” because Jacob had faith, faith enough to pursue God and his promises.
Jacob believed in God since childhood, the God of his fathers Abraham and Isaac, but a turning point in his life happened when he left his parents’ house, fleeing from his angry brother after stealing the blessing. He had a personal encounter with God along the way, and his faith became his own. He realized that the promises of God were not just for others but for him. Before this encounter, Jacob referred to God as “your God”. Afterward it became “my God.” He began to honor God with his worship and his wealth. And I suspect it was also at that point that God began the process of sanctification in Jacob’s life, helping him overcome those sins that tripped him up, the wrong means he was bent toward. It is just after encountering God for himself and making his faith his own that Jacob becomes the victim of Laban’s deception. Perhaps God was using it to help take the dishonesty out of Jacob? If so, it didn’t work right away. The refinement process is a lifelong one for all of us. But I imagine that his problem with dishonesty gradually lessened over the years as he walked with God. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work- the more time you spend living closely with someone, the more you become like them. The more time we spend walking closely with God, the more we should look like him. And if we don’t, we might want to examine whether we are truly living in intimacy with him or whether we’re keeping up walls of defensiveness and holding onto our sin.
So Jacob gets a bad rap. And he deserves it. But he’s a pretty good example of what it looks like to live a life of faith. Many of us Christians often get a bad rap. And we deserve it. We are messy, imperfect, often muddling through the consequences of our sins, but slowly being refined by the God we believe and pursue, the God who calls us His.
For those who haven’t really started out on that journey but want to, it starts by valuing the things of God enough to pursue them. As you seek to know God and what he says, the next thing to do is to believe him. Believe who he says he is, what he says he’s done, and what he says he will do. Believe his promises. Believe his ways are best. Believe he loves you. If you want to believe but are struggling to, just ask him to give you the faith you need, and he will. Jesus promises, “Ask, and you will receive. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door is opened.” -Matthew 7:7-8. And pray for an encounter with God. It’s all just theoretical, someone else’s faith, until we experience the living God for ourselves and start to be transformed by his presence. Lives are changed by encounters with God- Paul on the road to Damascus, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, each afflicted person who was brave enough to ask Jesus for healing, who was healed with a touch or a word from him because they believed that he could.
I pray that we’ll all have life-changing encounters with God and the faith to believe that his promises are ours for the taking.
“God of my grandfathers
Gone these many years now
I guess they’re shining like the sun
And I envision them
Grinning at the finish
And they smile, and they smile
Because they love to see me run.
Like my fathers I am looking for a home
Looking for a home beyond the sea
So be my God and guide me ’til I lie beneath these hills
Then let the great God of my fathers
Be the great God of my children still.”