Jacob in Genesis: A summary, including some discovered gems
(written by Jeff Jenkins, 7/15/07, with some help from NIV footnotes)
Jacob and Esau were twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Esau was born red and hairy, and grew up to become a hunter. When Jacob was born, his hand was grasping Esau's heel (Gen. 25:26), and so he was named Jacob, which means, "he grasps the heel," or, figuratively, "he deceives."
In Gen. 25:23, before the twins were born, Rebekah asked the Lord why she felt the babies fighting ("the babies jostled each other within her"), and the Lord's answer was "two nations are in your womb" and "one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). This prophecy was fulfilled in II Samuel 8:13-14 when David conquered the Edomites in a great battle ('Esau' may mean "hairy;" he was also called 'Edom,' which means "red;" the Edomites were Esau's descendants), and from that time, through the reign of Solomon, the Edomites were subject to the descendants of Jacob.
Jacob, true to his namesake ("he deceives") got Esau to sell his birthright to him by taking advantage of the situation (Gen. 25:29-34). (Esau was out hunting, and came back famished, and Jacob was cooking up some stew. Esau asked for some, and Jacob said 'only if you sell me your birthright.')
Jacob also deceived his own dad, Isaac, and stole Esau's blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau as the eldest (Gen. 27). (Jacob's dad was blind in his old age, and, with the help of his mom, he wore animal skin so he would feel hairy like his brother, and wore some of Esau's clothes, so that he would smell like Esau. Though Isaac was suspicious because he heard Jacob's voice instead of Esau's, the animal skin and clothes, along with the freshly killed meat that Jacob brought, was enough to deceive Jacob's dad.)
However, what goes around, comes around. Jacob got a taste of his own medicine when Laban, Jacob's uncle, later deceived Jacob (Gen. 29:15-25 and again in Gen. 30:35-36). Tit for tat.
Yet God had predetermined to bless Jacob. You might ask, "How could God bless someone who was such a deceiver?" We have to remember, however, that no one is perfect. (The only perfect and sinless human being Who ever lived was Jesus the God-man, Who was and is God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity.) The Bible doesn't whitewash it's heroes; it is honest about their faults. If God only blessed those who were perfect, then no one would ever be blessed. After all, David was an adulterer, Moses was a murderer, etc. Even Abraham, the father of the faith, was a liar: Abraham, Jacob's grandfather, lied and said that his wife was his sister, in Gen. 20. Interestingly, Jacob later did the exact same thing (like grandfather, like grandson?), saying that his wife was his sister, in Gen. 26:7-11.
One example of how God blessed Jacob, despite Jacob's faults, is in Gen. 30:25-43. Jacob and Laban make a deal. Jacob had worked for Laban for 7 years to get Laban's daughter Rachel as a wife. At night, Laban tricked Jacob and sent his oldest daughter, Leah, into the dark tent instead. Jacob slept with her and in the morning, discovered the deception. Jacob got angry, but because he loved Rachel so much, he agreed to Laban's offer to work for Laban 7 more years for Rachel.
Because God blessed Jacob, Laban's flocks increased under Jacob's care. Well, after 20 years of working for Laban (Gen. 31:38), during which time Laban changed Jacob's wages 10 times (Gen. 31:7), Jacob wants to leave, and Laban wants him to stay and continue working for him. Nevertheless, Laban says "name your wages, and I will pay you," and Jacob asks that he be allowed to go through Laban's flocks and remove every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb and every spotted or speckled goat, for his wages (sacrifices could only be made with spotless lambs, so basically, Jacob was asking for the inferior ones). Though Laban agreed, he again deceived Jacob by secretly removing all the male goats that were streaked or spotted, and all the speckled or spotted female goats, and all the dark-colored lambs. He placed them in the care of his sons and sent them on a 3-day journey, so that Jacob wouldn't find them.
Well, Jacob proceeded to work his craftiness again. In Gen. 30:37-43, Jacob took cut tree branches and peeled the bark away, exposing the white inner wood of the branches. He placed those peeled branches in all the watering troughs so they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. The flocks mated in front of the branches and bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. In this way, he grew prosperous and came to own large flocks.
Now, for years I was confused about this. I thought that this was some long-forgotten scientific secret concerning breeding. But it sounds so ridiculous and unbelievable. I have even heard unbelievers use this as an example of how the Bible is full of myths, saying that peeled tree branches in drinking water cannot affect breeding, claiming that this is just one more example of how the Bible is a fairy tale. However, the Bible merely REPORTS that Jacob did this, and reports what resulted from it; the Bible is not claiming that this is a scientific method that will actually work. In fact, this was merely a superstitious belief (comparable to ones we have today, such as throwing salt over your shoulder) that Jacob had apparently heard either from his family or his culture. I think that mere genetic probability might have accounted for some of his success. But in any case, the REAL reason that it worked, was that God was continuously blessing Jacob.
Another thing that has confused me for years was the account of Jacob wrestling with God in Gen. 32:22-32. How could Jacob, a mere man, successfully wrestle with an angel, let alone God, all night long? It sounds impossible and ridiculous. Angels are far more powerful than humans. However, God (or possibly an angel, I'm not sure which) came to Jacob in such a form that Jacob could wrestle with him successfully...sort of like the way Jesus, God the Son, came to this earth in weak human flesh. But at the same time, he showed Jacob that he could still easily disable Jacob at will when, in verse 25, the angel (or God) touched Jacob's hip and caused it to be disjointed. I think this is an illustration of how godly men often "wrestle with God" in prayer. Jacob's persistence was soon rewarded and Jacob finally acknowledged that the blessing must come from God. Now that Jacob had acknowledged God as the source of blessing, the Lord acknowledged Jacob as His servant by changing Jacob's name ("he deceives") to Israel (which means "he struggles with God"), from which the nation of Israel got her name and her characterization: the people who struggle with God (memorialized in the name Israel) and with men (memorialized in the name Jacob).
(some of the above information comes from NIV footnotes, and some of it comes from my own discoveries and my own summary of the verses)