You have to love the old patriarchs-they are so human yet so in love with God. And, God is so in love with them and stands true to the promises made. Today I would like to talk about Jacob because so much in the Hebrew story hinges on his actions and the resulting family. I won’t try to tell his full story. I will flow over into next week’s reading about Jacob and pick up some bits that are not in our lectionary.
The story of Jacob seems to be about sibling rivalry. Jacob’s father, Isaac, didn’t have a clue about sibling rivalry-he lived his life from age three to adulthood as an only child.
So, let’s go back a few Sundays. We read about Abraham taking the teenage Isaac off to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice him to God and how Isaac was protected.// Soon after Abraham and Isaac returned to Beersheba, news arrived that Nahor, Abraham’s brother, had prospered and had sons with his wife, Milcah. These sons included the father of Rebekah who became Isaac’s wife.
So Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah (his first cousin’s daughter) but they had no children and Isaac prayed to God for her. Rebekah finally became pregnant and, as we heard two weeks ago, she was perplexed by the constant movement inside her womb. She prayed to God to ask about it. And God said, “Two nations are in your womb,…One people will overpower the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
When she gave birth the first son came out all hairy and he was named Esau which means “hairy” and holding onto his heel was the hand of his brother so they named him Jacob which means “heel”. Isaac was 60 years old when they were born-they waited a long time for these boys.
And the sibling rivalry began. They grew up and Esau loved hunting and being outdoors. Isaac favored him because he loved to eat game. Jacob liked staying in the tents and spending time with his mother so Rebekah favored him. Whenever I read this, I think, why do people do this kind of thing to their kids? I know one may identify more with one child than another but, to actually love one more than the other seems impossible to me.
This was the perfect setup for these twins to set their parents against one another and I’m sure they did it often. I’m also sure Rebekah told Jacob about what God had told her. So, he decides to take matters into his own hands.
One day when Jacob is cooking some lentil stew, Esau comes in from the field absolutely famished. He says to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stew-I’m starved.”
Jacob makes a proposal: “I’ll trade you my stew for your rights as the firstborn.” Jacob saw this as an opportunity to gain the birthright God had promised.
Esau gets a bit dramatic and answers, “What good is a birthright if I’m dead?”
Jacob gets Esau to swear to give him his birthright. This story shows that Esau didn’t cherish this birthright in the way Jacob did. But, I imagine some of this was an underlying envy on Jacob’s part because Esau was favored by Isaac. I wonder how many times Jacob heard his dad tell him, “Why can’t you be more like your brother? You’re always hanging out with the women in the tents!”
Esau married at the age of 40 (like his dad)-to two women who were Hittites. Isaac and Rebekah didn’t like them. Jacob remained single.
When Isaac was old and nearly blind he called Esau in and asked him to go out and hunt some game for him so he could have one last meal of venison. Esau went out immediately. Rebekah overheard the request and told Jacob to get two goat kids and bring them to her. She cooked them the way Isaac liked them. She and Jacob plotted for him to take this meal into his father and receive the blessing intended for Esau. Jacob dressed in Esau’s clothing and put goat hair on his arms so he would feel hairy to his father.
Isaac was suspicious when Jacob came in with the meal. It hadn’t taken as long as he thought it would. The man felt like Esau but his voice was Jacob’s. When he asked Jacob to kiss him, he smelled like Esau because he wore his brother’s clothes. Jacob gave him the blessing of the firstborn: “May God give you of Heaven’s dew and Earth’s bounty of grain and wine. May peoples serve you and nations honor you. You will master your brothers, and your mother’s sons will honor you. Those who curse you will be cursed, those who bless you will be blessed.”
Deception, Jacob really was a heel but, God saw potential there. As Jacob was the chosen one to receive the birthright, he really didn’t have to try to force the issue but, sometimes we just can’t trust that God will follow through or we see an opportunity and think, “Oh, this is how God will bring this about,” and we rush forward and try to convince ourselves it fits into God’s will. Rebekah and Jacob were wrong to do this-it all would have worked out somehow if they had only waited.
God’s love for Jacob is deep, he sticks with the heel. Right after Jacob leaves his father, Esau comes in with the meal he has prepared. Esau is happy to feed his father one of his favorite foods and to receive this blessing from his father. But, Isaac asks him who he is.
Esau must have felt confused-so did Isaac. What a trick to play on an old, blind man! Esau tells him who he is and Isaac begins to tremble violently. He is angry and upset because he has given the firstborn blessing to someone else-and he cannot take it back.
Esau begins to sob and asks if he can also have a blessing. Isaac tells him Jacob has falsely taken his blessing. Esau tells his father this is the second time Jacob has tricked him// first, to get his birthright and now to gain his blessing.
Isaac asks Esau what is left to give. Esau begs for a blessing. Isaac tells him: “You’ll live far from Earth’s bounty, remote from Heaven’s dew. You’ll live by your sword, hand-to-mouth, and you’ll serve your brother. But when you can’t take it anymore you’ll break loose and run free.”
Esau vows that when he is finished mourning his father who likely would die soon, he will go and kill Jacob. Rebekah got word of this vow and called Jacob to her.
She tells Jacob to leave and go to Haran to stay with his uncle, Laban, Rebekah’s brother. She counsels him to stay there until Esau has cooled down and she sends for him. Rebekah then went to Isaac and complained about the daughters-in-law and told him if Jacob married a Hittite she couldn’t stand it.
So, Isaac called Jacob in, blessed him and told him to go to Laban and take one of his daughters for a wife. Recap: Abraham married his half sister, Isaac married his cousin twice removed (and that was from both parental lines), and Jacob is to marry his first cousin who is also his cousin three times removed. Things were different back then.
And, Isaac gives Jacob this blessing: “…may The Strong God bless you and give you many, many children, a congregation of peoples; and pass on the blessing of Abraham to you and your descendants so that you will get this land in which you live, this land God gave Abraham.”
When Esau found out Jacob had been sent to Uncle Laban and told not to take a Canaanite wife, he decided that he needed to do something to please his parents. So, he went to the people of Ishmael and took a wife. That made three. Sibling rivalry-it makes for interesting stories.
Jacob goes out to camp and has the vision from God we call Jacob’s ladder. God promises Jacob that he will be the heir to the land of Canaan. Jacob makes a vow that if God takes care of him and he returns safe to his father’s home, that this God will be his god and all that he receives he will return a tenth to God.
And, Jacob gets dropped right into another nest of sibling rivalry: Leah and Rachel are Laban’s daughters. And, the master of deception and trickery becomes the victim of the same.
Jacob meets Rachel and immediately falls in love with her but, she is the younger daughter so Laban uses deception to have Jacob marry Leah instead. And, that is today’s reading.
God wasn’t pleased that Leah was unloved so he blessed her with sons and left Rachel barren. In quick succession, Leah had four sons and she was delighted with them all. Reuben which means, “Look it’s a boy” who made Leah hope that Jacob would love her. She had Simeon which means “God heard” then she had Levi which means “connect” and Judah meaning “praise God”. Leah is desperate to be loved and Rachel is jealous that Leah is having all the babies.
Rachel decides that Jacob should take her maid, Bilhah, so Rachel can have children through her. This sounds a lot like Sarah and Hagar doesn’t it? That worked out well, right? Rachel named the resulting baby Dan which means vindication. Then Bilhah had another baby and because Rachel felt she had been in an all-out fight with her sister she named him Naphtali which means fight. Can you imagine giving these sorts of names to a child?
Leah was concerned that she was no longer having babies so she gave Zilpah to Jacob for a wife and when she had a son, Leah felt it was fortunate so she named him Gad which, I kid you not, means lucky. Zilpah had another son and Leah said, “Happy day.” And named him Asher which is happy. What is that now, eight?
Then Reuben brings his mom some mandrakes or love-apples and Rachel wants them. So, they make a trade. Leah gets Jacob for the night and Rachel gets the mandrakes. The resulting son was named Issachar or bartered. And, Leah had one more son whom she named Zebulon or honor because she felt as the mother of six sons Jacob would honor her with gifts. Then she had a daughter named Dinah.
Finally, Rachel had a child, Joseph which means add because she felt God had removed her humiliation. She also prayed that God would add one more son for her.
Jacob’s 14 years of labor for the two wives was up and he wanted to return home. Laban was aware that he had become wealthy while Jacob was with him and that prosperity came from God’s blessing on Jacob. He plotted to keep Jacob with him longer.
They made an arrangement about the flocks of cattle and sheep and goats. All the spotted, speckled, and black animals would be counted and go to Jacob. Jacob would continue to work for Laban but, when he was ready to go he would take these animals with him.
There is a whole convoluted tale about Laban removing Jacob’s animals and sending them off with his sons so Jacob doesn’t have access to them. So, Jacob devises a selective breeding plan and all the white animals that are left start producing spotted, speckled and black offspring that are very healthy stock. Laban can’t win. When Jacob is told by an angel to leave, he gathers his animals and his family and goes while Laban is away shearing sheep. Leah and Rachel agreed to this because they felt sorely used by their father. By the time Laban returns, they have been gone for three days.
Laban gathered up his relatives and went after Jacob-it was seven days later before they caught up to them. God appeared to Laban in a dream and told him whatever he did to Jacob good or bad he needed to be careful.
Laban chided Jacob for taking his daughters and grandchildren away without a goodbye. Jacob confronts Laban for all the dishonesty and bad treatment. Laban claims he really owns all that Jacob has but, he agrees to make a covenant with him. Laban vows that God will be watching Jacob to make sure he treats Leah and Rachel well. They make a peace treaty.
So after twenty years, Jacob heads home. He is greeted by a group of angels. Jacob sends out a message to Esau. He is hoping to approach his brother in a way to avoid a conflict. But, he is frightened when he finds out his brother is on his way to meet him with 400 men. Jacob prays to God and thanks him for his prosperity and tells God how worried he is about what Esau might do. Jacob divides his group into two camps hoping one will survive if Esau attacks.
Jacob prepares a present for his brother. He sends out a herd of 220 goats with a servant followed by a herd of 220 sheep. Each herd is sent out separately with orders to pace them apart from one another. Following these two herds are 30 camels and their babies as a separate herd, 50 cattle, and 30 donkeys. Each type of animal is kept separate from the others. Each servant on meeting Esau is to tell him that his servant Jacob is the owner of the herd and they are a gift for his master Esau and that Jacob is on his way. Jacob was hoping he could soften Esau up with gifts and he would be glad to see Jacob when they finally met. Jacob sent them off and settled down for the night.
During the night Jacob got up and moved his wife and children and all he owned across a brook then he stayed behind alone. This is when a man attacked him and they wrestled all night long.
At daybreak, the man realized Jacob would not give up so he put Jacob’s hip out of joint. Jacob still wouldn’t let him go-he demanded a blessing.
The man asked him his name and told him no, you will now be called Israel which means God-wrestler because you have wrestled with God and come through.
Jacob wanted the man’s name and the man wouldn’t give it but, blessed Jacob. Jacob called the place Peniel meaning God’s face because he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story.” Jacob limped away and saw Esau and the 400 men approaching. So, he divided his family. He put Bilhah and Zilpah and their children in front. He put Leah and her children next and at the rear he placed Rachel and Joseph. Jacob moved in front and led them out to meet Esau. As he approached Esau he bowed seven times to honor his brother. Esau ran up to Jacob and embraced him. Esau asked about the women and children and Jacob introduced them to him.
Esau asked about the herds and Jacob told him his strategy of offering the gifts so he would be happy to see him.
Esau told him, “Oh, brother, I have plenty of everything-keep what is yours for yourself.”
Jacob tells him if he can find it in his heart to welcome him to please take the gifts. “When I saw your face, it was as the face of God smiling on me.”
Esau agrees to take the gifts and Jacob gets him to return to his home. Jacob goes to a place where he is able to buy some land-in the land of Canaan. Jacob built an altar there and named it El-Elohe-Israel which means mighty is the God of Israel.
And, the story continued, but not today. Jacob is a remarkable man-his cunning, his physical strength, and his cooking skills-but, he is so full of flaws. He recognizes through his fear and envy that all he has comes from God. This is not just a story about sibling rivalry. It is a story about a man who has a deep desire to live a life blessed by and connected to God.