III. Jacob (Genesis 25:1–36:43)

25:1-6 The author mentions Abraham taking another wife (25:1) without seeming to comment on whether Sarah was still living when he did or the ethics surrounding the decision. Importantly, although God’s established order was for marriage to be between one man and one woman (2:21-24), polygamy crept in early. Though the Old Testament does not condemn polygamy as frequently as we might expect, we see strong hints—even here—that the practice was problematic. Isaac, after all, was the son of promise, so Abraham gave everything he owned to Isaac (25:5). The sons of his concubines were only given a few gifts and sent eastward (25:6)—the East, as we will recall, being a recurring negative symbol throughout Genesis.

29:27-29 Jacob, realizing that he had no basis for “righteous” anger, accepted the marriage to Leah (29:27-28). But he was still in love with Rachel, so he agreed to marry her too for the dowry of another seven years of labor (29:27-30). One wonders whether these “flew by” as quickly as the first seven!

29:30-35 Difficulties caused by Laban’s actions continued as Jacob’s family began to grow. Leah and Rachel, competing for Jacob’s affection, began a race to produce children. Their sons would ultimately become the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel, but that complex family tree was born out of conflict.

The conflict began because Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (29:30). God, recognizing that Leah was unloved, . . . opened her womb before Rachel’s (29:31). The names of Leah’s sons reflected her marital situation. The first she named Reuben, which sounds like “has seen my affliction” (29:32) in the Hebrew language in which Genesis was written. Even in the loveless relationship with her husband, she expressed faith in God, believing that he knew the reality of her circumstances. When she conceived again, she named the second son Simeon, which sounds like “has heard” (29:33). Again, Leah knew that God had loved her even though Jacob had not. With the third son, Levi, whose name sounds like “attached to” in Hebrew, Leah hoped that Jacob would develop an attachment to her (29:34). But he wouldn’t, so with son number four, Judah, which sounds like “praise,” Leah turned her full attention to God, saying, This time I will praise the Lord (29:35). Her marital circumstance had not changed, but she chose to praise God despite her challenges.

30:1-8 Rachel was also having family difficulties, because her sister was bearing children while she wasn’t. She envied her sister and felt like she was dying inside (30:1). Jacob became angry with Rachel and didn’t offer much reassurance, other than the true—but rather cold—reminder that God has withheld offspring from you (30:2). So Rachel did what Sarah had done, seeking a human solution to her problem. She offered to Jacob her servant Bilhah as a surrogate mom, who would have kids on her behalf (30:3-4). The plan worked, resulting in two sons—Dan and Naphtali (30:6-8).

30:9-13 Not to be outdone, Leah responded in kind, offering her servant Zilpah to Jacob as a surrogate (30:9). Her human solution worked as well as Sarah’s, and two more sons—Gad and Asher—entered the mix (30:11-13).

30:14-24 The sisters’ manipulative competition for Jacob’s affection continued, this time leading to Reuben’s involvement. Finding some mandrakes in the field (30:14), which were fruits believed to help women conceive, Reuben brought them to his mother Leah, who agreed to share some with Rachel in exchange for another night with Jacob (30:15). Leah conceived again—and again—bearing Issachar and Zebulun (30:18, 20). Then Rachel finally had her first child, Joseph (30:22-24).

The drama between Rachel and Leah, which rivals anything modern soap operas could produce, reveals God’s ability to graciously meet our needs in all things. In spite of the sisters’ human (and sinful) approaches to fixing their situations, God still blessed and provided for them. Their sinful tactics continued to make matters confusing and painful, but God was gracious to mitigate against the damage.

30:25-36 Jacob had arrived in Laban’s house poor and alone. But by this point God had multiplied him tremendously, so he desired to return to his homeland (30:25). Laban, however, knew how beneficial Jacob was to his business; he wanted to strike a deal for Jacob to stay (30:27-28). So Jacob offered to stay if only he could have the speckled or spotted . . . dark-colored sheep among the lambs and goats (30:32). These were considered less valuable, so Laban immediately accepted the deal (30:34). He separated the flock to protect his investment (30:36), thinking he had, once again, gotten the better of Jacob.

30:37-43 No husbandry manual teaches that animals that breed in the sight of peeled branches (30:38) produce speckled offspring. Jacob was attempting to selectively breed speckled sheep, but God was the one supernaturally guiding the process. In the end, the weak sheep belonged to Laban and the stronger ones to Jacob (30:42), and Jacob became very rich (30:43). This is a reminder that it doesn’t matter how good a deal seems in human terms; the man on whose side God stands will have the better deal.

31:1-3 Jacob’s continued success became an annoyance to Laban, which Jacob recognized (31:2). God was using the conflict to call Jacob back to the land of [his] fathers and to [his] family (31:3). God often does this, allowing conflicts to create new directions in our lives, breaking off relationships with those who are not moving toward him so that we can pursue him with greater focus.

31:4-16 Jacob revealed his plans to his wives, letting them know that God himself had commanded him to get up, leave this land, and return to [his] native land (31:13). Rachel and Leah responded by following Jacob’s leadership (31:16), proving that the best way for a man to lead his wife is by communicating where God is leading him.

31:17-35 Jacob rallied his family and his flocks and left, not telling [Laban] that he was fleeing (31:20). Laban didn’t realize what had happened until three days later (31:22), but as soon as he did, he rushed after Jacob (31:23). A week later the two parties met, and Laban scolded Jacob for sneaking away, taking his daughters away like prisoners of war (31:26). What had most irked Laban, however, was the disappearance of his household gods (31:30), which Rachel had stolen on their way out of town (see 31:19). Perhaps she took them because she, like her father, believed they brought good luck. Perhaps she was just paying her father back for the terrible way he had treated her and Jacob. Either way, her theft was risky, and she was only able to cover it up by stashing the idols under a saddle, sitting on it, and explaining that she was having her period (31:35) and therefore couldn’t rise.

31:36-55 Jacob, unaware that Rachel really had committed this crime, went on a counter-attack against Laban. He chronicled all of the ways that he had worked hard for Laban while Laban only took advantage of him (31:38-41). Laban remained unmoved, responding, the daughters [you took] are my daughters, the sons, my sons; and the flocks, my flocks (31:43)—which was not true, as he had given the daughters in marriage and agreed to give Jacob the speckled flocks. But realizing that he couldn’t weasel his way out of this situation, Laban tried to limit the loss, proposing that a covenant be made between them (31:44). The terms of the covenant were meant to keep Jacob and Laban apart (31:52), and God was at work through Laban’s covenant to finally end the connection between the two men.

32:1-2 Having come out of a crisis with Laban and about to enter another potential crisis with his brother Esau, Jacob was in need of divine help. God sent angels to meet Jacob and assure him of God’s presence and protection (32:1). The battle before him, like the battle behind him, would be primarily spiritual in nature, so before addressing anything physical, God wanted to reveal to Jacob his own spiritual authority.

32:3-8 Jacob sent messengers . . . to his brother Esau (32:3) in an attempt to seek Esau’s favor and reestablish their broken relationship (32:5). Imagine Jacob’s surprise and dread, then, when a messenger returned with news that Esau was coming to meet [him]—and he has four hundred men with him (32:6). Jacob assumed, reasonably so, that Esau was out for vengeance.

32:9-12 Jacob’s fear drove him to plead with God for deliverance (32:11). His short prayer is a model for the way we should pray, too: he approached God with humility (32:10), reminded God of his promises (32:9), and asked God to act in accordance with those promises (32:12).

32:13-23 Jacob prayed, but he also devised a plan. He took part of what he had and sent it ahead as a gift for Esau (32:13), hoping to soothe his wrath. And in case the first gift didn’t do the trick, he arranged for a couple more, just to be sure (32:19-20). Jacob still wasn’t confident that God would answer the prayer he had just prayed!

32:24-25 On the night before his big confrontation with his supposedly murderous brother, Jacob was suddenly jumped by a man who wrestled with him until daybreak (32:24). An all-night wrestling match will make you weary enough, but with one touch of Jacob’s hip socket this mysterious stranger dislocated his hip (32:25). If Jacob had been unable to best Esau physically before this fight, now he couldn’t even run from him. He was alone, afraid, and completely broken—just where God wanted him to be.

32:26-28 In the middle of the fight, Jacob struck up a conversation. Bless me (32:26), he demanded, because he realized that this physical altercation was about something much bigger. The wrestler responded by asking, What is your name (32:27)? Jacob responded with the identity he had for himself: I’m a trickster and a jiver, which is what the name Jacob means. But the man responded, Your name will no longer be Jacob, but it will be Israel (32:28). In other words, he said, you don’t operate by schemes anymore. Now you’ll be identified by the fact that you’ve wrestled with God.

32:29 Jacob, now Israel, responded by asking for the name of the wrestler. But the man responded with a scoff, Why do you ask my name? Think about it: this man had just given Jacob the name “Israel” because he had struggled with God (32:28). With God! Jacob had been given the name of the wrestler already.

32:30-32 Just like he had done when he woke from his dream of the ladder to heaven, Jacob responded to God’s presence with the shock that [his] life has been spared (32:30). And yet his life would never be the same, because he was now limping because of his hip (32:31). This suggests that any man God blesses will possess a limp. God will create something in that person’s life that makes him despair of his own strength and lean on the Lord’s instead. Jacob’s limp, in fact, was so significant to his blessing that when the author of Hebrews mentioned Jacob’s demonstration of faith, he mentioned Jacob’s walking “staff” (see Heb 11:21). It’s as if out of all the colorful scenes in Jacob’s life, the writer of Hebrews wanted to say, “In the end, Jacob was a man who was forced to lean on God.”

33:1-7 As Esau and his army of four hundred men approached, Jacob bowed to the ground seven times (33:3), humbling himself before Esau. To Jacob’s surprise, Esau ran to meet him, hugged him, threw his arms around him, and kissed him (33:4). Something had changed in Esau so that he no longer sought vengeance, but reconciliation.

33:8-11 Jacob had sent a bevy of gifts to Esau to prevent Esau from attacking. But considering Esau’s forgiving mood, it seemed that the gifts might prove unnecessary (33:9). But Jacob insisted that Esau share in his blessing, because God [had] been gracious (33:11). This suggests that we become truly generous, not when we give out of compulsion, but when we realize that God has given us all we possess.

33:12-17 Fearing a possible change of heart, Jacob avoided traveling any further with Esau. Using his children and his flocks as an excuse (33:13), he appealed to Esau to go ahead while Jacob himself would continue on slowly (33:14). Once Esau was out of sight and on his way back to Seir (33:16), Jacob changed directions and went to Succoth, which was in exactly the opposite direction (33:17).

33:18-20 Jacob arrived safely at Shechem in the land of Canaan (33:18) and, like Abraham, set up an altar there (33:20). He acknowledged that God had indeed brought him back to the land of promise.

34:1-4 Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob, went out to see some of the young women of the area (34:1), likely desiring to know how they lived. But during her visit, a man named Shechem, the son of the region’s chieftain . . . took her and raped her (34:2). Adding insult to injury, he then decided that he loved the young girl (34:3) and wanted to marry her (34:4).

34:5-7 Jacob heard that Shechem had defiled his daughter Dinah (34:5) and that Shechem desired to marry her (34:8), but his response was surprisingly mute (34:5). Instead, it was Jacob’s sons who became deeply grieved and very angry, rightly calling Shechem’s actions an outrage that should not be done (34:7).

34:8-24 Shechem’s father Hamor seemed unaware of Jacob’s sons’ rage, because he pursued the marriage deal further, presenting intermarriage between the two families as a profitable situation for everybody involved (34:10). Jacob’s sons, taking after their father’s old ways, answered Shechem and his father Hamor deceitfully (34:13), plotting to take Shechem down by surprise. They required Shechem, Hamor, and all of their men to be circumcised, allegedly to make the marriage pure (34:14-16). Hamor and company considered this a small price to pay for a bride (34:19) and all of Jacob’s possessions (34:23), so they eagerly agreed (34:24).

34:25-31 But Jacob’s sons had no interest at all in a deal. The circumcision they required was a ruse to weaken the men, and when they were still in pain, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, avenged their sister’s honor and slaughtered all the men of the town (34:25). They plundered the city as well (34:27), leaving Hamor’s people devastated (34:29). Jacob, thinking of their long-term prospects in the land, was not pleased with the attack. He feared retribution from the other Canaanites in the area, who were much more numerous than they (34:30).

Most of the men in this story respond in ways that show little faith in God: Shechem violated God’s just laws and did violence to an innocent woman; Jacob didn’t trust that God would maintain his family in the land like he had promised; and Jacob’s sons used a sacred symbol of the covenant with God as a trick to murder far more people than were guilty.

35:1 The violence of Simeon and Levi (34:25) had Jacob terrified for his life. In the midst of this fear, God showed up with a new command: Get up! Go to Bethel and settle there. God’s timing is never accidental. He spoke to Jacob in the middle of a family crisis because he knew Jacob was desperate enough to listen. Sometimes we should thank God for putting us flat on our backs, because only then are we facing the right direction.

35:2 Jacob experienced a personal revival, which spilled over into a family revival. After completely abdicating his leadership role during the Dinah debacle, he finally manned up. In Jacob’s revival, we see the three steps that anyone can follow when returning to God.

First, he said, get rid of the foreign gods that are among you. Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, had snatched some of her father’s household gods. For the last twenty years, apparently, those idols had been in Jacob’s household. Jacob announced it was time to make a clean break and put them away for good. Second, he said, purify yourselves. This is an extension of the first point. Get the idols out of your life, and remove the sin from your midst, too. Third, change your clothes. Changing garments symbolizes a reorienting of life. For instance, when a judge puts on his robe, he’s not an ordinary man anymore; he has authority. In revival, God expects us to change our position, reorienting ourselves so that God’s authority can flow through us.

35:3 Jacob’s revival hinged on the specific place of Bethel. God told him to go, so Jacob felt he must get up and go to Bethel to build an altar there to the God who answered in his day of distress. Bethel was the location where Jacob met God the first time. Over twenty years before, when Jacob was on the run from Esau, God appeared to Jacob—promising to protect him, multiply him, and bring him back to Bethel. Jacob had known, then, that he was supposed to go back to that spot, but for two decades he had detoured. The good news was that God didn’t abandon Jacob even when Jacob got off track. Jacob acknowledged, [God] has been with me everywhere I have gone.

35:4-5 A few verses earlier, Jacob had cowered in fear because of what his enemies might do to him. But when he set out for Bethel, suddenly a terror from God came over the cities around them (35:5). What had changed? Jacob had stepped up to be the leader God called him to be. He led his family in revival. He listened to the voice of God. And in response, the same people he had been fearing turned to run.

35:6-15 When Jacob arrived and built an altar in Bethel (35:7), God appeared to Jacob again and blessed him (35:9). The blessing and promise are nearly identical to those given to Jacob when he first arrived at Bethel. Jacob would be fruitful and multiply into an assembly of nations and would inherit the land (35:11-12). Most importantly, God repeated his promise to change Jacob’s name to Israel (35:10), a symbol of a new identity and a new direction. God had not changed. The promise had only lain dormant until Jacob returned to a place where God could pull it off.

35:16-18 God finally answered Rachel’s prayer for a second son. She gave birth and named him Ben-oni, which means “Son of My Sorrow,” because she was dying (35:18). Jacob renamed the child Benjamin, which means “Son of the Right Hand,” as an indication of the place the boy would have in Jacob’s heart.

35:19-26 Benjamin’s special status was not merely a matter of Jacob’s preference. Since Benjamin was born on the way to Ephrath (35:19), that made him the only son to be born inside of the promised land. To remind us of this distinction, the author recaps the full list of Jacob’s sons, which would become the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel (35:23-26). Except for Benjamin, all of them were born to [Jacob] in Paddan-Aram (35:26).

Almost as an aside, the author stops to point out that Reuben went in and slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah (35:22). Though Bilhah was not his mother, this was still an egregious sin similar to incest. While Reuben might have thought that no harm would come from his sexual sin, Israel heard about it (35:22). And Reuben’s momentary thrill would thus become the very reason that Reuben would not inherit the covenant. This reminds us that no sin is committed in secret. In the end, everything comes to light.

35:27-29 I love the reunion we see here at Isaac’s death. Isaac, thought to be on death’s doorstep twenty years prior, finally passed away after living for 180 years (35:28). But unlike the last time Isaac expected his death, when his sons were conniving against each other to steal his blessing, this time Esau and Jacob buried him together in cooperation (35:29).

36:1-43 A major shift in the narrative is about to take place. This is indicated by means of the extended genealogy. The author gives the genealogical record of Esau as a way of closing the book on Esau and his family, just as he had done for Cain in chapter 4, Noah’s sons in chapter 10, Lot in chapter 19, and Ishmael in chapter 25. As God had promised, Esau’s descendants would grow into a nation of his own—the Edomites in the mountains of Seir (36:9). This, however, was a nation forged after the flesh, with a series of kings (36:31-43) who promoted their own agendas.

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