III. Jacob (Genesis 25:1–36:43)
III. Jacob (25:1–36:43)
A. Jacob the Deceiver and Esau the Impulsive (25:1–28:9)
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.
25:7-10 When Abraham took his last breath and died (25:8), it brought together his two previously estranged sons. Together they buried him in the cave of Machpelah (25:9) . . . with his wife Sarah (25:10). But the family strife had hardly been buried with the patriarch.
25:11-18 We find another genealogy here, which often indicates a shift in the plot. In this case, the author wants to confirm God’s promise to Isaac (25:11), contrasting that with Ishmael. Even though Ishmael would have a lineage of his own (25:12-26) and would live a lengthy life (25:17), the story leaves him behind and moves toward Isaac and his descendants.
Names sometimes referred to the actual skin tone of dark-complexioned people. For example, Kedar (25:13) means “to be dark.” Thus, the Kedarites are a dark-skinned people.
25:19-23 Isaac and Rebekah encountered a problem similar to Abraham and Sarah’s: Rebekah was unable to have children (25:21). We aren’t given as much insight into Rebekah’s struggle as we got with Sarah’s, but note that they could not conceive for twenty years (25:20, 26). When God answered Isaac’s prayer to let her conceive, though, he did so in duplicate! As Rebekah began to wonder why her pregnancy was so active (25:22), God answered, Two nations are in your womb; two peoples will come from you and be separated (25:23). Even before their births, Jacob and Esau were battling one another, foreshadowing the coming conflict between their two nations, Israel and Edom. God also let Rebekah know another surprising detail about these twins. Unlike the custom of the day, in which the older son would get the birthright and the blessing, the older [would] serve the younger (25:23).
25:24-26 The twins were finally born. The older was covered with red hair like a fur coat, and they named him Esau (25:25). He was also called Edom (see 25:30), which is the Hebrew word for “red.” The younger came out grasping Esau’s heel with his hand. So they named him Jacob, which means, “he grasps the heel” (25:26). Jacob’s name is an important one, because it can also mean, “he strives” or “he deceives.” Both meanings prove prophetic over the course of his life—the deception part coming into play in just the next few verses.
25:27-28 Personality differences are an enormous factor in the conflict between Jacob and Esau. Esau was outgoing, while Jacob was a homebody (25:27). By itself this may not have been a problem, but it apparently led the parents to choose favorites. Isaac loved Esau because he was a “man’s man,” and Rebekah loved Jacob because he loved spending time at home (25:28). Isaac and Rebekah were as much to blame as anyone in the feud between the boys.
25:29-34 One day, as Esau arrived famished from a day of hunting, he made an incredibly foolish trade. Esau gave his inheritance to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of food. We see here the character flaws of both sons. Jacob, quick to seize upon Esau’s hunger, immediately decided to squeeze him for all he was worth: Sell me your birthright (25:31). He even made sure to put Esau on the hook by having him swear an oath (25:33). Jacob’s “grasping” and deceiving ways are on full display here.
Esau, on the other hand, proved to be impulsive and shortsighted. When faced with the prospect of losing his double inheritance, he reasoned, I’m about to die (from hunger), so what good is a birthright to me? (25:32). In other words, he settled for temporary satisfaction over hanging on to something much more spiritually valuable. This is why the author says Esau despised his birthright, because he considered it so insignificant that a single bowl of lentil stew became more important to him (25:34).
The author of Hebrews cautions his readers to avoid being an “immoral or irreverent person like Esau” (Heb 12:16). Heed the warning: never let physical satisfaction take precedence over spiritual priorities. Whenever you do, you are despising that which is more valuable. Our generation, saturated with lies about sex, needs this warning now more than ever. Don’t be the impulsive fool that Esau was, throwing away your future for momentary pleasure.
26:1-11 If this short account sounds familiar, it should. Isaac’s father Abraham tried the same trick with Sarah (twice!)—with similar results. The context is similar: Isaac, like Abraham, was facing famine (26:1). Because of the famine, he moved into the region ruled by Abimelech (26:2). Out of fear for his life (26:9), he lied to Abimelech by calling his wife his sister (26:7), but Abimelech soon learned the truth (26:8). And just as before, a ruler both scolded a man in this family for his deception and warned his own people not to touch the woman involved (26:10). Once more, we see God’s commitment to keep his covenant, since it would be necessary that the line of descent remain uncontaminated.
It is ironic that in the midst of a scene of Isaac’s fear and unfaithfulness, we find a repetition of God’s covenant to him. Isaac, like Abraham, was promised lands . . . offspring as numerous as the stars, and a blessing that would be for all the nations of the earth (26:3-4). This promise—personal, national, and international—was unconditionally made to Abraham and passed on to Isaac despite his faithlessness.
26:12-22 God’s hand was on Isaac, so when he sowed seed in that land . . . he reaped a hundred times what was sown (26:12). His flocks also multiplied greatly (26:13-14). Unfortunately, the Philistines of the area grew envious of Isaac’s success, so they attempted to sabotage Isaac by stopping up all the wells (26:15). In an agrarian society, wells indicated dominion. Owning one meant that you essentially governed the surrounding area. Rather than quarrel over specific wells, however, Isaac avoided conflict by constantly moving and digging new wells (26:19-21). Eventually God provided an uncontested well—and, by extension, a space for Isaac to be fruitful in the land (26:22).
26:23-25 As God continued to provide for Isaac, he also reminded him of the promise. I will bless you and multiply your offspring, God told Isaac, adding a new promise: Do not be afraid, for I am with you (26:24). God knew fear was a problem for Isaac, so while he confirmed his promise he also confirmed his presence. In response, Isaac did what we all should do, demonstrating faith by fresh worship. He called on the name of the Lord (26:25).
26:26-33 Abimelech recognized that God was with Isaac, so he sought to make a treaty with him (26:28-29). This is a partial fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and Isaac that the Gentiles would share in the blessings of God’s people. Abimelech even referred to God as the Lord (26:29), using God’s covenant name. He had grown in his understanding of God through his association with Isaac—just as people today are meant to grow closer to God because of the witness of his people.
26:34-35 Meanwhile, even though God had been blessing Isaac, Esau was making life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah (26:35) by marrying two Hethite women (26:34). Rebellion against his parents’ wishes further illustrates why Esau was not fit to carry on the covenant. Rather than allowing his father to help him choose an acceptable spouse, he followed his own impulses and took not just one wife, but two from the idolatrous nations around him.
27:1-4 As Isaac grew older and anticipated his death, he decided to impart his blessing to Esau. Jacob may have already stolen the birthright—the physical inheritance—but Esau still had the chance to inherit his father’s blessing—the more important spiritual inheritance. The blessing represented the umbrella of God’s operation in the family line, so that no matter what showers and storms were going on around them, they were under cover.
Isaac began the ritual of passing on his blessing by calling his older son Esau to him and requesting a delicious meal . . . so that [he could] bless [him] before [he died] (27:1, 4). Isaac preferred Esau’s wild game and wanted him to hunt for an animal that they could share during this sacred time.
27:5-17 Esau went to the field to hunt some game (27:5), just as his father had ordered, but his mother, Rebekah, had other plans. Calling in Jacob, she hatched a plot: Jacob would go to the flock, pick out two . . . young goats, and mom would make them into a delicious meal for Isaac (27:9). Then Isaac, whose “eyes were so weak that he could not see” (27:1), would be deceived and bless Jacob rather than Esau. When Jacob objected, Esau is a hairy man, but I am a man with smooth skin (27:11), his mother revealed the rest of her plan. She would take the skins of the young goats and put them on Jacob’s hands and the smooth part of his neck (27:16). Evidently Esau was so hairy that the feel (and odor! cf. 27:27) of a dead goat was a sufficient disguise.
27:18-25 When Jacob approached his father Isaac, the ruse almost didn’t work because of Jacob’s unique voice (27:22). But when Jacob came closer, the hairy hands and neck did the trick (27:22-23). All the while Jacob was lying, adopting the name of Esau (27:19). Three times, in fact, Isaac asked Jacob if he was really Esau, and without a hesitation, Jacob the deceiver assured him (27:19, 21-22, 24). Worst of all, Jacob even used God’s name in vain, explaining that he was able to find the goat so quickly because the Lord your God made it happen (27:20).
27:26-27 The transfer of blessing always included meaningful touch, which is why Isaac implored Jacob to come closer and kiss [him] (27:26). Touch symbolized identification and intimacy.
27:28 Isaac passed on his most valuable possession, the blessing he had received from his father Abraham, to Jacob. May God give to you—from the dew of the sky and from the richness of the land—an abundance of grain and new wine. In other words, heaven is going to rain down everything you need to get the promises of God fulfilled, son. The agricultural metaphor is a vivid one: it doesn’t matter how hard you work on the land if God doesn’t send the rain. Far too many of us are working hard to make something of our lives without the blessing that can only come raining down from heaven. We don’t need to work harder; we need to put ourselves in a position to receive God’s blessing.
27:29 Isaac repeated the classic covenant that he had received from his father: those who curse you will be cursed, and those who bless you will be blessed. The center of God’s blessing would now rest on Jacob, as deceptive as he was. But Isaac actually goes back further than Abraham, to Adam. In saying, May peoples serve you and nations bow in worship to you, Isaac was recalling the original kingdom authority given to Adam and Eve. With the blessing comes the responsibility to use our God-given authority, skills, talents, gifts, and opportunities—in whatever “garden” he has placed us—to lead in a way that honors God.
27:30-34 The plot thickens because just as Jacob had left the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau arrived from his hunting (27:30). By the time Isaac has realized what happened, the blessing cannot be revoked (27:33). Esau’s response is simultaneously pitiful and tragic. He cried out with a loud and bitter cry (27:34), probably loud enough for Jacob, who wasn’t far off, to overhear. This was a gut-wrenching wail from a man who realized that his entire future had been snatched out of his hands.
27:34-38 Esau’s insistence on receiving some blessing from his father mirrors the heart cry of so many in our society: Bless me too, my father (27:34)! Esau shouted with increasing desperation (27:38). How many young people today, whether they know how to articulate it or not, are crying out for their fathers simply to speak a simple word of blessing into their lives?
27:39-41 In the end, Esau received a word from his father, but it was far from a blessing. Rather than receiving “from the dew of the sky and from the richness of the land” (27:28), Esau was told that his dwelling place would be away from the richness of the land and away from the dew of the sky (27:39). No wonder, then, that Esau held a grudge against Jacob, plotting to kill him (27:41).
27:42-46 Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, ever the eavesdropper, found out about Esau’s murderous intent in time to hatch another plot. Jacob would flee at once to Rebekah’s brother Laban in Haran (27:43), hiding out there until Esau’s rage could cool (27:44-45). As a positive side effect of this plan, she reasoned, Jacob would also be more inclined to marry someone within their clan—rather than the Hethite girls that had been making Rebekah’s life so miserable (27:46).
28:1-2 Isaac, in rare agreement with his wife, sent Jacob out with a commission against marrying a Canaanite girl (28:1). Instead, Jacob was charged to marry one of the daughters of Laban (28:2), a near kinsman—just as Isaac had gotten his wife Rebekah through this interconnected family line. Even in the midst of Jacob’s deception, God was at work to keep the line of succession pure.
28:3-5 Isaac reiterated the promise God had made, first to his father, then to him. God would bless Jacob and make him fruitful and multiply (28:3), giving his offspring the blessing of Abraham so that he would possess the land (28:4). Isaac knew that more was at stake than merely keeping Isaac alive. God had a larger plan in store for Jacob.
28:6-9 Poor Esau, attempting to placate and please his father (and possibly get back some of the blessing), tried to emulate what Jacob was doing. So he went to Paddan-aram (28:7) to get a wife, avoiding the Canaanite women that his father Isaac disapproved of (28:8). Yet Esau went to Ishmael and married (28:9). This was closer to the pure line, but still not the line itself. Clearly Esau still didn’t get the basics of God’s promise. He did what made sense to him based on what he knew, never realizing that this wasn’t a righteous action that God wanted.
B. A Holy God, a Beautiful Woman, and a Deceptive Uncle (28:10–29:29)
28:10-12 Jacob, now a fugitive on the run, found himself at an ordinary place. His circumstances were so grim that the only pillow he had was a rock (28:11). Yet in this ordinary place, in these dire circumstances, he would soon have an extraordinary experience. That night, he dreamed that a stairway was set on the ground with its top reaching the sky, and God’s angels were going up and down on it (28:12). Jacob was watching divine activity at work even in a messy human situation. Prior to this dream, all he could see was the mess. But God opened his eyes to a spiritual reality that transformed his viewpoint.
28:13 Not only were there angels marching up and down this stairway, but also the Lord was standing there beside [Jacob]. God, you see, was watching over Jacob, even before Jacob had begun dreaming. Now Jacob got to see it.
28:14-15 Jacob didn’t just get a vision from God. He also got a word from God. The word for Jacob was a confirmation of the promise to Abraham and Isaac: Your offspring will be like the dust of the earth, and . . . all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you (28:14). This is the first time Jacob heard that promise from God himself. It wasn’t new information, but the information became real because he finally realized that it was God’s promise. God often does something similar for us, confirming what we may have heard a thousand times—through hymns, or preaching, or reading the Bible—but for whatever reason, he illuminates that word so that we hear the Spirit speaking to us.
28:16 When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he immediately recognized what had happened. Surely the Lord is in this place, he concluded, and I did not know it. The place had not changed. It was still just a desert with only a rock for a pillow. But in that place, God showed up. He showed up to Jacob in his brokenness and weariness, because he needed Jacob to come to the end of himself before he could begin relying on God.
28:17 We know Jacob had a fresh encounter with God because he was afraid—no longer afraid of Esau, but afraid of the one true God. A lesser fear had been driven out by a greater fear, because the power of God overruled the power of Esau.
28:18-22 Jacob had fallen asleep in “a certain place” (28:11), but having seen God, he woke up and gave the place a sacred name—Bethel (28:19). What had been a dark place became a sacred space. Nothing had changed in Jacob’s circumstances. All that had changed was Jacob getting a fresh vision of God. And that transformed everything. The pagan city of Luz suddenly became Bethel, literally the “house of God” (28:19). Jacob poured oil on top of the very same stone that had been his rough pillow (28:18), making it the cornerstone of an altar to God (28:22). And Jacob made a vow (28:20) to God, promising to give to [him] a tenth (28:22). He sanctified this dark location, recognizing the supernatural at work, invisibly, right there in the gritty and tough natural world.
29:1-8 Jacob, now with a fresh vision of God, resumed his journey toward his clan (29:1), looking for a bride. Through providential circumstances, he met Rachel, a woman of Laban’s household, part of his extended family (29:5-6). The scene is similar to that of Isaac and Rebekah’s meeting: Rachel, like Rebekah, proved her industrious character by leading her sheep (29:9) even while the other shepherds were lazily lounging about (29:8).
29:9-12 Jacob, upon seeing Rachel, showed his own industrious spirit. He jumped up, rolled the stone from the opening and watered his uncle Laban’s sheep (29:10). The stones covering wells in those days were intentionally large, meant to be moved by several men. But Jacob, smitten with love upon seeing the beautiful Rachel (29:17), shifted the thing over all on his own. Rachel, too, seemed immediately taken with Jacob, because she ran—not a common action back then—and told her father (29:12).
29:13-20 What follows the meeting between Jacob and Rachel is testimony both to Jacob’s devotion and Laban’s deceit. Laban rushed to Jacob, hugged him and kissed him, and took him to his house (29:13), acknowledging him as my own flesh and blood (29:14). On the surface, Laban seemed to treat Jacob like close family. Yet when Jacob requested to marry his beloved daughter, Laban deceived him. Still penniless at this point, Jacob agreed to work for . . . seven years to afford a dowry for Laban’s younger daughter Rachel (29:18). Laban agreed (29:19), and the years flew by for Jacob, because of his love for her (29:20).
29:21-25 On the honeymoon, however, Jacob experienced the shock of his life. Laban had taken his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and he slept with her (29:23). Jacob’s surprise at seeing Leah’s face in dawn’s light is captured in what has to be the most profound understatement in the Bible: When morning came, there was Leah! Leah, indeed! Understandably upset by the trick, Jacob confronted Laban (29:25).
29:26 Apparently aware of some of Jacob’s history with Esau, Laban replied that it was not the custom . . . to give the younger daughter in marriage before the firstborn. The statement was intentionally chosen to remind Jacob of his own trickster past. Laban had out-tricked his nephew under the very same scenario that Jacob had manipulated his older brother Esau. The younger and the older had been swapped, except this time Jacob was on the short end of the trick. He was experiencing what the apostle Paul calls the law of sowing and reaping (see Gal 6:7-8). A person reaps what he sows; or, as we would say it, what goes around comes around. Our actions, righteous or unrighteous, will always bear fruit in keeping with the roots.
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!
C. Jacob Multiplies, Struggles with God, and Meets Esau Again (29:30–33:20)
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.
D. The Defilement of Dinah and the Return to Bethel (34:1–36:43)
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.