The contrast here is between the lives of Abraham and Jacob. Abraham was a pagan man who left everything to follow Yahweh and grew in his faith to the point of sacrificing his own son. Jacob grew up knowing Yahweh and yet selfishly and deceptively sought the blessings of Yahweh for himself to the point of taking them from others. However, Yahweh will pursue Jacob and intervene in his life, changing his character and his name to Israel. Yahweh pursues Jacob because that is His character and nature, not because of Jacob’s obedience or righteousness.

Jacob and Esau

Just as Isaac, the second born, received the firstborn title instead of Ishmael, Jacob also received the firstborn title instead of Esau (see Terah to Jacob family chart). Typically in the ancient Near East, the biological firstborn son would get the firstborn title when the father died. The firstborn title entailed two things. First, the son would get the majority of his father’s inheritance including money, animals, and land. Second, he would receive the headship of the family, clan, or tribe, meaning he would have authority over all the other males including his younger brothers. For Yahweh, the birthright (firstborn title) is more than these two things; it is the blessing of carrying on the family line through which He will work to bring the Messiah. It bears both the blessings and responsibility to represent Yahweh to the world and thus be a blessing to the world. It is the Abrahamic Covenant.

Esau and Jacob were twins, and Esau was the older of the two. However, Yahweh told Isaac and Rebekah that the older would serve the younger (Gen. 25:23). From the beginning, it was Yahweh’s desire for Jacob to receive the firstborn title. Thus, Isaac knew from Yahweh that Jacob was to get the firstborn title.

The name Esau literally means “red,” as he was covered with red hair when he was born. The name Jacob means “dogging the heels.” This has the idea of a dog that follows very closely to its master’s feet because he is loyal to his master. When Jacob came out grasping his brother’s heel, his parents took it as a sign of a loyal bond that Jacob had for his brother (Gen. 25:26). The irony is that Jacob was going to deceive his brother in later years.

Instead of trusting Yahweh for the birthright (firstborn title), Jacob took it from his brother. It is important to realize that Esau was not deceived here; he willing gave it up. Esau is portrayed in this story as over-dramatic, living in the moment. He is famished, needing to eat right at that moment, that he sells his birthright (future and blessings) for a bowl of soup (Gen. 25:29-34). Though Jacob does not trust Yahweh here, at least he desires the blessings of Yahweh more than a bowl of soup.

Later in Gen. 27, with the help of his mother, Jacob deceived his father into giving him the birthright. Isaac favored Esau and wanted to give him the blessing, but Jacob tricked his father into thinking that he was Esau. All members of the family were guilty of not trusting Yahweh. Esau had already sold his birthright. Isaac did not obey Yahweh (Gen. 25:23) and tried to give the blessing to Esau. Rebekah and Jacob did not trust Yahweh and instead deceived their husband/father and seized it on their own. Because of their selfishness, the family was torn apart and scattered. The irony here is that even though Jacob received the blessing, he ends up having to flee the land and home he had inherited and escape into the wilderness with nothing but a rock on which to rest his head at night (Gen. 28:10-11). He now fears the brother and family over whom he was supposed to rule.

That night in the wilderness, Jacob had a vision of a stairway to heaven with angels going up and down it (Gen 28:12). The stairway was probably like the one on the ziggurat. Yahweh communicates to Jacob that unlike the pagans, who try to ascend to heaven, He was coming down to Jacob. Jacob has been trying to obtain the blessings of Yahweh through his own efforts and it has gained him nothing. Yahweh came to him instead in order to give him the blessings, despite Jacob’s lack of faith in Yahweh and the deception of his father (Gen. 28:13-15). Yahweh’s calling Himself “the god of Abraham and Isaac” reminds Jacob that He is the God of the Abrahamic Covenant and the blessings that come with it. Yahweh promised this to Jacob not because he deserved it but because He is a merciful God and is honoring His promises to Abraham.

Jacob recognized the significance of that night and builds an altar, calling the place Bethel, which means “house of God” (Gen. 28:22). This was the same place that Abraham came when he entered the land and built an altar to Yahweh. (Gen. 12:8).

Jacob's Family

After Jacob left his home, he made his way to Haran to his uncle Laban in hopes of finding a place to live and work. Laban had two daughters (see Jacob’s wives chart). The older was Leah and is described as having tender eyes, most likely a reference to a good character and personality. Rachel, the younger sister, is described as having a lovely figure (Gen. 29:16-17). In fact, it will be Rachel who will bring idols into the family (Gen. 31:19). Jacob, being the shallow person he was, passed Leah by and fell in love with Rachel. It is interesting that the text says nothing about Rachel’s interest in Jacob. Since Jacob had nothing to offer Laban as a dowry for Rachel, he agreed to work seven years for her. Ironically, Jacob ended up being deceived in the same way that he deceived his father. Laban gave him his older daughter Leah, instead of Rachel, at the marriage ceremony. Jacob did not realize the deception until the next morning. Jacob was easily tricked because Leah would have been covered head to toe in a veil. Jacob agreed to work seven more years for Rachel, and so both Leah and Rachel were given to him that same week with the promise of another seven years’ work.

A further irony in this family was that Leah was able to have children but did not have Jacob’s love, while Rachel had Jacob’s love but was not able to have children. Between this predicament and Jacob’s favoritism, Jacob, his wives, and children quickly grew into a dysfunctional family. Eventually Yahweh had compassion on Rachel, and she conceived and gave birth to Joseph, who would become Jacob’s favorite child. During this whole time, there is no evidence in the text of Jacob having a relationship with Yahweh. Even when he increased the size of his flocks to get out from Laban’s debt, he never sought Yahweh (Gen. 30:25-43). By the end of Jacob’s time with Laban, his family consisted of eleven sons and one daughter (that is mentioned) by two wives and two maidservants. Just as Jacob fled his family as a young man, he now flees his uncle Laban (Gen. 31). Every relationship Jacob had he ruined it with his selfishness. After deceiving Laban, all he could return to now was Esau, the other family he had deceived.

Jacob’s Reconciliation

For the first time in his life, with no home and nowhere to turn, Jacob called out to Yahweh for help (Gen. 32:9-12). What is interesting is that although he had done nothing to grow his relationship with Yahweh, he now demanded the promises that Yahweh made him fourteen years ago (Gen. 28:13-15). That night an angel appeared, and Jacob wrestled him throughout the night. The point here is not that Jacob was somehow able to “overcome” the angel (Hos. 12:4) but that Jacob demonstrated his desire to have the blessings of Yahweh. Yahweh was also using the experience to demonstrate how Jacob was trying to wrestle God for blessings that He was already willing to give him. Jacob was always trying to live life without Yahweh, so, in order to make Jacob dependent upon Him, Yahweh popped his hipbone out of its socket (Gen. 32:25). Yahweh then gave him the new name Israel, meaning “God will fight for you.” Yahweh was calling Jacob to trust in Him for the source of his strength and protection.

The next day Yahweh proved those promises when Jacob met an Esau who had already forgiven Jacob (Gen. 33). Yahweh had already been working in Esau’s life to change him, even though Jacob had done nothing to affect the situation to his favor. Jacob then went back to Canaan, arrived in Shechem, and there built an altar to Yahweh just as Abraham had when he first entered the land.

Yahweh then came to Jacob again and called him to go to Bethel, get rid of his idols, and dedicate himself to Yahweh (Gen. 35:1-3). Jacob responded in faith by immediately burying the idols, which is what you do with dead things, and went to Bethel (Gen. 35:4). Jacob had finally found reconciliation with both his brother and Yahweh, and all he had to do was stop running and resisting Yahweh and to simply trust Him.