Last week we talked about Rebekah, the wife of Isaac. She was a faithful woman who moved across the world to marry a stranger, because it was what God wanted her to do. She was also the mother of two sons. Does anyone remember their names?
[Let them answer.]
That’s right, Jacob and Esau. Now who remembers which of those two was the older son and which was the younger?
[Let them answer.]
Yes, Esau was older than Jacob. Today we’re going to study Jacob, who is the younger son. The fact that Esau was older—though barely because remember they were twins-- is important because back in this era it was usually the older son who inherited most things from the father. This is a concept called “birthright.” Which basically boils down to the fact that because Esau was the oldest son, he would get the majority of the inheritance from their father. The younger son wouldn’t get nothing, but it would be an uneven split. The older son might get two-thirds of the land, animals, and money while the younger would get one-third. Doesn’t seem very fair, does it? But until very recently that was pretty much how these sorts of things were run.
Now last week we talked about how Jacob and Esau were both favored by different parents. Who remembers which parent favored Esau? [Let them answer.] Right, Isaac. So it was Rebekah, the mother, who favored Jacob. Because of this, and because perhaps Isaac wasn’t perhaps the best judge of character, Rebekah helped Jacob get Isaac’s blessing.
This blessing of Isaac, as we talked about last week, was basically a religious thing. It was NOT the birthright. Which is a little confusing because they both start with B. So I want you to remember: [write this on the board] birthright equals wealth, blessing equals religious.
With this in mind, I want you guys to go grab your Bibles. We’re going to turn to a story that is just before Jacob gets the blessing from Isaac.
This is the first story in the Bible of Jacob and Esau interacting as adults. The only interaction we’ve seen before this is of when they were born, which we talked about last week, and how from the moment they were born they were basically fighting. So can someone please read Genesis 25:29-34.
29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30 Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
So remember Esau was an outdoorsy huntsman type, while Jacob was the kid more likely to stay inside and cook stew. Esau comes in from a long day working outdoors and is basically starving. He thinks he might die if he doesn’t eat that stew Jacob is making, which is a little over dramatic, don’t you think?
If you were Jacob would you let your brother eat the food you’re making? If he came in all over dramatic like this? [Let them answer.] As we can see, Jacob doesn’t just react by giving his brother food out of the goodness of his heart. Nope. He does the opposite, he says something crazy. “First sell me your birthright.” What? That would be like saying you’re not going to let your brother have some food until he gives you the entirety of his college savings account.
Would you make that deal? Would you give up all the property and money and stuff you’re going to get for a bowl of food?
[Let them answer.]
Well Esau does make the deal! And he can’t have thought Jacob wasn’t serious because Jacob makes him swear to it. And back then a swear—which is an oath—was a very serious thing. There was no backing out of it. It meant 100% you were going to do this thing.
And Esau agrees to that! Do you guys think this was a very smart move?
[Let them answer.]
So basically in this story, Jacob takes Esau’s birthright. In the story we talked about last week, Jacob took Esau’s blessing. This means for all intents in purposes, Jacob has become the older son. He’s getting the money and the divine covenant with God.
Esau doesn’t seem very upset about Jacob taking his birthright, but last week we talked about how Esau was so angry at Jacob over stealing his blessing that he wanted to murder Jacob. I think this shows a credit to Esau’s character. Not the murderous part, but rather the one of these things he cared about more was not the wealth but about the religious blessing. Esau knew the blessing was more important than the birthright. But Esau gave up his birthright willingly for instant gratification, and that’s not cool.
The result of all this is Jacob runs away to go spend some time with his mother’s family. Remember Rebekah had a brother named Laban, who lived far far away. Jacob is heading there when we get to the next section.
Can someone read Genesis 28:10-15
10 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. 11 He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed[c] in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob goes to sleep and has a dream. What does he dream? A ladder, or stairway, to heaven. If you’ve ever heard anyone refer to Jacob’s ladder—this is it. This is Jacob’s ladder. Jacob sees this stairway where he is at the bottom and at the top of it is heaven, and going up and down it are angels.
The imagery of this staircase or ladder is also super important. It harkens back to the story of the Tower of Babel and harkens forward to Jesus. Can someone here tell me the story of the Tower of Babel? [Let them answer.] Right, people were basically trying to build a tower to God. God stops them, basically calls them out on their pride to think they could do such a thing, and scatters them across the earth. Could we build a tower to God if we wanted to? If all of humanity got together, would that even be possible? No! We can’t build a tower to heaven! Heaven is most likely not contained in our universe—it’s not some place we can get in a spaceship and fly to. It’s outside of that. We are literally by ourselves in capable of getting to God by our own means.
So in a sort of reverse Tower of Babel story instead of man building a stairway to God, God reveals a stairway from himself to man. God could just stay in heaven, but instead he comes down to Jacob. Your version of the Bible say the Lord stood beside Jacob—so even though in the dream he was looking up into heaven, God wasn’t in heaven but rather right next to Jacob, beside him. My version of the Bible says that the Lord stood above him—in heaven basically. I looked in my commentary and it said that the actual words in Hebrew allowed for either interpretations, so I can’t say for certain which is right. But I like the idea of God standing beside Jacob. God is in heaven, yes, but he is also beside us, helping us through our journey.
We couldn’t build a tower to him, but he makes a way for us to get to him. For Jacob that is this ladder. For us, do you know what it is? [Let them answer.] Right, Jesus. Jesus tells people this directly in John 1:51. I’ll read it, you don’t have to flip there.
51 And [Jesus] said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Jesus is making a direct reference to this story, the heavens being opened and the angels ascending and descending but not on a ladder. On the Son of Man, which is Jesus. Jesus is our ladder to heaven and God.
Okay but back to Jacob. God is standing next to Jacob and what does he say to him? He basically reiterates to him the promise he made Abraham, he basically tells Jacob that the covenant is now between Jacob and God. I think this is important, because Jacob took a birthright and blessing that by birth order weren’t his to take. God could have said, “No, these were not yours to take, and I’m establishing my covenant with Esau. I’m not punishing Esau for your trickster ways.” But instead God re-establishes his covenant with Jacob, giving Jacob his seal of approval despite the fact that Jacob stole these things from his brother, which endorses the idea that it was God’s plan all along for Jacob to take these things.
I think if God hadn’t done this, Jacob would have wondered his whole life if he was really the inheritor of the Abrahamic covenant. Instead of letting his wonder, God literally meets Jacob where Jacob’s at—in the middle of nowhere—and has a talk with him. I think this tells us a lot about how much God cares about individuals, which is a lot—more than we can imagine.
Alright so Jacob wakes up and does he think he had a super crazy dream and it’s not real? Let’s see. Can someone read Genesis 28:16-22
16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. 20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, 21 so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, 22 and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”
Jacob wakes up and is basically like “woah, this is a holy place and I didn’t even know it!” So he gets up and makes a pillar, which is basically like a column of rocks and pours oil on it—which is not like gas oil but more like essential oils or olive oil or perfume. This is expensive stuff to just waste on pouring on rocks. But to him it’s not pouring on rocks, it’s basically him honoring God in the best way he can.
Then Jacob makes a vow to God. He is the only one of the “patriarchs” that is (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) to make a vow to God. In all the other stories, basically God promises the patriarchs something and they’re like “cool.” Here, God promises Jacob stuff and Jacob responds by promising God that if God keeps him safe and allows him to return home one day, God will be his God. Is this Jacob testing God? Saying “You need to keep me safe or else I’ll never make it back to the land you promised me so I can fulfil your covenant, so you better keep me safe!” Maybe. Or maybe Jacob is making a pledge to God, saying that God will be his God. We’re not certain. But regardless, Jacob doesn’t seem content to just let God state how it’s going to be. He feels a need to respond and give his own vow back to God. And I think this is a defining characteristic with Jacob. He responds to God, he converses with him, and as we will see later he even struggles with God.
Okay for this week we’re going to skip Jacob’s time with Laban, because we’re going to talk about that next week when we talk about Rachel and Leah. For now we’re going to skip ahead. Jacob makes it to his uncle’s place. He gets married to a couple of women, though not exactly by choice, and then after twenty years he’s ready to head back. He’s a different man now than from the one who left his home. He’s not a running away son, but rather a man with his own household returning home. He has a family—not just wives but a lot of kids. He has wealth he earned while working under his uncle. And it’s been a long time. So he decides it’s time to head home.
In this 20 years he’s not seen his parents or his brother Esau. They would’ve had no way to communicate with him short of sending a messenger which was not cheap or easy to do. So Jacob is heading home, but doesn’t actually know if any of his family is still alive. And he doesn’t know if Esau has forgiven him, or if after 20 years, Esau is still angry and might just murder him on site. Can someone read Genesis 32:9-12
9 And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ 10 I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. 11 Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. 12 Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”
Jacob is praying here to God. And he’s basically saying he has returned home as God has requested him. He’s also praising God for his constant presence in Jacob’s life and all the blessing he has given him—how when he left his home he had almost nothing and now he’s returning with a whole household of his home. But despite all of that, he is still afraid Esau might kill him, even after twenty years. So he’s basically praying that God will protect him. But not just him, also his family which includes his wives and children.
So Jacob decides to send ahead some servants with presents for Esau. Then the next day he goes out to meet him. What do you guys think is going to happen. Is Esau still mad? Would you still be mad? [Let them answer.]
Well let’s see what Esau does, can someone read Genesis 33:1-3
33 Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. 2 He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. 3 He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother.
Okay so here Jacob sees Esau coming with an army! Jacob though knows he has to meet with his brother if he’s to come home, to the land God has given to him, so he splits up his family and the order is important because as we’ll see later, Rachel and Joseph are his favorite. So he puts them in the back, just in case Esau is going to murder them all, they might have a chance to escape. But Jacob goes out in front, well ahead of everyone, so that if Esau just wants to murder him and let everyone else pass, he pretty much can. Jacob is preparing for the worst.
Now can someone read Genesis 33:4?
4 But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
Esau is happy to see him! This is not what Jacob expected at all! The two brothers reconcile, after a lifetime of strife. That alone is a miracle.
But it’s not the most miraculous thing to happen to Jacob by far. We’re going to go back slightly to something we skipped over, because there is one last important story of Jacob I want to cover today. Can someone read Genesis 32:24-30
24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”
This is probably the most famous story about Jacob, and probably the one that makes the least sense. What is going on here?
Jacob is alone, he’s sent his family ahead to camp in a previous verse, and then suddenly a man appears and they wrestle til daybreak. This implies they wrestled—basically fought—all night. This strange man then hurts Jacob, dislocating basically one of his legs from his hip, which I can’t even imagine how painful that would be. But it seems despite that Jacob still doesn’t let go! He’s not willing to give up in this fight! But the sun is rising and this strange man is basically like “I need to leave now.” Mostly likely because he is trying to hide his identity, because before the sun rises, in the dark before there are like street lights, it would be very dark indeed and Jacob wouldn’t be able to see the strange man’s face.
But Jacob refuses to let the other man go until he blesses him. Why? Why would Jacob ask a strange man to bless him? Does he think this man might be Esau who attacked him in the night and he’s trying to force his brother to make amends? Or does he suspect the true identity of this strange man is divine, and a divine blessing is always a great thing? I don’t know.
The strange man responds by changing Jacob’s name to Israel. Now that’s a name we’ve all heard before, right? It’s the name we now know the land of Canaan as, the land that belongs to the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, a name that comes from this idea of “the twelve tribes of Israel.” This is the Israel all those words are referring to. This man, Jacob, who we’ve been studying about.
The strange man changes his name and says he does so because “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” When has Jacob striven with man? [Let them answer.] Write he has had many problems with Esau. And as we’ll see next week, he has problems with his uncle, Laban. So he’s definitely striven with man. But when has Jacob striven with God? Right here. This is it. This isn’t just a strange man. This is God, or at least an angel representing God.
Jacob sure does seem to think it is God though because he says in verse 30, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.”
This is actually a big deal. Very few people get to see God the Father. Of course, a lot of people get to see Jesus! Who is God! But Exodus 33:20 God says “You cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live!” Perhaps this is why the figure Jacob was wrestling was concerned about leaving before dawn, because is Jacob saw God’s face in the morning light it would kill him! Or maybe this was just an angel representing God, that Jacob wrestled.
Either way, Jacob gets blessed and honored for this, for wrestling with the divine, and not letting him go even when asked. What do you guys think of this? This idea that Jacob wrestled God? [Let them talk and answer.]
I don’t have a clear-cut answer for you guys, but what I think it means is that it’s okay to struggle with God. We should spend our entire lives searching for God, seeking him, seeking to be closer to him. It’s a lot easier for us than it might have been for people back then, because we have Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Jacob wouldn’t have even had the Old Testament! Just his few encounters with God! You and I have the whole Bible and we have our own bridge to God—which is Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But if in your life and your seeking to become closer to God, sometimes you struggle, that’s okay. It’s okay to question, it’s okay to doubt, and if we take a cue from Jacob, it’s okay to wrestle with God. The key is, we don’t give up.
Jacob didn’t give up. He wrestled that strange man until the man basically said, “Let me go!” And that’s how our seeking of God should be. Don’t let go. Seek, search, and struggle all you want, but never stop and don’t let go of God.