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2. Jacob

2-3-5 Jacob And The God Of His Father: Christians And Parental Expectation

Jacob was 77 when he fled from Esau. As far as we know, he had lived all that time " dwelling in tents" (25:27); and Heb. 11:9 adds the information that at this time, faithful Abraham lived together with Isaac and Jacob in the same tents. Jacob grew up with Abraham and Isaac. He would have known the promises backwards. He lived, as far as we know, a single life, staying at home with his mother, who evidently doted on him, openly preferring him to Esau. Yet at this time, Jacob did not accept the Abrahamic promises as really relevant to him, nor did he worship Yahweh as his God (28:20). Familiarity bred contempt: " Thou hast not called upon me, O Jacob; thou hast been weary of me, O Israel...thy first father (i.e. natural Jacob" hath sinned" (in this way) (Is. 43:22,27). Like so many of latter day Jacob, brought up with the knowledge of God's covenant, he was bored with God's Mercy and Truth.  

There is sustained emphasis on Jacob's obedience to his parents, especially to his mother (27:8,13,43; 28:7). The whole story is a foretaste of the issues involved with Christians and parental expectation in our day. It might not be going too far to say that he grew up far too much under her thumb; he meekly obeyed her faithless suggestion that he deceive his father into granting him the blessing, content with her assurance that it would be mum's sin, not his (and I imagine her pecking him on the cheek as she gave him the tray with Isaac's food on). No wonder he fell madly in love at first sight, when he first saw the girl he knew his mother wanted him to marry. Jacob introduces himself as " Rebekah's son" (29:12), although it would have been more normal to describe himself as Jacob ben-Isaac. 29:10 labours the point three times that Laban was " his mother's brother" . The fact Deborah, his mother's nurse, was taken under the wing by Jacob, further suggests his very close bond with his mother; he buried Deborah under Allon-Bachuth- 'the oak of his (Jacob's) weeping' (35:8).   Jacob struggled to accept his father's God as his God. And yet he in so many ways is portrayed as deeply influenced by Rebekah his mother. When he asks Laban to allow him to leave, he uses very similar words to those used by Eliezer when he asked Laban's family to let Rebekah leave to go marry Isaac:

Eliezer in Gen. 24 Jacob in Gen. 30
"Send me back" (shallehuni) 24:54 "Send me away" (shalleheni) 30:25
"Let me go (shallehuni) that I may go (w'eleka) to my master" 24:56 "that I may go (w'eleka)... let me go (w'eleka)" 30:26
Laban's blessing of Rebekah 24:60 Laban's blessing of his grandchildren and daughters 31:55
The servant "went his way (wayyelak)" 24:61 "Jacob went on his way" (32:1)

Intentional or not, the inspired record strives to bring out the similarities. The lesson is that culturally, Jacob was very much his mother's son- just as those raised Christian today may be culturally Christian, and yet not truly accept their parents' God as theirs until they pass through the valley of the shadows, the school of hard knocks.

As he set out to relatives in a distant land, hoping to find a wife, he was fully aware that he was in principle replicating his father's experience. When he spoke of God keeping him " in this way that I go" and bringing him again " to my father's house" (28:20,21), his mind was on the story he had so often heard of how God lead Abraham's servant in " the right way" and leading back home with a wonderful wife for Isaac (24:27,40,42,48,56). When at this stage in life (he was 77, remember) things suddenly took a different turn, his great hope was that God would bring him back safely " again to my father's house in peace" (28:21); he wanted to go back to the stay-at-home life. What God put him through in the rest of his life was the exact opposite of this. He says that if God does this, he will " surely give the tenth unto thee" (28:22 cp. 14:20)- exactly as granddad Abraham had done (14:20), who had doubtless told Jacob this many a time as they 'dwelled together in tents' (Heb. 11:9). When he finally heads home 20 years later, the Spirit describes him as going " to Isaac his father" (31:18). There is something almost childishly proud about the way he sets off his father against the deceitful father of his wives (31:5-7). Laban mocks this almost immature homesickness: " thou wouldest needs be gone, because thou sore longest after thy father's house" (31:30). Despite this jibe, Jacob unashamedly swore " by the fear of his father Isaac" (31:54); the picture of his father trembling in fear of God when he realized his superficiality stayed with Jacob (27:33). It seems he spoke publicly of God as the God of his father, for this is the term Laban used to him (31:29). The influence of his father and grandfather lasted a lifetime; even in old age, he feared to go down to Egypt because of the precedents set by the bad experience of Isaac and Abraham there; it seems that he delayed to obey Joseph's invitation to visit Egypt because of this, and was possibly rebuked by Yahweh for this: " Jacob, Jacob (such repetition is often a rebuke), Fear not to go down into Egypt" (46:3).  Likewise   Christians live out parental expectation very often, without much personal faith.

The result of all this was perhaps similar to the sheltered Christian background of many in the brotherhood today; Jacob believed, but he only half believed; God was not his God in those years, his spirituality was largely a living out of parental  expectation. This living out of parental expectation when it comes to our relationship with God is a major problem for Anglo Saxon believers.   Christians and parental expectation so often go together in the Western world. And it was in the ecclesia of Israel before us. So often kings who were not very faithful or spiritual are described with a rubric like: " He did that which was right in the sight of the Lord: he did according to all that his father...had done" (e.g. 2 Kings 15:34). This may not mean that he did what was right in God's sight full stop. He did what was right only insofar as his father had done. And this is why over time, the spirituality of the kings of Judah decreased.  

It would seem from 2 Chron. 36:21 that the law concerning the land resting every Sabbath year was hardly ever kept, even by the righteous kings. We can imagine how the thinking developed: father didn't do it. grandfather didn't, none of the faithful old kings seemed that interested in it...therefore every time that passage was considered in their study of the Law, it was mentally bypassed. We are all absolutely expert at this kind of bypass.  

We sometimes tend to excuse ourselves on the basis of only being products of our background. But eight year old Jehoiachin reigned a mere three months and ten days: and God's comment was that " he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord" (2 Chron. 36:9). we could, of course, make the excuse that his surroundings, his immediate family, his peers...were all idolatrous. But Yahweh evidently didn't see this as any real excuse: he, at sweet eight years old, " did that which was evil" and was punished accordingly. Not only does this give an unusual insight into God's view of responsibility; but it shows that God expects even a child to break away from background influences when they are evil. 

The table above demonstrates clearly enough how Jacob saw God as the God of his fathers, rather than his God, for far too long. And even worse, it would seem that at this time there was more than a hint that Jacob was involved with idol worship, as well as Yahweh worship. And yet Jacob didn't want to give this impression to his parents; thus he really fears that his father will think he is a deceiver, and therefore he will not attain the coveted blessing (27:12). He wanted to be seen by his parents as the one they wanted him to be spiritually. Again, this seems more than typical of the position of Anglo-Saxon believers. Overcoming this mindset of relating to God only through the constructs of his parental and community expectations was one of the biggest struggles of Jacob. And as our community becomes increasingly inbred, the challenge to have a real, personal faith looms the larger for our us, for whom Christians and parental expectation is a major problem. But this same process, of unlearning and rediscovery, must be gone through by any convert; the atheist must break free of his background expectations, the Baptist must break free of his, realizing like Jacob that some of it was right and some wrong. 

Of course, much of what Jacob was taught was quite right. But there were things which weren't right. God had promised his mother Rebekah that the elder (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob); and yet her concern to trick her husband into blessing Jacob rather than Esau was studied rejection of that promise (25:23). And Jacob followed her in her faithlessness- in this area. He perceived the promises of God through her eyes, rather than his own. Likewise Isaac saw the promises as " mercy and truth" (24:27); and so did Jacob (32:10). Another example of following the negative spiritual traits of his forbears is seen in Jacob's penchant for materialism. This was a weakness of the whole Abraham family; a specific word is used about how they " gathered" material wealth. Abraham did it (12:5), and so did Jacob (31:18). The list of what they " gathered" is almost identical (24:35 cp. 30:43). Faithless fear (cp. Dt. 20:8; Mt. 25;25; Rev. 21:8) was another characteristic; in Abraham (15:1; 20:11); Isaac (26:7,24; 31:42,53); and followed by Jacob (28:17; 31:31; 32:7,11; 41:3).  

At the end, Jacob spoke of God as his redeemer (48:16), which is the first Biblical reference to the concept of redemption. This was not the only area in which Jacob was a paradigm breaker (consider how he coined the word abiyr to describe God's mightiness). The Hebrew for " redeem" is taken from the idea of the nearest kinsman. Jacob at the end of his days is surely saying that now he saw God as closer than his family. We really have a lot to learn here. God comes before family- although increasingly this isn't appreciated by Anglo-Saxon believers. The new convert who sacrifices family ties for allegiance to Christ realizes this full well. But in my observation, second and third generation believers aren't so committed. The majority of the divisions and bitternesses which plague the brotherhood are largely a result of believers wanting to stay with their family, rather than follow Divine principles. Time and again brethren and sisters change fellowships, with all the disruption this causes, simply because of family, not for any genuine Biblical conviction. Effectively they will throw others out of fellowship, throw new converts into turmoil and disillusion, just to stick with a dogmatic family member, even though they may not share his or her convictions. And so God's Truth becomes a social and family affair rather than a candlestick burning with the fire of the Spirit.   Christians tend to follow parental expectation and the norms of their social network rather than God's word.

Please note that I'm not teaching rebellion against and rejection of everything faithful parents have taught us. At the close of his life, Jacob was still emotionally attached, consciously and unconsciously, to his father and grandfather (consider the way he unconsciously imitates his father by feeling he is about to die years before he does, 47:9 cp. 28 cp. 27:2 cp. 35:28). But he had made their faith his own. There was nothing essentially wrong with the understanding of God which Abraham and Isaac taught Jacob; it was " the Truth" as we would call it. But Jacob had to rediscover it for himself; however, this process did not involve rejecting them or their God. Jacob's nervousness of going down into Egypt was doubtless due to his recollection of Abraham and Isaac's tales of spiritual woe concerning it. God appeared to Jacob concerning this, with the words: " Jacob, Jacob...fear not to go down into Egypt" (46:2,3). The double repetition of a name is usually a rebuke; but for what? Possibly for still being influenced in his spirituality by the spectre of his forefathers, rather than personally reflecting on the implications of God's word to Abraham, that his seed would have to live in a Gentile land for a period before they could be led into the promised land (15:13).  

Almost on his deathbed, Jacob speaks of how the God of Abraham and Isaac is his God (48:15,16); he speaks of being gathered to his people, to them, just as they too had been gathered to their people (49:29 cp. 25:8; 35:29). He really stresses his desire to be buried in Canaan along with Abraham and Isaac (47:29,30; 49:29; 50:5,6), alongside his dad and grandfather, remembering how they had lived together in the same tents in his childhood (Heb. 11), speaking together of the promises. The fact he had prepared his grave there years before shows that this was not only the sentimental feeling of a dying man. This repeated emphasis on his connection with Abraham and Isaac shows that at the end, Jacob saw the supreme importance of being a member of God's people. He didn't just fix on his own personal hope, but on the fact he was connected with all the heirs of the promise. Paul also focused on this aspect when he came to his time of departing. And so with us, we will come to see (if we haven't already) that our association with Christianity is not just a part of our social structure. We aren't just Christians because of parental expectation. Our association with God's people is eternal, the consequences of being baptized into the body of Christ (the believers) are related to our salvation. Thus the believers are joint-heirs together of the same Abrahamic promises (Rom. 8:17; 1 Pet. 3:7), just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived together as joint heirs of the same promises (Heb. 11:9). Christ is the true heir of what was promised to Abraham (Mt. 21:38; Rom. 4:13), but through baptism we become joint heirs with him (Gal. 3:27-29; Rom. 8:17). Thus when we read of us as " heirs" , the very same Greek word is used for " heir" in the singular, concerning Christ; and this concept of heirship of the promised Kingdom is common: Gal. 4:7; Tit. 3:7; Heb. 1:2; 6:17; James 2:5. Thus our baptism not only makes us sons of God, " in Christ" in a personal sense, but also puts us " in" the rest of the body of Christ. To be wilfully separate from that body is therefore to deny the meaning of our baptism and our place " in Christ" . Yet it took Jacob a lifetime to realize this as he should, despite having been brought up on the promises and being almost obsessed in his early life that he was the seed of Abraham, and therefore the promised blessings applied to him on a personal level. How very similar his path was to that of so many of us. That rejoicing in the personal relevance of the Gospel promises to us doesn't go down, but we come to see in a far more inclusive sense the implications of our being the seed of Abraham; we see our connection, our eternal and gracious connection, with all who are true heirs of the same promise.  

Jacob speaks of his life as a " pilgrimage" (47:9), using the same word used about Abraham and Isaac (17:8; 28:4; 36:7; 37:1). Thus he showed his connection with them; they became in spiritual not just emotional terms the centre of his thinking. It seems that Jacob came to see his beloved parents in spiritual, not emotional terms, at the end. Consider the pronouns he uses in almost his last words: " There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife; there they (i.e. he and his brother, 35:29) buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife; and there I buried Leah" (49:31). He doesn't talk about in the first person about " my father" or " I" buried. He sees himself as their friend in faith, more than their son. These words were said in Jacob's last breath. It shows to me how at last he had won this battle, he had shed the crutch of his father's faith, he stood alone before his God, at the very end he wasn't leaning on his parents spiritually any more, all the scaffolding had been removed, and he stood alone, on his own deep foundation. His final words are full of conscious and unconscious reference to the fathers and the promises. Thus his reference to how Abraham and Isaac 'walked before' his God (48:15) is a reference back to 17:1; 24:40. Jacob had  meditated upon these records, in whatever form they were preserved, and now bubbled out with reference to them. Those same promises concerning the Lord Jesus and his Kingdom should become the centre of our thought as we reach spiritual maturity. " Let my name be named upon them (Joseph's children), and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac" (48:16) indicates that he saw an equivalence between them and him; he saw they were " heirs of the same promise" (Heb. 11:9). Jacob came to realize that those promises made to them were the very basis of his faith too, as well as theirs, and he knew therefore that he would be resurrected with them into the glory of God's Kingdom. And so he wanted to be buried with them; he didn't reject them, but he came to understand that the promises were gloriously true for him on a personal level. His final words reflect his resentment against the children of Heth (49:32); he saw that they were the world, the children of this world which now possess the land of promise, covenanted to be God's Kingdom, not theirs. He realized that the time was not yet ripe, and his very last words were a reminder of this: " The purchase of the field and of the cave that is therein was from the children of Heth" (49:32). His mind was centred on the promises and the future ownership of the land, and on his connection with Abraham and Isaac; the fact that the land was not inherited during the patriarch's lifetimes (the land had to be bought from the children of Heth) is seen by the Spirit as an indication that the Kingdom had not yet come, but surely would do (Acts 7:5). And Jacob died with exactly the same perception. In doing so, he was reflecting the view of his dear mother, who detested the ways of the Godless children of Heth (27:46). So in his time of dying, Jacob was not divided from the spiritual views of his parents. Their Hope was his Hope, but he had made it his own. He was not just living out their expectations of him. The way he got there in the end  is just marvellous to behold. The way Joseph falls on Jacob's face and weeps and weeps on him and kisses him is in some way how we all feel (50:1).