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2. Jacob

2-4-1  Jacob And The Promises

The promises to the Jewish fathers ought to be at the very basis of our faith and behaviour. Sadly, the emphasis once given in this area has faded, as our community has turned away from the essentials of the true Gospel and become obsessed with more peripheral issues. Our understanding of those promises which form the basis of our covenant relationship with God ought to increase as we spiritually mature. We will not only grow in appreciation of their importance, but also understand them more. In Jacob's case, his attitude to the promises, to the one Gospel, was related to his attitude to God. Jacob came to see the promises which he had known from childhood as relevant to him in an intensely personal sense. Thus at age 77 he vowed: " If God will be with me...then shall Yahweh be my God: and this stone...shall be God's house" (28:20-22- words quoted by faithless Absalom in 2 Sam. 15:8). The implication was that Jacob didn't consider Yahweh to be his God at that time. And yet God had promised Abraham that he would be the God of his seed (Gen. 17:7,8); Jacob was aware of these promises, and yet he is showing that he did not accept their personal relevance to him at this time. The fact at the end he does call God his God reveals that he then accepted the Abrahamic promises as relevant to him personally (Gen. 49:24,25). This is an essay in the titanic difference between knowledge and belief. At baptism we tend to have knowledge, which masquerades as belief. And all our lives long we must struggle, as Jacob did, to turn knowledge into faith. His personal grasp of the wonder of the promises at the end is revealed in 48:4, where Jacob recounts how " God Almighty...said unto me, Behold, I will make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, and I will make of thee a multitude of people; and will give this land to thy seed after thee for an everlasting possession" . God never actually said all this to Jacob; Jacob is quoting the promise to Abraham of Gen. 17:8 and applying it to himself. And with us too, a personal grasp of the wonder of it all, that it really applies to me, is a mark of that final maturity we fain would achieve.  

And yet... even in this incident, God so eagerly wished to work with Jacob. Jacob's sleeping with a stone as his pillow is hardly a natural thing to do- but it was done in order to induce dreams and revelations from the gods (1). And the one true God responded to Jacob, by showing him Angels ascending from him to God, and Angels descending from God to Jacob in response. It wasn't the other way around- because surely the idea was to show Jacob that his prayers really were being heard, Angels were in touch with God about them, and God was zealously responding even then through Angelic providence. Yet all this was done by God when Jacob was so far from Him. Just as a patient and loving father bears with his child, so God bore with Jacob; and He does with us too, and we are to reflect this in our dealings with our brethren.

We will see that Jacob progressively grew in his realization that the promises of God refer more to spiritual blessings than physical things; he saw more and more their practical import, in terms of separation from this present world, and devotion to the things of the promised Kingdom; he saw that if those promises are really relevant to us, then we have a strong connection with all others who are in the same covenant Hope; and he saw especially the greatness and utter centrality of the Lord Jesus Christ, the promised seed through whom all was made possible. 

Jacob knew the promises, well; having lived together with Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 25:27 cp. Heb. 11:9) for all his early life, it was inevitable that this was so. There would have been no boredom in talking and meditating more deeply about these things on a Sunday evening. And yet for much of his life, Jacob undoubtedly perceived the promises as some kind of means of providing him with personal physical blessing from God, in selfish, material terms. It was only his realization of personal sinfulness to which he was driven which really opened his eyes to this. And it seems we each must follow a like pattern. 

Jacob Initially Only Saw The Physical Aspect Of The Promises

Jacob was a materialist; he " gathered" / acquired material possessions as Abraham did (31:18 cp. 12:5; 24:35), and he therefore was inclined to see God's promises as re-inforcing his own preferred lifestyle, rather than accepting that the real blessings he needed were spiritual. In the same way as our preconceptions will influence how we read Scripture, so with Jacob's approach to the promises. Having heard the promises concerning his future seed and the present protection God would grant him, Jacob immediately seized on the latter: " If God will be with me...then shall Yahweh be my God" (28:20,21). He brushed past the implications of Messiah, although later he came to see that these were the most fundamental things God had promised. The way he raised up (cp. resurrection) the pillar and anointed it at this time may have shown a faint conception of Messiah, but this took years to seriously develop. Jacob thought that God had blessed Laban in fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises, simply because Laban's flocks had greatly increased; he saw the " blessing" as physical prosperity (30:30). He was sharing the over-physical view of the promises which his father Isaac held, who mentioned the promised blessing as essentially concerning material blessings in this life (28:3,4). As with David and Solomon, the weakness of the parents was repeated in the child. This perception of the promises as only for his personal, physical benefit was clearly evidenced in the way in which he was so bent on obtaining the birthright from Esau. This was no sign of spirituality, but rather of his obsession with material acquisition. We can be sure he arranged to be boiling that broth just at the right moment. It was hardly an off-the-cuff decision to ask Esau for the birthright. He not only disbelieved the promise that the elder would serve the younger, but he misunderstood it, thinking that God's promises were dependent upon human works and wit to be fulfilled. He spoke of how he would bring upon himself the blessing God had promised him (27:12). Later, he reveals the same attitude when he describes his children as the fulfillment of the promises of present fruitfulness (32:10), but also the children he had obtained by his own service (30:26); he thought that his own effort and labour had fulfilled God's promises. He reasoned that Laban had been rebuked by God because God had seen how hard he had worked (31:42). He explicitly says that if God further increases his flocks, it would be a sign that he was righteous (30:33). Like Job, he had to learn that God's blessings are not primarily physical, and that we do not receive them in proportion to our present righteousness. And yet during this learning process, God patiently went along with him to some extent. “Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the rams...” (31:12) is a promise couched in the language with which God invited Abraham to lift up his eyes and behold the land which He would give him (13:14,15). Even whilst Jacob was trying to fulfill God’s promises for Him, still half worshipping idols, God gently went along with him to teach him firstly that He would  keep promises, and then to show Jacob the more spiritual essence of it all. 

Jacob saw material prosperity as an indicator of the fulfillment of the promises to him. Because he was physically blessed in his life, he came to feel that the promises had been fulfilled, and therefore he almost lost sight of the future aspect of our relationship with God. There are powerful lessons for us here. He saw the promises (" mercies...truth" ) as having been fulfilled to him already (32:10), and therefore he needed the night of wrestling to bring him to the realization that the blessing of forgiveness (Mic. 7:20), with its eternal, future implications, was what the promises are really all about. The promise to make Abraham's seed as the sand of the sea, he saw as implying that his children would not be physically harmed (32:12); yet the New Testament teaches that this promise fundamentally refers to Messiah, and those of all nations who would become " in him" . At the end of his life, it seems that Jacob learnt this. He had been promised that he was to “let people serve you” (27:29) and yet he effectively said he didn’t want that promise, by serving Laban for a wife (29:18,25,27); at the end he was brought through life’s experiences to see that the promises are the basis of life, and that we must let God fulfill them to us. 

Fulfilling God's Promises For Him

Because Jacob saw, for much of his life, that the fulfillment of God's promises depended on his effort, he so often doubted them; because, of course, men can never make enough effort. Thus he asks God to deliver him from Esau, because if Esau killed him, the covenant would not be fulfilled. " I fear him, lest he come and smite me (first!) and the mother with the children" (32:11). Whether he died or not that night would not have nullified God's promise that his seed would become a multitude (32:12). But first and foremost, Jacob saw the promises as offering him personal, temporal blessing, rather than having a firm faith in their future implications. His wrestling with the Angel was a cameo of this whole attitude; he thought that the promised blessing of God could be achieved through his wrestling and struggling. This is why, in the course of that night, he stopped wrestling with the Angel and clung on to him with tears, begging that through pure grace he might receive the blessing (Hos. 12:2-4). Before the wrestling began, Jacob evidently felt that basically, the promises to him had been fulfilled in the material prosperity which he had: " I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and all the truth (" mercy and truth" is a common idiom for the promises) which thou hast shewed unto thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands" (32:10).  

But Jacob learnt in that night of wrestling what he should have realized years before; that essentially the promised blessing concerns future salvation and present forgiveness as a foretaste of that. This fact is stated directly in Mic. 7:18-20: " Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant...he will subdue our iniquities...(because) thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob, and the mercy to Abraham which thou hast sworn unto our fathers" . The real import of the promised " mercy and truth" was forgiveness, and as Jacob's race will come to learn this at their latter end, so did Jacob that night. It is tragic, truly tragic, that not only does Christian literature and thinking give little enough emphasis to the promises, but the fact they concern the blessing of forgiveness has been overlooked; we have concentrated, rather like Jacob did, on the more physical blessing of the land and eternal life which they hold out (2).  

There is reason to think that all too many of us have gone too far down the road of 'God helps those who help themselves', rooted as that philosophy is (along with so many Christian attitudes) in Victorian Protestantism rather than Biblical wisdom. Works and human wit are the very antithesis of faith in God's promises; salvation, at the end, is not by works of righteousness. The works come as the response to the certainty we have, through faith alone, that God's promises will be fulfilled (3). Jacob is the classic example of taking 'we've got to do our bit' too far, to the point where it was faithlessness. He pleaded for deliverance on the basis of the promises, and then divided his family up on the assumption that if some of them are killed, the others will escape; by claiming to 'do the human bit', Jacob effectively denied his belief in the promises. Behold the paradox: 'Deliver me and my children, because You promised to do this...but in case You won't do what You promised, I'll split them up so that some of them have a chance of getting away if the others are killed'. 

Ps. 78:67 comments that God did not chose Ephraim- whereas Jacob did (Gen. 48:14). The implication could well be that even at the end of his life, Jacob's choice of Ephraim over Manasseh reflected some sort of weakness, a being out of step with God. This attitude that he could bring about the fulfillment of God's promises through his own efforts was the outcome of Jacob's self-righteousness. This is clearly shown when he says that his righteousness had caused his cattle to increase (30:33), although he believed that this increase of cattle was due to his receipt of the promised Divine blessing (32:10). His proud claim to his father that " I have done according as thou badest me" (27:19) when he had effectively done nothing of the sort was the basis for the character of the elder brother in the Lord's parable (Lk. 15:29). Time and again, Jacob emphasizes his works: " I have done according as thou badest me (27:19) days (of service) are fulfilled (therefore) give me my wife...did not I serve with thee for Rachel? (notice Jacob's legalism; 29:21,25)...give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served thee...thou knowest my I have served thee (30:25-33)...with all my power I have served your father (31:6). This trust in his own works was what prevented Jacob from a full faith in the promises. It was only the night of wrestling and his subsequent handicap that drove it from him. He evidently forgot the promise that the elder would serve the younger when he sent messengers to Esau, describing himself as Esau's servant, and Esau as his Lord (32:4); yet just a few hours later he was pleading in almost unparalleled intensity to receive the promised blessings of forgiveness. Such oscillating faith and perception of the promises is tragically a characteristic of Israel after the Spirit too. 

In passing, let's note how Jacob was afflicted with legalism, and struggled all his life to understand and accept grace. The legalistic attitude of Jacob and his family is brought out by the behaviour of his wives as well as himself when they are caught up with by Laban as recorded in Gen. 31. The society in which they lived had codified legal practices, as has been established by archaeological research into contemporary towns in the area. For example, part of the bride price had to be kept by the wife personally; and thus Rachel and Leah accuse their father of taking away from them that which was rightfully theirs. Likewise, according to the Nuzi documents, daughters and sons-in-law had legal title to part of the father's estate, and this was proven by their possession of the household idols. Hence Jacob and his wives stole those idols. E.A. Speiser quotes par. 266 of the Code of Hammurabi, which states: "If there occurs in the fold an act of god, or a lion takes a life, the shepherd [cp. Jacob] shall clear himself before the deity; the owner of the fold [cp. Laban] must then accept the loss incurred" (4). It was surely with allusion to this that Jacob complained that he as the shephered had had to bear the loss of Laban's lost cattle (Gen. 31:39).

Rejecting The Physical Blessing

Jacob's new appreciation of the blessing of forgiveness is reflected by the way in which he effectively tells Esau that he is handing back to him the birthright, the physical blessings. The way he bows down seven times to Esau (33:3) is rejecting the blessing he had obtained by deceit from Isaac: " Be master over your brethren, and let your mother's sons bow down to you" (27:29). His experience of the blessing of God's grace was sufficient for him, and he rejected all else. It's a shame that the English translation conceals Jacob's rejection of the physical blessing in 33:11: " Take (51 times translated " take away" ), I pray thee, my blessing...because God hath dealt graciously with me, and I have enough (lit. 'all things')" .The only ultimately important thing is grace and right standing with God. The Hebrew words translated " take (away)" and " blessing" are exactly the same as in 27:35,36: " (Jacob) came with subtlety, and hath taken away thy blessing...Is not he rightly named Jacob? he took away my birthright, and now he hath taken away my blessing" . Yet now Jacob is saying: 'I have experienced the true grace of God, I stand forgiven before Him, I see His face in His representative Angel (cp. Christ), I therefore have all things, so I don't want that physical, material, temporal blessing I swindled you out of'. This is why Jacob pointedly calls Esau his “Lord” in the record. He was accepting Esau as the firstborn. And Paul, in his spiritual maturity, came to the same conclusion; he counted all the materialism of this world as dung, that he might win Christ and be found in him, clothed with his gracious righteousness. Because God had dealt graciously with him, he felt that he had “all” (Gen. 33:11 RVmg.). All he needed was God’s grace, and he had that. Rev. 21:7 appears to allude to Jacob by saying that he who overcomes [by wrestling?] shall inherit “all things”. We are all to pass through Jacob’s lesson; that material advantage is nothing, and God’s grace is everything. Truly could Jacob later say, after another gracious salvation, that there God had appeared to Him, had been revealed to him [RV] in the experience of grace (Gen. 35:7).  

And yet how seriously will we take all this? Jacob soon slipped from this spiritual height to be deceptive again (Gen. 33:13-15), just as we do. Will the wonder of the grace in which we stand motivate us to reject demanding careers, reject rigorous education programs, give up second jobs, from the wonder of our spiritual experience and our desire to concentrate on these things? There can be no doubt that the wrestling experience of our lives will result in our rejection of materialism, and wholehearted devotion to the more spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. Jacob began that night by pleading: " Deliver me from Esau" (32:11), and he concludes by marveling that his life is " preserved (s.w. " deliver" ) from God's wrath (32:30); his  concern with physical problems and human relationships became dwarfed by his awareness of his need for reconciliation with God. In essence, this is Paul's teaching concerning peace in the NT; if we have peace with God, the wonder of this will result in us having peace in any situation. This is easy to write, so easy. And yet it is still true. If we see the seriousness of sin, and the wonder of being in free fellowship with the Father and Son, we will have peace. The wholehearted repentance and clinging on to God of Jacob that night is used in Hosea 12 as an appeal to all Israel to repent as our father Jacob did, and rise to his level of maturity. 

Slips Backwards

Yet, so true to our experience, even after the night of wrestling he slipped back at times into the old way of thinking. His pathetic bleating of 34:30 is a case of this: " I being few in number, they shall gather themselves together against me and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house" . Just note all those personal pronouns. God had promised to go with him, and the whole tenor of all the promises was that there would come a singular seed from the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who would become a great house, or nation. But in the heat of the moment, all this went out of the window. And not even in the heat of the moment, 37:10 reveals even more seriously how Jacob's view of the promises, even at the age of 108, was very much on a surface level: " Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves unto thee?" . Rachel was dead (35:19), and Jacob mocked the suggestion that she would ever " come" to bow to her son. In 35:11 God encourages Jacob, fearful he would lose all his family to attacks from neighbouring tribes, to “be fruitful and multiply; a nation…shall be of thee, and kings shall come out of thy loins”. If he played his part, the promises would be fulfilled. But at the time it seems Jacop wanted to cut and run, forgetting about having any more children. " If I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved" (43:14) sounds more like depressive fatalism than firm faith in the promises that his seed would eternally fill the earth. At 130, Jacob seems to have felt that the fact he had not lived as long as his father and grandfather had, indicated that he had not received so much blessing as they had; he saw length of years in this life as being significant (47:9), rather than allowing the prospect of future eternity make present longevity fade into insignificance. And yet in his final 17 years, he grew quickly; he was not spiritually idle in those last 17 years of retirement. For at the very end he could say that his blessings had exceeded " the blessings of my progenitors" (49:26).  

Final Maturity

At the end, Jacob as it were had come to repentance. Joseph falls on his neck and weeps for him (46:29), just as the Father does to the repentant prodigal. In this last period of his life, Jacob's faith in and understanding of the promises flourished. His words are just full of allusion to them. David's last words likewise were shot through with reference to the covenants of promise. No amazing new revelation was given to Jacob, no direct Divine exposition concerning the promises. He simply came to appreciate more deeply their real, personal implications of resurrection, Messiah, and His Kingdom. He therefore came to shun his materialism, to reject the things of this world even more deeply, and to realize more seriously the depth of separation between God's covenant people and the world. All these things hinged around his appreciation of the implications of the promises. Embracing the promises involves a confession that we are strangers and pilgrims on this earth (Heb. 11:13). We, as Abraham's seed, will go through an identical growth pattern. And yet, tragically, we live in a brotherhood which generally places decreasing emphasis on these things. Lectures, Bible exhibitions, preaching literature, all pay scant, if any, attention to the promises. They should be the very basis of our presentation of the Gospel, and what is, more vitally, the basis for our spiritual growth towards the Israel of God. Jacob's final appreciation of the promises is reflected in the way that he asks his sons to bury him in Canaan. To carry his body 300 miles to Hebron was quite something to ask. He knew that his personal resurrection didn't depend on the place of his burial; presumably, therefore, he asked for this in order to teach his children that the land of promise was their real home; that the promises associated with Hebron were the basis of their eternal redemption. Thus in his maturity, Jacob saw the need to teach his children the central, crucial importance of the promises. Perhaps he also wanted to demonstrate faith in resurrection and his subsequent separation from the Egyptian belief in the immortal soul. In principle, these strands of spiritual maturity were also seen in Paul, at his latter end. 2 Tim. 4 reflects his concern for the strengthening of others and the need to expose and separate from that which is false. 

The World

Jacob spoke at age 130 of how his life had been a " pilgrimage" (47:9); he realized that this life was only a series of temporary abodes. The same word is translated " stranger" with reference to the patriarchs' separation from the tribes around them (17:8; 28:4; 36:7; 37:1). Jacob's attitude that the things of this life were only temporary, that we are only passing through, is identified in Heb. 11:10-16 as an indicator that Jacob shared the faith of Abraham and Isaac. His very last words concerned the fact that he had purchased his burial field " from the children of Heth" (49:32), as if the separation between him and the surrounding world was so clear in his mind. Likewise in 48:22 he refers back to the time when he took Shechem from the Amorites. Thus his saturation with the promises meant that he saw the degree of his separation from the world. He twice describes his Messianic descendant as devouring the prey in the morning of the second coming (49:9, 27); he foresaw an aggressive tension between Messiah and other beasts, i.e. the nations of the surrounding world, which would end in the glorious victory of Christ's coming in glory. This image of devouring the prey after the battle against the world in this life is the basis of other latter day prophecies (Ez. 39:18-20; Rev. 19:17-20). The faithful will eat the carcass of the beast at Christ's coming (Mt. 24:28 cp. Rev. 19:17-20), sharing in the victory of the lion of Judah who has slain his prey and now devours it. This was all foreseen by Jacob, although he would have seen the beasts which the Messiah / lion devoured as the nations surrounding his people (Jer. 15:3; 28:14; Ez. 5:17 and many others).  

In his penultimate sentence, Jacob makes the perhaps strange comment that " they buried Isaac" (his father). The " they" meant him and Esau (35:29), but perhaps Jacob wanted to show his separation from Esau by describing the funeral in this way. Separation from the world is thus an aspect of spiritual maturity, and also a result of sustained appreciation of the covenant promises.  

The Lord likewise, in that ultimate spiritual maturity at the end of his mortal life, realized the titanic difference between his people and the world. He mentions " the world" 18 times in his prayer of John 17, and in this same context speaks of the unity of God's people, and their certainty of salvation. These were also themes in Jacob's mind at the end (and Paul's too, it can be shown).


(1) J.G. Janzen, Abraham And All The Families Of The Earth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) p. 108.

(2) A note needs to be made here concerning baptism. It is incorrect to say that because faith without works is dead, therefore if we believe we must prove this by the work of baptism. Baptism isn't a 'work' in this sense; it doesn't prove that we have faith. If this were so, salvation would be by faith alone, baptism of itself wouldn't be needed for salvation. But baptism is a vital part of salvation. Entry to the covenants of salvation is by baptism, not by faith alone, with works following as a response to the fact we are in covenant with God. Faith does not bring a man into Christ; baptism does. It is a 'sacrament' we must observe in order to enter covenant relationship, not a work we do to prove that our faith and entry into covenant is valid.

(3) The classic preaching works emphasize the physical aspect of the promises, i.e. the possession of the land of Israel, to the exclusion of the more important spiritual aspect of imputed righteousness and forgiveness. However, there is evidence that both as a community and as individuals, we are starting to put the emphasis where it should be (e.g. it seems that we are beginning to realize that the promise to Abraham discussed in Gal. 3 refers more to the promise of the Spirit rather than to physical possession of land: Gal. 3:2,6,14). There is reason to think that over time, the perception of the promises by the body of believers has moved from the physical to the spiritual. Thus the early Israelites thought of the promised inheritance as being effectively fulfilled in the fact that they had entered Canaan and were living there (Lev. 25:46; Num. 26:55; Dt. 1:28; 12:10; Josh. 14:1). David went on to realize that the promised inheritance was not in this life, but looked forward to the day when God's people would eternally inherit Canaan through the gift of immortality (Ps. 25:13; 37:9,11; 69:36). Solomon went further, in that he spoke of the promised inheritance as the glory (Prov. 3:35), depth of knowledge (Prov. 14:18) and spiritual riches (Prov. 8:21; 28:10) which God's people will inherit in the future Kingdom. The Lord Jesus rarely spoke of the inheritance as inheriting land, but rather of inheriting " everlasting life" (Mt. 19:29), the Kingdom (Mt. 25:34), " all things" (Rev. 21:7). Likewise the NT writers saw the " inheritance" as forgiveness (Acts 3:25,26; 1 Pet. 3:9) and salvation (Heb. 1:14). These more abstract things will all be experienced in the land promised to Abraham; this is the unchangeable, literal basis of all the other blessings.

(4) E.A. Speiser, Genesis [The Anchor Bible] (New York: Doubleday, 1964) p. 247.