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2. Jacob

2.6 Jacob And Imputed Righteousness

It can be demonstrated that the weakness of Jacob, morally and even doctrinally, runs far deeper than may be apparent on the surface. Even at the end, despite the level of spiritual maturity which Jacob doubtless achieved, he still had serious aspects of incompleteness in his character (1). And yet he is held up as a spiritual hero, a victor in the struggle against the flesh (2). This was (and is) all possible on account of the phenomenal imputation of righteousness which God gave to His Jacob. He was saved by grace, not works; and Malachi appeals to God's people to see in Jacob's salvation an eternal reminder of God's grace (Mal. 1:2; 3:6). Very often, the name Jacob is associated with the way that God sees His people of Jacob / Israel as righteous when in fact they are not (Num. 23:7,10,21; 24:5; Ps. 47:4; 105:6; 135:4; Is. 41:8). The names “Jacob” and “Israel” are often used together (e.g. Hos. 12:12) to show how God saw the Jacob as Israel, without forgetting he was still Jacob. " I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious" (Ex. 33:19) is an essential part of God's Name and character. Paul explains in Rom. 9 that this is exemplified by the way in which even before birth, God chose Jacob rather than Esau, not according to the fact that Jacob was more righteous, but simply because He chose to show grace to Jacob rather than Esau. And this, Paul implies, is the same wondrous, senseless grace which has been poured out upon the new Israel / Jacob. And seeing that Jacob really is our role model, this speaks volumes concerning God's relationship to us. After the night of wrestling, Jacob seems to have grasped this fact; he speaks twice of how God had been gracious to Him (33:5,11). The pure grace of God’s dealings with Jacob is brought out in how Jer. 30:7,8 prophecies that in the time of Jacob’s trouble, “I will break his [the invader’s] yoke from off thy neck”. This was the promise given to Esau- and one could say that Jacob having got all he did, at least Esau should be allowed to have the little promise given to him. But now even this is given to Jacob- at the time of his ‘trouble’, his final downtreading for centuries of disobedience. 

The way God showed such grace and imputed righteousness to Jacob even before his birth is also brought out in Is. 44:2, which states that from the womb, Jacob was chosen to be God's servant; and yet Jacob coolly said that only if God did what He promised, would he agree to serve Yahweh, and have Him as his master. Earlier in the same servant prophecies, the servant Jacob is described as a useless servant: " Who is blind, but my servant? or deaf, as my messenger that I sent? who is blind as he that is perfect (Jacob was a perfect / plain man, Gen. 25:27), and blind as the Lord's servant?" (Is. 42:19). Although the servant is worse than useless (a deaf messenger), he is seen as perfect by his Divine Master. And the servant prophecies are primarily based on Jacob (note, in passing, how often they associate the servant Jacob with idol worship, which seems to have been an earlier characteristic of Jacob). Consider too the allusions to Jacob in Is. 53; a man of sorrow and grief, despised of men, who would see his seed. As Christ felt a worm on the cross (Ps. 22:6), so Jacob is described (Is. 41:14). That even in his weakness, Jacob prefigured the Lord in his time of ultimate spiritual victory, shows in itself the way God imputed righteousness to him at the time. 

The whole basis of how God dealt with Jacob is intended to be an essay in the way in which He counts all the true Israel as righteous, even thought they are not. Imputed righteousness is they key to our salvation by grace. When Balaam tried to curse Israel, it was impossible because God saw them as righteous, even though they were not: " He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness (Jacob-ness) in Israel" (Num. 23:21). He overlooked Jacob’s natural characteristics. It is no accident that God repeatedly described His people at this time with the title of 'Jacob' (Num. 23:7,10,21,23; 24:5,17,19). The lengths to which God went to count Israel and Jacob as righteous are wondrous. We have shown elsewhere the idolatrous tendencies of Jacob. But it is emphasized in Jer. 10:15, 16 that the God of Jacob is not an idol, nor is He created by an 'errorist'- using the same rare Hebrew word concerning Jacob being a 'deceiver' in Gen. 27:12. Jacob was a 'deceiver', and for much of his life did not accept Yahweh as his God, preferring the idols of the land (28:20,21). Yet Jer. 10:15,16 says that idols are made by 'deceivers', and the God Jacob believed in was not an idol like this. God is almost turning everything upside down to frame a weak, faltering Jacob as the very opposite. And He will do likewise with every one of the true Israel. 

A Framed Record

The whole record is framed in such a way as to present Jacob in a positive light compared to Esau (3), even though (as Rom. 9 demonstrates) there was little fundamental difference between them at first; indeed, the deception and passive hatred of Jacob was probably worse than the simplistic carnality of Esau. Esau tried to please his parents (remember his taking of wives to please them), he forgave Jacob; whereas Jacob deceived his father wickedly, and never reconciled himself to Esau. Esau's desperate pleading for Jacob's pottage at the cost of his birthright seems to be the background for 1 Cor. 15:32, where those without the hope of covenant resurrection are described as saying " Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die" , just as the faithless in Israel did in Hezekiah's time. Instead of weeping in repentance, their attitude was " let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die" (Is. 22:13). This category is associated with Esau, craving for the things of today at the cost of an eternal tomorrow. But Jacob himself was no better; it would take many years before he came to weep in repentance before the Angel, as he should have done before. And yet Esau is set up as the sinner and Jacob as the saint. All the time, righteousness is imputed to Jacob later in the record- thus “Israel served for a wife, and for a wife he kept sheep” (Hos. 12:12)- when actually he did it for wives plural- and a few concubines.  Again we see Jacob is imputed righteousness.

Esau before Isaac, pleading with him to change his irrevocable rejection, is picked up in Heb. 12:14-16 as a type of the rejected at the day of judgment. The implication is that Jacob at this time symbolized the saints; yet he was no saint at that time. The way he is described at the time as " smooth" (27:11), without a covering of hair, may be a hint that he needed a covering of atonement. He didn't even accept Yahweh as his God; and anyone who would justify lying to his father as Jacob then did has rejected the whole concept of living by any kind of principles. Yet Jacob at this time is set up as a saint. At this time, the record of Isaac's blessing of Jacob (27:29) is framed to portray Jacob as a type of Christ: " Let people serve thee" = Zech. 8:23; Is. 60:12 " nations bow down to thee" = Ps. 72:11; " Be Lord over thy brethren" = Phil. 2:11; " Let they mother's sons bow down to thee" = 1 Cor. 15:7. The fact Esau mocked Jacob as he skulked off to Padan Aram is picked up in Obadiah 12 as a ground for Esau's condemnation; and yet, humanly, Jacob was at that time by far the bigger and more responsible sinner. A bit of mocking from Esau was, from a human standpoint, a mild response. Other allusions to Jacob in later Scripture comment on his negative side. " Deceiving and being deceived" is surely a pointer to Jacob (2 Tim. 3:13). “The slothful man catcheth / roasteth not that which he  took in hunting” (Prov. 12:27 RVmg.) may be on of the Proverbs’ historical commentaries- in this case, on Jacob. The implication would be that Jacob was lazy in staying in the tent and not hunting. But many Biblical allusions to Jacob seize on one aspect of his behaviour and apparently glorify it. Even after his repentance at the night of wrestling, he still deceived Esau (33:13-15). And yet the record is written in such a way as to make Jacob out to be the righteous one; he is described as " perfect" at a time when he had not even accepted Yahweh as his God. Thus what he eventually was is said of him at the beginning, but with no hint that this is the case; the impression is given that he was always " perfect" from the start (25:27). Jacob is there described as living in tents with his righteous father and grandfather; whereas there is ample evidence that he was quite used to the tough outdoor life, and was an accomplished shepherd. Heb. 11:9 implies that he had faith in the promises and was indeed an heir of them at this time; even though he did not see them as personally applying to him then (28:20), and was more involved in idolatry than he should have been. Another example of the way the Spirit frames the record in Jacob's favour is in 37:3: " Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age" . We have shown that most of Jacob's children were born within a few years of each other, and in any case, Benjamin was the youngest. It seems that the Spirit is almost making a weak excuse for Jacob's favouritism, or perhaps picking up Jacob's self-justification for his favouritism and treating it as if it is valid.  

There are many examples of where God worked through Jacob's weakness, and blessed him in spite of it, imputing righteousness to Jacob. Thus Jacob's use of red stew to wrest the birthright from his red brother was used by God to give him the birthright (the words for " stew" and " Esau" are related), even though Paul evidently disapproved of Jacob's attitude (Rom. 12:20 surely alludes here); his evil deception of his father was used by God to grant him the physical blessing (27:28 is confirmed by God in Dt. 33:28), even though at the time he was dressed like a goat (17:16), connecting himself with fallen Adam and the rejected at the day of judgment; “Deceiving and being deceived” certainly rings bells with Jacob (2 Tim. 3:13); his idolatrous dream of a Ziggurat was turned into an assurance of Divine care for him, the shrine which topped Mesopotamian ziggurats being turned by God in the vision into the throne of Yahweh. Indeed, ‘Babylon’ meant ‘gate of God’, and in thinking that he was at heaven’s gates, Jacob was confusing Babylon and the true city of God. But still God worked through all this. Jacob’s superstitious use of mandrakes and poplar rods was used by God to fulfill the physical aspect of the promised blessing; he used " white" rods to take power from Laban, the " white" one, and to give him white animals- and God worked through it. Jacob shifted the blessing of firstborn from Manasseh to Ephraim, humanly because he wanted to see his own experience replicated in that of his favourite grandchildren. And yet God confirmed this, by later saying that He accepted Ephraim as His firstborn (Gen. 48:20 cp. Jer. 31:9). God gave Jacob 10 sons but he wanted 12, and therefore adopted another two; and God accepted this. The names given to some of those sons weren't very spiritual or even true, and yet God accepted them (e.g. Napthtali, 30:8; Dan, 30:6, Issachar, 30:18). Likewise, God didn't want a temple, and He didn't want Israel to have a human King. And yet He conceded to their weakness, and worked through this; as He may occasionally work through the sin of marriage out of the Faith to bring someone to the Faith. This is, of course, a dangerous road to go down, in so far as we can easily be lulled into feeling that God will work with us anyway; the knowledge of His grace can make us lose the sense of urgency in our spiritual struggle. And yet, at the end, God works through our weakness. This not only gives us comfort in our own stumbling path to the Kingdom, but should enable us to be patient with those of our brethren who seem to be so unashamedly weak.  

Weak And Strong At The Same Time

This leads on to what is a major theme in God's dealing with Jacob; at the very moments when Jacob is weak or downright evil, God sees something righteous in him and responds accordingly. The closer we look, the more examples we can find of this in other Bible characters (4). And the more honest our self-examination, the more we will see that even in the apparent heights of devotion and righteousness, there can be the darkest strain of sin. And likewise, in the depths of human failure, it is not uncommon to sense an element of spirituality going on at the same time. Men, generally, don't take this spiritual schizophrenia into account in their judgment of people and situations. But quite evidently, God does. He sees that our behaviour can be read on more than one level; the same action has elements of righteousness and sin within it. Thus Jehu's massacre at Jezreel was commanded by God, and Jehu was praised for his obedience in doing it (2 Kings 10:30,31), but he was also condemned for it (Hos. 1:4). Yet we simply cannot make such analysis, although we must recognize that this is in fact how God analyzes. And for this reason alone, we are quite unable to anticipate the outcome of the judgment with regard to other believers.  

The following are examples of this theme in God's relationship with Jacob:

- " Children, obey your parents in the Lord...honour thy father and mother, for this is the first commandment with promise; that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth" (Eph. 6:1-3) is a strange allusion to Jacob; " Jacob obeyed his father and his mother" (28:7) by going to Padan Aram (actually he fled there, but the record frames it as if he did so purely out of obedience to his parents and from a desire to find a wife in the Faith). Because Jacob did this, God promised him at Bethel that it would be well with him (32:9), and he too was given the Abrahamic promises of living long on the earth  / land. Thus Jacob's fleeing to Padan Aram is seen by the Spirit in Paul as a righteous act of obedience to faithful parents, which resulted in him receiving the promises. And yet his flight was rooted in fear, and at the time he did not accept the promises as relevant to him, neither did he believe Yahweh was his God (28:20). And yet the positive side of Jacob (i.e. his obedience to his parents) is seized on and held up as our example.

- At the time of Jacob's deception, Esau lifted up his voice and wept (27:38); and this is picked up in Heb. 12:17 as a warning to all those who would fritter away their spirituality for sensuality. The faithlessness of Jacob is disregarded, and the emphasis is placed upon Esau.

- " If God will be with me...and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on...then shall Yahweh be my God" (28:20) is simply incredible; 'if God will really look after me, which includes giving me food and clothes, if He's as good as His word, then I'll accept Him as my God'. And yet Paul speaks of how we should serve our Master well, especially if he is our brother (alluding to Jacob and Laban), and " having food and raiment be content" (1 Tim. 6:2,8), as if the fact Jacob only expected food and clothing from God was a sign of his unmaterialism. And yet at the very time Jacob said those words, he only half believed, and the next 20 years of his life were devoted to accumulating far more than just food and clothing. And yet his words regarding food and raiment, sandwiched as they are between much that is wrong, are treated as a reflection of his spirituality.

- Ps. 34 has several allusions to Jacob (vv. 6,7,13). " The angel of the Lord encampeth around them that fear Him, and delivereth them" (v.7) is alluding to the Angel with fearful Jacob on the night of westling, and delivering him from Esau. And yet the Angel set out to fight and slay Jacob, after the pattern of Esau (33:10). Jacob feared because of his sins and because of the relentless approach of his brother. Yet this is turned round to mean that Jacob's fear was actually fear of God, and on account of this feat, the Angel delivered Jacob. Jacob was partly afraid of God and his own sins, but (it seems) more significantly, he simply feared Esau physically. And yet in Ps. 34:7, God chose that more positive aspect of Jacob and memorialized it there as an example to others.

- " Now when shall I provide for mine own house also?" (30:30) Jacob slyly asked Laban, and on this pretext spent then next six years using some pagan myth about cattle breeding to take Laban's cattle from him and amass them for himself. What he came to think of as " his flock" (31:4) was a reflection of his mad materialism; he used all his (considerable) human strength to achieve it, and then turned round and said he had only been serving Laban with it (31:6). Yet these very words are alluded to in 1 Tim. 5:8 as an example for faithful men to copy; indeed, Paul says, if you don't do as Jacob did, you're worse than a pagan! And yet the Spirit through Paul also recognized the weak side of Jacob; " evil men...deceiving and being deceived" (2 Tim. 3:13) is a sure reference to Jacob.

- " When a man's ways please Yahweh, He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him" (Prov. 16:7) is a reference to Esau's surprising peace with Jacob (Proverbs is packed with such historical commentary). Yet as they made peace, Jacob was saying that Esau was his Lord, and he was Esau's servant (32:18; 33:14), in designed denial of the Divine prophecy that Esau was to serve Jacob (25:23). Yet at this very time, Jacob's ways pleased Yahweh.

- At the very end, Jacob's blessing of Joseph's sons as the firstborn is seen as an act of faith (48:5; Heb. 11:21). Yet on another level, Jacob was taking the blessings away from the firstborn who was the son of the wife he disliked, and giving those blessings to the son of his favourite wife, who was not the furstborn. This was quite contrary to the will of God as expressed in Dt. 21:17. At best we can say that God allowed one principle to be broken to keep another (although what other?). At worst, Jacob was simply showing rank favouritism, and yet at the same time he foresaw in faith the Messianic suggestions in Joseph's experience, and therefore made Joseph's sons the firstborn. God saw the good in Jacob at this time, and counted this to him, and recognized and worked with Joseph's decision to make " the son of the hated" the firstborn (1 Chron. 5:1), even though this may have been contrary to God's highest intentions. Likewise God worked through Jacob's paganic use of poplar rods and mandrakes. The way Jacob insisted on blessing Ephraim as the firstborn again seems to show some kind of favouritism and a desire to see his grandson living out his own experience, i.e. the younger son who fought his way up and received the blessings as opposed to the rightful heir. Ephraim becomes a code-name for apostate Israel throughout the prophets. And yet God accepted Jacob's preferential blessing of Ephraim and repeated this in Dt. 33:17.  

If God thinks so positively about His weak servants, ought this not to inculcate in us a culture of kindness and positive thinking about each other? Ought this not to be the hallmark of our community?  Jacob's imputed righteousness is a pattern of how God treats us, and how we should treat each other.

The same theme is demonstrated by the way in which in his weak moments, the Spirit as it were takes a snapshot of Jacob, and uses this image as a type of the peerless Son of God:

- As Jacob bowed before Isaac as the fawning deceiver, Jacob was blessed with promises which were relevant to the Lord Jesus; " let people serve thee" (27:29) is evidently Messianic (Dan. 7:14). My point is that even in his weakness, God saw the connection between Jacob and Jesus. " Let...nations bow down to thee" is Messianic (cp. Ps. 72:11); " be Lord over thy brethren" is perhaps picked up in Phil. 2:11; " let thy mother's sons bow down to thee" is 1 Cor. 15:7; James 1:1.

- Jacob self-admittedly didn't believe as he slept that night at Bethel. But just days  before that, as Jacob sheepishly stood before his sorrowful, betrayed father; right there, right then, God promised Jacob that he would become " a multitude (LXX ekklesia) of people" (28:3), words which could only become true through their application to Christ.

- Jacob's infatuation with Rachel was so great that he thought nothing of breaking basic principles, e.g. one man: one woman, in order to get her. He was also willing to pay 14 years wages for her (you can calculate this for yourself). His deep love of her is a type of Christ's love for his church.

- Jacob called Esau his master (33:5), in evident rejection of the Divine promise they both knew: that Esau would serve Jacob (25:23). And yet at this very point, Jacob speaks of " the children which God hath graciously given thy (Esau's) servant" ; and this scene is cited in Is. 8:18 as a type of Christ and his spiritual children of promise. In similar vein, Is. 49:21 uses this scene as a picture of the faithful remnant among Jacob in the last days.

- Jacob as he approached Esau was weak; he prayed for deliverance, but divided up his family as if he doubted whether God would hear him. The Angel met him, representing Esau (33:10), and would have killed him (cp. Moses) had not Jacob wrestled with him in prayer and begged for the blessing of forgiveness (Hos. 12:4-6). And yet the record of Jacob meeting Esau is shot through with reference to Christ in Gethsemane; the Son of God at one of his finest moments: 



31:14 Night time breaking of bread and killing of animals
Zech. 13:7
32:1 LXX Jacob went on his way and saw the camp of God; an Ezekiel 1 type vision of Angels As Christ in Gethsemane
Cp. Kedron
32:6; 33:4 Cp. Judas, Mk. 14:45; Jn. 18:3
Jn. 16:5
32:3 Lk. 10:1; 22:8
Made a prince afterwards
Acts 3:15; 5:31; Rev. 1:5
Jacob referred to the promises (32:9,10) As Christ's mind was full of the promises at the end (Ps. 69:13; 89:49; 77:8; 44:4,24; Is. 63:16)

Jacob, Esau And The Prodigal

The parable of the prodigal contains multiple allusions to the record of Jacob and Esau, their estrangement, and the anger of the older brother [Esau] against the younger brother (5). There is a younger and an elder son, who both break their relationships with their father, and have an argument over the inheritance issue. Jacob like the prodigal son insults his father in order to get his inheritance. As Jacob joined himself to Laban in the far country, leaving his older brother Esau living at home, so the prodigal glued himself to a Gentile and worked for him by minding his flocks, whilst his older brother remained at home with the father. The fear of the prodigal as he returned home matches that of Jacob as he finally prepares to meet the angry Esau. Jacob's unexpected meeting with the Angel and clinging to him physically is matched by the prodigal being embraced and hugged by his father. Notice how Gen. 33:10 records how Jacob felt he saw the face of Esau as the face of an Angel. By being given the ring, the prodigal "has in effect now supplanted his older brother" (6); just as Jacob did. As Esau was "in the field" (Gen. 27:5), so was the older brother.

What was the Lord Jesus getting at by framing His story in terms of Jacob and Esau? The Jews saw Jacob as an unblemished hero, and Esau / Edom as the epitome of wickedness and all that was anti-Jewish and anti-God. The Book of Jubilees has much to say about all this, as does the Genesis Rabbah (7). The Lord is radically and bravely re-interpeting all this. Jacob is the younger son, who went seriously wrong during his time with Laban. We have shown elsewhere how weak Jacob was at that time. Jacob was saved by grace, the grace shown in the end by the Angel with whom he wrestled, and yet who finally blessed him. As Hos. 12:4 had made clear, Jacob weeping in the Angel's arms and receiving the blessing of gracious forgiveness is all God speaking to us. The older brother who refused to eat with his sinful brother clearly represented, in the context of the parable, the Jewish religious leaders. They were equated with Esau- the very epitome of all that was anti-Jewish. And in any case, according to the parable, the hero of the story is the younger son, Jacob, who is extremely abusive and unspiritual towards his loving father, and is saved by sheer grace alone. This too was a radical challenge to the Jewish perception of their ancestral father Jacob.

The parable demonstrates that both the sons despised their father and their inheritance in the same way. They both wish him dead, treat him as if he isn't their father, abuse his gracious love, shame him to the world. Both finally come to their father from working in the fields. Jacob, the younger son, told Laban that "All these years I have served you... and you have not treated me justly" (Gen. 31:36-42). But these are exactly the words of the older son in the parable! The confusion is surely to demonstrate that both younger and elder son essentially held the same wrong attitudes. And the Father, clearly representing God, and God as He was manifested in Christ, sought so earnestly to reconcile both the younger and elder sons. The Lord Jesus so wished the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees to fellowship with the repenting sinners that He wept over Jerusalem; He didn't shrug them off as self-righteous bigots, as we tend to do with such people. He wept for them, as the Father so passionately pours out His love to them. And perhaps on another level we see in all this the desperate desire of the Father and Son for Jewish-Arab unity in Christ. For the promises to Ishmael show that although Messiah's line was to come through Isaac, God still has an especial interest in and love for all the children of Abraham- and that includes the Arabs. Only a joint recognition of the Father's grace will bring about Jewish-Arab unity. But in the end, it will happen- for there will be a highway from Assyria to Judah to Egypt in the Millennium. The anger of the elder brother was because the younger son had been reconciled to the Father without compensating for what he had done wrong. It's the same anger at God's grace which is shown by the workers who objected to those who had worked less receiving the same pay. And it's the same anger which is shown every time a believer storms out of an ecclesia because some sinner has been accepted back...


(1) See The Human Side Of Jacob

(2) See Jacob: Really Our Example.

(3) See " I won't be in the Kingdom" for more examples of this.

(4) See " I'm a hypocrite" for more discussion of this major Bible theme.

(5) K.E. Bailey, Jacob And The Prodigal (Downers Grove: IVP, 2003) lists 51 points of contact between the Jacob / Esau record and the prodigal parable.
(6) A.J. Hultgren, The Parables Of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) p. 79.
(7) See e.g. Jacob Neusner, Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary To The Book Of Genesis (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985) Vol. 3 p. 176.