Monday, October 23, 2006

The Life of Jacob, Part One

I recently did a series on the life of Jacob, which I'll share here. Use as you see fit, to God be the glory!

The Gambler
(Genesis 25-27)
Part One of the Series Struggling With God—
Lessons from the Life of Jacob

September 24, 2006

Today we start a five-week look at the life of Jacob, the man whom God renamed Israel and who gave that name to the nation and the people who are so much at the center of the plan of God in the Scriptures.

Now, why would we take five weeks to look at Jacob’s life? I could give you a lot of answers. One is that we have his whole life story told us, from before he was born till death. Another is that he is the last of the three great patriarchs of the Bible, after Abraham and Isaac.

But real reason I want to look at Jacob is the lessons we can learn from his life. You see, nobody so tricky and miserable has such a life change as that of Jacob; nobody so deceptive ends up as such a truth teller. Nobody as self-centered ends up so giving. That’s the lesson of Jacob, and it’s as contemporary as can be. It speaks to us today as followers of Jesus.

Through Jacob’s story we can gain great insight into how God works in us to enable us to grow up spiritually. When you come to God, when you give your life to Jesus as Lord, Jesus as the one who went to the cross for you and then rose up from the dead for you, God is just getting started with you. According to Romans 8:29, God’s desire is that we to be “conformed to the likeness of his Son.” That is, that we would love God and love His will and love people the same way that Jesus did when He was among us.

That’s not the way we come out of the box, though. That’s not the way we are by nature.
We start out as self-centered and self-consumed. We are, as Martin Luther said, curved inward toward ourselves.

God isn’t content to leave us like that. He is at work in the lives of all His children to become more and more like His firstborn, Jesus. And we can see how God works on display in the life of Jacob.

Now, the whole story of Jacob is scattered over 25 chapters of the book of Genesis, so there’s no way we can do that in detail in five weeks. We have to do a lot of picking from here and there. What I want to do this week is just show the character of Jacob as is—his human nature without a bit of God’s work in the man’s heart. If I had to give him a name, it would be The Gambler. You see, Jacob was a con man, a trickster, a grifter.

Genesis 25 tells of the death of Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. Then we’re told about the descendants of his son Ismael, the father of today’s Arabic peoples. Then we go to the birth of the twin sons of Isaac, the favored son of Abraham. In vs. 19-26, we read:

19This is the account of Abraham's son Isaac.

Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean.

21Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, "Why is this happening to me?" So she went to inquire of the LORD.

23The LORD said to her,
"Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger."

24When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. 26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.

What a strange story! It’s helpful to know the meaning of the names Isaac gave to the two baby boys. Esau means “Hairy.” He also got the nickname “Edom” which means “red.” But what’s really odd is his brother. Here’s a newborn with his hand clutching his brother’s heel, so he gets the name Jacob, which means “heel-grabber.” And in the Hebrew of the time, “heel-grabber” has the idea of “Schemer” or “Tripper.” He was born to scheme, to gamble and to trick. And he did.

The first scam Jacob pulled is recorded right away, in Genesis 25:27-34. Let me sum it up for you. We’re told that Esau was an outdoorsman, and a hunter. On the other hand, Jacob was a homebody. We’re also told that while mom liked Jacob, dad liked Esau, which will set everybody up for a world of hurt. Anyway, we’re told that Esau came in one day hungry and saw that Jacob, who’d spent all morning watching the Food Network, was trying out a new recipe for a savory red stew. (Red lentil bean and lamb stew is still a favorite among the Arabs of the area.) Esau took one sniff and said, “Man, lemme have some of that stuff! I’m starving!”

Ever seen those commercials, “What would you do for a Klondike Bar?” Jacob asks Esau, so what would you do for my creamy red stew? Would you, for example, sign over your rights as firstborn son to me for this delicious delight? And incredibly, Esau does.

You may think that couldn’t happen, or that Esau would never part with something so valuable. But according to Genesis 25:34, he “despised his birthright.” Ever know somebody who did everything they could to irritate their parents for no other reason than knowing that it would bother them? This seems to be a pattern with Esau. Over in Genesis 26:34-35, we read about Esau’s wives, and it’s interesting:

34When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. 35They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.

So Esau’s no innocent bystander here. He could be a real jerk. The difference between him and Jacob was that Jacob was a very smart jerk. He cheated Esau out of his birthright, which meant that Jacob would be the head of the family and would receive at least twice the inheritance of his brother, even though Esau was the older brother.

But Jacob wasn’t finished with Esau, and here’s where the fact that dad (Isaac) favored Esau while mom (Rebekah) favored Jacob led to a second scam that would have even longer lasting implications.

Before we get into that story, though, take a moment and consider. God had already told Rebekah that “the older will serve the younger.” God had a plan, and part of that plan was to choose Jacob to be the leader. The plan was to proceed through Jacob and his descendants.

In the New Testament, in Romans 9, Paul uses the story of Jacob and Esau to illustrate the fact that God is free to makes His choices anyway we wants to. It had nothing to do with who did what; it had everything to do with God’s sovereign choices, or what the Bible sometimes calls, God’s election.

You may think that you’re a difficult person for God to work with. If so, you’re in very good company with Jacob. For some people, following God seems fairly easy. John, the apostle who wrote the gospel, seems kind of that way. Yet there was a time that Jesus nicknamed John and his brother James the “sons of thunder”—and it wasn’t because of their easy-going nature. They could be angry and resentful, and Jesus gently teased them about it through the nickname he gave them. This was the same John, the only apostle to stay faithful to Jesus by being there when he was dying on the cross; the same John who saw the visions of the book of Revelation, the same John who wrote again and again, “God is love.” No, even for John, there was something bent in him that God wanted to straighten, and that God did straighten. That’s the way it really is with all of us, to one degree or another. We’re all in need of being transformed by the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives.

So back to Jacob and his second great scam, there in Genesis 27. It was mom’s idea. It seems like all the women of Genesis are pretty tough-minded gals. Again, remember that the Lord had told Rebekah that Jacob was the one favored by God in the big plan. But like so many before and after, she wondered if God’s plan couldn’t use a little human help.

Here’s the story. Isaac is old, really old, about 137, and his eyesight’s pretty much gone. (Remember, this is before things like cataract surgery.)

So he’s stuck inside the tent and he calls for Esau. Here’s what it says in Genesis 27:1-4:

1When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, "My son."
"Here I am," he answered.

2Isaac said, "I am now an old man and don't know the day of my death. 3Now then, get your weapons--your quiver and bow--and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. 4Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die."

Isaac knew two things. The first was that he was old, blind, and he didn’t know how long he would live. After all, 137 is OLD! (That, by the way, was the same age his half-brother Ishmael had died at, so maybe that was on his mind.) The second was that Esau had given up his birthright. But there was something he could still do for Esau: he could give him his blessing. So he tells him to go out and hunt down some wild game, prepare it for him, and he would give Esau his blessing.

This may seem kind of strange until you understand some things about the culture of the time. A blessing had the same force as a “last will and testament.” A blessing of that kind was also considered a covenant, and covenants were almost always conducted as part of a meal. What would be more fitting than a meal of game taken by Esau for Esau’s covenant blessing?

Now, here’s where things get interesting. Rebekah overheard what Isaac said to Esau, so she went to Jacob and told him. She hatched a plot to steal even the blessing from Esau. She would fix a meal from the flock they already had; Jacob would dress in Esau’s clothes so the old man would catch the smell of a hunter on him. And when Jacob pointed out that unlike his hairy brother, he was pretty smooth, so Rebekah covered Jacob’s hands and neck with goatskins.

So in comes Jacob pretending to be Esau. “Back so soon?” asks Isaac. Then Jacob tells a whopper: “The Lord your God gave me success.” The old guy was suspicious: this kid sounds like Jacob! But he smelled Esau’s clothes, and felt his hairy hands, so he must have figured his hearing was going along with his eyesight, so he blessed him.

The blessing is recorded in Genesis 27:27-29:

"Ah, the smell of my son
is like the smell of a field
that the LORD has blessed.
28May God give you of heaven's dew
and of earth's richness--
an abundance of grain and new wine.
29May nations serve you
and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed
and those who bless you be blessed."

The blessing Isaac extended was designed to basically reverse the loss he’d experienced by selling his birthright. But it went to Jacob instead. And later, when Esau did show up, the real Esau, then he could not, under the laws and the customs of the time, reverse the blessing. Instead, Isaac told Esau that he and his descendants would experience harshness and oppression.

You can imagine the anger in Esau as he realizes he’s been cheated again. And in vs. 41 we’re told what Esau was saying: "The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob." Both Isaac and Rebekah agree that Jacob should flee from the land. They send him off to the ancestral homeland of their family, to an area called Paddan Aram. In modern times, this is the border region between Syria and Iraq. This is the same region in which Rebekah was born and from which Abraham had come before coming into the Promised Land. Jacob would go there to find a wife from their clan and to marry her there.

Sadly, while Rebekah thought that Esau would cool off after “a while”, he ended up being there for 20 years. And ironically, during that time, Rebekah would die—and Isaac would still be alive, all those years later.

So that’s where we’ll pick up Jacob’s story next week: running for his life, because his trickery had caught up with him.

So let’s think application to us here. What are you like, and what in you does God want to change, and to straighten out? If you’re alive and breathing, I guarantee you that God wants to do some spiritual surgery on your life. How does that happen?

Well, I think that we can identify two main ways God works in us to become more and more the fully formed follower of Jesus He wants us to be, and to be more and more like Jesus, with the family resemblance of the family of God. The first is responding to the circumstances of life in a way that exercises dependence on God as opposed to self-reliance. That’s what so much of the story of Jacob is about, and we’ll come back to it in the weeks to come.

The second is described in 2 Corinthians 3:18:

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Paul is referring to another Old Testament story: the story of Moses. I won’t go into detail on that, I just want to make one point: it’s contact with God that transforms us. We shine with God’s light when we take off our mask, our veil, and God’s presence changes us.

That will be the next step for Jacob. God will meet him and begin the process of transforming him.

God as well wants to touch you today at the point of your deepest need. Look inside: you know the things in you that are broken, bent and in need of healing. And God knows them too, and better than we do.

As we close, I’m going to ask us all to come quietly before the Lord and to listen to His call. To listen to the Spirit as He shows us our need, the bent and broken things in you, the things we all have that need to be changed, and ask Him to shows us God’s solution. Let’s come quietly before the Lord before we close in prayer.

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