What follows is a subsequent chapter of the work-in-progress I shared last week, Characters of God. (You can read the premise of the work and the first chapter here.) These chapters originated as meditations for a men’s and later a women’s silent retreat. The meditations originally focused upon male or female characters according to the audience. The following chapter focused upon two figures, male and female, mother and son. The responses from the women’s retreat to this meditation were markedly different than that of the men’s.
This is, of course, still very much a work in progress. Please feel free to share you thoughts and comments. You will see one or two notes to myself in the text as well. I have decided not to clean that up yet and just to post it as is.
Enjoy and thank you for reading!
Rebekah & Jacob
Gen. 25.19 These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 And the LORD said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
Gen. 25.27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Most of us probably remember that Jacob was one of the Patriarchs and most of us, given some time, would probably remember that it was he who wrestled with an angel and whose name was changed to “Israel” from which the “Israelites” derived their name, as his descendants. Most, however, probably do not recall what a nasty character he was.
It must be noted that things did not start out in his favor. One of the many recurring themes in Genesis, and in the OT in general, is how the attitudes and actions of the parents can affect their children. It is not coincidental that Isaac and Ishmael, whose great feud remains with us today in the struggles between the Arabs and the Jews were offspring of different mothers, one a slave to the other. And we shall see that much of the discord that existed in David and Solomon’s palaces were due to the many wives that they had. Isaac did not take any other wives, but verse 28 sets the stage for the animosity between their boys by telling us that each parent had chosen a favorite: “Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.”
The narrator has set up for us the vital information regarding the story of Jacob’s life. He will be at war with his brother Esau and that conflict will be exacerbated by their parents uneven affection for one over the other. Needless to say, we ought to reflect immediately upon our own relationships in light of this, and not just with our children. (Since not everyone has them!) There will always be tendencies to prefer certain traits over others and to even find certain personalities easier to coexist with, but within our family relationships, whether biological or spiritual, we are to love one another equally. When we show favoritism or preference the conditions are perfect for envy and jealousy to fester and grow. The challenge is to seek out those distinctive traits that God has given an individual and encourage them in that area, whether it is something that we appreciate or not.
Within a family it could take any number of forms. In a stereotypical analogy, we might find a father who does not take as seriously his daughter’s love of dance as he does his son’s passion for baseball. The results of such a simple neglect of attention can be devastating to a child and it is not because we “did” something, but rather because we did nothing. It is for this reason that in the Confession we ask God’s forgiveness for “what we have done, and … what we have left undone.” I can’t say that I am a huge fan of ballet, but our 4 year old daughter has recently started lessens and she absolutely loves it! It is my job to continue to encourage her to do her best. And if that is a gift or talent that God has given her then I will exhort her to nurture her skill to its fullest.
We can also apply the same principle within our church or office community. We may not readily see the personal importance of, for example, someone who works in addiction recovery. But there are certainly many in our community who do! And a strong leader in that community will do everything he can to enable that individual to fulfill that call. Rebekah and Isaac, Jacob and Esau’s parents, however, had their favorite and sought to ensure that son’s future to the detriment of the other.
As the story unfolds we find that the younger son, Jacob, does indeed gain the inheritance and blessing of his father, in both instances through trickery. It would be easy to lay all the blame at the feet of Rebekah. It is she who instigates Jacob to deceive his father into blessing him. She even sewed the garments he needed and cooked the game that Isaac was expecting. But the Bible also speaks through silence and in Isaac’s presence he can perhaps be perceived as an “absent father.” Rebekah, in her defense, may have been like Mary, keeping the words that God have given her in child birth regarding her son’s future, close to her heart. But if so she took a much more active role in her son’s climb to power than did Mary. God had promised that the younger would serve the elder and perhaps she viewed it as her role to prepare and ensure that this prophecy came true. And it may even be that Jacob did not know of this prophecy and so went through his life assuming that, as according to culture, but contrary to the examples of his father and grandfather, Esau as the eldest would inherit his estate and so Jacob was merely trying to look after his own interests as best he could. Considering his close relationship with his mother, however, and her preference for him this seems unlikely. In any event, it is Jacob himself who acts first.
Gen. 25.29 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.
These five verses present us with a curious little scene. Jacob is a homebody, that is clear. He prefers to stay in the tent and knows how to cook lentil soup as he has done on this day. Now although we are told that Isaac’s holdings are extensive, it is unlikely that Jacob is cooking very far from other tents and sources of food and yet Esau is so famished that he cannot wait any longer for sustenance. He must have food right away regardless of the cost.
The story tells us a number of things. On one level it is an etiological tale. That is, it explains that one of the enemies of the nation of Israel, the Edomites, are in fact descended from Esau because “Edom” was, in fact, another name for Esau derived from this episode. It also mitigates Jacob’s guilt slightly, but only slightly. Esau had such little regard for his birthright that he would give it up for a simple bowl of stew that he probably could have gotten for free two tents down and to the left. (I should also point out that a distinction is made in this story between the “birthright” which is the physical inheritance of his father’s estate and the “blessing” which is a special prophetic blessing that was bestowed by the father upon his children.) Esau was so concerned with his own immediate physical needs that he did not consider the importance of his role as heir or the value of his inheritance.
As I reflect upon this story I think it would be very easy for me, if I were in Jacob’s sandals, to justify my actions. “Here comes Esau. All he ever does is think with his stomach. I’ll bet I could get him to give me his whole bank account for one bowl of soup. He’d deserve it too, if he were that foolish.” And certainly the biblical author impresses upon us the unsuitability of Esau to inherit. But that does not absolve Jacob of the guilt of his actions. It also does not remove from him the consequences of his actions and, guided by his mother, Jacob brings further condemnation upon himself when he deceives his father in order to gain his brother’s blessing.
Gen. 27.5 Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I heard your father say to your brother Esau, 7 ‘Bring me game, and prepare for me savory food to eat, that I may bless you before the LORD before I die.’ 8 Now therefore, my son, obey my word as I command you. 9 Go to the flock, and get me two choice kids, so that I may prepare from them savory food for your father, such as he likes; 10 and you shall take it to your father to eat, so that he may bless you before he dies.” 11 But Jacob said to his mother Rebekah, “Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am a man of smooth skin. 12 Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him, and bring a curse on myself and not a blessing.” 13 His mother said to him, “Let your curse be on me, my son; only obey my word, and go, get them for me.” 14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother; and his mother prepared savory food, such as his father loved.
Rebekah takes the lead in this episode, but Jacob, by now an adult, agrees to carry through with the plan. Indeed, Jacob succeeds and acquires not only his brother’s inheritance, but his blessing as well. All that is left for Esau is a curse, as we find in one of the more poignant episodes in the Bible.
Gen. 27.33 Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him?—yes, and blessed he shall be!” 34 When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and look, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered Esau, “I have already made him your lord, and I have given him all his brothers as servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you only one blessing, father? Bless me, me also, father!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.
39 Then his father Isaac answered him:
“See, away from the fatness of the earth shall your home be,
and away from the dew of heaven on high.
40 By your sword you shall live,
and you shall serve your brother;
but when you break loose,
you shall break his yoke from your neck.”
In this passage Esau reveals the biblical etymology of Jacob’s name: the noun of ‘akav means “heel” (hence the description of him grasping Esau’s heel at birth) and the verb means “one who supplants, usurps power.” The image is of someone who overtakes another, as in a foot race. Jacob is indeed one who grasps for power and seeks to supplant the normal order and it would be simple to view him as just another person trying to do whatever it takes to get ahead in the world. The difficulty with this interpretation is that God had already promised his mother that the “elder shall serve the younger.” Since God had already made this promise, as a continuation of his covenant with Abraham, why did Rebekah and Jacob insist on taking matters into their own hands? Because they are human and as such they (we) have trouble with faith.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11.1). I have often thought that it really would not have been so difficult to believe in Jesus if I had been there to see the miracles and the marks on his hands. But I wasn’t there and so I struggle to believe, as I think most of us do. We should be encouraged, however that Jesus told Thomas, after he had placed his fingers in his hands and side, (John 20.29) “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We are blessed. We have not seen and yet we believe.
So I wonder about Rebekah and Jacob. If I had seen an angel or received a direct prophetic word from the Lord I would like to think that I would have more patience, but I probably would be just as eager to know how and when it was all going to happen. We are never told in what form Rebekah received the prophecy, but she received it none-the-less. In fact, the episode is very similar to the appearance of the angel to Mary in Luke 1.
30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But the contrasts are striking. When the Holy Spirit tells Mary that she is pregnant her response is one of faith. She accepts what she cannot see and she acts, or in this case, does not act, and waits for Him to act. (Luke 1.38) Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Rebekah, on the other hand, takes matters into her own hands.
Jacob too is eager to ensure his fortune. The promises God had made to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac by now must have been well known within the family. And Genesis provides numerous examples of God ensuring the safety and well being of his chosen people. But Jacob and Rebekah reckon that God might need a little help. We also cannot escape the fact that it was as a result of their deception that Jacob did indeed inherit both the birthright and his father’s blessing. So, is this an example of how we are to act in order to fulfill the promises that God has given us? Hardly. Once again the Old Testament wants us to think carefully and critically about the Patriarchs and their lives.
This story is actually an example of what I think most of us would do. We are all familiar with the famous phrase “God helps those who help themselves.” I have no idea where this comes from, but it is not biblical. That has not kept us from accepting it as God’s word! I am not a patient person and while I believe Jesus’ promises that we ought not to worry about today for God will provide for all our needs I nonetheless feel compelled to worry, to become stressed, and allow myself to brood about the mundane things of this world. This is not the life that God wants for us! Instead we are to trust that he will provide for all our needs. This does not mean that we just sit around waiting for a basket of money and food to appear on our doorstep. We have certain responsibilities, but worrying is not one of them.
There is another old phrase that captures the essence of this: “All of our unhappiness is the result of wishing things were different that they are.” I realize that this is a difficult balance to maintain, but it is perhaps the one that is most challenged in any given day. We must use the talents that God has given us, but we should never take it upon ourselves to accomplish those things that only God can do. The primary example is our salvation. We cannot make ourselves holy. Only God can accomplish this act through the sacrifice of his Son Jesus and the work of his Holy Spirit.
So in many ways Rebekah and Jacob represent every one of us in this room. We have all heard the message of God’s promises to care and provide for us, but all of us worry about bills, income, and legacy. Jacob must have looked at his situation and said, “How can I rule over my brother? He was first born and according to all tradition everything will be his. God must expect me to do something.” For those of us who are parents, we can also commiserate with Rebekah. She had this declaration from God burning within her and she felt that she had to do something about it. Unfortunately for Rebekah and Jacob and all of us God does not give us all the details. We are promised that he will provide, but he rarely tells us how he will provide for us. He promised that Jacob would inherit, but he did not say how that would come about. So what should our response be? The psalmist provides the answer:
Psa. 37.7 Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices.
Psa. 46.10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
We are to wait upon the Lord. This means that we are to be prayerful people who seek God’s will for us through prayer, worship, the study of his Word, and spiritual direction. Rebekah started out on the right track. When the infants struggled in her womb she “inquired of the Lord” for an explanation. The difficulties began when she and Jacob did not “rest” in the prophecy that she received, but sought to bring it about by their own actions.
It is our task then to prayerfully study the Bible so that when we are confronted with the challenges of this world we can hear the voice of God directing us and act in accordance with his spirit and teaching. We are “still before the Lord” so that we are able to act in faith.
Finally, we cannot overlook the primary theme of this story: deception. Jacob was called by God to be the father of the Israelites, “I have loved Jacob,” says the Lord, “but I have hated Esau” (Mal 1.2-3). God used the results of their actions in order to bring this about, but Genesis makes it clear that the ends do not justify the means. Jacob’s entire life is marred by his actions against his brother. Once Esau discovers that he has lost even the blessing of Isaac he sets his heart to murder Jacob and so the younger brother flees to his uncle’s home in Paddan-aram (Mesopotamia). Things seem to go better there for a time, he falls in love and agrees to work 7 years for Rachel’s hand in marriage, but when the time of the wedding arrives he is deceived just as he had deceived his brother.
Gen. 29.21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” 22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. 23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. 24 (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) 25 When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” 26 Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. 27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” 28 Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife. 29 (Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her maid.) 30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban for another seven years.
Jacob is tricked into marrying Leah and Laban’s response is very pointed. “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn.” The point is made clear by the narrator. What Jacob has done within his own family is unacceptable and the situation has effectively been reversed. Where he had cheated the elder brother out of his birth right Jacob must now accept the responsibility of the first born woman in Laban’s family. Furthermore, Jacob must then agree to work another 7 years for Rachel, the one he truly loves. This in turn begins the cycle of family conflict all over again since Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah.” This conflict between his two wives, their maids (his mistresses), and their children would bring further grief to Jacob.
As the story of Jacob unfolds we find that he uses his cunning in more constructive manners, manipulating the mating habits of the livestock so that they would produce spotted or dark goats and sheep and thus increase his flocks, and there is the pivotal moment of his life as he wrestled with the angel one night, but we will return to that momentarily. Jacob’s own example of deceit returns to punish him in dramatic fashion late in his life. Following the example set by his parents, Jacob had favorites among his children, the most beloved of all was Joseph.
Be BRIEF and move on to Gen. 32.
Gen. 37.1 Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2 This is the story of the family of Jacob.
Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
We are all familiar with the outline of the Joseph story. This preference being showed Joseph by his father created enmity with his brothers. They anger was further incited when Joseph had dreams, which he apparently could not interpret on his own, in which all his brothers and his parents would fall down and worship him. All of this compounded within the brother’s hearts and they finally decided to remove Joseph permanently from the family.
Gen. 37.31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.” 33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father bewailed him.
The story is well-known to all of us, but some important elements of this passage are only appreciated when we understand them in the context of Jacob’s early life. In this one episode we find elements of his own trickery of his brother being used by his sons in order to deceive him. Just as he put on his brother’s cloak and placed the skins of the goat that he had slain for his father’s stew upon his arms in order to disguise himself, so now a slain goat’s blood has been used to disguise Joseph’s cloak. The story has come full circle and Jacob is now the deceived and it is a crippling reality for him.
Rebekah, her cost was that she never saw her beloved son again, or at least the biblical account does not record their meeting again. Considering the great and overwhelming love she had for Jacob, at the expense of her love for both Esau and her husband, this must have been extremely difficult for her. I cannot help but wonder what dreams she might have had about their lives after Jacob had inherited everything. And yet, he had to flee to her brother and no doubt her remaining life in Isaac’s camp was much lonelier due to his departure.
The point of this is obvious, there are consequences for sin. Jacob was the one whom God had chosen to father a nation and, as history played out, he ascended to that position through swindling and deception. That does not, however, justify his actions. It also does not absolve Rebekah and Jacob of their responsibility for what they did. The application is again obvious. We are called to a holy lifestyle that requires us to be honest in all our dealings whether with family members, business colleagues, politicians, or fellow Christians. There are any number of ways that we can justify less than pure actions and in the world that we live in, even the ecclesiastical one, it is very easy to see the ends as justifying the means. But the message of Rebekah and Jacob’s lives is that although God may bless us in spite of ourselves, we are still responsible for our actions. Sin still has its consequences.
Go to Gen. 32 – This is the turning point in his life, he confronts the consequences of earlier actions vv. 9-12 (still takes reasonable precautions) and wrestles with the angel, ultimately recognizing God by naming the place, Peniel. His life and pattern of deception had consequences, as the Joseph story shows, but he himself had recognized God and his own position in God’s plan.
And why do we need to talk about sin? Sin has become a dirty word in many churches today. We are afraid to talk about it, perhaps thinking that it will drive pledge paying members of the pews, but whatever the reasons that doesn’t change the fact that sin is still sin. But what is “sin?” The concept is rather simple. Sin is disobeying God. And how do we know what God asks of us? We read the Bible. Now it is true that the Bible is an ancient collection of books written in weird languages for people who lived long ago and sometimes we don’t always know what certain bits mean. But the important bits are crystal clear, no matter which language they are in. So the first step is for us to recognize that sin is sin and that means that we are disobeying God. Then we immediately need to say, as did David when confronted by the prophet Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord! Forgive me Lord.”
I want to be clear about this: I am not saying that we need to talk more about sin so that people can go around flagellating themselves because they are a sinner. No, the reason we need to talk about and identify sin in our lives is so that we can confess our sin before God and ask for his forgiveness. He will forgive us and when he does it is done. As we have seen, however there may still be consequences in this life, but not, by the grace of Christ, in the Word to Come. One concrete example may help and sex is always an easy topic, so lets consider a case of infidelity. A husband, perhaps on a business trip or while in a fight with his wife, indulges his appetite with another woman. Let us also assume that he repents of his actions and experiences the real forgiveness of Christ in his life. The day may come, however, when he must confess it to his wife and no matter how long ago it was, no matter how fleeting (and even assuming no lasting physical impact such as a child or disease) this one action will incredibly damage his relationship with his wife. He has been forgiven by God, but he still must accept the burden that he willingly took up.
So it was with Jacob. He led an early life of deceit and struggle with those closest to him, but later in life he had to confront his fears and met God face to face. In that night when Jacob was on his way to meet his brother, whom he assumed still wanted to kill him, Jacob wrestled with God. He was confronted with the divine and from that moment on (long before the Joseph story we just discussed) Jacob is a more humble and contrite man. As we have seen, however, he sowed the seeds of division within his family and the legend of his own fraternal activities provided a template that his boys used to bring about their father’s grief. The model is a poignant one and relevant to all.
We, like Rebekah, have been chosen by God as we stood by the well, to be the Bride of Christ. We, like Jacob, have been called by God to be blessed as his own children, co-heirs with Christ and destined for the glory of his kingdom. But like Rebekah and her son we have a tendency to take matters into our own hands. Instead we must wait patiently upon the Lord, prayerfully seeking his will for us, and following the constructive models of holiness that he has given us in his Word.