Jacob Character Study – Bible Study on the Life of Jacob
Jacob – Heel catcher or deceiver.
Israel – God’s struggle or he struggled with God.
Ancestry and family life: Jacob was the second son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. He was the last of the patriarchs from whom all Israel descended as after him Israel split into twelve tribes. Jacob was two generations removed from Abraham who came from Mesopotamia. That is the branch of the family Isaac went to, to get his wife and also Jacob. God had made a special covenant with Abraham and Isaac, one he would also extend to Jacob.
Not much text is devoted to Jacob’s father Isaac. We see that he is characterized by passive acceptance. In some cases this is good such as when he allowed Abraham to attempt to sacrifice him, and agreed to the marriage Abraham’s servant arranged for him. Yet this very submissive nature also may have contributed to the family problems we see surrounding Jacob and Esau. Because Isaac didn’t seem to have a strong will to lead, Rebekah moves in to take control of what she can (back to the curse where woman want to control).
Rebekkah had problems. When her twins are born, she shows partiality to Jacob, the non-hairy weaker looking one. Genesis 25:27 says Jacob spent most of his time at home. So Rebekah takes over his life and arranges everything for him. She teaches him how to cook. She arranges for him to steal the blessing. And she arranges for his deliverance from Esau by sending him to her brother Laban, telling him everything will work out fine.
The first thing that we learn about Esau is that he was a skillful hunter. I’m not sure this is such a great compliment though. Henry Morris points out that hunting was unnecessary because with the large herd of sheep, there was plenty to eat. This may mean that Esau was always away hunting as opposed to being at home helping with the chores and the sheep. We might conclude that he was irresponsible.
We do know that Esau was impulsive. He didn’t take his birthright seriously. He lived for the moment and married foreign women who didn’t honor God. Esau later married a daughter of Ishmael to try to please his father (not God). But it was too late. Esau would not be in the chosen line and he would not receive the covenant.
So I think we can see that Jacob came from a fairly typical family. His mother had a tendency to want to take control. The father let her. His brother was a natural and worldly man concerned with the things of this world.
In Jacob’s own family, he had two wives and two additional maids given to him as “wives”, who were really surrogate mothers to Leah and Rachel. This polygamy caused much jealousy between his wives and sons. He made the same mistake as his father in showing favoritism to some children over others.
When and where he lived: He lived alternatively between the land of Canaan and Aram, which is modern day Syria. As Abraham and Isaac before him, he was a sojourner, meaning he didn’t settle down in one place exclusively. In addition to the needs of feeding large herds the circumstances of his life at times prodded Jacob to keep moving. , Esau’s threats, Laban’s angry countenance, and the likely revenge of the Canaanites for killing the people of Shechem all caused Jacob to move at various times.
Genesis 28:4 – May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!”
When Isaac blessed Jacob, he prayed that God would give him the land of his sojournings. Many cities such as Mizpah, Bethel, Shechem, and Beersheba stand out as important cities in Israel 500 years or more later after Jacob traveled through them.
Events surrounding birth: There are many interesting births taking place in the Bible and this is one of them. Rebekah was barren and only after Isaac prayed for her she conceived, highlighting the fact that her children were a gift from God, the giver of life.
Genesis 25:21-26 – And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the older shall serve the younger.”
When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
Rebekah could feel the struggle of the babies even in her womb. In a time with no ultrasounds, she already seemed to expect that she would have twins and wanted to know why they were struggling so within her.
And she received a very accurate prophesy from the Lord stating that the nations coming from these two babies would have conflict, but that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). This is yet another of many prophecies that come true in the Scriptures.
Training and occupation: Jacob was a shepherd. He evidently learned this occupation helping out with his own father’s flocks, who likely also learned it from Abraham. Jacob was evidently a very skilled shepherd as Laban continuously begged him not to leave. God blessed Jacob’s herds and also Jacob’s agreement with Laban by causing more and more striped/speckled animals to be born. Jacob also showed that he was a very astute shepherd through his skillful management of the flock and extensive knowledge of breeding. Jacob’s own sons later took care of his flocks as well. This job lent itself to lots of traveling as you need large pastures to feed the large flocks.
Place in history: Jacob was the most immediate forefather of the Israelites and his name itself was later changed to Israel. It was with Jacob that the family of the Israelites first started expanding and also first moved to Egypt where it would really develop into a large nation.
Special traits: Good fighter. He was able to struggle with the angel at Peniel all night without losing, likely because God wanted to teach him some lessons.
1. Liar (Genesis 27:18,20,24) – Jacob twice claimed that he was Esau, a direct, willful, and blatant lie. He also deceptively answered that God allowed him to make the soup so fast, implying that he had actually killed wild game. There is no sugarcoating this nor is there any excuse for his actions.
His mother commanded him to do this, yet Jacob is still responsible for his own actions. Perhaps his mother had told him of God’s prophecy so Jacob and his mother felt the need to help God along by getting this blessing. Yet helping God is not necessary. God could have used any number of ways to cause Isaac to bless Jacob rather than Esau including for example, Esau’s sinful and pagan wives.
This is the same problem Abraham and Sarah had when they didn’t wait for the Lord to have a son, but tried to help God out. Jacob should have waited on the Lord and his timing (like David did to get the throne after he was anointed king by Samuel). Another interesting fact is that this deception to steal the blessing immediately led to Jacob having to leave the Promised Land. The fact that he had to leave the Promised Land because of the way he got the blessing is another indicator he went outside of God’s will.
2. Deceiver/manipulator – In addition to outright lying, Jacob often practiced deceit and scheming and manipulation to reach his desired ends.
Reflection: What is the root reason people practice deceit to achieve their desired ends?
It demonstrates a reliance on self instead of on God.
Below are some example of Jacob’s scheming and/or deceit:
A. Genesis 25:27-34 – Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
In this amazing story, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob. A birthright is the inheritance rights of the firstborn including a double portion of all the inheritance and the title as head of the family after the passing of the father.
Jacob sees that Esau is desperately hungry, perhaps after a long hunting trip without success. Instead of kindly offering to give him some food, Jacob’s scheming mind is churning, thinking how he can take advantage of this opportunity.
Evidently from some previous conversations, he knows that Esau doesn’t highly value his birthright, so he asks Esau to sell it to him (it was legitimate to buy/sell/trade birthrights). Esau foolishly agreed, showing his irreligious and disrespectful heart as well as a hasty and undisciplined character.
B. The scheme to steal the blessing (Genesis 27) – Rebekah and Jacob conspired to trick blind Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. It was disrespectful to Isaac and cruel to Esau, who reacted in kind. Esau’s anger drove Jacob away and a wedge was driven between them that took twenty years to heal.
C. Jacob’s vow to tithe to God if He would protect him –
Genesis 28:20-22 – Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”
This could be another example where Jacob is kind of manipulating God saying if you bless me and take care of me, then you will be my God just like you are Isaac’s and Abraham’s. Or it could be translated “since”, and in that case it would be an affirmation of faith in God’s promise. Based on what we see of Jacob’s character at this point the first seems more likely.
D. The scheme to get Laban’s flock – It seems half trusting in God to bless him through this agreement and half his own cunning mind figuring out how to breed the sheep a certain way to generate a favorable outcome to himself.
E. Jacob secretly leaves Laban (Genesis 31:1-17) – In this story, Jacob decides not to tell Laban the second time that he is leaving, but just leaves on his own. He is afraid that Laban will use force to restrain him or take away his wives and herds. So he secretly leaves and it is three days before Laban finds out. Laban blamed Jacob for sneaking away instead of bidding a proper farewell.
Genesis 31:27-28 – Why did you flee secretly and trick me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre? And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? Now you have done foolishly.
This is another case where Jacob relies on his own wit instead of on God. It nearly caused a violent reaction by Laban and his family.
F. When Jacob returned to his own country/family, he was afraid of Esau’s wrath. He hatched a plan to divide his family into several companies sending gifts in front and his most loved family members coming at the back. Again, it is not sinful to prepare, but shows Jacob’s bent towards relying on his man-made schemes.
3. Favoritism – Jacob favored Rachel over Leah (this was at least a bit understandable since he was deceived into marrying Leah, but he should not have continued on with this attitude for so long till the point when Leah said several times she was unloved 29:31-35). This is a very likely result of polygamy and one of many reasons it should be avoided.
He also favored Joseph and Benjamin over the rest of his sons (Genesis 37:1-4). Favoring one child over another was largely responsible for causing the rift between Esau and Jacob and it would do the same with Jacob’s children.
While there is no specific command about loving all children the same level, there are many commands against favoritism. It is clear from this story that showing favoritism to children is a bad idea and likely to result in many family problems/rifts. It doesn’t promote harmony. Parents should make sure they treat all children with the love of Christ. Unfortunately Jacob didn’t appear to learn his lesson as he treated Benjamin with favoritism as well.
1. He valued the birthright and blessing – This blessing is shown to be more than words in Genesis 26 where we see God’s blessings raining down on Isaac’s life. The blessing from Isaac was directly tied into God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac. The fact that Jacob wanted this blessing and birthright shows us that he did seek God’s blessings.
2. He agreed to tithe ten percent of everything he got (Genesis 28:22) – At this point, tithing wasn’t yet commanded. Jacob was willing to do it completely voluntarily. This verse shows us that the practice had already begun and likely true believers in God had already begun doing this. Jacob was willing to act on his faith in God by returning one tenth of all that he got.
3. Jacob finally recognized his weaknesses and placed his faith in God to protect him.
Genesis 32:9-12 – And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.’”
This was a long time in coming. We see in verse 10 that Jacob admits he is unworthy of all that God had done for him. Although he often relied on himself in the past, he realized that the good things in his life were solely because of God’s blessing and God’s faithfulness to keep His promise.
About to enter a dangerous situation, Jacob throws himself on God’s mercy and claims God’s promise to protect him. It is often when we face the greatest dangers that we will finally humble ourselves and turn to the Lord for help. This chapter does seem to be the turning point where he puts himself into God’s control and humbles himself.
4. Jacob tenaciously wanted God’s blessing for him –
Genesis 32:22-32 – The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.
Jacob was left alone. It is often when we are alone that we truly can encounter God deeper. All alone and without any resources left, the night before the greatest potential danger Jacob had faced, the Lord comes to him.
We see this in the struggle with the “man”, which was likely the Angel of the Lord (pre-incarnate Jesus) appearing as a man. The whole fight is somewhat mysterious and very unique. He could have beaten Jacob instantly, but allowed the struggle to continue throughout the night. Certainly the Lord would have wanted to teach Isaac some lessons.
Perhaps he was teaching Jacob that he shouldn’t fight God’s will after this anymore. Perhaps it was that he should hold on to God and His blessings and never let go.
In this encounter, Jacob’s personality is laid bare. He tenaciously holds on asking for God’s blessing. He knew this was no normal man and therefore the blessing he gave would be real. When this “man” changed Jacob’s name (actually we see throughout the Scripture that God changes the names of His people, often to mark important changes in their own character), he called him Israel. This means “God’s fighter” or “he struggled with God.”
Evidently God wanted Jacob to use this willful, strong nature for serving Him, rather than for Jacob’s own ends.
5. Jacob commanded his family to get rid of idols –
Genesis 35:2 – So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments.
Jacob acted well as the leader of his family to command them to get rid of all foreign gods and purify themselves. Jacob was taking his responsibility as the leader of the family to lead them in the right direction. These outward actions of cleansing portrayed their new dedication to the Lord. Interestingly, in the verses right after this (Genesis 35:9-15), right after this God appears to Jacob and extends the Abrahamic covenant him. This passage illustrates both God’s sovereign grace and man’s responsibility.
6. Jacob was a good provider for his family.
Genesis 42:1-3 – When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt.
When the famine came, he knew what to do. Jacob acted decisively to ask his sons to go for help.
7. Jacob had faith –
Hebrews 11:21 – By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff.
Because this passage is a narrative, we don’t always see Jacob’s faith, but this verse in Hebrews tells us clearly that Jacob did have a lot of faith. He had faith in God’s promises for him and his descendants even though he didn’t see them fulfilled during his lifetime.
Important acts and events:
1. Trading for the birthright.
2. Stealing the blessing.
3. Leaving his family.
4. The dream and vow on the way to Aram.
5. The deal to marry Rachel.
6. The new deal to marry Rachel.
7. The new wage agreement.
8. The departure to his own family and country.
9. Meeting the angel and struggling for the whole night.
10. Reconciling with Esau.
11. His sons slaughtering the Shechemites.
12. Birth of Benjamin and death of Rachel.
13. The betrayal of Joseph by his sons.
14. Discovering Joseph is alive.
15. Moving to Egypt.
How he died: He died of old age in Egypt at a little more than 130 years old. He described his days as few and unpleasant (Genesis 47:9). They were marked with troubles. But Joseph was able to see Joseph again before his death, which brought him great happiness.
Lessons from his life:
1. God is sovereign and uses even man’s own schemes and plans, sometimes sinful, to accomplish His plans. Examples include Jacob’s way to get the birthright and blessing. We see that Jacob himself faced the consequences of his actions. God didn’t condone them. I’m quite confident if Jacob waited on the Lord as he should have that God would still given him these things and maybe much better.
2. You reap what you sow. Jacob’s deceit and manipulation caused tension between him and Esau, him and Laban, and him and his father. Although God still chose to bless Jacob in spite of his sinful flaws, this blessing didn’t take away all consequences of his sin. Jacob’s actions sowed mistrust and deceptive scheming. With Laban, he finally met his match. Laban cheated Jacob many times, most famously by giving him the wrong wife. This in turn led to many more problems in Jacob’s family life. Also his favoritism caused similar problems between his own children.
3. God blesses and takes care of those whom He chooses. If he chooses to bless us, the worst schemes of man cannot stop it. It is very possible humanly speaking that someone would have gotten fed up with Jacob and killed him or robbed him blind. Possible culprits would include Esau, Laban, and the Canaanites. Yet God protected him.
Did protect Jacob only when Jacob obeyed? No, we see that even when Jacob doesn’t seem close to God, God was protecting him, caring for him, and blessing him. This is comforting to know that God won’t abandon us if we do wander away from him somewhere during our sojournings.
4. We should be humble like Jacob in his prayer in Genesis 32. He was very rich at this point, but he didn’t take credit for it himself. He realized everything he had was from God. This prayer does show us a good example of how to be humble, give the glory to God, and show our dependence on God even during troubles.
5. Like parents like son – Jacob had some of the worst flaws of his parents including scheming (like Rebekah) and showing favoritism (like both of his parents.) A lot of times we would think, “I will never be like my parents.” But it is not the case. Most people are far more like their parents than they would like to admit. And many weaknesses are passed down to the next generation. It is important for parents to be good models for their children and to be aware that children easily emulate them.
5. God is a gracious, forgiving, and merciful. To be honest, when I look at the life of Jacob, I find a lot of sins and a lot of weaknesses. But the fact is, God loved Jacob. God chose Jacob to be an ancestor of Christ and a recipient of the Abrahamic covenant. God forgave Jacob for his shortcomings and used lessons in Jacob’s life to help him change step by step. No one is perfect.
Reflect: Which of Jacob’s weaknesses do you most struggle with? Which lessons from his life stand out to you? What principles can you apply into your own life this week?
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