Jacob is probably the most interesting Bible character and the hardest to figure out. He is also, arguably, the most relatable of heroes in Scripture. You can find his story in Genesis from 25:26 to 49:33.
Father Tadros Malaty says, [paraphrased] “Jacob felt he was a pilgrim all the days of his life; especially since his life was continually in troubles. In his adolescence, though his mother loved and favoured him, he suffered much from the fierce nature of his brother Esau. [After stealing his birthright and blessing] Jacob was forced to flee to a foreign land, where he vigorously served his uncle: ‘in the day the draught consumed him, the frost by night; and the sleep departed from his eyes’ (Genesis 31:40). [Yet again, he played the role of a deceiver when it came to his uncle’s livestock] but his uncle was also dishonest and changed his wages ten times. When he fled from the face of his uncle, he was devastated by fear from his brother Esau – who wanted to kill him for stealing his birthright and blessing. In Shechem, his sons Simeon and Levi caused him much trouble by murdering the village of a man who had raped his daughter Dinah. In Ephrath, his beloved wife Rachel died in childbirth and then his father Isaac died. After that, his firstborn son Reuban laid with his father’s concubine, something very painful for Jacob. In addition to the episode of Joseph, believing that his favourite son had been murdered, that rocked his whole being.”
It seems a miserable life, doesn’t it? If God told you to pick a bible character’s life to live, you probably wouldn’t choose Jacob. Yet, side by side with this morbid tale of Jacob’s struggle is another important story.
Before his birth, God told Rebekah that two nations were in her womb and that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob) (Gen. 25:23). After Jacob runs away from Esau, he has a dream of a ladder going up to heaven with angels of God ascending and descending on it. Further, he sees the Lord who blesses him and his descendants and promises to be with him, watch over him, and bring him back to the promised land (Gen. 28:12-15). This marks the beginning of Jacob’s personal relationship with God. When he learns of Laban’s anger towards him, because of Jacob’s wealth and deceit, God tells him to return to the promised land of his fathers (Gen. 31). He listens to the Lord, though he is terrified to encounter his brother Esau. In Genesis 31, the angels of God meet Jacob at his camp as he prepares to meet Esau. In Jabbok, he wrestles with God. He earns the title ‘Israel’ because “he wrestled with God and man and overcame.” Later God tells Jacob to return to bethel, where he encountered God as he was fleeing Esau, and again the Lord calls him ‘Israel’ and blesses his descendants.
Side by side with Jacob’s seemingly continuous struggle was a growing dependence on and experience with God. Becoming ‘Israel’ means struggling continuously and putting your whole heart and whole trust in God’s hands. It means persevering through difficulties and learning that God must be the priority of our lives, if we are to have any lasting joy and peace.
In Genesis, Jacob’s name continues to switch from Jacob to Israel and back again. Why? Because life will always be full of struggle. Sometimes we will prevail and seek God first, like Israel. Other times, we fail to rely on Him and turn to the world or deceitful ways – like Jacob.
Persistence and perseverance are the key to our faith. Perfection is not. Jacob was a deceiver, a manipulator, and a thief. At the same time, Jacob was the first biblical character to see a vision of heaven. This teaches us that it is not from our works that we are granted salvation. In His compassion, God bestows free gifts of grace and mercy on us like he did Jacob. So put aside your self-doubt and guilty conscience. There are no room for these things when our eyes are on God.
There is abundant life for us when we live in Jesus Christ. There is peace and joy that does not depend on our circumstances. Eternity begins now. Heaven is on earth because we can be united with God here and now.
We cannot predict where God will take us or what our impact will be, but we can always persevere and serve Him wholeheartedly like Israel learned to.