by Gillian Bethel
The name Jacob means supplanter, but also one who grasps, trips up, or deceives. Since Hebrew names portrayed the character of their bearer, the baby Jacob did not seem destined for a bright future. Yet, before the twins’ birth, God had revealed to their mother, Rebecca, that the elder twin would serve the younger—“the supplanter” would receive his brother’s birthright.
THE COVETED BIRTHRIGHT
The birthright was the focus and happy expectancy of all eldest sons. Normally it included a double portion of the father’s property, and succession to his authority and priestly office.
In Jacob’s family the birthright meant much more. His grandfather Abraham, enjoyed a special covenant relationship with God. The covenant not only included the inheritance of a rich and fertile country, but the honor of being the forefather of Messiah, the One who would bless all the families of the earth.
Grandfather Abraham lived until Jacob was 15. Many times Jacob heard him talk with Isaac, Jacob’s father, about the wonderful birthright. The thought of the birthright stirred Jacob to the depths of his soul! Oh, how he longed for it!
From the events of the story, we may assume that Jacob knew he would one day possess Esau’s birthright. Yet Isaac showed a settled determination to bestow it on the first twin, who cared nothing for it. The deep longing for these promised blessings and the puzzle of how to obtain them became the obsession of Jacob’s life.
THE SUPPLANTER AND THE SUPPLANTED
The Bible calls Jacob a “plain” man. The Hebrew word tam means more than plain and simple. It denotes “pious, gentle, upright, and perfect.” Evidently, Jacob was not habitually the grasping, scheming villain, which he appears to be in his dealings with Esau. He preferred to stay at home, managing the family’s large flocks while his brother led the wild, carefree life of a hunter. Yet in the matter of the birthright, his great desire led him to grasp an unexpected opportunity in a less than upright way.
One day Esau arrived home from a hunting trip ravenously hungry and asked Jacob for some of the lentils he was cooking. Jacob was struck with the thought that this was the moment to barter with Esau for the coveted birthright. We can sense how lightly Esau regarded the trade by his reply that he was about to die from hunger, so the birthright was not much good to him anyway.
But Jacob was intense and serious. “Swear to me,” he pressed. When Esau realized that Jacob was not joking, perhaps he paused a moment in astonishment at the hard bargaining. Then we can imagine he shrugged, gave his oath, gulped down the lentils, and was gone. “Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
While there was no excuse for Jacob’s opportunism, he was merely expressing an unfortunate family trait. Both Abraham and Isaac had used “end-justifies-the-means” strategies when something important was at stake. Both had lied about their relationship to their wives to protect themselves. Abraham had even resorted to polygamy as a way of realizing the covenant promise.
As Isaac grew old and began contemplating his death, he decided to give Esau the birthright blessing without including Jacob and Rebecca in the ceremony. Overhearing Isaac’s request to Esau to bring some venison for the occasion, Rebecca proposed another end-justifies-the-means strategy and persuaded a reluctant Jacob to go along with it.
Jacob anticipated receiving a curse rather than a blessing if his deception was discerned; but the urgency of the situation led him to attempt it. So, dressed as Esau, and carrying a plate of savory meat, he went with trepidation before his blind father. As things turned out, he had to heap lie upon lie in order to carry through with what he started.
Although Isaac did not discern the ruse immediately, Jacob’s elation at receiving the blessing was completely marred by his pangs of conscience, self-condemnation, and fear of Esau. Worst of all was a sense that in seeking to obtain the covenant relationship by dishonest means, he succeeded only in alienating himself from the righteous God of the covenant.
Now Jacob, the one who grabs and deceives, had twice grasped the birthright and supplanted his brother. He who longed for the blessings of the birthright for so many years had yet to meet the God of the birthright. However, God had an appointment planned.
MEETING THE GOD OF THE BIRTHRIGHT
Under the guise of finding a wife, yet actually to avoid Esau’s murderous anger, Jacob left his family and the land of promise alone and on foot. On the second night, the desolation of the landscape matched the desolation of his soul. He felt guilty, wretched, and cut off from God. Even though his father had reaffirmed his birthright, he had never felt so far from his goal.
But that night as he slept, he had a beautiful dream. A shining ladder with angels on it connected Heaven and Earth right at his feet. The God of the covenant stood at the top, and, incredibly, pronounced the wonderful promises and blessings upon him. Furthermore, the God whom he had wronged so deeply covenanted to be with him, to protect him, and to bring him back to the land of promise.
Waking, Jacob was awestruck and energized, and grasped not only the birthright promises but also the presence of the God of the birthright. He named the place Bethel—“the house of God,” and built a monument to affirm his side of the covenant. Then, with encouragement in his heart, he continued his quest for a wife.
Twenty years passed, during which Jacob acquired two wives, two concubines, eleven children, and large flocks and herds. All along God had graciously guided, protected, and blessed him, yet Jacob had experienced difficulty in letting God lead. He had continued to “do it himself.” Although he became acquainted with the merciful God of the covenant of Bethel, he had never fully surrendered his life to Him, or fully acknowledged his great need of a Savior.
Returning home in response to God’s command, he learned that Esau was marching against him with 400 armed men. Jacob sent his family and flocks over the brook Jabok for the night, and remained behind to beg God for help.
A PRINCE IS BORN
Suddenly the God of the covenant grasped Jacob the grasper! Jacob struggled with his unknown assailant all through that night. But in spite of supreme effort, he was not able to gain the mastery. Instead, he was strangely overwhelmed with the guilty acts of his life. He prayed agonizingly to God, not realizing he was fighting Him, and had been doing so all his life. Finally, as the dawn broke, the Lord dislocated Jacob’s thigh and asked him to let Him go.
The light of understanding finally dawned on Jacob. He had been fighting the One whose blessing he needed! Now clinging to Him, weeping and pleading, he cried, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.”
This was not hard bargaining, as with Esau, but a cry from Jacob’s heart. Finally he had found his Redeemer and realized his utter need of Him. He grasped Him as a Savior who alone could deliver him from his sin and its consequences. It was the grasp of faith, not of presumption.
The story of Jacob ends right here because God gave him a new name—Israel, “a prince of God.” God took care of the problem with Esau in His way.
From that time forward, Israel was disabled; he could no longer “run ahead.” He learned to lean on a staff to walk, and he learned to lean on God to live. It was in fact not a disabling, but an enabling. He had finally received the birthright.