Jacob: From Anti-Hero to Overcomer

By Neil Earle

JACOB'S DREAM: This proud grandson of Abraham kept turning down God's grace-filled offer. Basil Wolverton artwork

Biblical saints had some glaring weaknesses but their accomplishments were truly epoch-making. Meet the man who wrestled with God, and won – Jacob, grandson of Abraham.

Deceiver, supplanter, manipulator.

Repenter, overcomer, conqueror. A Prince with God!

The Biblical character known as Jacob was all these things. For a long time, compared with trusting Abraham and peace-loving Isaac his father, Jacob was the anti-hero figure in the family, his tumultuous life spanning almost half the narrative in the catalytic book of Genesis.

Yet Yahweh determined to use this controversial character for his purposes.

Artful Deceiver

We first meet him when still in the womb! His grandfather Abraham had been chosen by God himself to be “the father of the faithful,” progenitor of a nation designed to play a larger-than-life part in the salvation of the human race. Jacob’s gather Isaac inherited that rich legacy of devotion and commitment and peace-making but there was a flaw. His wife Rebekah was childless.

God heard their prayers. Then Rebekah had what we call a “difficult pregnancy.” She was carrying twins and the babies “jostled each other within her.” Rebekah was told, “Two nations are in your womb…one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Gen. 25:22-23).

The red-headed hairy boy named Esau was born first but the one named Jacob emerged grasping his brother by the heel (v. 26) – either trying to supplant him or trying to catch a free ride. (This stamped his character, the prophet Jeremiah mentions the same word “heel-grabber” to be translated “deceiver.”)

Who’s In Charge Here?

This incident is significant for Jacob would live up to his name in cheating his brother not once but twice. All of this skullduggery and he never needed to lift a finger. God, by grace, had already determined he would excel over his brother.

It would take Jacob a bitter lifetime to learn this lesson that God was in charge and didn’t need his “help.” Irving Jensen explains: “We shall see how God can lay hold of a selfish, willful, faulty man striving by his own efforts to gain material blessing, and so work in him that in the end his characterize grand and beautiful, because he has repented and seen the true value and way of divine blessing.”

Read on. For if God can bless Jacob with so many kinks in his character then there is hope for us (Romans 13:4), a sign he is working out a purpose in all our lives, no matter how we try to disrupt it through blind ambition, chicanery and deceit.

Jacob is attacked by a man who wrestles him violently to the ground. He is up against an Angel of God and the brutal match continues all night. Basil Wolverton artwork

“The J.R. of the Old Testament”

Esau did not take the swindling of his birthright lying down. He bitterly mused and plotted for revenge (Genesis 27:41) – a blood feud.

Isaac advises Jacob to flee to his wife’s brother in Syria, a man named Laban. But along the way, the Eternal God decides to give Jacob a chance to turn to him in his troubles. Jacob is given a vision of a ladder reaching to heaven and angels ascending and descending – an impressive display! But Jacob has a straight-out carnal fear reaction. He is scared but he still tries to be in charge by manipulating God – “If you will protect me I will give you 10% of all I make” (Genesis 28:22).

How typical! But God leaves Jacob to his own devices for a while, allowing life’s harsh disciplines to grind him down a bit more.

By luck he meets Rachel, beautiful daughter of his uncle Laban and it is love at first sight. Laban sees Jacob is a good investment especially after the young man agrees to work seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Laban agrees and strikes the deal but Laban is a wily deceiver, as cunning as Jacob himself. Some call him the J.R. of the Old Testament.

During a no doubt raucous wedding night, Laban switched Rachel with Leah his oldest daughter in the wedding bed. Jacob wakes up in the morning and he who had swindled his brother finds himself swindled (29:25). Had he been a wise man he would have reflected on what the New Testament will later teach, “What a man sows he will reap.”

Jacob loves Rachel so much he takes the fatal plunge and in exchange for another seven year deal takes Rachel to his bed as well (Genesis 29:27-30).

X-Rated Family Life

Bigamy for sure. Adultery? Depends on the customs of the country if Laban can be believed (29:26). Either way, events are taking a decidedly downward turn for the Founding family God has chosen. Much much worse follows as Rachel too is childless, This strians their relationship (30:1-2). The two wives start a bidding war using their handmaidens to beget children for each of them.

Eventually ten fairly dysfunctional boys add to the chaos in Jacob’s X-rated family. God is getting a strong national component from this grandson of Abraham but not in the way he approved.

We get insights into the turmoil inside this sprawling family with some of the names given to the boys. “Naphtali means “wrestling” for Rachel claims to have wrestled eth her sister Leah and we are perhaps meant to assume it is a physical not just a symbolic factor (Genesis 30:8).

Mandrakes were considered an aphrodisiac in those days and Leah’s son finds batch and it is childless Rachel who asks for them but at the price of Leah getting her husband Jacob for a one-night-stand (30:14-18). Ugh.

It took a lifetime of bitter trials for Jacob to learn that God was in charge.

Starting Over

This is messy, embarrassing for anyone who considers the upright family Jacob came from. No tent is big enough for two women. Jacob starts to get the picture – perhaps it is time for a fresh start. He wants to leave but Laban pleads for one more deal if he will give Jacob a chance to start his own herds. Through some wily stratagem Jacob ends up prospering only to incur the jealousy of his cousins (Genesis 31:1). Seems like the wily Supplanter is boxed in any way he turns!

Jacob finally takes God’s advice and heads out to get back to the Promised Land. Once again a hitch, however. Daughter Rachel has stolen Laban's household gods which were crucial to determine land ownership. The in-laws are outraged and Laban pursuits hotly after Jacob as told in Genesis 31.

God is still looking out for Jacob, however, and he warns Laban in a dream not to harm Jacob (31:24). They make a covenant of peace and Jacob trudges on to Canaan aware that he must face up to his lying deceptions. Back in Canaan Esau lies waiting and also his disappointed distressed father, blind but gentlemanly Isaac.

But…before he can face them Jacob has to face one other Personage. The One who has been describing Himself in this narrative as “The God of Abraham and Isaac” (28:13) but NOT of Jacob. At least, not so far.

This is Real Repentance

Jacob has chosen a hard life. The wages of sin are…not pretty (Romans 6:23). Instead of relying on God’s original promise of Grace to his Mother and the offer to him of a Ladder to God, Jacob has chosen to go his own way. Laban changed his wages ten times and his family life is a catastrophe. Then comes the most dreaded news of all – Esau is heading towards him with 400 men (32:6).

If ever there was a crisis moment this was it for Jacob. He can still think strategically and decisively – he is still cunning Jacob after all. He divides his sprawling clan into two parts, thinking one will have a better chance to escape. Smart, yes, but his ultimate reaction here is one of healthy fear (Hebrews 11:7), the kind of fear that can lead a man to real repentance, as the text records so simply and eloquently:

So Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed…Then Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord God who said to me, Return to your country and to your kindred and I will deal with you well: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which you have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff and now I have become two companies.

Deliver me, now I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with children. For you said, “I will surely treat you well and make your descendants as the sand of the sea,”

This short fervent prayer is the making of Jacob the man of God. All Christians have to come to that point in their lives. Fear gets a bad press in our day and age but fear can be a powerful motivator and synergizer. Jacob is left alone and is suddenly attacked by a man who wrestles him violently to the ground. He is up against an Angel of God Hosea 12:4 tells us and the brutal match continues all night.

God is angry with Jacob and this is part of that strange ecnunter but it is also chance to show if Jacob will fight to prevail and get back to his family and thus fulfill the purposes of God! In the struggle Jacob is struck on the sciatic nerve but continues to hold on. Somehow he knows this Angel is a messenger from God and he asks for a blessing. The blessing comes. He will now be known as Israel which means prince or prevailer with God for he has prevailed and shown the determination to continue to lead the family through which God will bless the earth.

All Trophies of God’s Grace

From the dust of the ground Jacob strides off to meet Brother Esau. He shows proper humility for the man he has grievously offended and – miraculously – Esau is glad to see him, 400 armed men and all! Together they bury their father Isaac and a new chapter opens up for Jacob/Israel, now Prince with God. The last extended glimpse we get shows Jacob purging his family of idolatry and leading them in worship of the true God at an altar in Bethel, the Old Testament of “going back to church.” Rachel finally gives Jacob two boys – Joseph and Benjamin – even as she dies giving birth to the youngest.

God is kind to Rachel. She will be remembered as an archetype of fervent motherhood (Matthew 2:18). But he is also kind to the rejected Leah, it is she who will be honorably buried with Jacob at Hebron (49:31). Indeed God is kind to all. Over so many years he works to bring things back into synch with his great moral law.

And much work remains. It will take Joseph’s exceptional graces and skills to lead his brothers to repentance after his own harrowing escapes but…the overall orientation is clear. As Joseph later summarizes – God brings good out of so much evil (Genesis 50:20). Jacob the Deceiver’s life story shows how people can change, how God keeps his promises of looking after his people and of how he will never leave us or forsake us.

The lessons in Jacob’s life are many but this one thing stands out, that he could change and change mightily and in so doing set a model for the rest who would come. Hebrews 13:5 indeed seems apt, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Jacob’s life is a trophy of God’s grace, of becoming strong from weakness and of the deep deep persevering love of God for his people, a love unbounded and determined and tenacious, and a pillar of testimony to God’s ability to turn evil into good. Jacob, Rachel, Leah – all needed God’s fulsome grace to be a child of his, as do we all!