Much More Jacob than Abraham
My dad was an alcoholic, and I followed closely in his steps. I wish my story was about transcending affliction and doing better than my dad, but it’s not. My story is about a really big God who loves more than I ever imagined. This particular story is about how God used a man named Jacob to show me just how much he loves me, even—or maybe especially—the very worst parts of me.
You see, before, and especially after, I started following Jesus, I spent many nights blackout drunk (or otherwise chemically incapacitated). I did eventually sober up, after a lot of starts and stops, and that path to sobriety was through God’s wonderful grace and mercy even when I find myself lying in the dark on the front porch in the middle of winter because my wife didn’t want me to come in the house drunk.
I Have Loved Jacob?
Tucked into the part of our Bibles where so few of us dare tread is the book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. God and his people are embroiled in a courtroom battle, with God on the one side explaining his love for his people while they rebuff his every overture. At the start of the argument God declares his love for Israel, who retort, “How have you loved us?” God responds by saying, “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother? . . . Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.” Weird, right? God proves his love by saying he hated someone else?
But God isn’t using love and hate the way we typically do. Instead, these two words describe God’s actions toward Jacob and Esau. Loving Jacob means that God chose him to receive the promises he gave to Abraham and then to Abraham’s son, Isaac. To hate Esau likewise means that God did not choose Esau to receive the promised blessing. Love and hate, then, describe God’s choice of the one brother over the other.
That little statement in Malachi upended how I understand what it means to be in a relationship with God and to have Christ’s righteousness as my own. That’s because I thought of Jacob as basically a good person, a person who sought the Lord and consequently received God’s blessing on his life. And I pictured Esau as this terrible person who sold his birthright and forsook the things of God. That’s the picture we get from Hebrews, after all:
And make sure that there isn’t any immoral or irreverent person like Esau, who sold his birthright in exchange for a single meal. For you know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, even though he sought it with tears, because he didn’t find any opportunity for repentance. (Heb 12:16–17 CSB)
And of course Hebrews isn’t wrong. Esau did make a terrible decision to sell his birthright (I’ll explain what that is in a bit) for a bowl of soup, which showed that he was more concerned with satisfying his immediate need than he was concerned with following God.
Jacob comes out of the womb a heel-grabber, a supplanter, a cheater, and he gets right down to business living up to his name.
But there’s quite a bit more to the story than that, and it’s those extra details that kicked open the door to understanding imputed righteousness—the doctrine that Christ’s righteousness is given to all who are in Christ—and what it means for my, and your, relationship to God. So let’s take a look at Jacob’s story, then we’ll circle back around to this loving/hating business that Malachi is talking about.
The Jacob Story
Most folks who grew up in church know about Jacob’s wrestling with God long into the night, refusing to give up until finally God had to dislocate his hip. Jacob emerged from that fight with a new name, “Israel,” which means something like “fights with God.” It’s the name that the people of God would be known by for the rest of the Old Testament, and what a fitting name it is, for this people would fight with God throughout their history.
Long before Jacob was called “fights with God,” though, he went by a name that likewise bears significance and tells us something about the kind of person he was. Jacob was one of a set of twins born to Rebekah and her husband Isaac, the promised son of Abraham who almost got the ax back in Genesis 22. If you remember, Isaac had an older brother, Ishmael, who was not the son of the promise, even though he was Abraham’s firstborn son. That type of switcheroo would have surprised the Bible’s original readers because the eldest son typically became the family head when the father died. (This is a much bigger deal in the biblical world than the modern West.)
Well, if they were surprised about Isaac being favored over Ishmael, then they’ll be even more surprised to learn that the same will happen with the twins in Rebekah’s womb. “The older,” God promised Rebekah when she inquired about the rumbling in her belly, “will serve the younger.” Long before Esau could sell his birthright or Jacob could pull any of his shenanigans, God had already decided that Esau, the older son, would serve Jacob, the younger son.
When they finally were born, the second son came out grabbing his brother’s heel, and so Rebekah and Isaac called him “heel grabber,” or Yaaqob. “Heel grabber” sounds innocent enough, but the Hebrew audience knew that Yaaqob comes from the verb aqab, which also means “to supplant, take the place of” and even “to cheat,” a meaning Jacob’s father-in-law will be keenly aware of (see Gen 27:36).
So Jacob comes out of the womb a heel-grabber, a supplanter, a cheater, and he gets right down to business living up to his name. First up is securing the birthright from his brother. “Birthright” is a strange term to most Western readers, though most of us are likely at least vaguely familiar with the concept of primogeniture, the practice of giving the largest portion of an inheritance to one’s oldest child. That’s essentially what is meant by “birthright,” though it carries greater significance in the biblical culture.
Jacob was after the power that comes along with being the head of a “bet ab.” “Supplanter,” indeed.
Think about depictions of organized crime that you see in movies or television. At the very top of the organization is the head of the “family,” the top gangster, the one who controls and is responsible for the entire rest of the organization. Below this boss in the organizational chart are underbosses, who earn money through various illicit and perhaps licit means, and below the underbosses are the street-level men and women who also earn money in various ways. Starting from the bottom, everyone has to give some portion of their earnings to the boss above them, who then gives a portion of their earnings to the boss above them. The person at the top receives kickbacks from everyone else, and in turn he is responsible for the security and well-being of his crime “family.”
The crude analogy gets at the basic structure of the “bet ab,” or “house of the father.” In the “house of the father,” the oldest male relative in a family was responsible for the operation and well-being of the entire household, which could include scores of people, just like we see in organized crime families. Once that person dies, the next-oldest living male relative will take over as the head of the “bet ab,” which required significant economic resources to provide for the security and well-being of the entire family. The increased inheritance is what we typically think about when we read about Jacob finagling Esau’s birthright, but Jacob was much too shrewd to simply try to bilk his brother for money. No, Jacob was after the power that comes along with being the head of a “bet ab.” “Supplanter,” indeed.
Next up for Jacob was making sure he had a blessing commensurate with the power he’d secured from Esau, and his mother makes sure that he receives Isaac’s blessing through an elaborate scheme that involved deceiving her husband and scorning her oldest son. Jacob and Rebekah, of course, did not have the law of Moses in front of them while all this was happening, but the original audience would have surely been struck by their disregard for the fifth command (honor your parents), as well as their deception of a blind person (see Lev 19:14). Jacob gets his blessing, but at a staggering cost to his family and, one must think, his emotional, psychological, and spiritual health as well. And remember, these evil means were completely unnecessary, for the Lord had already promised Rebekah that “the older will serve the younger” (Gen 25:23 CSB).
But Jacob won’t honor Leah, because he doesn’t love her.
Esau is understandably furious, so Jacob flees the family he’s worked so hard to secure power over. Jacob lands on his feet, securing a place in his uncle’s “bet ab,” where he works a few decades in exchange for a few wives, one he loves and the other he tolerates. By marrying the sisters Rachel and Leah, Jacob breaks another Old Testament law, this one meant to protect women from exactly what happens to Leah (see Lev 18:18).
While we might be quick to rejoice that Jacob’s father-in-law gives him a bit of his own medicine by tricking him into marrying Leah (how drunk did he have to be not to realize he was sleeping with Leah on his wedding night?), but we can’t forget the trauma Leah no doubt experienced. She was the oldest daughter and thus should have married first (culturally speaking), but she’d so far had no suitors, and her father had deceived Jacob into marrying her. If that were not humiliating enough, Jacob made no effort to conceal his favoritism for Rachel, Leah’s younger and more attractive (at least to Jacob) sister. The trauma for Leah continues throughout the story as tries desperately to earn her husband’s love.
Leah’s anguish climaxes in the heartbreaking narrative or Genesis 30. The first several verses of this chapter reveal the warped family dynamics Jacob had created, which include both wives giving their servants to Jacob as concubines. As with the Hagar-Abraham-Sarah story earlier in Genesis, there is no mention of the concubines’ agency over their own bodies, and by now readers are not surprised that Jacob has learned nothing from the tragedy produced by Abraham’s use of Hagar. Jacob—and Abraham before him—could have given agency to these women, but instead they take their bodies as their own. Leah rejoices when her servant bears children for Jacob, but lament is close behind, for her husband still refuses to love her. The next few verses give readers a picture of just how desperate for Jacob’s love she was:
Reuben [Leah’s son] went out during the wheat harvest and found some mandrakes [thought to be an aphrodisiac] in the field. When he brought them to his mother Leah, Rachel asked, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But Leah replied to her, “Isn’t it enough that you have taken my husband? Now you also want to take my son’s mandrakes?” “Well then,” Rachel said, “he can sleep with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came in from the field that evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So Jacob slept with her that night. (Gen 30:14–16 CSB)
The Lord opens Leah’s womb again during what seems to be this rare occasion of copulating with her husband, and for that Leah rejoices. But she connects this blessing of a child with theft of another life: “God has rewarded me for giving my slave to my husband” (Gen 30:18 CSB), and about her next son she says, “This time my husband will honor me because I have borne six sons for him.” But Jacob won’t honor Leah, because he doesn’t love her.
In addition to the trauma inflicted on his family by his refusal to love Leah and his sleeping with no less than four women—two of them sisters—Jacob is not great at being a father, either. In Genesis 33 we meet Dinah, one of Jacob’s daughters with Leah. A man from another tribal family rapes Dinah and then has his father ask for Dinah’s hand in marriage. Jacob’s sons agree (note Jacob’s silence) on the condition that all the men in the city are circumcised, after which Simeon and Levi slaughter them all. Jacob, furious at his sons, rebukes them because “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. We are few in number; if they unite against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed” (Genesis 34:30 CSB). Jacob cannot bring himself to defend his daughter against her rapist, but he has no trouble mustering anger at his sons for the danger they may have put him in.
So there you have it. This Jacob that God loved was a terrible person, at least in the episodes recorded in the Bible.
And that’s not all. Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph, his son with his favorite wife, Rachel, leads to Joseph’s being sold into slavery while Jacob’s other sons convince him that Joseph met a violent end. Toward the end of that story—which, by the way, turns out okay—readers learn that even in his old age Jacob hasn’t changed. He favors Benjamin, Rachel’s last son, above the rest of the brothers. In fact, Jacob seems to forget he even has any sons apart from the ones he had with Rachel.
Read what he says to Rueben when asked about taking Benjamin to Egypt: “My son will not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If anything happens to him on your journey, you will bring my gray hairs down to Sheol in sorrow” (Genesis 42:38 CSB, emphasis added). “He alone is left.” Imagine how that must have landed on the ears of Rueben and his brothers, who had risked their lives to retrieve grain from Egypt during a famine.
To finish up Jacob’s life, let’s return to just before he wrestles with God and is Christened “Israel.” Jacob has fled from Laban (with Laban’s children and grandchildren in tow), and he knows he is about to cross into the land of Edom, where his brother Esau lives. It’s been twenty years since the brothers last saw each other, and Jacob anticipates fury and unforgiveness. Rather than go to his brother and apologize, Jacob sends droves of gifts ahead of him, hoping “to appease Esau with the gift that is going ahead of me” (Genesis 32:20 CSB).
Jacob then sends his wives and children ahead and stays behind, where he will wrestle with God, refusing to let go unless God blesses him. After all this happens and Jacob is renamed “fights with God,” he finally sees his brother coming toward him. Jacob tentatively approaches, but Esau runs to Jacob and wraps him in his arms. All has been forgiven; Esau is only glad to have his brother back in his life. Jacob refuses when Esau asks to travel with him on his way, telling Esau that he will instead meet up with him in Seir. But instead of going south, as he’s just promised his brother, Jacob heads west to Shechem, where his daughter Dinah will be raped.
So there you have it. This Jacob that God loved was a terrible person, at least in the episodes recorded in the Bible. He lied to and stole from his brother, deceived his father, married two sisters and took on their slaves as his concubines, abused at least one of his wives, sowed enmity among his sons, and refused to defend his daughter against a rapist. Jacob’s story is shot through with concern for . . . Jacob. He is no paragon of morality or even an example of what it means to walk with God faithfully through life’s struggles. In modern times he might be called a narcissist or even a psychopath based on his singular focus on securing power and protecting himself with no regard for the people around him. This is the person whom God loved, whom God chose to carry the blessing promised to Abraham and that culminated in Jesus Christ.
God Loved Jacob
God loved Jacob. Jacob, of all people. A terrible father, terrible husband, terrible son, and terrible brother. This guy who never could seem to get it right, to put others ahead of himself, to truly love anyone but himself. That’s the thought I kept rolling around in my head as I considered what it might mean to be loved by God.
That night I was lying on the front porch, drunk, begging for cigarettes from my wife who doesn’t smoke, that night I had already made a profession of faith in Christ. I was “saved,” to use the language from my faith tradition. I’d given my life to Christ years before, and yet here I was. And before this moment on the porch in the middle of winter in the coldest place I’d ever lived, I had spent years struggling with drug and alcohol abuse.
God’s love for me doesn’t have anything to do with me; it has everything to do with God.
There were periods when I was clean and sober, and in those times I felt closer to God, and I knew then that God loved me. But the darkness always crept back in, sometimes slowly and sometimes not. And in those times of darkness I just wanted to stop feeling anything. So I did. And during those dark times I felt like God didn’t love me so much, like I was probably going to go to hell and that I’d never really known God and that there was no way the God of the universe would love me in the state I was in.
But it’s not true. It’s not true that God loves me when I’m sober and doesn’t when I’m a drunk. Jesus didn’t wait to die for me until I was an upstanding citizen with a full-time job, wife, and beautiful children. He didn’t wait until I had it together to shower me with his love and grace. And never once has he withheld his love from me because I was laying on the front porch in the middle of winter, drunk and begging for a cigarette. That is the me Christ died for. The messed up, broken, angry, and rebellious me. And I never realized that until I read this story about Jacob, a man whom God loved and yet who left behind him the detritus of the shattered lives of the people he was closest to.
God’s love for Jacob doesn’t have anything to do with Jacob; it has everything to do with God. And God’s love for me doesn’t have anything to do with me; it has everything to do with God. That is the glory and the wonder of the doctrine of imputed righteousness, friends. When the Father looks on me and you and anyone else who knows Christ, he doesn’t see the worst of us or even the best of us. He sees the spotlessness, the sinlessness, the perfection of his Son.