Jacob’s life story reads like an almost surreal piece of fiction. But then again, truth is often stranger than fiction. The youngest of a set of fraternal twins, Jacob was everything his brother was not; cautious, steady, responsible, spiritual, a perfect counterfoil to his brother Esau’s reckless and impulsive ways.
But what Jacob lacked in thrill factor he more than made up for with petty deception. Coveting the birthright that belonged to his erstwhile brother, Jacob deceived his father and stole his brother’s blessing right out from under both their noses. Isaac, frail and half-blind, blessed the wrong son and then declared that the blessing once bestowed could not be retracted.
Flying into a murderous rage, Esau threatened to kill his brother as soon as their aged father died. Desperate to prevent fratricide, Rebekah sent Jacob to live with her family for a little while until the whole sordid mess blew over and Esau calmed down.
What was meant to be a short sojourn with relatives ended up being a 20-year slough away from his family. A bittersweet chapter that was as interlaced with blessings as it was with losses. The one really bright spot in the entire affair was the way God handled the situation.
Alone and adrift, a fugitive on the run from his brother, a son who had deceived and robbed his father, Jacob fell into an exhausted and restless sleep, the bare earth and rock the only comforts to cushion him. But as he slept, he dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven and angels ascending and descending that ladder.
It was a dream from God. A simple message of comfort and forgiveness. Jacob bitterly repented his rash choices and God graciously indicated to him that he was forgiven. The dream of the ladder pointed to Jesus, the true bridge between our souls and God. The angels were a promise of God’s continued presence and love.
When Jacob awoke he named the place Bethel and it proved to be a turning point in his life. He had a long way to go yet, both in road miles and in spiritual miles but he had chosen to cast himself on the mercy of God and that was the best decision he had made in a long time.
After spending twenty years at the mercy of his uncle Laban and on the receiving end of more deception and thieving than he himself had dispensed, Jacob decided it was time to go home. His beloved mother was dead and he realized that he needed to see his father and mend fences with his brother.
Just before meeting Esau, a terror-stricken Jacob, weighed down by guilt and a sense of impending doom, spent the night by the brook Jabbok. While he was there he was met by a man in the dead of night. Blindly reaching out, cold terror snaking through his belly, Jacob wrestled with the man. A fearful encounter that seemed as though Jacob was wrestling for his very soul and perhaps in many ways he was.
As the day began to break over the horizon, the man tried to extricate himself from Jacob’s grip but Jacob would not let him go. It was then that the man touched Jacob’s thigh and dislocated it. At that moment Jacob realized that he had been wrestling with God and falling on him refused to let him go without a blessing.
It was Jesus who wrestled with Jacob. And it was Jesus who gave him a new name. Israel; overcomer. The experience at Jabbok changed Jacob. It brought him full circle, in a journey that led him to surrender his will to God, a journey that taught him to wait upon the Lord to fulfill His purposes, in His time and His ways.
But Jabbok was not the end for Jacob. In many ways, it was the beginning of yet another long and difficult chapter in his life. While he was with Laban in Haran, Jacob had managed to accumulate four wives, all in the process of pursuing and pleasing the one woman he did love.
The mixed household created a toxic nightmare which deteriorated into jealousy and fractious bickering among the 13 children that were produced by this communal union. But of all of Jacob’s children, he loved Joseph the best. Why? Because Joseph was the son of his beloved Rachel, the only woman he had ever really loved and the one he worked fourteen long years for.
Jacob’s love for Joseph created greater strife among his children than any other element in the already dysfunctional household. The jealousy and hatred led Joseph’s brothers to sell him for 20 pieces of silver to Midianite merchants who in turn took him down into Egypt and sold him into the household of the Captain of Pharaoh’s guard.
Joseph flourished in Potiphar’s household because of his uncanny administration skills but also because of his faithfulness to God and the blessings that faithfulness provided. But Joseph’s prosperity didn’t last. He was falsely accused of assaulting Potiphar’s wife and thrown in prison where he remained until, after a series of twists and turns, he was summoned by Pharaoh to interpret his dreams.
Attributing the ability to interpret dreams to the God of heaven Joseph not only told Pharaoh what his dreams meant but he also gave him sound advice about how to go about preparing for the coming years of plenty and famine.
During the seven years of plenty Joseph’s star rose; he was named Prime Minister of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, he got married and had children. And then during the seven years of famine, he came full circle. He was reconciled to his brothers and after twenty long years, he saw his father again.
Joseph’s story is rich with meaning but perhaps the most significant point is his ability to deal with the extreme changes in fortune that he encountered. Through betrayal, loss, humiliation, slavery, false accusation, and imprisonment, his faith in God remained steadfast. He didn’t rage against God for his misfortune but he bore his trials with the faithful fortitude of Job. Similarly, through rapid advancement, the taste of almost unmitigated power and wealth Joseph remained equally steadfast and faithful to God.
In times of plenty and times of famine, he was equally able to remain true and faithful.