I’ve never really liked the story of Jacob and Esau. I would always cringe when I read Romans 9:13:
“Just as it is written: ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.'”*
Ugh. Why would God say something like that? Isn’t God supposed to love all people? It seems like the cards are stacked against Esau…
My perspective changed greatly when I read Genesis 25-33. I guess you could say I was judging Jacob before I knew the whole story. It’s like when we meet someone, they do something rude or arrogant, and we judge their whole character based on one or two actions.
In chapter 25, we find out that Isaac and his wife Rebekah are pregnant. The LORD tells Rebekah that she will give birth to twin boys, and the older will serve the younger. This message would have been surprising to Rebekah since that is not how her culture would arrange things. The younger siblings always serve the older, and that is how it was supposed to be.
When Rebekah gives birth, Esau is born first, but Jacob comes out grabbing onto Esau’s heel. So they name him Jacob which means “he grasps the heel,” or it could also mean “supplanter.”
In that same chapter, after the boys have grown up, Esau comes home from hunting one day and is starving. Jacob offers him a bowl of stew in exchange for his birthright. Esau agrees.
Years later, when Isaac is really old and cannot see well, he tells Esau to go hunting for him so that he can bring him back some wild game. When Esau comes back, Isaac promises that he will give him his blessing. Rebekah overhears the whole thing and decides to make Jacob pretend to be Esau that he can receive the blessing. Rebekah makes up some stew (this must be some magical stew!), and has Jacob put on Esau’s clothes and goat hair (so that he will feel hairy like his brother). Isaac doesn’t believe this façade at first, but can’t ignore the stew, the smell of him, and how hairy he feels. So Isaac gives Jacob the blessing. When Esau returns, Isaac realizes his mistake, and Esau is furious.
With his parents blessing, Jacob flees to his Uncle Laban in Paddan Aram in order to find a wife. Through several years of power plays with his uncle, Jacob soon finds himself married to Leah and Rachel with 12 kids (who represent the 12 tribes of Israel). Jacob’s hard work for his uncle causes God to bless Laban. One day, Jacob wants to leave to return home. Obviously, Laban wants him to stay because Jacob’s presence has been a blessing. Through some really shady maneuvers Laban and Jacob both try to outwit one another, but the LORD continually blesses Jacob.
When Jacob returns home he realizes that Esau may still be furious, so on the way there he sends ahead gifts of flocks, herds, and camels along with servants and members of his family to ease Esau’s anger. One night, after sending everyone and everything he owned to Esau, he is spending the night by a river. In the middle of the night, a man appears and begins to wrestle with him. Jacob realizes that this man was actually the LORD so he begs the man to give a blessing, and the man renames him Israel. Israel means, “he struggles with God” or “May God prevail” or “God fights.”
Jacob had lived much of his life struggling with people and was always trying to control a situation so that he came out on top. It’s not surprising that even his family was controlling. Isaac tried to give Esau the blessing when he knew the LORD had said Esau would serve Jacob. Rebekah tried to control the situation when she set Jacob up to get the blessing instead of Esau. Esau tried to throw away his birthright for a bowl of stew. Jacob stole Esau’s birthright, pretended to be Esau, and cheated his uncle out of his herds. All of the characters were selfish, and trying to create their own destiny.
But when God renamed Jacob to Israel, he was telling him,
“Jacob, you’ve lived far too long trying to control things. Let me fight for you now.”
We are always trying to get our way, and we will usually do anything to make it happen. Ultimately, everything we have is because of God. He blesses us and allows us to go through trials to remind us to trust in Him. There is no way that we can control God, however much we may struggle with Him. May we find our hope in the LORD who is fighting for us.
How do you try to control things? What can you let go of to allow God to fight for you?
*Although this passage could be debated and different interpretations can be viewed, I think Paul is trying to show that there are two groups of people: those who follow Christ and those who don’t. Paul is using hyperbole to distinguish Esau (those who don’t follow Christ) and Jacob (those who follow Christ).