Remember Abraham’s decisive action when Chedorlaomer king of Elam attacked the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and their companions, defeated them and took Lot captive, too: “When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan… Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people (Genesis 14:14, 16). Only 318 men against the armies of four kings, and Abram won! This victory stood out for Yahweh’s glory: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand” (Genesis 14:19-20).
Or think about Abraham’s decisive action when Yahweh ordered him to be circumcised: “That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him” (Genesis 17:26-27). Abraham showed that same commitment and devotion when Yahweh commanded him to sacrifice Isaac. The angel of the LORD had to stop him and say, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12).
We want to see this same decisive faith and action in the lives of all the patriarchs. But here in Genesis 32 – 36, we don’t see it in Jacob. For example, when he hears about Esau’s approach to see him with 400 men, he gets scared and immediately thinks of how he can manipulate the situation. He prays a model prayer sincerely to ask for Jehovah’s protection, but his actions show that he also trusts his cleverness: he divides his family into groups and sends waves of gifts out of self-protection and to calm (unnecessarily) his brother’s anger.
Remember too, what Isaac said in his blessing. “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you” (Genesis 27:29). But when the time comes to see his brother, “[Jacob] himself went on before them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother… Then the servants drew near, they and their children, and bowed down. Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down. At last Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down” (Genesis 33:3, 6-7). If we hadn’t read the previous chapters, with all this bowing, we would have thought that Esau had received the covenant blessing!
Then we are disappointed to hear Jacob’s excuses for not accepting his brother’s invitation to join him in Seir, and then never fulfill his word to see him there (Genesis 33:12-16). He is indecisive in reacting to the defiling of his daughter in chapter 34, and his indecision opens the way for Simeon and Levi to execute violent and excessive vengeance on the whole population of Shechem. Afterwards, God has to remind him to fulfill the vow that he made when he left the promised land in 28:19-22: “God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau” (Genesis 35:1). Next the biblical narrator invites us to make a comparison. In chapter 36, we see Esau’s family portrait – we see numerous sons, leaders, kings, kings that reigned before Israel ever had kings – a whole impressive nation! And Jacob’s family portrait? Well… you can find it in just four verses in Genesis 35:23-26. And isn’t that Reuben standing in the back, the firstborn? The one who slept with his father’s concubine? (Genesis 35:22) What an embarrassment!
With all that we might ask, was it really Jacob who received the blessings of the covenant? It seems like Esau has all the material advantages and influence while Jacob is wandering around indecisive, fearful and still scheming, just recently leaving behind decades of humiliation and servitude. But yes, even though he is not as decisive as Abraham and he doesn’t have the influence of Esau, Jacob is the one who by grace has the living relationship of the covenant with Yahweh: “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you” (Genesis 35:11-12). We only wish Jacob would act in agreement with Yahweh’s righteousness more often!
And as we evaluate Jacob in these chapters, I wonder, “How would my life be described in the Bible in light of my relationship with Yahweh by His grace?” Do I act in accordance with the new covenant made by the blood of Jesus Christ? Are there episodes where I fear men more than I fear God’s righteousness? When do my manipulations stand out more than trust in God’s promises? When have I, like Jacob, reacted in indecision, indifference or delay when God wanted obedience? Lord willing, our frustration with Jacob doesn’t lead us to condemn him but to examine by God’s grace: would a reader of the Bible be frustrated reading my life, too? May God’s grace discipline and mold us so that we act in accordance with the righteousness He has given us by faith.