Jacob: A journey from deceit to hope
Hespeler, 19 February, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Genesis 32:13-32, 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Psalm 34:11-22
acob, the son of Isaac, was always driven by one thing: the need for success. It had started, for him, even in the womb. Jacob had been a twin with his brother Esau and, as it turns out, was fated to be born second in a world where the difference between being the firstborn and the second born was only everything. But do you think that Jacob was inclined to accept that second place position? Not that all! We are told that he fought for dominance even in the womb with his brother. And, even when Esau came out first, Jacob followed right after gr
asping his heel.
Faced with the seemingly overwhelming disadvantage of being born second, Jacob never gave up. First he persuaded his brother to sell him his birthright for the price of a few lentils and then, when for some strange reason, nobody would honour a contract made over seaming bowl of hot stew, Jacob went ahead and tricked his blind old father into giving him the blessing of the elder child instead.
As a result, everybody hated Jacob (except his mother who was in on it with him). His big brother Esau even vowed that he would kill Jacob, but none of that mattered, you see, because Jacob had won. Sure he had to run for his life, but he had succeeded, that was clearly the only thing that mattered to him. While he was running, he had a famous dream about a ladder, a perfect symbol of the ladder of success that he was building his life around.
And we all know people like that, don’t we? They seem to live a charmed life, going from success to ever greater success. They are attractive and charismatic. If they are in sales they can sell you just about anything. Many of them go into politics where they tend to advance to positions of ever more power and influence. You may be secretly jealous of them, of course, but you really can’t help but admire all that they achieve. They are the heroes of our modern age. They are the people that everyone wants to be.
Of course, their need for success can run so deep that it becomes pathological. That can be devastating to them when success doesn’t come. Jacob went through that. When he ran away from his brother Esau, he landed in the country of Haran and he met this beautiful woman named Rachel. He fell in love with her right away which meant that he had to have her. His marriage to Rachel was to be his next success. But Rachel’s father, Laban, tricked him into marrying her less beautiful older sister, Leah instead.
Oh, you can bet that Jacob was angry that he had been beaten like that! But a defeat like that will only make a man like Jacob more committed to win in the long run. And, in the end, after about fourteen years spent in his father-in-law Laban’s household, he plundered the man of everything of value that he owned.
Jacob left with both of Laban’s daughters (both Rachel and Leah) as his wives and their slaves as his concubines. They took the very best of Laban’s flocks and herds with them and even stole Laban’s family gods – precious idols that had been in the family forever. Even more important, Jacob left with the most important indicator of success in that ancient society: twelve fine sons. I am sure that, as Jacob watched Laban disappear in his rear view mirror, he said to himself, “Who won this time, old man!”
The world seems to demand that we all set our hearts on the pursuit of success. After all, success in this world is often seen as the only measure of a person’s value. But there are some, like Jacob, who not only have a special gift for finding success but also a deep-seated need for it. The quest for success can be a very noble thing, of course, but Jacob’s story also reminds us that there is a dark side to being this type of person. It seems that Jacob’s need to win was so powerful that it pushed him to do things that were not exactly ethical.
In particular, you have to admit, Jacob had a tendency to play fast and loose with the truth. He often got ahead by means of deception. It was by lying and pretending to be his own brother that he was able to trick his father into giving him the blessing. It was through trickery and deception that he was able to get control of the best of his father-in-law’s flocks and herds. In fact, when you look closely at every incident when Jacob made progress towards his goals, you will probably find that there was a point where he didn’t exactly tell the truth in order to get there.
And that doesn’t just seem to be a part of Jacob’s story. It seems to be true of many people who, like him, are primarily motivated by the pursuit of success. I mean, think of it this way: what sort of professions do people go into who are driven by success? I think we would agree that a lot of them go into politics. Those who don’t often end up as very successful lawyers or salespeople or other kinds of high powered business people. These are the professions that will most feed people who need to succeed.
Now, if I were to ask you what are the most dishonest professions, what do you suppose the answer would be? Chances are that, in any random group, you would come up with a list that included what: politics, law and used car sales. Now please understand me: I would never say that all politicians and all lawyers and all sales people are liars. They are not. I have known people in all of those categories who were nothing but honest, full of integrity and honour. But the perception is still there, isn’t it? At the very least, these are the sorts of professions that seem to push people to stretch the truth and speak in ways that only benefit themselves.
Sometimes, these days, it seems as if we are all living in Jacob’s world – a world in which success is the only thing that matters and in which truth is usually the first casualty in the pursuit of that success. When I think of this in light of Jacob’s story, it actually seems inevitable. Once we had built our entire Western society around the goals of Jacob – the goals of worldly success – it was inevitable what we would sooner or later find ourselves in a society that had given up on the truth and retreated into the comfort and convenience of fake news, alternative facts and the post-truth world that we seem to be living in today.
But the story of Jacob in the Bible isn’t just a story of a man, who is fairly comfortable lying and who is pursuing success with everything he’s got. His story is also about how God reached out to him and called him to embrace the fullness of who he had been created to be. As a result, Jacob isn’t just a representative of all those people who are driven by success but also a representation of who they can become.
We meet Jacob in our reading this morning from the Book of Genesis when he has made a very momentous decision. He has made the decision to go back to where he came from – to revisit his own past. This can be a very risky thing to do for people who have lived their whole lives seeking success at all costs because you are likely to find yourself face to face with those you have deceived or hurt on the way up the ladder of success.
That is, of course, the very thing that Jacob dreads in this passage. He knows that his brother Esau is waiting for him back at home. But Jacob has decided to do whatever he needs to do in order to seek reconciliation and make amends for the past. That is the first work that God wants to do in the life of you if you are like Jacob: help you to reconcile with the wounds you have caused people in your own past.
This is not an easy process for Jacob – indeed he has to put everything that he has achieved in his life on the line for the sake of reconciliation (including his family which he sends on across the river ahead of him) but it is worth it, because it is the first step to the wholeness of that he needs.
But there is an even more important task that waits for Jacob. Once he has done that – once he has determined to set out and confront his own past and put everything on the line – he is left all alone. “Jacob was left alone;” we are told, “and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” He now enters into the most important struggle: his own struggle with God.
What is different about this wrestling match, however, is not how difficult his opponent is. Jacob has faced powerful opposition his whole life and triumphed. What is different this time, is what he is fighting for. Jacob, at this point in his life, is no longer fighting for the things he has devoted his life to: success, recognition, taking one more step up the ladder of life.
This is how the climax of the wrestling match is described: Jacob is grappling with the stranger who actually appears to be losing. That is how powerful a fighter Jacob is. “Then [the stranger] said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’”
What is Jacob struggling for now? He is fighting for a blessing first of all: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And fighting for blessing is different than fighting for success. Jacob has finally realized that there are some things that God can give him that the world and success in the world cannot. He has realized the truth that Jesus put so well, “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves.” (Luke 9:25) This is the work of maturity that God has done in Jacob’s life.
Jacob, therefore, is not just fighting for a blessing, he is fighting for his self-identity. That is why he is given a new name in the midst of the wrestling match: “Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’” Jacob, after all this long journey and struggle finally understands who he is – who he has always been meant to be – the one who struggles with God. His struggle will no longer be only for success and advancement because he recognizes that blessing and knowing himself means more. And for whose sake does Jacob struggle now? Not merely for himself, I think, but for his family. The blessing he seeks is for all of them.
I look around at the world today, and I see many who are oriented towards the never-ending quest for success and advancement. Some of them pursue it so relentlessly that they’ll sacrifice everything, even and especially the truth, in order to get there. Some, when the success that they have oriented themselves towards, doesn’t appear, retreat into lies and hide from the truth. We seem to have heard a lot about politicians doing that lately.
The good news is that God doesn’t want to leave the Jacobs of this world to their own devices. God will do a work of transformation in them if only they will open themselves to it. This is the promise of the gospel. If you are someone who has sacrificed everything for the sake of worldly success and you find that there is still something missing, God would love to meet you by the side of the river – to wrestle with you over the mistakes and even the lies of your past – but he will do it in order to bring you hope and a blessing. It will be a blessing both for you and for the people you love.
I am thankful for all of the Jacobs and all the great things that they achieve. What would the world be without them? But I also pray that they would open their hearts to hear the deeper blessing that their God has for them.