Jacob, like most of us, is far from perfect. Many men in the Torah talked with and followed God, including both Abraham and Isaac (Jacob’s grandfather and father), who might have been more righteous that Jacob. But we do not know how they came to have a relationship with God. However, with Jacob, we are given a window into both how God got his attention, and how Jacob responded.
Isaac had twin sons – Esau and Jacob. Esau was born first, but Jacob came out of the womb holding onto Esau’s heel. Isaac loved Esau; Rebecca loved Jacob. Esau was a hunter; Jacob stayed with the tents. Jacob obviously knew how to cook (when Esau came in from hunting he gave away his birthright in exchange for some of Jacob’s stew). Many say he was a scholar, which may be supported by his understanding of the importance of the birthright. I expect he also took care of the domesticated animals — he slaughtered and brought his mother the two lambs she requested, and later when he went to Lavan’s house he again ended up taking care of the animals.
As Isaac grew old, he became blind. But when he thought he might die, he called his oldest son, Esau and asked him to go hunting and to prepare some of the stew he loved, so that he could eat it before blessing him. His wife Rebecca overheard him and believed this blessing belonged instead to Jacob. Through various means of deception instigated by Rebecca, but to which Jacob acceded, Isaac accepted that it was Esau in front of him and gave his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau. Although it is not clear whether Isaac knew which son he was blessing, Jacob clearly took the blessing that would normally have belonged to the first born, that Isaac had intended to give to Esau.
This first blessing states: “God endow you with dew of heaven, the cream of the land, much grain and wine. May peoples serve you; may nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. A curse on those who curse you; on those who bless you, blessing.” Genesis 27:28-30.
Esau, enraged by the deception of Rebecca and Jacob, determined that he would kill Jacob; not only did Jacob get his birthright (which Esau had voluntarily given away), but also his blessing (which he did not). Rebecca hearing this threat, convinced Isaac to send Jacob to her brother Lavan to take a wife from their kinsmen rather than from the Canaanites. At the same time Jacob would be protected from Esau’s rage. At the time Isaac agreed to this, he blessed Jacob again, and this time it is clear that Isaac knew who he was blessing.
This second blessing is quite different: “May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile, and multiply you so that you become a community of peoples. May He grant Avraham’s blessing to you and your descendants, that you may possess the land where of your wayfaring you live as a stranger, which God gave to Avraham.” Genesis 27: 3-4.
The implication of this is that Isaac never expected that the land of Israel would go to Esau, but always would be the possession of Jacob and his descendants.
So Jacob left to find a wife (and escape the anger of Esau). “In time he chanced upon a certain place and decided to spend the night there, because the sun had set.” Genesis 28:11. It was there that he dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heavens, with angels going up and down. If that were not amazing enough, “The Lord (יהוה) stood over him there and said, ‘I am the Lord (יהוה), the God of Avraham your father, and the God of Yitzhak.”
It is common in the Torah to refer to ancestors as fathers. This would have been the case if it had referred to the God of Avraham and Yitzhak, your fathers (or alternatively, your fathers, Avraham and Yitzhak). However, by inserting “father” following Avraham but not Yitzhak, thus referring to Avraham alone as Jacob’s father, this might be considered as being more of a spiritual relationship. If one looks back to Isaac’s second blessing, we see clearly that Isaac has actually requested that Avraham’s blessing of the land be granted to Jacob.
Indeed, God himself now confirms Isaac’s second blessing, both concerning the land, and the multitude of descendants:
“The land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west, the east, the north, and the south. Through you and your descendants, all the families of the earth will be blessed. I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken of to you.'” Genesis 28:13-15
God’s promise to Jacob is unconditional. However, although Jacob understands that God is in this place, he does not yet take God’s promise at face value and decides to bargain with God:
“Yaakov then made a vow. ‘If God will be with me,’ he said, ‘protecting me on this journey I am taking, giving me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return in peace to my father’s house, then the Lord (יהוה) will be my God. This stone I set up as a pillar will become a house of God (Beit El), and of all that You give me I will dedicate a tenth to You.’” Genesis 28:20-22.
Jacob continued on to Haran where he worked with his uncle, Lavan for some 14 years in exchange for four wives (Leah and Rachel and their two maids), and children and then for another six years in exchange for his flock. During this time God continued to bless Jacob and to communicate with him, which appears to have included directions with regard to the flock. When Lavan’s sons had become jealous of Jacob and Lavan no longer regarded him with the same favor,
“The Lord said to Yaakov, ‘Go back to the land of your fathers where you were born; I will be with you.’ So Yaakov sent word to Rahel and Leah to come out to the field where his flock was.” Genesis 31:3-4
He told his wives of a dream he had had:
“an angel of God said to me, ‘Yaakov.’ I replied, ‘Here I am.’ He said ‘… I have seen all that Lavan is doing to you. I am the God of Beit El, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to Me. Now – leave this land at once and return to the land where you were born.’” Genesis 30:11-13.
His wives agreed to go, and they immediately packed up and left, as God instructed. Interestingly, the vow Jacob made at the beginning of his journey was also noted. I would suggest that this is evidence that God hears and takes vows seriously.
After another encounter with Lavan, because God warned Lavan in a dream not to do anything to Jacob, they eventually parted, and Jacob turned his attention to his upcoming dreaded meeting with Esau. But before this could happen, Jacob had another struggle to face. It started pretty much immediately: “Yaakov continued on his way – and angels of God encountered him. When he saw them, Yaakov said, ‘This is God’s own camp,’ and he named the place Mahanayim.” Genesis 31:1-2. Jacob took various steps to allay the expected anger of Esau; but the most important step he took was to submit the matter to the Lord:
“Yaakov prayed, ‘God of my father Avraham and God of my father Yitzhak, Lord, You who said to me, “Go back to the land where you were born and I will deal well with you,” I am unworthy of all the kindnesses and the faithfulness that You have bestowed upon Your servant. When I crossed the Jordan I had only my staff, and now I have become two camps. Rescue me, I pray, from my brother’s hand, from the hand of Esav. I am afraid he will come and kill us all, mothers and children alike. Yet You said, “I will deal well with you and make your descendants countless, like the sand of the sea.”’” Genesis 32:9-13
Jacob is no longer bargaining with God; he understands that everything he has is from God’s hand, and his only hope is that God will protect him, as He promised. He is no longer the same impudent young man he was at the beginning of our story. From the time of Jacob’s first meeting where he sees the angels and receives the promises from God where he still thinks of himself as being in charge, and vows that The Lord (יהוה) will be his God IF God fulfills his promises, to now, Jacob has learned that he cannot always dictate what will happen, but as he listens to and follows God he would indeed be successful.
But being successful in love and business is not enough. When Jacob obeyed God and left to go back to where he came from, he was still fearful, both of his father-in-law Lavan, and his brother Esau. He left without informing Lavan because of his fear; however Lavan turned out not to be a significant problem, since when Lavan caught up with him, God had already taken care of the matter. But Esau is now coming with 400 men!
As an aside, the most common commandment in the Bible is do not fear/do not be afraid. And in fact, if you are afraid, you may bring what you fear upon yourself. See Job 3:25: “What I feared has come to be; what I dreaded has overwhelmed me.”
To resume our narrative, Jacob takes his wives and his children and all that he had across the river Yabok and returns alone:
“And Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until dawn. When he saw that he could not overpower him, the man wrenched Yaakov’s hip in its socket so that the socket of Yaakov’s hip was strained as he wrestled with the man. ‘Let me go,’ said the man, ‘for dawn is breaking.’ But he replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ ‘What is your name?’ asked the man. ‘Yaakov,’ he replied. ‘No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Yisrael,’ said the man, ‘for you have struggled with God and with men and have prevailed.’ Yaakov asked, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why do you ask my name?’ and he blessed him there. Yaakov named the place Peniel, ‘for I have seen God face-to-face and yet my life has been spared.’” Genesis 32:24-30
If this was but a dream, it is hard to imagine that the socket of Jacob’s hip would have been wrenched. But who then is this man? Was it Jacob himself, wrestling with his fears, his doubts, and his faith? Or perhaps it was the spirit of Esau – that Jacob had to face, contend with and overcome? Perhaps it was an angel or messenger of God (although the normal wording for this is not used). Or could it be God Himself?
Jacob says that he has seen God face to face, and his life has been spared which would show that God was involved. And his new name states that he had struggled with God and prevailed. But he had to struggle not only with God but also with men and prevail. Why? For Jacob to truly become Israel and take possession of the land that had been promised to Abraham and to him, he also had to face himself and defeat his own fears and to ultimately trust that God would do as He said. His struggle with God was not to bring God into alignment with what he wanted, but to bring himself into alignment with God. By doing so, he allowed God’s promises to him to be fulfilled.
And indeed this is where we end: Esau met Jacob and left in peace.
Translations are from The Koren Tanakh (The Magerman Edition, published by Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2021)