The Background for Jacob's Story

The premise of this article is that three of the major figures of the Jewish faith –Abraham, Isaac and Jacob– allegorically represent the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Here, we will focus on Jacob to see how the Holy Spirit works within us –developing our trust in God –transforming each one of us –creating the perfect Bride of Christ.

Hidden Insights about Relationships

Resting in Genesis, sets the story of Jacob. It’s about his birth as a twin, his efforts to gain the family birthright, his search for true love, his labor for a merciless father-in-law, his earned freedom and his struggles in the position as a husband and as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. But that’s only from the physical perspective. From the spiritual perspective, it’s the outline of a believer’s life –from start to completion. Recognizing where we are, and where we’ve been, can provide a glimpse of the grandeur that lies ahead and encouragement for today.

Like other Bible allegories, the women of Jacob’s story characterize our relationships with God. And the women’s children describe the results (the fruits) of those relationships. This may seem really far-fetched –but let’s take a look in the New Testament where it plainly says to do just that.

Galatians 4:21-31 tells us to consider the Genesis account of Hagar and Sarah as an allegory of the two covenants. It says that Hagar represents the Old Covenant (the Law received on Mount Sinai) –and she also corresponds to the physical city of Jerusalem (the capitol of Jewish religion). Not only is she a slave, her child was born into slavery. Likewise, those religious Jews are slaves to the Law with its insatiable demands for being good enough to approach God. On the contrary, Sarah represents the New Covenant (the Promise) –and she corresponds to the spiritual city of Jerusalem (the center of faith). Her child is born of the Promise and is free. In a like manner, the people of the heavenly Jerusalem are free to fellowship with the One who loves them.

These women define the two ways to relate to God. It’s either through human efforts specified by the Law –or it’s through a sole reliance on Him keeping His Promise. (Notice there’s no mixing of the two.)

The passage concludes with a declaration. Not only are we to cast out Hagar –to cease-and-desist relating to God through the Law; we’re also to rid ourselves of her fruit –trying to gain His approval by doing what the Law states. Those who are guided by the Law can never share in the Promise of eternal life through faith in Jesus. Romans 8:1-3 applies names to those two ways. One is “the law of sin and death” –the other is “the law of the Spirit who gives life.” (They are intentional references to the two trees in the Garden of Eden.)

Can everyone see these spiritual perspectives of the Old Testament stories? Surely. Ask Him, seek His ways and knock on His door to meet Him personally. Tell Him that you want to understand Him even more. (He says that’s His desire in 1 Corinthians 2.)

There’s a passage in chapter six of Second Kings that tells about Elisha being chased down by a Syrian king and his army. When things got dicey, Elisha wasn’t afraid –but his servant was. The servant only saw the things going on around him physically –an entire army of fierce soldiers was trying to kill him and his master. But Elisha saw the battle spiritually. Sure, there was the army of fierce soldiers but there was also an even greater army of angels who were fighting –and beating– those wicked Syrians. Elisha’s prayer was for God to let his servant see the spiritual battle taking place before them (2 Kings 6:15-17). It’s my prayer that as we read about Jacob’s life –you’ll also see the spiritual perspective.

The Battle for Control

Genesis 25:21-26 says that Isaac and Rebekah wanted children but she was barren (much like his parents, Abraham and Sarah). He appealed to the Lord and she became pregnant with twin boys –who struggled fiercely with each other even while they were still in her womb. Their conflict was so great that Rebekah asked the Lord what was happening. He explained that her sons would become two contending nations. When the first son was born, he was red and hairy, and he was named Esau. And when the younger son was delivered, he was hanging onto his older brother’s heel –as if trying to come out first –he was named Jacob.

The shaded view of the boys’ story that I heard for years –and parroted to others all too well– paints Esau as an ordinary man who thoroughly enjoyed the outdoors. It also describes Jacob –as a wimpy, conniving, deceitful man who cheated his innocent, hungry brother out of his deserved inheritance –with nothing more than a bowl of stew. Then he impersonated Esau in order to receive that inheritance from his blind father. Furthermore, years later, Jacob manipulated his father-in-law into giving him a large flock.

On the surface that critical view of Jacob seems plausible. The obstacle, though, is that it contaminates Jacob’s character –and that’s inconsistent with the rest of his story. The fact is, God so highly regarded Jacob that He later gave him the name Israel. He was the father of the twelve tribes of God’s very own nation of chosen people. They inherited the Promised Land through Jacob –and it was through Jacob that our Lord Jesus descended.

In contrast, the Bible tells us that it was Esau who was the lesser son. His descendants –although also a nation, and great in number– merely inherited a desolate land. Some say that God only rewarded Jacob after he was changed during his struggle with the angel (Genesis 32:24-31). However that can’t be the case because we’re told that God loved Jacob and hated Esau before they were ever born (Romans 9:10-13). It’s almost like God is using this inconsistency to stir our curiosity so that we want to learn more.

Since God certainly doesn’t bestow such a great honor on a person of dubious character, there must be something missing. So let’s consider another view –one that better fits with his overall life and also provides clarity to both his physical and allegorical roles.

Hints about the boys’ characters are found in the meanings of their Hebrew names. Sometimes those meanings are even printed as footnotes in our Bibles –saying that Edom (or Esau) means that his complexion was “red or ruddy” and Jacob means “trickster or deceiver.” I hope you’ll allow me to explain the story afresh –and for now you’ll set aside your long-standing opinions about the boys.

A short biography of Esau is found in Genesis 25:25-28. It says that he was red and hairy all over at birth. Literally, Esau means “handling” and it comes from a word meaning “do or make.” His name predicted that he would be known by his deeds or works –and he was. Specifically, he was a skilled hunter who enjoyed the outdoors and his father was delighted to eat the game he killed. Later in life Esau was known by the name Edom which comes from a word meaning “red faced.” Based on the contrast in Genesis 25, which says that Jacob was peaceful, Esau’s red face probably indicates that he was easily angered. All in all, Esau was a self-sufficient and self-centered man of the world.

Then there’s Jacob –also described in Genesis 25:25-28. At birth, he was hanging onto his older brother’s heel. Jacob means “heel-catcher or supplanter” and it comes from a word meaning “circumvent or restrain.” He was even-tempered (peaceful) –he liked the indoors (living in tents) –and he was loved by his mother. That’s quite the opposite of his brawny brother. Yet God told Rebekah that the day was coming when Jacob’s family would catch up to –and overtake– Esau’s (Genesis 25:23).

The Allegory: Rebekah’s children personify two mighty forces. Esau represents our human spirit with its rebellious, worldly ways –ruling over us since our birth. (Its natural desire is to be its own god –judge over good and evil.) Jacob represents the Holy Spirit who wants to establish a new order –at peace with God –reigning from within us (within our tents). The struggle that began in her womb symbolizes the epic battle for our destiny. If our flesh remains in control, then it will maintain its course toward our death –an eternal separation from God. When the Holy Spirit takes over, He gives us new eternal life and leads us in harmony with God forever more.

The Lineage Established

Let’s look at Esau and Jacob’s backgrounds to see how they fit into the overall story of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Abraham to Isaac (not Ishmael)

God loved Abraham and made a set of promises to him. He would be father of a great nation; all nations would be blessed through him; and he would be the owner of a great land –the Promised Land (Genesis 17:1-8). Abraham was told that he wouldn’t actually see all this happen in his lifetime. Rather, it would be realized through his heirs. Normally, that would have been the first-born sons in his line. However, his first-born son, Ishmael, wasn’t worthy of such honor –he was merely the son of the slave-woman Hagar. So instead, the promises were passed on to his second son (Sarah’s first) Isaac.

The Allegory: God the Father (like Abraham) gave life to Adam (like Ishmael). In Luke 3:23-38, Adam is referred to as the son of God –allegorically making him God’s first son. When sin and death entered the world through Eve (by commandeering God’s role of Judge over good and evil), mankind became a slave to the ways of this physical world (steeped in laws demanding judgment). They no longer had access to eternal life so they couldn’t pass it on to their offspring. It was through Jesus (referred to as “the last Adam” –and allegorically, His second son) who became the heir of that life.

Isaac to Jacob (not Esau)

As the end of his life neared, Isaac was making his last will and testament known. He was going to announce the next head of the family –and heir to God’s promises. Isaac didn’t get to see the results of the promises in his lifetime either. They would have been passed on to his first-born son –Esau. But once again, the normal order of inheritance was circumvented. (I intentionally use the word “circumvented” because it’s in the meaning of Jacob’s name.)

The tradition for causing a will to go into effect requires bloodshed. It’s symbolized with Isaac asking Esau to make some of his favorite red stew. The color of the stew is vital to the story –its redness came from the blood of the one that was killed.

While Esau was away hunting for game to make the stew, Rebekah planned a coup for Jacob to become the heir. She helped him put on Esau’s best clothes and she used hairy animal skin to cover his exposed skin. She had him kill some penned up animals and bring in the meat for her to prepare red stew. The plan worked –Jacob’s covering was convincing. Though one detail couldn’t be avoided –Jacob’s voice was suspiciously different from Esau’s.

The account says that when Esau returned He was famished and God’s promises meant little in comparison to satisfying his hunger for Jacob’s red stew. But the transfer of inheritance didn’t actually take effect until three events took place. First, Esau ate the bowl of red stew that his brother prepared (Genesis 25:29-34). Second, Isaac also wanted some of that red stew but would only eat it when he was satisfied that the right one was there to receive the blessing (Genesis 27:1-29). And third, Isaac died (Genesis 35:22-29).

The Allegory: The bowl of red stew corresponds to Jesus’ body covered in His blood. I stated earlier that Esau represents our flesh. The best that it can achieve is an outward appearance of godliness –and that is through a life of endless religious works. It can never actually reach the goal of eternal life. The flesh is exemplified by the Jewish leadership –particularly in its hunger for His death.

From the time of His baptism, the Holy Spirit dwelled within Jesus’ body –uncorrupted by the seed of man, but made perfect through God’s seed in Mary. This correlates to Jacob dressed in Esau’s best clothes. When Jesus spoke He didn’t sound like the teachers of the Law (the flesh, Esau) –instead it was with power and authority (Luke 4:31-36).

By the way, the penned up animals that Jacob killed is a parallel to the Passover lambs that were put on display in pens for three days to prove to the community that they were without blemish. In turn, the display of the lambs foreshadows Jesus coming into the city three days before being tried by the Sanhedrin. The day after that trial the Jews abandoned their heritage in favor of His death on the cross.

Jesus knew and accepted that His death was required –“He sweated like drops of blood” in anticipation. Hebrews 2:9 tells us that He had to suffer and “taste death for everyone” (partake of His own death). He said that the Holy Spirit wouldn’t come unless He died (John 14:16-17). Jesus wouldn’t be the One to be here and directly pass on eternal life. Instead, that role is carried out by the Holy Spirit. Those who are born of the Spirit have that life (John 3:1-7; John 6:62-64; Romans 8:10-11).

Sarah and Rebekah

So far, we’ve looked mainly at the men and what they represent in this story. Abraham is God the Father, Isaac is Jesus the Son, Jacob is the Holy Spirit and Esau is the flesh. But what about Sarah and Rebekah –what relationships do they represent?

The Allegory: Isaac became Abraham’s heir (of God’s promises) through Sarah. We saw in Galatians 4:21-31 that Sarah represented the New Covenant –and Isaac was the son of the Promise. That was a foreshadow of Jesus coming as the Son of God to complete the Old Covenant and begin the New. Then Jacob became Isaac’s heir through Rebekah’s love for him. That too, was a foreshadow –of the Holy Spirit who taking over the ministry. Rebekah represents God’s love which is described throughout the Old and New Testaments –none of which is better known than John 3:16-18.