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.
Are You a Christian?
"Are you a Christian?" Sometimes I ask people that just after meeting them –because I sense a special connection with them. Most of the time, it turns out that they are a brother or sister in Christ. (A few say they aren't; so I assume that my spiritual radar is detecting the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts and it won't be long until they are too.)
By identifying ourselves as Christians, we're claiming a relationship with God that is based on Jesus. But that relationship –at least from our point of view– is clouded by our upbringing –especially by family and church. At one end of the spectrum there are Christians who wholeheartedly believe that Jesus' death paid for their sins, but they must strive to be holy –and continue to ask God for forgiveness. At the other end are those who are certain that all of their sins were washed away at the cross and sin is no longer an issue between them and God. And, of course, both use the Bible to back up their beliefs.
It really doesn't matter where you and I fit in the spectrum, we all still have a deep and lingering question about the state of that relationship. If we use people –like Dad, or a mentor– as a model, then we can be sure that there are conditions for staying in God's good graces. That's just the way people are –conditional. If we say that God's greater than that –that He loves us unconditionally– we internally struggle with where we, as His children, fit into the body of Christ. Either way, we all have concerns that the amount, or maturity, of our faith affects His opinion of us.
The goal of this study is to soundly answer the question "What does God think of me as I am today?" We'll do that by looking at one of the several places in the Bible which explains what God is doing, step-by-step, to complete the work that He began in us.
Relationships Rely On Trust
From the very beginning, God created mankind with a fundamental desire to share life with another. He formed Adam with the need for companionship –and He satisfied that need by providing Eve as his wife (Genesis 2:18). That first couple shows the design for mankind's two most important relationships.
In Ephesians 5:20-33, there is a revealing comparison between the marriage of a man and woman and the marriage of Jesus and His bride. It ends with the implication that mankind's deepest need is for fellowship with God –and that can only be satisfied through marriage to His Son (Ephesians 5:31-32). Whether you're married, or not, is irrelevant. The physical relationship with a spouse is God's way of demonstrating our crucial need for an eternal, spiritual relationship with Jesus.
All of us (presumptuously, I'm including you too) have suffered huge disappointments in relationships –marriage, and even friendships. And each disappointment has left a scar as a reminder to be wary about trusting someone. It's part of our heartache defense system.
When I begin a new friendship, I only talk about superficial things –what I do and like. Then, as we encounter life together –or find that we've had common experiences– I share some of my hopes and dreams –and very gradually reveal tidbits of my past. It takes me a long time to develop trust in someone. It's that way for my friendships –and it was that way for my marriage some forty years ago.
My relationship with God grew in the same way. It was deeply affected by the view of Him I had from Sunday School and what I heard from my parents. He was always referred to as my Heavenly Father –and He was compared to an earthly father– so I imagined Him to be like my dad. Looking back, my dad was really great and we had many fun times; but back then he only seemed concerned about me on the weekends –and of course when my mom told him I'd done something wrong. Logically, God also seemed interested in me on a part-time (Sunday) basis –or when I sinned, which –according to my conscience– was more often than not. I certainly didn't trust my dad with my deepest and dearest thoughts –and likewise, I didn't trust God either.
Growing Trust Takes Time
Usually, Old Testament stories are used in a religious setting to support some moral message. I call it the physical perspective of the story because its intent is to focus my attention on me –on my attitudes and behaviors. However, there's usually another, often-overlooked perspective –a spiritual one that uses the same actual people and historical events to convey a message that focuses on God –to build us up through faith in Him.
It shouldn't be a surprise that messages that focus on me don't make a lasting change in my ability to be better. I've lived with me long enough to know my limitations. No matter how hard I try to improve, I routinely fail. That's the nature of the flesh –or indwelling sin (Romans 7:15-20). However, when I hear a message that focuses on God, the possibilities are limitless.
It's taken me a long time to recognize the changes that God has made –and continues to make– in me. When I was little, I asked Him to keep me safe in loud lightening storms. When I was a young boy, I asked Him to heal my grandmother when she had a heart attack. When I was a teenager, I asked Him to help me find new friends to replace the ones who moved on. When I was a soldier, I asked Him to keep me safe from mortar and rocket attacks –and to provide a girl to love who would also love me. When I was a young man, I asked Him again for that girl –and a family. When I was in college, I asked Him to help me pass classes on subjects that were beyond my comprehension. When money was short, I asked Him to get us through. When love seemed to leave my marriage, I asked Him to bring us back together. When my pregnant wife was sobbing, I asked Him to show us that the baby was still alive and well within her. When my children went through their most rebellious years, I asked Him for strength and bonding in our family. And now I ask Him to help my children to see Him at work in their lives.
Some of those requests were fulfilled when and how I asked. Others have taken longer and been resolved differently. Yet, they all had better outcomes than I could have ever imagined. It takes looking back at them now –years later– to see Him at work in my life and theirs too. At the end of each impossible struggle, I found that I could trust Him a little bit more. He's in the business of growing me closer to Him. Now, my relationship with Him is the most important part of my life. We Christians simply call it faith; but that word has become overused and diluted so I prefer the word trust –for me, it fits better. God –the Father of our Savior Jesus wants me –and everyone else– to know Him better –to grow in the depth of His love –and to find Him totally worthy of trust (Ephesians 3:14-21).
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 work 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.
Like other Bible allegories, the women of Jacob's story characterize our relationships with God. And the women's children describe the results (fruit) of those relationships. This may seem confusing or really far-fetched –but let's look at one of these allegories that has its explanation plainly written in the text of the New Testament.
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 because of its demands. 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 –through the Law and through trusting Him. The passage concludes with a declaration. Not only are we Christians 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 obeying that Law. Those who are guided by the Law can never share in the Promise of eternal life through faith in Jesus. Romans 8:1-3 gives names to the two covenants: the Law of sin and death, and the Law of the Spirit who gives life.
Can everyone see the spiritual perspectives of the Old Testament stories? Only if they're open to the concept that there is more to the stories than some moral message they've heard for years –and they seek what God wants them to see.
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 back 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 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 problem, though, is that it taints Jacob's character –and that's inconsistent with the rest of his story. The fact is, that God so highly regarded Jacob that He later gave him the name Israel. He was the father of the twelve tribes of the 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. By contrast, the Bible tells us that it was Esau who was the lesser son. His descendants –although also a nation, and great in number– only 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). 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 prompt our curiosity 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 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 start 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." Prophetically, 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. His father loved 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. Putting these together gives us a picture of 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 over take– Esau's (Genesis 25:23).
The Allegory: Rebekah's children personify two mighty forces. Esau represents our fallen, sin nature with its rebellious, worldly ways –ruling over us since our birth. 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 sin nature remains in control, then it will lead us to our death –an eternal separation from God. If the Holy Spirit takes over, then He will lead us into eternal life.
The Lineage Established
Let's look at their background to see how this fits into the overall story of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
God loved Abraham and made 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: The Promise of eternal life started with God the Father (like Abraham) giving life to Adam (like Ishmael). In our Lord's genealogy, found in Luke 3:23-38, Adam is referred to as the son of God –allegorically making him God's first son. When sin –not trusting God– entered the world, Adam's punishment was death. Not only did he die and lose the authority to pass on eternal life –his heirs became slaves to sin and its consequential death. God's Son Jesus (allegorically, His second son) then rose again to life and became the source of that life.
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.) When Isaac was about to identify the son who was going to inherit, and pass on God's promises, Jacob took Esau's place of authority.
The Allegory: Jesus came to save –give eternal life to– the lost sheep of Israel. But, as a whole, the Jews –being symbolic of sinful mankind– rejected Him as their Messiah and instead brought about His death. During His physical life on earth, He didn't pass eternal life on to the people –the payment for sin had not been paid yet. So the Holy Spirit took on the role of being the source of life.
The Transfer of Inheritance
The transfer of inheritance –from Esau to Jacob– 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 wanted some red stew –but would only eat it when he was satisfied that the right son had given it to him (Genesis 27:1-29). And third, Isaac died (Genesis 35:22-29).
Esau was tired from being out in the fields. He was famished and God's promises meant little in comparison to satisfying his hunger for Jacob's red stew. I emphasize the color of the stew because it's vital to the story –its redness came from the blood of the animal that was killed.
The Allegory: I stated earlier that Esau represents our fallen, sin nature. 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 sin nature is exemplified by the Jewish leadership of Jesus' time –particularly in its hunger for His blood. That leadership disregarded His obvious relationship to God and thus abandoned the heritage as God's chosen people. The bowl of red stew –like the pail of sacrificial blood that the high priest carried into the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement– was the Law's foreshadowing of Jesus' own blood that He would offer on the cross as payment for sin. (Rejecting Jesus was the first event.)
Later, 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. The tradition for effecting a will required bloodshed so Isaac asked Esau to make some of his favorite red stew. While he was away hunting, Rebekah staged 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 was amiss, and disregarded –Jacob's voice was suspiciously different from Esau's.
The Allegory: God clothed Himself in an ordinary human body to live among us (Philippians 2:5-8). Although Jesus physically appeared to be like every other man, the words He spoke had the power and authority that others only attempted to convey (Luke 4:31-36). His life's work was to explain –and demonstrate– God's plan for salvation while living a sinless life under the Law.
I'm jumping ahead for a moment to show how the allegory corresponds to the original story. His blood –poured out that Passover– would be the only sacrifice for sin that was pleasing to His Father (Hebrews 10:5-10) and His death would consummate the New Covenant (Hebrews 9:15-18).
By the way, the main element of Passover was the killing of a lamb –one that had been penned up and displayed for three days. It prophetically pictured Jesus who came for all to see on the Day of Triumphal Entry. That happened three days before His –the Lamb of God's– crucifixion. (Being our sacrificial substitute was the second event.)
Jacob was declared to be the next heir. But Isaac's duty wasn't finished and he didn't die until after all twelve of Jacob's sons were born.
The Allegory: Jesus announced that God was sending His Spirit to take over the ministry after His death (John 14:16-17). But the Spirit's public entrance –and the transition of roles– didn't occur until the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). That's when He became the One who would give eternal life (John 6:62-64; Romans 8:10-11). Through Jacob's wives, their maidservants, and their children, we're going to see God's own twelve-step program for life-restoration unfold! (The Holy Spirit's public entrance at Pentecost was the third event.)
Sarah and Rebekah
So far, we've looked mainly at the men and what the represent in this story. Abraham is God the Father, Isaac is Jesus the Son, Jacob is the Holy Spirit and Esau is the sinful nature. 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 fulfill the Old and effect the New Covenant. 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.
Continue reading: "The Short Version"
Be Reconciled to God
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Romans 15:7 - NIV)