The Redemption of Jacob
In my last post, I briefly considered the unlikeable character of Jacob, a scheming deceiver from the womb whose very name reflects his nature (a self-fulfilling prophecy?). How strange that this man, despite the hardships caused by the way of life he has chosen, becomes the father of twelve sons who form the foundation of God’s covenant people.
Jacob even becomes the namesake of this covenant people, but primarily through his new name, not his original one. God’s changing of Jacob’s name to Israel helps us understand the redemption of Jacob, as well as our own.
As we discussed in the previous post, the prophet Jeremiah’s use of a wordplay on the name Jacob to describe the surpassing deceitfulness of the human heart (Jer. 17:9) establishes a connection between Jacob and the rest of us. Most of us do not deceive others on the same scale as Jacob, but the root problem of self-deception resides within each of us.
As we (perhaps reluctantly) consider how Jacob’s walk with God parallels our own, we should notice first God’s pursuit of Jacob. God confirms his general covenant faithfulness, and Jacob’s distinctive role in that covenant, on two significant occasions. The first occurs when God reveals himself to Jacob in a dream as the deceiver/deceived flees from his twice-wronged brother Esau. The second involves Jacob’s unusual wrestling match with a “stranger” on the evening before his fearfully anticipated reunion with his brother.
The first encounter at Bethel perhaps reassures Jacob somewhat, but otherwise does not appear to impact him substantially. Over the course of his struggles during his “exile” with his uncle and father-in-law Laban, however, both Laban and Jacob become increasingly aware of God’s presence with and blessing upon Jacob.
What truly marks the turning point for Jacob, however, is the exhausting and ultimately incapacitating wrestling match. In the end, when Jacob comes to the end of his own strength and realizes he is not up against an ordinary opponent, he can only cling and ask for a blessing from God. It is in this context that Jacob’s new name, Israel (“struggles with God”), makes sense. Only by clinging to God as the source of blessing can one prevail in the inevitable struggles (internal and external) to find one’s true place in the world.
Strikingly, however, Jacob appears to revert to his old ways in short order. After a positive reunion when Esau comes out to meet him, Jacob proposes to take a different route the rest of the way home due to his large family and young children. Although Jacob expresses his intention to meet up with his brother again, due to lingering fear or some other reason, he does not join Esau at the end of his travels.
Jacob’s life, in a sense, is ours “writ large,” but the end of our story remains open. In typically less dramatic and obvious ways, God pursues us with the intent to bless us and, through us, to bless those around us. We might superficially acknowledge God and his good intent. Trusting God to work in this way, however, challenges our insecurities, provoking our tendency to take charge and obtain what we want with little concern for the negative impact on ourselves and others.
At some point, though, we come to the end of ourselves and recognize that we ultimately cannot control God, the world, others, or even ourselves. Yet self-deception allows us to deny these realities if we are determined to do so. Even if we face the truth we inevitably revert to old ways from time to time, especially under stress.
Jacob not only highlights God’s use of the unlikely to accomplish his purposes, but he also illustrates the winding path of redemption. Overcoming the Jacob in us does not happen suddenly, but over the course of time. Thankfully, God’s relationship with Jacob also affirms his covenant faithfulness and patience with us.