Jacob, the Deceiver?
Jacob seems to be another casualty in our Sunday School curriculum. Growing up, I was taught that Jacob was full of deceit and trickery. He was the original Bernie Madoff; duping his brother, father, and uncle out of their wealth and riches. Jacob the liar, Jacob the trickster, Jacob the deceiver, His name even means “deceiver,” right? Wrong.
That’s where the confusion starts. Jacob, יַעֲקֹב (Ya`aqob ), is translated as “heel holder” or “supplanter.” The most reason for this name is based fully on the angel’s prophesy that the elder would serve the younger (Gen 25:23). Thus, he was named for the promises of God bestowed upon him, despite being born second. Prophetically, he would supplant his brother’s place as heir in the patriarchal lineage. A point seemingly forgotten by his father in later years.
The Jacob Challenge
I went along with this as a child, but as I grew older something just didn’t seem right. Fortunately, I got my hands on Henry Morris’ The Genesis Record. In this commentary on genesis, Morris offered a simple challenge to the reader: Try and find a single passage where God rebukes Jacob. I studied Jacob’s life intently. Rather than finding any rebuke, I found blessings. Even events that are taught as the lowlights of Jacob’s life, God appears to Jacob immediately afterwards and promises great blessings! Something just wasn’t connecting.
To make Jacob’s life even more intriguing, we have additional information presented to us in other books of the Bible. These references to the life of Jacob suggest something even more amazing than the biographical record in Genesis.
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” (Romans 9:10-13 ESV)
By faith Isaac invoked future blessings on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. (Hebrews 11:20-21 ESV)
Isaiah even refers to Jacob as the corporate principle of God’s compassion towards Israel:
For the LORD will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land, and sojourners will join them and will attach themselves to the house of Jacob. (Isaiah 14:1 ESV)
A quick search in the Bible finds 21 citations of “the God of Jacob.” However, the clincher for me is the proclamation given by what is most likely a pre-incarnation of Christ as Jacob’s wrestling opponent:
Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28 ESV)
When the sum total of God’s words towards Jacob are examined, not one shows displeasure or condemnation of Jacob. That alone should cause a second-guessing of the traditional teachings of Jacob as a “trickster.” Fortunately, we have even more evidence that shows God’s favor on Jacob and Jacob’s obedience as a response.
Jacob: God’s Chosen
Referencing Romans 9:13 and Genesis 25:23, it is clear that God appointed Jacob to the the inheritor of the promised lineage of the Redeemer. Along with other less-than perceived honorable people (Lot, Samson) the context of the passage should cause a person to rethink hasty judgements. The context shows that God’s sovereign plan is for Jacob to inherit the promises, birthright and lineage as a patriarch. The resulting interpretation of the passage should show how God uses events to bring this about, and also to show his sovereign actions as a lesson to us and others.
Morris’ book tracks the life of Jacob and his heart for serving God, as opposed to his brother Esau. Hebrews 12:16 refers to Esau as “sexually immoral and unholy” (personally, I like the KJV use of the word “profane”) as Esau’s personality traits. He thought so little of his birthright (spiritual lineage of the redeemer) that he sold it for a bowl of porridge! Whereas, Jacob is portrayed as the brother who is concerned for the things of God, and was most likely righteously angry at seeing his brothers profaning rejection of God despite being in line to inherit the blessing of the coming redeemer.
Jacob was a plain man,
This phrase describing Jacob is most likely the beginning of many misunderstandings. The word used for “plain” in this verse, תמם tâm (Strong’s #8552) means “complete in character“. The same word is also used to describe Job in Job 22:3. In other places the word is translated as “perfect,”undefiled” and “upright.” Only once it is translated as “plain” and it is in this account! By using the same word as used in comparable OT references, Jacob is “upright and complete in character.”
If this drama were played out today, Jacob would be a business executive in the corner suite. Managing the family business, negotiating contracts and making business deals. Isaac would be the aging patriarch who muddled through the office once in a while, mainly to write checks to Esau’s latest safari expeditions. Isaac would be looking forward to his eldest son’s conquests of rhino’s, elephants, lions and exotic meats. Seem silly?
One cannot ignore the historic and cultural context of this account. Many will apply their western interpretation of manliness and family dynamics. Many a time, I have heard Jacob described as a “mama’s boy” because he “dwelt in tents.” But let’s look at this in a cultural context:
dwelling in tents.
In his day, Isaac was one of the richest men on earth. When he travelled, kings feared for their kingdoms (Genesis 26:12-16). Just by reading the earlier accounts of Abraham, who conquered kingdoms with only he and his servants as an army. God richly blessed these patriarchs with great flocks, herds, and servants as a physical evidence of His choosing them to the world, especially to neighboring kings.
In this culture, which is most closely related to Bedouin culture, the tent is where business took place. There was no office, no telecommuting, no buildings. If you were making a deal, you would host a local ruler or king in your tent, entertain them, and make your negotiations. ‘Dwelling in tents’ meant that you would be about the family business. This would later be evidenced by his work for Laban, who was blessed by Jacob’s service, Genesis 30:27.
Conversely, why would Esau be favored for his hunting? The family owned so many flocks, herds and servants that they were envied by the Philistines, so what need was there of Esau to hunt? Only for the sport, not for the need. Esau cared nothing for the family business, he enjoyed the life of a rich playboy who hunted for sport. Even more, he cared nothing of the promise of mankind’s redeemer, who was promised through the lineage of Isaac, to which he was the heir. Jacob, as an upright and righteous man, would have desired this promise, and be disappointed at his brother’s rejection of responsibility.
The situation of the blessing and Jacob’s deceit of his father is rife with complexity. It is too easy for Jacob to become the scapegoat for the entire situation when there are many more issues to consider. The first issue is Isaac’s choice to bless Esau, in secret! The blessing was a family celebration, an expected event of the patriarchal family. However, Isaac pulls Esau aside to have him hunt some food, bring it to him and he will bless him. Rebecca overhears this, as she listened in on the conversation. I’m sure because she did not trust Isaac’s judgement.
I don’t doubt that Isaac knew the prophesy given to Rebecca. We can’t draw that he didn’t as the text is not explicit either way. The situation of the twins fighting in her womb and an answer from The Lord would have been cause for his knowledge. Also, naming Jacob based on the promise of God’s blessing upon him shows that both parents would have known. I believe that this is ultimately evidenced by Isaac’s desire to bless Esau, without Rebecca and Jacob present.
Rebecca counters Isaac’s deception with one of her own. The text is clear on this point. It is Rebecca’s deception and she binds her son’s obedience to her words. Too easily is Jacob made the centerpiece of deception, when he is actually a part player in this full-out family drama.
Granted, Jacob tells his father a full-out lie that he is Esau, I cannot dispute that clear recounting of that from the text. When I read this passage, what I also see is a son who knows that he is to be the recipient of the spiritual blessings/lineage, and not his brother. He likely justifies his behavior by fulfilling what was prophesied. If Jacob is guilty of anything, it is relying more on the value of the words of his father imparting the blessing, rather than relying on the word of God’s promise to him.
When Isaac realizes he has been deceived, the text states that he “shook (or trembled)” in Genesis 27:33. Most people use the work “trembled” or “shook” to show that Isaac “shook” with anger over Jacob’s deception. However, the Hebrew word for “trembled” is not one of anger, but of fear. חָרֵד charad (Strong’s H2729) is “to be afraid, be startled, be terrified”. What a different meaning this communicates to the reader! Isaac has been caught in his attempted deception! His fear is the fear of the Lord who has used events to serve His stated purpose of choosing Jacob.
Caught and exposed, Isaac blames Jacob for deception, but then unquestioningly moves on to give Esau a blessing. Hebrews 12:15-17 shows us in its warning that Esau despised his birthright so much so that when he wanted a blessing there was none to be granted, as he was rejected. Most commentaries and scholars would not deny that Esau was seeking the physical benefits of the blessing and not the spiritual.
The blessing of Abraham
In evaluating of this part of Jacob’s account, we cannot leave out the final meeting of Jacob and both of his parents in Genesis 28:1-5. This meeting is beautiful in contrast to earlier events. It also shows that Jacob did not make a hasty exit as soon as the deception was complete. In contrast, these events happen only after Rebecca learns of Esau’s grumblings, which could have been days or weeks. Rebecca calls Jacob and informs him of Esau’s plans, most likely knowing that the temperamental Esau would be fine after he calms down.
Afterwards, Isaac calls Jacob to his tent. In this beautiful meeting between father and son, Isaac does not rebuke or reprimand Jacob. Instead, he blesses him again, and this time with “the blessings of Abraham.” Isaac then instructs him to go to Laban and find a wife, building on the wishes of Rebecca, who only instructed him to go to Laban, and only implied finding a wife.
After Jacob leaves, his first night away is marked by a vision of the coming Redeemer, the ladder from Heaven to Earth. This is a confirmation that God has chosen Jacob as the patriarch of the lineage for the coming Messiah. There is no rebuke, only blessing and promise (Genesis 28:13-15).
“I have everything”
While the purpose of this article is not to justify Jacob’s actions, it is to shed light on God’s justification of Jacob. I believe that our culture has unfairly made Jacob a lying deceiver, who gains what he has by deception. By all accounts, Jacob acknowledges that everything he has is from the hand of the Lord.
In one of my favorite passages, when Jacob and Esau meet in Genesis 33, Esau is no longer angry, as he has “enough” in Genesis 33:9. Interestingly, Jacob’s use of the word “enough” in Gen 33:11 is a very different word than what Esau uses. Esau uses the word “רַב rab” meaning: “abundant, numerous, greater.” Jacob uses the word “כֹּל kol” which means: “everything.” While both words translate to “enough,” the meaning is dramatically different, and shows the difference between the two men.
Esau is content with the work of his hands that has produced an abundance. Gen 33:9
Jacob is gracious in his gift to Esau by accounting everything to God’s grace. Gen 33:11
This shows also that Jacob does not rely on “abundant” possessions, as as evidenced by his generous gifts to Esau. Jacob counts the promises of God and God’s grace as “everything.” Ultimately, both men have their heart’s desire met and God is justified.