Kept by The Power Of God
2 ‑ Jacob, father of the family
As Jacob trudged the two to three hundred miles from Bethel to Haran he must have had plenty of time to ponder what he was leaving behind in Canaan and wonder about the place to which he was going. His route would probably be through Damascus and Tadmor and he may have thought of grandfather Abraham on the road to Canaan as directed by God; and also Eliezer, the servant who had taken his mother to his father's home. He must also have met other travellers going to and fro on this ancient trade route. Beyond anything else that Jacob thought about as he travelled to Haran was the experience he had at Bethel during that last night in Canaan.
The Bible tells us nothing of the journey but only of Jacob's arrival at the well at Haran. Wells were meeting places and what stories this one could tell if it could speak. At Haran well, it was 'love at first sight' between Jacob and Rachel. Soon he was sitting in the ancestral homestead of Laban telling all the news about his mother and her family. Jacob's holiday month developed into years of work; his new home became his place of employment. Laban quickly noticed that his nephew was a skilled shepherd with a talent in breeding. Jacob was happy to work for the girl he so loved and time just fled by during what seems to us a protracted courtship. By our standards Laban was not a very ethical person but Jacob must have learned much about discipline from him. At last the cousins were able to marry but Laban played a very dirty trick on Jacob and the young man found himself wedded to the cousin he was not so fond of. Laban tried to smooth the matter over, promising that he would shortly arrange another wedding. This time Jacob did get the girl he loved but Rachel like Rebecca and Sarah before her, found producing a baby very difficult. As with the previous generations, Rachel was a very near relative of her husband and had very similar genetic make up. But Leah apparently was not and readily produced a family. The record in Genesis bears the mark of truth according to what is now known of Hurrian culture of that time. Laban's trick once more brought bigamy into the family which broke God's Law yet it was an example of honest reporting.. Breaking the rule was costly in the tranquillity of home life, and battles raged as wives competed for Jacob's affection. Did he get more peace and quiet among his flock at 'lambing' time than he did among domestic conflicts. The children would soon have noticed that there was favouritism in the camp as there had been at Beersheba. But in spite of Jacob's attitude towards his two wives and their offspring, it was from Leah's children that the dominantly spiritual tribes sprang. Sadly, Leah's naming of her children reflected the conflicts and tension in the home says Kidner (1) and the grace of God is shown in the use of this unpromising material among Jacob's children.
The bargaining between uncle and nephew continued and Jacob grew rich and restless. God was with him still and indicated in a dream that the time had come for him to return to Canaan. Jacob, Leah and Rachel had a family conference, the vote was unanimous and they began to pack up their possession. Judging from the description of their entry into Canaan some time later, Jacob and family were very rich and owned a lot of animals. And so the long camel train set out for the Land of the Promise without taking leave of the great man of Haran, Laban, son of Nahor, son of Terah. Sometime later when sheep sheering was finished Jacob's disappearance was noticed. It's not very clear what the 'third day' of Genesis 31.15 means but Laban's travelling towards Canaan must have quicker than Jacob's journey with so much livestock. On the other hand Laban had to do the searching. In any event Laban hastened after his daughters and grandchildren but God intervened. He warned Laban to say nothing nasty to his son-in-law. After his unpleasant sharp practice towards Jacob he now expresses sadness that the whole family had been prevented from enjoying a big 'good-bye' party. It was natural that he wanted to say farewell in true eastern style. Laban accused Jacob of stealing his little domestic images. So Jacob gave him freedom to search the baggage and by a little of the family subterfuge the perpetrator of the crime, Rachel, got away with it and Laban did not get his property back. In spite of this poor reflection on the character of the favourite wife she did manage to rear a wonderful son in Joseph. It shows the danger of making comparisons about moral behaviour between then and now.
Laban dropped the quest for the household images and tried to patch up the broken relationship around the family. He and Jacob made a covenant, a solemn agreement, that neither would harm the other, or more positively, that each would promote the other's interests, as was common in those ancient covenants. Laban was trying to play the part of a good grandparent and ensure the safety and well being of his descendants. His remark about Jacob's behaviour when they were "absent one from the other" was more of a threat than a promise. However, after all Laban's aspersions and Jacob's hot-tempered defence, they parted good friends, calling upon God to see that the family honour and inheritance was upheld. With that Laban vanished from the story of the patriarchs.
As Jacob approached the rivers that he had to cross, with his vast retinue, to meet his brother, Jacob met 'an army' of angels. There is no explanation of this event but as Gibson (2) suggests, a study of such meetings with angels shows that they shed light on the way ahead and give courage for the hazards that would be encountered.
Jacob's troubles were not fully behind him. Were they ever? He seems to stumble from one tragedy to another. He appears rather pessimistic but he had much for which to thank his Maker. He would have been happier singing "Count your blessings". His next move was towards his old adversary, brother Esau. He had not yet crossed the River Jordan nor did he until after they had met. Esau lived on the east side of the river. But Jacob was now returning to Canaan, the Land of the Promise and he met an angel. This was God's land ‑ then and now. Only those who recognize this fact can expect to prosper in the land that was to be called by the name that God gave to Jacob. First, Jacob had business to attend to. He arranged his large family and servants, with all their animals to give his favourites the best protection from any attack by Esau. He need not have bothered. Esau was not such a bad fellow as Jacob and others would make out. But by whatever means did Esau know that Jacob was coming home? Bush telegraph must have been good.
When he realised that Esau was approaching with what appeared to be a small army, Jacob prayed to God. It is a remarkable prayer for it is apparent that Jacob was aware of what God had done for him. He knew that God was all powerful and ready to show His faithful love and so he need not fear really. He called upon God to redeem His promise of protection. Yet Jacob hedged his bets and sent a gift to his brother hoping to appease his wrath. Jacob had nursed his fear of his brother all those twenty and more years but Esau had not nursed a grudge. He was glad to see his brother again and was willing to show his goodwill. He too had prospered and didn't really need this wonderful gift. Would he know what to do with the animals if they were given to him?
But before the brothers met, Jacob was to have another encounter with God as he did when he left the land. He sent his whole company across the River Jabbok towards Esau's home in Edom. Then while alone on the northern side of the river, he came face to face with someone who wrestled with him until dawn. Taken at face value this is a strange incident. What was the reason or purpose behind such prolonged fighting? Why didn't the 'man' reveal who he was? Who was he that Jacob was able to 'hold his own' in the wrestling? Was this all a symbolical vision or was it real? The fact that Jacob refers to this person as 'God' need cause no particular problem since it was customary in Old Testament times to think of anyone who represented God to be as God to them. In all these incidents it is well to recall the categorical words of Jesus recorded in John 1.18.
W.H.Thomson (3) son of the well known author of the classic 'The Land and the Book', tells of an incident that he witnessed when a desperate childless Arab woman fell at the feet and clung to the ankles of an American physician and refused to relax her grasp until he used his expertise to enable her to bare a child.. Thomson felt that Jacob clung to the angel's ankles in a similar manner of an oriental suppliant. It has been suggested that the literal, physical combat was symbolical of the kind of spiritual battle that occurred in Jacob's life as he tried to discover what was right and wrong. He sought to inherit God's blessing through the covenant. He wanted to marry the beautiful girl her fell in love with. He hoped for peace and prosperity in the Land of the Promise. Such struggles are not unknown in a Christian's life.
Finally there was that change of name which was to have such lasting affects on the whole nation which sprang from his descendants. From Genesis 50.25 the family that descended from Abraham was known by Jacob's new name and were known as the people of Israel or Israelites. Today they are still known as Israelis. Jacob was given the name of Israel because it was said of him that he had "striven with God and with humans and have prevailed." (Genesis 32.28). Jacob was no longer the cheat trying to get the best out of life the cheap and easy way. He had shown, in mortal combat with another, that he had courage and strength. These were qualities that his descendants would need through the centuries that were to follow. God was with him and kept him safe. God provided and gave him shelter. But knowing God was not just enjoying an easy life but developing the qualities of character from the various experiences that God plans and permits. In spite of the occasional moans of self-pity, Jacob's character was developing. Interestingly, Jacob was barely mentioned by Stephen (Acts 7) or among the men of faith in Hebrews 11.
The meeting with his brother, that he had evidently feared so much, proved to be a very amicable and rewarding occasion. The years had mellowed both men and they each had plenty of this world's wealth without jealousy of the other. Esau's genuine forgiveness and conciliation are quite remarkable. It was a pattern that Joseph and Moses were to follow. Jacob's statement that seeing Esau was like 'seeing the face of God' was quite extraordinary. He had seen angels and received Divine messages and assurances. So what was so special about seeing his brother that made him exclaim in this way? Perhaps we should note an Old Testament example of a New Testament rule that we must be reconciled to our brother before presenting our gift in worship (Matt.5.23, 24).
There seems no guile in the older brother's offer of escort, but Jacob was somewhat uncertain and would not follow Esau to Mount Seir. So, with excuses, he turned westward to Succoth ready to cross the River Jordan. They were to meet just once more, at the graveside of their old father.
Jacob had a 'tryst' to keep at Bethel but first the great entourage went across country to Shechem. As it forded the river and moved over the hills towards the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim, it must have looked a wonderful sight with large herds of sheep, goats, camels and donkeys that needed plenty of grassland and fodder. And so they came to Shechem. Whether or not it was God's will to go there we are not told but they did not leave in a blaze of glory. They began to discover the ways of the pagan world and Jacob never forgot the violence of Levi and Simeon. Yet by the well in that place, centuries later, Jesus was to meet with a woman from Samaria. On that day he began to reverse the isolation and privilege of the children of Israel.
At last they turned and moved southward to Bethel. There God had revealed Himself in the wonderful dream of angels moving up and down a stairway. Once again the covenant was renewed, the name of Israel was established in the land that was to be called by that name. Before they could worship, there had to be a cleansing of the whole company. They had collected pagan objects and jewellery from sacked pagan towns. The images Rachel had stolen were now worthless. Jacob built an altar to the Lord and was assured that the promises to his fathers were renewed to him. Yet the visit was not without its sorrow for Deborah died there. One writer suggests that Rebekah's faithful old nurse had come specifically to tell Jacob that his mother had died. Now she too ends her days within sight of Bethel. A little further on Jacob suffered yet deeper grief when Rachel died in giving birth to Benjamin. Her married life had been marred by the conflict with her sister and Jacob's favouritism toward her. Yet whatever her faults, she had borne and reared Joseph whose life brought salvation to so many.
Finally, Jacob arrived home in time to see his father and witness his departure. Esau shared his brother's bereavement. His genealogy possibly indicates that there will be no further record of him. From now the story is about Jacob as the patriarch of the family, ruler of a huge group of people, with peaks and troughs in his fortunes and spiritual development. He had travelled far since he said farewell to his parents. Now he truly came into his inheritance bestowed by birthright and blessing. But the personal revelations of God were much more important and made clear that, like his fathers, he had a personal relationship with His Maker. That was worth more than anything else on Earth, and provided the true meaning of 'a covenant'.
'Genesis' p 161 TP
(2) Gibson Genesis St.Andrews Daily Study Bible
(3) W.H.Thomson Life & Times of the Patriarchs