We Should Apologize to Jacob
In the forty years that I’ve been listening to sermons, I have been amazed at the extent that Bible expositors tend to repeat one another. They do it continually, and if they were aware of it they might be embarrassed. Maybe preachers repeat one another so much because they tend to use the same commentaries. If the commentaries happen to be wrong, that, in turn, can lead to the perpetuation of certain errors. A good example of such erroneous thinking is the way that some have maligned my ancestor Jacob, and others have followed suit without investigating the subject for themselves.
This matter of Jacob’s character is important to us Jewish believers in Jesus. It is more than the mere need to vindicate the honor of our ancestor. My Jewish people have been harried, harassed, driven from one country to another, rounded up and killed. We have been accused of being schemers, cheaters, supplanters and masters of deceit, and of doing evil to those who would befriend us, Just like their ancestor Jacob.”
I will not answer those unfair, unfounded charges against Jews. I don’t need to do that. Those of you who know Jesus know better than that. On the other hand, neither will I tell you that Jews are more noble than non-Jews. I would not boast about the achievements of my kin.
I do need to emphasize that a great deal of the justification for Jew hatred and persecution of Jews stems from misrepresentation of Scripture. It has been far too easy to bend theology into a typology that accommodates prejudices.
One of the saddest aspects of this kind of hatred of Jews is the way it clouds a person’s understanding of Scripture. It causes one not only to misread the role of the Jewish people, but to misunderstand and malign other Bible characters like Jacob whose nobility of character ought to be a role model.
Some of those who malign Jacob’s character have come to their conclusions because they don’t know much about ancient Jewish customs. They also don’t know much about ancient Jewish birthrights and blessings or about “Jewish mothers.”
If you want to understand Jacob’s true character, you need to understand what his Jewish mother perceived from God before his birth. When Rebekah was pregnant, she experienced more than morning sickness. It was a painful and exhausting pregnancy. According to Genesis 25:22-23, when Rebekah asked the Lord why it was so, He told her that she had two nations within her who were at war with one another, and that the elder would serve the younger. All along, Rebekah realized that God’s design for the life of her twin sons was that the traditional roles for the younger and elder would be reversed.
In simple terms, understand this about birthrights and blessings. The birthright traditionally went to the oldest son, and the blessing was the confirmation of that birthright. If the eldest son were unworthy or unable to succeed the father, the father could designate another son, even an adopted son, to the position of heirship. The heir apparent then had certain duties to perform on behalf of the family.
The birthright was an honor, but it entailed more than that. It was a position with responsibilities. The son who held the birthright received a double portion of the family estate, but he also had to support his mother if she was widowed and had to provide dowries for any unmarried sisters. In the event that the sisters stayed unmarried, they lived in the eldest son’s house, so there was not much financial benefit for him most of the time. Nevertheless, the holder of the birthright and the blessing managed the family estate. The others worked as he assigned them. Inherent in the birthright was the patrimonial nobility to lead and manage the rest of the family, particularly in spiritual matters. In this case Isaac’s heir would become chief of the clan of Abraham.
Those who malign Jacob base their low assessment of his character on their misinterpretation of the episodes described in Genesis 25:27-34 and Genesis chapter 27. In order to understand what happened, one must understand the family situation of Isaac and Rebekah. Years after the twin boys were born, when Esau and Jacob were grown men, Jacob stayed close to home. He tended the fields and managed the household. Overseeing the household should have been Esau’s job as the elder son, but Esau preferred to go out and hunt game rather than stay home and manage the estate. Esau was his father’s favorite because his hunting provided the game Isaac loved. On the other hand, it seems from Genesis 25:29 that Jacob was the family chef. It appears that by his general lifestyle, Esau showed his contempt for the birthright. This is confirmed by the statement found in Genesis 25:34, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.”
Some tend to excuse Esau for giving up his birthright for a bowl of stew on the grounds that he was starving and on the point of exhaustion. But how would a skilled and cunning hunter like Esau return that faint from hunger? Furthermore, what the King James Version of the Bible describes as red stew is described in other translations as a lentil stew. The Hebrews were still living in tents, and tents do not have kitchens. There was a fire pit and a pot outside of each tent. The cooked lentils were probably a staple that was kept simmering in the pot all the time. Jacob didn’t need to prepare the lentils for Esau. They were already cooked. A hunter like Esau would not lack the utensils to help himself to the pot of lentils. On the way into the tent, Esau could have stopped and gotten himself a bowl of that stew.
Why didn’t Esau do that? I suggest that Esau was determined that Jacob was going to serve him that food. Perhaps Esau even knew the prophecy that had been given to his mother Rebekah. Yet he was determined that Jacob, his younger brother by mere moments, was going to serve him, not vice versa. Maybe Jacob reminded Esau of the birthright and who was going to be serving whom, but Esau showed contempt for the birthright, and said, “Go ahead and take it. Just get me the bowl of lentils.”
That would have been alright if it were an act of negotiation. Yet it seems that Esau never told Isaac about the transaction. Then, too, maybe father Isaac never heard from Rebekah what God had said about the elder son serving the younger. In any case, when it came time for the patriarchal blessing, Rebekah, sent in her younger son Jacob with goat meat, and Isaac unknowingly confirmed what God had spoken and what Esau had already yielded.
If we must place blame for an untruth, perhaps blame should be laid equally at Rebekah’s door. She sinned in that, knowing God’s prediction, she tried to ensure that it would happen by taking matters into her own hands. Rebekah’s mother-in-law Sarah made the same mistake when she gave her servant Hagar to Abraham in order to hasten the fulfillment of God’s promise.
The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is full of accounts of flawed people whom God forgave and used despite their flaws. Why, then, should we castigate Jacob any more than all the other Bible characters who lied, cheated, committed adultery and disobeyed God in myriad ways?
As a sinner like all of us, Jacob was forgiven by the only One who has the right to judge. As a member of flawed humanity like the rest of us, Jacob still has much to commend him. Confronted by a fierce Esau, Jacob fled, leaving the birthright estate to his brother while he went out to earn his own fortune. When Isaac and Rebekah were disappointed by the idol-worshiping Canaanite daughters-in-law Esau brought home, Jacob dutifully sought a bride from among his own Hebrew people. When Jacob was deceived by Laban, he accepted Leah as a wife and treated her kindly, though he had contracted for Rachel. When in anger Esau pursued him, Jacob, who had wrestled with the angel of the Lord, did not fight. Though he had an army that could have withstood Esau, Jacob put down all arms and sent gifts of appeasement instead, lest he kill his brother in battle.
Jacob was not a weak, cowering trickster, as some would claim. He was a man who knew how to hold on to God and prevail. Jacob was no greedy “shyster.” He obtained everything he had through hard work. The thing that Jacob wanted most was what Esau valued least—standing, or a covenant relationship with the Almighty God.
I am glad to offer the kind of man that Jacob was as a role model to stand right alongside Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets. (Of course, our best role model is Yeshua Himself, but no other Bible personality can match His sinless perfection.)
The time has come not only to drop the old anti-Semitic calumnies, but also to drop the ill-advised general prejudices some have against the patriarchs, especially Jacob. Remember that God said, “Jacob have I loved.” If you profess to love God, you don’t want to find yourself speaking against a person (or a people) whom God said He loved!