Permission granted for use by the visually impaired audience only on listen.wels.net.
God’s Training Program: from Jacob to Israel
Genesis Chapter 28, verses 1 through 5
So Isaac called for Jacob and blessed him and commanded him: “Do not marry a Canaanite woman. Go at once to Paddan Aram, to the house of your mother’s father Bethuel. Take a wife for yourself there, from among the daughters
of Laban, your mother’s brother. May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. May he give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien, the land God gave to Abraham.” Then Isaac sent Jacob on his way, and he went to Paddan Aram, to Laban son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebekah, who was the mother of Jacob and Esau.
The household of Isaac was in turmoil. Mother and son had teamed up to deceive the aged father, and the older son hated his twin brother enough to kill him. At this point God once again intervened. He overruled the petty plans of people so that his good purpose was served. Look at some particulars.
If Isaac had been bitter at having been betrayed by his own son, we could perhaps have understood. But his words show he humbly accepted the way things had turned out and was reconciled to the son who had deceived him. When he spoke to Jacob, there was no bitterness or criticism in his words.
Rebekah had wanted Jacob to leave Canaan and go to her relatives for a short time, until things at home had settled down. God overruled Rebekah’s plan in favor of his own. Jacob didn’t return home until 20 years later. He left as
Jacob, the “heel-grabber,” the one who was determined to get ahead of the other person, even if that meant taking unfair advantage of him. He returned 20 years later as Israel, “the man who struggled with God and overcame.” How did God produce this change?
Jacob’s flight from Esau
Part of God’s training program for Jacob was to help him, to put down his sinful nature, his inclination to deceive, to seek his own advantage at the expense of others. God let Jacob experience the results of the treachery he had perpetrated on his father. Jacob had to learn the hard way. He, the homebody, had to leave his home. Being forced to run for your life—and with a guilty conscience, at that—is not an easy way to leave one’s childhood home and family. “The way of transgressors is hard,” God has told us (Proverbs Chapter 13, verse 5 King James Version). God had to check those sinful impulses, to help Jacob drown his old sinful nature. If unchecked, they could only hamper his spiritual growth as God’s child and heir of the promise.
But another part of God’s training program for Jacob was to teach him that he could trust God’s promises. Instead of informing Jacob that his dishonesty disqualified him from being the heir of the messianic promises, God let him hear those promises again—first from the lips of his aged father and then directly from the lips of God.
When Isaac had previously announced the promises to Jacob, he did so unwillingly, thinking he was addressing Esau. Now Isaac blessed Jacob of his own volition. He knowingly and willingly granted the full messianic blessing to the son who had not been his choice but God’s. “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob,” the apostle tells us (Hebrews Chapter 11, verse 20).
“May God Almighty . . . give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham!” Jacob’s descendants would grow into a large nation and would take possession of the land in which Jacob now lived as an alien. Through one great descendant, Jacob would actually “become a community of peoples.” In Christ all nations would share in the blessings originally promised to Abraham and now transmitted to Jacob. Surely this promise of God to an undeserving sinner strengthened the new life of faith struggling to survive and grow within the heart of Jacob.
And so Jacob set out on the 500–mile journey to the city of Haran, in the country north of Canaan. Today this land is known as Syria; in Old Testament times it was called Aram, home of the Aramean people and the Aramaic language. As he left, Jacob could hardly have been proud of the fact that through deception he had managed to get the promise he wanted. He was frightened, haunted by the memory of his guilt, but cheered by the promise his father had just repeated to him.
Genesis Chapter 28, verses 6 through 0
Now Esau learned that Isaac had blessed Jacob and had sent him to Paddan Aram to take a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he commanded him, “Do not marry a Canaanite woman,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and mother and had gone to Paddan Aram. Esau then realized how displeasing the Canaanite women were to his father Isaac; so he went to Ishmael and married Mahalath, the sister of Nebaioth and daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, in addition to the wives he already had.
Before continuing the narrative of Jacob’s journey to his relatives in Aram, Moses inserts a note about Esau that once again illustrates his spiritual dullness. Apparently he hadn’t realized how unacceptable his two Canaanite wives were to his parents. Now he learned that Jacob had been sent to his mother’s relatives to find a proper wife. In a belated attempt to win his father’s goodwill, Esau took a third wife, a daughter of Ishmael, from a branch of Abraham’s family that was not only outside the promise but actually hostile to it. Esau’s action helps us to understand better why God did not use Esau in his plan.
Genesis Chapter 28, verses 10 through 15
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the LORD, and he said: “I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Jacob had now been on the road for several days. He had traveled about 70 miles, and as the sun set, he was boneweary and lonely. God had a special treat in store for that young man that night, and the Hebrew text calls attention to it in a striking way. Moses three times uses a word that calls attention to something totally unexpected. (It’s the word sometimes translated behold!). We might paraphrase Moses’ words: “Jacob was dreaming and—a stairway! . . . and angels! . . . and, look, there’s the LORD himself!”
To make sure this lonely traveler did not lose heart, the Savior-God surprised him with a vision of God himself. After putting a stone at his head, Jacob had dropped off to sleep under the open sky. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway reaching from where he was into heaven. On the stairway angels were ascending, carrying Jacob’s needs and requests to God, as well as descending, returning with God’s help and assurance. It is interesting to note that the Lord Jesus once referred to Jacob’s dream, comparing himself to the stairway Jacob saw (John Chapter 1, verse 51). In Jesus Christ, God built a bridge on which he comes to us and on which we can return to him.
The climax of Jacob’s dream came when the Lord himself stood at the head of the heavenly stairway and repeated to Jacob the promises originally given to his grandfather Abraham. The very promises that Jacob had tricked his father into giving him, he now heard from the lips of God. Here was no deception. Jacob was to know where he stood with God. God considered him a child—weak and sinful but reconciled to God! God promised Jacob that his descendants would be numerous, that they would inherit the land, and that through their one great descendant all nations on earth would be blessed. And to the lonely, frightened traveler God added one more promise: “I will not leave you but will bring you back to this land.”
Genesis Chapter 28, verse 16 through 22
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.”
Jacob woke up the next morning with some mixed emotions. He was grateful for what God had told him, but the dominant emotion was a feeling of awe. Although he was a stranger surrounded by heathen, he had been in the presence of God. In this strange place, God had established contact with him, had talked to him, and had blessed him. He named this place Bethel (Hebrew for “the house of God”).
To commemorate the miraculous vision he’d had, Jacob took the stone that had been at his head and set it on end as a sort of monument. He anointed it with oil to set it apart, to mark the precious spot where God had appeared to him. Jacob wanted to return to this place later and build an altar (Chapter 35, verse 7).
God’s unexpected goodness to Jacob at Bethel brought forth one more response: Jacob made a vow. His statement contained an “if” clause (language teachers call this the protasis) and a “then” clause (the apodosis), and it isn’t immediately clear from the text where the division between the two is to be made. It might seem that a translation preferable to that adopted by the New International Version and the King James Version would be to have the “then” clause begin at verse 22. Jacob’s statement would then read like this: “If God will be with me . . . and if the LORD will be my God, then this stone that I have set up will be God’s house.” Regardless of which of the two translations we choose, however, we dare not regard Jacob’s words as bargaining with God (“God, if you do such-and-so for me, then you’ll be my God, otherwise not”). The Savior God had assured Jacob that he was his God and that Jacob was a weak but dearly loved child. How happy we can be that our status before God is a matter determined by God’s undeserved love and is not dependent on our behavior!
Jacob is deceived by Laban
Genesis Chapter 29, verses 1 through 8
Then Jacob continued on his journey and came to the land of the eastern peoples. There he saw a well in the field, with three flocks of sheep lying near it because the flocks were watered from that well. The stone over the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone away from the well’s mouth and water the sheep. Then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well.
Jacob asked the shepherds, “My brothers, where are you from?” “We’re from Haran,” they replied.
He said to them, “Do you know Laban, Nahor’s grandson?” “Yes, we know him,” they answered.
Then Jacob asked them, “Is he well?” “Yes, he is,” they said, “and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep.”
“Look,” he said, “the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to pasture.”
“We can’t,” they replied,“until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep.”
The Bible is silent about the long, lonely miles Jacob traveled to the home of his relatives. If he traveled on foot, the trip probably took him the better part of a month. After his experience at Bethel, though, there was a song in his heart. The Savior-God had miraculously appeared to him and promised to protect and provide for him.
Now his long journey to Haran was about over. “The land of the eastern peoples” here refers to the territory north and east of Damascus, in present-day Syria. Haran had always been special for Jacob. It was the childhood home of his mother, Rebekah. It was the city where his great-grandfather Terah and his grandfather Abraham had lived. And now Haran was to become important to Jacob for another reason. In a way that reminds us of how God had once guided Abraham’s servant to find a wife for Isaac (chapter 24), God now led Jacob to the relatives he was seeking. Even more, he led Jacob to a well where he met the lovely young woman who would be his wife.
Although the sun was still high in the sky, several herdsmen had led their flocks to a well that was capped by a large stone heavy enough to discourage passersby from removing it. Apparently by common consent, the herdsmen of Haran waited before opening the well until all the herds had been assembled. When Jacob inquired about Laban, he was told, “Here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep.”
Genesis Chapter 29, verses 9 through 14
While he was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother, and Laban’s sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep. Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud. He had told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father.
As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. Then Laban said to him, “You are my own flesh and blood.”
As he looked at Rachel, Jacob realized that the speedy success he had enjoyed on his mission was no coincidence. He remembered how a generation earlier at a well in Haran, God had granted Abraham’s servant success on a similar assignment. Single-handedly he removed the stone covering the well and drew water for Rachel’s flocks. After she learned who the kind stranger was, she ran home to tell her parents. Father Laban hurried out to the well to meet his sister’s son and to invite him into his home. “There Jacob told him all these things”—the reason for his coming to Haran and his joy at meeting his lovely cousin.
Genesis Chapter 29, verses 15 through 21
After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month, Laban said to him, “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.”
Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful. Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”
Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.
Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her.”
Up to now Jacob’s mission to Haran had been remarkably trouble-free. God had led him without delay to his destination and had prepared a warm welcome in his uncle’s home. Things would soon change, however. A new session in the Lord’s training school was about to begin for Jacob.
Jacob had been in Haran only a month, but that was long enough for Laban to recognize what an unusually capable herdsman he was, a valuable man to have around. When Laban offered Jacob a job, he seemed to have Jacob’s interest at heart. “Why should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.” What could be more fair?
Throughout all his dealings with Jacob, however, Laban showed himself to be not only greedy but willing to take advantage of another person. Laban had noticed that Jacob’s heart was drawn to the beautiful cousin he had met at the well and shrewdly asked himself this: “Could I perhaps use Jacob’s love for her to my advantage?” When he permitted Jacob to name his wages, Laban recognized that Jacob was bargaining from a point of weakness. The very reason he had come to Haran was to find a wife, and he had found one—Laban’s daughter Rachel. Laban knew, furthermore, that although Jacob was the son of a very wealthy father, he had no money to offer a prospective father-in-law as the bride-price (see the comment on Chapter 24, verse 53), and so he would have to earn it. Jacob was at a distinct disadvantage in these salary negotiations.
At this point Moses provides information the reader will need to know in order to understand what follows. We’re introduced to Leah, Rachel’s older and less attractive sister. In a culture where bright, flashing eyes were considered a mark of beauty in a woman, Leah’s “weak eyes” were a handicap, especially when she was compared to her sister, a young woman of lovely face and figure.
Jacob’s response to Laban’s offer, “Name your wages,” strikes one as extremely generous. In return for the privilege of marrying Rachel, he would offer Laban seven years of his labor as the bride-price. Laban knew Jacob couldn’t afford to set the terms of his employment too low. That could be interpreted either as “I can’t afford any more” or “She isn’t worth more to me.” Jacob would also want to be sure his offer would be one Laban couldn’t refuse. By accepting the bride-price offered, Laban got the benefit of Jacob’s skill in handling cattle for the next seven years.
Genesis Chapter 29, verses 22 through 30
So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant.
When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?”
Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.”
And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. Laban gave his servant girl Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maidservant. Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved
Rachel more than Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years.
Laban, greedy man that he was, wanted another seven years of free labor from his new son-in-law, and he devised a mean way to get it. Jacob, the “heel grabber,” the one who usually managed to get ahead of the other person by fair means or foul, met his match in Laban.
Laban treacherously arranged it so that on the night when Jacob should have received Rachel as his bride, he got Leah instead. This question is inevitable: “How could a man as intelligent as Jacob have let this happen to him?” The answer usually given is that Leah was in on the deception, that she was veiled, and in the fragrant darkness of the wedding night spoke softly so her voice would not be recognized. In addition, Jacob was caught completely off guard; he had no reason to suspect foul play.
The real answer to the question, however, goes deeper. God permitted this unhappiness to enter Jacob’s life. God had been displeased with Jacob when, to make sure he would receive the birthright, he had deceived his own father. God recognized as flaws in Jacob’s character his willingness to compromise his principles for the sake of personal gain, and his reliance on his own cleverness to outwit an adversary and get ahead of him. God, a loving Father,
also knew that these impurities in Jacob’s spiritual makeup could only hinder the great plans he had for this man.
God therefore had to help Jacob learn to despair of his own cleverness. For the next seven years Jacob had plenty of time to remind himself, “You’re really quite clever, aren’t you—clever enough to get yourself married to a woman you didn’t want!” Seven years also offered plenty of opportunity to reflect on the irony of his situation. Leah, at her father’s direction, had deceived Jacob, just as he, at Rebekah’s suggestion, had deceived his father.
As part of Jacob’s training program, God was teaching him that dishonesty and self-trust are repugnant to God. This is not to say that God still held Jacob’s sin against him. As believers we know that our sin has been forgiven, and that God’s forgiveness is complete. Christ’s substitutionary work on our behalf has intercepted God’s judgment, and we know we are at peace with him. Jacob knew that too. But the results of the sin we have committed may remain to plague us, to serve as a necessary reminder that yielding to the promptings of our sinful nature can only frustrate the grace of God. God’s chastisement also reminds us that we need the help God has promised, to put down the evil nature that opposes his good will for us.
The following morning, in response to Jacob’s anguished cry, “What is this you have done to me?” Laban offered a halfhearted explanation that smacks of further deception. If it was unthinkable in Haran for a father to give his younger daughter in marriage before her older sister, why hadn’t Laban mentioned that to Jacob when he first asked to marry Rachel?
We marvel at the patience of Jacob. Was God’s chastening already having an effect? Luther remarked: “I wouldn’t have put up with this. I’d have taken Laban to court and demanded that he be ordered to give me the bride for whom I served him under contract.” Perhaps mindful of how he had taken advantage of his brother and his aged father, Jacob submitted meekly to the dreadful disappointment God had permitted to enter his life. He declined to humiliate Leah by demanding that the marriage be annulled. Instead, as Laban suggested, he spent the bridal week with Leah and then married Rachel. For the rest of his life he had to live in a divided family, the husband of two wives, one of whom he loved more, the other less.
Genesis Chapter 29, verses 31 through 35
When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, “It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now.”
She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.” So she named him Simeon.
Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” So he was named Levi.
She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children.
The Lord compensated Leah for the difficult role she had to play as the less-loved wife by giving her a son, whom she named Reuben. She explained the name as a double wordplay. The two Hebrew words making up the name mean “Look! A son!” Now her husband’s line would be carried on for at least another generation. Leah explained, however, that the Hebrew components of the name sound very much like “He has seen my misery.”
With the Lord’s continued blessing, Leah bore several more children. The names she chose for them hint at the ongoing heartache Leah felt at having to be satisfied with second place in her husband’s heart. She named her second son Simeon (“one who hears”) because “The LORD heard that I am not loved.” The third son’s name, Levi (“attached”), expressed her hope that her marriage could be a true union of two hearts, a hope that was never realized. When she bore her fourth son, she named him Judah (“praise”). This was not just a fond wish. Leah was expressing her determination: “I will praise the LORD!”
Leah’s fourth son is noteworthy for two reasons. It was from his name that the Jewish people got their name. More important, it was through this fourth son that Leah, the less loved wife, became an ancestress of King David and of
Jesus Christ. God used even a shabby case of deception to bring Leah into the Savior’s family line.
Oh, the depth of the riches
of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
(Romans Chapter 11, verse 33)