(This is a sermon on Jacob. I had a flurry of entries on it last month when I was preparing to preach, so some of this or all of it will seem really familiar. I hand wrote the last page of my notes, so this cuts off rather abruptly.)
Names are important to a story. Who are you supposed to sympathize with? Who are you supposed to root for? I remember reading Atlas Shrugged in college and this was done rather obviously. The good guys hero capitalists had names like John Galt and Dagney Taggart. The bad guy socialist bureaucrats had names like Wesley Mouch. It wasn’t too hard to figure who you were supposed to side with.
In a recent TV series, one superhero of Japanese origin was given the clever name, H-i-r-o, in case you had any doubts about whether you were supposed to like him or not. This was not an original name, however. Back in the nineties a popular novel featured as its main character a man by that same name. But here the point was emphasized even more strongly by his last name. Readers were treated to the story of Hiro Protagonist.
The Bible makes a great deal of names. In the story of David and Abigail, Abigail’s foolish husband in named Nabal, which is simply “Fool.” Even though Nabal is not the only one who sins in that story, he is the only one who remains stubbornly set in his error. There is no question that you as the reader are not supposed to approve of him.
But perhaps more importantly, then names of the Patriarchs, Israel’s first forefathers, are given significant. Of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, two have their names changed and one is given a name based on significant events that happen around his birth.
Obviously, from what I have read, you know that it is God’s changing of Jacob’s name to Israel that I want to talk about today.
Jacob gets attacked by a stranger in the dark (in the ancient world there would be a good chance that the dark would be pitch black).
Who could it be?
Laban his father-in-law could have broken his covenant with Jacob and come up from behind him.
Laban manipulated and exploited Jacob for years, impoverishing his own daughters in order to remain in charge of his extended family as a greedy patriarch. Yet when Jacob, at the advice of his wives, fled from him, Laban pursued to make self-righteous accusations.
Maybe he has crept up behind in the dark.
Esau had a grudge against Jacob and was coming with 400 spears to meet him. Did Esau sneak ahead in the dark to personally attack Jacob?
Or what about Isaac? While Isaac had thought he was soon to die when he had blessed his son, he had not accurately predicted the end of his health. He was still alive. As a blind man, what better opportunity to attack Jacob except in the middle of the night. Make no mistake, Isaac had mistreated Jacob his entire life, siding with Esau over against God’s declared will and Esau’s own character.
So who was it?
It was all of them!
Or rather it was God, showing that he was behind all of them. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
God is telling Jacob that all his life his struggles with all his enemies (including his wives who used him to compete with each other and to trade, and his sons later) was all a big wrestling match with God.
This has to be important! God actually names His nation after this truth. Commentators have wondered why Israel’s new name doesn’t seem to stick. Why is he called Jacob time and again later in his story when Abraham, once given his new name, never goes back to being Abram.
I don’t think I have a definitive answer to that question. However, I don’t think the answer is that Jacob was somehow resistant to the new identity that God wanted to give him. It is not that the new name did not take effect. After all, all of God’s people are called “Israelites from this day forth. Not Abrahamites. Not Isaacites. Everytime the nation’s name was used, for the rest of history, the story of Jabob wrestling and being named is invoked.
And besides, Jacob, or literally “heel-grabber,” was given his first name precisely because he struggled with Esau in the womb of his mother and wouldn’t let go of his rival sibling’s heel. The names are different but they mean basically the same thing. In fact, when God says that Jacob has wrestled with man, he is referring to a behavior that began in the womb and at birth.
And again, it was God who was ultimately struggling with Jacob–“you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
These are not words of rebuke. These are not words of admonition. These are words of blessing. Jacob has had to struggle his whole life. He has had to struggle with his older brother. He has had to struggle with his father, who favored his older brother for no good reason and in disobedience to God. He had to struggle with his uncle and father-in-law who ceaselessly abused him. And all of that was God’s plan for Jacob’s own good.
I want to emphasize this to you because so many preachers and teachers eviscerate the lesson of Jacob by making him out to be the bad guy. It can sound pious to say that Jacob is an example of salvation by grace, but in saying that Jacob’s struggles are not an example of living by faith, Christians deprive the Church of a lesson and example that they need more than they want to admit.
J. I Packer wrote an incredible book that remains a classic today called Knowing God. But in it he exemplifies this damaging misreading of Scripture. He claims that Jacob had “all the opportunist instincts and amoral ruthlessness of a go-getting businessman.” He says that he needed God to convert him from unbelief, as he puts it, “instill true religion” into him. He writes, “Jacob must be weaned away from trust in his own cleverness to dependence upon God, and he must be made to abhor the unscrupulous double-dealing which came so naturally to him.”
But when God confronted Jacob, he did not rebuke him for his struggles, but rather blessed him. The simple fact is that Jacob was never held to be in the wrong for struggling with Esau in the womb, and when Isaac sought to go against God’s will and give the birthright to Esau, it was his wife, Rebekah, the boys’ mother, who hatched a plan to prevent Jacob from being robbed of what God had said was his.
The bottom line is that it was God, not Jacob, who chose impossible and tyrannical circumstances for Jacob’s entire life. By standing above Jacob and moralizing about him in the name of salvation by grace, the Church is robbing herself of what the Bible says about living by faith.
Because the fact is that Christians are often not in control, not on top of the world, not in respectable circumstances, not part of the ruling class. They are put in places where they are underdogs, where they are the scum of the world. Where they have to be as wise as serpents. As Paul later writes, “we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor 4.12).
This is what I think happens in the Evangelical Church: we develop an attitude which leads us to expect the Bible to contain no anti-heroes.
We want to forget about the time David spent as an outlaw, leading a bunch of outcasts who owed money.
First Samuel 22:
David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam. And when his brothers and all his father’s house heard it, they went down there to him. And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became captain over them. And there were with him about four hundred men.
We want to forget about the example of Jephthah, Judges 11
Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him.
After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. And they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites.” But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?”
We know these stories are true, but we can easily make ourselves forget them. David and his outlaws looked like a gang. This is because they pretty much were forced to be a gang. The story of Nabal and Abigail in First Samuel 25 shows that David, pressured by the needs of his men, is ready to murder people who don’t pay him tribute as a kind of protection money. Abigail brings gifts to David and his men and prevents him from becoming guilty of shedding blood. And David clearly acknowledges that he would have been in sin to pursue his plan to kill every male in Nabal’s house. But this just shows you that David was living the role of a gang leader so accurately, that he couldn’t sometimes tell what behavior was right.
Likewise, Jephthah did not look respect according to Gilead standards. On the contrary he was both of the wrong side of the tracks and he made his living in a way that was highly questionable. As a mercenary leader, Jephthah attracted people to him that the Bible describes as “worthless fellows.” He too became a gang leader because of how the people of Gilead reacted to him. He was the son of a prostitute after all. How could he remain in polite society?
Yet Jephthah saved Israel, and David became Israel’s king! These men were saviors who could not be recognized by many of their own generation.
And of course, when you think about such heroes in the Bible, you probably think of others as well. Job comes to mind, or at least it should. Job was the ultimate outcast with his whole family taken from him and all his prosperity all in one day. After that, God took away his health.
But even beyond all those examples of antiheroes in the Bible, the obvious one is Jesus. Even though Jesus had a following, and even though he was sometimes acknowledged as a Rabbi, many times he was clearly treated as simply an outcast who attracted other outcasts to himself.
So Jacob fits in a theme. He is a believer put in impossible circumstances, with his own father disliking him. Remember, according to Genesis 27.36, after Jacob followed his mother’s directions and pretended to be Esau in order to get the blessing that Esau was to be given, Esau asked his father for another blessing. He assumed that if Jacob had gotten his greater blessing that he could at least get Jacob’s lesser blessing. But Isaac reveals that he had intended to give Esau not only his own blessing but also Jacob’s. Isaac’s plan was to leave Jacob with nothing. He wasn’t simply going to give Esau the firstborn’s greater portion. He was going to give him everything.
Genesis 27.37: “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?”
Jacob was in truly unbearable circumstances, and they did not get much better when he left home and went to live with Laban.
And yet Jacob had to lean to count it all joy to go through his trials, even as he had to learn wisdom to deal with them. God was wrestling, striving with Jacob. God was like a father getting on the floor and tussling with his boy. He was at work in all Jacob’s struggles to work his perfect ends.
What were those ends. I don’t know that they are ever spelled out in Jacob’s story, but later we get some specific promises about trials.
Consider James 1:
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Romans 5 also:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
And 2 Peter 1:
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
So the point here is that sometimes, God puts Christians in circumstances that are seriously lacking in honor and prestige. Sometimes he does this entirely by factors outside the person’s control. Other times he uses a person’s own mistakes and sins. But either way, what happens is that Christians must deal with circumstances that they detest. Sometimes these are circumstances that open them up to being accused of all kinds of things the way Jacob was accused by Laban, or the way Job was accused by his friends.