Chapter 3 The Choice for Calling: The Life of Jacob
(Note: This is the third installment of a book I’m writing called The Choices God Makes. You can read the first chapters in the previous posts of this blog.)
Is there any more stark example of the choices God makes than the life of Jacob? At the beginning of the Book of Malachi, God is speaking to the nation of Israel and He says:
“I have loved you,” says the LORD. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the LORD says. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” (Malachi 1:2-3)
These words are quoted by the Apostle Paul under the New Covenant in Romans 9:13. As I mentioned in the first chapter, we like to dwell on the winners of the Bible, without fully taking into account the fact that often, in the process of one person winning, inevitably someone else loses. Yet we see in this the silver lining of God’s grace, as Paul continues in Romans 9:22-24:
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath–prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory…
As we will see, there is a redemptive aspect of Jacob’s story for both Jacob and Esau, but it was a long road for both of them, and for Jacob it required a complete transformation of his identity. Jacob was so named by his parents, but toward the end of his life he was known by the name Israel, the name God gave him. This name change, and what it has to do with choices, is the focus of this chapter.
Do you like your name? Have you ever wanted to change your name? I like the name Paul because I was named for the Apostle Paul, but I don’t like that it means “small.” Until about a week before our son was born, we were going to name him Michael, but at the last minute we changed it to Carl, more for the way it sounds than what it means (Carl never cared for the fact that his name means “farmer”). Though many times parents will choose a name for a child without knowing what it means, God seems to put a premium on names and their meanings, and it is a major event in the Bible when someone’s name is changed.
It is worthwhile to consider the lives of those people in the Bible who had their names changed by God. The before and after picture of their lives and the change that took place is often very vivid: Abram who became Abraham, Sarai who became Sarah, Jacob who became Israel, Simon who became Peter, Saul who became Paul. One of the greatest promises given in the Book of Revelation is, as a reward for overcoming evil, Jesus would give the churches a new name or write a new name on them. Names are so important to God that at times He steps in and gives the name of a new baby to the parents even before the baby’s birth – names such as John for John the Baptist, and Jesus.
Joyce Meyer has come up with many wonderful one-liners in her books. One of my favorites is, “be careful who you let name you,” speaking specifically about Jacob and the meaning of his name. Genesis 25:24-26 tells us:
When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them.
The name Jacob literally means “one who grasps the heel,” which is a reference to him having hold of the heel of his twin brother Esau when the two of them were born. But the name also has a figurative meaning, referring to somebody who deceives others. Can you imagine having been given a name like this, with all of the baggage associated with it in the Hebrew language? It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, then, that Jacob’s life was dominated by deception and grasping for what belonged to others.
But we need to understand the name “deceiver” as more than just a label or representing more than some character flaw. What it actually represented was, I believe, a generations-old curse, which was finally broken by God when He gave Jacob his new name of Israel. Understood in this way, Jacob and Israel become more than just names, and Jacob’s wrestling match with the angel becomes more than just an oddity of Scripture.
When Jacob met the angel, he was returning to Bethel, which is a key location in the promised land. Bethel means House of God, and the name was given by Jacob because God appeared to him there and promised to bless his descendents in that land. But consider that it was also at Bethel that Abram, Jacob’s grandfather, first pitched his tent in the promised land. It was at Bethel that Abram made the decision to go with Sarai to Egypt because of the famine in Canaan (Gen. 12:8), and therefore it was at Bethel that deception was conceived in Abram’s mind, to lie to the king of Egypt and say that Sarai was Abram’s sister, not his wife, as we read in Genesis 12:10-13:
Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
Deception of any kind is generally conceived out of a desire for self-protection. Abram was trying to keep from being killed; however, most of us are simply trying to keep ourselves from being embarrassed or humiliated. So we just change a few facts – add one in, leave one out. A white lie, we might call it. It’s designed to make us look better, or at least different, from reality. And everything went well for Abram, until God blew the whistle on him by sending diseases into Pharaoh’s house, where Sarai had been taken, and the king kicked Abram and his family out of the country (note especially that this is the first of two times Abram lied about his wife).
Seen in isolation, this story may appear insignificant. But when viewed in light of God’s words about the sins of the fathers being visited on following generations, we understand that Abram’s deception opened a door to heartache and disappointment in his family for generations to come, as is clearly taught in Numbers 14:18: “The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” We can’t help but notice that Isaac, Abram’s son, repeated the sin of his father almost exactly (Genesis 26:1,7). And then came Jacob, the master deceiver.
One of the fruits of the deception tree is mistrust and division. These fruits were in full bloom by the time Jacob came along. Apparently, Isaac and Rebekah each had their favorite among the twins: Isaac chose Esau and Rebekah chose Jacob. Thus, there was not merely sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, but literally the whole house was divided, and they were divided primarily over the issue of birthright and blessing. As a result, this became an obsession for Jacob, and he began looking for any means by which he might obtain these things from Esau, even though Rebekah had been told before the twins were born that the older would serve the younger.
Deception is always looking for an opportunity, an open door. Jacob found the open door to Esau’s birthright through Esau’s physical hunger (Genesis 25), and the chance at Esau’s blessing came through Isaac’s physical blindness (with Rebekah’s assistance, Genesis 27). But both of these physical doors had spiritual parallels: Esau’s hunger caused him to despise his birthright (Genesis 25:34), and Isaac’s physical blindness caused him to be spiritually short-sighted, forgetting (or choosing not to remember) that God had said the older would serve the younger (Genesis 25:23). Essentially, everyone was doing what was right in his own eyes, another fruit of deception. Rebekah became a manipulative shrew (Genesis 27:41-28:2), Esau went into full rebellion (Genesis 28:6-9), and Jacob would himself become a victim of deception at the hands of his father-in-law Laban, when he was forced to marry a woman he did not love (Genesis 29). The family of promise was being ripped apart and was in great danger of collapse.
Eventually, Jacob ran from Laban, even as he was already running from Esau. When it looked like Esau would catch up with and kill Jacob, Jacob finally turned to God and repented, calling himself “unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness” God had shown him, and asking God to save him (Genesis 32:10-11).
I believe that what Jacob accomplished with this act of repentance is similar to the words spoken by the prophet in Isaiah 52:1-2 many centuries after Jacob died:
Awake, awake, O Zion,
clothe yourself with strength.
Put on your garments of splendor,
O Jerusalem, the holy city.
The uncircumcised and defiled
will not enter you again.
Shake off your dust;
rise up, sit enthroned, O Jerusalem.
Free yourself from the chains on your neck,
O captive Daughter of Zion.
In the case of Jacob, the chains he wore were the curse on his family, and on the way to Bethel he finally understood that he didn’t have to live with those chains any longer. The wrestling match with the angel is still a bit of a mystery, but I think it has something to do with Jacob finally taking responsibility for the condition of his life and his family. This is why Jacob says to the angel that he will not let him go until he is blessed. It was not Jacob grasping for someone else’s blessing, like before; he was choosing what God had for him. For Jacob it was a matter of life and death. Somehow he knew that with the blessing there would also be deliverance, both physical and spiritual, but without it the curse would continue to plague his children and their children as it had plagued him.
The immediate outcome of the wrestling match between Jacob and the angel was a blessing and a new name. But as we study the life of Israel after the wrestling match, we see the fruit that came from breaking the curse: Jacob got rid of all idols and foreign gods in his household (Genesis 35), he reconciled and stood side-by-side with Esau when they buried Isaac (Genesis 35), and ultimately Jacob blessed each of his children with unique and God-inspired blessings before his death (Genesis 49). His “grasping” days were over, and as a result the nation of Israel was blessed. Jacob had chosen to break away from the label that had been placed on him at birth and chose instead the calling God had for his life. The blessing of Joseph’s children recounted for us in Genesis 48:15-16 is especially sweet when we think about Jacob’s name change:
Then he blessed Joseph and said, “May the God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm –may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly upon the earth.”
I asked you earlier if you would change your name if you had the chance. But really, we have many names, not just the name given to us by our parents. There is a song that says:
I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Lonely or afraid
I would say this is an apt description of Jacob when the angel found him. But it is also appropriate for some of us today. These are just some of the names that we acquire as we live our lives. And as Joyce Meyer said, “be careful who you let name you.” These names are obviously not from God. Perhaps some of them are due to decisions we ourselves have made, but some of them are also due to things beyond our control, as with Jacob. No matter the source, God desires to change these names. The song continues:
I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks my face
One time I was asking God in prayer how I could read the Gospels in a new way, to gain some kind of fresh understanding from these books that I had read all my life. And I was reminded of when Jesus said to His disciples that He no longer called them servants but rather friends. I felt like God was saying to me, “Jesus already knows everything about you as His friend. Read the Gospels to find out more about your friend Jesus.” It’s amazing what you can learn from the Gospels when you ask the question, “What is my friend Jesus trying to tell me about Himself?” In this way, I felt like God was changing my name from spiritually “lonely” to “friend of God.” God is our Redeemer – He loves to bring about change in our lives, if we choose to let him. What name of yours would you like God to change? Don’t let go of Him until He blesses you.