Skip to content


November 9, 2008

Our Family Tree:  Jacob, Laban, and Victory in Defeat

Genesis 29-31


            Before we continue with our series Our Family Tree, I would like to review the story of Jacob and Esau, the twin sons born to Isaac and Rebekah.  Even before their birth, Rebekah knew that conflict between the two was inevitable.  Jacob, whose name means “the grabber,” was delivered holding the heel of his slightly older brother, the red-headed Esau.  That depiction illustrates what life would be like between those two brothers from that point forward.  We see Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of pottage.  We know about Rebekah and Jacob scheming together to deceive blind old Isaac so that he would give the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau.  Having stolen the birthright and the blessing, Jacob flees from the home.  One reason is because Esau has threatened, sworn, to kill him.  Second, Rebekah desires that he not marry one of the women among the Hittites, as Esau had done.  She wants him to return to her family of origin and marry a woman from among her people in Paddan Aram. 

            We pick up the story in Genesis, Chapter 29.  This chapter is a storyteller’s dream.  Jacob travels to the same well where Abraham had sent his servant Eliezer to find a bride for Isaac.  Jacob asks some surly shepherds at the well if they will move the stone so that he can water his flock, but they refuse.  Then Jacob sees Rachel.  He is struck by her beauty.   It is love at first sight.  To impress her perhaps, he single-handedly moves the stone as she approaches the well.  He waters her flock and then steals a kiss.  When Rachel runs back to her father, Laban, and reports what has happened to her, Laban hurries to the well to greet Jacob.

            Jacob and Laban are two men cut from the same cloth.  Laban, Jacob’s uncle, eventually becomes his father-in-law, twice.  Both men are scoundrels.  Uncle and nephew, father-in-law and son-in-law, have what amounts to a twenty-year contest, an agreement among thieves.  It is a contest of matching wits between people who are both deceivers, both connivers, both excellent con-artists. 

Laban had seen the gleam in Jacob’s eye.  He knew that Jacob was going to ask him for permission to marry his younger daughter, Rachel.  He tells Jacob, “It is not right that you should work for me for nothing.”  Did Jacob ever have that in mind?  Laban adds, “What would you like in return for your work?” Jacob indeed asks for the hand of Rachel.  Laban responds, choosing his words carefully, “You may have my daughter’s hand.” 

            Jacob believes that after seven years of work, he will be able to marry Rachel.  Scripture says that he worked those years as if they were just a few days because he was looking forward to his marriage.  Jacob would find our marriage ceremony traditions very strange.  He would not have understood seeing a couple repeating vows in a Sanctuary on a Saturday afternoon in front of a minister.  Neither would he understand a Baptist reception.  Maybe he would be more familiar with an Episcopalian reception, one where the wine flows, one where a feast is prepared and the reception lasts for a week. 

At the end of the week, the bride, covered with a veil and under cover of darkness, goes into the tent of her groom, Jacob.  The marriage is consummated, and they are married.

            The next morning Jacob wakes up and exclaims, “Honey, that ain’t you!” 

Unknown to Jacob, Laban had taken the veiled Leah, his older daughter, to the tent.  Leah is described as having dim eyes.  I am sorry to inform you that the name Leah is the Hebrew word for cow.  Every woman I know named Leah is beautiful, but not this one in the text.

Jacob protests, “Wait a minute!  I worked seven years for Rachel.” 

Laban answers, “Surely you knew that the older daughter marries first.  Would you also like to marry my youngest daughter?  You can marry her, too, if you work for me seven more years.” 

Jacob agrees, “Hand me the shovel.”  Clearly, he loved Rachel.  He was ready to work seven more years for Rachel, but he did not have to wait that long for the marriage. 

            Laban has a good deal here with Jacob working fourteen years for two wives.  Jacob is a good employee who greatly increases Laban’s wealth for him, wealth in terms of livestock.  Though Jacob did not attend any of the great schools with animal husbandry programs, he knows a lot about selective breeding, breeding techniques that are absolutely a mystery to us when we read the biblical account.  We wonder how he devised an idea that works. 

Knowing that his father-in-law/uncle wants him to continue managing the flocks, Jacob proposes, “Let’s make a deal.  You keep all of the animals that are solid-colored.  Give me all the striped, spotted, or speckled animals.” 

Laban agrees and immediately sends one of his sons to move all of the multi-colored animals to a pasture located three days’ journey away so that they could not breed with the solid-colored animals.  Not deterred one bit, Jacob arranged a method of putting wooden rods into the troughs where the flocks watered.  Again I say we do not know how this worked, but the flocks flourished through very skillful inner breeding.  Jacob managed to greatly increase the number of animals that were multicolored – speckled, spotted, and striped.  At the same time, Laban’s animals, which were solid in color, also multiplied.  They, however, were weaker, less healthy, and less productive.

After twenty years, Jacob is a rich man with a large family.  Though Jacob did not love Leah, she was quite fruitful.  She bore him six sons.  Rachel had trouble conceiving, but she did have one child, Joseph, and a son born much later, Benjamin.  His two concubines have two sons each and the ill-fated daughter Diana, whom we read about later in the Scripture.  In addition, Jacob has many servants, herdsmen, and flocks. 

While Laban is away, Jacob leaves with this entourage on a journey for the land of Canaan.  Miffed at Jacob, Laban follows in hot pursuit.  When he catches Jacob, more contests ensue.  We might say they had one final skirmish.  The two make a covenant, generated out of animosity and suspicion, which we call the Covenant of Mizpah.  The words do not convey a message of peace and friendship and goodwill.  Though the covenant says, “The Lord watch between you and me while we are away from each other” it actually has the gist, “God is watching you whether I can see you or not.  You had better not do me wrong.”  Both men agree to this covenant because neither man wants the other to do him wrong. 

            Jacob continues on his journey to the land of Canaan with all of these flocks, wives, concubines, and children.  When he receives word that his brother, Esau, is coming out to meet him with 400 men, he becomes worried.  Esau had sworn to kill him years earlier.  In an attempt to calm his brother, Jacob offers Esau no fewer than 580 animals.  He sends them out in installments, perhaps trying to convince his brother not to be angry. 

Jacob sends his family and flocks across a small river called the River Jabbok.  Then he lies down at night to sleep alone by the river.  We believe that honesty is the best policy; but if you look at Jacob’s life, it looks as if dishonesty might be a pretty good policy, too.  This man had slept on a rock at Bethel and had a divine vision about a ladder from heaven with angels ascending and descending.  God was at the top of the ladder, giving him a blessing.  God had certainly blessed this scoundrel; but now by the River Jabbok, he is fretful, worried, and anxious. 

In the dark of night, out of nowhere, comes an adversary that seizes him.  The grabber is grabbed.  Jacob has no idea of his opponent’s identity.  He does not know whether it is a man or demon.  The Scripture says that it is Malak Yahweh, sometimes translated “angel of the Lord.”  Sometimes Malak Yahweh describes the Lord himself.  Jacob struggles with all of his might.  For a long, long time through the darkness, it seems like this contest is somewhat equal.  At one point, Jacob almost seems to have the upper hand.  “Tell me your name,” he says to his opponent.  The opponent refuses.  Telling an adversary your name is a way of saying, “I surrender.  I give up.”  The opponent refuses to give Jacob his name, and they struggle until dawn. 

When Jacob catches a glimpse of the face of his adversary, he is horrified.  He was not looking into the face of bitterness or into the face of hatred as he had expected.  Instead, he saw the face of love.  Can you imagine somebody loving us so much that they would take us to the mat, pin us to the ground, bring us to defeat? 

The adversary touches Jacob’s hip, knocking it out of joint.  Disabled, Jacob now clings to the adversary like a drowning man clings to somebody trying to save him.  He cries out, “Bless me!” 

When this adversary asks, “What is your name?” the tables have now turned.

In an act of defeat, Jacob replies, “My name is Jacob.” 

His opponent answers, “You are well-named because you have been a deceiver.  You have been a grabber.  From henceforth, your name shall be Israel because you have struggled with God, and you have prevailed.” 

            The next morning, Jacob gets up, walking with a limp.  He names the place Peniel because he says, “I have seen the face of God.”  When he limps out to meet Esau, the two brothers, who have been separated for more than twenty years by hatred, embrace each other, becoming reconciled.  The love of God defeats Jacob.

            We need to consider five applications of this story to our lives.  First, we all get our comeuppance.  God makes it clear that He knows our sin, our weakness.  Sooner or later, He will intervene in our lives and bring us to the point of defeat.  Simon Peter got his comeuppance when a rooster crowed in downtown Jerusalem.  The Apostle Paul encountered a blinding light on the road to Damascus.  Jacob’s comeuppance occurs by the River Jabbok. 

Second, when we wrestle with God and realize that He has defeated us, we must surrender.  The great irony is that surrender is the only way to victory.  You can see it playing out in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus surrenders, “Not my will but Thine be done.”  Calvary looked like total defeat, but we know that Calvary was the way to ultimate victory, victory through resurrection. 

            The third point is that the landscape is littered with broken relationships, with a scourge of bitterness, hatred, and heartache.  We can have no healing in our relationships to other people until first we receive a healing and blessing from God.  You cannot get right with other people until you get right with God.  Jacob and Esau’s embrace only comes after Jacob’s long struggle with this adversary from God by the River Jabbok.

            Fourth, life is hard for all of us, sooner or later.  Life is a long series of struggles for some people.  Some people, like Jacob, have just one defining moment of truth.  No matter how these struggles come, when life is difficult, we must learn to surrender to God and to His power.  Then we can walk, though it may be with a limp because we are wounded and scarred.  Though our eyes are black, our nose is broken, our tooth is chipped, or our jaw is fractured, we will walk away, seeing that even in the struggle, we have been blessed.  Jacob’s name was changed.  Jacob was changed.

            A young pastor was having trouble connecting with his congregation.  He went to an older pastor and said, “I am preaching the best I know how.  I am making visits, trying to be wise at board meetings, but just not connecting with people the way I would desire.”

            The elderly pastor looked at him and with great wisdom said, “Son, you are a good pastor, but you are not going to connect with people until your heart is broken.”

            The truth is that when we experience and surrender to a struggle that breaks our heart and our will and when we surrender, we receive blessings.  Those blessings become a way that we can bless other people.  We carry the wounds, and we carry the scars of the lesson.  As Henri Nouwen put it, the only healer worth his salt is a wounded healer.

            Fifth, Jesus is our model, as always.  The Book of Isaiah says, “He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was on him.  By his stripes, we are healed…He was a man of sorrow, and acquainted with grief… Surely, surely, he will carry our sorrows, and he will carry our grief (Isaiah 53:3-5).

            No matter what life brings, no matter how hard the struggle, the way to victory is by surrendering to the will of God, fully revealed in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Have you made that decision?  Have you surrendered your life to the will of God?  If not, could I extend that invitation to you on behalf of our Christ?  Would you acknowledge Christ as the Lord of your life?  Invite him to come in and bring healing and wholeness to your spirit. 


Kirk H. Neely

© November 2008

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: