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JacobImmediately after usurping his brother’s birthright, Jacob is sent to find a wife who is not a Canaanite, and Isaac sends him to Paddan-aram to marry one of the daughters of Laban, his uncle. On the way, Jacob has a dream:
And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the LORD stood above it and said, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:11-16).There are two aspects to this dream. The first is the reaffirming of the covenant that God made with Isaac and Abraham before him. Jacob’s descendants will be “like the dust of the earth.” Additionally, the promise reaffirms “in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” The second aspect of the dream is that God grants the land itself to Jacob and for his children. Both of these are the same promise God gave to Abraham.
Now if there was any doubt that Jacob was the one chosen by God, just as Isaac had been before him, that doubt is no longer tenable. God’s restatement of the covenant promises confirms that Jacob is His choice.
God’s promise about descendents begins to take effect soon. When Jacob meets with his uncle Laban, he sees Laban’s daughter Rachel and is smitten. Laban turns out to be even more of a schemer than Jacob is, and gets Jacob to promise to work for seven years to marry Rachel.
At the end of the seven years, Jacob gets ready to marry Rachel, but Laban has a trick up his sleeve. It turns out that Rachel had an older sister, Leah. We read:
Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her. (Laban gave his female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.) And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.) So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years (Genesis 29:21-30).Laban’s trickery echoes the trickery that Jacob had done to secure the birthright from Esau along with his father’s blessing. Now instead of working seven years for his wife, he must work fourteen. But it should be pointed out that despite the trickery, God still expected Jacob to treat Leah honorably too. In fact, because Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah, there is an immediate reaction from God: “When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” (verse 31). With each son, she hoped to gain the affection of her husband; and each time was a disappointment. Only when she bore her fourth son did she finally say, “This time I will praise the LORD” (verse 35) instead of being concerned with Jacob’s opinion.
Thus, it worked to bring Leah closer to God. In the process, it sparked something else in Rachel. Jealousy: “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’” (Genesis 30:1). Jacob’s response was one of anger, and he pointed out that it was God who had closed her womb (verse 2).
We know from earlier that God had indeed closed Rachel’s womb while opening Leah’s, but it is interesting to note that Jacob appears oblivious to why He did so. My impression is that Jacob was not responding due to any special insight or revelation that God had given, but instead was speaking of the common knowledge that God is sovereign over birth. In other words, it’s similar to the way that we might speak of the weather today (“Am I God that I should make it rain or shine today?”).
Rachel is not content with submitting to God being in charge over her ability to conceive, so she decides to take matters into her own hands in a way very reminiscent of Sarah with Hagar. Rachel gives her servant Bilhah to Jacob. Bilhah then gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. At this point, Leah takes her servant Zilpah and gives her to Jacob as a wife, so despite the fact that she had previously turned to praise the Lord with her children, she is now engaged in an arms race with Rachel over who could bring forth the most heirs. The result is that through Zilpah two sons are born to Jacob: Gad and Asher.
So let’s step back for a moment and take stock. Leah had given Jacob four sons, and Bilhah and Zilpah both had two each. Rachel was still barren in a house with eight boys. Yet it is still clear that Jacob still loved Rachel and not Leah, because we read that one day Rachel asked for some mandrakes that Reuben had picked, and Leah complained: “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” (verse 15). Rachel then offered to give Leah sexual favors with Jacob in exchange for the mandrakes.
Incidentally, at the time mandrakes were considered to be an aphrodisiac that could help a woman become pregnant. As a result, it is probable that Rachel was trying to get the mandrakes so she could become pregnant. If so, this plan backfired as it was Leah who conceived. She bore Issachar followed by her sixth son Zebulon. Additionally, she also had a daughter named Dinah. So now there are ten sons and at least one daughter, and none of them belong to Rachel.
Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the LORD add to me another son!” (Genesis 30:22-25).Before considering Rachel’s son, it bears looking into the word “remembered” in verse 22. Does the fact that God remembered Rachel imply that He had forgotten her? The surface level reading would give that impression. The Hebrew word used there is transliterated as zakar, which does primarily mean “to remember” as it is translated here. But it also has other shades of meanings, such as “to bring to the forefront of one’s mind” which can happen when one’s focus is shifted from one thing to another. For people who play chess, it’s like when you move a piece after having kept it back while the rest of the game develops—now you “remember” the piece in the sense that you bring it out and use it again, often to deal a surprise checkmate to your opponent who has actually forgotten about the piece.
Most theists agree that God does not literally forget people as He is omniscient, and therefore conclude that the concept of remembering is an anthropomorphic term. It’s used when God is about to act in a situation. From our perspective, we may feel abandoned by God and then suddenly He acts, almost as if He just remembered us. But typically it’s understood that He was waiting for the opportune moment to act.
However, from our hypothetical time traveler who, to this point, only has the book of Job and now Genesis, it is understandable that they could come to the conclusion that God might literally forget someone. We will examine this more in detail when we look at God’s attributes later.
For our purposes right now, the more important aspect is that we see here that God granted Leah children earlier, when Leah was the despised wife. Now, Rachel is the despised wife and God grants her children. This once again reaffirms that God often picks those who are despised and mistreated to act upon.
God’s sovereignty over birth is demonstrated in another way when we continue through the rest of Genesis 30. By this point, Jacob longs to return to his own land, but Laban has grown prosperous off the toil of his son-in-law. Laban strikes a bargain, saying that Jacob can keep every speckled, spotted, or black lamb as his flock when he departs, and then removes every single one of those from his flocks so that the sheep that remained would only have white offspring. This would ensure Jacob would not have the resources to leave.
God turns the tables on Laban though. Jacob takes a branch that he carves streaks in, and sets it before the flocks as they breed. He picks the strongest animals to have the stick set before, and every sheep that bred that way had offspring that were black, striped, or speckled. Consequently, this artificial selection process resulted in Jacob having the best of the flocks and he prospered far more than Laban.
If there was any doubt that it was God who was acting here (not any magical properties from the stick), Jacob tells Rachel and Leah:
“You know that I have served your father with all my strength, yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times. But God did not permit him to harm me. If [Laban] said, ‘The spotted shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore spotted; and if he said, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock bore striped. Thus God has taken away the livestock of your father and given them to me” (Genesis 31:6-9).This flies completely in the face of genetics, and today we have the science to understand recessive and dominant genes to know why it’s impossible for the scenario Jacob describes to occur absent a miracle from God. For us, therefore, it demonstrates all the more that God’s sovereignty over nature is complete. He can even alter the normal genetic process.
But this meant that the situation with Laban was untenable. Because Laban was so deceptive, Jacob and his family leave in secret, taking along all their possessions. And while Jacob doesn’t know it, Rachel also stole her father’s idols. This is all the excuse Laban needs and he gives chase to Jacob finding him in the country of Gilead. And we read: “But God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream by night and said to him, ‘Be careful not to say anything to Jacob, either good or bad’” (Genesis 31:24). Just as He did in drawing boundaries Satan could not cross with Job, God did not permit Laban to harm Jacob.
Laban tells Jacob plainly what God had told him, and asked to search for his household gods. Rachel hid them in a saddle, which she sat upon, and told her father that she could not rise because she was menstruating. As a result, Laban did not find his idols, and in a bit of cultural humor, the false gods were “saved” by what was considered by everyone at the time to be “an unclean woman”. In other words, God was using this event to give insult to the idols.
Jacob continues on his way, but he jumps from the frying pan into the fire. Jacob sent messengers to his brother Esau and discovered that Esau was heading his way with four hundred men. At the time, this constituted a sizeable army. So Jacob sent gifts to Esau and divided his household into two camps. Then, Jacob went to bed for the night:
The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Genesis 32:22-30).We can tell from the implications of the text (i.e., “you have striven with God” and “I have seen God face to face”) that the man whom Jacob wrestled with was God in the form of a man, presumably the same form that visited Abraham before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Since the man was able to dislocate Jacob’s hip with a mere touch, in some sense he could have overpowered Jacob at any time. Instead, he allowed Jacob to wrestle until dawn.
In the ANE, names were very important, especially the names of divine beings. It was believed that if you knew the name of a god, you could call upon that name and the deity would be forced to obey. The fact that God renamed Jacob to Israel, but did not tell Jacob His own name, reveals that God was asserting control over Jacob and not granting any control back. God changed the name of Jacob to Israel because Israel literally means “He strives with God.” Given that this would become the name of the nation that Jacob founds, it is interesting to see that Israel’s very name foreshadows a continued struggle between the descendents of Abraham and God Himself. (In this text, except when directly quoting Scripture, we shall continue to call this man by the name Jacob to avoid some of the confusion of referring to him by the same name as the nation of Israel.)
We can view Jacob’s wrestling with God as a sign of what is to come. God could have touched Jacob’s hip at any moment, but instead wrestled with Him. In a like manner, Israel will continue to wrestle with God, and God will refrain from destroying that country. But when the metaphorical dawn comes, God will “touch the hip” and win the battle.
As Jacob recovered from his all-night struggle with God, his brother Esau arrived with his army of four hundred men. Instead of attacking Jacob, however, Esau embraced his brother and they met on cordial terms, agreeing to settle in different cities so as not to provoke one another. But this would not fare well for Jacob’s family.
First, his daughter Dinah was raped by Shechem (Genesis 34:2). After the assault, Shechem decided he wanted to marry Dinah. Jacob’s sons were furious, but Shechem’s father tried to reconcile the families by saying they should all intermarry. Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi pretend to go along with the plan, but end up killing all the males in town to avenge their sister’s rape. This punishment went far beyond what was usual in the land, in that the innocents were put to death along with the guilty man, Shechem. As a result Jacob was angered by Simeon and Levi’s actions, also fearing the residents in the land would despise him and his family.
The family then moved and along the way Rachel went into labor a second time. She gave birth to a son she named Ben-oni, which meant “son of my sorrow”. Jacob changed Ben-oni’s name to Benjamin (which meant “son of the right hand”). But what should have been a joyous occasion was tempered by the fact that Rachel died immediately after the birth (Genesis 35:19).
The final bit of tragedy that came upon the family is that soon after, the Bible records that Reuben, the firstborn son of Jacob, slept with his father’s concubine, Bilhah. Genesis 35:22 ominously records of the event: “And Israel heard of it.”
Chapter 35 then ends with the death of Isaac, Jacob’s father, and uses that event as a breaking point within the narrative flow. The book now turns its attention from Jacob to his favorite son, Joseph.