Sell me your birthright now,” Jacob demanded of his twin brother, Esau (Gen. 25:31). Thus begins the sorry tale of Abraham’s grandson. From the start, Jacob challenges us to dislike him: a self-willed, pampered child with ruthless skills in getting his own way.
Though the youngest of the twins, the birthright (rights to inherit) should have been Esau’s – a far more attractive personality all round. But God has other ideas, promising to his mother, Rebekah, that the birthright would be given to Jacob (Gen. 25:23). This was a recipe for trouble, designed to show that inheritance in God’s kingdom was a matter of grace from the start. Man’s predisposition to self-justification – a propensity to think that we can earn our way into God’s favor through self-effort and cunning ploy – is thereby challenged displaying by turns Esau’s chagrin and Jacob’s triumphalism.
Jacob grabbed his brother’s heel at the moment of birth (Gen. 25:26), giving rise to his name and character (“Jacob” means “to take by the heel” or “cheat”). Rebekah’s parental folly, favoring one son, Jacob, over the other (Gen. 25:28) furthered the boy’s ego and sense of entitlement, encouraging patterns of deceit and exploitation that dog him to the end. Through this dysfunctional family, God weaves an inextricable story, a providence that will, in the end, yield the promised Savior. God’s ways are not our ways, is the theme throughout (see Isa. 55:8).
Jacob stole his brother’s birthright by guile. Esau was a hunter, Jacob the stay-at-home mother’s boy. Esau was hungry, very hungry, and the offer of soup was more appealing than some nebulous birthright. He wasn’t thinking, and said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” (Gen. 25:32). Something to fill his growling stomach seemed a better offer than something he might never see. In filching the birthright, Esau was tricked and later came to appreciate the fact. And things turned sour. Esau turned against his brother and Jacob had to leave home – in a hurry (Gen. 27:41-45).
To add insult to injury, Jacob (at the behest of his mother’s cunning) stole Esau’s blessing (Gen. 27:1-29). Food was the lure once more. Esau’s father, Isaac, now evidently dying, asked Esau to go hunting and cook some stew. His mother saw her opportunity, cooking her own stew in advance of Esau’s return and disguising Jacob as his twin brother – mock hairy arms to boot. The plot worked brilliantly. Isaac, sight failing him, relied simply on the sense of touch, felt the hairy arms and concluded, despite doubts over the sound of his voice, that it was Esau. He pronounced the blessing in full, not on Esau as he thought but on Jacob (Gen. 27:26-29).
The deed was done and there was no undoing it. Esau returned and was furious with his brother, so much so that Jacob is urged by his mother to leave for safety. It won’t be the first such instance. In tricking his wily uncle Laban, Jacob will find himself fleeing again (Gen. 30:11ff.).
The tale once more highlights a difficult marriage (Isaac and Rebekah were hardly close at this period) and the way God’s grace and providence runs its course. We would not have expected the promise of God to Abraham to be fulfilled in this way. We sympathize with Esau, even though Scripture is careful to point out his godless character (Heb. 12:16). Still, his personality was more attractive than Jacob’s, and most of us, if we were given the choice, would find it easier to live with Esau than his conniving brother.
Jacob is, of course, a work in progress. Through these incidents, his character would be revealed and his need for grace underlined. It was as though God drove him to an end of himself, showing that his cunning could not gain him favor with God. God’s wisdom would in the end cause Jacob to limp (Gen. 32:24-25), demonstrating his need to lean upon the grace of God rather than his own cleverness and acuity.
It is ever thus. God’s ways with us from birth are designed to reduce us to size, causing us to acknowledge that we are nothing and that He is everything. These providences prick the balloon of pride and self-dependence causing us to lean upon God and cry for mercy. It is a tale that will demonstrate that in God’s kingdom, the principles of growth are reversed: the way to grow in grace and holiness is to grow down in self-esteem. Only when we say with John the Baptist, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30), will we appreciate what grace is all about. Only as we stop thinking of ourselves as persons of great importance, without whose skills and ingenuity God is powerless to achieve his purposes, will we understand what true humility is. For Jacob, there were hard lessons in repentance to learn, lessons that as yet he had not learned.
The Scottish theologian, James Denney, once said that it was impossible to leave the impression both that I am a great preacher and that Jesus Christ is a great Savior. We could say the same of any Christian calling. The lesson is clear enough: the way to fellowship with God is by acknowledging that we are unworthy of it. We can bring nothing to commend ourselves. Nothing! It is a lesson we need to learn and learn well.