If Jacob had played professional baseball, he’d have been the sort to use performance-enhancing drugs. If he were a pop star, the scandal might have been lip-syncing to someone else’s vocals. And if he were a businessman, no one would be surprised to read about charges of tax evasion in the Wall Street Journal. Jacob is a cheater, a schemer, a bender and breaker of the rules. He’s opportunistic, always looking out for number one. And yet, God chooses him to be the namesake and father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
When we first encounter Jacob in the biblical narrative, he’s still in utero—and he’s already scheming to get ahead! He clutches his older brother’s heel, as if trying to keep Esau from being born first and receiving the corresponding privileges. This pattern continues throughout Jacob’s life, whether he’s serving up stew to trade for Esau’s birthright, tricking his father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, or trying to one-up the deceitfulness of his father-in-law, Laban.
It is to this con artist that the Lord reveals Himself. At Bethel, when Jacob dreams of a stairway to heaven, God “was standing there beside him, saying, ‘I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac’” (Genesis 28:13). This prompts Jacob to respond, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it” (v.16).
Years later, God visits Jacob again, this time in the form of a man who wrestles with him until daybreak. In this strange scene, the character of Jacob collides with the goodness of God. While Jacob says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26), the Lord does not overpower Jacob but gives him a loving reminder of this moment, when he came face to face with God (see v.30): He touches Jacob’s hip and leaves him with a life-long limp. With every step, Jacob would know that God is real—He had touched Him, heard His voice, and been blessed by Him. It was enough to turn Jacob, the “heel-grabber,” into Israel, the one who “struggles with God” (v.28).
It’s that struggle that sets Jacob apart. In the same way that he would do anything to get ahead, he would also do anything to receive the blessings of God. (Contrast this attitude to that of Esau, who sells his birthright for a quick meal.) Jacob’s actions and ethics for much of his life do not align with the will of God as later revealed in the law of Moses and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). But Jacob is passionate about God’s favor, and in the center of that passion is faith. God uses that faith to make a nation to bless the whole world. In Jesus, we stand today as recipients of that blessing.
Jacob is no hero. God is the hero of his story, just as He is the hero of every chapter of the Bible. But Jacob is an example of tenacity. As I read the account of Jacob, I have to ask myself, How badly do I want the blessings of God—to know Him and walk with Him daily? There are few questions more important than this one.
Written by John Greco