“And he said, Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing. And he said, Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?” (Genesis 27:36)
Jacob is often considered to be a great man of faith. But this was not always so. Before his name was changed to Israel, Jacob had been known as a deceiver, a shrewd business man, and a coward.
Jacob’s name means: to trick or use deception. The Bible tells us that Jacob used trickery to acquire his brother Esau’s birthright. Jacob literally bought the right of the firstborn from Esau for a bowl of stew. Later, Jacob disguised himself as Esau in order to trick their father. When Isaac was old and blind, Jacob dressed in Esau’s clothes and some goat skins, so that Isaac would think Jacob was in fact Esau. Thus, Isaac pronounced a blessing on Jacob that was meant for Esau. Through deception, Jacob subverted his brother’s position as firstborn son.
After these events, Esau’s hatred toward his brother was such that Jacob had to flee before being killed. Jacob went to live with his uncle Laban. Laban was a wealthy man with great herds. Jacob agreed to work for Laban as a shepherd, while Laban promised to let Jacob marry one of Laban’s daughters. Jacob later negotiated a deal for some livestock of his own. Jacob ultimately wound up with two of Laban’s daughters as wives, in addition to large herds of livestock. Due to Jacob’s shrewdness, Laban became envious. Again fearing for his life, Jacob fled from his uncle.
Eventually Jacob had to return and face his brother Esau. Jacob’s running had come to an end. However, Jacob’s cowardice caused him to devise a plan that would appease Esau’s anger. Jacob’s plan was to send the herds ahead of everyone else as a target. When Esau did not attack the herds, Jacob sent his wives and children ahead of himself. Left alone, Jacob wrestled with the temptation of again running from his brother. This meant abandoning his family and everything he owned. What would he do?
We also know that Jacob wrestled with the Angel of the Lord that night. As his fears sought to subdue him, Jacob held on to the Lord his God as the One that would bless him. Through this experience, Jacob’s life was changed; and God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. Jacob also came to learn that God had changed Esau’s heart so that the brothers were able to fellowship for probably the first time in their lives.
Jacob’s character study is complex. He had many faults which caused him great troubles. He was conniving and deceptive, yet always fearful of being held accountable for his actions. However, the Lord was with him – and at work in him – through every situation, so that Jacob became a great man of faith.