STUDY TWENTY-TWO: ISAAC, ESAU AND JACOB
© Rosemary Bardsley 2013
Genesis 23 reports the death and burial of Sarah. 25:1-11 reports the later life and death of Abraham; 25:12-18 briefly traces the history of Ishmael and his descendants. The rest of Genesis [24 and 25:19 to chapter 50 reports the history of Isaac, his sons Esau and Jacob, and Jacob’s sons particularly the history of Joseph. In this study we will look at selected incidents from the lives of Isaac, Esau and Jacob.
A.1 A wife for Isaac - Genesis 24
Genesis 24 reports how the Lord provided a wife for Isaac. But it actually tells us more about Abraham’s godly concern that Isaac gets the right kind of wife and about the faith of Abraham’s servant than it does about Isaac himself.
Task #1: What do these verses tell us about Abraham’s faith?
Task #2: What do these verses teach us about the servant’s faith?
A.2 Repeating his father’s foolishness – Genesis 26
Isaac, moving into the territory of Abimelech the king of the Philistines, gave out the story that Rebekah was his sister, because he was afraid they would kill him if they thought she was his wife. Just as with his father Abraham, this eventually brought a rebuke from Abimelech. However, Isaac was allowed to remain in the area, but over time became so prosperous that Abimelech asked him to move away.
It was at the time of his move into Philistine lands that God confirmed to Isaac the Covenant he had made with Abraham [26:1-5].
A.3 The blessing
As he neared death Isaac was anxious to bless his first-born son, Esau [27:1-4]. Deceived by both Rebekah and Jacob, he blessed Jacob instead. When he learnt what had happened he was deeply distressed [27:30-39] and gave a prophecy [rather than a blessing] to Esau. Having blessed Jacob, albeit accidentally, Isaac remained faithful to that, demonstrating great integrity, and when Jacob was about to leave out of fear of Esau, Isaac called for Jacob, blessed him, and commanded him not to marry a Canaanite wife but to go to his relatives in Paddan Aram [28:1-5].
A.4 Isaac’s faith
In Hebrew’s 11:20 we read that ‘by faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their futures’. Genesis does not tell us much about Isaac’s faith, but we do see a suggestion of its strength when as a boy he accepted Abraham’s word that ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering’ and (apparently) calmly allowed his father to bind him to the altar [Genesis 22:7-9]. Hebrews also links Isaac’s faith with Abraham’s faith, in making his home in the promised land ‘like a stranger in a foreign country’ [Hebrews 11:9]. We also see his faith in (1) his grief that Esau married Canaanite wives [26:34,35], and (2) his instructions to Jacob not to marry a Canaanite woman [28:1,2].
B. ESAU – Genesis 25:19-34; 27:1-28:9.
Task #3: What significant facts to these verses tell us about Esau, son of Isaac:
Two of the above facts have particular significance:
 God’s words to Rebekah – that two nations were within her, and that the older would serve the younger;
 Esau ‘despised his birthright’.
The first of these two facts is quoted by Paul in Romans 9:10-12, in his extended explanation that not all of Abraham’s natural children are ‘God’s children’ or ‘Abraham’s offspring’ [Romans 9:7-8].
The second sets the scene for what was soon to follow in chapter 27. Hebrews 12:16,17 connects these two scenes, commenting: ‘See that no one is … godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears.’ The Greek word used in Hebrews is bebelos, which means ‘profane’, the opposite of sacred or holy.
At the bottom of Esau’s ready exchange of his ‘birthright’ for a pot of lentil stew was, says the writer to the Hebrews, godlessness – he did not acknowledge God, he was not one of God’s people. The ‘birthright’ was the inheritance of the firstborn son. This inheritance, which by right of being the firstborn was Esau’s, included the covenant promises passed from Abraham to Isaac, which Isaac in turn would in the natural course of events, pass onto Esau.
But here we have two factors which indicate that what was the norm will not be happening in this case:
The word of the omnipotent, omniscient God.
The godlessness of Esau, in which he despises the covenant promises and blessings, and sells his right to them.
From this point on Esau’s story is intermingled with Jacob’s, but we will look ahead and identify certain aspects of his story:
Task #4: How are the following aspects of Esau’s character revealed in the verses listed?
Mindset of the flesh [25:32]
Bitterness and regret [27:34,36,38]
When Jacob and Esau met again many years later Esau seems to have put aside his anger:
He ran to meet Jacob and embraced him [33:4]
He at first graciously refused Jacob’s peace-offering [33:9]
Then, when Jacob pressed him, accepted it [33:11]
He made overtures of friendship [33:12,15] but Jacob did not seem completely at ease with him
He joined with Jacob in burying Isaac [35:29]
He moved himself and his flocks and possessions in order to make room for Jacob [36:6-8].
Genesis 36:1-19 gives a detailed genealogy of Esau, and 36:40-43 a list of the ‘chiefs’ descended from Esau, the ‘father of the Edomites’. That is the last we hear of Esau in Genesis, but Deuteronomy 2:2-6, provides us with additional information, and with further evidence of God’s faithfulness to his word to Rebekah and to the prophecy made by Isaac. In the later history of Esau’s descendants the judgement of God came upon them [Jeremiah 49:7-22; Obadiah (all of which is a prophecy against Edom)].
C. JACOB – Genesis 25 - 35
As we have seen in the study on the Covenant the promises of God to Abraham were passed on to Jacob. In some ways Jacob does not present any better than Esau, and we are inclined at first not to like him very much. But despite his weakness and his sin he had something that Esau lacked: he had God.
C.1 The word of God [25:21-24; Romans 9:10-12]
The word of God to Rebekah singled out the younger of the unborn twins as the one through whom the covenant promises and blessings would be passed on. As Romans points out this had nothing to do with what either of these two had done, and everything to do with God’s sovereign choice.
We are not told of any direct connection between God’s word to Rebekah and her subsequent treatment of her two sons, but it is obvious that she favoured Jacob and did all in her power to ensure that he got the blessing.
Task #5: What did Rebekah do in these verses that, on a human level, worked towards getting for Jacob what God had said would happen?
C.3 Jacob – the facts
Jacob is described as ‘a quiet man, staying among the tents’ [25:27]. There was nothing adventurous about him, nothing rugged like his brother. But he, by his and his mother’s conniving, is now precipitated into a great adventure in which his faith in God will be challenged and enriched.
Task #6: Briefly, what are the main historical facts reported about Jacob?
46 & 47
As we read through these events in Jacob’s life they teach us that over and above his and his mother’s choices, and over and above the actions of Esau and Laban, and anyone else whose sin affected Jacob’s life, the sovereign hand of God was upon him, and that sovereign hand overruled, working towards the fulfilment of the covenant promises. In addition, many years earlier God had told Abraham that his descendants would be aliens and slaves in a country not their own [15:12-16]; by the end of the Genesis history that prophecy is being brought to fulfilment.
C.4 Jacob – faith and failures
Like his grandfather Abraham, Jacob displays both faith and foolishness. He is at the one time, both a saint – set apart by God for God, and a sinner. It is in and through this saint/sinner that God is working his purpose out.
C.4.1 He valued the birthright of the firstborn [Genesis 25:29-34]
Although he obviously got the better end of the deal, Jacob’s opportunistic trade with Esau demonstrates that he valued the birthright, something Esau did not. This birthright was far more than just the monetary/possessions aspect of inheritance. It included the covenant promises and blessing. Esau, as we have seen, did not have any personal connection with God – no faith, no perception of the value of the blessing and the promise of God.
C.4.2 In agreeing to Rebekah’s deceitful scheme he plummeted the whole family into suffering, including himself [Genesis 27:1 – 28:5]
Such is the nature of sin that it inevitably creates suffering. This occurred when Abram agreed with Sarai’s offer of her maid, rather than simply trust God to fulfil his promise. Here again we see human beings, Rebekah and Jacob, taking it upon themselves to ensure the fulfilment of God’s word. At one level, it worked: Jacob got the blessing. But the cost of this human endeavour was immense:
The ageing Isaac is deeply disturbed [27:33].
Esau is plummeted first into grief [27:34,38], then into bitterness and murderous revenge [27:41].
Rebekah is forced to send away the son she loves [27:43]. There is no evidence in Genesis that she ever saw him again.
Jacob has to flee away for his own safety, away from his peaceful, quiet life, away from his family, and, he thinks, away from his father’s God [28:1-9,16].
[Contrast this with Abraham’s faith in his later life in which he was willing to offer up Isaac, even though all of God’s promises rested in the survival of Isaac – see Hebrews 11:17-19.]
C.4.3 Jacob’s dream at Bethel [Genesis 28:10-22]
To such an unlikely person as Jacob God repeated the all covenant promises that he had made to Abraham [28:13,14] including the promise of the blessing that would come to all nations through his offspring. God identified himself as the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac. In addition to confirming the covenant promises God also gave to this quiet, stay-at-home man the promise of his continuing presence and protection:
‘I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised’ [28:15].
Jacob’s response reveals that this journey is not just a physical journey but a journey of faith in which his faith is, here on this first night out, stretched way beyond its previous dimensions:
He had not previously understood that God was everywhere, that the God of his father was in fact the God of the whole earth [28:16]
This new understanding of God evoked in him an overwhelming, reverential awe [28:17].
He set up a commemorative stone, which he consecrated with oil [28:18], and renamed the place ‘Bethel’, which means ‘house of God’ [28:19] Many years later when he returned to the area he built an altar there [35:1-7], an action most likely prevented on the earlier occasion by the fact that he was fleeing from Esau.
He made a vow of allegiance to God [dependent on God’s keeping his promises] and also committed to give God a tenth of all that God gave him [28:20-22]. [Note: this is the second mention of ‘tithes’ in the Bible; the first was in Genesis 14:20].
C.4.4 Jacob’s meeting with his relatives and marriage to Leah and Rachel [29:1-30]
These verses reveal some commendable qualities in Jacob: his emotional reaction on meeting his relatives [29:11]; the deep love he had for Rachel [29:20]; the determination and tenacity with which he laboured for first seven years, then another seven [29:18-30]; the relative mildness of his reaction when he learned of Laban’s deception in giving him Leah instead of Rachel [29:25].
C.4.5 Jacob’s sheep and goats [30:25 – 31:16]
Despite Jacob’s unusual breeding management methods both Jacob and his wives acknowledged that it was God who had increased Jacob’s flocks and diminished Laban’s [31:5-9,16,42].
C.4.6 Jacob’s prayer [32:9-12]
Jacob is overcome with fear as he makes preparation to meet Esau [32:7,8,11,20] and his prayer arising from his fear is one of the very few times prayer is mentioned in Genesis. The content of his prayer is instructive:
He acknowledged God as the God of his fathers, Abraham and Isaac – that is, the God of the covenant promises and the God who had revealed himself to him at Bethel when he first fled in fear of Esau;
He reminded God that he had commanded him to return to the land of his fathers, when Laban’s attitude to him changed [31:3] – his prayer is based on and consistent with the word of God;
He acknowledged that he was unworthy of all the kindness God had done to him – that he left home with only a ‘staff’ and now, twenty years later, God has blessed him with family and fortune;
He honestly expressed his fears for both himself and his family – despite the God of the covenant promises, despite the direct command of God to return he is still afraid, and he knows he needs God’s help;
He again acknowledged that God was the God of the covenant promise, and that promise depended on his survival, or at least the survival of his children.
It would seem that this fear, and this vacillation between fear and faith, remained with him all through the night. After he had done what he could in preparation he remained alone at the ford of Jabbok, and there it seems that the struggle continued.
C.4.7 The struggle [32:22-32]
Before we look at this incident, let us recall some previous facts:
 At Bethel, when God revealed himself to Jacob he had promised:
‘I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised’ [28:15].
 When Laban’s attitude changed toward Jacob, God said to him:
‘Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you’ [31:3].
 When he began to prepare to meet Esau ‘the angels of God met him’ [32:1]. We read in Hebrews 1:14 that angels are ‘ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation’. Here, in Jacob’s time of great fear and anxiety ‘the angels of God’ met him. [We are not told whether or not they stayed around; we are told that Jacob was still afraid, especially after the report came back that Esau was coming, accompanied by 400 men [32:6].
Here is Jacob, assured by God several times over that he is with him and will bring him home, and given the visible assurance of the presence of the angels. As we have seen, his prayer is a mixture of faith and fear. And now he is alone by the ford, alone with God and his fears.
The scripture gives us a developing concept of who it is that comes here and wrestles with Jacob:
it is ‘a man’ [32:24ff]
it is ‘the angel’ [Hosea 12:4]
it is God [32:28; Hosea 12:3-5].
Jacob, after this struggle, named the place ‘Peniel’, because, he said, ‘I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared’. This man, this angel, who wrestles with Jacob all night, is God himself. Some commentators debate whether this was real or just a vision. Three things indicate that it is real: the first is his comment that he saw God face to face and survived; the second is the fact that the one with whom he struggled blessed him; the third is the physical evidence in his limp in the morning.
What is the meaning of this struggle? Spurgeon comments:
‘There is a great deal of difference between a man wrestling with me, and my wrestling with him. When I strive with anyone, I want to gain something from him, and when a man wrestles with me, he wants to get something out of me. Therefore, I take it, when the man wrestled with Jacob, he wanted to get his cunning and deceit out of him, and prove what a poor sinful creature he was, but he could not do it. Jacob's craft was so strong, that he could not be overcome; at last, the angel touched his thigh, and showed him his own hollowness. And Jacob turned round and said, "Thou hast taken away my strength, now I will wrestle with thee;" and when his thigh was out of joint, when he fully felt his own weakness, then, and not till then, is he brought to say, "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me." He had had full confidence in his own strength, but God at last humbled him, and when all his boasted power was gone, then it was that Jacob became a prevailing prince.’ [Sermon, January 26th 1859, http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/0239.htm]
Spurgeon’s point is that it was God who wrestled with Jacob until be broke his spirit – until he got him to the point where his self-confidence was shattered. God [‘the man’] was then about to leave [28:26], but Jacob, now fully aware of his need for God, then began to wrestle with God – to not let God go until God gave his blessing.
As such the struggle potentially represents everyone’s journey: that God graciously, and gently, ‘wrestles’ with us to make us aware of our weakness, aware of our utter need to live in dependence on him. If we hang on to our own strength and our own abilities with obstinate doggedness, if we continue to resist him as he speaks to us by his word, then he will bring us to our knees one way or another. As Jacob realised, God could have killed him. But that was not God’s purpose.
C.4.8 The altars [33:18-20; 35:1-15]
Task #7: Read the verses; identify significant facts about Jacob’s faith and God’s faithfulness.
 As soon as Jacob arrived back in Canaan he bought a plot of ground, pitched his tent on it, and built and altar which he named ‘El Elohe Israel’ which means ‘God, the God of Israel’ or ‘mighty is the God of Israel’. Note that he used the name, ‘Israel’, that God gave him at the end of the struggle.
 Some time later God told Jacob to return to Bethel and build an altar there; this was where God had appeared to Jacob on the first night of his flight twenty years earlier. In preparation for this Jacob ordered that all foreign gods held by his household and any others who were with him had to be got rid of. Jacob named the place ‘El Bethel’ – God of Bethel.
 Also at Bethel, God talked with him again: God appeared, blessed him and confirmed the name change from Jacob to Israel, and God confirmed the covenant promises. In response Jacob set up a commemorative stone pillar.
C.4.9 The later years
Jacob came home and was reunited with his father [35:27-29], and continued living there after Isaac’s death [37:1]. Later, Jacob, with God’s reassurance [46:1-4], and his family went down to Egypt to Joseph. From these years we get an insight into Jacob’s knowledge of God:
Task #8: What names, titles or descriptions of God does Jacob use in these verses?
He knows God as ‘God Almighty’ [48:3] – El Shaddai. This is the name that Isaac called God when he blessed Jacob just before he left home [28:3]; it is the name by which God identified himself when reaffirmed his promises to Jacob on his return to Bethel [35:11]; it is the name Jacob used when he fearfully sent Benjamin to Egypt with the brothers [43:14]. In his final blessing to his sons he refers to God as ‘the Almighty’ [49:25].
He describes God as ‘the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day’ [48:15], and in 49:24 again calls him ‘the Shepherd’. These are the first references to God as ‘Shepherd’.
He calls God ‘the Angel who has delivered me from all harm’ [48:16].
He calls God ‘the Rock of Israel’ [49:24]. This is the first time God is called ‘the Rock’.
Also in these later years, when Jacob is telling his sons ‘what will happen to you in the days to come’ he mentions, in his prophecy about Judah that the sceptre will not depart from Judah ‘until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his’ [49:10]. He also said of this future descendant of Judah ‘he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes’ [49:11]. Jacob is here stating that the promised one, through whom the blessing of God comes to the nations, will be in the line of Judah.
Task #9: In what ways is the story of Jacob  an encouragement to you, and  a challenge to you?