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Sticking up for Jacob (6): Esau and returning to Bethel

G Hutchinson, Belfast

Given the material prosperity of Jacob and Esau I doubt whether they could identify with the person (probably a husband!) who was once overheard to say, "If money talks, all it ever says to me is, "Goodbye'"! However, the two brothers clearly placed different emphases on wealth  as indicated in the dialogue recorded in Genesis 33.9-11 and it is extremely doubtful if material prosperity was uppermost in Jacob's mind as he returned home. The salient features of the two chapters (Gen 33,35) emphasise some of the emotional and spiritual aspects of Jacob's life with which the believer can identify. Consider:

Jacob's worry

Apparently one of the most frequently typed words on the internet is that of "Worry", and having just added to the traffic (for the purposes of this article!) I notice that there is a dedicated website entitled, "The worry-fixer"! The believer has, of course, the supreme solution to worry prayer and the Scriptures  but circumstances can often be so overwhelming that we lose perspective. That is why it is beneficial to learn how Bible characters such as Jacob dealt with fear and anxiety in their every-day lives. In Genesis 33, regardless of the privileges afforded to Jacob in the previous chapter, there is little doubt that his stomach had its fair share of butterflies! Despite Peniel, Jacob still had his nemesis - Esau - and his 400 strong contingent to face.

It is therefore interesting to note the chronology of events seeing God one moment (Gen 32.30) and his brother the next (Gen 33.1). The child of God often moves from spiritual highs to lows with remarkable speed. The trio of disciples in Mark 9 certainly experienced this as they moved from the mountain-top (vv.2-13) to the valley (v.18) in a short space of time. Jacob's conduct displays a mixture of bravery as he goes ahead of the camp (Gen 33.3), and favouritism - with Rachel and Joseph occupying the safest ground at the back. Jacob would soon reap a bitter crop from his actions (Gen 37.4). Nonetheless, the brothers' ensuing conversation is remarkable for its amicable nature. Perhaps God had overruled Esau's intentions (why was he bringing 400 men for a family reunion?). Despite the situation, Jacob still displays the spiritual growth developed over the years of his sojourn as he witnesses to Esau about the goodness of God (Gen 33.5,10-11). Our service for God should always commence with those we know best (Mk 5.18-20). Finally, as Jacob traces God's hand in this event (Gen 33.10) he is able to decline Esau's offer of protection (Gen 33.15): to travel with God's host was more than sufficient (Gen 32.2). We see here something of Jacob's contentment in the provisions of God.

Jacob's wealth

It was, I think, John D Rockefeller (an American industrialist and during his lifetime one of the world's richest men) who, in response to a question about how much money is enough, replied by saying, "Just a little bit more"! When it comes to prosperity, there are few individuals in the world who are truly content with their possessions. Judging from the conversation with his brother, Jacob was different and he provides a role model for all believers. Whereas Esau speaks of having enough (Gen 33.9, Hebrew for "much"), Jacob uses a different word to indicate that he has all (Gen 33.11, RV margin). Aside from the wealth gained from his secular activities (Gen 30.43), Jacob had the divine blessing and thereby the assurance that his seed was the chosen line for Messiah. Similarly, the Apostle Paul could say, despite his enforced imprisonment (Phil 1.13), that he had all (Phil 4.18). When we pause and consider the depth, nature and extent of our spiritual blessings (Eph 1.3) we also can join with Jacob and say from a heart of gratitude, "We have everything"!

Jacob's work

Jacob's attitude to manual labour was far from lazy. He took the initiative in erecting houses (Gen 33.17) and in building altars (Gen 33.20). He was also happy to dip his hand into his own pocket and fund the ventures himself (Gen 33.19; in Spurgeon parlance, his labour was not only personal but was also purse-and-all!). These activities were visible to others (Gen 33.19; 35.21), but also testified to his spiritual progress. In Genesis 33.20 Jacob associates the altar with himself whereas in Genesis 35.7,15 he appears to be more absorbed with God for he applies names that are entirely focused upon the Divine. For example, whereas "El-elohe-Israel" means that "God was the God of Israel", "El-bethel" and "Bethel" translate as the "Strong God of the House of God" and "House of God" respectively. Nonetheless, perhaps the key lesson to glean from Jacob's industry is that his efforts provided a legacy for future generations. For instance, his purchase of land in Canaan later became a resting place for Joseph and the Messiah (Josh 24.32; Jn 4.5-6).

Jacob's walk

The period under review gives clear insights into the character of Jacob's walk. We need metaphorically to catch our breath as we follow him from Peniel (Gen 32.31) to Succoth and Shechem (Gen 33.17,18) and then later to Bethel (Gen 35.6) and Bethlehem (vv.16,19). Jacob was the sojourner who lived a busy life with many responsibilities to discharge and little time in which to do them. Given the assembly gatherings, Bible study and prayer, not to mention secular commitments, a quiet and inactive lifestyle is certainly not the norm for the believer!

Aside from the strenuous nature of his walk, Jacob also displays the necessary features of submission, for he is prompt to obey God's command (Gen 35.1,6-7). Samuel's advice to Saul in 1 Samuel 15.22 is as pertinent as ever. For spiritual progress it is always better to obey than to sacrifice. Prior to his departure to Bethel, Jacob removes the false gods from his house (v.2), for he evidently had the desire to walk a sanctified life, free from the world and its baggage. Paul asks the same of believers today (Rom 12.1-2). The pathway is also sorrowful for he witnesses the death of Deborah, his mother's nurse (Gen 35.8; 24.59) and then later his wife, Rachel (Gen 35.19). Isaac's death is also recorded in the chapter (v.29) though his actual decease was probably sometime later when Joseph had been taken captive. Another incident in the chapter that brought sorrow to Jacob is the immoral nature of his firstborn, Reuben (Gen 35.22); a factor that does not go unnoticed by his father (Gen 49.1-2). However, irrespective of the difficulties the patriarch was strengthened by the regular and gracious appearances of God (Gen 35.1, 10, & 13).

Jacob's witness

As Jacob made his journey from Shechem to Bethel he was privileged to experience God's protecting hand (Gen 35.5). At this juncture of his pilgrimage, the adversaries from the surrounding cities were clearly intent on inflicting injury on him. However, they were powerless to do so for God overruled to protect His servant. The circumstances clearly emanate from the previous chapter, when, in response to the violation of Dinah, her brothers Simeon and Levi had intervened and killed the perpetrators (Gen 34.26). Uppermost in Jacob's mind was his testimony before others so he was quick to reprimand his sons (34.30). It is therefore important to draw out a key lesson, namely that if we honour God, in Jacob's case by witnessing before others, then He will honour us (1 Sam 2.30).

Jacob's worship

At Bethel God appeared to Jacob, just as He did during the incident with the ladder in Genesis 28. The grace of God was once more on display as the passage stresses that the revelation was "again" (Gen 35.9). Evidently this was to reassure Jacob that not only was he to live in light of his new name, Israel, but that his seed would be the channel for divine blessings, and kings (via Judah) would come from him (v.11). In response to such a gracious reaffirmation, Jacob establishes a pillar and offers a drink offering as a signal of his consecration to God (v.14). Ingratitude is a primary feature of the unsaved (Rom 1.21) but the believer has every reason to display a heart of devotion. Aside from the day-to-day assurances of God's goodness we have Calvary to meditate upon and the desire of God for His children to engage in worship (Jn 4.23).

Jacob's wife

Though Rachel's desire in Genesis 30.24 is fulfilled in the birth of another son (Gen 35.17-19) it sadly results in her death. However, out of the bleak circumstances there shines a ray of sunshine because God's Son is anticipated in the birth of Benjamin. The pillar commemorates the occasion (35.20), but Rachel's second son anticipates Messiah, the Man of sorrows (Is 53.3) but now at God's right hand (Ps 110.1).

To be continued.


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