The Apostle Paul says the experiences of Israel are meant to instruct us (1 Corinthians 10:11). When we look at the life of Jacob, we see there are many lessons associated with the one whose name was also "Israel," whose sons became heads of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. Here are some of the lessons from the life of this patriarch:
Lesson #1 — God's Promise to Bless the Younger
When Rebecca had conceived [twins] … (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. Romans 9:10-13
When the apostle said that God "hated" Esau, the thought is that Esau was less favored by God because of his character and lifestyle. In fact, Esau became became a wealthy man and fathered twelve sons who formed nations. This is the same meaning of how "hate" is described in Luke 14:26, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters…he cannot be my disciple." Jesus did not ask us to hate our parents; that would be contrary to his instructions to "honor father and mother." He means that we are to love them less compared to our love for God.
When pregnant with her twins, Rebekah could feel her sons within her as if they were fighting. She was told by the Lord:
Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. Genesis 25:23
Jacob often suffered because of his own poor choices. In this we see that God does not insulate us from the consequences of our actions. Their father Isaac loved Esau: "Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekah loved Jacob" (Genesis 25:28).
God can select whom He pleases. God selected Jacob to serve His purposes. Yet He did not control Jacob's free-will or his final destiny.
Lesson #2 — Consequences of Doing Wrong
Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said, “What good is the birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright. Genesis 25:29-34 (NIV)
See that no one is … 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. Hebrews 12:16,17 (NIV)
More than 50 years after Esau sold his birthright, Isaac decided it was time to give his sons their paternal blessing. He asked Esau to hunt for some wild game and prepare it in the style he loved. Rebekah overheard the conversation and is believes Isaac will give his best blessing to Esau. She then conspired to deceive Isaac by having Jacob impersonate Esau (Genesis 27). She remembers that God had said, "the elder shall serve the younger" and wants to make sure it happens as God had said. Being now blind, Isaac relied on his other senses. Knowing this, Rebekah dresses Jacob in Esau's clothing, and even places goatskin on Jacob so he would appear hairy like Esau. The ruse was successful, and Jacob received the blessing that Isaac had intended for Esau.
When Esau discovered what had happened, he burst out crying, and pleaded for a blessing from Isaac. He was so angry at Jacob, that he vowed to kill him as soon as his father died. As a result, Rebekah convinced Jacob to flee. What Rebekah did not realize at the time was that Jacob would be gone for 20 years. It is likely she never saw him again. The actions of Rebekah and Jacob were wrong. They should not have deceived Isaac. When God said, "the elder shall serve the younger," they should have allowed God to work out the details. Thinking the "ends justify the means" has led many to inappropriate decisions and conduct. We should always remember, The Lord is in control. He will not bless any misguided efforts to lie, cheat, or steal to get what we believe is rightly ours. There were consequences for Rebekah and Jacob. Among other things, Jacob was later to be deceived by his own relative.
Lesson #3 — We Reap What We Sow
Rebekah had suggested Jacob journey to her own family, some 450 miles away. He met Rachel and immediately fell in love with her. Rachel was his cousin, since her father Laban was Rebekah's brother.
Jacob was penniless and had nothing to give Laban for Rachel. A deal was made that he would serve Laban for seven years to win Rachel (Genesis 29:20).
But Jacob was to experience a similar deception that he had done to Isaac. As he entered his wedding tent, he was met in the dark by Rachel's older sister, Leah. Not knowing that Laban had given Leah rather than Rachel, Jacob spent the night with the wrong sister. In the morning, Laban's deception was revealed. Laban had benefited greatly by Jacob's ability to care for livestock. To retain him, he gave Rachel in exchange for seven more years of service. Jacob then was to serve his uncle for fourteen years and now had two wives. The deception practiced by Jacob was returned to him by Laban.
Jacob loves Rachel deeply and loves Leah much less. Yet, Leah soon bore him four sons. Rachel was jealous and suggested Jacob take her handmaiden, Bilhah, so she too would have sons.
When Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die. Genesis 30:1 12:16,17
Rachel's maidservant produced two sons. Leah then, believing she may be past the age of having children, suggested Jacob also take her maidservant, Zilpah, who soon she produced two more sons. Jacob now had eight sons. Leah then bore two more sons, and finally Rachel had a son they named Joseph. Throughout this time away from home Jacob dealt with a very competitive situation. He had four women competing for his affection. His children from these four women were also competitive with one another. These were among the consequences Jacob endured for his deception of Isaac. Despite all this, Jacob prospered. After experiencing increased animosity from the sons of Laban, Jacob decided to return to his father's house. Jacob was then in his mid-90s with eleven sons and one daughter (Genesis 30:25).
Lesson #4 — Do Your Best, Then Pray
Upon returning home, Jacob was afraid of how Esau would react. When Esau heard of Jacob's return, he came to meet him with 400 men. Jacob feared the worse: that bringing this many men Esau meant to kill him (Genesis 32:6). Jacob divides his family into two groups with the thought that if one is smitten, the other could escape. He then sent 550 animals as a gift to Esau.
The family and flocks were sent ahead, and Jacob was alone. He prayed, claiming the promise God made to bless him and asks to be saved from the hand of his brother, Esau. That night he wrestled with an angel (Genesis 32:24-25).
As the night was ending, Jacob insisted that the angel bless him. The angel proceeded to change his name from Jacob to Israel. The angel touched his thigh and put it out of joint. Day broke and with it came fresh hope. The man whose name was now Israel was forced to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. This angel was sent by God to reassure Jacob that in spite of all the "wrestlings" he had gone through, that God was still with him:
Yea, [Jacob] had power over the angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication unto him: he found him in Bethel, and there he spake with us. Hosea 12:4
Jacob, whose name means, "supplanter" had contended for the birthright. He wrestled his way through life and often he succeeded. But now, as he contended with God—or at least God's representative—his life took a different turn. The name Israel means "God commands." The new name reminded him of his need to depend upon God's direction. His limp was a constant reminder of that.
As it turns out, Esau had come in peace. He was now a prosperous man. The twins were now 98 years old. Esau refused the gifts sent by Jacob, claiming he had enough of everything, but Jacob insisted. Throughout the entire conversation, Jacob employed the language of a servant speaking to his master. Jacob's heart had been humbled over the last twenty years.
Lesson #5 — Be Careful What You Pray For
Jacob was again deceived when his sons produced Joseph's blood-drenched coat and said he must have been killed by wild beasts (Genesis 37:34). This led to the eventual elevation of Joseph who became second only to the Pharaoh in Egypt. After bringing his family to Egypt during a great famine, Jacob arrived as an old man and was presented to the Pharaoh. When Pharaoh asked Jacob how old he was, he answered that he was 130 years old, and then he added:
…Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and [I] have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage. Genesis 47:9
Jacob has achieved everything he ever wanted: he had the birthright, his father's chief blessing, he married the woman he loved, had many children, and was wealthy. Although he got everything he wanted, none of it happened in the way he wanted. To Pharaoh he reflected on a life of more pain than contentment. Everything had been a struggle. He had wrestled with more than an angel.
The lesson for us is that we should be careful about what we ask for. We are not wise enough to ask intelligently for anything other than spiritual gifts.
Be content with such things as ye have. Hebrews 13:4
Some have gained wealth but, in the process, lost the truth of God's plan and the privilege of service. Many sincere Christians have had prayers answered and later wished they had accepted the Lord's wisdom and providences, trusting Him and being content with their lot.
Spiritual Israel's petitions should be for spiritual gifts, including patient endurance and heart contentment.
Jacob lived another seventeen years in Egypt. Just before he died, he gave a special blessing to each of his sons. Joseph anticipated he would do something special for his own sons because he took Ephraim and Manasseh with him (Genesis 48:1). Jacob did bless them and stated they were to be treated as his sons, not his grandsons. They become tribal heads along with Jacob's other sons. When Canaan was late divided, Ephraim and Manasseh were each given an inheritance in the land.
By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff. Hebrews 11:21
That staff was about all he had when he passed over Jordan fleeing from the wrath of his brother. Now, near death, he still has it and so much more. He blesses Joseph's sons in the next chapter.
The Companion Bible translates this verse as follows: "By faith, Jacob, on his death bed, blessed the two sons of Joseph, basing that decision on the height of his (i.e., Joseph's staff)." When his sons gathered for their final blessings, Joseph had the staff of the grand vizier of Egypt, and so Jacob concluded that if God had so blessed Joseph, then he should act in harmony with that blessing by making him the firstborn of his children.
At the end of Genesis 47, Jacob asked Joseph to swear that he would not bury him in Egypt. By faith he was sure his progeny would return to Canaan in fulfillment of God's promise to him.
Let us learn from the experiences of Jacob so we can be more pleasing to God. God promised Jacob when he was most afraid that he would never leave him. And God has promised us exactly the same thing:
Be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, I will not fear what man shall do unto me. Hebrews 13:5, 6