Jacob: Character Transformation

We saw that Abraham's faith impressed even God. And his faith was contagious. His trusted servant was able to trust in God for guidance when he was sent on a difficult mission to find a suitable bride for his master’s son Isaac from among his master's relatives in a faraway land (Genesis 24:12-14). And Isaac knew how to pray to God to open the barren womb of his wife Rebekah (Genesis 25:21).

Neither Isaac nor his faith was perfect. Like his father he also lied about his wife being his sister for the same reason, though in his case it was not pre-planned. To his credit, prior to this he obeyed God by not going down to Egypt to escape a famine (Genesis 26:1-7). Isaac is thus portrayed as a man of faith who was obedient to God, though a pale reflection of his father. Other than his favoritism towards Esau his older son, we can infer that he lived a life that was reasonably consistent with God's will. He was thus a worthy heir to the Abrahamic Covenant.

The same could not (yet) be said of his younger son Jacob, who inherited the covenant from him. He was a deceiver. God had to do a thorough work on him before his life could be reasonably consistent with God's will. The plot covering Genesis 28-35 is about Jacob's character transformation. As we consider these chapters, we need to be mindful of the role of faith in character transformation. We will then see that inasmuch as faith in God manifests itself in obedience to Him, for people with obvious character flaws, it will also result in noticeable character change.

Jacob used deception twice to get what he wanted. In the first case, he deceived his brother into selling his birthright as the firstborn for just a bowl of stew (Genesis 25:29-34). This birthright meant a double share of the family inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17). Then when Isaac was about to formally pass the blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant to Esau, Jacob went along with his mother Rebekah's plan to deceive Isaac into passing it to him instead (Genesis 27:1-29; 28:3-4). Esau reacted to the second deception as though the birthright and the blessing were two separate things. But Hebrews 12:16-17 treats these as a unity; in this particular family the birthright of the firstborn comes with the blessing of the Abrahamic Covenant (Waltke 2001: 363-64). By selling it for just a meal, Esau “despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34).

We are informed that it was God's idea all along that Jacob, not Esau, should inherit the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 25:23; cf. Romans 9:10-13). But Jacob's use of deception to get it obviously indicates that he did not believe in God. For faith in God would manifest itself in righteous conduct. The deceptions revealed an obvious character flaw in Jacob. Because of the second deception Esau was so angry with Jacob that he wanted to kill him. Rebekah had to arrange for Jacob, her favorite son, to flee to her brother's place far away until Esau's anger subsided. It turned out that Jacob would be there for twenty years.

Jacob's character transformation thus began with him suffering the consequence of a wrong he committed. He “got away” the first time he deceived Esau. One may “get away” with even a few acts of injustice. But since these acts are symptoms of a person’s character flaw, he will continue to manifest them until his character is changed. He is not likely to “get away” every time, unless he dies young. In fact it is better to get caught earlier, for one becomes bolder the more one “gets away,” and the wrong committed then becomes more blatant and the consequence more painful.

When Jacob fled home to a faraway place he was desperate. This was when God could catch his attention. He spent the first night at a place he later named Bethel, which means “house of God,” for here he encountered God (Genesis 28:10-20). In a dream God affirmed the Abrahamic Covenant to him and promised to protect him wherever he went and to bring him back safely. Jacob on his part vowed that He would be his God if He would indeed protect and provide for him. Jacob was beginning to learn to trust in God. He exemplifies the tendency of fallen humanity to turn to God only when there is no other option.

There is no evidence that Jacob acknowledged that he had done wrong, let alone repented. The first step in character transformation is to acknowledge that one has done wrong and that one has a character flaw. Suffering the consequence of a wrong committed should help us do that. But if we choose to blame others for the pain we will not only miss the opportunity to be changed for the better, it will also reinforce our character flaw.

When Jacob reached his uncle Laban's place, he was well received. After Jacob had stayed there for a month, Laban asked him to name his wages as he did not want Jacob to serve him for nothing (Genesis 29:15). Jacob had fallen in love with Laban's younger daughter Rachel and so he offered to serve seven years for her hand. Laban agreed. The seven years went by like a few days to Jacob because of his love for Rachel. The wedding was held. The next morning Jacob was shocked to discover that the woman he had married was Laban's less attractive older daughter Leah. When he confronted his uncle about the deception, Laban explained that it was not their custom for the younger sister to marry first. He then promised to give Rachel to Jacob in a week's time, but for another seven years of service.

Why did Jacob accept the extra seven years without protest? Laban had obviously deceived Jacob and Jacob realized it. Jacob was getting a taste of his own medicine. Laban's deception also involved one sibling substituted for another; the medicine could not have tasted more similar. So Jacob had no moral standing to protest. He had been as guilty as his uncle. And Jacob had seven years, which must have felt like a few decades, to mull over this. This was a crucial phase in Jacob's character transformation.

Injustice is least obvious from the perspective of the person at the giving end. To neutral observers he has obviously done wrong, yet he may deny it and swear that his conscience is clear. Injustice is most obvious from the perspective of the person on the receiving end. To see injustice clearly we need to put ourselves in the victim’s shoes. This is implied in the Great Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which summarizes the Ten Commandments (Leviticus 19:18; Romans 13:8-10). For it means loving (treating) another person as though we were that person. To do this we must first put ourselves in his shoes.

Jesus rephrased this commandment as, “Do to others as you want others do to you” (Matthew 7:12), which is known as the Golden Rule. This rule, especially the negative version, “Do not do to others what you do not want others do to you,” is taught in virtually every religion (Neusner and Chilton 2008), and is acknowledged by even atheists (Epstein 2009).

However, to avoid misunderstanding, we need to clarify that the Golden Rule is another way of saying, “Do justice and love mercy” (Micah 6:8), for this also summarizes the Ten Commandments (cf. Wattles 1996: 42-51). Hence, the Golden Rule is about treating others with justice, and not about acting out our personal desires or preferences. Otherwise a policeman who has apprehended a criminal will have to release him as this is how the policeman himself would desire to be treated if he were the criminal. The policeman would be doing injustice if he releases the criminal, and the criminal himself recognizes it, though he desires to be released.

The Golden Rule requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of those on the receiving end so that we can better fulfill God's purpose in doing justice and loving mercy. Fallen human beings do not naturally want to do this. In fact they resist it. This is why the Golden Rule is “hard to follow. Religious and secular people alike fail at it all the time” (Epstein 2009: 114). Only a genuinely God-fearing person who recognizes that his “neighbors” are made in the image of God would want to do this.

Like Jacob, we may be forced into the shoes of those on the receiving end. These are opportunities for us to acknowledge and repent of the wrongs we have done to others. For even one who regularly mistreats others and claims that his conscience is clear can still recognize injustice when what he did to others is done to him. He may choose to acknowledge that he had been doing the same thing to others and repent, or he may choose to deny it, claiming that what was done to him is “different” from what he did to others, when the only real difference is who the victim is. This amounts to blatant rebellion against God, as the truth is now staring at him.

Based on Jacob's changed character later in the narrative, we can infer here that Jacob did come to acknowledge his wrong and repented. The next phase of Jacob's character transformation focuses on him developing a negative feeling towards deception (the specific expression of his character flaw) as well as learning to trust in God to protect and to provide so that he would not again feel the need to use deception.

After completing the second seven years of service, Jacob asked his uncle's permission to go home. By then he had two wives, their respective maids who also bore him children, and eleven sons and a daughter. Laban, who recognized that he had been blessed by Jacob's God on Jacob's account, refused to let Jacob go and asked him to name his wages again. Jacob accepted the offer and proposed that from the animals under his care, all the rare ones, such as a black sheep or a spotted or striped goat, would be his wages (Genesis 30:31-33). Laban agreed but cheated by immediately removing the existing rare ones so that Jacob had none to begin with. Jacob then practiced selective breeding and the animals he pastured kept producing rare ones (see Hamilton 1995: 283-84). He outwitted, but did not deceive, Laban.

According to Jacob's own testimony it was God who was blessing him (Genesis 31:6-12). God first gave him the idea to choose the rare ones to be his wages. Though Laban changed Jacob's wages “ten times,” God ensured Jacob continued to prosper. For instance when Laban changed his wages to only striped animals, the animals produced striped ones. After six years, God told Jacob to take his family and wealth and leave (Genesis 31:3). He left without informing Laban. He did not deceive his uncle; he just did not honor him, for otherwise he would not get to leave. Laban deserved it.

Through enduring six years of LAban's deception and seeing how God prospered him despite that, Jacob learned to trust in God as well as developed a negative feeling towards deception. When Laban caught up with Jacob and testified that Jacob's God had warned him not to harm Jacob (Genesis 31:29), it reinforced in Jacob's heart that God was true to His promise to protect him.

After this Jacob sent messengers to Esau to inform him that he was coming to see him (Genesis 32:3-5). This clearly indicates that he had repented of his wrong against his brother. But when the messengers returned and informed Jacob that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men, Jacob panicked, for his last memory of Esau was an angry man who wanted to kill him. His fear climaxed the night before he met his brother. He prayed earnestly to God to protect him. That night he wrestled with a man and would not let Him go until He blessed Jacob (Genesis 32:24-32). The man was actually a manifestation of God, who changed Jacob's name to Israel. Through this encounter Jacob sought and received the assurance that his prayer was answered. And the change in name indicates a change in character.

When Esau met Jacob, he was so glad to see his younger brother (Genesis 33:1-16). He had obviously forgiven Jacob, but not knowing this, Jacob feared needlessly. Having now being reconciled to his brother, Jacob could put his past behind him and move on. Before God instructed him to return to Bethel to fulfill his vow made there twenty years ago (Genesis 35), something tragic happened to his family that would complete the process of Jacob's character transformation (Genesis 34).

When they camped outside Shechem, Jacob's daughter Dinah visited the women in the city and was raped by Shechem, son of Hamor, the prince of the land. Shechem then asked his father to get Dinah to be his wife. When Hamor met Jacob to ask for Dinah's hand, the sons of Jacob agreed on condition that all the males in the city became like them, that is, circumcised. Hamor managed to convince the men in the city to accept this condition in view of Jacob's wealth. When the men were still in pain, Simeon and Levi, two of Dinah's full-brothers, went into the city. They not only killed Hamor and Shechem and “rescued” Dinah, they also killed every male and looted the city. They used deception to take revenge.

Jacob became very fearful that the cities around them would punish them for this crime. Deceiving others has now become something dreadful to him. A man who truly fears God has two characteristics. Firstly he trusts in God and so feels no need to use unjust means in his dealings with others. Jacob developed this characteristic by the time he met Esau. Secondly a God-fearing man feels a healthy “fear” within him that constrains him to do right and restrains him from doing wrong. Jacob developed this characteristic by the time they left Shechem.

As they journeyed to Bethel, God protected them by putting a fear over the surrounding cities. Before arriving, Jacob asked his household to put away their idols and purify themselves. As an act that indicated he was fulfilling his vow, he built an altar there to God. His return to Bethel marked the completion of his character transformation. There God reaffirmed the change of his name as well as the Abrahamic Covenant.

Soon after, Jacob's beloved wife Rachel died while giving birth to his twelfth son. The rest of Genesis portrayed Jacob as an honest man, with one fault. Like his parents he showed favoritism—he favored Joseph and Benjamin, the two sons of Rachel, over his other sons. But God used this to fulfill His purpose ....


Abraham Lincoln said...

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.
Abraham Lincoln

tfleong said...

The Old Testament is not lacking in this insight of Lincoln. In fact in the very next page on Joseph as a model for leadership development, we see Joseph's character being refined so that when he was given power as the Prime Minister of Egypt he used it to serve others. But there are people who read into the text that he abused his power. Perhaps it is hard for them to believe that a powerful person like Joseph would not abuse his power, and thus fail to see clear indications in the narrative that Joseph used his power wisely to serve. The exposition shows that what seems to be an abuse of power actually reflects his unusual wisdom in solving real problems.

Anonymous said...