THE DECEIVER DECEIVED
Genesis 29–32 “Your father has cheated me by changing my wages ten times” (Gen. 31:7).Sometimes we must be put in the place of the cheated to realize why God calls us to live a truly godly life.
Jacob found his relatives, and married two sisters, Rachel and Leah (29:1–35). Jealousy and conflict marred Jacob’s home, but his flocks increased (30:1–43). Finally Jacob took his family and herds and fled his uncle Laban, the deceitful father-in-law who “changed my wages ten times” (31:1–55). Free of his oppressive uncle at last, Jacob fearfully prepared to meet Esau. At this critical moment Jacob met and wrestled with God, and his name was changed to Israel (32:1–32).
Understanding the Text
“Laban had two daughters” Gen. 29:1–30:24. Jacob’s marriage to two sisters, and acceptance of their servants as concubines (secondary wives), was not immoral by the standards of his culture. Yet the conflict in Jacob’s home suggests how wise it is to adopt monogamous marriage, as God intended. Each major character in this passage is worthy of careful consideration. Laban. Laban was willing to use his own daughters and anyone else to gain his own ends. In Laban, Jacob, who had acted the same way earlier, met his match! Jacob. Jacob proved to be a hard worker. He served Laban seven years to win his wife, Rachel, only to be tricked by Laban, who substituted Leah on the wedding night. Married to both, Jacob knew no peace, for the two sisters became rivals for his affection. In their competition to produce children, Rachel and Leah even forced Jacob to add their two maids, Bilhah and Zilpah, to his roster of wives. The deceiver had been deceived, and found himself the focus of family strife! Earlier Jacob had sung, “I’ll do it my way.” Now he faced the music! Leah. Unlovely and unloved, Leah tried desperately to win Jacob’s affection by giving him sons. She was jealous of her beautiful sister Rachel, and even though Leah bore Jacob six sons, she was never able to find happiness. Rachel. Beautiful and loved by Jacob, Rachel was miserable because she was childless. She urged Jacob to sleep with Bilhah, as in that culture the sons of a servant girl were considered to be children of her mistress. Each person strived for something he or she did not have, rather than seeking contentment in God’s gifts. Rachel could have been happy in Jacob’s love, but was jealous of her sister’s fertility. Leah could have found satisfaction in her sons, but yearned for Jacob’s love. Laban could have valued people rather than wealth, and would have been loved by them all. Jacob could have taken a stand against his father-in-law and his wives, but allowed each of the others to bully or take advantage of him. Yet, despite their flaws, God used each of these individuals to create a family that would become the channel of His blessing to the world. And, despite the dissatisfaction each felt, each truly was blessed. How we need to accept ourselves and our limitations. How we need to rejoice in what we have, rather than make ourselves and others miserable in pursuit of what we do not have. Jacob’s flocks Gen. 30:1–43. On the surface Jacob’s use of striped sticks while the herds of Laban mated appears to be sympathetic magic. This concept, common to ancient and modern systems of magic, assumes that any object can influence another to look or be like it. Yet this was not magic. Certainly Jacob gave God the credit when the recessive genes present in the animals became dominant, and the herds produced a majority of the dark, spotted, or speckled animals which Laban agreed would belong to Jacob (cf. 31:4–13). God works comfortably within nature, turning “natural” events to His purposes. God worked through the genetic codes already present in the herds Jacob supervised. He is at work in the natural circumstances of our lives as well. “Does he not regard us as foreigners?” Gen. 31:1–21 By ancient custom Jacob had probably been adopted by Laban. Jacob, his wives, and his children were considered to “belong to” Laban, the patriarch of the family (cf. 31:43). Yet after 20 years Laban had so mistreated Jacob’s family that his daughters were ready to follow Jacob to Canaan. They had no confidence that Laban would care for their children, for he treated his daughters like foreigners rather than family. “I am sending this message” Gen. 32:1–21. Jacob fled from an oppressive uncle toward a brother whom he thought hated him. What an uncertain time in his life! Jacob did the best he could to prepare for the meeting. He sent a messenger, so his return would not be a surprise (vv. 1–8). He prayed, reminding God of His promises (vv. 9–12). And he sent rich gifts on ahead (vv. 13–21). This last act was not bribery, but reflects the custom of giving gifts to persons whose favor one wished to obtain. By giving such gifts Jacob implied that he saw his brother as his superior. When we find ourselves in uncertain circumstances, we would be wise to follow Jacob’s prescription. We need to rely on God, to do all we can, and to remain humble before others. “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel” Gen. 32:22–32. Jacob’s old name meant “supplanter.” His new name, Israel, meant “struggler with God.” While the wrestling match described here is intended literally, it clearly has figurative significance. Jacob had struggled all his life, trying one scheme after another to make his way. But now Jacob struggled to gain God’s blessing. With the blessing won, Jacob was given a new name to mark his internal transformation. Like Jacob we need to stop struggling to make our way in our own strength, and struggle instead to rely wholly on God. As Jacob illustrates, this does not mean we sit back and do nothing. It does, however, mean a change of attitude. Our confidence is to rest in the Lord, not in ourselves. The household gods Rachel stole (31:22–55) probably looked like these statues, from about 1800B.C Rachel’s theft was intended as insurance against the future. In that age possession of the household gods constituted a claim against the family estate.
“This Message”(Gen. 32:1–21)
It may seem strange, but Jacob’s evident fear of Esau is a mark of personal growth. Psychologists label Jacob’s early problem “egocentrism.” By this they mean seeing things only from one’s own perspective, being unaware of the perspective of others. In his early years Jacob schemed to steal his brother’s birthright and blessing, unconcerned about how these acts might affect his brother and their relationship. Jacob and his mother actually seemed surprised at Esau’s anger. They had never even thought of how Esau might react to being victimized! Twenty years later, however, Jacob himself had been the victim of a scheme. Laban had been as unfair to him as he had been to Esau! Now Jacob had experienced many of the feelings Esau must have known, feelings experienced by all who are victims—frustration, helplessness, and anger. At last Jacob could identify with his brother Esau, and understand how his own actions must have made Esau feel. And because he understood, Jacob was afraid. No one deserves to be treated as he had treated Esau, or as he himself had now been treated. Such treatment arouses anger and deserves punishment. All too often we Christians also fall into the trap of egocentrism. We may speak or act self-righteously, completely unaware of how our tone affects others. We strive to reach some good goal, yet we often are ignorant of how our methods hurt others. God made Jacob sensitive to the feelings of the brother he had victimized by making Jacob himself a victim. I suspect that sometimes God uses the same prescription in dealing with us. When we are hurt it is often a reflection of the way we hurt others, a not-so-gentle reminder that God has charged us with the duty of loving others as we love ourselves. It would be wonderful if you and I could be naturally sensitive to others. But this is an attitude we must develop. The promise and the warning are both clear in Jacob’s life. The promise is that even unlikely individuals like Jacob can become persons who understand and consider others. The warning is that if we live ego-centristic lives, taking advantage of others, God may place us in positions where we experience the very pain we have caused others to suffer.
If we consider the feelings of others, we will make wiser as well as more godly choices.