Jacob and the Face of God

canstockphoto3187477In the stories of Jacob and Esau there is a long history of interpretation that presents Jacob in a more positive light than his older twin. That’s understandable in that the Jews trace their lineage through Jacob and not Esau, and it’s rather unthinkable that a non-Jew would be a better example of the character of God than one of the Israelite forefathers.

But things in the Bible are rarely as simple as we take them to be, and biblical characters are usually much more complex.

After all, Jacob’s given name means, “one who grasps the heel,” a Hebrew idiom meaning “he deceives.”

That’s what the Devil is called in Revelation 12:9—the deceiver.


And the name God gives him, Israel, means “one who strives with God and prevails.” If I’m striving with God, it’s not a good thing if I win and he loses.

Because when he loses, I lose.

Striving against God landed the Israelites in exile and foreign domination. You always lose when you prevail against God.

So perhaps there’s reason to re-evaluate our assessments of Jacob and Esau.

After Jacob and their mother Rebekah conspire to rip off Esau and deny him Isaac’s blessing (Genesis 27) Esau is understandably angry and wants to kill Jacob, at least according to Rebekah, so Jacob flees north to his Uncle Laban in Haran (in what is modern Syria.)

Laban is every bit as conniving as his sister Rebekah and nephew Jacob and he tricks Jacob into giving him fourteen years of free labor in exchange for getting rid of both his daughters. (An unmarried adult daughter was a financial burden as well as a public embarrassment for a man, and there was something about Leah’s eyes that made her undesirable.)

Jacob then works an additional six years for Laban in order to raise his own herd of goats and flock of sheep.

But in keeping with the family tradition Jacob rips Laban off of most of his share of the goats and sheep, and then one night slips off with everything. (Rachel for her part steals her father’s household gods, proving the old adage about acorns and trees.)

So now Jacob has to flee from Laban, but the only place to go is back toward Esau. He’s scared, and so he does what most of us do when we find ourselves between a Laban and an Esau-place—he prays.

“Oh, God, I am not worthy of your faithfulness and your steadfast love!”

Well, he got that part right.

And he prays for deliverance from his brother whom he is sure wants to kill him.

Because that’s what people want to do when you rip them off.

That’s certainly what Jacob would have wanted had the tables been turned.

God never replies to his prayer, so Jacob starts planning, especially when he hears that Esau is heading his way with a force of four hundred men.

Jacob gathers a bunch of his livestock to present to Esau as an offering to appease his anger.

He’s going to try to buy him off. Of course if Esau just goes ahead and kills Jacob he’s going to get all of Jacob’s livestock anyway, but it’s worth a shot.

When Jacob approached Esau, bowing on his knees seven times, Esau surprised him (as well as the reader) by hugging and kissing him! Together they wept, and then Esau wanted to meet all of Jacob’s family—who were his family as well.

And when Jacob tried to give Esau his appeasement gifts, Esau didn’t want them! There’s nothing to appease—Esau wasn’t angry, he’s excited.

He’d already forgiven Jacob, and all he wanted was reconciliation and to live together with his brother.

And in his one moment of insight, Jacob said to him, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God– since you have received me with such favor.” (Gen. 33:10)

This truly is the face of God. He doesn’t need to be appeased by any offerings or sacrifices, certainly not that of his own son.

Jesus is not a sacrifice that we make—or that Christ makes on our behalf—in order to satisfy any anger that God has toward humanity because we have struggled against him and prevailed.

Jesus is the sacrifice that God offers for us, motivated solely out of love, not anger, and as a demonstration of his love for us.

“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Sadly, many Christians have been taught that God is more like the Esau Jacob assumed than the Esau that he really was. They believe that God is angry because of their sin and needs to be bought off in order to forgive them.

But that is not the face of God Jacob sees in Esau.

And it is not the face of God revealed in Jesus Christ, who welcomes sinners and eats with them

Even while they are still sinners.

Photo by © Can Stock Photo Inc. / rickbowden

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