One of my favorite Old Testament characters is my namesake: Jacob. For many years that wasn’t the case. To me, Jacob was a rascal, a coward, and a liar. It didn’t make sense why God chose to use him to continue the Abrahamic promise—He was a far shot from Abraham! Yet God chose him before he was born (Gen. 25:23; Rom. 9:9-13) and the blessing—through Jacob and Rachel’s villainy—was given to Him by Issac (Gen. 27). But Jacob was a disappointment; a deceiver of the first order. There was nothing glamorous or praiseworthy about Him. I honestly had no interest in his story.
Until I started seeing him in me.
It took awhile, but the Lord showed me that the meaning of my name—the supplanter, or deceiver—was rooted deeply within my heart. Like Jacob, I deceived people, telling them what they wanted to hear in order to gain a blessing. I’ve hurt those closest to me because of my selfishness. Like Jacob, I often treated people based on their external appearance rather than their inward character (Gen. 29:16-18); I used people for what they could provide, not investing in them for who they were. I came face to face with my demons (Gen. 29:23-ff; 30:34-36), wrestled with God (Gen. 32:22-30), and walked away limping (Gen. 32:31). And yet, through all of the scheming, in the midst of my weakness and despair, the Lord became my God. The story of Jacob (both the patriarch and myself) wasn’t about perfection but redemption, transformation, and the presence of God.
The arch of Jacob’s story can be seen as a fulfillment of the promise he makes to God when he is fleeing for Laban’s house:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”—Genesis 28:20-22
Later we see that God fulfilled Jacob’s request (Gen. 31:13). He even rebukes Laban, confident that the Lord has been with Him (Gen. 31:42). And yet, Jacob still hasn’t upheld his part of the promise: God is still the “God of his father” and not “my God.” Even later when Jacob is much older and discovers that Joseph is alive in Egypt he worships the “God of his father Isaac” (Gen. 46:1). It isn’t until later, as he blesses his sons before he dies, that he refers to God as “my shepherd” and “the Mighty One of Jacob” (Gen. 49:15, 24). Maybe I am reading too much into this transition. I realize that God refers to himself as “the God of your father” on multiple occasions when he deals with Jacob. I also realize that Jacob may have viewed his relationship with God within the context of Abraham and Isaac; a context which couldn’t be separated from his own faith (which is very true).
Yet, within Jacob’s story I also see my own personal struggle for faith; a faith that, although at times confidently sees the presence and working of God, still fails to fully trust and submit. In reality Jacob’s life is essentially a continual pursuit to recognize the truth he witnessed in Bethel: that “The LORD is in this place and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16). That the “house of God” (v. 17) isn’t simply located in one physical location, but is the present, eternal reality of the Lord wherever His people live in faith. Throughout his journey Jacob catches glimpses of this. He sees God moving in an evident way—really the entirety of his life—and yet he fails to fully grasp the fact that there was never a moment where God wasn’t there–until the very end (Gen. 49:15).
This is me. This is us. As we walk in faith we have moments where we feel that we are witnessing an act of God’s grace and presence, and yet we feel He departs when the difficult times come. We fail to see Bethel when we’re shepherding in Laban’s fields. We see God in the victories, but not in the defeats. It is to this mindset which, in one of His final encounters with the aged Patriarch, God speaks:
“So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.”—Genesis 46:1-4
Notice that God addressees him by his old name: “Jacob, Jacob.” By this time, God had changed his name to Israel: once a deceiver, now a man who struggled with God. The text doesn’t say, but I believe old doubts were rising up in Jacob’s heart. Moving to Egypt was a big ordeal. Not only would the trek be difficult, but the Egyptians weren’t exactly friendly to men of his trade (Gen. 46:34). Will God be with them? It is then that Lord steps in, with deep mercy in his voice, and speaks to Israel as a son: “I’ll be with you, I’ve always been with you.” Notice the focus on His presence with Israel and how it addresses his fears. In the final statement he promises that Jacob’s long lost son would close his eyes in death. Yet, the focus isn’t simply on the sweetness of a restored son at his bedside, but the fact that God was going down to Egypt with him. God had always been there, and he would be there at the end. God was waiting at the end of the road. The new Bethel would be Jacob’s deathbed.
How astonishing. That God would take this deceitful, cowardly man and manifest His presence to Him. I can’t even begin to tell you how much this story means to me. That my God—not just the God of my fathers—but my God has always been there, and will always be there. That there is no corner I can turn where He hasn’t been. That although I’ve wrestled with God, in my stubbornness and pride, he can fashion a failure into a son. And faith is essentially the ability to see Bethel: to see God’s active presence working in my daily life—up to the very end. For, the sweetest blessing of all is that, at the end of life, when my eyes close in death, He will be waiting there as well—at the end of the road.
“And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant.”—Genesis 32:9-10