Birth of a Heel-Grabber
August 23, 1992
There are many different ways to study the Bible. You can, for instance, study it analytically, taking each verse and each phrase and even each word in succession. Or you could study it doctrinally, tracing the great teachings of the Bible through the 66 books of Holy Scripture. You could study it synthetically, pulling together the strands of truth to get the “big picture.” Many people study the Bible historically, examining the ways God dealt with his people during the various periods of biblical history.
One offshoot of the historical method is to study the Bible biographically. This simply means to study the great characters of the Bible—those men and women who figure prominently in the unfolding drama of redemption. For many years this has been my favorite way to study the Bible because it is in the fleshing out of biblical truth that we see the reality of how God works with people who are fundamentally just like us.
When you read the great biographies of the Bible, you are reading truth clothed in human personality. Which is why, when we want to teach our children the truth of the Bible, we begin by teaching them the great stories of the Bible. We teach them about
Noah who built an ark
Abraham who left Ur of the Chaldees
Moses who crossed the Red Sea
Joshua who “fit the battle of Jericho”
David who slew Goliath
Esther who saved her nation
Daniel who slept with the lions.
And the list goes on and on. We tell those stories over and over again because it is in those flesh and blood stories that truth becomes real to us. Faith is all theory till we see it in Abraham. Courage is abstract till we stand with David facing Goliath. Doubt is someone else’s problem till we struggle alongside a man named Thomas.
One of the startling facts about the Bible is that it never sugarcoats the truth—not even about its heroes. The Bible tells us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If they sin, we read all about it. Nothing is hidden, or censored, or covered up. We get the whole truth about the men and women whom God uses.
So we read the story of Abraham lying about his wife.
So we read the story of Moses committing murder.
So we read the story of David committing adultery.
So we read the story of Peter denying Christ.
I personally am glad about that fact. The Bible tells it like it is, no holds barred. That’s good, and in a strange way, I find it very encouraging. Most people struggle in the “gray zone” between what they are and what they want to be. Some days the “reality gap” is very wide. That’s why I’m glad to know that even the greatest men and women struggled with many of the same problems we all deal with—discouragement, uncontrolled ambition, lust, greed, bitterness, and all the rest.
“We’re Only Human”
When I pastored in Texas there was a woman in my church who called me often asking for spiritual help. I suppose over the course of five years we must have talked on the phone at least 100 times. She stands out vividly in my mind because she always ended our conversations the same way. Whenever we came to the end of the call, Betty would always say, “Remember, Pastor Ray, we’re only human.”
It’s good to keep that in mind when you begin reading the Bible. The men and women whom God used were only human. They weren’t supernatural creatures, made of better stuff than us. No, they were just like us and we are just like them.
With that as background—and holding that truth firmly in your mind—we turn to the subject at hand. We are beginning a study of one of the most important men in the Old Testament. In fact, this man is so important that I would suppose that if you made a list of the Top 10 Most Important Men in the Old Testament, his name would have to be near the top of that list. However, despite the fact that he is so important, most of us know relatively little about his life.
His is a life we do not study.
His is a life we do not emulate.
His is a life we tend to ignore.
Although his accomplishments were many, he is overshadowed by his grandfather and by one of his sons. That’s a shame because this man has much to say to us today.
I am speaking of Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson of Abraham, and the father of Joseph. Those four men make up the backbone of Genesis 12-50. Each one was a man of faith in his own way. If you know those four men, then you know Genesis 12-50.
The interesting fact is that most of us know a great deal about two of those men and next to nothing about the other two. Abraham and Joseph stand like well-known bookends, while Isaac and Jacob are lost somewhere in the middle. That’s understandable where Isaac is concerned since the Bible doesn’t describe his life in great detail. However, Jacob’s story begins in Genesis 25 and ends with his burial in Genesis 50—a life spanning fully one-half of the book.
There are three basic reasons why we are studying Jacob’s life:
1. Because so much is said about Jacob in the book of Genesis.
2. Because Jacob plays such a crucial role in the history of Israel.
3. Because Jacob is a Bible character whose story we can understand.
Beyond all question, he is one of the most “human” characters in all the Bible. As we trace his life, we will discover that he had as many defeats as victories. Unlike some other Bible characters who seem to march from victory to victory, Jacob’s life is a struggle from the very beginning. He comes out grabbing his brother’s heel and dies settling old scores with his children. In between he knows more than his share of sorrow and heartache. He cheats and is cheated, deceives and is deceived, angers and is made angry, shocks and is shocked. In short, here is man who lives life the way most of us do—two steps forward and one step back.
•He was a schemer and a dreamer.
•He had an eye for business and a heart for God.
•He was a businessman who was also a man of faith.
•He cheated his brother and he wrestled with an angel.
•He deceived his father and he heard the very voice of God.
The Real Hero
His life is a paradox, an enigma, a riddle and a mystery. He is a man with warts, with scars, a man who has known the detours of life. He never had it easy, he never made it easy on himself, he made a thousand mistakes, and yet at the end he dies in the faith, which is why Hebrews 11 lists him as one of the heroes of the faith. There is both warning and encouragement in his life—much to follow and much to avoid.
In the end we will discover that the real hero of the story is God. Not Jacob, but God. Jacob is merely the backdrop against which we see both the justice and mercy of God. In many ways he is the Peter of the Old Testament—the man whom God used in spite of himself. Over his life we should write in big letters—ROMANS 8:28—for if any man ever proved that “all things do work together for good”—it is Jacob. Somehow God saw within him the potential for greatness.
In the end the schemer becomes a prince and the manipulator becomes a man of faith. When God is through with Jacob, he is transformed into a patriarch—the father of an entire nation.
The hero is never Jacob. The hero is always God.
Consider his life in summary:
He is born clutching his brother’s heel.
He cheats his brother out of the birthright.
He deceives his father in order to obtain the blessing.
He spends 20 years in Haran where his uncle Laban cheats him.
He tries to bargain his way back into Esau’s good graces.
His children are involved in rape and murder.
His oldest son sleeps with his maidservant Bilhah.
His favorite son Joseph is kidnapped by his other sons.
His heart is broken by sorrow.
In his youth he was a schemer.
In his middle years he was a hireling to Laban.
In his old age he was depressed and discouraged.
And he died in Egypt—not in the Promised Land.
If you looked at his story from that perspective, it would appear that his life was a failure. But it wasn’t. It’s his name that ends up in Hebrews 11—not Esau’s. That’s the wonder and glory of his life. Jacob was a man of faith.
If you need any other proof, consider this: When God wanted to identify himself to his people, do you know what he called himself? “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” That encourages me. I’m so glad our God is the God of Jacob, too. Not just of Abraham and Isaac. He’s also the God of Jacob. He doesn’t just run with the winners. Our God is also the God of those who struggle and scrap their way through life, sometimes barely making it, other times hanging on for dear life. That’s the kind of God he is—He’s the “God of Jacob.”
Twenty Years of Prayer
The story of Jacob’s life begins before he was born. Genesis 25:19-26 brackets the story of his birth with two chronological details: Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah and 60 years old when Jacob and Esau were finally born. Married at 40, had children at 60. Verse 21 tells us that “Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren.” We don’t totally understand that today, but in Isaac’s day the worst thing that could happen to a woman was to be childless. It was taken as a sign that you were outside God’s favor. Furthermore, to be childless meant you had no one to take care of you in your old age.
So Isaac prayed for his wife. Not once, but again and again he begged God to open Rebekah’s womb. What is to us only a small notice in the biblical record was to Isaac a crucial point. He prayed for his wife. Incidentally, so far as I know, this is the only time in the Bible where a husband is specifically said to have prayed for his wife. I’m sure it must have happened often, but this is the only time it is directly mentioned.
Rebekah’s inability to give birth presented Isaac with a dilemma. After all, God had promised Abraham that his “seed” would become a great nation. In Genesis 22 that promise was repeated to Isaac. But how would it happen unless Rebekah becomes pregnant?
One year passes.
Two years pass.
Three years pass.
Four years pass.
No children. Where is God? What about his promise? So Isaac prays harder … and the years pass quickly. No children. Where is God? Has he forgotten what he said? Was it all a kind of cruel cosmic joke by the Almighty? Has God changed his mind?
So Isaac prayed. The word means “to entreat” or “to beg.” “O God, remove the shame, remove the stigma. O God, keep your promise. Give us a child.”
God and God Alone
Why did Isaac and Rebekah have to wait 20 years for an answer? I’ll answer that when you tell me why your prayers are not answered immediately. We pray and pray and sometimes we pray for years … and still the heavens seem as brass. Where is God when we need him? Why doesn’t he answer?
What was God doing during those 20 years of waiting? Let me suggest three answers:
1. He was developing Isaac’s faith.
2. He was teaching Isaac patience.
3. He was arranging the circumstances so that when the answer finally came, God alone would get the credit.
Those three points help us understand why God’s answers are often delayed. He wants to develop our faith, he wants to develop our patience, and he wants to make sure that he alone gets the credit when the answer finally comes.
Verse 22 gives us the other side of the story. When Rebekah finally gets pregnant, she has a very rough time. I’m sure that at first she and Isaac had a great celebration. Perhaps her friends gave her the equivalent of a baby shower. But as the weeks passed, the babies began to “jostle” inside her. The word is stronger than that; it means to “go to war.” Her babies fought each other inside the womb. That frightened Rebekah so she asked God, “Why is this happening to me?”
Isn’t it interesting that after praying for 20 years, when the answer finally comes, it brings more questions and more difficulty? Isn’t it true that answered prayer can be as difficult to handle as unanswered prayer? I’m sure you’ve heard it said, “Be careful what you pray for because God may give it to you.”
—We pray for children and when our children come, they are nothing but trouble.
—We pray for a new job and when we get one, our boss is a jerk.
—We pray for a new house and when we move in, we discover termites in the foundation.
—We pray to be married and then we pray to be divorced and when we are divorced we discover that we are still not happy.
Often we pray for some cherished dream, thinking that it will make us happy. When God finally answers, we discover his answer only means more problems. Why is that? Because God is not in the business of making it easy for his people to travel from earth to heaven. Rather, he’s in the business of using the journey to teach us holiness, righteousness and godliness. If he makes it too easy, we’ll never develop the right kind of character.
God’s Amazing Answer
So Rebekah—feeling the struggle within—says, “Why me?” Verse 23 gives us God’s amazing answer. I can sum it up in four phrases:
Two Nations—”Two nations are in your womb.”
Continual Conflict—”Two peoples within you will be separated.”
Differing Strength—”One people will be stronger than the other.”
Role Reversal—”The older will serve the younger.”
All of that may not mean much to us, but to Rebekah this was shocking news—especially the last point. In the ancient Near East the first-born was always given certain inheritance rights. He received a double portion of the inheritance and was considered the head of the family upon the death of the parents. But here God is saying that the roles would be reversed—the rights normally given to the first-born would in this case be given to the second-born.
(In Romans 9:10-13, Paul develops this point to show that salvation is entirely by God’s grace. He chose Jacob over Esau before the boys were born, before either of them had done good or evil. It is purely a choice made in God’s heart and mind and was not dependent on anything good he saw in Jacob or anything bad he saw in Esau.)
Hairy and the Heel-Grabber
When the babies were finally born, Isaac and Rebekah received another shock. The first baby to come out was red, “and his whole body was like a red garment.” That is, his body was covered with red hair—almost like a wild animal. They named him “Esau,” which means “Red” and can also mean “Hairy.” But that wasn’t the only surprise. As Esau came out, a little white hand was clutching his heel. So they kept on pulling and out came the second boy. They named him “Jacob,” which means “Heel-grabber.” Years later the name comes to mean “Supplanter” and “Cheater.”
None of this happens by accident. The way these boys come into the world reveals something of their character and destiny. Esau will become a successful hunter; Jacob will become a cunning businessman. Esau will feel most at home in the outdoors; Jacob will spend his life trying to push and pull his way to the top. Esau will build a mighty kingdom; Jacob will live by his wits. Esau will have a fiery temper, but will quickly get over his rage; Jacob will have a long memory and his guilty conscience will plague him for years.
Isaac and Rebekah knew none of this in the beginning. But no matter, the two boys will take on their own personalities soon enough. Before too many years pass it will become clear that this unusual birth foretold their ultimate destinies in life.
Two boys: “Hairy Red” and “Heel-Grabber.” From them will eventually come two great nations. Their destinies were decided before they were born.
It’s remarkable to follow these two boys as they grow up. Esau turns out to be a hunter, an outdoorsman, a strong, good-looking fellow, a natural leader, an extrovert, a simple man who lived with his emotions right on the surface. Esau was a man without guile. What you see is what you get.
By contrast, Jacob is somewhat shy and retiring. He prefers to spend his days around the tents—thinking, dreaming, watching, analyzing. Jacob is a complex man—what you see is not necessarily what you get. With Jacob you’re never really sure. He’s one thing and then he’s another.
Suppose you looked at both boys from a human point of view, which one would seem most successful? Which one would seem to have God’s favor? On whom does God’s blessing rest? I think that 100 out of 100 people would say Esau. If you asked in childhood, which boy will turn out better, the answer would be Esau. If you asked who will be the better leader, the answer would be Esau. If you asked which one will do more with his life, the answer would be Esau.
And who will have more problems? Jacob. More difficulties? Jacob? More heartache? Jacob. If you just look at the story on the surface, what you see is Esau growing up, getting married, having children and building a vast empire. On the other side you see Jacob—at the beginning he’s a manipulator, in the middle he’s a hireling, at the end he is depressed and discouraged. Finally he dies in Egypt.
On whose life is God’s favor resting? From that standpoint, we might say Esau. And we would be dead wrong.
But that’s typical, isn’t it? Oftentimes we look at the prosperous people around us and we think, “How blessed they are.” And when we see someone going through incredible suffering, we often think, “They must have done something wrong.” But more often than not, prosperity is no sign of God’s blessing. That helps us understand why God gave Esau material prosperity. He never sought to have a close relationship with God, so God gave him second best. He just gave him money.
On the other hand, God gave Jacob sorrow, difficulty and heartache. Why? Because God was preparing Jacob for something great.
Mark it down. We would have chosen Esau, but God chose Jacob. He said, “No, not Esau. Jacob is my man.” We would have picked Esau to be our leader. God said, “No, I want that man who’s back there by the tents. That quiet fellow, the one you’ve written off. He’s my choice.”
In the end God will make Jacob a prince but it will take a lifetime to get the job done. The story of his life is the story of the continual struggle between the flesh and the spirit, between doing things man’s way and God’s way, between self-sufficiency and God-sufficiency. It’s the difference between trying to manipulate things and waiting on God.
Four Lessons For Life
I’m now at the end of my sermon … but our journeys with Jacob have just begun. Some of you have seen those buttons that say, “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.” That could be written over Jacob’s life because he is truly a work in progress.
1. Behind the seemingly insignificant details of life stands God himself.
We see that clearly in this text. Two babies jostle in the womb, and two nations are born. If you had been there you would have seen two babies coming out of the womb and nothing more. Who would have dreamed that the course of world history would be affected by “Hairy Red” and the “Heel-Grabber?”
There are no accidents in God’s plan. Nothing has ever happened to you by chance or fate or luck. Even the mundane things of life that you take for granted all fit into a larger, unseen plan that is slowly unfolding in your life.
2. When God decides to raise up a man, nobody can thwart his plans.
We would have chosen Esau. But God said, “It’s going to be Jacob.” We would have made Jacob the first-born, but God said, “I can choose the second-born if I want to.” We would have given Jacob an easier road, but God knew the hard road makes a strong man.
The same is true for you and me. When God gets ready to work in your life, the result will be the same as Jacob—trouble, trouble, trouble. John Newton understood that truth when he wrote, “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
3. When God decides to work in your life, he will not stop though it takes him a lifetime to finish the job.
It took him 80 years to get Moses in shape. It took him over a hundred years to get Jacob in shape. It takes him a lifetime with most of us because the clay is pretty lumpy—full of rocks and stones and useless material. When God starts shaping the clay of the human heart, he won’t stop until the job is done.
4. When you yield your natural weaknesses to God, they become the source of your greatest strength.
Look at Jacob’s life. His scheming became godly tenacity. His ambition for success became ambition for God. His unfocused desire became determination to do God’s will. His name was changed from Jacob (“the cheater”) to Israel (“he who wrestles with God”).
How wonderful it is that God condescends to be called the God of Jacob. Only God could see the princely qualities in a man like Jacob. I close with this crucial thought. God delights to begin where others have given up in despair.
Perhaps you feel inadequate, or guilty, or perhaps you feel your life is so tangled up that no one could ever straighten it out again. Perhaps you feel unfit for God to use you. If you feel that way, Congratulations! … because you are an excellent candidate for the grace of God.
That’s what Jacob’s story is all about—the grace of God who never gives up.
The first step is to come to the Lord Jesus Christ, to yield yourself to him. Open your heart to Jesus. Give him your whole life—the good and the bad, the positive and the negative, your strengths and your weaknesses—and see what he can do.
Lord Jesus, as we take this first step in our journeys with Jacob, teach us what it means to yield completely to you. Grant courage to those who feel inadequate, unsure and guilty. O Lord, may they turn to you and discover the free grace of the God of Jacob who never gives up. Amen.