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Jacob the Deceiver -- an upsetting study of Genesis 27

Jacob and his family were messed up. God used them anyway.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 27

Jacob was a deceitful son in a deceitful family who decided that obtaining his father’s blessing at all costs was more important than integrity. That alone is a good warning for us, but as we see failures of every family member in our story, we realize that there is much for us to learn from these negative examples.

“Are you really my son Esau?” (27:24)

This weekly post started as a resource for Bible study leaders; I am slowing adding older posts for reference.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Dysfunctional Families.

My parents have the "we put the fun in dysfunctional" magnet on their fridge. Everyone laughs when they see it. For whatever reason, our culture seems to celebrate dysfunctional families. Ask your group to name famous dysfunctional families and why people like them. (Don’t ask for personal examples; not everyone thinks it’s funny.) I came up with a pretty quick list of TV families who are—when you think about it—kinda messed up. It starts with the Bunkers (All in the Family), continues with the Ewings (Dallas), and the Bundys (Married … with Children). Younger people today might think of The Simpsons, the Lyons (Empire), the Griffins (Family Guy), the Pritchetts (Modern Family), and whoever that family is on Succession. In real life, we’re treated to tabloid stories of the Lohans, the Hogans, Honey Boo Boo, the Spears, the Jacksons, and you name it. I have my opinions on why we celebrate broken families (but never fear—we’ll always have the Cleavers (Leave It to Beaver) and the Tanners (et. al., Full House)!). The point of this silly icebreaker? We’re about to go in depth into one of the most dysfunctional families in history. Buckle up.

Playing Favorites.

One of the biggest symptoms (and causes) of this dysfunction is the fact that both Isaac and Rebekah have a favorite child. Kids are keenly aware of “who’s the favorite”—in their families, their classes, their school, their church, everywhere. When groups regularly highlight the exploits or abilities of one child at the expense of another, it can lead to some long-term challenges. Again, you have to be careful about keeping your class from using names/turning this into an opportunity for gossip, but ask your group what are the negative consequences of playing favorites around kids. (Note—that’s why I said “at the expense of”; we want to celebrate our kids, but we need to celebrate them equitably and fairly; Esau’s hunting skills (like, say, football) were good, but so were Jacob’s domestic skills (like, say, art or music).) Playing favorites is something all of us have done, even unintentionally. So, end this discussion with ideas for how to fix it when adults have played favorite. How do we seek forgiveness from kids and help them believe that we won’t do it again?

This Week's Big Idea: Jacob the Deceiver

People will call Jacob’s story a giant “redemption arc”. Well, okay, but let’s make sure we understand that the emphasis is on the bad of Jacob, not the redemption. Here’s a quick summary of all of the deceptions tied to Jacob:

“Jacob” means “heel” in Hebrew, referring to how he was grasping Esau’s heel as if attempting to be born first (Gen 25:26); however, the name also means “to cheat” (Hosea 12:3 said that Jacob defrauded his brother in the womb).

In Genesis 25:27-34 Jacob legally (but slimily) switched inheritances with his older brother. Yes, Esau was to blame for being thoughtless, but Jacob took advantage of that.

In Genesis 27 (our passage this week), Jacob and his mother Rebekah scheme to fool Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob when he intended it to go to Esau.

At the end of Genesis 27, Rebekah sends Jacob off to Laban “to find a wife”. That was a lie—she was sending him off before a very angry Esau could kill him.

In Genesis 29, Jacob is on the other side of deception, as his uncle Laban tricks Jacob into working 7 years to marry—not Rachel, but her old sister Leah. Jacob had to work an additional 7 years for Rachel. (Deception runs in the family.)

In Genesis 31, when Jacob could see the writing on the wall that it was time to leave Laban and go back home, he deceived Laban into thinking he wasn’t leaving! And in addition, Rachel lied about stealing Laban’s idols. (See a trend?)

Then, in Genesis 32, Jacob does some strange things in his approach to Esau—things that should be interpreted as bribery or some other kind of manipulation. And that continued through their short time together.

Now, in the midst of this, Jacob has two encounters with God that you might think would give him a change of heart and mind. Don’t worry! We will talk about these episodes more in depth in the weeks to come. But the short response is no, Jacob didn’t seem to learn any lessons. Why? Because he showed favoritism to one of his sons (Joseph) leading to a great deal of family problems. And so what happens? Jacob’s sons deceive him into believing that Joseph was dead. And then to really hammer home a theme, Joseph (who’s supposed to be the good guy by then) deceives them all, first by not revealing his identity, then by keeping Simeon as a hostage, then in accusing Benjamin as a thief. Sure, it all ended well for Jacob, but could we truly say that Jacob could trust anyone? Even anyone in his own family?

Here’s an important question that someone might ask you: But didn’t God bless Jacob while he was doing all of these deceptions? Doesn’t that imply that God was condoning all of Jacob’s lies? No, and here’s why. God had made a promise to Abraham to bless the world through him, and both of Abraham’s grandsons were problem children. God was blessing Jacob in spite of Jacob. And here’s the important thing to help group members understand: whereas Abraham and Isaac lived to “ripe old ages”, Jacob described the years of his life as “few and evil” (Gen 47:9). And if we look carefully at him, isn’t that true? In the lies mentioned above, I didn’t even note the strife he had between his two wives and their concubines. He may have been wealthy, and he may have had a large family, but we certainly don’t get the sense that he was able to enjoy it all very much. That, of course, is his own fault. His life was a product of his many deceptions, including those done to him. He’s a part of the Jesus line, but Jacob was no hero.


Getting Back into Genesis

You may have to remind your group of the context (it’s been a few years). Here’s the Bible Project text video:

And here is the more storytelling version:

Your leader materials defend that Moses wrote Genesis by pointing out that it’s called “the law of Moses”. That’s not convincing to me (how does that prove that Moses wrote Genesis?). However, oral Jewish history unanimously calls Moses the author (with Joshua as his scribe). During his long sessions with God, God filled in the gaps of oral history with the specific details He wanted His people to know. That’s why there are similarities between Genesis and other ancient creation accounts—Moses wrote in a form that he was familiar with and that the people could understand.

Now, in the second part of Genesis, we go far far away from other creation narratives. Rather than highlighting the “godlike” hero ancestors that established their great nation (think of how the Egyptians deified their ruling families, or the Babylonians mythologized the people who built their cities), Genesis introduces us to one of the most dysfunction, anti-hero families any of us has ever known. It has been well-said that Genesis describes the reality of sin better than any other book because sin taints the actions of even the “heroes” of the stories. In the Bible Project videos listed above, you’ll see how all of these things point us to Jesus. Truly amazing.

As far as dates go, it’s truly impossible to say anything with certainty. A lot of scholars backdate Genesis from Exodus, but you might remember that I said there were two commonly accepted dates for the exodus from Egypt—a late date and an early date. I think the early date lines up better with the Bible, but a lot of smart Christians disagree with me. What I think we can say with certainty is that Abraham lived during the middle of the Bronze Age, sometime between 2200BC and 1800BC (I pick the early part of that range). The “what” is more important than the “when”.

Reminder of Themes. Here in the second part of Genesis, the interplay of sin and covenant take center stage. We have many examples of God explicitly reminding His people of the covenant—often right before or after some foolish sin. We see sins of all kinds from everyone (answering the question of what sin looks like among “normal” people). But thanks to Moses’ editing, we also clearly see how God worked through (in spite of) that sin to accomplish His major purpose of blessing the world through Abraham’s offspring. Seeing over and over again how unworthy Abraham’s offspring were, we begin to suspect that God might have a plan for something different/greater in true fulfillment of that promise and covenant. Moses/the exodus are not the “something greater” (Moses makes that clear), which means there is still yet something waiting for the people of God. During the exile in Babylon, the Israelites began to realize that God had been hinting at a Messiah.

Where We Are Now. We pick up the story with Abraham’s grandson Jacob. The last thing we talked about when we covered Genesis a few years ago was Abraham sending a servant to find a spouse for his son Isaac (24). Since then, Abraham took another wife, had more children, and died; Ishmael moved east, had a bunch of children, and died; Isaac’s wife Rebekah gave birth to twins (Jacob and Esau) who didn’t get along; the older one foolishly sold his birthright to the younger one; Isaac repeated his father’s sins of lying and faithlessness; the older son antagonized his parents by marrying Hittites; Isaac got old. Open curtain.


Part 1: A Deceitful Son (Genesis 27:18-23)

When he came to his father, he said, “My father.” And he answered, “Here I am. Who are you, my son?” Jacob replied to his father, “I am Esau, your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may bless me.” But Isaac said to his son, “How did you ever find it so quickly, my son?” He replied, “Because the Lord your God made it happen for me.” Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come closer so I can touch you, my son. Are you really my son Esau or not?” So Jacob came closer to his father Isaac. When he touched him, he said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he blessed him.

Basically, this story should make us feel icky. Because it is so easy to read, I encourage you to take your group all the way back to verse 1 and just read. There’s not a whole lot I can add. Make sure we place equal blame on Rebekah; this was her plan, and she knew best how to manipulate Isaac. Then, count the number of times Isaac questions Jacob’s identity. If it were me, I would have long since called in a servant. BUT (ironically) Isaac was trying to keep this blessing a secret from Rebekah, so he couldn't call anyone else in; he got caught in his own scheme! Do you see how dysfunctional this family is? Yikes!!

Jacob tried to say as little as possible (Isaac’s hearing must have been really bad), he tried to say things that only Esau should know (about the blessing), and he tried to get to the point quickly knowing that Esau could return any moment. (Just as a humorous aside because we’ve all been there—can you really rush an elderly person? I think not.) But things got ugly when Jacob invoked God. Note that he said “your” God, as if to buffer himself from the blasphemy. And note that he clearly painted God as in favor of the transaction. If you are at all disturbed by this (and you should be), it’s a reminder to me that we all need to be careful about what we say God is and is not in favor of.

Of course, the deception went even further. Rebekah overwhelmed Isaac’s hearing with the scent of Esau’s clothes, the aroma of good food, and the feeling of hairy goatskin. I really don’t know what Isaac must have been thinking. Here’s an easy application: think of a time you thought you weren’t going to get something you deserved (a promotion, a scholarship, a raise, whatever). Did you scheme and try to take matters into your own hands? Did you pout and complain? Or did you trust that God had a plan. Essentially, Jacob stole what God had already said was rightfully his. God allowed Jacob the right to act freely, and the end result was that Jacob got the blessing, but that’s not how God would have worked, and countless damage was caused as a result.


Aside: Why, Exactly, Couldn't Isaac Take His Blessing Back?

When I read the story of Jacob taking advantage of Esau and then Isaac into receiving the birthright and blessing, my immediate response is “After learning the truth, why didn’t Isaac just whip Jacob and then give the goods to Esau like he wanted?” Apparently, it wasn’t that simple.

You might have heard of “primogeniture”, which is the practice of the oldest son of the most important mother getting the bulk of the inheritance and whatever power/position the father had. It was common to just a few hundred years ago. Why? Because there would only be so much to go around, and the oldest son would likely be the most capable of running the family business (or whatever) at the father’s death. (This is also why so many second sons went into government work and church work.) Importantly, the dad had the authority to designate anyone he wanted to receive the inheritance (if the firstborn were incompetent or whatnot). That would help preserve order in the family and, thus, society.

We’re not exactly sure how this worked in Abraham’s family tree, but we know that the firstborn son was extremely important (the genealogies list the father’s age at his birth, and lists of sons always start with the firstborn; Moses would later codify that importance—think Passover (Ex 13)). Esau obviously didn’t find any value in his birthright, and Isaac still considered Esau the preferred son.

Several scholars believe that the “blessing” that Jacob sought was the “legal” approval of the birthright. In other words, until Isaac gave Jacob his blessing, Jacob would not have received the birthright he “negotiated” from Esau. That’s certainly possible, but a father’s blessing was apparently more than that in that day.

The father’s “blessing” went according to a standard format, and thus it was the equivalent of a legally binding document (remember, this was an oral culture). In other words, the father’s blessing could not be revoked legally. Now—you might be thinking (as I do) that God would not be bound by Isaac’s blessing. In other words, Isaac could pronounce whatever blessing he wanted; God didn’t have to do it. And that’s true! But in the olden days of the patriarchs, God also spoke to and through them, so we should also hear Isaac’s words as a kind of prophecy (just as Rebekah was told by God about this very outcome in 25:23).

What is more, it is evident that Isaac also saw his blessing (being in the name of God) as something more than words he could take back. I wonder if, as he was saying them, he thought about the ancient prophecy that the older would serve the younger, realizing that he had unintentionally fulfilled it.

So, does this mean that God was preordaining this family deceit? No, it doesn’t. The ends never demand the means. If Isaac’s family hadn’t been so dysfunctional, He would have found a “right” way of bringing about the same end.


Part 2: A Deceived Father (Genesis 27:24-27)

Again he asked, “Are you really my son Esau?” And he replied, “I am.” Then he said, “Bring it closer to me, and let me eat some of my son’s game so that I can bless you.” Jacob brought it closer to him, and he ate; he brought him wine, and he drank. Then his father Isaac said to him, “Please come closer and kiss me, my son.” So he came closer and kissed him. When Isaac smelled his clothes, he blessed him and said: "Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed."

This section is more of the same. Several scholars have noted that Jacob lied about his identity three times. Plus, they liken his kiss to that of Judas. I also see in here Isaac’s old favoritism. What did Isaac say nice about Esau? Nothing about his person, but only about his scent—he liked that Esau spent his time outside hunting. What is that? Seriously, is this not every Disney Channel teen drama ever? Dad wants son to be a basketball or football player, but son actually wants to be a singer or dancer? (I see you, High School Musical). Certainly, Isaac must also bear much of the blame for letting things get to this point.

As far as teaching/application here, this is about deception among family/close friends. Ask your class if lies hurt more when it’s from someone you love. For our teenagers and young adults, this is a great chance to remind them why we don’t lie to our parents. And certainly a marriage must be based on mutual trust. My hope is that the stark ugliness of this passage makes for an easy “Wow, I never want that to happen in my family” reaction.


Part 3: Stolen Blessing (Genesis 27:28-29)

May God give to you—from the dew of the sky and from the richness of the land— an abundance of grain and new wine. May peoples serve you and nations bow in worship to you. Be master over your relatives; may your mother’s sons bow in worship to you. Those who curse you will be cursed, and those who bless you will be blessed.

Okay, so the nature of this blessing is interesting. First, I’ve already said that God is not obligated to follow whatever Isaac said. This would be like Balaam blessing the Israelites (Num 23-24)—Balaam wasn’t declaring what God should do, he was prophesying what God would do. I think that Isaac knew (from his father Abraham) how God would treat his son. Isaac just thought he could pick which son God would do it for.

As it should be, the first part of the blessing was for abundant food and drink. But the second part raises eyebrows. God told Abraham a similar thing in Gen 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you,” but otherwise spoke about how Abraham would bless the world, not how the world would serve and worship Abraham. The cynic would say that Isaac just overstepped his bounds and was asking God to do something for Esau that was inappropriate. The Christian would say that Isaac was unwittingly pointing ahead to Jesus (this was a prophecy he didn’t understand). I think the best approach is to say that Isaac was intending to use these words in their traditional Near Eastern sense: respect and deference. “May your neighbors respect you greatly, and may your brothers/relatives defer to you.” That’s a double-edged blessing, because you have to be worthy of such deference if this is to be true.

There are a couple of big-picture conclusions we should draw: (1) The ends never justify the means. (2) God can bring about the proper end even when we botch the means. But we still pay the consequences for our means! (Even though Jacob got what he wanted, he paid a very heavy price—being estranged from his family and exiled for decades.) So here’s a question to ask your group: how should Jacob have handled his situation? Then turn the finger on yourself: when we have been told to trust in God, how good are we at that? What failures have we made, trying to take our “fate” into our own hands? Our challenge is to identify an area in which we are not trusting God to work for our good and ask God to help us change.

The other thing to do is make sure your group understands that God works through imperfect people and their sins. You have people in your class who think they aren’t good enough to be used by God. The story of Jacob makes it clear that such a “poor me” attitude isn’t a valid excuse. God can and will use anyone who just keeps putting one foot in front of the other. Confess your mistakes to God. Repent of them and ask for forgiveness. Then commit to following God’s plan for your family and our church!


Aside: Esau the Crude

Just because I find this interesting… Biblical scholars have pointed out the Esau’s dialog is of a very poor quality. When he asks Jacob for “stew”, he literally says “Give me some of that red red” or “red stuff”. The word used to describe Esau eating the stew appears nowhere else in the Bible, but it appears in other Jewish literature to describe how animals eat food. In other words, the biblical author (in this case Moses) seems to be giving not-so-subtle clues that Esau was uncivilized or uncouth—not worthy of being in the direct line of the Messiah. ThT may be so, but I don’t think that can excuse the serious sins committed by other in that direct line.


Closing Thoughts: The Most Despicable People in the World

Okay, this is debatable, but let me say that people who take advantage of the infirmities of the elderly are some of the most despicable people in the world. Every year, we hear about another scam targeting the elderly (and I’m not going to talk about the violent crimes against the elderly). You may not have any need or place for this, but if you have time, as an application, you might make a “public service announcement” to help your class be aware of scams and what they can do to protect themselves and their parents/grandparents:

• Posing as Medicare representative

• Fake online prescription drugs

• Lying about a debt

• Fraudulent anti-aging products

• Pretending to be a grandchild in need (like in an accident)

• The “pigeon drop” (give us some money and we’ll give you more)

• Phishing scams

• Reverse mortgage scams

• Overcharging for good or services (like storm cleanup, hearing aids)

• Or, unsolicited repair work

• Selling bogus items

• Impersonating law enforcement

• False prizes/lottery winnings

• Televangelism

Scammers target the elderly because their minds have slowed, their senses have dulled, and they would probably be too proud to report a crime anyway. Hey—isn’t that exactly what Jacob did to Isaac? Do what you can to help protect our elderly from being scammed out of their hard-earned savings.


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