Genesis Conversion: Jacob Becomes a Believer

A Devotional Reflection by Sarah Beall - written in 2010

I'll admit it. I'm a nerd. I love to read and I love to learn. That’s partly why I find the Old Testament so fascinating; I love trying to piece together the details, connecting the dots to discover new insights I had never noticed before. One of these that I've recently stumbled across concerns the life of Jacob. Do you know the story of how he became a believer?

I say that tongue in cheek; but be patient, and let me explain. Jacob, as you know, was something of a conniving character; you could call him “shrewd” or “clever” if you wanted to be less unflattering. He played off of Esau's weakness and took the firstborn birthright (Gen. 25:27-34); he stole Esau's firstborn blessing from their father, albeit with his mother's equally “clever” guidance (Gen. 27); he built up his flocks and herds at the expense of his uncle Laban's, apparently believing that the clever use of a superstitious practice involving stripped pieces of bark would enrich him (Gen. 30:25-43). And did you know that he also made a deal with God?

Picture this. Jacob, with his mother's guidance, stole the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau. Esau, understandably, is furious. Word reaches Jacob and his mother Rebekah that the cheated firstborn is “consoling himself” with the thought of killing his trickster younger twin (Gen. 27:42). Not good. Jacob, prompted by his mother to flee (Gen. 27:43-45) and instructed by his father to take a wife from among relatives (Gen. 28:1-5), leaves behind his family and his home, presumably everything he has ever known, and flees to the country of relatives he has never seen. On the way, he stops to spend the night in a place called Luz, with a rock for a pillow (Gen. 28:10). There he dreams that he sees angels, and that God speaks to him, promising to make of him a great nation, to keep him safe, and to return him to the land of his fathers. A reassuring promise in such circumstances, to say the least! What would you do in Jacob's position? Weep tears of gratitude? Make a magnificent vow to God in thanks?

Whatever you or I may have done, Jacob cuts a deal. When he wakes up, he sets up his pillow-rock as a pillar or a memorial, renames the place Bethel (“House of God”), and tells God, “If you keep me safe, if you bring me home, you will be my God” (Gen. 28:20-21).

Wait a minute. You will be my God? You mean He wasn't already? That's the detail that struck me as I read this story in Genesis. Further, I was even more struck as I read along by the fact that whenever God is mentioned, either by Jacob or by those speaking to Jacob, He is not referred to as Jacob's God, but as the God of Jacob's fathers. When he brings his father stew, Jacob tells Isaac that “the Lord your God gave me success” (Gen. 27:20). When God appears to Jacob at Luz/Bethel, He identifies Himself as “the God of your father Abraham ... and Isaac” (Gen. 28:13). Jacob calls Him “the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac” (Gen. 31:42). Laban, speaking to Jacob, calls Him “The God of your fathers” (Gen. 31:29). His fathers' God . . . but not Jacob's God? How curious.

Traveling on from Bethel, the site of God's promise and Jacob's deal, Jacob arrives in Paddan- Aram, where he spends twenty years with his uncle Laban (Gen. 29; 31:38). During that time God's promise to prosper Jacob comes to an amazing fruition. He gains wives and children; he gains flocks and herds, the currency of wealth in that culture and time. He becomes so wealthy, in fact, that it's said that everything that once was Laban's is now Jacob's (Gen. 31:1).

At the end of his twenty years in the service of Laban, Jacob has a dream in which God tells him it's time to return to his homeland (Gen. 31:10-13). There's a bit of a confrontation with Laban over this, as Jacob attempts to sneak away without his uncle’s knowledge, while Rachel, unbeknownst to anyone, steals her father's idols (Gen. 31:19, 20). Not exactly an endearing farewell gift—Jacob doesn't seem to be too good at those—but in the end things are smoothed over, more or less, and Jacob continues on his way.

But the closer he comes to home, the more his uncertainty and fear grow. He has not forgotten the circumstances of his departure; but has Esau forgotten? What will the slighted elder brother say? Will he still be angry, after twenty years? Will he still be bent on vengeance?

Then Jacob discovers that Esau is coming out to meet him, accompanied by 400 men. This, of course, sounds more like a small army than a welcoming committee, and Jacob is very frightened. He splits up his enormous camp, thinking that if Esau destroys one camp, at least the other might escape—yes, he's that afraid of Esau—and then he cries out to God. “Remember Your promise?” he says. “You've prospered me way beyond what I deserve. Please don't abandon me now. You told me to come home, and You've said You'd keep me safe and make of me a great nation” (Gen. 32:10-13).

It turns out, as we all know, that Jacob's fears are unrealized. Esau falls on his brother, weeping, welcoming him home with tears and joy, in a tender and unexpected reunion scene. The two brothers settle in the land, Esau generously moving his own flocks and herds to give his cheating little brother, now completely forgiven, more room (Gen. 33). God has kept his promise. Jacob has prospered, has begun building that “great nation” with twelve sons and one daughter, and has come home safe.

Now it's Jacob's turn. If you keep me safe, Jacob had said, You will be my God. Settling in Shechem, he builds his first recorded altar to the Lord (Gen. 33:20), something both Abraham and Isaac had done before him. He takes his family back to Bethel, where he slept when fleeing his brother, and where God had appeared to him and made the promise to protect and to prosper. Jacob directs his family to purge the camp: get rid of all idols and gods (including, presumably, those Rachel had stolen from her father) (Gen. 35:2-3). Here at Bethel again, he builds a second altar to the Lord, following in his fathers' footsteps. The God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, the One who until now had only been referred to as the God of Jacob's fathers, has now become the God of Jacob, as well.

We sometimes use the phrase “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” to refer to God; this was a title God used much later when introducing himself, so to speak, to Moses. But there was a time, during Jacob's lifetime, that Elohim was only the God of Jacob's fathers, of Abraham and of Isaac. Even for Jacob, there had to come a day when he would own his fathers' faith, to use the contemporary phrase, remove the idols from his midst, build his altar to the Lord, and make the God of his fathers' his own. To those of us privileged enough to be raised in a family, or a country, with a God-fearing heritage, the heritage itself is not enough. We, like Jacob, must choose to follow and to obey. I must make the God of my fathers my own.

Sarah Beall 2008Sarah Beall graduated from Thomas Edison State College in 2009. She enjoys the Bible, her Lord, piano, music, history, science, languages, learning of any kind, books, children, the outdoors, travel, classical concerts, ministering with her family, food, and life in general! She currently is teaching piano lessons in several studios and enjoys playing chamber music when she can find musicians to perform with.