THE COVENANT WITH ISAAC: III
In contrast to the stipulations to Adam and Noah, Abram’s was the most demanding; yet, Abraham was to make the greatest sacrifice. God demanded that Abram share his son Isaac with God. In Isaac God would begin to built a nation that would represent Yahweh on earth. Isaac lived up to the expectation and trusted in God. He married at the age of forty. His wife Rebekah was barren for twenty years. During this time, Isaac did not turn to other women to secure an heir like his father Abraham did. Isaac prayed and trusted God who answered by speaking to Rebekah:
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be
divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” On the day the twins were born, “The first came forth red and his body was like a hairy mantle; so they called him Esau. Afterward his brother came forth, and his hand had taken hold of Esau’s heel; so his name was called Jacob” (Genesis 25:23b-26)
These two brothers were left in the hands of their mother, who made certain that the promise she believed had come from God would be carried out. Rebekah, no doubt, trained Jacob to swindle Esau out of his birthright. Jacob conveniently was boiling pottage when a famished Esau returned from a hard day’s work and asked his brother, “Let me eat some of that red pottage, for I am famished!” (Therefore his name was also called Edom). Jacob saw his opportunity and demanded of his brother, who must have had a terrible day because he felt like dying. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” “So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright (Genesis 25:29-34).
Isaac appeared to have had an uneventful life. He, like his father Abraham, lived through a famine. Isaac tried to move to Egypt, but he ended up in Abimelech’s territory. Also Isaac unnecessarily lied about Rebekah being his wife. God reassured Isaac that the “Covenant” to his father would remain intact:
“Do not go to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all the lands, and I will fulfill the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves: because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:2b-5).
Abimelech feared Isaac. Therefore, Abimelech asked Isaac to leave and Isaac did leave peacefully. God again send Isaac a reassuring message, “I am the God of Abraham your father; fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your descendants for my servant Abraham’s sake” (Genesis 26:24). The “Covenant” or oath God made to Abraham was eternal and everlasting. The “Covenant” was an act of grace available to Abraham’s descendants and to others who decided to live under the “Covenant.” At some point, God had planted a Law in Abraham’s heart that Moses, centuries later, would carve into stones. It was obedience to that Law, which the “Covenant” protected. To make the “Covenant” workable, the believers in the God Most High needed a piece of real estate where they could keep the “Covenant”and practice their faith. According to the testimony of King Abimelech, Isaac tried to honor God visibly:
We see plainly that the Lord is with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord (Genesis 26:26-33).
Isaac did enter the “Covenant” (agreement), but his people and Abimelech’s people did squabble over water for the herds and flocks. Isaac, to the outside looked dignified and godly, but to the inside, he and his wife disagreed over their two sons’ future. Isaac favored Esau and Rebekah favored Jacob. After Esau had lost his birthright to Jacob, he annoyed his parents by marrying two Hittite women, who did not please Isaac or Rebekah (Genesis 26:34-35). Isaac had grown old and blind and decided to hand the family staff of leadership to his oldest son Esau. According to custom, Esau, the hunter, was asked to prepare a meal before his father would bless him. Rebekah had waited for that moment and plotted to deceive her husband so he would bless her favored Jacob. Rebekah prepared the meal, put lamb skins on Jacob’s hands, dressed him in Esau’s clothes, instructed him to lie, and took the curse on herself. It all went as planned. Isaac did recognize Jacob’s voice, but was deceived by the hair and the hunter’s smelling clothes. Isaac was surprised that Esau was able to prepare the meal so quickly and he specifically asked the pretender, “Are you really my son Esau?” Jacob lied and replied, “I am.”
Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garments, and he blessed him, and said, “See, the smell of my son is the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed! May God give you the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine? Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one who curses you, and blessed be every one who blesses you (Genesis 27:24-29)!”
The blessings became presumptuous. Jacob, the imposter recipient, never fully enjoyed the blessings because the blessings were granted in deception (Deuteronomy 18:21-22). No human being has that power to tell the Lord God what He has to do. Jacob and Rebekah had broken the “Laws of truth.” And therefore, and for that reason alone, their offspring never had nor ever will have the world bow at their feet. Of course, this is not what the people of Israel want to hear! And yet, it is in their Law, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (brother),” and “You shall not covet what is not yours” (Exodus 20:16-17).
The belief that a father can promise a child of what the future will hold fell out the window because the children cannot, neither will they walk in their father’s shoes. With the help of his mother, Jacob laid his own foundation for his offspring. Jacob literally demanded that the God of Abraham accept his proposition. Jacob’s growth, of his material prosperity, convinced the unbelievers that God was on his side and that God had chosen him to carry the mantle of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As far as Isaac was concerned, he had nothing left for Esau who pleaded, in tears, for some blessing:
When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with and exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, ‘Bless me, even me also, O my father!’ But Isaac said, ‘Your brother came with guile, and he has taken away your blessing.’ Esau replied, ‘Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has supplanted me these two times. He took away my birthright; and behold, now he has taken away my blessings.’ Then Esau asked his father, ‘Have you not reserved a blessing for me?’ Isaac answered, ‘Behold, I have made him your lord, and all his brothers I have given him for servants, with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?’ Esau kept begging his father, ‘Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.’ And Esau lifted his voice and wept. Then Isaac his father answered Esau, “Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother; but when you break loose you shall break his yoke from your neck” (Genesis 27:33-40).
Esau was not intimidated by his father’s prediction that Jacob would lord it over him. Rather, it was Esau that drove Jacob into exile to Mesopotamia, where he and Laban cheated each other for twenty years. Rebekah learned of Esau’s plan to kill Jacob. So Rebekah appealed to Isaac, in Jacob’s behalf. Under false pretense, Rebekah had Isaac bless Jacob and then she sent him to Laban to find a wife.
Jacob obeyed his mother and went to her brother Laban where he stayed twenty years and acquired four wives, eleven sons and one daughter. Actually, he found two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, one daughter and more livestock than his father-in-law Laban had. On top of it, Rachel, the love of Jacob’s life, stole her father’s idols. On his flight from Esau to Haran, Jacob had a dream in which he negotiated with God what he expected from God if he would be allowed to return home safely:
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you (Genesis 28:12-15).
Jacob awoke in awe and vowed with making demands:
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place; and I did not know it.” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone which he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on top of it (Genesis 28:16-19).
Jacob set a precedent for many who treat God as someone who has to reciprocate, regardless of what man does because of the “Covenant” God made with Abraham. In spite of their underhandedness of Sarah and Rebekah, their decision to choose the heir to the “Covenant” to Abraham, God was bound to accept as legitimate. From Jacob to Christ and into our time, the Jews and also the Christians have accepted this version of faith. This precisely was why my friend still believes in an unchangeable “Covenant” and challenged me to take a closer look at God’s covenant to Abraham. Jesus, for me, gave us the ultimate example of what the “Covenant” required to be validated by man’s endorsement. The Jews insisted that they were the true descendants of Abraham and of God. Yet — Jesus pointed out that the Jews by their own deeds, no longer, were God’s children:
“If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did (he accepted and believed every messenger God sent), but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God; this is not what Abraham did. You do what your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born in fornication; we have one father, even God.” Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I proceeded and came from God; I came not on my own accord, but He sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:39-44).
Christians who hang on to grace, as the Jews do to the “Covenant,” we owe it to ourselves, to examine the validity of our belief. And we shall do that in another part of this series of studies.
Jacob set a second precedent, many Jews, as well as many Christians, have hung their salvation on it; namely, in a faith without any human contribution. Jacob vowed:
“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 thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee” (Genesis 28:20-22).
We think, “When God is giving us what we want, and when God does what we want,” — then He will definitely be our God. That sounds simple! And it even sounds generous enough, which reminds us of the many prayer requests all of us have made. The key issue was and still is that God can prove Himself by precisely what Jacob had proposed. And when it happened, by Jacob’s own conniving and cheating; therefore, Jacob credited the God of Abraham and Isaac with the answered prayer to his own wish.
Jacob was a very resourceful person and very quick in grasping situations that could serve him to his advantage. More than any one, Jacob valued his life above everyone and everything else in this world. First of all, Jacob was a man who counted his blessings in materialism, and so did his generation and also his offspring. God was best identified in the prosperity of wealth and well being of man. That was how Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright, and also that is how he exploited his uncle Laban for his women and for his livestock. Jacob arrived at the well near Paddan Aram in Mesopotamia just when the shepherds brought their sheep to be watered. From the shepherds Jacob learned who Rachel was and that Laban was her father and that he was well off. Jacob went into action:
Now when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel and wept out loud. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father. When Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister’s son, he ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. And Jacob told Laban all these things, and Laban said to him, ‘Surely you are my bone and my flesh!’ And he stayed for a month (Genesis 29:10-14).
That was all the time Jacob needed to warm his way into Laban’s heart. There is no mentioning as to why he had come to Haran. Jacob played the victim and not the rogue. People are prone to fall for sad stories, particular with people who have a charm of truth about them. Jacob had a rare likable glimmer about him. Laban had no idea what Jacob was capable of. One could describe Jacob with the words Jesus used to depict the behavior of his first missionaries, “Lo, I sent you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).
Jacob was clever and pretended to be innocent; however, he was not a dove, but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Jacob excelled in creating the impression that everything he did was willed by his father’s God. He did everything as agreed with Laban, but the scales always tipped in Jacob’s favor until the scales overfilled, and then Jacob had to run again. Jacob had robbed Laban of his children, grandchildren, and more than half of his flock and herd. Jacob also had convinced his wives that it was their father that had changed the wages. Laban was angry and set out to punish the rogue. Yet, for the sake of Abraham, God protected Jacob. At least that was what the historian wanted everyone to believe. Abraham had become the favored grandfather and Jacob the favored grandson. Unlike the Apostle Paul, God only was the God of the Jews. Unfortunately, that was what the Gentiles were led to believe (Romans 3:29; Ezra 1:2-4). Simon Peter was beside himself when three men came looking for him and take him to Cornelius, the Roman soldier. “And while Peter was pondering the vision (of unclean food), the Spirit said to him, ‘Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down, and accompany them without hesitation; for I have sent them’” (Acts 10:19-20). Peter obeyed and went with the men and was surprised that God had arrived ahead of him in a Gentile’s home with many of his kinfolk and servants ready for Peter to tell them about Jesus. The first words that came out of Peter’s mouth at their first meeting was, “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
Impartiality was not a characteristic of God for the Jews who regarded themselves as the children of God and the children of Abraham. God even hated Jacob’s brother Esau (Malachi 1:2-3). It would take centuries and a Moses when partiality would be outlawed:
“You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another. And shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. You shall not do injustice; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand forth against the life of your neighbor; I am the Lord. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:11-18).
Jacob did not fit into this mold of thought and neither did his idea of God. God was like an idol that one could carry with him. One could call on God when one needed Him, and one only could find Him in certain places. Jacob had his first dream about God at Bethel and when he woke up in the morning he exclaimed, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” And Jacob was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:16-17). It took twenty more years for Jacob when a whisper from heaven reminded him of the place where he had asked God to protect him from his brother and now from Laban. Jacob survived Laban only because God whispered to Laban, also in a dream, not to hurt Jacob, about whom God was partial. Laban gave up on everything Jacob claimed as his wages for service rendered. Laban also was missing his gods and accused Jacob of taking them. Jacob let Laban search his camp, except for Rachel who was indisposed for she set on her father’s idols on a camel (Genesis 31).
Most of Jacob’s favors were materialistic and not even moral. For Jacob, “the end justifies the means” and he used to get what he wanted. He spotted the sheep with sap from the green poplar branches, which stained the wool. Therefore, Jacob convinced his father-in-law that it was a divination of God (Gen. 30:37-43). Apparently, Laban’s eyes, no longer, could detect a trickster. Like Esau, Laban too realized that his son-in-law outwitted him; and Jacob had no alternative, but to leave Laban, his father-in-law. Laban, too, was sensitive to dreams that cautioned him against retribution and he settled for recovering his idols that were hid by Rachel. Jacob and Laban parted in peace (Gen. 31). Laban was a small problem in comparison to the fear Jacob had to face with his brother Esau. Jacob became a very scared person and the blessing of Isaac that his brother would serve him meant nothing. He now was ready to bow to Esau and gladly give back the birthright. Esau had become more powerful and wealthy without Isaac’s blessing. Esau let Jacob have Canaan, which could not sustain two huge nomad camps without hurting the natives. Jacob did not know that Esau, no longer, sought restitution. Jacob went through a nightmare of fear and he feverishly began seek help from God. During that night, Jacob experienced a genuine conversion. He stopped being Jacob, the man of self-interests; and he became “Israel,” the father of a nation. He, no longer, was seeking his own safety, but the safety of his people. Jacob countered his previous precedents, and he set a new one. God does give man a second chance to come home and make up for his mistakes. Man can start life anew. God’s “Covenant” does not change! However, it is up to man to comply with God’s stipulations and with God’s Laws. In becoming Israel, Jacob began to validate the “Covenant” God made to Abraham and Isaac.
According to the Hebrew historians, the making of Israel was not an instant act. This was a lengthy and slow realization that the God of Abraham and Isaac was actually leading, as well as supervising the evolvement of the materialistic Jacob, into a spiritual leader of a people that God would make into a great nation. In Jacob’s first encounter with God, in Genesis 28:10-22, Jacob had asked for his safekeeping and for material success. All these things happened, in spite of the adversities Laban had put in Jacob’s way; yet, God removed all of them. Now, that Jacob faced Esau, whom he had swindled out of his birthright and his father’s blessing, he needed to know that he was not alone. God was traveling with Jacob with an army of angels, “Jacob went on his way (departing from Laban) and the angels of God met him; and when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God’s army!’ So he named the place Mahanaim” (Genesis 32:1-2). Jacob still was unaware that he had no need to fear his brother. Jacob had no perception that God had soften Laban’s heart, and that God already had softened Esau’s attitude toward his brother Jacob. Jacob sent messengers with gifts to Esau and when his brother did not reply, Jacob panicked and expected the worse from his brother. He expected Esau to attack him. So Jacob divided his people and his animals into two camps, in case they had to flee from Esau. Then Jacob turned to God in prayer and blame God for putting him in that spot:
O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who didst say to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness which thou hast shown to thy servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray thee, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and slay us all, the mothers with their children. But thou didst say, ‘I will do you good, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude. Jacob spent a night in fear of death (Genesis 32:3-12).