God's Faithfulness: What Happened to Isaac? Gen. 25:19 - 35:29
What we have here is the outworking of the Abrahamic covenant. The Abrahamic covenant promised land, seed, and blessing. Isaac is the promised seed, and that is how Isaac is primarily referenced when we come to the New Testament, but the blessing is passed on through Isaac. He is the transition man to Jacob. What under girds everything here is still this understanding of the Abrahamic covenant. They are still in the land but Jacob is going to leave. He is going to head back to Haran. He has really angered brother Esau who is just fit to be tied and ready to strangle him, and so Jacob's mother Rebekah decides it is better for Jacob to get out of town. He gets Isaac's blessing and heads to Haran, the traditional family home, and he is going to look for a wife. He ends up being gone for twenty years, but he has to come back to the land that God promised so that the descendants will be living in the land. The third aspect of the covenant, the blessing, is foundational to understanding everything that is going on here.
The first thing we should ask ourselves is how Isaac is used in the New Testament. We don't find too much. The name "Isaac" is only mentioned twenty times in the New Testament. He is mentioned as being an ancestor of Jesus in Jesus' genealogies in both Matthew 1:2 and Luke 3:34. His name is in the formula of the three patriarchs of Israel several times—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is mentioned in passing in relation to the history of Israel in Stephen's sermon in Acts 7, and he is mentioned as being the promised seed in Romans 9:7, 10; Hebrews 11:18; Galatians 4:28, but is not really used as an example of anything. It is just the mention of the historical reality that he was the promised seed of Abraham. In the same way, he is mentioned as the one whom Abraham offered on Mount Moraih in Hebrews 11:17; James 2:21. His name is mentioned again in terms of being the one who blessed Jacob and Esau in Hebrews 11:20. So there is no place in the New Testament that goes to Isaac and uses anything in Isaac's life as an example for us for spiritual teaching. That doesn't mean he isn't but it is just as if Isaac just hangs there, his importance is being born as the promised seed, the only begotten child of Abraham, and his place as the one who is the father of Jacob, and his function is merely transitional. There is a little more to it than that but there is not a lot said about Isaac.
Then we come to Jacob. Jacob is the primary focus of this section, Genesis 25-35, so we should ask how Jacob is used as a model for New Testament teaching. Jacob is a name that is mentioned 25 times in the New Testament. Again, he is mentioned as an ancestor of Jesus in the genealogies. He is mentioned in the formula of the patriarchs of Israel—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is referred to with reference to his name for the nation. It is from Jacob that we get the name for the nation—the house of Jacob. We find out that through this at the end of his life he gets a new name from God: Israel, meaning prince with God. So there is a transition going on here, and what we find later on is that when the nation is in carnality it is referred to as the house of Jacob, but when they are walking with the Lord they are referred to as the house of Israel. For most of his life is just a scheming, conniving individual. He is ready to do any kind of underhanded deal to get what he wants. There are historical references to Jacob in John chapter four—Jacob's well and Jacob is the ancestor of Israel. But the key doctrine that he is used to illustrate is Romans 9:13, the doctrine of election. That is the major doctrine that Jacob has relationship to when we come to the New Testament. Both Isaac and Jacob served as a transition from Abraham to Joseph, and both are very strong examples of relationship with the Lord.
What is the structure of this section? The center focus of the narrative is on birth, in the section from 29:31 through the end of chapter 30. It focuses on he birth of children in the house of Jacob and then the birth of his expansion, which is the unfolding of God's promise of blessing. So the center point focuses attention on the ongoing fulfillment on God's part of the Abrahamic covenant. He is going to provide descendants to Jacob so that the seed continues and He is going to bless him and prosper him. It starts of with the struggle at birth, which foreshadows the struggle over their birthright, and ends with a blessing that is given at the end of chapter 35, and again, another struggle.
The key events. The first major event is the pregnancy prophecy in chapter 25:19ff. Things move very fast in this narrative. Isaac, we are told in verse 20, is forty years old when he took Rebekah as his wife, but for 20 years there is no pregnancy, she is barren. So once again we have this theme of a barren woman. Sarah was barren and now Rebekah. We are reminded that she is the daughter of Bethuel, the sister of Laban. Laban is going to play a major role when we get into the center of this story. Isaac pleaded with the Lord for his wife. He is praying diligently because she is barren, and the Lord grants his request. She gets pregnant but she gets a double blessing and is pregnant with twins. During the pregnancy there is a tremendous amount of activity between these twins, and so she enquires of the Lord as to why it seemed that there was so much physical activity. We discern here that the Lord is behind that in order to use it as an opportunity to foretell the destinies of the descendants of these two individuals. Genesis 25:23, "And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in your womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger." Wee should pay attention to that. There is a lot that is going to happen in the next two or three chapters where this family is trying to manipulate the blessing of God, and they are trying to do this and do that, and they have ignored the fact that God has already established before the birth of these two sons that the older wills serve the younger, that the line is going to go through Jacob, not through Esau. But there is all this manipulation because that is what happens when people are not walking with the Lord and trusting Him. They try to make everything happen rather than waiting on the Lord. They try to get everything to happen on their own terms.
So the boys are born and there is a major parental problem introduced in verse 28: "And Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekah loved Jacob." Isaac loved that good food and the wild game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. There was a personality affinity between Isaac and Esau and Rebekah and Jacob, and they had parental favoritism. This parental favoritism is going to lead to a fragmentation of the family. Just as Abraham's decision to go down to Egypt rather than trust God and stay in the land, and to make what seemed to be an inconsequential decision to purchase the Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, and we are still struggling with the results, this favoritism leads to a fragmentation in the family, and we are still dealing with the results of that. Probably the Lord puts this in here for us to understand that decisions that we make in carnality, while the decision itself seems inconsequential, the long-term results can be quite consequential. Consequences can be devastating, not that our sins are visited on our children or grandchildren but certainly the consequences are put on their shoulders. They have to deal with, at times, the results of our bad decisions, and this can go on down through the generations. This fits into the whole theme of the angelic conflict, because what God is trying to demonstrate in the angelic conflict is that when the creature operates independently of the creator it always leads to chaos and catastrophe. And no matter how small or inconsequential the decision may be or the sin may be—it may not seem that it is a moral issue, we are just acting independently of God—the long-term consequences are going to be devastating.
Then we have what appears to be a little anecdote in verse 29 related to the birthright. This is the famous story where Esau sells his birthright. A birthright is his inheritance, and there is a play on words here that goes throughout this section between the Hebrew word for blessing and the Hebrew word for birthright. The Hebrew word for blessing is the word barakah, and the Hebrew word for birthright is bekorah. So there is this pun that is going on here between these two words in order to bring out the focal point of the text. We lose that in the English but pick it up when reading it in the Hebrew. This is a situation in verses 29-34 where the boys are older, probably in their late teenage years. Jacob is cooking a stew, red lentil soup. Remember than when Esau is born he comes out first and he is all covered over hairy and red. Now this is red lentil soup, so there is this little fun pun that the Holy Spirit is using to weave these episodes together. He comes in from the field and he is tired and he operates somewhat on emotion and lets his stomach be his god. The apostle Paul uses that same kind of illustration in Philippians chapter three—those that worship their appetites. And that is what Esau is doing, he is more concerned about his hunger than he is his inheritance, and he treats his inheritance very lightly. He is willing to sell it just to get his appetite satisfied. So he is a tremendous picture of the superficial, emotional individual who just doesn't pay attention to his own actions or their consequences, and he sells his birthright to Jacob.
So now Jacob has a right to the inheritance, but notice his manipulation to get it. The writer isn't giving approval to what Jacob is doing here. God has already announced where the blessing is going to go and where the birthright is going to go, but what we see is this picture of Jacob now fulfilling his name, which means "heel-grabber," because when the twins came out Esau came out first, Jacob is coming out second, and it appears that his hand is grabbing at the heel of his brother. So the name Jacob is a term that sounds like a conniver. I wouldn't mean that. Who is going to name their child Conniver? or Swindler? These are puns again.
Then we have another major episode when Isaac is tricked into blessing Jacob instead of Esau. The underlying emphasis here is that the hunter is trapped and tricked and falls into the trap set by his mother and his brother; the hunter is trapped by the trickster. There are two things happening here, the birthright which is the inheritance, and then the father's blessing which was a sort of prophecy or foreshadowing of their future destiny and prosperity. Isaac is out of it because he is ignoring God's prophecy; Rebekah is out of it because rather than trusting God she is going to manipulate the situation. Nobody in this chapter comes off good, God isn't mentioned anywhere in the chapter, He is totally out in the background somewhere, and this is a picture of how man tries to solve his problems and achieve God's blessing on his own terms.
So that is the third major thing we see in the toledot of Isaac, the fourth is Jacob's ladder in chapter 28. After having been deceived Esau is really angry and he wants to kill Jacob, according to 27:41, and Rebekah says it is time for Jacob to leave and go back to Laban. As he is going out of town he goes to Bethel and has a dream there of a ladder going up into heaven, the angels are coming down and going up the ladder, and God reconfirms the covenant to him. Genesis 28:13, 14, "And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; and your seed shall be as 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 in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." This is a reiteration of the Abrahamic covenant. There is a promise here that no matter what takes place in the coming years God is not going to desert Jacob, and He will bring Jacob back to the land.
Isaac never leaves the land, which means he was fully trusting God throughout his life, and he only has the one wife, Rebekah.
Then Jacob is out of the land for twenty years. This is covered in chapters 29-31 where he consistently gets out-connived by Laban until he has to escape in the dead of night. Eventually, between Leah, Rachel and the handmaidens there are the twelve sons of Jacob.
Jacob is out-connived by Laban, but God is blessing him. He blesses Jacob with numerous children and he becomes prosperous. Even Laban recognizes this because when Jacob wants to leave Laban says don't leave. As long as Jacob was there God blessed Laban, so he convinces Jacob to stay with him. Then we get to this very interesting deal in chapter 30 where Jacob makes a deal with Laban. Laban offers to give him wages but Jacob turns that down. Laban approaches him a second time and this time Jacob comes up with the deal. He is going to out-fox Laban. He comes up with this deal where he is going to take the speckled sheep and the speckled goats so that he is left with solid colored goats and sheep. Laban then, just to make sure he doesn't get snookered in the deal, is going to take all these striped and spotted goats and sheep and move them away to make sure there is no inter-breeding between the two. Because the deal that Jacob makes is that he gets to keep all the goats and the sheep that are striped and spotted. That will be his heard. Is he trusting God or is he using pagan magic to do it? That is really what happens when he takes the sticks of wood and peels off the bark in strips so that the wood is striped, and he is going to lay these pieces of striped wood in the water trough. The idea was that the sheep and the goats would come, and while they were drinking the water they would see this striped object. So then when they went back and mated they would produce striped and spotted offspring. That doesn't work; it is just magic. But we get the divine interpretation later on where it is clear that God is the one who produced the stripes and the spots in the live stock over a very short period of time. Jacob started with almost nothing and now his flocks just multiplied very rapidly so that he becomes very wealthy in terms of his livestock possession.
Jacob realizes that he has to get back to the land but he knows that Laban just keeps trying to stop him. He flees in the dead of night and finally Laban pursues him with his other sons and stop him. And there is this episode where Rachel goes back before they leave and she steals the household idols. When Laban finally catches them she admits to things that most women would never admit to and she gets away with it. Laban is a pagan, he loves those household idols. He is such a cheapskate he never gave them anything or gave the daughters what they deserve, so she is just taking what is rightfully hers. But what we see through this whole thing is the scheming and the conniving and back-stabbing; nobody is trustworthy, and yet in and through all of this sinfulness and all of this carnality God is still true to His Word, is still faithful, and He is going to bring about His desired end despite human sin. That is a tremendous lesson to learn, that everything is based on grace and even when we screw up God is going about His desired purposes and goals.
Laban makes peace with Jacob finally and Jacob has to go into the land, but he is scared to death because he thinks Esau is still ready to kill him. Jacob doesn't seem to be the great picture of bravery here because he is going to send all his flocks and herds in first, then the women and children and he is going to come last. So if Esau is going to attack him with all of his men and army, then Jacob is going to make sure he has plenty of room to turn around and run. In the process he comes back to Bethel and he finally turns to God. He realizes that if he is ever going to realize the blessing then it has to come solely and only from God. So we come to Genesis 32:9 where Jacob prays. His motivation is given back in verse 7. He was afraid and distressed. "And Jacob said, O God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, the LORD which said to me, Return unto your country, and to your kindred, and I will deal well with you: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which you have showed to your servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two bands. Deliver me, I pray you, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau: for I fear him, lest he will come and smite me, and the mother with the children. And you said, I will surely do you good, and make your seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude."
Jacob recognizes that all of the blessing that has come to him while he has been out of the land is from God. It didn't have anything to do with his conniving or all of his machinations in order to get this, it was God who provided all of this. So we see that he finally becomes grace oriented, he finally is humbled, he finally gets with it spiritually, and he calls upon the Lord to deliver him from his brother Esau. After this prayer, then that night there is a man who turns out to be the angel of the Lord who appears to him, and there is this wrestling match that takes place. It goes until the dawn and he finally prevails against the angel of the Lord but in the process the angel of the Lord is going to mark Jacob for the rest of his life by hitting him on the hip, knocking it out of joint, so that he is crippled. So everywhere he goes he is reminded of that principle that Paul talks about when he refers to the thorn in the flesh, that "My grace is sufficient for you." Jacob calls the place Penuel because he has seen God face to face and his life is preserved. It is at this point that Jacob is given a new name, because there is a character transformation moment finally. He is awakened spiritually. He has been a spiritual loser for most of his spiritual life and not trusting God, not relying upon Him, trying to do everything on his own, and finally he gets to this point. He humbles himself before God and gets a new name, Israel, which means prince with God.
Following this he and Esau meet. There is one more episode in verse 34 which is quite bizarre where Dinah is raped. Her brothers come along and are going to seek revenge. They do that by going in and telling all the men in the town that they need to get circumcised. They do it, and while they are in pain they attack them and kill all the men of the city. It is just a picture of how pagan the sons have become. It also continues the theme of the conflict that goes on between the seed of Abraham and the inhabitants of the land.
All of this sets the stage for why God has to take the Jews out of the land to Egypt for a while. The sons are a complete failure spiritually and they just want to completely intermarry with the Canaanites. God has to take them to Egypt in order to protect them so that the nation can grow before it completely destroys itself by assimilating with paganism.
The next major conflict within the story is that between Jacob and Laban. And within that conflict is the competition between Rachel and Leah. The competition between Rachal and Leah has to do with giving birth, which takes us right back to that major theme that goes through the last part of Genesis which has to do with the seed and the fulfillment of the seed promise in the Abrahamic covenant. But what lies behind all of these conflicts is an even greater conflict and that is the conflict between God and Jacob. Is Jacob going to submit his will to God's will and finally become oriented to grace? So we do see a picture of Jacob after his encounter with God at Penuel. He is going to be oriented to God's grace and we see a major change in his character. He is no longer the conniver-swindler, he is now the man who is going to trust God.
That brings us to chapter 35 where Jacob returns to the land. We are told about Rachel's death, there is a summation of who the twelve sons are, and then we are told that Jacob dies at 180 years.
What are the lessons?
1) Blessing is based upon grace. It is not based on what man does, it is based on the character of God. It is based on God's authority and God's sovereignty. He is the one who determines who He will bless and who He won't bless. He makes a choice between Jacob and Esau as to the line of the blessing. It is not about salvation, it is about His plan and purpose in history.
2) Grace is not based on human merit. None of these folks are painted in a very pretty picture; none of them are worthy of God's grace; none of them are worthy of the tremendous blessing that God gives them.
3) We see the transformation of Jacob the conniver to Israel the prince of God. The cunning conniver is transformed to prince with God because he humbles himself under the authority of God.
4) We see the increasing paganization of the descendants of Abraham. They look and act more and more like the Canaanites around them, which is why God is going to have to work in the latter part of the book to take them out of the land of Canaan and take them down to Egypt. The Egyptians hated the Semites. They were positive to Joseph because of what he did to help them survive during the famine but they hated the Jews, so they weren't going to intermarry with them or have anything to do with them. They gave them their own area to live in and they were isolated completely in their own culture, and so God uses that to protect the nation until He is ready to bring them out.