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Jacob views the covenant between him and the LORD as transactional. He is willing to put faith in God but only if God first demonstrates his power and grants Jacob favors. Jacob behaves like a shrewd businessman who is willing to agree to a profitable contract but only if some sort of collateral or ‘ability to pay’ is demonstrated first.
When Jacob sleeps at the temple at Bethel he has a dream with angels going up and down a stairway from heaven (Genesis 28:12). At the base of the stairway, and right beside Jacob, the LORD stood and, having introduced himself as the God of Jacob’s ancestors, promised to give to Jacob the land upon which Jacob was lying, to give him many ancestors, be with him, and protect him wherever he shall go; never leaving Jacob until the LORD fulfills all that he promised him (Genesis 28:13-15). Normally, if a human being were to have such a vision or dream from God, they would marvel at the power of God to do such a great wonder. At that point, seeing that the LORD has such great power, they would take the word of God at face value and would trust that such a powerful being would be faithful to His word. Jacob, instead, says “If God will be with me and protect me on this journey I am making and give me food to eat and clothes to wear, and I come back safely to my father’s house, the LORD will be my God (Genesis 28:20-21). In listing all these things that the LORD must fulfill before Jacob accepts the LORD as his God, Jacob indicates that his disposition toward God is one of doubt. Jacob is only willing to take the LORD as his God because he thinks that it will be beneficial and profitable for him to do so. This statement of Jacob sets the tone of his relationship with the LORD. Jacob, while recognizing the power of the LORD, does not trust the LORD entirely to fulfill His word or, at a minimum, he does not trust God to fulfill his word in the exact way that Jacob wants it to be fulfilled.
This dynamic of Jacob’s mistrust in how God will fulfill his word is highlighted in Chapter 32 when Jacob is informed that Esau, his brother, is coming with four hundred men to meet him (Genesis 32:7). Jacob had taken advantage of Esau in taking Esau’s right as first born (Genesis 25:33) and had stolen Isaac’s blessing meant for Esau (Genesis 27:36). Esau was angry at Jacob and had wanted to kill Jacob the last time the two brothers were near each other (Genesis 27:41). Jacob, fearing for his life, implores the LORD to “Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau! Otherwise I fear that he will come and strike me down” (Genesis 32:12). As was mentioned before, the LORD had promised Jacob that he would be with him and would never leave him (Genesis 28:15). Jacob, however, seems not to trust that God will protect him and takes some additional measures to, hopefully, save himself. He sends Esau a fairly large gift of livestock (Genesis 32:14-17) hoping that the gift will pacify Esau and save Jacob’s life (Genesis 32:21).
Jacob’s view of the covenant between himself and God is one of caution. He is willing to make use the covenant and reap its benefits but he does not surrender himself totally to the mercy of the LORD and trust the LORD’s actions. He forms contingencies in case God does not fulfill his word and even, in some sense, tries to manipulate God to fulfill his word in a way that Jacob wants. This stands in stark contrast to Abraham who, after receiving the long-promised son Isaac, is commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:2). Abraham is told to kill that which he loves most and that which God had promised to give him. Abraham has such great trust in the covenant that he knows God will not renege on his promise to give him a son and many descendants. Therefore, even though sacrificing his son would seem to run counter to God’s promises, Abraham proceeds to do as the LORD commanded until the angel of the LORD tells him not to kill his son at the last minute (Genesis 22:11-12). This course of action would probably not be taken by Jacob who would, most likely, try to find a way out of this command because of his mistrust in God.
There are some similarities between both Abraham’s and Jacob’s approach to the covenant. Both Abraham and Jacob are willing to use God’s commitment to them to profit, even if how they profit is the result of a dishonest and dishonorable con. Abraham takes advantage of his wife to con the Egyptians (Genesis 12:10). After the Egyptians begin to suffer by the hand of God for taking Abraham’s wife, they give Abraham’s wife back and send him off, but not before Abraham grew wealthy on account of his wife (Genesis 12:15-20). Jacob conned Laban (Genesis 30:25-43) and grew wealthy. Laban, realizing that the LORD was on Jacob’s side, had to let Jacob go.
I am bothered by the LORD’s seeming approval of Abraham’s and Jacob’s life choices and abuse of the covenant. But that being said, their conduct is not unlike our own. Often Christians abuse the covenant with God by sinning and by failing to improve themselves. Christians see that which is laid out before them and choose to grow wealthy here on earth, even though God promises great rewards in heaven. In the end however, if Christians repent for their sins before they die, God will forgive them and grant them salvation. In many respects, this promise of salvation and forgiveness of sins is much like God remaining committed to Abraham and his ancestors even though they commit dishonorable actions. For Christians, no matter what we do or how we sin, God is always willing to forgive our sins and welcome us back. God never abandons his chosen people.
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