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Jacob and Esau

Learning Objectives & Bible Background

Learning Objectives for this Rotation

  • From a human point of view, Jacob's story is one of sin and redemption. This redemption happened because God chose to make himself known to Jacob (twice).
  • From God's point of view, it is the story of how God graciously works through his flawed children (like us) to fulfill his Covenant promise to raise up a kingdom of priests for the world.

Students will be able to:

  • Find the stories of Jacob in Genesis, in the Old Testament.
  • Retell the main parts of the story of Jacob in the correct order.
  • Understand that God's plan of redemption/salvation is at work in Jacob's life and our own, despite our imperfections.
  • Learn they can expect moments of undeserved spiritual connection and blessing, which can become life transforming experiences, which also lead us to reconcile with our brothers.
  • State that the name "Israel" means "one who wrestles with God," and understand that this also describes the nature of our encounters and walk with God: surprising, not always easy, often mysterious, but always blessed.

Scriptures to Be Read and Taught

The stories of Jacob are personal, detailed and extensive. Certain workshops in this Rotation will focus on certain passages, while others take an "overview" approach.

Each of Jacob's stories needs to be seen within the context of his overall story, the story of sin and redemption, with a special emphasis on God's reaching out to Jacob the sinner, confirming his promise and presence.

For the purposes of describing this story arc in a helpful way to teachers, we have organized and labeled the traditional list of "scriptures to be covered" that you'd find here in a different way: using the language of a play.

The Story of Jacob's Sin and Redemption

ACT 1:   Jacob and Esau

  • Genesis 25:24-28   The Birth of Esau and Jacob
  • Genesis 25:29-34   Esau trades away his birthright to Jacob for stew
  • Genesis 27:1-35     Jacob pretends to be Esau to receive Isaac's blessing
  • Genesis 27:41-44   Jacob escapes Esau's fury by fleeing to Uncle Laban

Interlude:  God steps in

  • Genesis 28:10-19   Jacob dreams of the staircase to heaven at Bethel.

ACT 2:  Jacob and Laban, Jacob becomes a family man

  • Genesis 29:15-30   Jacob marries Rachel and but gets Leah instead
  • Genesis 31:1-3      Jacob decides to stop working for Laban and go home
  • Genesis 32:3-7a    Jacob begins the journey home to see Esau

Interlude: God steps in again

  • Genesis 32:22-30  Jacob wrestles with God at night and gets named "Israel."

ACT 3:  Jacob Returns to Reconcile with Esau

  • Genesis 33:1-10   Jacob and Esau reconcile

There will be several key verses depending on the workshop you are in. The following is especially for teachers because it says so much about how God gives us all a wake up call, and the transforming nature of our personal encounters with God.

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said,
"Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!"

Genesis 28:16b

Additional insights and teaching points can be found in each workshop within this set.

Bible Background

Let's get right to the most important background: Jacob is us.
While it's interesting and perhaps even important in some traditions to understand the stories of Jacob as biographical (i.e. "history"), they are much more important than that issue. They are stories about you and me.

  • I'm a sinner
  • I've grabbed for more than I deserve
  • I've fled
  • I've fallen in love
  • I've been cheated and been a cheater
  • I'm someone who dreams of encountering angels and God — of feeling spiritually connected
  • I have wrestled at midnight with the unknown, only to discover it was God
  • I've had to come crawling back and make peace

There are many great stories in the Old Testament, but Jacob's is one of the few that feels personal and wholly plausible. Unlike Joseph's story, which also tells a personal story of redemption — from being thrown into a well to becoming 2nd in command of an empireJacob's story resonates on a personal level because we've all been there (or know someone who has). Sibling rivalry, a conniving parent, in-law trouble, and returning to face the music, these are all familiar human experiences. Unfortunately, some lesson writers turn these into mere morality plays. But these stories don't exist to counsel us about family troubles.

These stories remind us that it is within our very real troubles and real families, that God descends to give us a glimpse of something more, a stairway from heaven, and a blessing that he would always be with us — no matter what.

"Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go."
Genesis 28:15

It is in the midst of our totally undeserving and sinful lives that God literally and figuratively and unexpectedly grabs us, allows us to wrestle with him, and at daybreak, blesses us, instead of abandoning us.

Jacob deserves nothing. In fact, even at the end of the story you're still not sure you'd trust him with your last nickel. He's not a man after God's own heart like David was. He's given none of the tests of faith that his father Abraham passed. He's not even a follower of the law like King Saul or Caiaphas. When Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do," he had already used that line on Jacob.

What Jacob is: somebody who has encountered God, and is both literally and figuratively trying to turn his life around (to go back to Esau).  And he is somebody God made a promise to, and God will keep that promise, whether Jacob deserves it or not.

In the middle of Jacob's wholly undeserving life, God gives Jacob a glimpse, a grab, and an un-earned blessing.

...And Jacob begins to change.

Jacob was nicknamed "the over-reacher" or "the grasper" because apparently he was born holding onto Esau's foot. And you know you're in the middle of something greater than a mere biography when the story arc shows you that God helped him grasp something new and better. A vision of angels at work, God by his side, and willing to throw down with us for the sake of God's greater plan.

And when WE grasp that same point, we become part of that plan — the Kingdom of Priests — a nation dedicated to the reconciliation ministry of God, made perfect in Jesus Christ.

Some Background on Jacob in the Bible

Jacob is the third "patriarch" (or "Founding Father") of the Bible, the first being his grandfather Abraham, and then his father Isaac. From Jacob will come the 12 sons of Israel, the 12 tribes, and the most famous son: Joseph.  (We can't change the fact that these are all men, but we can strive to help our children see beyond gender, to see that they are all human, just like us.)

Fascinatingly (and thankfully), the stories of the first 3 patriarchs feature love stories with strong women. Abraham had Sarah, Isaac his beautiful Rebekah, and Jacob his beloved Rachel. Through their children, God is fulfilling his promise (his "covenant") first given to Abraham.  It was a promise to create from this family a nation that would function like a "Kingdom of Priests" at the crossroads of the Middle East. It is a theme echoed in 1 Peter 2:9, "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light."

Jacob may have lived around the year 1800 B.C. His stories in Genesis weren't written down for at least a thousand years afterwards (during the times of the Kings), so it is safe to assume that we are reading something more important than "history" as we think of it. Jacob's story is designed to teach fundamental truths — about where we have come from, what human beings are like, how God deals with us, and what God is trying to do with us.  Like Abraham's story, Jacob's story tells us that our God is personal and personally transforming.

Jacob's story arc also reminds us that salvation is not earned. Salvation is ours because of who God is and because of what God does. Jacob had cheated his father and brother and was fleeing when God caught up to him the first time.  

Jacob's is a story about amazing grace.

Jacob's story also reminds us to expect the presence of God, regardless of how undeserving we think we are. And so we watch for holy moments (staircases and angels), and learn to recognize God in our struggles.

Jacob's new Hebrew name, "Isra-el," means, "One Who Wrestles with God." It's the perfect name for the scoundrel Jacob, but also the perfect metaphor for understanding ourselves as well.  We doubt, we fall, we struggle, we think we have hold of God — only to discover that it's really God who has hold of us.

After studying these stories, may your children and teachers exclaim like Jacob, "Surely the Lord is in this place!"

The Jacob and Esau Lesson Set was extensively revised in 2015 to reflect the points of view in this new Bible Background. In addition to creating several workshop lessons that teach the entire story arc, the Writing Team has also created several workshops that focus on Jacob's life-changing, life-applying encounters with God at the stairway to heaven, and wrestling match.  See the Lesson Summary for more details.

Written by (Rev.) Neil MacQueen for the Writing Team

Permission granted to print and use for non-commercial teaching purposes.

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Last edited by Neil MacQueen
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