Attention! has pledged to build one church a year in Uganda. Help us double that pledge and support pastors in the heart of Africa.
Click here to join the effort!

Bible Dictionaries

Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters


Additional Links


THERE was no Old Testament saint of them all who, first and last, saw more of the favour and forgiveness of God than Jacob. And yet, with all that, the great sins of Jacob's youth and the great sinfulness of Jacob's heart both found him out every day he lived down to the day of his death. Of Jacob, and of Rebekah his mother, it may truly be said, Thou, O Lord, wast a God that forgavest them, though Thou tookest vengeance on their inventions. It is part of Moses' subtlety, as Philo calls it, to tell us how much more Rebekah loved Jacob than she loved Esau, whom Isaac loved; and then, to go on to give us two examples, and two examples only, of that love. The first example of Rebekah's motherly love is seen when she dresses up Jacob in Esau's clothes, and drills him into the very tones of Esau's voice, as also into all Esau's hearty huntsman's ways in the house, till she has rehearsed her favourite son Jacob into a finished and perfect supplanter. And then, her second love is seen in the terror and in the haste with which she ships off Jacob to Haran lest Esau in his revenge should send one of his shafts through the supplanter's heart. All that stands in Moses, and much more like that, both in and after Moses; and yet here are we, down in the days of the New Testament, still dressing up our daughters, and emigrating our sons, as if we had been the first fathers and mothers in all the world to whom God had said, I will give thee thy wages.

Esau had been all up and down the whole country round about a hundred times. That bold and cunning hunter would be days and weeks away from home when the season came round for the venison to be on the hills. But Jacob had never been out of sight of his mother's tent-pole till now. The fugitive spent his first night in a herdman's hut, and his second night in the hut of a friendly native of the land; but after that all his nights were spent in the open air. And the first of Jacob's open-air nights is a night to be remembered, as we say. Poor Jacob! This is the beginning of the visitation of the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation. A Syrian ready to perish, were it not that man's extremity is God's opportunity. And were it not that Jacob, and all his true seed, are known to themselves and to us by the hundred and sixteenth psalm: 'The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me; I found trouble and sorrow. I was brought low, and He helped me.' And he took of the stones of that place and put them for his pillows, and lav down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed. God spake in divers manners in those early days. Jacob dreamed that night because Rebekah had neither a Bible nor a Pilgrim's Progress, nor a hymn-book, to put into his scrip beside his bread and his dates and his oil. No; nor, worst of all, a good example. Still, she may forget her sucking child that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb, yet will God not forget him. And thus it was that Jacob dreamed as he did dream his first night away from home. How dreadful is this place! Jacob had been taught to feel and to say how dreadful was that place where his father's altar was built; and those places where God had come down to talk with Adam, and Abel, and Noah, and Abraham, and Hagar. But Jacob had no idea that God was at Luz, or would ever come down to talk with him there. And, then, more than that, there was this. God's presence, God's holiness, but above all God's great grace, will always make the place dreadful to a great sinner. Dreadful, with a solemnising, awful, overwhelming dread that there is no other word for. How dreadful did all Jacob's life of sin look at Luz! He had had his own thoughts about himself, and about his mother, and about his father, and about his brother all these last three days across the wilderness. But it was not till that morning at Luz that Jacob learned to say: Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned! How dreadful did his past life look now, as it lay naked and open under that gate of heaven and that shining ladder! The lasting lesson of that best of all mornings to Jacob is memorably preserved to us and to our children in our Second Paraphrase; and as we sing or say to God that noble piece we still reap into our own hearts the first sheaf out of the rich harvest of Jacob's life. We always read that chapter and sing that paraphrase on the Sabbath night before we emigrate another of the sons of Jacob; but, alas! too late; for by that time our family worship, like Isaae's that night, is but locking the stable door after the steed is stolen.

What a down-come it was from the covenant-heights of Bethel to the cattle-troughs of Haran! What a cruel fall from the company of ascending and descending angels into the clutches of a finished rogue like Laban! Jacob had been all but carried up of angels from Bethel and taken into an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled; but, instead of that, he is taken down to Padan-arain, where he is cheated out of his wages, and cheated out of his wife, and cheated, and cheated, and cheated again, ten times cheated, and that too by his own mother's brother, till cheating came out of Jacob's nostrils, and stank in his eyes, and became hateful as hell to Jacob's heart. We say that Greek sometimes meets Greek. We say that diamond sometimes cuts diamond. We calculate the length of handle his spoon would need to have who sups with the devil. We speak about the seller being sold. And we quote David to the effect that to the froward God will show Himself froward; and Paul to the same effect, that as a man soweth so shall he reap. Yes. Other people had been cheating their fathers and their brothers all these years as well as Rebekah and Jacob. Other little boys had been taking prizes in the devil's sly school besides Rebekah's favourite son. Laban, Rebekah's brother, and bone of her bone, had been making as pious speeches at Bethuel's blind bedside as ever Jacob made at Isaac's. And now that the actors are all ready, and the stage is all built, and the scenery is all hung up, all the world is invited in to see the serio-comedy of the Syrian biter bit, or Rebekah's poor lost sheep shorn to the bone by the steely shears of Shylock her brother. 'What is this that thou hast done unto me? Wherefore hast thou so beguiled me?'-Jacob appealed and remonstrated in his sweet, injured, salad innocence. Jacob had never seen or heard the like of it in his country. It shocked terribly and irrecoverably Jacob's inborn sense of right and wrong; it almost shook down Jacob's whole faith in the God of Bethel. And so still. We never see what wickedness thore is in lies, and treachery, and cheatery, and injury of all kinds till we are cheated, and lied against and injured. ourselves. We will sit all our days and speak against our brother till some one comes and reports to us what they say who sit and speak against us. And then the whole blackness and utter abominableness of detraction and calumny and slander breaks out upon us, till we cut out our tongue rather than ever again so employ it. It was Jacob's salvation that he fell into the hands of that cruel land-shark, his uncle Laban. Jacob's salvation somewhat nearer now than when he believed at Bethel; but, all the same, what is bred in the bone is not got clean rid of in a day. It were laughable to a degree, if it were not so sad, to see Jacob, after all his smart, still peeling the stakes of poplar, and chestnut, and hazel where the cattle came to drink, till it came about that all the feebler births in the cattle-pens were Laban's and all the stronger were Jacob's. And till Laban had to give it up and to confess himself completely outwitted; and till he piously and affectionately proposed a covenant at Mizpah, saying, This pillar be witness that I will not pass over it to harm thee, nor thou to harm me.

Before we leave Laban and his enfeebled cattle, we take some excellent lessons away with us. And one of those excellent lessons is a lesson in the most perfect English style. The whole Laban episode is rich in gems of composition and expression. The Master of expression himself falls far below Moses more than once in these chapters. The prince in the Tempest is wine and water compared with Jacob. Even Burns has it better than Shakespeare:

The man that lo'es his mistress weel
Nae travel makes him weary.

But this is still better than either: 'Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had to her.' And there are other gems of the pen scattered lavishly about this same passage quite as good as that. Only, we are in quest tonight of better gems than gems of English, beautiful and rare and precious as they are.

We may emigrate our sons to the gold-fields of South Africa, or to the cattle-ranches of America or Australia, and they may make such a fortune there as to be able to come home after we are no more, and build in the West-end, and educate their children in this capital of learning. But as long as Esau lives, as long as that man or that woman lives whom our son supplanted so long ago, he will build his house over a volcano, and will travel home to it with a trembling heart. And Jacob's heart often trembled and often stood still all the way of the wilderness from Haran to the Jabbok. Your son will send home secret instructions to some old class-fellow who is now at the top of the law to effect a peace, if not forgiveness and reconciliation, at any price. And so did Jacob. Jacob took a great herd of Laban's whitest cattle: goats, and camels, and kine, and everything he could think of, and sent herd after herd on beforehand so as to quench the embers of his brother's wrath. We have a like instance in that Highlander who, on hearing Robert Bruce inveighing in the High Kirk against those sins of which he knew himself to have been guilty, came up to the great preacher and said, 'I'se gie thee twenty cows to gree God and me.' But, to Jacob's consternation, Esau never looked at those lowing, snow-white herds, but put on his armour in silence, and came posting north at the head of four hundred men. When Jacob's scouts returned and told him alt that, he was in absolute desperation. Had he been alone it would have been easy. But, with all these women and children, and with all these cattle and other encumbrances, was there ever a man taken in such a cruel trap! But he had still one whole night to count on before Esau could be at the Jabbok. And here is his prayer that night, preserved word for word to us his sons; his instant prayer after the scouts came back: 'l am not worthy of the least of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast showed to Thy servant: for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become these twl bands. Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother Esau, lest he smite me, and the women with.the children.' That is a fine sentence about the staff. It is points like that in a prayer and in a psalm that touch and take captive both God and man. That staff at the first had been a birthday gift from his twin-brother Esau. The cunning hunter had cut it out of the wood one day, and had carried home his snares and his venison slung over it on his shoulder. When he saw that Jacob envied it, Esau smoothed the stout branch better, and straightened it out, and carved E. and J. into a true lover's knot under the handle of it, and laid it beside Jacob's lentil dish on the morning of their double birthday. That staff felt like so much lead when Jacob took it into his hand to run from home; but he would need it, and, though it sometimes burned his hand to a red-hot cinder, somehow he never could throw it away. That staff stood sentinel over its dreaming master at Bethel, and with its help he waded the Jordan, and sprang the Jabbok, till he laid it down to water Rachel's sheep in Padan-arain. Jacob and his staff were a perfect proverb in Padan-aram. They were never found separated. Jacob never felt alone when he had his staff in his hand; and many a time he was overheard talking to it, and it to him. And now, at the return to Jabbok, with that staff he made his prayer and praise to God, as if it had been some sacred instrument of a priest which had power with God. And, no doubt, we all have a staff, or a pen, or a ring, or book, or a Bible, or something or other that has gone with us through all our banishments, migrations, ups and downs in life, and when our hearts are soft and our prayers come upon us we again take that old companion by the hand. You will have a blue old cloak, like Newman's, or a. brown old plaid that you bought while yet you were in your mother's house,-I have one,-and you feel sure that you could pit that old plaid with a story hanging at every single thrum and tassel of it, against Jacob's so-travelled staff any day. You will give orders that that old wrap is to be your winding-sheet; and you will wear it, with all its memories of judgment and of mercy, under your wedding garment in heaven. 'With my staff I passed over this Jordan, and now I am become these two bands.'

And he took them and sent them over the brook, and sent over all that he had. And when the night fell upon him Jacob was left alone. But now, who can tell how near Esau may be by this time! That cunning, cruel, revengeful man! Till, as the darkness fell so obscure, every plunge of the Jabbok, and every roar of the storm, made Jacob feel the smell of Esau's coat and the blow of his hairy hand. Whether in the body, Jacob to the day of his death could never tell; or whether out of the body, Jacob could never tell; but such a night of terror and of battle no other man ever spent. It was Esau, and it was not Esau. It was God, and it was not God. It was both God and Esau; till Jacob to the day of his death could never tell Who the terrible Wrestler really was Just before the morning broke, with one last wrench Jacob was left halt and lame for life. When, as if from the open heaven, he was baptized of the gracious Wrestler into a new name. For as He departed and the morning broke, the mysterious Han said to Jacob as he lay prostrate at His feet, Thou art henceforth no longer Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince thou hast power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

Jacob's new name is a great surprise to us. We would never have called Jacob a prince. There are many other names and titles and epithets we would have given to this overtaken son of Isaac and Rebekah; this broken brother of Esau, whose sins have so found him out. But God proclaims Jacob ever after the Jabbok none of our names, but a prince. And for this reason. Prayer, such prayer as Jacob prayed that night, is the princeliest act any man can possibly perform. The noblest, the grandest, the boldest, the most magnificent act a human being can perform on this earth is to pray; to pray, that is, as Jacob prayed at Peniel. No man is a prince with God all at once; no, nor after many years. Few men-one here and another there-ever come to any princeliness at all, either in their prayers or in anything else. Jacob had twenty years, and more, of sin and of sorrow, of remorse and of repentance, of gratitude for such a miraculous past, and of beaten-back effort after a better life, and then, to crown all, he had that unparalleled night of fear and prayer at the Jabbok; a night's work such that even the Bible has nothing else like it till our Lord's night in Gethsemane,-and it is only after all that, and far more than Moses with all his honesty and all his subtlety has told us,-it is only then that Jacob is proclaimed of God a prince with God. You must understand that prayer, to be called prayer, is not what you hear people all about you calling prayer. That is not prayer. Jacob's thigh was out of joint, and our Lord's sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground. Prayer is colossal work. There were giants in those days. Prayer takes all our heart, and all our soul, and all our strength, and all our mind, and all our life, sleeping and waking. Prayer is the princeliest, the noblest, the most unearthly act on this side heaven. Only pray, then; only Pray aright, and enough, and it will change your whole nature as it changed Jacob's. Till, from the meanest, the falsest, the most treacherous, the most deceitful, the most found-out, and the most miserable of men, it will make you also a very prince with God and with men. Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help!

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Jacob'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. 1901.

Search for…
Enter query in the box below:
Choose a letter to browse:
Prev Entry