There is no other biblical personality that has been made more the butt of harsh and unfair criticism than that of the patriarch Jacob, one of the ancestors of the Jewish race. He is depicted as the cunning supplanter and schemer who takes advantage of his guileless and trusting brother, Esau, and robs him twice of his birthright and parental blessing.
Jacob is also accused of having acquired sheep and cattle by dubious means in his dealing with Laban, his father-in-law. Having painted him as a black character, his accusers thereupon proceed to point out that the Jews should have all the deplorable characteristics and moral ineptitudes of their ancestor. For centuries Jacob has been a strong weapon in the hands of the anti-Semites against the Jews.
It is true that Jacob, perhaps more than anybody else, personified his descendants the Jewish people. Yet after a close scrutiny of his biblical record, we rach the conclusion that the Jewish people have cause to look back with a sense of pride rather than shame upon their patriarchal prototype.
It is to the eternal glory of the Bible and a strong proof of its reliability and trustworthiness that the characters described in that Book are true to life. No attempt is made to gloss over their failures or sins or to make them appear as saints without blame and blemish. The ancient pagan classics always made of their heroes supermen and half-gods.
Jacob’s character, full of human frailties and failings, is real and near to us. The Word of God does not portray him as a plaster saint, but as a very human kind of being, sinful and wayward. The story of Jacob is the story of the power of God working upon the human heart, which seeks to break the shackles of self and sin and longs to dwell in the nearness of God. The greatness of Jacob is in his pathetic struggle against the earthly bonds and his striving to attain the things of God. In Jacob we see a sinner with the makings of a saint and of a great man of God.
Compared with his twin brother, Esau, the character of Jacob stands out in bold relief. The two are as different as are the flesh and the spirit, as differs the mind of this world from the mind of God. Born from one womb, the brothers belong to two different and essentially hostile worlds. Their incompatibility is indicated in the Word of God even before their birth. And they were separated forever.
A further indication as to the difference of the two brothers we have in the following words of the scriptures: “And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents” (Gen 25:27).
Esau represents the natural man with earthly needs and cravings. His chief interest is in hunting and in the satisfying of his physical appetites. But concerning Jacob we read that he was “a plain man.” The Hebrew idiom for “plain” conveys more than the English “plain.” It points to a steady, persevering character, one who is likely to press forward through suffering or prosperity, exile or return, bereavement or consolation.
Esau the hunter, the child of nature, is impulsive and prompted by his natural instincts. Jacob the tentmaker is contemplative, spiritually minded, and hungry after the things of God.
When Esau is hungry, food is above everything. The bowl of red pottage is more highly regarded than his birthright. Jocob, however, desires this one thing above all else, to obtain the birthright and the divine promises and blessings incidental to it, the chief one amongst them being the promise of a Redeemer (12:3).
To Esau, these things are of little value and meaning: “Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles, and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright” (25:34).