21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, bowing in worship over the head of his staff. – Hebrews 11:21 ESV
Jacob, the son of Isaac, had lived a full and far-from-boring life. He and his mother had conspired to deceive Isaac in order to receive the blessing reserved for the firstborn son. Even though he and his brother, Esau, were twins, Jacob had been born second, coming out of the womb while hanging on to his brother’s heel. This is how he got his name, Ya`aqob, which means, “he takes by the heel or he cheats.”
Jacob would live up to his name, living a life in self-imposed exile after having cheated his brother out of his blessing. When Jacob left home, his father, Isaac, reiterated his earlier blessing, stating, “God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give the blessing of Abraham to you and to your offspring with you, that you may take possession of the land of your sojournings that God gave to Abraham!” (Genesis 28:3-4 ESV).
Even while traveling to the land of Haran where his uncle Laban lived, Jacob had a dream and received a vision and a word from God.
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like 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 your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:13-15 ESV
God reaffirmed the blessing Jacob had received from Isaac. In spite of the deceit and trickery Jacob and Rebekah utilized to get the blessing, God clearly affirmed it. It had been His plan all along, just as He had told Rebekah before the boys were even born.
“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV
Yet, because of the way he and his mother had chosen to deceive Isaac, Jacob would spend years of his life living in exile in a foreign land far away from his father and mother. During his time in Haran, he continued his pattern of deception and even found himself on the receiving end when his uncle repeatedly deceived him. Part of his uncle’s trickery left Jacob with two wives who each bore him children. Yet, even while in exile, Jacob was blessed by God and grew rich and prosperous. But in time, he became homesick and decided to return to Canaan and face his brother’s anger.
On his way, he had a divine encounter with God. It took the form of a literal wrestling match when God appeared in human form and confronted His wayward servant. During this epic struggle, Jacob demanded that his opponent bless him, but rather than a blessing, Jacob received a new name.
“Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” – Genesis 32:28 ESV
This scene aptly sums up Jacob’s entire life because, ever since his birth, he had spent his entire life wrestling with God. Rather than trust God with the outcome of his life, Jacob repeatedly tried to do things his way. He desperately wanted his will to be done and was willing to use deceit and trickery to make it happen. Even in his physical struggle with the Almighty, it appears that he won the match because it states that God [the man], “did not prevail against Jacob” (Genesis 32:25 ESV).
But did Jacob really best God? Did he somehow manage to defeat the God of the universe? The text states that Jacob’s wrestling match with God left him with a dislocated hip joint. His struggle was not without pain and consequences. And his newly disabled hip would be accompanied by a new name. God declared that Jacob, who would now be called Israel, had “striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”
This was not a concession of defeat on God’s part. He was simply stating that Jacob had yet again managed to survive. The Hebrew word for “prevailed” is yakol and it means “to be able, be able to gain or accomplish, be able to endure, be able to reach.” Jacob had endured his exile. He had survived his own life of deceit. He had even managed to go toe-to-toe with God and live to tell about it. And despite all his deceit and self-empowered efforts to do things his way, he was going to gain all that God had promised. And he was going to learn the painful lesson that every blessing in his life had been God’s doing, not his own.
Jacob would eventually make it safely back to the land of Canaan, receive a surprisingly warm welcome from his brother, Esau, and have yet another visit from God.
God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan-aram, and blessed him. And God said to him, “Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 35:9-12 ESV
Jacob would father twelve sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son and his favoritism would eventually cause his other sons to sell Joseph into slavery. Joseph would end up in Egypt where, through an amazing chain of God-ordained events, he would become the second most powerful ruler in the land. In the meantime, Jacob and his remaining sons would find themselves dealing with a terrible famine in the land of Canaan, which would eventually force them to seek out aid in the land of Egypt. This would lead to a surprising reunion with Joseph, who would end up not only forgiving his brothers but providing them with protection and land.
Thus Israel [Jacob] settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. And they gained possessions in it, and were fruitful and multiplied greatly. And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years. – Genesis 47:27-28 ESV
When the time came for Jacob to die, he asked Joseph to bring in his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, so that he might bless them. In an interesting turn of events, Joseph presented his two sons to Jacob so that the eldest, Manasseh, might receive the blessing of the firstborn. He held Manasseh in his left hand so that Jacob could easily bless him with his right hand. He held Ephraim in his right hand so that he would receive the blessing of the second-born from Jacob’s left hand.
The Scriptures tell us “Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth” (Genesis 48:12 ESV). With his head bowed, he did not see his father, Jacob, switch his hands and place his right hand on the head of Ephraim, the younger of the two. The passage makes it clear that Jacob’s eyesight was dim from old age and he could not see well. With his hands crossed, Jacob pronounced his blessing.
“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” – Genesis 48:15-16 ESV
When Joseph saw what had been done, he tried to get his father to correct his apparent mistake. But Jacob refused, saying, “I know, my son, I know. He [Manasseh] also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 ESV).
You might think that Jacob, because of his poor eyesight, inadvertently and mistakenly gave the blessing of the firstborn to the wrong son. But the mention of Jacob’s poor eyesight is there to indicate that he had to trust God for what he was doing. He had received a divine directive from God to give Ephraim the blessing reserved for the firstborn. Joseph was attempting to ensure that Manasseh received the blessing of the firstborn, but the nearly blind Jacob knew that it was God’s will for Ephraim to receive the blessing. So what Jacob did, he did by faith. He had to trust God with the outcome. He did not fully understand it or know how it would all turn out, but he knew that God was in control. He didn’t need strong eyesight, he simply needed strong faith.
Jacob would die in the land of Egypt, never returning to the land of Canaan, but he trusted that God would bring his people back to the land and fulfill His promise to make them prosperous and to bless them. Jacob blessed his two grandsons, “bowing in worship over the head of his staff” (Hebrews 11:21 ESV). His hope was in God. His assurance was in the promises of God. He had a strong conviction that God knew what He was doing and he willingly obeyed God’s wishes. Jacob might not have always lived his life by faith, but he ended it that way – trusting God for the fate of his family and the future fulfillment of His promises.
Jacob had learned the reality of the statement that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). His eyes were dim but his hope for the future was bright and clear.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.