From Jacob to Israel

From Jacob to Israel

  • a nation is born
  • the importance of persevering
  • a lesson in not letting go of God

Key Verses

And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. —Romans 5:3-4

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. —Hebrews 10:23



Homemade soup is delicious. But was it worth giving up the special firstborn blessings of land, wealth, and the unique promise of Abraham? Evidently Esau, the oldest son of Isaac and Rebekah, thought it was when he sold his birthright to his younger brother, Jacob, for a bowl of soup.

With the birthright came special blessings, which should have passed from father to oldest son. But plans were about to change.


Story and Study

(This story is based on events recorded in Genesis 27, 28 and 32.)

From father to son

Esau was a skilled hunter, and he knew how to cook his catch just the way his father loved it. One day, the aging and nearly blind Isaac asked Esau to hunt some game and prepare some of the meat for him with delicious spices. Isaac was ready to pass along the rights of the firstborn and the special blessings he had received from his father, Abraham, to his own firstborn son, Esau.

Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, stood quietly listening behind a heavy curtain and knew what was about to happen. She wanted their younger son, Jacob, to receive those special blessings instead. As soon as Esau left the tent, she found Jacob. If Esau was so quick to give away his birthright, shouldn’t he, Jacob, receive the special blessings too?

“Your father is about to bless your brother, Esau, with the special blessings of the firstborn,” she said. “If you do what I say, you’ll receive those blessings instead. But you have to act now. Go quickly out to our flocks and find two young goats. I’ll cook them with delicious spices just the way your father likes, and he will then bless you.”

Jacob was surprised by his mother’s trickery, but willing. Those blessings were powerful! And after all, he’d already tricked Esau into selling him the birthright for that soup. If Esau was so quick to give away his birthright, shouldn’t he, Jacob, receive the special blessings too?

But there was a big problem: Jacob had smooth, almost hairless skin, and Esau was very hairy. Isaac would discover this deception as soon as he reached out his hand to touch Jacob.

“Leave it to me,” said Rebekah, after Jacob expressed his concern. She found some of Esau’s clothes, which smelled of the fields, and prepared goatskins to cover Jacob’s hairless arms, hands and neck.

Rebekah placing goat hair on Jacob's arms
With the effect of the goatskins and the borrowed clothing, Jacob now strongly resembled his twin brother Esau.

The trickster

With the smell of the savory meat now filling the air, Rebekah stepped back to see her completed work, nodding her approval. Jacob looked the part. He and Esau were of a similar build, and with the effect of the goatskins and the borrowed clothing, he now strongly resembled his twin brother.

“You’ll need to mimic his voice,” she said to Jacob. “But with his failing eyesight, these skins and clothes should trick your father into believing you are Esau.” With the prepared savory meal now in hand, Jacob went to his father to present the food and receive the blessings.

Isaac seemed hesitant at first. Now almost completely blind, he could see only a dim outline of a figure standing in front of him. “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau,” he said after touching the arms of his son for reassurance (Genesis 27:22). When Jacob came nearer and Isaac smelled his clothes, the deceit was complete. Jacob felt and smelled just like Esau.

So Isaac bowed his head and blessed his son. Blessings of abundance and bounty, great wealth and tremendous power were bestowed on the younger son (Genesis 27:27-29).

Jacob rose up from kneeling before his father. He now had both the birthright and the special blessings. He left his father’s presence quickly, aware that Esau might return at any moment.

He stepped through a curtained partition and out of sight just in time to see Esau smiling and entering the tent carrying a bowl full of savory food. “Arise, my father! And eat of your son’s hunt that you may then bless me!” he cheerily called out.

“Who are you?” Isaac asked, suddenly feeling frail.

“I am your son. Your firstborn.” With great concern he added, “Father, it’s me, Esau.”

Instantly Isaac realized what had occurred, and he trembled. “Jacob has tricked me, and I’ve given him your blessings instead!” he cried.

“What?” Esau felt weak in the knees. “My birthright and now my blessing too!” And Esau wept at all he had lost.

Esau left the tent crying bitterly. When the tears wore off later, he thought only of revenge. Jacob will pay for this, he thought to himself.

Jacob seeing a ladder to heaven
Suddenly he found himself at the base of a ladder that stretched high up into the sky seemingly without end.

An unusual dream . . . and a promise

Once more, Jacob allowed himself to be guided by his shrewd mother.

“It’s not safe for you to stay here,” said Rebekah. “Esau is furious with you and I don’t know what he’ll do. You must flee to my brother Laban in Syria. I’ll arrange it all.”

And she did. Rebekah convinced Isaac that it was time for Jacob to marry. She asked that Jacob be sent to her home country to choose a wife. So with another special blessing upon Jacob, Isaac sent his youngest son away.

Jacob set out toward the north country with his meager belongings. As the sun began to set, he stopped to make camp. It was stony ground with not much shelter to be found. So Jacob chose one of the large stones and lay against it, staring up at the stars and thinking over recent events. His eyelids grew heavy, and he fell asleep.

Suddenly he found himself at the base of a ladder that stretched high up into the sky seemingly without end. Light shone so strongly around the ladder, he had to shield his eyes. When his focus returned, he could see angelic figures walking up and down on it. In the next moment it was as if his eyes were zooming in on the top of the ladder, where a bright figure stood. Jacob was dreaming and was seeing a vision of God.

“I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac,” said the Figure in the dream.

“The land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall 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 spoken to you” (Genesis 28:13-15).

Jacob awoke with a start. His heart was racing, sweat had broken out on his brow, and his fine hair stood on end. That was no ordinary dream! He knew he had been given a vision of God Himself. His breath caught and he breathed in shakily and propped himself up. He was in complete awe at what he had just witnessed!

Though it was still early in the morning, he rose up and propped up the stone he’d been resting on so that it resembled a pillar. He poured oil over top of it and made a promise, then and there: if God would do everything He said He would, then Jacob decided, “The LORD shall be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21).

Jacob then continued on his journey north.

Factoid: The stone anointed by Jacob became legendary. Some scholars believe it was preserved by Jacob’s descendants and eventually carried to Scotland where it is referred to as the “Stone of Destiny” or the “Stone of Scone.” For hundreds of years it was used during the coronation ceremonies of the kings of Scotland. Later, it was built into a special seat where for hundreds of years it was used in the coronation ceremonies of kings and queens of England as well. No one knows for certain if it actually is the same stone, but it is considered sacred and a national symbol by many. The “Stone of Destiny” is currently in Scotland.

Rachel, Jacob's wife
It was agreed that Jacob would work for Laban for seven years so that he could marry the beautiful Rachel.

Seven years’ labor for a bride

Jacob neared the fertile land between the two rivers and turned eastward toward Haran. Within a short time, he found his mother’s family. He was warmly welcomed by his Uncle Laban and made his home with the family.

During this time, Jacob grew to deeply love his cousin Rachel and wished to marry her. (This seems very odd to us today, but back then, marrying a cousin was not at all unusual.) Since he had brought so little with him, it was agreed that Jacob would work for Laban for seven years so that he could marry the beautiful Rachel. Jacob became a shepherd, tending his uncle’s flocks of sheep and goats.

But at the end of seven years, Jacob the trickster was tricked! The day of the wedding arrived with much merriment and feasting. The celebration continued on into the evening. In the darkness of night, Jacob couldn’t see that Laban had given Rachel’s older sister Leah to him instead of Rachel. In the morning light, Jacob realized with shock that he had unknowingly married Leah!

Jacob liked Leah, but it was Rachel he truly loved. He made another agreement with Laban to work another seven years so that Rachel could be his wife too.

Jacob realizing he married Leah instead of Rachel
In the morning light, Jacob realized with shock that he had unknowingly married Leah!

Factoid: This is a practice called bigamy—when a man has more than one wife. It’s illegal in most countries today, and for good reason. God intended marriage to be between one man and one woman, as He established on the sixth day of creation with Adam and Eve. But during this time in history, people didn’t always follow God’s standards in the ways they should (they often don’t today either). This tends to lead to problems. And in time, this unusual family would experience tension and conflict as a result (read Genesis 37 to see the serious problems this created).

Pause for Thought: When Jacob deceived Isaac, his father’s eyesight was so poor that nearly everything had faded to black. Perhaps it’s fitting that the trickster who deceived his own father was also deceived in the darkness—the darkness of night.

Despite Jacob’s unusual family composition, God honored His original promise to Abraham and blessed his descendant Jacob greatly. By the end of 14 years, he had become “exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks, female and male servants, and camels and donkeys” (Genesis 30:43).  Jacob was a very wealthy man!

Homecoming—what will Esau do?

After 20 years in Syria living on his Uncle Laban’s land, Jacob was instructed by God to leave and return to his homeland. That meant Jacob would have to face Esau.

Jacob gathered his belongings and prepared his wives and children for the journey. By this time, he had eleven sons and at least one daughter. That is a big family! With all his employees, household belongings and flocks and herds, no doubt Jacob’s caravans looked quite impressive as they traveled the roads back south toward Canaan. He must have appeared to be a king to any random traveler. When the messengers returned they told him Esau was preparing to ride out to meet Jacob himself . . . with 400 men!

But as he came nearer to Esau’s domain, Jacob couldn’t stop thinking of his last encounter with his brother. Twenty years ago, Esau was so furious at the loss of both birthright and blessings that he seemed ready to kill Jacob! And now Jacob had a family to protect. Would Esau still desire revenge?

He sent messengers ahead of his caravan to Esau in an attempt to seek peace. When the messengers returned they told him Esau was preparing to ride out to meet Jacob himself . . . with 400 men!

Fear seized Jacob. This did not look good. He divided his caravans into two companies. He reasoned that if Esau attacked one group, maybe the other half could flee and still survive.

He feared for his life. He feared attack. He feared for the women and children.

But over the course of 20 years, Jacob’s faith and trust in God had been growing. He found a private spot and knelt to pray. His hands were shaking as he clasped them tightly together. “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant,” he humbly prayed (Genesis 32:10).

“Deliver me from the hand of my brother. Did you not promise me that my descendants would be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered? I fear my brother will come and attack me and the mothers and the children.”

Jacob’s brow broke out in sweat. He was terrified! If I can give Esau enough gifts, thought Jacob, then maybe he will forgive me . . . Maybe there can be peace between us yet.

Waves of gifts

That night, the two groups made camp. Jacob surveyed all his goods and flocks. He had a plan. With careful and attentive inspection, he handpicked some of the very best of his goats, sheep, camels, cows and donkeys—over 500 in all!

Jacob divided the animals into multiple groups and entrusted each group to some of his most faithful servants. “Now put some distance between us and you, and drive these herds toward Esau,” he instructed. “When you meet up with him, tell him these are meant as gifts for him and that I will follow soon.”

If I can give Esau enough gifts, thought Jacob, then maybe he will forgive me and change his mind about attacking us. Maybe there can be peace between us yet.

Jacob wrestling with Jesus Christ
Suddenly a Man appeared before him and took up position to spar. They wrestled until dawn.

A restless night and a wrestling match

Jacob should have been sleeping, but he couldn’t find rest. He was distraught. He needed some time alone to think. As his family settled in for the night in their camps across a flowing brook, he stayed behind to plan and pray.

He felt so restless and agitated. What he really needed to do was go running to get all this pent-up energy out!

Suddenly a Man appeared before him and took up position to spar. Before he knew it, Jacob was locked in a wrestling match!

Jacob's hip coming out of socket
He reached out and merely touched Jacob’s hip socket. Instantly Jacob felt pain and managed to look down to see his hip out of joint!

Jacob knew this was no normal circumstance. The Man had appeared as if from nowhere and would not let go. Between his anxiety over meeting Esau again face-to-face and contending with this Man from nowhere, Jacob’s adrenaline and determination soared. They wrestled until dawn. Jacob would not let go either.

When the Man saw that Jacob would not give up, He reached out and merely touched Jacob’s hip socket. Instantly Jacob felt pain and managed to look down to see his hip out of joint!

It was a test. What would Jacob do now? Would he quit? His suspicions confirmed, Jacob now knew for certain Who he was wrestling with: God Himself, the One who later became Jesus Christ (Hosea 12:3-4)! There was no way he would let go now! God was the only way through this trial, and Jacob knew it.

The Man said, “Let Me go, for the day breaks” (Genesis 32:26).

To which Jacob replied, “I will not let You go unless You bless me!”

The Man released His grip and stepped back. Jacob had held fast and passed the test. With a nod and a faint smile, He said, “What is your name?” The Man knew Jacob’s name, of course, but what was about to happen was not about introductions. Israel. Jacob’s new name given by God Himself had deep meaning: “prince with God,” “power with God,” “prevailer with God.”

“Jacob” came the reply.  The name Jacob means “heel-catcher” or “supplanter.” (To supplant can mean “to take the place of or substitute” and can involve trickery or deceit.) Jacob had been true to his name, taking Esau’s place and receiving his birthright and blessings by trickery.

The Man spoke again: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel: for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

Israel. Jacob’s new name given by God Himself had deep meaning: “prince with God,” “power with God,” “prevailer with God” (to prevail means “to overcome or rule”).

Pause for Thought: From this point on in Scripture, Jacob is still often referred to as Jacob, though the new name Israel is referenced as well. Students of the Bible might wonder why. Perhaps it’s helpful to think of it as his new title or job description. Would you like that description? If you were a prince or princess of God, how might that change how you act and think each day?

From trickster to prince! Jacob had grown up and learned some valuable lessons. He knew what his priorities were. He had held on to God, even through pain and distress, and refused to let go.

Jacob and Esau embracing
Jacob stood up as Esau rushed to meet him, and the two brothers fell into a tearful hug of reunion.


As the sun rose, Jacob limped away—a new souvenir from a most unique night.

Weary from the anxiety, the hours of physical exercise and the aching joint, Jacob looked up to see a cloud of dust in the near distance: Esau was approaching. And he wasn’t alone. Hundreds of burly men traveled with him.

Quickly, Jacob, still limping, moved to place himself between his families and Esau. As Esau drew nearer, Jacob paused no less than seven times to bow completely to the ground. Though the birthright blessings specifically stated that Jacob’s brothers would bow to him, he instead decided to show great respect and honor for Esau by bowing humbly himself.

Jacob looked up from the dusty ground to see Esau now running toward him. And smiling broadly! He was smiling! Esau was running toward Jacob with arms outstretched, his whole face beaming with genuine joy!

Jacob stood up as Esau rushed to meet him, and the two brothers fell into a tearful hug of reunion. Alternating between laughing and sobbing, they hugged one another tight. Jacob was overcome with joy and relief, and his anxiety melted away. The brothers wept with gladness to be together again.

“But Jacob,” began Esau as the tears of joy were choked away and the words finally flowed. “What were all these waves of livestock I met along the way?”

“Those are for you, Esau,” declared Jacob sincerely. “Please consider them my gifts to honor you.”

Esau clapped his brother on the shoulder and laughed affectionately. “I have enough, my brother,” he said. “Keep what you have for yourself” (Genesis 33:9).

“Please accept them, Esau,” Jacob urged earnestly. “It has brought me such joy to see you pleased with me. I want you to share in the blessings God has given me.” Though their later generations would sadly experience conflicts, the brothers Jacob and Esau learned to live in peace.


The rivalry between siblings that had literally begun in the womb (Genesis 25:22-23) came to a tearful and happy end. Jacob built a home for his large family and shelters for his animals and lived in the area. Though their later generations would sadly experience conflicts, the brothers Jacob and Esau learned to live in peace.

Esau’s descendants would become the Edomites. And Jacob’s descendants? Well, the clue is in the name Israel.

They became the Israelites. What does it say about his character that he refused to let go of God even though he was in excruciating pain from a dislocated hip?



1. Knowledge

What did Jacob’s name mean? What was his name later changed to?

2. Comprehension

What evidence is there that God was working with Jacob?

3. Connections

We’re not told exactly when, but at some point during the wrestling match, Jacob knew he was wrestling with God (Genesis 32:30). What does it say about his character that he refused to let go of God even though he was in excruciating pain from a dislocated hip? What can we learn from Jacob’s example when we are going through a time of great distress or pain?



1. Over the years, Jacob changed from a trickster to someone who God Himself named a prince. Jacob must have learned some hard lessons in life. What kinds of lessons might he have learned from being forced to leave his home? serving an uncle for 14 years and being tricked in marriage? wrestling with God all night despite a dislocated hip?

2. What are some ways we can hold on to God today? (Hint: Start in (Romans 12:9) and see some examples of what we should “cling” to.)

3. How do we show God we’re not going to let go of Him? (Hint: Do a Bible search for the word keep and see what many of the scriptures suggest “keeping.”)

4. Can we ask God not to let go of us? (Hint: Read Psalms 17, 27, and 73 for some key scriptures. Expand your study to find more.)


thumb wrestling

1. Wrestle Match!

Establish appropriate safety rules and a specific place for play, then challenge a sibling or parent to a wrestling match! The winner is the one who successfully tickles the opponent first (or create your own rule). Not a full-body wrestling fan? Try thumb wrestling instead. “One, two, three, four! I declare a thumb war!”

How long does it take before you get tired? Now imagine Jacob wrestling for hours, determined not to let go!

2. Share the Wealth

Through God’s blessing, Jacob became very wealthy. He had so much, he was able to share generously. Has God blessed you and your family greatly? Is there anything you would be willing to share with someone else? Consider donating toys you no longer play with, clothes you no longer wear, or items you no longer need. Look for people you already know who might be in need. Or donate to a local shelter or thrift store. Consider donating food to a food bank or money to a worthy charity (do your research).

3. Count Your Blessings

There may be very difficult circumstances during which we feel we don’t have much. But even during these times, we can be certain we are blessed. Start thinking of your blessings—the special gifts that God has given you. Do you have a home? Food? A car? A phone? Even these items represent great wealth. There are some people in the world who don’t have any of them. Start a “blessings list.” You may be surprised how much you have!

Further Your Study

Esau and Jacob: The Hungry Belly and a Birthright

Esau and Jacob: The Hungry Belly and a Birthright

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Isaac Takes a Wife: God’s Promises Continue

Isaac Takes a Wife: God’s Promises Continue

The promises given to Abraham are passed on to his son Isaac. Review this beautiful story of faith and trust in God as Abraham’s servant, led by God, arranges the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. Read More >

Abraham and the Amazing Promises

Abraham and the Amazing Promises

Because of his profound faith and obedience, Abraham was offered some astonishing promises from God. It took patience, but Abraham learned that God keeps His promises. Read this inspiring account about how God makes the impossible possible. Read More >

Lessons We Learn From Their Lives

Lessons We Learn From Their Lives

The examples of individuals recorded in the pages of the Bible can teach us valuable lessons about life. God often worked with ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Learn how our biographical studies are organized and get tips on how Read More >