Notes from “Another Man’s Blessing”

“Another Man’s Blessing”- Genesis 27, 32

Thank You: Tim Keller, G. Campbell Morgan, Derek Kidner, & Nancy Guthrie

Now, in order to fully understand this story in Genesis 27, we need to first understand a bit of the backstory. In Genesis 12, God, seemingly randomly, calls a man named Abram (not because he was a particularly good guy; he even worshipped other gods) and gives him an unqualified blessing: “I will make you a great nation… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:2-3). Though Abram (whom God renames “Abraham” in Genesis 17) is old & has no children, God promises him that his descendants will outnumber the stars in the sky (15:5), that they will inherit a future “promised land” (17:8) and even that kings will be among his descendants (17:6). In Genesis 21, Isaac, the child of God’s promise to Abraham & the very man we see old & blind in Genesis 27, is born. Fast forward a little bit, and we learn that when Isaac grows up, he marries Rebekah, and, years later, she becomes pregnant with twin boys.

When she’s pregnant, her boys are wrestling inside of her, and Rebekah asks God why this is happening. Through a prophet, God tells her, “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). When they were born, Esau came out first, with Jacob, whose name means, “grabs the heel” or “deceiver/cheater,” holding onto his brother’s foot. Esau grew up & was a man’s man, while Jacob was a “quiet man, dwelling in tents” (Genesis 25:27-28).

In Genesis, we get the picture that Isaac showered loved on Esau, but mostly viewed Jacob as a disappointment. Jacob stayed indoors. He was a sort of mama’s boy. As the story unfolds, we see that Jacob is desperately longing for his father’s attention and affection. He’s longing to be looked at by his father in the same way, with the same delight that his father looks at Esau, his firstborn.

Fast forward to the end of Genesis 25, and we get this bizarre story of Esau selling his birthright, which is the right to the blessing of the firstborn (more on that in a second), to Jacob for a pot of stew. We catch a glimpse of both boys’ characters: Jacob is conniving; Esau is rash, ruled by his physical appetites, and perhaps spoiled. Neither one of these boys are particularly admirable.

Now we come to this strange story in Genesis 27. Isaac is old and blind. He knows his time is near, so he tells Esau that he wants him to go hunt & prepare a meal for him, because he wants to give him, Esau, his favorite son, the blessing of the firstborn, despite the prophecy. Rebekah overhears this conversation & schemes with Jacob, her favorite son, to deceive her husband and wrestle away the blessing from Esau (talk about a messed up family!). Jacob is afraid of the wrath his actions might bring, but Rebekah says, “Let your curse be on me, my son” (Genesis 27:13). And so Jacob “steals” the blessing intended for his brother Esau. Esau is broken-hearted & furious, promising to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies. And Jacob flees penniless, never to see his mom again.

Now, before we dive into what this story is ultimately about, we’ve got to tackle this notion of a “blessing,” because we don’t really have an equivalent in our day. We talk about being “blessed” when we go on a nice vacation or have a nice date with our boyfriend (#blessed) or we sometimes overhear old Southern women say, “Bless her heart” right after they’ve just told you something terrible about someone (“Samantha has really let herself go, bless her heart”). But what is a blessing? Why was it so important?

The ESV Study Bible says, “blessings were very important, for as prayers addressed to God they were viewed as shaping the future of those blessed.” A person’s future shaped by words? It’s easy for us to look at this and think, “How silly. Someone’s wish for someone else’s future can’t actually shape their future.” We like to think, because we’ve told since we were kids, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But, in truth, that is the silly lie. We know that words have amazing transformative power. Words can heal or words can devastate. Just think about your life for a moment. Think about a time when your mom or dad or teacher told you that you were smart or you were good at something. Didn’t that make you happy? Didn’t that make you want to do it all the more? Try harder? Or about the first time that person from the opposite sex told you that you were attractive: did you wake up happier the next morning, checking the mirror again just to prove to yourself again that you really were as attractive as they said?

But whether those words land & have an effect on you really depends on where those words were coming from, right? If a person you despise speaks a word of blessing or curse to you, it rolls right off you. If your friends pay you a compliment, it’s nice, but they’re your friends; it’s what they’re supposed to do. But if a person you greatly admire or a person of great influence on your life or a person you love speaks a word of blessing or curse upon you, it enters the very core of you & reshapes you.

Imagine that you really wanted to be a singer. Now all your life your friends and family have told you that you were amazing. So you start taking singing lessons. You learn the piano. Eventually you decide to try out for American Idol.

I have to confess, I stayed up on Monday night watching YouTube clips of American Idol auditions… because I’m a terrible person. I cynically loved watching these people finally being told by Simon Cowell, “You are possibly the worse singer in the world” and watching their reactions. But what’s most interesting to me is that when each of these “rejects” hears those words from this man, whose favor they covet, respond like that, they only have one of two reactions? They either they cry and give up their dreams or they grit their teeth and say, “I’m going to prove you wrong.” But either way they prove just how powerful and shaping his words really were.

But do you remember Susan Boyle? She was 47, unemployed, and she dreamed of being a professional singer. And when she sang before the judges, they said, “It was a complete privilege listening to you…” And she’s gone on to sell 19 million records.

Because these contestants so valued these judges, whatever they said was going to shape and alter the future course of their lives. And that’s what a blessing is.

This struggle for blessing, this “wrestling,” is the theme of Jacob’s whole life. But he’s not alone in that struggle, is he? No, this is the struggle of all our lives. We long for blessing, and we know that the trick of self-blessing won’t work. Self-esteem is a dead-end road. We’ve all been taught, “It doesn’t matter what other people think about me; it only matters what I think about myself!” The problem is that when we really examine our self-esteem “pep-talks,” we are only left feeling worse, right?”

“So what they think I don’t think I’m smart or pretty or that I live up to their standards! I know who I am! I know I’m smart or pretty!” “Wait, who am I? Well, I guess I’m a person with below average standards for intelligence or beauty… That can’t be good… so now, I’m not a good person?”

No, the blessing we’re all looking for has to come from outside of us. We can’t give it to ourselves. So Jacob comes to Isaac so desperate for his father’s blessing that he dresses up as Esau in order to get it.

You see, normally, towards the end of his life, a father would gather all of his children around and bless them. The firstborn son would receive the greatest blessing and, along with it, the right to serve as the head of the family and the bulk of the inheritance. The other children would be blessed as well, but the blessing of the firstborn was the most important. In this society, the father cherished the oldest son, because the future of the family depended upon him. In a sense, the blessing of the firstborn is to have the father look at you and say, “You are uniquely precious to me. I adore you. You will bring your father and this family great honor.”

Tim Keller said, “A blessing is an accurate spiritual discernment of who a person is and then using carefully chosen words to affirm who they are & to empower them to be who they are.”

In Isaac’s family in particular the blessing was important, because it carried with it the divine promises that God had given to Abraham. Whoever carried on the family line would eventually bear a king through whom the whole world would be blessed.

But in 27:1, when the time for blessing comes, Isaac just calls in Esau; he doesn’t even invite in, because he doesn’t want him there. Jacob means nothing to him. He has no love in his heart for him. Jacob is a disappointment. And so Jacob moves to deceive him.

“Just once he wanted to feel his father’s loving touch and hear him speak to him about his future the way that came so naturally when Isaac talked about Esau” (Nancy Guthrie, The Promised One, 214).

He’s a picture of all of us. We all want the people we most cherish or respect (be it our parents, our boyfriend/girlfriend, teacher, coach, etc.) to look at us and say, “I love and value you beyond your ability to comprehend,” but, just like Jacob we “dress up” and pretend that we’re someone else. Jacob put on Esau’s clothes to try to secure a blessing he knew he couldn’t get simply by being himself- someone more “acceptable,” more “worthy.” And so, he “became” someone else. Just like we do.

We’re dressing up to receive a blessing we feel we can’t get simply by being ourselves. We’re trying desperately not to let others see us for who we really are. We know our failures, our hypocrisy, our shortcomings, and we fear if others see it, they will reject us and we won’t be able to handle it. And so we’re all disguise. We all have this hole in our hearts. We all long for someone outside of us to bless us.

Some of us spend hours in front of the mirror or at the gym trying to secure our word of blessing. Some of us are so careful about how we craft our tweets, because we want to make sure that people affirm us, bless us as clever. Some of us take the same picture on our phones 50 times before we feel like we look good enough to put it on instagram so our friends know that they should always have FOMO if they’re not with us. Some of us are so anxious and exhausted over studying, because we need the blessing of being told we’re smart or going to be successful or at least will be able to provide a comfortable life for your family.

Some of you are in majors you don’t like, because you imagine the status that will come with it. Some of you are in relationships, because you liked the imagined status of dating someone that attractive or well-liked or because you thought, “If this person thinks I’m somebody, then I must be somebody.” Some of you look for your value in who your friends are, what fraternity or sorority you’re in. Some of you (like me) dress up like a really good Christian. When the time comes for prayer or confession, we don’t confess our deepest, ugliest struggles, because we fear what they’ll think or we fear the shame that will come from confessing the same deep or petty sin again and again. We want others to look at us & say, “You are worthy. You have value. There’s no one like you.”

The problem is that all the compliments and well wishes in the world won’t fill up our heart’s hunger for blessing if we’re pretending, hiding. Because we know that those words weren’t meant for us, right? They were meant for our façade.

I lived most of my life this way. I spent so much of my life looking for that blessing. I busted it as a student to win my mother’s blessing; I was the one you always dared because you knew I’d accept, so I could secure my friends’ blessing; I tried to crush it on the baseball field to win my father’s or my coach’s blessing. When I was in 8th grade, my team was killed in the first game of a double-elimination tournament, but we made it all the way back to the championship…. Where we had to play the same team that initially dominated us. So, we’re down by one run, down to our last out of the season, and I’m up at the plate with two runners on base. I’m terrified. The pitch comes, and I just clobber it. I race past first before I realize exactly what’s happened: We’ve won & I knocked in the game-winner. I was ecstatic; we were ecstatic. We went to celebrate at Pizza Hut, and our coach talked about how surprised and proud he was, and then he handed out trophies. I held on to mine & read the words: 2nd place. 2nd place!? Then it hit me: our coach didn’t believe in us. He didn’t think we could do it. And that spoke a word in to my life that shaped me for years. I believed that every older man in my life would look at me & think, “You’re not quite what I’d hoped you’d be, Matt. You’re a disappointment.”

I think I felt a little like Jacob. You see, at that moment, when Isaac leaned forward and kissed Jacob dressed as Esau, when Isaac spoke those words of blessing, saw that smile of delight he’d longed for all his life, Jacob was still empty. He was hollow. Because he realized he couldn’t steal Esau’s blessing. Jacob knew it wasn’t him who was truly being loved and blessed. He knew those words were meant for another. He knew in the eyes of his father, he was still a disappointment.

Genesis 27:30 tells us “as soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob… Esau his brother came in from hunting.” Esau comes to his father & asks for his blessing. Then the light comes on & Isaac slowly understands what has happened. Verse 33 says, “Isaac trembled very violently and said, ‘Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? Yes, and he shall be blessed.’”

When we read this, we’ve got to wonder, why doesn’t Isaac just take the blessing back? After all, the blessing came under false pretenses, so surely it’s invalid, right? Why doesn’t he just say, “That lying cheat, Jacob! Well, here’s the blessing that was meant for you anyway.” But he doesn’t do that! Why? It’s almost as if Isaac finally understands grace. God brings his grace to people who don’t measure up, who don’t deserve it. He always only works through grace.

Isaac knew what the prophet had said before the twins were born. But as Tim Keller said, “he wanted the world’s way: the firstborn. He wanted to follow his own desires: the man’s man. But now he sees God’s grace and surrenders his resistance.” He sees that in spite of his opposition, in spite of Rebekah’s manipulation, in spite of Jacob’s deceit, and in spite of Esau’s impetuousness, God’s plans are ultimately accomplished. Jacob is the blessed one. Jacob is the heir to the promise. God always does what He says He’ll do. And Isaac gets it & is changed. He even later blesses Jacob again.

But what about Jacob? Does he get it yet? It doesn’t seem so. He leaves the family penniless & alone, headed to Laban’s house. On the way, Jacob has this amazing vision of angels ascending and descending on a staircase, and he hears God speak a word of unqualified blessing to him: “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…. In you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed…I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:13-15).

Most of us would kill for a moment or vision like this, right? We feel like something like this would change our lives forever. Jacob hears directly from God that God will bless him & look after him. How does Jacob respond? Does he fall on his face and say, “God, I’m sorry for how I’ve lived! I was blind, but now I see!” No, he says, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21). “I don’t really trust you, God. But if you hold up your end of the bargain, I’ll keep up mine.” He doesn’t want God at all; he still simply wants what he can get from God. He wants the blessing.

He makes it to Laban’s, sees Laban’s daughter Rachel, and thinks, “If I could just have her, then I’ll be happy and secure. I will be blessed.” So he makes a rash promise to Laban in exchange for her hand in marriage. And then Jacob, the deceiver, is deceived. He marries Leah, the forgettable sister, instead. And he ignores her just as he was ignored by his father. And Jacob prospers by deceiving Laban. Eventually, he has to flee, but on his way out of town, he gets a terrifying word: His brother Esau is coming.

Last time Jacob had heard a word from Esau, Esau was breathing threats down his neck. Jacob fears for his life and, in Genesis 32, prays for God to deliver him. Jacob sends a massive present ahead of him to Esau, in hopes that he may “appease him,” or literally “appease his face” (Genesis 32:20). Eventually Jacob sends everyone ahead of him and,

[24] And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. [25] When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. [26] Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” [27] And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” [28] Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” [29] Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. [30] So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” -Genesis 32:24-30

Jacob had been wrestling for blessing all his life. He grasped for it out of the womb. He had wrestled the birthright from his brother’s hunger. He had wrestled the words of affirmation and blessing from his father through deceit. Then he wrestled the blessing of having Rachel as his wife from his father-in-law. He’d always wrestled and negotiated to get what he really wanted (Nancy Guthrie, p. 222).

But something’s different this time. Jacob is in the fight of his life, and he realizes that he’s not fighting a mere man. After all, the man gently touched his hip & threw it out of socket, simply proving he could’ve crushed Jacob at any time if he had wanted to. And as he wrestles, it’s like Jacob understands who he’s really been wrestling his whole life.

The man Jacob’s wrestling asks, “What is your name? Who are you?” The last time we saw someone ask Jacob his name, he lied. Here he comes clean: “You’ve got me. I’m Jacob. I’m the deceiver.” He lays down his pretending. And God blesses him, because Jacob is no longer trying to hide. Jacob lays himself & all his flaws bare and God takes his shameful name, his shameful past, and gives him a new name: “Israel,” “strives with God.” “God gave Jacob a new name, a new identity that defined him, not by his personal failure but by God’s conquest of his heart” (Nancy Guthrie, 222).

Jacob had asked God to keep him safe from Esau and hoped that his gifts would “appease Esau’s face,” but instead Jacob saw “God face to face and lived.” He was changed. He was new. He saw the true beauty behind the beauty he’d longed would fill him in Rachel. He saw the deeper approval underneath the approval he’d imagined would satisfy him in his father’s words. He sees that God was the only one who could fulfill him all along. It’s like, in his refusal to let go until he’s blessed, he’s saying, “I see it! You’re what I was truly after while I was after all these things! I thought my biggest problem was being ignored by my father or a brother coming to kill me, but now I see that my biggest problem was that I didn’t know You! And You came after me though I didn’t want you, though I certainly deserve you! I won’t let go- no longer until you give me your blessings, but until You give me You! You can kill me, but no matter what, I’ve got to have you!” And he’s changed by grace, welcomed into a relationship with God.

But how could God do this? How could God show such blessing and kindness on someone who deserved it so little? How could God overlook Jacob’s lifetime of deceit and selfishness and bless him with the blessing of Abraham & Isaac, the blessing of the firstborn?

Because centuries later, from Jacob’s own descendants, a king would be born, a firstborn son, in fact, the firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15), the only begotten son of the Father. You see, Jesus Christ had lived for all of eternity blessed as the firstborn. Since before time existed, His Father looked at Him & loved Him completely. He knew that His Son would bring Him honor.

But Jesus left behind his firstborn blessing in order to bless the whole world, fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus came to earth, and like Jacob, Jesus put on another’s clothes, our clothes, and came before a father. But Jesus did not come to steal. He did not come to receive a blessing, but to receive our curse. His whole life, He referred to God as His “Father,” until on the cross He cries out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” He’s lost the blessing of the firstborn. Unlike Rebekah who said, “If you need me to, I’ll take the curse of your father,” Jesus said, “Because you are cursed, because you need me to, and because I love you, I will take the curse of My Father so that My Father will look at you in the same way, with the same delight with which He looks at me, His firstborn.”

So that, when we receive Jesus, He takes our rags & the shame & guilt of our pretending, and we receive His clothes of righteousness, the smile of His Father, and the blessing of the firstborn. He takes our old names & shame, and gives us a new name: “My beloved, my child, my bride.” His Father is now our Father, and we can say with John, “see how great is the love that the Father has lavished upon us- that we should be called the sons and daughters of God, for that is what we are!” Jesus gave up the blessing of the firstborn, so that we could receive it. Now, because we’ve been accepted by the Father as the firstborn, the love we experience from the Father, when we stand in the righteousness of Christ, makes us feel like we’re the most precious things in the world.

Only when you gaze at the cross, seeing Jesus who has put on humanity, forsaking all his rights, and put on your curse so you could receive the Father’s blessing, “You are my beloved son & daughter,” will you be changed and free to live in this world without needing another blessing from someone or something who could never give it to you, whose blessing would leave, whose blessing is incomplete. In Christ, we are fully known and indescribably loved by the Father even as Jesus himself is loved. And now we bless the world even as we have been blessed.