From the moment he entered the world, Jacob was a man of intense ambition. His name in Hebrew literally means “heel-catcher,” referring to the moment that he clutched the heel of his twin brother, Esau, during their births (Genesis 25:25–26). That clutching hand would define much of Jacob’s life.
With sly cunning, Jacob bartered away his brother Esau’s birthright with a bowl of lentil soup (Genesis 25:30–33). Using deception, Jacob obtained the spoken blessing of his elderly father when he covered his arms with goat’s hair and pretended to be Esau (Genesis 27:21–23). Jacob’s driving ambitions for recognition and prosperity alienated him from his family. Having deceived his father and angered his brother, Jacob fled north and east into the land of Padan-aram, in modern day Syria.
On the road that led northward, Jacob stopped one night near a Canaanite village called Luz. That night, in a dream Jacob saw a ladder reaching up to heaven, and beheld angels ascending and descending upon the ladder. That same night, the Lord God spoke audibly to Jacob. He personally affirmed to Jacob the covenant that He, Jehovah, had made with Abraham and Isaac. Upon rising from his sleep, Jacob set up a stone and made a vow to Jehovah. “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the LORD be my God” (Genesis 28:20–21).
To mark his vow, Jacob poured oil upon the stone where he had slept and called the name of the place Bethel, meaning in Hebrew “the house of God.” Continuing on with his journey, Jacob left the Land of Promise and sojourned for many years in Syria. There Jacob married the two daughters of Laban, his mother’s brother. Laboring for his uncle Laban, he obtained flocks and herds in great abundance. His children multiplied. But Jacob’s life was beset with the strains and tensions of competing affections. His wife Leah envied her younger sister Rachel because Rachel was the favored wife. Meanwhile, Rachel envied her older sister Leah because God gave Leah more children than to her. Also, Laban envied Jacob because of the prosperity of Jacob’s flocks and herds. Furthermore, Jacob took the servant girls of his two wives and made them his concubines, adding to his family as well as increasing tensions and strife.
Finally, the word of God came to Jacob, commanding him to return to the land of his fathers. Hurriedly and deceptively, Jacob “stole away unawares” (Genesis 31:20) and began the long journey back toward Beersheba. Jacob had obtained outward prosperity but at tremendous cost. Broken relationships, strained marriages, immorality, and divided affections resulted due to the path that Jacob had chosen, which was to have his loyalty divided between the Lord God and his own choices.
Jacob was unaware that small idols, carved of wood and stone and similar to modern day charms, were hidden away among the baggage of his wife Rachel. In his driving ambition to achieve prosperity, Jacob had neglected the vow that he had made many years earlier at Bethel that the Lord would be his God. Jacob had flocks and herds, but he had lost the hearts of most of his sons, and God was not first place in this man’s life and family.
Rachel had stolen some idols belonging to her father Laban. She was hiding them in the saddle equipment of the camel that she was riding. Pretending to be indisposed by the “custom of women” (Genesis 31:35), she remained in her tent. There, seated upon her camel’s gear, she successfully eluded the search for the idols by both her father and husband. Although neither were aware that Rachel had the smuggled idols in her possession (Genesis 31:32, 34), God was fully aware of the secret idolatry in Jacob’s family.
At a ford on the Jabbok River in the boundaries of modern day Jordan, Jacob was accosted by an angelic visitor: “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:24). This Heavenly visitor changed Jacob’s name from Jacob, “heel-catcher,” to Israel, which in Hebrew means “prince with God.” As a mark of ownership, the angel “touched the hollow of his thigh” (verse 25) and left Jacob with a limp. Jacob learned that day that surrender to God is victory. He had been living in the power of his own strength, and God reminded him of his neglected vows.
Crossing into the Land of Promise, Jacob soon became painfully aware of the disastrous consequences of his own misplaced ambitions. His daughter, Dinah, while paying a social visit to the daughters of the land of Shechem, was defiled by a Canaanite man. Fornication then turned to murder when two of Jacob’s sons avenged her defilement by deceiving the inhabitants of Shechem and then slaughtering them. On the heels of this tragic calamity, God spoke to Jacob again: “Arise, go up to Bethel.”
Heeding this direction from the Lord, Jacob gave a crucial and life-changing exhortation to his family and household. “Put away the strange gods that are among you, and be clean” (Genesis 35:2).
Fathers, have you ever considered that your wives and children may be harboring secret idols of which you are unaware? We can learn to ask questions of our wives and children to see what is on their hearts, how they spend their time, and what are their deepest interests. By understanding these things, we can help them identify potential idols. Jacob’s own idolatry—his selfish ambitions for prosperity—had made him blind to the idolatry within his family. Now, painfully aware of the idols in their midst, he took vital steps to remedy this self-created dilemma.
Under an oak tree in Shechem, Jacob buried the “strange gods” that were hidden among the possessions of his family (Genesis 35:4). A defining moment in Jacob’s life was the day that he put away the strange gods and returned to Bethel, the “house of God,” where he had long ago proclaimed that the Lord would be his God.
What are your priorities? Do you have misplaced ambitions for success? What spiritual commitments has God led you to make formerly that presently you have deferred or ignored? Are there relationships that have suffered because of this neglect? Have you pursued worldly fame and possessions, yet neglected the nurture of your wife and children? Are you aware of idols that may be “hidden” in their hearts?
Just as Jacob put away hidden idols and sought the God of Bethel, so we should allow the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and homes for hidden idolatry. When these idols are removed, then we can give our full and proper allegiance to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Illustration courtesy of Sweet Publishing