Our Youth Group Has Dropped It’s Name (What We Are Hoping to Learn From Jacob’s Search For Indentity) – Part 2

Last week, we began the process of our youth group’s collective identity searching by telling this story. One day back in high school, we had a substitute teacher and as he was doing the roll-call, I decided to claim the name of one of the students alphabetized before me. (I wasn’t even that rebellious of a kid but I thought it would be funny). Consequently, my friend took my name. It was Mr. Millheim’s history class and every time the teacher asked a question, I would raise my hand and answer with the most ridiculous response I could. Eventually, he asked what my name was, I responded, “Tobi” and taking pity, he gently told me that I would need to really study my history book if I was going to pass the class. By this point, the class was giggling. He probably figured it was due to my stupidity, but in reality, they were being humored by my first (and only) case of identity theft (Yeah, that’s how advanced I was, I didn’t even know what that was back then ;-)

This was a relatively harmless prank. It’s not like I stole my friend’s grade, credit, or birthright like the way Jacob stole his brother, Esau’s inheritance. For those of you not familiar with the story of Jacob and Esau, they were two brothers born to Isaac (Remember him? The guy that was almost killed as a sacrifice by his father. This is seriously a dysfunctional family. Had DYFUS existed back then, children today would not be singing “Father Abraham had many sons …”). Birthrights were only given to the firstborn and the siblings were expected to serve the elder.

Adding an even worse wrinkle to this story was that Jacob’s accomplice was his mother Rebecca! Working together, they tricked Isaac into giving Esau’s birthright to Jacob. Isaac, old and almost blind, suspected something was amiss and asked, “Which son are you? You have the feel of Esau but the voice of Jacob? Who are you?”

Jacob answered, “I am Esau”.

And so he was blessed, Isaac deceived, and Esau pissed.

To move the story along here, when you steal your brother’s inheritance, you pretty much have to move out of the house in a hurry. So Jacob heads to Haran, meets a pretty girl, Rachel, who hooks him up with a job working on her dad, Laban’s farm. She probably thought, “Now we be together always”. He probably thought, “Pretty girl, a job, a home, and an inheritance – this is the best week ever!” and Laban probably thought, “Sucker.”

As the story goes, Jacob worked for seven years to be allowed to marry Rachel. On the night of the wedding, Laban secretly gave Jacob, Rachel’s sister, Leah. It’s best if we don’t ask questions at this point, all I can imagine is that it must have been really dark and perhaps Jacob got a bit drunk prior to the ceremony but he apparently did not figure it out until the next day. Also and this is just a speculation, perhaps the divorce attorney lived a good distance away or perhaps was neighbors with his brother Esau, but what probably really happened is that you can’t divorce a man’s daughter and expect to marry his other one, especially since marriage was necessary to insure a woman’s survival. (Thus the ancient, social justification of polygamy). so Jacob settled out of court to work another 7 years for Rachel.

Moving the story even further, the two families start realizing that there’s not enough space for their clans, so Jacob runs away again, this time with his wives, kids, stolen sheep and goats (long story but by now you will just believe that he’s good at stealing stuff) but the problem is that he has to go through his brother Esau’s territory to be away from his shady father–in-law. Dilemma.

Sending his family out in front of him with gifts for his brother (who by now is bigger, badder and a tribal leader with a small army. Need a name for a mental picture? I think of a Hebrew Tony Soprano), Jacob stays behind and sleeps in his tent alone. But he’s not alone. As he prays, he wrestles all night with a figure identified as the angel of the Lord.

Finally as the day is breaking, Jacob says he won’t let go until he his blessed. Of all things to say the Lord asks, “What is your name?”. You would think the omniscient one would know that but as it turns out, He’s not the one that needs to “know”. If this were a movie, the camera would zoom into Jacob’s shocked face right now.

Remember the last time he’s asked for his name in the Genesis narrative, he lies. As a result all these years of running, scheming and deceiving have now caught up with him. When he stole his brother’s identity, in some ways, he not only lost his own, but lost his life as well.

When he answers, “Jacob”, in that moment, he finally and fully accepts his failures, his sinful deceit, his selfishness, and the pain that he has caused others. But the beautiful thing is that in the very next moment, he is finally forgiven. The angel says, “No, your name will be Israel. For you have struggled with God and prevailed.”

A lot of time has passed but Israel certainly has a history, a legacy. A few in fact and depending on your theology you are a part of Israel (at least spiritually).

As we wrapped up our time, I tried to explain to our students that their own personal search for identity is going to lead them down many roads and as fellow believers, our Father has called us to search together as a community – to search for our identity collectively and individually. It may be a struggle, but abundant blessings will unfold as we sojourn together. Again, we are not just looking for a name, but looking for who God has called us to be.


I took the liberty in adapting these stories but you should read them in their full context in Genesis 27-32.

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