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Jacob the Thief

An Allegory about Legalism

Anne Murchison

Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind,and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God. If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!'  (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)-- in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.
(Colossians 2:18-23 NAS)

Jacob means "supplanter" or "thief".
According to Gesenius' lexicon,
the root word means"to defraud".

My Definition of Legalism

A sickness gnaws away at the core of our faith as well as our relationships. That sickness is call legalism. It affects everyone, believer and non-believer alike. If we are not rigid and leglistic about the things of God, we are rigid and legalistic about the crease in our pants or the way we hold our knife and fork and millions of other ways of seeing and doing things. I understand this kind of legalism. As a very sincere Christian, I suffered from the disease for years. We are never completely free from it. At least I don't know anyone who is.

Many people are what I call "rigid in reverse". They are actively, rigidly opposed to being rigid. The hippies of the 60's fit in this category. They were either do nothings or libertines and often these "rigid in reverse" people were both. Make no mistake, though. Just as anorexia and obesity are both eating problems stemming from the same root, in the same way this kind of "rigid in reverse" resistance and rebellion to any standards at all stems from the same root as legalism. Rigidity and "rigidity in reverse" are two sides of the same coin. It is the coin of the realm -- the medium of exchange so to speak -- of sin.

Legalism is the coin of the realm
-- the medium of exchange so to speak --
of sin.

Legalism is about rules and control instead of love and relationship. It is about gaining approval and avoiding inevitable pain. And it is an over-focus on things outside of ourselves and an under-focus on things inside of ourselves. Jesus said it this way.

"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Mt. 23:25-28 NAS).
Legalism is about man's efforts to please God, and it is often more about pleasing ourselves, because we think when we are good, we won't get in trouble and when we aren't we will. We think when we are good we will be rewarded and when we are not we will be punished. We think when we are good, God will think well of us and so will men. We think when we are not, God will look upon us with scorn and so will men. These rules of reward and punishment sometimes work out according to our plans and sometimes they do not. We are not always rewarded for our good efforts in this world, and evil sometimes triumphs over good in this world.

Legalism is also about manipulation and control, getting what we want and maintaining things the way we want them. All of these devices work in the world sometimes, but they only bring ill-gotten gain. They have nothing to do with God's unconditional love or his plans and provision for our lives. There have been times in my life when I would have struck me with lightning had I been God. Instead He reached out to comfort and love me and draw me to His bosom. It is not that I wasn't chastened. It's that I came to understand my need for His chastening. It was His demonstrably great love for me that transformed my life -- not rules or my efforts to prove myself. But that's another story. To read my testimony, click on the link at the top of the page. My point here is that love and relationship are what God longs for, not control over our lives. Real love, mercy and compassion are redemptive. Rules are not. Manipulation is not. Control is not. They will only bring death and will all fail in the end, but love never fails.

I recently read an excellent book entitled Extreme Righteousness by Tom Hovestol. It was an historical look at the Pharisees of Jesus' day. Much to my surprise, according to the writings of that time, the Pharisees were very decent, sincere people. They were a lot like you and me. I wouldn't consider them decent people from what I read in the Bible. The point of the book, however, is that Pharasaism resides in all of us to one degree of another.

I wouldn't consider Jacob a decent guy in his younger days either, but then I don't always see through God's eyes. I don't see the beginning and the end at the same time. So let's look at Jacob from the Word, hoping to see him through the eyes of God. Maybe we'll begin to see ourselves through God's eyes. Even more important, maybe we'll begin to see God in a brand new way.

Jacob the Thief

There is no clearer picture of the destructiveness of legalism than Jacob. His name says it all. It means supplanter, defrauder, thief, to take the place of, to enter through the back door, to trip up by the heel. His name tells the story of his life. At least much of it.

God promised Jacob's mother, Rebecca, when she was pregnant with her twin sons Jacob and Esau, that "the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob)" (Gen. 25:23). Though called and promised of God, even in his mother's womb, we find jacob manipulating and finagling to try to get what was declared by God to be his destiny. But Jacob could never wait on God. Jacob is all of us. His story is our story.

So long as we stand "under the Law,"
we cannot perceive the hidden unity of all the commandments. It is part of legalism that the
will of God must appear to be a multiplicity of commandments. In actual fact, it is one and indivisible; God wants nothing else except love because He Himself is love.

Emil Brunner
From The Letter to the Romans

In the simplest of terms, legalism is willfulness. In it's ugliest form, it is rigid adherance to a demanding set of rules. It adds to and takes aways from Truth. Or it overfocuses on small portions of the truth to an extreme. It drives us to insist that everyone agree with our narrow opinions.

Legalism chokes the life out of us and those around us. Like yeast, it permeates every area of our lives, stealing, killing and destroying all of the promise of the life of God. In it's most deceptive form it is cloaked in all kinds of good intentions, though one can hardly attribute good intentions to Jacob.

The Schemer

Oswald Chambers wrote in My Utmost for His Highest, "Temptation comes to me, suggesting a possible shortcut to the realization of my highest goal -- it does not direct me toward what I understand to be evil, but toward what I understand to be good".

I'm certain Jacob believed he was only going for what God had promised him. This is what legalism does. It takes, or tries to take. It does not wait to receive. Yet what we take can never be the same as what God gives. Legalism is not faith and what is not of faith is sin.

To lay a foundation for using the life of Jacob as an allegory for legalism, let's begin with a similar allegory from the Bible.

In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul used an Old Testament story as an allegory about law and grace for New Testament believers. In this allegory he used Sarah and Hagar to illustrate law/legalism and grace, using Sarah as a type of grace and Hagar as a type of the law.

What did Paul mean by this allegory? Sarah and Hagar were not debating doctrine or beliefs. Forget the theologians. In this allegory Paul clearly illustrates how the letter of the law affects we ordinary folks.

Here is the story. God promised Abraham and Sarah a son. As they grew quite elderly without a son of their own, they gave up on God's promise to them. In their natural minds there was no possibility for them to conceive a child. In Sarah's own words, " . . . the Lord has prevented me from bearing children" (Gen. 16:2). It was in this seed bed of unbelief that Sarah conceived a plan of her own to bring God's promise to pass. Hagar. Abraham would get his promised son through Hagar.

We may not recognize this as legalism, but it is, in its most subtle form. When man can no longer wait upon God and takes matters into his own hands to bring His promises to pass, this is legalism. And, of course, it is sin. It is a plan that misses the mark of God, for that is the true definition of sin -- to miss the mark -- to miss God's destiny for us.

This is what happened to Sarah. Temptation clothed in beauty suggested a solution to God's "failure" to deliver on his promise. Sarah's decision illustrates for believers of all ages how legalism impacts us and those around us.

Faith is based on God's promise, not our good ideas. Faith waits on God to fulfill his promise, no matter how long it takes, even if we never see it in this life. Unbelief impatiently tries to grab it and run. God promised Abraham and Sarah a son. He did not deliver in their timing. Sarah did what many of us do. She blamed God. " . . . the Lord has prevented me from bearing children" (Gen. 16:2). Her opinion about God's promise took precedence over His personal promise to her and Abraham. Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands and Ishmael was conceived through a physical union between Abraham and Hagar.

According to Paul's allegory, anything not born of promise is born of law or legalism. We all know the ongoing sorrow brought about because of Sarah and Abraham's choice. Jacob, who is also called Israel, and Ishmael, who is considered the first muslim, are still at war thousands of years later. And so it goes with us when we despair of God's promises.

The Letter of the Law -- A Thief

Jesus said in Jn.10:10 that the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. Most interpretations of this scripture say the thief is the devil, and he ultimately is, but Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees in John 10 (See Jn. 9:40-41). He was teaching on law and grace. Joseph H. Thayer, in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, said Jesus used the term "thief" to describe "false teachers who do not care to instruct men, but abuse their confidence for their own gain". Jesus was using the term "thief" to describe the Pharisees.

Jesus openly called
the Scribes and Pharisees thieves.
He also said they were
full of robbery and self-indulgence.

Jesus openly called the Scribes and Pharisees thieves (Jn. 10:1,8,10). He also said they were "full of robbery and self-indulgence" in Mt. 23:25 (NAS). Leaven also means robbery in the Hebrew. Jesus warned his followers to  " . . . Beware the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (Lk. 12:1).
Hypocrisy is a natural out-growth of legalism.

Legalism always involves personal gain. Jacob's plans were always for personal gain. Sarah's plan was for personal gain. She would gain a son. Our legalism demands what we think God wants for us in our timing when His timing isn't to our liking -- when it actually looks impossible. Col. 2:16-23 teaches that legalism "defrauds us of our prize" (NAS).

Legalism is a thief. Though the Lord fulfilled his promise to Abraham and Sarah years later with the birth of Isaac, Jacob's father, the law (Sarah's good intentions) robbed them of much of the joy and peace of God's fulfilled promise. Now they had to deal with the sorrow and strife of  Abraham's other son, Ishmael.

"So long as we stand "under the law," we cannot perceive this hidden unity of all the commandments. It is part of legalism that the will of God must appear to it as a multiplicity of commandments. In actual fact, it is one and indivisible; God wants nothing else except love because He Himself is love."
Emil Brunner, The Letter to the Romans

The thief kills (Jn. 10:10). The letter of the law kills (2 Cor. 3:6). Legalism kills and robs us of relationship with God and one another. It is like a hard-freeze just before harvest time. It damages or kills the crop. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness and self-control are the harvest the Lord is cultivating in our lives.

When we take matters into our own hands we create havoc, conflict and confusion. This pattern of law and grace can be found throughout the Old Testament. Like Hagar and Sarah, there are many types of the Old and New Covenants in the Bible. Jacob/Israel is a good one. So let us move on now to the allegory of Jacob the Thief.

Jacob/Israel -- Law/Grace

Jacob's life gives us two excellent illustrations of law and grace. First, Jacob represents the New Covenant (the new man/the glory of promise) and Esau represents the Old Covenant (the old man/the demands of the law, duty and obligation). Esau was born first, and the law of that time demanded that the first born son be the next head of the family and thereby inherit the father's position and estate. The Bible tells us that God was faithful to his promise, overriding the rules of the culture and the time. Jacob ultimately inherited the position of the first-born.

Second, Jacob's wife, Rachel represents the New Covenant (the new man/the glory of promise) and his wife Leah represents the Old Covenant (the old man/the demands of the law, duty and obligation). The rules of the culture dictated that the older daughter must be married before the younger. Jacob was obligated and forced -- no tricked into marrying Leah before he could have Rachel, his heart's desire.

Finally we will see that even the New Covenant/new man, Jacob, operated like all of us in Old Covenant/old man ways until his name -- his identity, his nature -- was changed from Jacob to Israel.

To refresh our memory, Jacob's name means "supplanter" or "thief". According to Gesenius', the root word means, "to defraud."  Webster's says to "defraud" means to supplant or take the place of another by force, trickery, or treachery. Another word for "fraud" in the Greek means greed, extortion and covetousness. Greed and covetousness are words that mean idolatry (Col. 3:5). All of these traits reigned in Jacob's life.

Jacob supplanted his brother Esau,
but even worse he supplanted God.
Jacob is an archetype
of a life lived under under the demands of legalism.

Jacob -- The Thief at Work

It was God's plan from the beginning to give Jacob the birthright of the first born, even though Esau, his twin, was the first-born.

The thief is in all of us from conception. The struggle between Jacob and Esau began in the womb (Gen. 25:22). Even as Esau preceded Jacob through the birth canal, Jacob held onto Esau's heel, trying to prevent him from being the first born (Gen. 25:26).

Jacob was the right name for him. Even prenatally he was a supplanter and thief. For most of his life, he plotted, schemed, lied and manipulated to steal the inheritance God had promised was his. There is no better picture of Oswald Chambers' statement than this. Jacob saw a shortcut to the realization of God's promise for him and was always going for it. The cultural law demanded that Esau be the first born. Jacob was determined to have his own way instead of waiting upon God's way.

Jacob is an archetype  of a life lived
under the demands and obligations of legalism.

When they were older, Jacob convinced a famished and short-sighted Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of stew (Gen. 25:27-33). So often, the tyranny of the pressing lusts and appetites of the moment, such as Esau's hungry belly, cause us to make choices we later deeply regret. Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. Jacob, true to his thieving nature, deceptively and illicitly purchased what was ordained by God to be his. Centuries later, Isaiah called out to this propensity in all of us.

"Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David" (Is. 55:1-3).
At this time, Jacob was still in the early stages of his thieving ways. Some time later, Rebecca, Jacob and Esau's mother, overheard Isaac, their father, say to Esau he was ready to give him the blessing of the first born.
"And he [Isaac] said, Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death: Now therefore take I pray thee thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison: And make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat: that my soul may bless thee before I die" (Gen. 27:2-4).
Rebecca acted hastily. Together she and her favorite son Jacob designed a strategy to gain the first-born blessing before Isaac could give it to Esau.

Jacob was a hairless man. Esau was very hairy. It would be no easy task to pull this off with so little warning. While Esau was out hunting venison for his father, Jacob cloaked himself in Esau's finest raiment and his mother covered his hands and neck with the skins of goats so he would appear to his father to be his hairy son Esau.

The word "raiment" is an interesting one in the Hebrew. It means, "treachery and pillage". It is from a root word which means "to cover with a garment; figuratively it means to act covertly; and by implication, it means to pillage". In other words it means thievery. The theme of thievery runs almost all the way through Jacob's life.

Jacob and Rebecca's strategy worked. They pillaged Esau's blessing.

"And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said, The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau. And he discerned him not, because his hands were hairy, as his brother Esau's hands: so he blessed him" (Gen. 27:22-23).
Isaac was old. His eyes were dim. He suspected it was not Esau speaking to him, yet he discounted the obvious and distrusted his discernment. Jacob successfully stole what God had promised. He was a thief -- and it was all so unnecessary.

Legalism is an overfocus
on externals -- the temporal  --
and an underfocus on the internal -- the eternal.

When Esau returned and discovered what his father had done because of Jacob's treachery, he was deeply grieved.

"And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me, also, O my father. And he said, Thy brother came with subtilty, and hath taken away thy blessing. And he said, Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright: and behold, now he hath taken away my blessing . . . " (Gen. 27:34-36).
Jacob had already purchased Esau's birthright for a bowl of porridge. Now he had stolen Esau's blessing as the first born. Esau's grief erupted into rage. "And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him: and Esau said in his heart, Thy days of mourning for my father are at hand: then will I slay my brother Jacob" (Gen. 27: 41).

Rebecca overheard Esau's threat and quickly prepared Jacob to flee.

Jacob's story is an allegory
of the developmental walk of every believer.

We will never know how God planned to fulfill His promise to Rebecca that Jacob would receive the blessing and inheritance of the first born son. I believe that in God's sovereignty He knew this would happen, even permitted it to happen. And He even allowed it to be recorded for our edification and learning. For we ARE Jacob.

Spin it anyway you way you will, Jacob preempted God's plan and opportunity through theft, but he only delayed the blessing of God. Jacob also robbed us of knowing the storybook ending. But there are very few story bookendings in this world.

God did not need Rebecca's nor Jacob's help. He would have brought his plan to pass according to His promise to give Jacob the inheritance of the first born. In fact, He ultimately worked it out in His way and time. Like Abraham and Sarah, had Jacob trusted God for the outcome, many of his heartaches and headaches would never have happened. Like the conflicts brought about by Abraham and Sarah's actions, a serious conflict resulted between Esau and Isaac that could have ended in death. Instead it separated Isaac from his family for many years.

We are all Jacobs.
God's promises are yea and amen,
but we tire of waiting on Him.
We lose our patience and attempt
to force God's hand.

We are all Jacobs. God's promises are yea and amen, but we tire of waiting on God. We lose our patience and attempt to force God's hand. We cover our legalism with the raiment or appearance of someone walking in faith and righteousness. Like the Pharisees we are full of robbery and dead men's bones. We end up with our lives in a mess. Our raiment, what we pretend to be, is a poor substitute for who God created us to be. It is a false image and must be shattered. Like Jacob, we strive for the promises of God. We fail to grasp that God has His ways and His timing for bringing us into them.

In spite of our unbelief, however, nothing can thwart the plans of God. God ultimately transformed Jacob and accomplished His purposes for his life. But Jacob walked through many snares of his own making before that happened. In Jacob's life we see the wondrous ways of God -- how He uses all of our thieving ways to shatter our deceptive hearts.

Jacob's Wilderness Experience

The first night of his flight from Esau's murderous hand, Jacob had his first recorded encounter with God in a dream. In his dream he saw a ladder reaching to heaven on which angels were ascending and descending, and the Lord stood at the top of the ladder.

In spite of Jacob's treacherous ways, God confirmed to him in his dream the promise He had made to his grandfather, Abraham. He would give Abraham the land through Jacob, and through his family the entire earth would be blessed. God also promised Jacob He would not leave him until He had done all that He had promised him (Gen. 28:12-18).

We can never get our arms around the love, forgiveness and goodness of God. Man may plan his life, but God will have His way anyway.

"There are many plans in a man's heart, nevertheless the LORD'S counsel-- that will stand" (Pr. 19:21 NKJ).
When Jacob awoke from his dream, he said, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it." And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel . . ." (Gen. 28:16-17).

Although Jacob was awe struck by God's visitation, his fears and worldly ways were still evident. Though God confirmed His promise, Jacob was still wheeling and dealing with God.

" . . . 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" (Gen.28: 20-21 NAS).
Jacob's requests are the very things about which Jesus said we need not worry.
"Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink: nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, And the body than raiment? . . . (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness: and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mt. 6:25).
Jacob's feeble surrender to God came out of an immature heart. It was conditional. "God you do this then I will let you be my God." It's called quid pro quo. Tit for tat. There is nothing quid pro quo about the grace of God. It is always undeserved. We can never do enough to earn the goodness of God in our lives.

Unquestionably God will always do His part. A mature surrender will always be an unconditional, "Not my will but thine, Lord". When we seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness first, in Jesus' words, "all these things shall be added unto" us.

Jacob was concerned with the temporal external instead of the eternal internal.

God's love for us is not conditional. Jacob was concerned about temporal externals, things outside of himself. God provides the externals, but His greatest concern is for our eternal internal man. He desires to transform our character, our eternal inner man into His own image. That came many years later for Jacob. At the moment, he had little, if any, awareness that he actually needed to change.

For the next fifteen or twenty years, Jacob lived by his wits instead of his faith. When we are under the law, we have no choice. "Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?" (Rom. 7:1). The law had dominion over Jacob. It was his master.

"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other: or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon" (Mt. 6:13).
Jacob would soon come to know that legalism, which is nothing more than our will and not God's, never gives us the results we desire. He met and fell in love with Rachel. She was a shepherdess, the daughter of Laban, his mother's brother. That made him Jacob's uncle. We will see that Laban is also a type of what it is to serve the law.

It was love at first sight. Jacob desperately wanted Rachel for his wife. He went to Laban and offered to work seven years for her hand. Laban agreed to the deal, but Laban (the law) gave Jacob what must have been the greatest shock and disappointment of his life. After seven years of working by the sweat of his brow for Rachel, he went to his marriage bed believing he would be snuggling up to Rachel. The next morning, much to his dismay, the woman in his bed was her sister Leah.

God promised.
It hasn't happened.
I'll work it out on my own.

Rom. 4:4 says "Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt." The legalist consciously or unconsciously believes he has to earn or deserve everything he gets. Thus he deprives God, the gracious gift giver, of his greatest joy. Giving. The attitude is of the legalist is, "God promised. It hasn't happened. I'll work it out myself."

When Jacob discovered Leah in his bed, he immediately went to Laban.     " . . . What is this thou hast done unto me? did not I serve with thee for Rachel? wherefore then hast thou beguiled me?" (Gen. 29:25). There it is again. We reap what we sow. There is Laban/the law stealing our prize from us! Jacob wanted Rachel. Instead, he got Leah.

By the very definitions of her name, I believe Rachel represented the New Covenant promise.


l. Rachel's name means "ewe," or "sheep." It also means "good traveler." Jesus said (paraphrasing here), "My sheep hear my voice and follow me. They will not follow a stranger but will flee from him" (Jn. 10:3-4).

Rachel was one of God's sheep. She was a good traveler. She followed only the Good Shepherd.

2. Rachel was also a shepherdess (Gen. 29:9 NAS). Jn. 10:1-2 says, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way (by the works of the law), the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door (Jesus) is the shepherd of the sheep" (Parentheses mine).

The light of the body is the eye:
if therefore thine be single,
thy whole body shall be full of light.

 (Mt. 6:22)

3. "Rachel was beautiful and well-favoured" (Gen. 29:18). The word "beautiful" is a compound word consisting of two Hebrew words, which mean "shining appearance".

"Well-favoured" also consists of two Hebrew words. "Well" is the same word as "beautiful," which also means "to shine." "Favoured" also means, among other things, "appearance". Twice the words used to describe Rachel said she had a shining appearance. She was full of light.

"The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light" (Mt. 6: 22).

"Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick: and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Mt. 5:14-16).

It seems obvious to me that Rachel represented the New Covenant of promise. Because Jacob felt he had to earn her, however, instead of praying and trusting God for her, he got the reward of debt (Rom. 4:4). He got Leah -- the reward of the law.

Jacob still had a long way to go before he learned how to enter the rest of God.


l. Leah means "weak, weary or dull". The root word means "to labor".  The law wearies us with the labor of dead works. "Weary" (Leah) was certainly what Jacob got for all his efforts to earn Rachel (the promise). God would have given Rachel to him freely if only Jacob had trusted Him enough to wait on Him. Instead, he had to work an additional seven years for her.

Jesus said, "Come to Me, all who are weary (Leah) and heavy laden (with the law), and I will give you rest (Rachel). Take my yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light" (Mt.11:28-30).

Jacob still had a long way to go before he learned how to enter the rest of God.

2. The law (Leah) is "weak" through the flesh (our own efforts) (Rom. 8:3).

3. "Leah was tender eyed" (Gen. 29:18). "Tender" means "weak, infirm, dull, faint" in the Hebrew. These are words that describe a soul ensnared in the web of legalism. All of our bravado in blustering our way through life is only an indication of our our weakness.

"But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness,
how great is that darkness!" (Mt. 6:24).

There are only three possible conditions
in the heart of man
-- law, grace and a combination of both --
the light that is darkness in us is legalism.

The root word for darkness in the Greek means, "darkness of error". There are only three possible conditions in the heart of man -- law, grace and a combination of both. The light that is darkness in us is legalism. The light that is darkness in us is the error of legalism, for the law is truth. But God never intended for us to use it to gain approval or to have our own way.

Throughout Matthew 6 Jesus addressed the error of legalism. He spoke of the hypocrites (legalists) who gave alms that they may have the glory of men (v.2). He spoke of those who pray with vain repetitions to be heard for their much speaking (vv. 6-7). He addressed those who disfigure their faces to give the appearance of fasting. These are legalistic acts designed to impress men and God. These acts describe the light in us that is the darkness of error.

4. Leah (law) was the mother of Judah (Rev. 5:5). Jesus was born of the tribe of Judah under the Law.

"But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law" (Gal. 4:4).
Why was Jesus born under the law? Why wasn't he, the manifestation of grace and truth (Jn. 1:17), born to one of Rachel's children, under grace? Because He was born "To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Gal. 4:5).

Jacob Wants to Go Home

After Jacob completed the second seven years of labor for Rachel, he went to Laban and asked to be released to return home. Laban knew he had been greatly blessed by God through Jacob. It's amazing, isnt' it, that the life of God in us still causes us to be a blessing to those around us, even when we are still operating in legalistic ways? Because of this pervasive blessing of God, Laban asked Jacob to stay. "Appoint me thy wages and I will give it to you" (Gen. 30:28). Just name your price, Jacob. It's yours.

Jacob had ears but he could not hear. Listen to his response.

" . . . Thou knowest how I have served thee, and how thy cattle was with me. For it was little which thou hadst before I came, and it is now increased unto a multitude: and the Lord hath blessed thee since my coming: and now when shall I provide for mine own house also?" (Gen. 30:29-30).
Laban wanted to give Jacob whatever wages he desired, but Jacob could not hear that, because he still did not know how to receive. He only knew how to get what he wanted through his guts and wits. So he justified and promoted himself. Instead of telling Laban the wages he wanted, it was as if Laban had asked him to work for nothing. "Don't you see how much God has blessed you because of me? When will I have time to provide for my own family if I continue to work for you?" Hello, Jacob.

So Laban asked Jacob again, "What shall I give thee?" Jacob's response is appalling. "Thou shalt not give me any thing." Thousands of years later, we read of Peter saying a similar thing to Jesus. "Thou shalt never wash my feet" (Jn. 13:8). Neither Jacob nor Peter could receive from God. They thought they had to earn or deserve whatever they got.

Open your hands, Jacob. God will fill them.

Jacob continued to manipulate and negotiate f
or that which was freely offered to him.

Jacob continued to manipulate and negotiate for what was freely offered to him. "If thou wilt do this thing for me, I will again feed and keep thy flock" (Gen. 30:31).

"This thing" that Jacob wanted Laban to do was his most elaborate scheme ever. Why Jacob? It wasn't necessary.

"I will pass through all thy flock today, removing from thence all the speckled and spotted cattle, and all the brown cattle among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats: and of such shall be my hire. So shall my righteousness answer for me in time to come, when it shall come for my hire before thy face: every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the sheep, that shall be counted stolen with me" (Gen. 30:32-33).
I've got news for you, Jacob. It won't be your righteousness at all that will answer for you when the rewards are handed out. It will be God's and God's alone. You have no righteousness of your own! And you are certainly demonstrating that right now.

Laban offered to pay Jacob whatever he wanted, but he couldn't even hear the offer. The old supplanter was deaf and blind to God's grace. He would rather scheme to earn and deserve what would have been freely given to him. Jacob was still a thief.

I've got news for you, Jacob.
It will not be your righteousness
that will answer for you
when the rewards are handed out.

At the time, Laban must have sighed a sigh of relief. Jacob wanted so little. He happily and greedily complied with Jacob's request. He gladly gave him all the animals with white on them. They were less valuable than the solid black. So he moved his flocks and herds a three days' journey from Jacob's to make sure no monkey business took place. But Laban did not know half of Jacob's wits.

Jacob devised a scheme that bordered on witchcraft to prosper himself -- the use of visualization. He peeled the bark of sticks in the shapes of spots, speckles and stripes and placed them by the watering holes. When he brought the flocks and herds to drink, they mated there before the sticks. Jacob made sure that only Laban's stronger animals were watered near the sticks so they would bear strong striped, speckled and spotted young for him. The feeble animals were not watered before the sticks. Jacob's scheme appeared to work. Only strong, speckled, spotted or striped young were born, and they belonged to him according to his deal with Laban.

"Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white stripes in them, exposing white which was in the rods. And he set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the gutters, even in the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink; and they mated when they came to drink. So the flocks mated by the rods, and the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. And Jacob separated the lambs, and made the flocks face toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban; and he put his own herds apart, and did not put them with Laban's flock. Moreover, it came about whenever the stronger of the flock were mating, that Jacob would place the rods in the sight of the flock in the gutters, so that they might mate by the rods; but when the flock was feeble, he did not put them in; so the feebler were Laban's and the stronger Jacob's. So the man became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks and female and male servants and camels and donkeys" (Gen. 30:37-43).
Jacob had devised a slick way to steal from Laban. The result of this treachery was that his flocks grew stronger and Laban's flocks grew feebler. This did not go unnoticed by Laban or his sons. They grumbled and plotted against him.
"And he heard the words of Laban's sons, saying, Jacob hath taken away all that was our father's: and of that which was our father's hath he gotten all the glory. And Jacob beheld the countenance of Laban, and, behold, it was not toward him as before" (Gen. 31:1-2).
Jacob was not the only thief. Laban apparently tried to hinder the growth of Jacob's flocks by changing his wages ten times. Every time the striped animals increased, Laban changed Jacob's wages to spotted animals. When the spotted increased, Laban changed Jacob's wages to speckled animals. When the speckled increased, he changed the wages to striped animals. There certainly was no honor between these two thieves.

If we had to do everything perfectly for God
to reveal His goodness and kindness to us,
we would never experience His loving touch.

This is an excellent example of legalism from both sides. Legalism (Jacob) finagles, bargains and manipulates to get what it wants. And legalism (Laban) also connives to raise the stakes for what we want. There is never any rest under the law.

God is Still on His Throne

Upon overhearing Laban's sons complaining about his success, Jacob knew things were reaching a crisis. He held a meeting with his wives. He told that he had lost favor with his father-in-law because of all he had done. He also told them of another dream from Grace Himself. In that visitation, the Lord revealed to him that it was not his own trickery that had caused him to prosper. God had blessed him in spite of his thieving manipulating tricks. And God also told him to flee from Laban.

"Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.' So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to his flock in the field, and said to them, ‘I see your father's attitude, that it is not friendly toward me as formerly but the God of my father has been with me. And you know that I have served your father with all my strength. Yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times; however, God did not allow him to hurt me. If he spoke thus, ‘The speckled shall be your wages,' then all the flock brought forth speckled; and if he spoke thus, ‘The striped shall be your wages,' then all the flock brought forth striped. Thus God hath taken away the cattle of your father, and given them to me. And it came to pass at the time that the cattle conceived, that I lifted up mine eyes, and saw in a dream, and, behold, the rams which leaped upon the cattle were ringstraked, speckled, and grisled. And the angel of God spake unto me in a dream, saying, Jacob: And I said, Here am I. And he said, Lift up now thine eyes, and see, all the ram which leap upon the cattle are ringstraked, speckled, and grisled: for I have seen all that Laban doeth unto thee. I am the God of Bethel where thou anointedst the pillar, and where thou vowedst a vow unto me: now arise, get thee out from this land and return unto the land of thy kindred" (Gen. 31:10-13).

If we had to do everything perfectly
for God to reveal His goodness and kindness to us, none of us would ever experience them.

Here is a marvelous example of God's grace and love. He alone knows how much understanding we actually have. He also knows exactly how much of that understanding we are walking in. If we had to do everything perfectly for God to reveal His goodness and kindness to us, none of us would ever experience them.

Jacob gathered his family, his flocks and his herds and fled from Laban and his sons, who were following after him in hot pursuit. I'm sure the perspiration of fear poured from Jacob's brow. Laban was breathing down his neck from one end. On the other end, Jacob knew he had to face his brother Esau upon his return home.

I would have broken out in a sweat myself, but as usual it really wasn't necessary. God had already moved upon Laban to let Jacob go. By the time Laban reached Jacob's camp, he was ready to say goodbye to his daughters and grandchildren. He also collected the household god which had been stolen by Rachel. (Yes, even under grace we have false gods hidden under our tent.) Laban and Jacob made their peace and went their separate ways.

The next hurdle for Jacob was facing Esau. When he arrived at the River Jabbok, he sent his wives, flocks and herds on ahead of him. He remained alone on the other side of the river to pray and seek the face of God. There he had a divine encounter, one that each of us will eventually have to have if we're moving on with Him.

Wrestling with God

"Jabbok" means "emptying out". Jacob had had divine encounters with God before, but this one was different. He had walked in the flesh according to the law his entire life. There at the Jabbok, God emptied Jacob of his fleshliness and worldliness, for surely no man can empty himself of his old man. Jacob's old man died that day. He was no more.

"Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more. And you will look carefully for his place, and he will not be there. But the humble will inherit the land, And will delight themselves in abundant prosperity" (Ps. 37:10-11).

Repentance is wrestling with God.
It is a painful time in His presence.
But the blessings of repentance are great.

Jacob was about to be humbled. The wicked old man was about to die.

"And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day."
There is a very interesting insight relevant to the word "wrestled" in this verse. The words "old," as in "old covenant" (2 Cor. 3:14), and "oldness" as in "oldness of the letter" (Rom. 7:6) are from the same root word as another word in the Greek which means, "to wrestle". Could it be that in Jacob's wrestling with the Lord, he (legalism) was trying to use the law to get what he wanted from God? Again? It would certainly be consistent with Jacob's life to this moment. After all Jacob did demand that God bless him. Isn't it the law that demands?

In the Hebrew, to wrestle means "to bedust". In Old Testament times, one repenting wallowed in or threw dust and/or ashes all over himself (Job 42:6, Jer. 25:34). This wrestling ended in Jacob's complete surrender and repentance. Repentance IS wrestling with God. It is a painful time before Him. But the rewards of repentance are great.

"And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him" (Gen. 32:25).
The word "touched" in Hebrew means "smote or struck." According to Gesenius, to smite one's thigh is an act of mourning and indignation. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says it is a "sign of intense repentance". Hos. 12:4 verifies both of these things were taking place between Jacob and God.
"Yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed; He wept and sought His favor [mercy ] . . . ".

Jacob wept in godly sorrow.

Jacob wept in godly sorrow. The kindness and mercy of God leads us to godly sorrow and repentance from dead works to serve a living God (Rom. 2:4). It's interesting to me that repentance in Heb. 6:1-2 is referred to as repentance from dead works (of the law). I think this is exactly what Jacob was repenting of.

The smiting of Jacob's thigh was not just a light tap. It was strong enough to put Jacob's thigh out of joint. He walked with a limp for the remainder of his life (Heb. 11:21), an outward manifestation of his inner brokenness and dependency upon God.

". . . and he halted upon his thigh. Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he touched  the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank" (Gen. 32:3lb-32).
In verse 26, God said to Jacob, " . . . Let me go, for the day breaketh." The Lord does not let go of us until the day dawns, and the day star arises (Jesus) in our hearts (2 Pet. l:l9). And Jacob said, "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me." It was then that God changed Jacob's name (identity and character) from Jacob, which means "Supplanter/ Defrauder/Thief" to Israel, which means "Prince of God".
"And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and has prevailed" (Gen. 32:38).

Jacob walked with a limp
for the remainder of his life,
an outward manifestation of his inner brokenness.

The real blessing of God was not large flock and herds but the transformation of Jacob's heart from that of a thief to that of a prince with God. In that confrontation with God, Jacob was transformed. In the smiting of his thigh, Jacob was emptied by the Lord or he emptied himself of the old man -- his own wits and strength. He could now put on the new man.

"Lie (deceive) not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him" (Col. 3:9-10).
In the process of losing his life, Jacob gained it. Our old man has no power with God or man. This is why we must die to self. We cannot be an effective witness as long as the old man is alive, because we have no power but our own, which is no power at all.
"And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there. And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him . . . " (Gen. 32:29-3la).
The day was no longer merely breaking. The sun was rising upon Jacob.
" . . . the path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day" (Pr. 4:18).

Jacob was a forgiven man.

" . . . for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I remember no more" (Jer. 31:34).
Ex. 33:20 says no man can see God and live. So how did Jacob survive seeing God? He didn't. Jacob, the old man, died. Israel, the new man came forth. No one can have this kind of encounter with God and not be changed forever.
"But we all, with open face beholding (seeing) as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor. 4:18).

The blessing was
the transformation of Jacob's heart.

The next morning, Jacob went on to catch up with his family and to meet with Esau. He was in for another very pleasant surprise. Upon seeing Esau, he

" . . . bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept" (Gen. 33:3-4).
Not only had God changed Laban's heart and Jacob's heart; he had been at work in Esau's heart as well.

Hosea 12:2-4 sums it up beautifully.

"The Lord also has a dispute with Judah, and will punish Jacob according to his ways; He will repay him according to his deeds. In the woman he took his brother by the heel, and in his maturity he contended with God. Yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed; He wept and sought His favor. He found Him at Bethel, and there He spoke with us" (NAS).
Sometime after his encounter with Esau, Jacob returned to Bethel. There he built an altar to God. He gave this important place a new name. It was no longer called Bethel, the "house of God." It was called now El-Bethel, "God of the house of God" (Gen. 35:7). In his new brokenness, Israel (Jacob) finally knew God. Though He had revealed Himself to Jacob there many years before, Jacob had not known Him.

When we are legalistic, we set up a pillar, a monolith, which means "one stone", when we have an encounter with God (Gen. 28:18-19). When we have been broken by the loving hand of God, we set up an altar -- a place to worship Him (Gen. 35:7).

The book of Hebrews indicates that Jacob walked with a limp for the remainder of his life -- a testimony to his brokenness and dependency on God.

"By faith, Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshiped, leaning on the top of his staff" (Heb. 12: 21).
Jacob, the thief, is in all of us. Jn. l0:1 says that "he that entereth not by the door (Jesus/grace) into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and robber". The thief is legalism. The thief is our flesh that loves the letter of the law.

What exactly was it the Pharisees were stealing? What did Jacob steal? What do we steal through our legalism? In the final analysis it is the lordship of Christ in our lives. Theft in Biblical terms is the usurpation of God's authority and the often unwitting choice of obedience to rules instead of surrender to a relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Most of us are completely ignorant of the presence of legalism in our lives. Our intentions are good. We see ourselves as striving to please God. We sincerely believe we are. And the Lord sees our good intentions and is always at work to will and do according to His good pleasure. He is patient and kind and He is also determined to have His way with us. Let these words comfort your heart.

"The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto children's children; To such as keep his covenant, and to those that remember his commandments to do them" (Ps. 103:8-18).
If it hasn't already, your day at the Jabbok will come in God's grace and in His time, and I am "fully persuaded that, what he (has) promised, he (is) able also to perform" (Rom. 4:21).

Proverbs says, "An inheritance may be gotten hastily at the beginning; but the end thereof shall not be blessed" (Prov. 20:21). Jacob and his mother Rebecca would have been much better off waiting on the Lord to complete what he had promised. There would have been no broken relationships in the family, no fences to mend if only they had. There would have been no reaping of the iniquities of the fathers for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As we read through the chapters in Genesis on Jacob's life, that reaping is still evident in the lives of his offspring. But then, God knows the ways of man. For most of us it takes a long time to forsake our thieving ways.

We can learn a lot from Jacob's life, not just for our sake but for the sake of those who follow after us. The most important thing we can learn from Jacob is that deliverance from the law comes through humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God in brokenness and repentance. It was when Jacob was emptied and broken at the Jabbok that his name and nature were changed.

Lord! Thank you for Your longsuffering patience and Your mercy that is higher than the heavens. Were it not for your grace and mercy, I would have already perished. Jacob is thriving in my flesh. I surrender to You with all I know to surrender. I know legalism hinders me from walking in all You have for me. I also know that I have no ability or power of my own to change myself. Only you can do that. Root out all legalism from my life. Deliver me from my thieving ways. Grant me the grace and faith to endure as You cleanse and purge me of it all. Teach me Your ways, Lord. You know I want to please you. Lead me to the Jabbok where my independence will be surrendered. Make me like the bride who came up out of the wilderness leaning on her beloved (SOS 8:5). Your hand is not so short that it cannot deliver me from my legalism. Nothing is too difficult for You, Lord. I am placing my trust in You to accomplish Your highest purposes for my life. In Your Name, Jesus, I pray. Amen.

If you haven't already been there, click here to go to my page on brokenness. It just may bring you to the Jabbok.

Better is the end of a thing
than the beginning thereof:
and the patient in spirit is
better than the proud in spirit.

(Ecc. 7:8)

Jacob the Thief -- An Allegory about Legalism (c) by Anne Murchison 1997

Not for commercial use.
Please feel free to copy for for personal use.
Please credit the author.


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