Abraham wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty amazing.
Leave your home, God said. Abraham’s response: Where to? Just go until I tell you to stop, God answered. So off Abraham went “as the Lord had spoken to him.”
When it was clear that his flocks and his nephew Lot’s couldn’t pasture together any longer, he unselfishly gave Lot the pick of the land.
Later he pleaded with God to be merciful to Sodom on behalf of Lot and his family. Six times he interceded for them.
Later, when God told him to circumcise every male in his household as a sign of the agreement they had together, he took care of it the very same day.
When Sarah wanted to send Hagar and Ishmael away, Abraham objected, but God told him to listen to Sarah. So “Abraham rose early in the morning,” packed them up, gave them provisions, and sent them on their way.
One boy gone, but then God told him to sacrifice the son of promise. “So Abraham rose early in the morning,” took wood, fire, and his son and set off. Three days later they came to the place where God directed him to go. (Good thing Abraham listened since that’s where the ram was that would become the substitute sacrifice).
Compare this to Jacob. He swindled his brother out of his birthright; lied to his dad and fooled him into thinking he was his twin in order to obtain his brother’s blessing; manipulated his uncle’s animals to procure the best for himself, and sneaked away without saying goodbye.
On top of that, as he returned home, he got word that his brother—who, rumors said, planned to kill him—was on his way to meet him . . . with four hundred men. So Jacob, brave man that he was, sent a gift, divided his people and property in two, with the hopes that at least half of them could get away, and put it all in front of him.
Interesting, though. He had an encounter with God and the next morning he changed things up, putting himself ahead of his family, then falling on his face before Esau.
He was learning.
But he made more mistakes, most notably favoring Joseph, his wife Rachel’s firstborn. To be fair, he learned about favoritism from his parents. His mother Rebekah favored him—which was why she came up with the idea for him to steal his brother’s blessing—and his father Isaac favored Esau. So Jacob was carrying on the family tradition. It’s just that it didn’t sit well with his ten older sons. They eventually kidnapped Joseph, sold him, and reported to Jacob that they found his bloody coat.
Believing Joseph to be dead, Jacob shifted his protection and possibly his favor to his youngest, Benjamin.
Fast forward some thirteen years, and famine forced Jacob to send his sons to Egypt to buy food—all except Benjamin. Unbeknown to the brothers, Joseph was the man they bought from, and he told them not to return unless their youngest brother was with them.
Time passed, food dwindled, the famine continued, and Jacob wouldn’t send Benjamin. Ruben tried to give his father assurances, to no avail. Judah tried and was turned down, but finally things grew desperate, and Jacob was forced to relent.
Here’s the big turning point of his life, I believe. He went from saying
“My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow” (Gen 42:38)
“may God Almighty grant you compassion in the sight of the man, so that he will release to you your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (Gen 43:14)
It took him a long time to get there. In the meantime, God gave him the same promise He had given Abraham and Isaac—one not connected with the blessing he stole. He also protected him from his uncle and from his brother, appeared to him more than once in visions and dreams and perhaps even as the pre-incarnate Christ.
At last, he stopped grabbing and grasping and holding on. He opened his hand and relinquished his son. Only then did he receive Joseph back, alive and well.
Two patriarchs—one quick to obey, the other, oh, so slow. One willing to give up his sons, the other holding on as if he could care for them better than God could. In the end, God used them both, but I can’t help but think Abraham took the better road.
This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2012.