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The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

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Like Father Like Son: Transitioning to Isaac

This is such an odd passage. It seems like a patchwork quilt, where the author moves from one vignette to the next with little dialogue between them. We see Abraham take a second wife, and then die, being buried next to his wife. We see Ishmael fathering many children, and then joining his brother Isaac to bury their father. We see Isaac, now the head of the household, going through many of the same struggles his father faced: barrenness, famine, waiting on the promises of God.

Like Father Like Son: Repeating the Story

The author of Genesis doesn’t actually spend a whole lot of time on Isaac, and that is perhaps because his story is one we’ve heard before. Like father, like son, Isaac seems to walk in the footsteps of his father Abraham. While the text tells us:
The New Revised Standard Version The Birth and Youth of Esau and Jacob

These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son

the focus of the story is not on Isaac at all, but on his two sons, Jacob and Esau. Nevertheless, I’d like us to spend a few moments on Isaac.
Because, as tempting as it may be, we must recognize that Isaac’s story is not Abraham’s story. “Like father, like son”, is a paradigm we see play out many times in scripture, and that is because it is a paradigm we see play out many times in real life. When I was in high school, I wanted very little to do with my parents. I was a little rebellious, I played in a metal band, and I hung out with some questionable people. I wanted to be my own person. Growing up from the little boy I had been, I decided I did not want to follow in my father’s footsteps afterall. Ironically, as I grew older, I realized how very similar to my dad I was. I still have many of his mannerisms, and a lot of who I am I owe to him. And, wouldn’t you know it, when my Dad was a teenager he did many of the same things I did. He played football like I did. He went to metal concerts like I did. He hung out with some questionable people, like I did. Like father, like son. Even so, I am not my father. I am a very different person.
In Isaac’s day, there was a certain social pressure to be like your father: to take up his trade, live on his land, and inherit his possessions. Isaac, in some ways, was destined to be just like his father Abraham. Many sons and daughters today feel the same pressure: to inherit the family farm, or the family business, to live on the family land, or at least nearby. Many children find themselves walking in their parent’s footsteps, for better or worse.
Even so, I am not my father. I am a very different person. In Isaac’s day
And yet, like Isaac, they have their own struggles, their own journey to go on. The barrenness Isaac and Rebekah faced was not like the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah. The famine they went through was similar, but not the same. And though their lives may have shared in many surface level similarities, Isaac and Rebekah had to find their own way to rely on God’s promises and live faithfully in the land given to them.
So while Isaac and Abraham may share many things in common, Isaac still must find his own way with God and face his own struggles in faith.

Upsetting the Order: Jacob the Youngest Son

Nevertheless, the story does not spend too much time on Isaac. Instead, it moves on to his sons Jacob and Esau.
If Isaac was like his father Abraham, Jacob was far from it. From the beginning of the story, we know something is different about Jacob. He and his brother, Esau, are destined for conflict. Jacob will live a life of struggle. Before he is even born, his journey with God is destined to be dramatically different than that of his father or his grandfather.
Jacob’s very name hints at this reality. In Hebrew, Yaqob literally means “heel-grabber”, or “He supplants”. Jacob is the kind of person who is always looking for a way to one-up the guy ahead of him. We see this, of course, in the story following where Jacob takes his brother’s birthright. We’ll see this time and time again in his story, as he resorts to all kinds of trickery and dishonesty in order to take the family inheritance.
Jacob is the troubled son, the son that would likely disturb and distress most parents today. He always seems to be in trouble, as if he is in constant combat with both heaven and earth. Some of what he faces is his own doing, other things, however, seem to be a kind of ill-fatedness that hangs over Jacob’s life like a cloud.
Jacob has inherited this promise from his forefathers, but his journey and life with the promise is radically different than either Isaac or Jacob. While Abraham seemed to have faltered in his faith, Jacob often seems to invite confrontation with God through his dishonesty and trickery. At one point, he even goes so far as to enter into a literal fist-fight with the LORD! The promise does not come easy for Jacob. Trusting in God does not come easy to Jacob, and living the faith of his fathers is a constant struggle for this youngest son.

Scandalous Grace

The scandal of Jacob’s story is that God has actually chosen such a man to inherit the promise. In fact, it seems that God goes out of his way to choose such a rapscallion to carry on the promise of Abraham. You see, the family inheritance, legally, should have been passed on to the eldest son, Esau. Yet God chose to overturn all social principles in choosing the youngest son, Jacob, to gain his father’s inheritance. Why?
If we listen to Paul in , it was so that God’s promise would be shown to be through mercy and grace, and not by human will and exertion. The promise isn’t something that humans can grab onto and control. Our social parameters and expectations don’t have any hold over God’s promise, and the story of Jacob and Esau is proof of that. By human right, Esau should have inherited the promise. The promise, however, was not Isaac’s to give nor was it Esau’s to take. That right belongs to God and God alone, and God chose to overturn human social convention in order to show that the promise belongs to him, and is given not because Esau deserved it, as the eldest son, but because God is merciful.
Indeed, only a God full of mercy would ever pour out such grace on someone like Jacob!

Jacob and the Youngest Generation

B- Like Father Like Son: Repeating the Story
The story of Jacob and Esau is a challenge for us today. The American Church, I believe, is in the place of Isaac. We have inherited our faith from our parents and grandparents. The Church has thrived, Sunday school was packed, going to Sunday worship was a given, and worshipping the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was not even in question.
C- Upsetting the Order: Jacob, the Youngest Son
This new generation, however, is different. Church attendance is falling. Sunday school classes are empty. Other gods or no god at all are worshipped. The children of the new generation who do still come to church tend to struggle with the faith of their parents. Singing the old hymns, worshiping in the family church, and practicing the faith of their parents doesn’t come as easily to the children of this generation. Young adults, college students, and youth seem to be in the place of Jacob. They have inherited all of these things from their parents, but the promise of their parents doesn’t quite sit comfortably with them. It’s as if they are in constant conflict with heaven and earth. They challenge God, and even when they worship, they worship differently than we do. The faith journey of the new generation looks very different than the journey of generations past.
D- Scandalous Grace
This dramatic change in the new, young church has been cause for alarm for some. Parents worry about the faith of their children. Mothers and Fathers pray in fear and trembling for sons and daughters that are wrestling with their faith, unsure of what to do with the inheritance they have recieved.
Where do you find yourself in this story? Maybe you find yourself in the shoes of Isaac and Rebekah. You have lived out the faith of your ancestors, but now you worry for your children and their journey in the faith. Maybe you find yourself in the shoes of Jacob. You’ve inherited this faith, this church, these religious practices from your mothers and fathers, but these things don’t sit as comfortably for you as they did for mom and dad. You have questions, you have struggles, and it seems like your life is destined to be in constant conflict between heaven and earth.
This generation is not the first to be a generation of Jacob. And This older generation is not the first to worry about the younger generation! The cycle of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob gets replayed over and over again in history. So what does this passage teach us about this cycle? What is a parent to do with a son or daughter who wrestles with their faith in unfamiliar ways? What is a son or daughter to do when they struggle with the faith they’ve recieved? This passage tells us that the answer is to trust in the grace of God. It is important that, over and over again, we read that this God is the God of Abrham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yes, he is the God even of the troubled generation, who gets into trouble, who has a dark cloud of conflict hanging over him, and who is so bold as to challenge even God to a wrestling match. And, in fact, we learn that this God has chosen just such a person to pour out his grace on.
You see, God’s grace is truly scandalous. It doesn’t conform to social convention, it never fits into a neat box. God works with people like Abraham, and people like Isaac, and yes, even people Jacob. And so, if you sit in the older generation and worry about the younger, fear not. God’s grace has been given to them. And though the way they worship, and the way they walk in faith may look radically different, know that God is walking with them the same as he has walked with you. And if you sit in the younger generation, asking how your ancestors could have walked in the faith so easily, and wondering why your journey with God is plagued by conflict and doubt, know that even your parents, like Abraham, also had their struggles. And that, though yours may seem new and odd and different, our God has the power, the mercy, and the grace to deliver you through such conflict even as he delivered your ancestors. Because we worship the God of Abrham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.
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