Jacob dwelt in the land where his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan.
If you were to look at Jacob’s life, his value system resembled those of the people of Canaan more than those of his father, Isaac. Now, Isaac wasn’t perfect, but Jacob was far removed from even the righteous standard of his father. Jacob had tricked and connived his way right out of Canaan, out of his family’s presence, and when he went to his uncle Laban, he was a stranger in that land. The Bible says that we too are strangers in our land. Peter wrote, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). We live in this world, we’re in this land, but we’re told that we are strangers.
I worry sometimes that I become too much at home in this place that I am to be a stranger in. As Christians, we’re to be different, separate in our priorities and goals, and it’s our faith that creates that separation. We live for and invest our time, treasure, and talents in the kingdom to come. Even as we fulfill our responsibilities as legal and engaged citizens, we do so with God’s glory in mind. As for Jacob, the lifestyles he and his family were living were resembling more and more the people of Canaan rather than being a stranger like his father.
The problem was that Jacob seemed to forget his own mistakes. We know that Jacob—by this time called Israel—loved Joseph more than all his other children, and he showed it by giving him a tunic of many colors—a pricey, fancy garment (Genesis 37:3-4). You would think that Jacob’s experience with favoritism and its effects would make him think twice. Remember, he had grown up with a father who loved another child more. He had seen how Isaac’s preference for Esau had resulted in deception and strife. There was no way Jacob would make the same mistake, right? Newsflash: He made the same mistake. Often the sins of parents are passed on unwittingly to their children. Adults abused as children often abuse their own kids. It’s their default setting, the model they’ve seen and know, and unless they’re made aware of this and they consciously strive to break the cycle, they will replicate it. When Jacob loved Joseph more than all of his older brothers, the brothers could see it, and they hated Joseph for it.
It wasn’t just the tunic, either. It went back a lot farther. When Jacob returned from Padan Aram, he was worried about Esau seeking vengeance for Jacob’s previous deceptions (Genesis 32). When he went to meet Esau, Jacob arranged his servants and family in a procession that indicated his priorities. The frontlines were the livestock and his slaves, because, in his eyes, they were the most expendable. Then came the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, followed by the sons of Leah. Finally, at the very end, would be his most loved wife and son, Rachel and Joseph. They were way in the back to protect them in case Esau was feeling vengeful. That favored status didn’t go unnoticed and caused division in the family.
The coat Jacob gave to Joseph represented all that bad history, and at the same time made it worse. Joseph’s new multicolored robe was worthy of royalty, a blaring symbol of favored status. One commentator said it had sleeves and the hem went down to his ankles. It’s obvious if you’re wearing something like that, you can’t do much manual labor, right? People a few thousand years ago wore a sleeveless, shortened tunic for hard work so that their legs and arms could move as needed. By contrast, for Joe to show up in the fields in his robe would be like going to work on a farm in a tuxedo. Jacob’s statement was crystal clear to his other sons: “Joseph doesn’t have to work hard like you do. Even though he’s never done your job, I’m making him your supervisor. Even though he’s the youngest, I’ll be listening to his report on how he thinks you’re doing.” Jacob seemed clueless that he was setting his son up for disaster. For years, Jacob had unwittingly made Joseph a stranger among his own brothers.