January 30, 2023

Jacob: A Father’s Grief

“So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.” Genesis 29:20, NASB


Jacob had set out to find his future wife. We are told in Genesis 29 that he desired to be with Rachel and had to work seven years to stay with her. But wait, it was 14 years because Laban pulled a bait and switch and gave him Leah. Finally, we see in verse 29 that Jacob was able to be with Rachel.


“Now the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” Genesis 29:31, NASB.

Rachel saw that Leah had been able to bear children for her husband. She became intensely jealous (Genesis 30:1), and she got angry with Jacob, demanding she gets children. Jacob’s response to her anger was one of frustration. He essentially told her that he was not God, and it was not up to him if she conceived a child or not. What Rachel is dealing with is the displacement of her anger toward God onto Jacob. 

In psychology, displacement occurs when we cannot confront the actual individual giving us distress, and instead, we put that anger onto somebody close to us. Coined by Sigmund Freud, it is a classical defense mechanism (Freud) 7In Rachel’s case, she likely felt angry toward God but displaced that anger toward the tangible Jacob. 

Bilhah was the maid of their household, and much in the same way that Sarah had Abraham go into Hagar to have a child, Rachel insisted Jacob go into Bilhah so she could have a child. 

“So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went into her. Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob, a son. Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me, and has indeed heard my voice and has given me a son.” Therefore she named him Dan, Genesis 30:4-6, NASB


After having not conceived a child of her own, Rachel was overjoyed when Bilhah gave her two children, Dan and Napthali. In the Bible, we see that after Dan was born, Rachel felt that God had “vindicated” her. She felt the LORD had finally looked upon her with favor instead of her sister. At the birth of the second son, Nepthal, her enthusiasm was not lost! Verse 8 goes on to tell us that Rachel felt she had “prevailed” against her sister. 

This is an interesting contrast to what we see in Abraham and Sarah’s story. Sarah was unable to have children of her own, just like Rachel. Because of the inability to conceive, she enlisted the help of the maidservant Hagar. As we know, Hagar gave birth to a child named Ishmael. Sarah despised Ishmael, and it wasn’t until Isaac came along that she embraced her children at all. Rachel acted oppositely, and she embraced and loved the children that had been born of her maidservant as if they had been her own. We will see later down the lineage that all of this was of importance. The children born to these women would eventually fall into Abraham’s lineage and the 12 tribes of Israel.


“Then, God remembered Rachel, and God gave heed to her and opened her womb. So she conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” She named him Joseph, saying, “May the LORD give me another son.” Genesis 30:22-24 NASB

We see that God did not abandon or forget about Rachel. He finally gave heed to her pleas and cries and opened her womb. She had the honor of giving birth to Joseph while at the same time, hoping that God would see fit to give her a second son. Imagine the joyful feeling she would have had!


We are told that Jacob [Israel] loved Joseph more than all his other sons (Genesis 37:3). Because of this love, he decided to make him a specialized coat of many colors. This, as you may expect, caused extreme jealousy among his other brothers. We see that they “hated” him and could not speak well of him at all. At one point, we see that Joseph had a dream (Genesis 37:5), and he told his brothers about it, which caused even more hatred. 

In the dream, the group of them were binding sheaves in the field, and one sheaf rose and stood high above all the others while the remaining sheaves bowed (Genisis 37:8). Joseph related this dream to mean that his brothers would bow down to him. Upon hearing this, they became very jealous and went out to the pasture to work.

Shortly after this, Jacob sends Joseph to the field to check on his brothers and the crops and return his word. “Then he said to him, “Go now and see about the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem” Genesis 37:14, NASB

We must not forget that Jacob had once been a victim of favoritism by his father, Isaac. Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob. Jacob was seen as the outcast child who was unloved by his father. Surely Jacob would have learned from this trauma and not carried it on to his children? The question then becomes, Why did Jacob feel it was okay to play favoritism?


As Joseph was coming to find his brothers, they began to plot among themselves to put him to death (Genesis 37: 18). His brothers were so vehemently angry and jealous that they planned to throw him in a pit but claim a wild beast devoured him. Reuben heard of this and rescued him, saying, “let’s not take his life” (Genesis 37:18). This must have been some relief for Joseph, knowing that he had been rescued from certain death. Just in the same way that Jesus rescues us from death, Joseph was rescued by Reuban. We also know that if Jesus can rescue us from death, he can rescue us from the grief and sorrow of child loss.

We see the relationship between Joseph and his brothers was tumultuous. In today’s society, we would call this sibling rivalry. We have seen this in every chapter so far! In the chapter about Adam and Eve, we see that Cain and Abel carried out the original sibling rivalry. In Hagar, we see that Ishmael and Isaac had sibling rivalry as well as in Abraham.

Alfred Adler, a physician, and psychotherapist focused his work extensively on birth order and sibling rivalry. According to Adler (1992), birth order makes a difference in a child’s inferiority and superiority. Human nature is to be jealous of one another, which is even more profound in the sibling relationship (Adler, 1992). 8

Reuban was the oldest child, and therefore, would have been older and more mature. His reasoning seemed to kick in when he rescued Joseph from the hands of his other brothers. While he may have saved his life, he did help them come up with another plot:

“Genesis 37:22 Reuben further said to them, “Shed no blood. Throw him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but does not lay hands on him”—that he might rescue him out of their hands, to restore him to his father” Genesis 37:22, NASB

When Joseph finally made it to his brothers, they removed his varicolored coat and threw him in a pit. What awful brothers! They quickly changed their minds with the plan to kill him when they saw the Ishmaelites coming (Genesis 37:27). They instead decided to sell him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. When Reuben returned to the pit, Joseph was nowhere to be found, so he mourned the loss by rending his clothing. “Now Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph was not in the pit, so he tore his garments.” Genesis 37:29, NASB


After Joseph had been sold, his brothers had to create a way to convince their father that he had died. They took his coat, slaughtered a goat, and spread blood all over it. 

“So they took Joseph’s tunic, and slaughtered a male goat and dipped the tunic in the blood; and they sent the varicolored tunic and brought it to their father and said, “We found this; please examine it to see whether it is your son’s tunic or not.” Then he examined it and said, “It is my son’s tunic. A wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn to pieces!” Genesis 37:31-33, NASB

Jacob knew this was Joseph’s tunic and assumed wild beasts had devoured him. What we see next is a beautiful picture of a father mourning the loss of his son. We have discussed in prior chapters the mourning process that took place in the Bible. One of the notable things was rending (or tearing) one’s clothing, followed by covering up with sackcloth and ashes. We know for sure that grief over a child being lost is perhaps the worst kind of grief there is. We see that his other children made attempts to comfort him:

“Then all his sons and all his daughters arose to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. And he said, “Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son.” So his father wept for him.” Genesis 37:35, NASB

We are further told that Jacob mourned his son’s loss “for many days” (vs.34). We also see that his grief was inconsolable (vs.35). “I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son” was a profound statement on the part of Jacob. He was longing to join his son in the grave. It was clear that Jacob was grappling with depression over the death of his son. At this point, he had no reason to believe that his son was alive. Jacob was broken in spirit because his son’s misdeeds had [in his mind] killed his child and destroyed his own mind. 


Jacob had already lost his beloved wife, and the one remaining child of theirs was Benjamin (Genesis 42:30). When Jacob sent Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to buy grain, he kept Benjamin behind. He was anxious and fearful that something would happen to him (Genesis 42:4). 

Their father Jacob said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me.” 37 Then Reuben spoke to his father, saying, “You may put my two sons to death if I do not bring him back to you; put him in my care, and I will return him to you.” 38 But Jacob said, “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.” Genesis 42:36-38, NASB. 

Jacob is still mourning and grieving the loss of Jacob. Moreover, he is anticipating that he would lose Benjamin if something were to happen. Benjamin was his remaining memory of his beloved wife, Rachel. Amidst the depression, Jacob is also dealing with paranoia (vs.36 “everything is against me.” When grief is accompanied by paranoia, it is often called “complex grief” in today’s psychology terms. 

In complex grief, the individual has been in a grieving period for six months or more. In addition to these criteria, they have an intense yearning and longing for the deceased loved one. They have persistent difficulty trusting one another with their possessions (such as Benjamin). The symptoms have to cause clinically significant distress in social or occupational functioning (Shear, 2011). 9 Jacob fit the criteria for complex grief, if only he had known that his son was indeed alive.


Jacob decided to move to Egypt. God spoke to him and gave him knowledge of the possibility of seeing Joseph again; how great was this! “God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” 3 He said, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. 4 I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again, and Joseph will close your eyes.” Genesis 46:2-4, NASB. His family helped him pack up his belongings and carried him to Egypt. 

The total individuals who came to Egypt were all of Jacob’s descendants, including Benjamin. There were a total of 70 individuals. 

“Now he sent Judah before him to Joseph, to point out the way before him to Goshen, and they came into the land of Goshen. Joseph prepared his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet his father Israel; as soon as he appeared before him, he fell on his neck and wept on his neck a long time.” Genesis 46:28-29, NASB

Joseph and his father were finally reunited! We are told that he “wept and hugged” him for a long time. I imagine this is what it will be like when we are reunited with Rachel in heaven. Jacob had considered his son dead; he had dealt with long-term grief. Imagine his happiness when he found out Joseph was still alive! Also, he had grandchildren. 

“Then Joseph brought them close to him, and he kissed them and embraced them. Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face, and behold, God has let me see your children as well.” Genesis 48:10-11, NASB


After Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, he knew his days were ending (Genesis 48:20-22). He called his sons to gather around him so that he could tell them what was to come. We also see that he was prepared for his death and would leave a portion of his anointing toward his children and grandchildren. We see that his descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel! Jacob breathed his last breath.


Israel [Jacob] dealt with a lot of grief and loss in his time. What are some of the things we can learn from Jacob?

1) Things are not always as they seem. Jacob was certain that Joseph had been killed. He spent many years grieving that loss and trying to process what happened. However, he remained faithful to God through everything. As Christians, it is difficult to remain faithful to God when everything seems to go wrong. However, we continue to trust in him to have our best interest in mind, always.

2) Favoritism causes issues. Isn’t it amazing that God is not a respect of persons? He doesn’t play favorites, and unlike Jacob- he loves all of his children equally. We can rest in this hope and grace that no matter what happens, our father loves us.

As you go through this journey of healing through child loss, remember two things:

1) Christ is faithful and will see us through any trial

2) It is OK not to be OKAY.

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