The 1970 movie Little Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, follows the story of Jack Crabb, a white boy adopted by a Cheyenne warrior and raised among the Indians with the name Little Big Man. Jack spends his life moving between the very different worlds of his native white frontier people and his adopted Indian family. At one point, when he is back again among the Cheyenne, Jack takes a wife named Sunshine. The two live happily for a time, but then Sunshine persuades Jack to marry her three widowed sisters. Jack reluctantly agrees, and soon becomes head of a very large household. One day, as he wanders through the camp pondering his circumstances, he encounters an old enemy, the warrior Younger Bear whom he has inadvertently shamed many times. Thinking he at last has an advantage over Little Big Man, Younger Bear boasts, “I have a wife. And four horses.” Jack answers as if in a daze, “I have a horse . . . and four wives.” And with that absent-minded answer he once again shames Younger Bear.
Little Big Man is a satire, but oddly enough it echoes something from our ancient past. Our ancestor Jacob, like Jack Crabb, left the land of his birth to seek a wife among his distant relatives. He ended up taking four wives, shaming his wives’ kin, and coming home with far more than he anticipated. Jacob’s story, however, has much greater significance than the ribald satire of Little Big Man. His life is a continuous string of prophetic pictures illustrating what happens to us, his offspring.
The relationship of Jacob with his four wives (Genesis 28:10-32:2) provides the setting for these prophetic pictures. Jacob leaves his family at Beersheba and travels to the region of Haran in Syria (Aram), his mother Rebekah’s homeland. On the way the Lord encounters him at Bethel (House of God), where he has the famous dream of Jacob’s Ladder. There he makes a vow to God:
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on its top. He called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. This stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.” (Genesis 28:18-22 NASB)
This is the first record of God appearing personally to Jacob, and of Jacob pledging his allegiance to YHVH. As we shall see, the Lord keeps His part of the bargain by sustaining Jacob and bringing him back to the Promised Land, but both Jacob and we, his descendants, have had trouble keeping our part. The Prophet Hosea explains:
Now Jacob fled to the land of Aram, and Israel worked for a wife, and for a wife he kept sheep. But by a prophet the Lord brought Israel from Egypt, and by a prophet he was kept. Ephraim has provoked to bitter anger; so his Lord will leave his bloodguilt on him and bring back his reproach to him. (Hosea 12:12-14 NASB)
In this brief passage Hosea covers the history and destiny of the House of Jacob from its establishment down to our time. He reveals the prophetic pattern by explaining how our father Jacob went to Aram to find a wife and wealth (sheep; the herds and flocks that constituted wealth). Hosea does not need to complete the tale; we know that God brought Jacob back to Canaan with wives, children, and immense wealth. He continues to explain the next exile of the House of Jacob, when the Lord shepherded Israel in Egypt and brought our ancestors out with a mighty hand. Again, the prophet need not expound further; we know the whole story from our study of Torah. Then Hosea proceeds to his time, which stretches into our present: the state of the House of Ephraim. The Northern Kingdom of Israel bore the name of Jacob’s House and carried the firstborn blessing. However, they departed from the Lord and provoked Him to anger, which is why He used the Assyrian Empire to scatter them into the nations. The exile began toward the end of Hosea’s life and continues to our present day. Yet God promises to bring all of Israel back, not only to the Promised Land, but to Him and His ways. That is where Hosea addresses the future of the House of Jacob:
Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity and receive us graciously, that we may present the fruit of our lips. Assyria will not save us, we will not ride on horses; nor will we say again, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands; for in You the orphan finds mercy.” I will heal their apostasy, I will love them freely, for My anger has turned away from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like the lily, and he will take root like the cedars of Lebanon. His shoots will sprout, and his beauty will be like the olive tree and his fragrance like the cedars of Lebanon. Those who live in his shadow will again raise grain, and they will blossom like the vine. His renown will be like the wine of Lebanon. O Ephraim, what more have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like a luxuriant cypress; from Me comes your fruit. Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever is discerning, let him know them. For the ways of the Lord are right, and the righteous will walk in them, but transgressors will stumble in them. (Hosea 14:1-9 NASB)
The House of Jacob includes both houses of Israel: Ephraim, who departed from Torah, but who in the last two millennia seems to have embraced Messiah Yeshua; and Judah, the Jewish people who have retained their identity and connection to Torah, but for the most part do not acknowledge Yeshua as Messiah. We see the beginnings of the Two Houses in the tale of Jacob’s sojourn in Haran. If we look at this account through a prophetic lens, we see that Jacob represents Messiah, the One Who takes a wife that He may build a house and redeem all of creation. Jacob’s wives, Rachel with her handmaid Bilhah, and Leah with her handmaid Zilpah, not only become the mothers of Israel’s tribes, but also represent the Two Houses.
When Jacob arrives in Haran, he meets several shepherds with their flocks gathered around a well which is covered by a large stone. Being a shepherd himself, he wonders why the men do not water their sheep. They tell him, “We cannot, until all the flocks are gathered, and they roll the stone from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.” This baffles Jacob, and it motivates him to take action when Rachel approaches the well with her father’s flock. Defying the ridiculous custom of the day, Jacob single-handedly removes the stone from the well.
It should baffle us, just like it baffled Jacob, why this unspecified “they”, the unnamed authorities, kept the shepherds from watering the sheep. Yet here is an amazing prophetic picture. The well contains water, the life-giving substance. Many centuries later, at another well named for our father Jacob, Yeshua of Nazareth explained that He is the source of God’s Living Water, a claim He repeated publicly in the Temple at Jerusalem during the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) some months later. The authorities of the day blocked access to Yeshua’s Living Water by rejecting Him as Messiah, executing Him on a tree, and then, after He was buried, sealing the stone that covered His tomb. When the stone was rolled away three days later, Yeshua, the Life, came forth from the dead to bring eternal life to all who will draw near to Him. Jacob did the same in a symbolic way: he rolled away the stone from the well and gave life-giving water to the sheep who drew near.
The sheep, of course, are all of us, the people who have all, like sheep, gone astray. Jacob removed the stone from the well in contradiction to human custom, which required all the flocks to be gathered first. Yeshua broke all human religious tradition and conquered death, thus doing what people said could not or should not be done. Here also is a picture of the outpouring of the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, in these Latter Days. The outpouring of the Ruach began at Shavuot (Pentecost), and continues to this day. The fullness of this great Gift need not wait for Yeshua to gather all His flock, but can and must happen now on whoever will cast off the hindrances of the religious spirit and receive the Ruach of God from Messiah.
The story goes on to tell how Jacob “kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept”. His love for Rachel illustrates YHVH’s love for Israel. Because of that love, Jacob gave up his freedom as Isaac’s wealthy heir and served as a bondman to win Rachel’s freedom from her father, just as Yeshua gave up everything for our sakes. He suffered greatly when Laban cheated him by deceiving him into marrying Leah, and then extorted another seven years of service for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Even in this act of deception, though, there is a heavenly picture. If we look past Laban’s manipulative actions and greedy motives, perhaps we can see in his father’s heart a picture of Father God’s love for His people. Laban loved his elder daughter and wanted the same thing for her as he wanted for Rachel: a worthy man to take her as his bride. Perhaps when he first made the bargain with Jacob he expected that Leah would be married by the time Jacob’s service for Rachel was complete. Yet when she had no suitor, Laban sought to do good for her (and for himself) by marrying her to the best man available. That is the case with all of humanity. There is no other suitor available; the only One is Messiah Yeshua. It is in Him that all humanity, Jews and Gentiles, are made into One New Man, the whole House of Israel.
The marriage of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel pictures Messiah’s union with Judah and Ephraim. There is always a danger in making too much of an analogy, but consider this analogy as one possible way of looking at the prophetic picture in this story. Leah, the unloved wife, is fruitful even in the midst of rejection and suffering. God blesses her immediately with four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Later she will have two more sons (Issachar, Zebulun) and a daughter (Dinah). She also claims Gad and Asher, the sons of Zilpah, as her own. In all of this, Leah shows us something of the House of Judah. The Jewish people have been rejected and outcast for centuries, suffering all manner of evil even from (perhaps especially from) those who claim to be followers of Messiah. Yet through it all the Jews have remained amazingly fruitful, producing an astounding number of intellectuals, financiers, inventors, warriors, and many others who have blessed all of humanity. Through all those centuries only the Jews have remained faithful to God’s Torah, albeit imperfectly. The Apostle Paul explains that Jews who remained zealous for God’s Law sought to earn righteousness on their own rather than by faith. Such is still true in much of modern Judaism. Keeping of Torah does indeed produce blessings, but it does not produce salvation, and thus Judah remains partially blind to the path of righteousness opened by Messiah. Hosea spoke of this as well, saying God would have compassion on and deliver the House of Judah (Hosea 1:6-7).
But what of barren Rachel? She could not have children, so she offered up her handmaid as a surrogate and claimed Bilhah’s sons Dan and Naphtali as her own. Eventually God opened her womb and she gave birth to Joseph, the one who would inherit the birthright and whose sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, would become fathers of two distinct tribes of Israel. As we will learn later, she delivered a second son, Benjamin, but did not survive his birth. For many years, though, Rachel was beloved, but produced no fruit. We may consider that she represents Ephraim, which in Hebrew means “fruitful” (Strong’s H669, אֶפְרַיִם). The name is a tragic paradox in that Ephraim, the House of Israel, is unfruitful in God’s eyes:
I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its first season. But they came to Baal-peor and devoted themselves to shame, and they became as detestable as that which they loved. As for Ephraim, their glory will fly away like a bird—no birth, no pregnancy and no conception! Though they bring up their children, yet I will bereave them until not a man is left. Yes, woe to them indeed when I depart from them! Ephraim, as I have seen, is planted in a pleasant meadow like Tyre; but Ephraim will bring out his children for slaughter. Give them, O Lord—what will You give? Give them a miscarry womb and dry breasts. All their evil is at Gilgal; indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of My house! I will love them no more; all their princes are rebels. Ephraim is stricken, their root is dried up, they will bear no fruit. Even though they bear children, I will slay the precious ones of their womb. My God will cast them away because they have not listened to Him; and they will be wanderers among the nations. (Hosea 9:10-17 NASB)
For all this, though, barren Rachel remains beloved of Jacob, even as the Lord still loves Ephraim. This He explains through the Prophet Jeremiah:
Is Ephraim My dear son? Is he a delightful child? Indeed, as often as I have spoken against him, I certainly still remember him; therefore My heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:20 NASB)
Grace is the operating principle between Jacob and his wives, just as it is with the Lord and His people Israel, both Judah and Ephraim. Yet the two wives show us two different attitudes toward the love and the grace of God. Leah shows us those who seek to earn God’s favor by working to attain righteousness. Whether this is a Jewish over-zealousness for Torah, or a Christian legalistic tradition, we can no more earn God’s favor than Leah could earn Jacob’s favor by bearing many sons. Rachel, in contrast, shows us the picture of those who overemphasize God’s grace. Rachel is secure in her husband’s love, knowing that she does not need to work for his favor. That is a good thing; God bestows His love on us because He chooses to do so, not because we earn it. However, He does expect His beloved to respond to His love by keeping His commandments. If we do not leave our old ways and move in step with His times and seasons and laws, then there is little evidence that we are changed into His spotless bride. We become like Rachel, who presumes on her husband’s good will, but secretly steals her father’s idols and smugly conceals her crime from both her husband and her father. Beloved as she was, Rachel’s heart remained linked to her fleshly ways, and thus did not belong entirely to her husband. That was Ephraim’s fault, and sadly is the fault of many Christians to this day.
As the story continues in Genesis and beyond we see how this picture of Messiah’s Kingdom of Israel matures. From Leah come the priests (Levi), the kings (Judah), and Messiah Himself (the Lion of Judah). From Rachel comes the one who reached out to the Gentiles and joined them to Israel (Joseph). Rachel is also the mother to those who rebel against God’s anointed, the Son of David, and break away to form a separate kingdom. The man who leads that rebellion is Jeroboam, a descendant of Joseph through Ephraim. The split of the kingdom is itself a picture of how the Church broke away from its Hebraic roots, with much pain and loss in the process. The cause of that schism was similar to what caused Ephraim to break with Judah. The Gentile Church was content to keep the Name of the Savior, but could not abide the Torah which He lived out as our example, nor the excessive traditions which Judaism had added to Torah and which obscured God’s truth. The Jews were content to keep Torah and their traditions, but not the Messiah Who is the very life of the Torah. Thus each went their separate way, the Church upholding a paganized form of godliness, and the Jews maintaining a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. As in Jacob’s household, the full truth is only revealed when the wives stop their self-centered bickering and start attending to the desires of the Bridegroom.