Was It Okay for Jacob to Lie to His Father?

Jacob deceived his father to keep God's promises on track. Was this right?
Jacob deceived his father to keep God's promises on track. Was this right? (photo: Register Files)

The book of Genesis records an instance in which Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, by pretending to be his brother.


He does this so that he can inherit his father's blessing.

All of this seems to happen in fulfillment of God's plan for Israel.

Does that make it right?

Here's the story . . .


Jacob and Esau

NOTE: This post is part of a series on the "dark passages" in the Bible. Click here to see all of the posts in the series.

Here is how the book of Genesis describes the birth and early life of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau:

Genesis 25

[22] The children struggled together within [Rebekah]; and she said, "If it is thus, why do I live?" So she went to inquire of the LORD.

[23] And the LORD said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger."

[27] When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.

[28] Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.


The Prophecy

Note the prophecy about the two children: "the elder [Esau] shall serve the younger [Jacob]."

This will ultimately be fulfilled by God using the line of Jacob to give rise to the people of Israel (in fact, "Israel" is an alternate name that Jacob will later acquire), but how will this take place?

At the moment, there seem to be two obstacles:

  • First, as the older child, Esau has the birthright.
  • Second, as Isaac favors Esau, he is likely to give him his dying, prophetic blessing.


The first obstacles is overcome when a famished Esau foolishly sells his birthright to Jacob (Gen 25:29-34).

That leaves us with the second problem . . .


Isaac Prepares to Bless Esau

Genesis 27 records that when Isaac was old and blind, he prepared to bless Esau.

But Rebekah overheard the plan.

She knows the prophecy about her two sons and fears that this will deprive her favored son, Jacob, of what God has promised him.

Rather than leave this to God to sort out, Rebekah initiates a plan of deception.

While Esau is out hunting game for his father, Rebekah tells Jacob to get two kids (young goats) so she can make the food Isaac is expecting.

Rebekah also adds another layer to the deception, to prevent Isaac from recognizing Jacob by touch or smell: She puts Esau's best clothes on Jacob, so he will smell like him, and she covers his hands and neck with the skins of the young goats, so that he will seem hairy to the touch, like Esau.


The Act of Deception

Jacob then goes in to his father's room, deceives his father, and receives his blessing (ch 27:18-29).

It isn't easy.

Isaac seemingly recognizes Jacob's voice, and he repeatedly expresses doubt about who is before him.

But he allows his doubts to be assuaged by the feel of his son's hands (augmented by the goat skins to make them seem hairy) and by the recognizable smell of Esau (from the clothes Jacob is wearing).

Jacob thus obtains the blessing, which includes the prophesied gift: "Be lord over your brothers."

Both barriers to the initial prophecy have been removed, and God's plan is on track for the line of promise to extend through Jacob's descendants rather than Esau's.

This leaves us with an important question . . .


Was This Right?

Lying is contrary to the Ten Commandments, and people in every culture have had a sense that it is wrong.

But what about lying to serve God's cause?

Whatever one may think about other "hard case" situations (e.g., Nazis asking if you have Jews in your attic), it's clear that Scripture does not regard this as a situation in which lying was "okay."

Both Rebekah and Jacob will suffer because of their lie.


Things Fall Apart

After Isaac has blessed Jacob, Esau comes back and discovers what has happened.

He is so angry, in fact, that he decides to kill Jacob as soon as their father is dead.

Rebekah learns of this, and tells Jacob, to flee until his brother's wrath dies down. Then she will send for him to come back.

But that day never comes.

She never sends for him. He stays away for twenty years, and she apparently dies in the meantime, because when he comes back, she is not there to greet him.

In fact--unlike the other principal wives of the patriarchs--she has no death notice. She is written out of the story and dies in silence--without her favored son, Jacob, at her side.

Her plot thus cost her the rest of the time she would have had with him.

And Jacob's participation in the plot hurts him as well . . .


The Deceiver Is Deceived

While Jacob is away, he takes a wife. He works seven years for her. But then, on the night of the marriage ceremony, his father in law pulls the same kind of switcheroo that he pulled on Isaac: Instead of giving him the promised bride--Rachel--he substitutes her older sister, Leah.

Jacob then has to work seven more years in exchange for the bride he wanted.

And this isn't the only time Jacob is deceived.

He will later be lied to--by his own sons--regarding a matter of utter horror . . .


The Death of the Beloved Son

Genesis 37 indicates that Joseph was Jacob's favorite son, and he made him a special garment (the famed "coat of many colors").

But the favoritism did not go down well with the other brothers, and they resented Joseph, who got them in trouble with their father and also related grand dreams about them bowing down to him.

So they sold him into slavery.

To cover up his absence, they kill a goat, dip Joseph's robe in the blood, and present it to his father, who naturally concludes that Joseph is dead.

[34] Then Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days. [35] All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, and said, "No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning." Thus his father wept for him.


As Ye Sow, So Ye Shall Reap

Notice that the means of deception are the same in both cases:

  • A slain goat (the two kids Rebekah used/the goat the brothers killed)
  • A distinctive garment (Esau's clothes, which carry his smell/Joseph's ornate robe).


This makes it unmistakable that Jacob is suffering the consequences of his own act of deception. He deceived his father, and now as a father, he is being deceived by his sons.

Without saying it explicitly, the author of Genesis has put it all there for us:

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap [Gal. 6:7].


What If . . . ?

We cannot know what would have happened if Rebekah and Jacob had not taken it into their hands to deceive Isaac.

Presumably, the promise would have ended up being fulfilled in some other way.

And a way better than the one with all the suffering that came in the wake of this event.

So while God bring about his purposes despite our evil actions, that does not make them right.

We cannot "do evil that good may come," and we cannot know what other, better things would have happened if we had done what we should have.

Fortunately, there is still mercy for us when we fail.


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