Jacob's twin, Esau, cried out bitterly, "Is not he rightly named Jacob [a supplanter]? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing." (Gen. 27:36.)
On the surface, the pivotal moments in the scriptural account of Jacob's life seem to turn on deceit. Yet we learn from latter-day revelation that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob "did none other things than that which they were commanded; and because they did none other things than that which they were commanded, they have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods." (D&C 132:37.)How are these two perspectives to be reconciled? In this simple fact: that Jacob's history reaches far back into the premortal past where his life plan was made. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (renamed Israel by the Lord
Gen. 32:28, 35:10T), and large numbers of their posterity, were among the noble and great ones in the premortal congregation of the covenant people. (Abr. 3:23, D&C 138:56, Alma 13:3.) Because of the covenant blood that flowed in their veins, great privileges rested with them and their posterity. How important for the House of Israel today to understand those promises and powers.
The House of Israel did not begin on this earth. "Israel is an eternal people. She came into being as a chosen and separate congregation before the foundations of the earth were laid. She was a distinct and a peculiar people in the pre-existence, even as she is in this sphere. Her numbers were known before their mortal birth, and the very land surface of the earth was `divided to the nations [for] their inheritance . . . according to the number of the children of Israel. (Deut. 32.8.) (Bruce R. McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, 510-11.)
A major component of the Abrahamic covenant is that this premortal group of valiant spirits would be channeled through Abraham's lineage. Israel is a "group of souls tested, tried, and proven before they were born into the world. . . . Through this lineage were to come the true and tried souls that had demonstrated their righteousness in the spirit world before they came here." (Melvin J. Ballard, Crusader for Righteousness, pp. 218-19.) That covenant was reconfirmed on Isaac and Jacob as well. (Gen. 26:3-5; 28:13-15.)
Acknowledgment of Jacob's premotal election to be the father of the mortal families of Israel illuminates the otherwise dimly lit events of Jacob's life. This premortal foreordination explains many of those incidents that appear to some to be deceptions or cicumventions of priesthood authority.
The Lord informed Rebekah, "Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger." (Gen. 25:23.) This divine announcement prophesied that Jacob, even though second born, should have the birthright and the attached patriarchal blessing. The Lord's description of these two nations reflects choices made by these people in the premortal world as well as the choices they would yet make in mortality.
The birthright held great importance. "Under the Patriarchal Order certain special blessings, rights, powers, and privileges - collectively called the birthright - passed from the father to this firstborn son. (Gen. 43:33.) In later ages special blessings and prerogatives have been poured out upon all worthy descendants of some who gained special blessings and birthrights." (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. p. 87.)
The birthright comprised a number of specific blessings, among them: the right to bear the priesthood, and the right to prosper.
The right to the priesthood: During men's earliest days on earth, the church government was patriarchal. "From Adam to the flood the presiding church officer was always both a high priest and a patriarch, and the office descended from father to son." (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. p. 559; see also Abr. 1:2-4 where the firstborn birthright and priesthood power are linked and was called the patriarchal order.)
It is clear that when Jacob confronted the famished Esau with the proposal to trade food for the birthright, he did not cheat nor deceive his brother (Gen. 25:29-34); rather, the incident reveals two things; first, that God's hand was over Jacob (Gen. 32:8) and that the priesthood birthright was destined to be his; second, it reveals how unprepared Esau was to receive God's power. That Esau was not prepared to receive the birthright is reflected in the words, "thus Esau despised his birthright." (Gen. 25:34.)
Jacob's foreordination also has an orchestrating influence on his receiving his father's patriarchal blessing. In this incident, inspired initiative rested with Rebekah as she intervened to obtain the blessing for Jacob. This incident is not justification for deceit, but rather an example of submitting to the Lord's will, whatever form that might take. That this intervention was the will of God is evident as, after Isaac and Esau realized that Jacob had secured the primary blessing, Isaac said to Esau, "By thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother" (Gen. 27:40), echoing both the Lord's prophecy to Rebekah and the patriarchal blessing Isaac himself had just given Jacob. (Gen. 27:28-29.)
Another aspect of the priesthood also appears in Isaac's blessing: "Cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee." (Gen. 27:29.) Blessing and cursing allude to the priesthood sealing power. The fuller version of the blessing to Abraham seems to make this connection: "And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee. . . . for I give unto thee a promise that this right shall continue in thee, and in thy seed after thee (that is to say, the literal seed . . . of the body) shall all the families of the earth be blessed, even with the blessings of the Gospel, which are the blessings of salvation, even of life eternal." (Abr. 2:11.) The promise of eternal life is inseparably linked to sealing power.
The blessings of the priesthood are apparent in Jacob's vision of the ladder in his temple experience at Bethel, or house of God. (Gen. 28:17-19.) The background to this incident is important for understanding its significance. Esau made the decision to marry outside the covenant two Hittite women, "which were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah. (Gen. 26:34-35.) Jacob, on the other hand, took a long journey to Haran to take a wife from among the covenant people. In the dreams of the night he saw a ladder set up on the earth above which the Lord stood. (Gen. 28:10-22.) "Jacob realized that the covenants he made with the Lord there were the rungs on the ladder that he himself would have to climb in order to obtain the promised blessings - blessings that would entitle him to enter heaven and associate with the Lord. (Marion G. Romney, "Temples - The Gates to Heaven," Ensign, March 1971, p. 16.)
It was no accident that Jacob had a revelation concerning temple covenants as he was on his way to find his eternal companion. "Those married in the temple in the new and everlasting covenant of marriage become inheritors of all the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the patriarchs and thereby enter into the patriarchal order. If the participating parties abide in the eternal marriage covenant, they shall reap the full blessings of patriarchal heirship in eternity where the patriarchal order will be the order of government and rule." (Mormon Doctrine, p. 559.)
The right to prosper. In this temple experience at Bethel, the Lord explained another aspect embedded in the comprehensive Abrahamic covenant or birthright which is accessible to all the obedient of the lineage of Jacob: "I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest . . . for I will not leave thee." (Gen. 28:15.)
It is important for the covenant people to see just how all-encompassing their privileges with the Lord are. Alma phrased our privileges this way: "If ye will keep [His] commandments, ye shall prosper in the land - but if ye keep not his commandments ye shall be cut off from his presence." (Alma 37:13.) This passage not only reveals the covenant, but also gives special definition to prosper, which means to have the presence, or grace, of the Lord. From the LDS Bible Dictionary we learn that grace is divine enabling strength or power. Thus the covenant of prospering, or of grace, could be rephrased, "If you will be with me, I [the Lord] will be with you."
A second Book of Mormon passage offers more detail:
"I swear unto you, that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land. . . . I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up [or, exalted] at the last day." (Alma 36:1, 3.)
As is true with all of God's covenant children, the Lord's promise or covenant to cause Jacob to prosper signifies that the Lord offers divine enabling power which will cause one's endeavors to succeed according
to the Lord's purposes, for one's own eternal development, which includes the power to bless those around him or her as well.
Several passages in scripture show this birthright covenant of prospering working in the lives of the covenant people in all dispensations:
Abr. 2:8 - [Lord to Abraham] "My name is Jehovah, and I know the end from the beginning; therefore my hand shall be over thee."
Gen. 21:22 - [to Abraham] "God is with thee in all thou doest."
Gen. 26:3, 12-13 [Lord to Isaac] "I will be with thee and will bless thee . . . I will perform the oath which I sware unto Abraham thy father. . . . Then Isaac sowed in that land, and received in the same year an hundredfold: and the Lord blessed him. And the man waxed great, and went forward, and grew until he became very great."
Gen. 28:20 - [Jacob] "God be with me, and will keep me in the way that I go."
Gen. 30:27 - [Laban to Jacob] "I have learned by experience that the Lord hath blessed me for thy sake."
Gen. 31:3 - [Lord to Jacob] "Return unto the land of thy fathers and to thy kindred; and I will be with thee."
Gen. 39:2, 3 - "And the Lord was with Joseph and he was a prosperous man. . . . And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord made all that he did to prosper in his hand."
Jacob learned that he had come boldly before the throne of grace to obtain these covenant privileges. (Heb. 4:16.) His successful night-long wrestling with the angel, whether a literal or spiritual wrestling (see Enos 1:2) secured the blessings of his birthright. The Lord's emissary said to him: "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed." (Gen. 32:28.)
Israel means therefore, "He who prevails with God." This name describes Israel's privileges with God. Because of our covenant with the Lord to do all things whatsoever the Lord shall command us (Abr. 3:25), we have power with God in all aspects of our lives. One of the greatest benefits of scripture is that we may with full assurance liken it to ourselves. (1 Ne. 19:23.)