Jacob: Keeper of Covenants
March 1998

“Jacob: Keeper of Covenants,” Ensign, Mar. 1998, 51

Old Testament


Keeper of Covenants

The father of the house of Israel teaches us by example that making and keeping sacred covenants with God leads to eternal blessings.

All scripture one way or another points us to the house of the Lord and its covenants, and few episodes in the Old Testament teach us more about temple-centered covenants and promises than the story of Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes.

Jacob was a son of promise and of the promise. His own father was the meek and obedient Isaac, whose willingness to be offered as a sacrifice in the presence of God forever stands as a similitude of the atonement of God’s Only Begotten Son (see Gen. 22; Jacob 4:5). Indeed, the Apostle Paul refers to Isaac as Abraham’s “only begotten son” (Heb. 11:17). As a consequence of Isaac’s obedience, the promises God had established with Abraham were handed down to his posterity—from Abraham to Isaac, from Isaac to Jacob, and from Jacob to all the house of Israel (see Gen. 22:16–18; Gen. 26:1–5; Abr. 2:9–11).

It would be hard to believe that Isaac’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau, were not taught or did not hear about their father’s and grandfather’s supreme faithfulness. As the brothers matured, however, they took different paths. Esau became a cunning hunter, while Jacob is described in the Hebrew text as an ‘ish tam, a man “whole, complete, perfect” (Gen. 25:27, footnote b). The implication is that Esau was concerned about one pursuit to the exclusion of other important considerations.

As a younger man, Esau seems to have possessed little sensitivity to spiritual matters. Certainly, he thought more about immediate physical needs than either the covenants of God or those turning points of life which determine the course of the future. Thus, Esau sold the birthright (see Gen. 25:29–34). And, like some of us, he valued what was lost only after it was gone (see Gen. 27:36–38).

Esau added to his own misery and that of his parents by vowing to kill Jacob because of the lost birthright and blessing, even though he himself was responsible for that loss and Isaac did still give him a father’s blessing (see Gen. 27:39–42). Moreover, Esau had married outside the covenant, among the Hittites, which caused great grief to Isaac and Rebekah (see Gen. 26:34–35). Without doubt, Esau’s behavior was on his mother’s mind when she exclaimed: “I am weary of my life because of the daughters of Heth: if Jacob [also] take a wife of the daughters of Heth … what good shall my life do me?” (Gen. 27:46). In other words, Rebekah felt that all her life’s work, all her planning and teaching about the importance of the covenant God made with Abraham, all her care in guarding and guiding its perpetuation according to divine desires, would be worthless and wasted if Jacob were to follow in Esau’s footsteps.

Here we see a recurring problem of the ages laid bare in an ancient, Old Testament context. Is there anything so heart-wrenching for a caring parent as seeing a child of hope choose to devalue or disregard eternal family bonds, temple-centered covenants, and matters of everlasting consequence? Do faithful parents, of any gospel dispensation, ever not worry about their Esaus?

By contrast, Jacob trifled not with sacred things (compare D&C 6:12). He chose to obey his mother and father, and eventually he set out on a journey to seek a wife from among a known and acceptable branch of the covenant family. This was of paramount importance to his mother, for she was ever conscious of God’s promises regarding her twin boys, especially the promise of Jacob’s ascendancy over nations, though he was the younger (see Gen. 25:23).

Before Jacob left his home to seek a bride, his father, Isaac, blessed him in accordance with patriarchal privileges and reconfirmed to him the opportunity of receiving the blessings and covenant of Abraham: “Arise, go to Padan-aram, to the house of Bethuel thy mother’s father; and take thee a wife from thence of the daughters of Laban thy mother’s brother.

“And God Almighty bless thee, and make thee fruitful, and multiply thee, that thou mayest be a multitude of people;

“And give thee the blessing of Abraham, to thee, and to thy seed with thee; that thou mayest inherit the land wherein thou art a stranger, which God gave unto Abraham” (Gen. 28:2–4).

With this blessing fresh in his mind, Jacob left Beersheba on a journey that would ultimately take many years. Perhaps on the first leg of his travels, he pondered the covenants and promises extended to Abraham and his posterity by the Lord. When Jacob reached the place he would later name Bethel, he settled down to spend the night. While he was asleep a marvelous vision was opened to him.

Jacob saw a ladder which reached from earth to heaven. Ascending and descending on the ladder were the angels of God. Above the ladder was the Lord himself, whom Jacob heard and with whom he would make the very same covenant that his grandfather Abraham had made—the same covenant his father, Isaac, had prepared him to receive.

“And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;

“And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

“And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of” (Gen. 28:13–15).

When Jacob arose in the morning, he sanctified the site of his vision with anointing oil and vowed, or covenanted, to live in complete harmony with God’s will. He concluded his affirmation with a promise to tithe all that he would come to possess (see Gen. 28:18–22).

There are at least six significant things to ponder about Jacob’s vision:

First, as the Prophet Joseph Smith indicated, this vision was Jacob’s opportunity to begin to comprehend for himself “the mysteries of Godliness”1 that lead men and women to the kingdom of God (see D&C 63:23, D&C 76:5–9). From this comment we also know that Jacob was a righteous Melchizedek Priesthood holder, because the Doctrine and Covenants teaches that “this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God” (D&C 84:19). Jacob would, during the course of his life, come to know God in a profound way.

Second, Jacob’s status as a prophet was confirmed. He heard the voice of the Lord Jehovah, the premortal Christ, and, as the Apostle John later recorded, “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10).

Third, Jacob learned that in his seed, or through his own lineage, all the other families of the earth would be blessed. That promise was literally fulfilled in the mortal advent of the Savior, Jesus Christ (see Gal. 3:16), and it is not impossible that Jacob glimpsed that fulfillment. Moreover, this promise has also been fulfilled as Jacob’s seed—all latter-day peoples who accept the restored gospel—have become missionaries of the name and gospel of the Son of God. This gospel will ultimately bring salvation, even eternal life, to everyone who receives it (see Abr. 2:10–11).

Fourth, Jacob learned that if he kept the covenant, God would be with him everywhere he went, that God would fulfill everything he promised to do for him, and that God would bring him back to the land of his inheritance.

Fifth, Jacob learned that sanctity and place can be, and often are, linked together. “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. … this is none other but the house of God,” Jacob said (Gen. 28:16–17).

Sixth—and this point ties the other five points together—Jacob had a templelike experience on the occasion of this vision. Elder Marion G. Romney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said:

“When Jacob traveled from Beersheba toward Haran, he had a dream in which he saw himself on the earth at the foot of a ladder that reached to heaven where the Lord stood above it. He beheld angels ascending and descending thereon, and 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. …

“Temples are to us all what Bethel was to Jacob. Even more, they are also the gates to heaven for all of our unendowed kindred dead. We should all do our duty in bringing our loved ones through them.”2

Thanks to Elder Romney’s insight, Latter-day Saints can more fully understand that their temple experiences are really the experiences of every Saint in every dispensation. Jacob’s faithfulness was rewarded with an opportunity to make eternal temple covenants. But the great promises and blessings proffered to Jacob in Bethel at that time were conditional rather than absolute. Nowhere does the text say they were sealed or ratified with surety at this point, as is sometimes supposed; Jacob would have a long time to prove his loyalty and secure for himself the unconditional guarantee of all the terms of the covenant. Neither does the text say that Jacob’s dealings with the Lord at that time constituted the ultimate theophany, or revelation of God, which the scriptures promise to the faithful. This would come later, after years of his righteousness. But Jacob undoubtedly came away from Bethel understanding the order of heaven, the possibilities for exaltation, and the promises of the Abrahamic covenant if he proved faithful. So it is with all of us.

Other great prophets have left us accounts of their Jacob-like experiences, especially the Apostle Paul and the Prophet Joseph Smith. Paul spoke of numerous visions of the heavens. Joseph Smith said, apparently to help us understand his own visions: “Paul ascended into the third heavens, and he could understand the three principal rounds of Jacob’s ladder—the telestial, the terrestrial, and the celestial glories or kingdoms, where Paul saw and heard things which were not lawful for him to utter. I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision, were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them.”3

Jacob’s life after his Bethel vision (see Gen. 29–31) is one of the best-known biblical love stories, set against the background of a manipulative uncle turned father-in-law. It need not concern us here, except as it points out Jacob’s patience and loyalty to God in the face of frustrations, challenges, and tribulations. After more than 20 years of labor under the household rule of the scheming and jealous Laban (see Gen. 31:1–15, 38), Jacob finally left Padan-aram to return to the land of his covenantal inheritance. But his departure was not without a final confrontation with the father of his two wives, who hotly pursued Jacob’s caravan.

Ultimately, Jacob and Laban came to a respectful parting of the ways and established a boundary covenant which would long divide the territory of the Israelites from the northern Aramaeans (see Gen. 31:44–52). The point is that Jacob’s life was never one of ease or devoid of challenges and conflicts. Indeed, in effect, Jacob says to Laban at a moment of intense frustration during their last confrontation: “Why are you chasing me? Why won’t you let me go home in peace? What is my sin against you? I have served you in the heat of day and the frost of night. You have changed my wages ten times, and except for the fear of God, you would have sent me away destitute” (see Gen. 31:36–42).

In the face of every trial, Jacob had remained faithful and God had been with him as promised. In the end, it was the Lord who commanded him to leave Laban’s land and return to the land of Canaan. The vision in which Jacob was instructed to leave Padan-aram bears a significant resemblance to one given to Abraham in which that patriarch also was told to leave a country and go to Canaan (see Gen. 31:11, 13; compare Abr. 1:16, 18).

Jacob’s journey home was remarkable for its divine manifestations. En route, the patriarch was met by “God’s host” (Gen. 32:2), angels of the Lord, who strengthened him. It is also likely these angels reminded Jacob of his powerful, life-changing vision of the ascending ladder at Bethel when he was leaving the promised land 20 years earlier. Now Jacob was returning to face a seemingly inevitable, possibly mortal conflict with Esau—a conflict which had been partially responsible for Jacob’s flight from Canaan in the first place. The angelic ministration during Jacob’s return trip appears to have been a sign and a reminder of divine protection and assistance.

That the looming conflict weighed heavily on Jacob’s mind seems beyond question, because immediately after his encounter with the angels, Jacob sent messengers to Esau’s territory in hopes of laying the groundwork for a peaceful reunion with his brother (see Gen. 32:3–5). The messengers returned with gravely distressing news: Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob became exceedingly fearful and divided his entourage into two groups, intending to preserve at least part of his family should Esau attack (see Gen. 32:6–8).

It likely seemed a life crisis of staggering proportion in Jacob’s mind. He feared his family faced annihilation. Just as important, the promises of God were on trial; perhaps for a moment or two they looked like empty words and hollow phrases. But this life crisis set the stage for two events that would confirm forever the course of Jacob’s future. First, he earnestly pleaded with God for safety; second, he wrestled that night for a desperately needed blessing at the hand of Deity (see Gen. 32:9–12, 24–30).

We do not know how long Jacob prayed that day at the river Jabbok, but surely his prayer was intense. In it, he acknowledged the Lord’s goodness as well as his own heartfelt unworthiness. He pleaded for deliverance from the impending catastrophe, reminding God that He had told Jacob to leave Padan-aram and that He had also promised Jacob that his posterity would be as innumerable as the sands of the sea. How could this promise come to pass if Jacob and his family were annihilated?

That night, as Jacob was settling down, inspiration came. He selected a large herd of animals as a gift to be given to Esau and instructed his servants in how to offer the present when Esau approached (see Gen. 32:13–21). (Jacob’s gift of nearly 600 animals indicates how much he had prospered through the Lord’s guidance while in Padan-aram.) Next, Jacob sent his wives and 11 sons away from the main camp, across the river Jabbok on the east side of the Jordan, so they could have an extra measure of protection. Then, with his affairs in order, Jacob was left alone to ponder, pray, and prepare.

At some point that evening, he was joined by a person who would be with him for the rest of the night. All of the details of Jacob’s wrestle, as it were, are not made clear in the biblical record, but we know that Jacob would not let his visitor leave until the visitor gave him a special blessing (see Gen. 32:26).

Also, it seems reasonable to suppose that Jacob’s wrestle was physical as well as spiritual, because the text is specific in its description of Jacob’s dislocated hip (see Gen. 32:25, 31–32). It is not entirely clear from the Bible the nature of Jacob’s experience. The Hebrew word used to describe the patriarch’s visitor is simply ‘ish, meaning “man,” without overt reference to divine status.

President Joseph Fielding Smith offered the following: “Who wrestled with Jacob on Mount Peniel? The scriptures say it was a man. The Bible interpreters say it was an angel. More than likely it was a messenger sent to Jacob to give him the blessing. To think he wrestled and held an angel who couldn’t get away, is out of the question. The term angel as used in the scriptures, at times, refers to messengers who are sent with some important instruction. Later in this chapter when Jacob said he had beheld the Lord, that did not have reference to his wrestling.”4

At Jabbok, Jacob was brought to the limit of his faith and understanding. He stood figuratively in the place his grandfather, Abraham, had stood when God asked for the life of Isaac, and Abraham could not see how the promises of the covenant (specifically the promise of a great posterity) would be fulfilled. Abraham had been obedient in the face of a test that shook him to his very core. Jacob likewise was obedient in the face of his ordeal, but he desired a blessing from the being with whom he talked—a blessing to strengthen his faith and guide the course of his life. He wanted and needed light and knowledge. Despite his intimate contact with Deity and his temple experience 20 years earlier, the threatening situation with Esau seemed to present an unresolvable dilemma: How could the covenant continue if the bearers of the covenant were destroyed? So in faith Jacob petitioned and worked with a divine being all night long to obtain the blessing he needed.

Men and women in every dispensation have had to wrestle at some point in their lives for desired blessings, greater truth, and light from God. Sometimes this spiritual wrestling, over problems that seem to be of tremendous magnitude, becomes intensely physical. Enos said at the beginning of his record that he wanted to tell us “of the wrestle which [he] had before God” (Enos 1:2). His is a classic account of persistent, powerful faith exercised to receive a blessing. The Prophet Joseph Smith applied the concept of wrestling for a blessing to Zacharias, whose situation, at least in principle, paralleled that of Jacob. Zacharias had no children. He “knew that the promise of God must fail, consequently he went into the Temple to wrestle with God according to the order of the priesthood to obtain a promise of a son.”5

President Brigham Young said that all of us are situated “upon the same ground,” in that we must “struggle, wrestle and strive until the Lord bursts the vail [sic] and suffers [allows] us to behold his glory, or a portion of it.”6 And so it was with Jacob on that lonely night near the river Jabbok, when he began to wrestle with a divine visitor for a blessing—a blessing that would burst the veil and shower down on him greater light and glory from God.

Jacob’s spiritual tenacity and his great physical endurance achieved the desired result. Perhaps like many of us who struggle day to day, wrestling with our own challenges to qualify for the Lord’s blessings, he received in the end far more than he might have expected. He was rewarded with an endowment of power that we only begin to glimpse in the biblical account (see D&C 132:37; D&C 133:55; D&C 138:41). His visitor said: “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). This great endowment came in accordance with the principle described in Ether 12:6: “For ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”

The bestowal upon Jacob of that blessing followed a familiar pattern. Jacob was asked his given name, and then he was given a new name, Israel, which symbolized his struggle for a blessing. The full blessing that night seems to have been bestowed in two stages. After the divine minister announced that Jacob had been given a new name and great power (the first stage of the blessing), Jacob then turned the tables and asked the name of his visitor (see Gen. 32:29). Perhaps Jacob was really asking what name or personage the visitor represented, or by whose authority he bestowed the name Israel and the new power.

The visitor answered Jacob’s question with another question: “Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?” (Gen. 32:29). The biblical text at this juncture records no response from Jacob, and yet some exchange must have taken place, for the visitor was satisfied enough that he gave Jacob something more, something beyond a name and “power with God and with men” (Gen. 32:28). The text of verse 29 says additionally: “He blessed him there.” The text is silent about the nature of this additional priesthood blessing. We get only Jacob’s later response as he described the apex of all else that occurred that night—but what an arresting description it was: “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Gen. 32:30). Let there be no misunderstanding: the text says Jacob was blessed. The next words reported seem to indicate that he also experienced a great theophany—being ushered into the presence of God, every promise of the past years having been sealed and confirmed upon him.

Thus the events described in chapter 32 of Genesis report the culmination of a process begun 20 years before at Bethel, when Jacob became a candidate for exaltation by vowing to live according to the Abrahamic covenant. At Bethel, Jacob had a templelike experience. Then Jacob had proved himself at every danger and under every circumstance. The Prophet Joseph Smith said: “When the Lord has thoroughly proved [someone], and finds that the man is determined to serve Him at all hazards, then the man will find his calling and election made sure, then it will be his privilege to receive the other Comforter … [and] have the personage of Jesus Christ to attend him, or appear unto him from time to time, and even He will manifest the Father unto him, and they will take up their abode with him, … and the Lord will teach him face to face, and he may have a perfect knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God; and this is the state and place the ancient Saints arrived at when they had such glorious visions.”7

Surely this describes Jacob. The crisis at the river Jabbok pushed him to the limits of his faith. It caused him to wrestle for a blessing, just as Enos, Zacharias, and others would do. Jacob’s wrestle resulted—referring back to President Brigham Young’s thought—in the Lord’s bursting the veil to reveal His glory. Indeed, the story of Jacob’s wrestle discloses the ultimate blessing that can be given. Years later, as he was blessing the sons of Joseph, long after his tearful reconciliation with Esau (see Gen. 33:1–4), the aged Jacob referred to events on the night of his wrestle when he mentioned “the Angel which redeemed me from all evil” (Gen. 48:16).

Thus we see a pattern and recognize consistency in the great plan of happiness given to all people by a loving Heavenly Father. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “all that were ever saved, were saved through the power of this great plan of redemption, as much so before the coming of Christ as since; if not, God has had different plans in operation, (if we may so express it,) to bring men back to dwell with himself; and this we cannot believe.”8

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob desired, sought for, wrestled for, and craved the presence of God. They prayed for it, worked for it, and lived for it. In the Old Testament we find a powerful, personal record of their success, and the Doctrine and Covenants tells us that these patriarchs “have entered into their exaltation, according to the promises, and sit upon thrones, and are not angels but are gods” (D&C 132:37).

As members of the Church we are the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the inheritors of the Abrahamic covenant. What is the Abrahamic covenant to the righteous if it is not candidacy for exaltation? As with Jacob, the task of turning candidacy into reality is up to us. Let us wrestle for our blessings that we are promised as we continue to worship in the temples of the Lord.


  1. History of the Church, 1:283.

  2. Marion G. Romney, “Temples—The Gates to Heaven,” Ensign, Mar. 1971, 16.

  3. Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 304–5.

  4. Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie (1970), 1:17.

  5. Joseph Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (1980), 235; emphasis added.

  6. Deseret News Weekly, 6 Feb. 1856, 380.

  7. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 150–51.

  8. The Evening and the Morning Star, Mar. 1834, 143.

  • Andrew C. Skinner is chairman of the Department of Ancient Scripture, Brigham Young University.

Painting by Frank Adams, courtesy of Museum of Church History and Art

Jacob Speaks with God, by Jerry Harston

Jacob’s Dream © Providence Lithograph Co.

Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett