Jacob: An Uneasy Patriarch

Jacob of the oral traditions represented the archetypal trickster, cunning and wise, whose exploits produced endless laughter among listeners. Any attempt to completely alter that image by denying Jacob’s trickery would have been pointless. Readers aware of the oral tradition about the famous trickster would not have accepted a story that erased that dimension of the patriarch’s character.

See Also: Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch (Yale University, 2012).

By Yair Zakovitch
Father Takeji Otsuki Professor Emeritus of Bible
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Professor of Jewish Peoplehood at IDC Hertzliya
August 2013

The Bible’s biography of Jacob both enthralls and troubles us: Israel’s third patriarch, Jacob acts in ways that honor neither himself nor his descendants. The biblical writers, its narrators and prophets, were forced to come to terms with the various tales of Jacob’s deeds. In the following paragraphs, I will point to some of these efforts of the inner-biblical interpreters—both within the Book of Genesis and beyond it—to explain the patriarch’s behavior. Because of shortness of space, I will focus on only one of Jacob’s exploits—his stealing of Esau’s blessing from their father (Genesis 27:1-45). This story provoked a surfeit of interpretations due to its discomfiting storyline: one cannot escape recognition of Jacob’s deceitfulness in the blatant lie with which he answers his father’s request to identify himself, “‘Who are you, my son?’ . . . ‘I am Esau your firstborn’” (vv.18-191 ), while Isaac later confesses to Esau, his firstborn, that “your brother has come with deceit and has taken your blessing” (v.35). How did the Bible’s earliest writers-interpreters respond to this story?

Before looking at a number of them, we probably should ask: Why did the Bible even include stories of Jacob’s deceit? We can point to two reasons. First, oral tales of Jacob’s trickery and fraud were already well-known. Biblical stories were not created ex nihilo from the imaginations of writers. Most biblical stories represent adaptations of oral traditions, traditions that were modified in order to suit the interests of the writers. But motifs that are appropriate for tales in secular contexts do not necessarily fit a religious context. Indeed, the beginnings of interpretation lie in this process of coping with prior oral traditions. Writers adapted popular traditions by making only minimal changes and interpretations. On the one hand, they wanted to elevate the traditions to their own religious world-view. On the other, they tried to preserve a maximal resemblance to the source story, in order to gain the trust of the reader, who was familiar with the original tale. The balance struck by these writers as they tread carefully between preservation and innovation is an interpretative process that imparted new meaning to the old traditions.

The method followed by these writers was one of covert polemics: while not overtly opposing the popular traditions, the way they told the stories often expressed their disagreement with them and offered their alternative in a way that would be accepted by readers.2 Jacob of the oral traditions represented the archetypal trickster, cunning and wise, whose exploits produced endless laughter among listeners. Any attempt to completely alter that image by denying Jacob’s trickery would have been pointless. Readers aware of the oral tradition about the famous trickster would not have accepted a story that erased that dimension of the patriarch’s character.

The second reason for admitting Jacob’s misdeeds has to do with the character of biblical literature from the First Temple period. That literature, we find, avoids providing readers with perfect heroes: what can we mortals learn from heroes who exhibit no speck of wrongdoing? On the contrary: only characters that have made mistakes, atoned for them, and changed their behavior can provide models for us. Only from the experiences of such imperfect, human heroes can we comprehend the moral fallibility of humans and mysterious workings of God in human affairs. Moreover, not only do characters that transgress, make amends, and learn from their sins provide more depth and interest than those who tread only the virtuous path, but flawed, complex figures give us someone to identify and empathize with.

Thus, while the Bible presents Jacob’s deceitful deed, it also presents his punishment. First, he is forced to leave his father’s house and work as a slave for twenty years for his father-in-law (see esp. Gen 31:5-6, 38-42); moreover, he will never see his beloved mother again. In a perfect reflection punishment for Rebekah’s prevailing on Jacob (the younger son) to take on his brother’s identity to fool his father, Jacob’s father-in-law (his mother’s brother) will send (his older daughter) Leah to Jacob’s bed, pretending she is her sister, thus causing him to marry both daughters (Gen 29:16-30). Finally, while Jacob deceived his own father by using his brother’s clothing, so will he be punished when his sons deceive him using the clothing of their brother Joseph (37:3-32).

An opposite tendency in the Bible’s narration and interpretation of Genesis 27 was to cleanse Jacob’s image of wrongdoing. This stemmed from the need to relate the well-known tale but not to encourage readers to identify with the hero’s deceitful acts. The writers sought to tell an entertaining story while not implying that cheating is tolerated, or that disingenuous behavior would be rewarded.

Already in our chapter we detect these two distinct and conflicting forces at work: while Jacob’s transgression is openly recognized, we also find attempts to justify Jacob, to find extenuating circumstances that might ease our judgment of him. These dual tendencies can be found also in the circles of interpretation that radiate out from the story.

Let us turn first to our story. Chapter 27:1-45 (attributed to J) presents a Jacob who has been partially vindicated: the reason for Isaac’s desire to bless the firstborn Esau is his craving for meat: “. . . make me a dish of the kind that I love and bring it to me that I may eat, so that I may solemnly bless you before I die.” (v. 4). Isaac is ready to seal the fate of his sons and descendants for generations (as becomes apparent from the blessing, vv. 28-29), all for the satisfaction of his most basic physical needs: taste and smell (v. 27). A further way in which the writer absolves Jacob from responsibility was to focus on Rebekah, Jacob’s mother. The storyteller emphasizes that it is Rebekah—and not Jacob—who initiates the deception. It is Rebekah who loves Jacob (v. 6ff) and who commands him to listen to her and obey her words (v. 8). Just as Esau must carry out the bidding of their father, who loves him, so must Jacob carry out the requests of their mother. When Jacob hesitates (vv.11-12), Rebekah urges him on, expressing her readiness to take her husband’s curse onto herself if he discovers the duplicity, and she presses Jacob, “Just listen to my voice and go, fetch them for me”—“for me,” she says, not “for you” (v.13)! Rebekah plans the stratagem and plays an active role in carrying it out (see vv 13-17).

Rebekah leaves no room for Jacob to falter: she dresses him (!) in his disguise and places into his hands the food that he will take to his father as part of the impersonation. The reader is left with the impression that, if only she could, Rebekah would go to Isaac instead of her son. The writer refers to Jacob as “her younger son,” reminding us of Jacob’s powerlessness and dependence on his mother, she who made all the decisions and who performed all the necessary preparations.3

At the story’s end, Rebekah tries to disassociate herself from the scheme when she instructs Jacob to stay away until Esau “forgets what you did to him” (v.45)—”you” and not “I”! But the reader is already aware of the degree to which Rebekah is responsible. Moreover, Rebekah will be punished for her scheming: when Jacob later returns from Haran, he will not meet his mother. She who thinks that the separation from her son would last “a few days” (v 44) will never see him again, and it is certainly ironic that Isaac, the father who is certain that he will soon die (v 4), will still be alive to meet Jacob on Jacob’s return (35:27).

Another way that Jacob is made acceptable to the reader is by discrediting Esau, which presents him as undeserving of the blessing. This method can be found in Genesis 26:34-35, verses that derive from a different literary document (P) from chapter 27 and that were added as a prelude to our story in order to inform us that Esau had taken two Canaanite wives, women who “were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah.” In marrying them, the author of these verses asserts, Esau proved himself to be an unworthy successor of his forefathers. These two verses together with ten others (also from P) that were added following our story (27:46-28:9) effectively create a frame around the story of the stealing of the blessing. In the verses added at the end of the story, Rebekah expresses her fears that Jacob will follow in Esau’s footsteps and take Canaanite wives, as well: “I loathe my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from Hittite women like these, from the native girls, what good to me is life?” (27:46). Isaac is now the one who sends his younger son to Paddan-aram in order to find a wife from among the daughters of Laban (28:1-2), so that Jacob’s departure from the land of Canaan, according to these verses, no longer results from a need to escape his brother’s wrath, but rather from the praiseworthy desire to find a wife from among his family, the same family from which his father and grandfather had found theirs.

In fact, the added ten verses do even more to change our reading of Jacob’s behavior. While in the main narrative Jacob receives through trickery the blessing that was meant for his brother, in these verses Isaac intentionally blesses his younger son (28:1-4)—and this time Isaac blesses Jacob with the most supreme blessing, “the blessing of Abraham”—undoubtedly superior to the blessing that had been meant for Esau (and which Isaac only accidentally gave to Jacob). These verses firmly assert that, in any case, Isaac intended the more important blessing for Jacob, that which contains the blessing of the inheritance of the land of Israel.

For other ways in which Jacob is vindicated we must leave the story and move outwards to the circles of interpretation that surround it. First, let us look to the preceding story about Jacob’s buying the birthright from Esau (Genesis 25:27-34; J). Here we find Isaac paying the price for Jacob’s vindication. At the story’s start we find an asymmetry in the characterization of the brothers:

Isaac loved Esau          because he had a taste for game,
but Rebekah loved Jacob __________. (25:28)

The verse foreshadows our story, since it explains the parents’ behavior towards their sons. It gives no reason for Rebekah’s love for Jacob, which is unrestricted and unqualified, while Isaac’s love for Esau is conditional, depending on the substantial food supplies that Esau brings him. In this way the narrator succeeds in heightening our esteem for Jacob (and Rebekah), lowering our estimation of Esau (and Isaac), and placing the subsequent scene, Genesis 27, in a broader context.

The story of the selling of the blessing also relates to the etymology of Jacob’s name that is voiced by Esau in our story, when he complains about both the stealing of the birthright and of the blessing: “Was his name called Jacob that he should cheat me these two times? My birthright he took, and look, now he’s taken my blessing” (27:36). The reader, of course, recalls how, in the story of the birthright, Esau expressed no interest whatsoever in his future, or even in what would follow the immediate moment, when he said, “Look, I am at the point of death, so why do I need a birthright?” (25:32), and the biblical narrator closes the birthright story with an unambiguous declaration of Esau’s contempt for his birthright, “and Esau spurned the birthright” (25:34). The reader cannot help but appreciate the significance of this second expressions of Esau’s scorn: we do not so easily disregard Esau’s derision of his birthright now, after he has satisfied his hunger and thirst and no longer acts purely out of bodily needs. As a result of this small story, Esau’s complaint in 27:36 sounds more like that of a whiny boy: since Esau already renounced absolutely his birthright in chapter 25, we are not particularly sympathetic to his complaints after the blessing is taken from him.

Moreover, in the story of the birthright Esau is depicted like his father, as a materialistic man whose sole interest lies in the immediate satisfaction of his most earthly needs and physical desires, “Stuff me with that red stuff, for I am famished” (v.30). The imperative “stuff me [hal‘iteni]” is a hapax legomenon. In rabbinic literature, the word is used in reference to feeding animals (m. Shabbat 24:3), and Esau’s use of it in reference to himself betrays his bestial nature. Even after Jacob satisfies his brother’s physical needs by feeding him, Esau’s coarse behavior is still emphasized by the quick succession of verbs that describe his impulsivity and proclivity to act without forethought, “and he ate and he drank and he rose and he went off, and Esau spurned the birthright.”4

Esau’s etymology of Jacob’s name (27:36), which is interpreted as deriving from ‘aqob, “deceitful, treacherous,” differs from the official name-derivation that is given in the birth story, which relates the name to ‘aqeb, “heel”: “Then he brother came out, his hand grasping Esau’s heel” (25:26). In fact, Esau’s explanation of Jacob’s name may reflect its original interpretation. Other echoes of this same derivation can be found in the Bible’s periphery, which usually preserves traditions that were rejected from the mainstream traditions. Such is the birth-tradition in Hosea, “In the womb he cheated [‘aqab] his brother” (Hosea 12:5).5

Another prophecy in these peripheral circles of interpretation, this one in Jeremiah, also preserves the ancient interpretation of Jacob’s name:

Beware, every man of his friend!
    Trust not even a brother!
For every brother cheats (‘aqob ya‘aqob)
    Every friend is base in his dealings (9:3; see also Jer 17:9-10).

Jeremiah, wanting to show the extent to which iniquity hads become widespread among the people, calls forth the memory of the story of Jacob and Esau. It is not enough to protect yourself from friends, he warns: even brothers cannot be trusted. In these verses, which have a chiastic structure, it is the brother, and not the friend, who cheats the other, just like the nation’s forefather did when he cheated his brother.6

A different strategy for fighting the unflattering association of Jacob’s name was changing it in a way that would express an antonym of “deceit” and “cheating.” That is how the name Yeshurun, from the root y-š-r , “honest, upright,” was created.7 The success of the name Yeshurun was quite limited, however, and it appears only in Deuteronomy (32:15; 33:5, 26) and Deutero-Isaiah (44:2).

While the name Yeshurun did not find broad acceptance in the Bible, we find a similar attempt to ascribe the meaning of the root y-š-r, to the name Israel, in which also appear the consonants yod, shin, resh.; see Numbers 23:10: “Who has numbered the dust of Jacob, who counted the issue of Israel? Let me but die the death of the upright [yešarim], and may my aftertime be like his!”8 The prophet Micah knew well that this meaning was related to the name Israel, and useds it in his argument with his people: “The one who is said to be the House of Jacob [he’amur bet ya‘aqob], Is the Lord’s patience short? Is such His practice? To be sure, My words are friendly to those who walk in rectitude [hayyašar holekh]” (2:7). In his addressing “the one who is said to be the House of Jacob,” the prophet alludes to the story of the changing of Jacob’s name to Israel in Genesis 32:29: “Said he, “Your name shall no longer be said Jacob, but Israel.” Micah disagrees with what is written in Genesis: the people’s name remains Jacob, since they are still cheaters and do not deserve the name Israel, which befits only “those who walk in rectitude” (see also Mi 3:9).

Two approaches were used by the biblical writers in shaping the figure of Jacob: on the one hand, Jacob’s acts of deceit were told, and writers made sure to show the punishment that he received for them. On the other hand, writers also took pains to justify Jacob, each writer according to his own needs, ideologies, and methods. The tension between these two tendencies is what created a character of such depth and appeal, a character that continues to fascinate and, despite his morally questionable acts, to capture our imagination and sympathies.


1 Translations of the Pentateuch are based on Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses. A Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 2004).

2 For examples of covert polemics and ways for reconstructing the ancient traditions against which the biblical stories polemicized, see A. Shinan and Y. Zakovitch, From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths & Legends (Lincoln, NE: Jewish Publication Society 2012).

3 See M. Buber, The Way of the Bible [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Bialik, 1964), 291.

4 See R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 42-45.

5 Hosea may also preserve the more ancient tradition of the twins’ birth, according to which Jacob cheats Esau already inside their mother’s womb, and emerges first (similar to the story about Perez and Zerah in Genesis 38:27-30). See Shinan and Zakovitch, From Gods to God, pp. 149–156. Hosea 12 preserves a number of ancient traditions about the patriarch Jacob.

6 N. Leibowitz, Studies in the Book of Genesis [Hebrew] (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1967), 186, insisted that in these verses the prophet recalls the story of Jacob and Esau and reveals a disapproving attitude towards Jacob. See also Buber, Way of the Bible, and J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art in Genesis (Assen/Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1975), 291.

7 See W. Bacher, “ישרון,” ZAW 5 (1885), 161–63.

8 Also Buber (Way of the Bible, 292) argues that the change of the name Jacob to Israel was meant to cancel the shame inherent in the former.

Comments (1)

The transition from 'Jacob' to 'Israel' seems to be from frying pan to fire, since 'Israel' is interpreted in the Penuel episode as 'one who struggles with God'. It's one thing to be at variance with one's brother, another to be at variance with God himself. Perhaps the name 'Israel' was originally derogatory and after much poetic and theological interpretation was applied to a person and to a nation whose destiny it was to struggle with God, to be condemned and forgiven often. We are assured that God acts in the end for everyone's good but also that those who act for God are not necessarily good people. The brighter side of this theology is that everyone's good counts. The donation to Jacob in Genesis 28 is not of a Land of Israel (not mentioned) but of expansion (beginning from Bethel) and benevolent domination over the whole world, where everyone will utter blessings. There are many darker and more terrifying strands to these ideas, particularly when we consider the wider role of deception on the part of Abraham and his family in dealing with outsiders, particularly with the innocent Philistines. Jacob brings deception into the family itself and this creates tangles that have to be resolved. But the poet of Genesis presses us to ask whether devotion to God is compatible with ordinary morality and truthfulness.

#1 - Martin - 08/06/2013 - 16:47

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