From New World Encyclopedia

Isaac Blessing Jacob, Govert Flinck, 1638

Jacob or Ya'akov (Hebrew: יַעֲקֹב; Arabic: يعقوب, Yaʿqūb; "holds the heel"), also known as Israel ("Struggles with God"), was the third biblical patriarch and the father of the Israelites. His father was Isaac, and his grandfather was Abraham. According to the biblical account, Jacob was the father of one daughter and 12 sons, who became the 12 Tribes of Israel. He was the husband of two primary wives, Leah and Rachel, and two secondary wives, Bilhah and Zilpah.

In the Book of Genesis, Jacob overcomes many adversities to win God's blessing and a central place as the father of the Israelite people. Although some of his deeds—notably his deception of his father to gain the blessing of the first-born son—have been criticized as morally suspect, in the main he can be regarded as an example of a man who strove for his rightful place in history by winning over his adversaries, not by the sword, but by his wits, hard work, heroic persistence, and abiding faith.

Jacob's course of suffering for 21 years in Haran can be seen as a model for all those who must endure exile and privation. His course of service to Laban is a model for those who wish to win the respect and trust of their oppressors. His wrestling with the angel shows that a man of strong faith can defeat the spiritual forces of darkness and the demons of his own mind. Most importantly, his sincere humility in front of his brother Esau—dramatically reversing the story of Cain and Abel—is the first recorded example of a man who successfully practiced the dictum "love your enemy." It is a pattern for anyone to restore a damaged relationship and bring about reconciliation with an enemy, attaining the goal of peace through unselfish love. It can also be applied to groups and even nations.

Biblical Account

Struggle over the Birthright

Jacob was born to Isaac and Rebekah after 20 years of marriage. Rebekah had been barren, but Isaac's prayers for her were answered when she finally conceived. During Rebekah's pregnancy, "the children struggled together within her." Rebekah questioned God about the tumult in her womb, and she received a message that her offspring would become "two nations": "The one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger" (Genesis 25:22-23).

Jacob was born immediately after his twin brother Esau, and his hand grasped Esau's heel. His name, Ya'akov (יעקב), derives from the Hebrew word for "heel." Rabbinic commentators explain that Jacob was trying to hold Esau back from being the firstborn. The struggle with his brother over the birthright was the major theme in Jacob's life. It is evident from the text that even though Esau was born first, God favored Jacob. Jacob's mother, who understood from the prophecy that it was Jacob's destiny to take the position of first-born, raised him with that self-understanding. Yet Isaac the father took no notice, and favored Esau.

Jacob and his twin brother were markedly different in appearance and behavior. Esau was a hunter whose body was covered with red hair, but Jacob was a gentle man who "dwelt in tents," apparently preferring to stay close to home.

Rabbinic sources elaborate on the differences between the characters of the two boys. Whereas Jacob spent his time studying and learning to be a responsible and religious person, Esau by contrast scorned anything that was good, preferring to enjoy himself without regard to others. As for the birthright, Esau was pleased to learn about it because he wanted to inherit all the his father's property. But Isaac explained that with the birthright came responsibilities such as worshipping God and caring for the whole family. This explanation made Jacob wish that he could have the birthright.

One day while Jacob was cooking a pottage of lentils, Esau returned from hunting, faint from hunger. Esau asked for some, but Jacob held back, only agreeing to give some in exchange for his birthright as the older brother. Esau agreed, saying, "I am going to die—what is this birthright to me?" (Genesis 25:29-34).

Jacob Obtains his Father's Blessing

Many years passed and Esau continued to act as a son unworthy to carry on the traditions of Abraham and Isaac. He took two Hittite women to be his wives, "who were a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah" (Gen 26:35). Yet Isaac still regarded him as the first-born son.

When Isaac was old and nearly blind, he told his eldest son that he wanted to bless him before he died. Esau had never thought to tell his father that he had sold his birthright to Jacob years before. So as his father instructed, Esau went out into the countryside to hunt for some venison for his father to eat before he gave him the blessing. Meanwhile, Rebekah overheard this exchange and remembered the dream God had given her when she was pregnant. Knowing that Jacob was the one who ought to receive the blessing, she instructed Jacob to fetch her two goats so that she could prepare a tasty meal for his father. She then told Jacob to bring the meal to Isaac to receive the blessing in his brother's stead. Jacob worried that his father might notice the substitution through touch, since Esau was hairy and he was smooth. "'What if my father touches me?' he asked. 'I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing'" (Genesis 27:12). Rebekah took responsibility for the act, saying, "Let the curse fall on me." She then disguised Jacob by placing hairy goatskins over his neck and arms.

Jacob went into his father's tent. Isaac was surprised that he had returned so soon from the supposed hunt. "Who are you, my son?" Isaac asked suspiciously. "I am Esau your firstborn," Jacob replied. Isaac was still suspicious and asked to feel him, since Esau was hairy. The goatskins seemed to fool him, although he declared, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau." Nevertheless, Isaac blessed him:

May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you.
May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed. (Genesis 27:29)

As soon as Jacob left the tent, Esau arrived and the trick was exposed. Isaac was shaken, but affirmed that Jacob would indeed be blessed. To Esau's pathetic entreaties, he agreed to give Esau a lesser blessing.

Was Jacob morally duplicitous? The mainstream view is that since Esau had already sold him the birthright, Jacob was within his rights to claim the blessing that he already owned. Furthermore it was God's will as revealed to Rebekah that the "elder should serve the younger." Jacob didn't take the initiative to gain the blessing and was afraid of deceiving his father; he was just obeying his mother. However, he did lie to his father and Esau obviously felt that he had been badly treated which suggests that, although Jacob had obtained the birthright and thus the right to the blessing, he had had done so through trickery instead of loving his brother and winning his brother's respect and natural surrender.

Vision of Jacob's Ladder

Esau swore to himself that he would kill Jacob in revenge as soon as their father was dead. When Rebekah was told about Esau's murderous intentions she told Jacob to flee to Haran to the house of her brother, Laban, until Esau's rage subsided. She also convinced Isaac to support the journey so that, unlike Esau, Jacob could marry a woman from their own clan.

Traveling first northward, Jacob experienced a vision in which God confirmed that the covenant he had made with Abraham and Isaac would now pass to Jacob. He also saw a ladder reaching into heaven with angels going up and down it, a vision that is commonly referred to as Jacob's Ladder. He named the place Bethel, and erected a sacred pillar on the spot, vowing:

"If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father's house, then the Lord will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God's house (literally beth-el), and all that thou givest me I will give the tenth to thee." (Genesis 28:20-22)

This is the foundation-story for Bethel, which would later become the chief sanctuary of the Northern Kingdom, remembered for its consecration by the patriarch (Hosea 12:2-6). Furthermore, with this vow, Jacob continued the tradition established by Abraham of giving a tithe of one's income to the synagogue or church.

Exile in Haran

Jacob continued on his way to Haran. As he approached his ancestral village, he stopped by the well where shepherds were watering their flocks and met Laban's younger daughter, his cousin Rachel. He loved her immediately, and after spending a month with his relatives, asked for her hand in marriage in return for working seven years for Laban.

These seven years seemed to Jacob "but a few days, for the love he had for her" (Gen 29:20). However, when it was time for their wedding, Laban deceived Jacob by switching his older daughter, Leah, as the veiled bride. In the morning, when the truth became known, Laban justified himself by saying that in their country it was unheard of to give the younger daughter before the older. However, he agreed that Jacob could also marry Rachel in exchange for an additional seven years of Jacob's labor. After the week of wedding celebrations with Leah, Jacob married Rachel and continued to work for Laban another seven years.

Because Jacob loved Rachel, Leah felt despised. However, "God opened Leah's womb" and she gave birth to four sons in succession: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel, however, was barren and gave Jacob her slave woman Bilhah as an additional wife, considering Blihah's children to count as her own. Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. Seeing that she had left off childbearing temporarily, Leah then gave her slave Zilpah to Jacob in marriage, so that she, too, could raise more children through her. Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher. Later, Leah became fertile again and gave birth to Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah. At this point, "God remembered Rachel," who gave birth to Joseph.

Thus the contest between Jacob and his brother repeated itself in the rivalry between Jacob's wives. However, there is little hint of any reconciliation between the women, as there was between Jacob and Esau. Leah, as the first wife, would hold authority in the family. Hence the rivalry would continue in the next generation, between the two sons of Rachel—Joseph and Benjamin—whom Jacob loved most, and their ten brothers—the sons of Leah and the two maidservants (who were both apparently under Leah's control). The pattern of Jacob's descendants dividing into ten-plus-two continued even into the division between the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom and the two tribes of Judah.

Around the time that Joseph was born, Jacob desired to return home to his parents, but Laban was reluctant to release him on account of Jacob's great proficiency in animal husbandry. The two men struck an unusual deal. Jacob would receive every speckled or spotted sheep, every dark-colored lamb, and every spotted or speckled goat out of Laban's flocks. In exchange, Jacob would work an additional seven years for Laban. Through a ploy involving clever breeding techniques, Jacob became extremely wealthy, not only in herd cattle but also in slaves, camels, and donkeys.

Overall, Jacob labored in Laban's service for 21 years. He persevered even though Laban deceived him over his wives and cheated him out of his wages ten times. When he was treated unjustly Jacob did not become angry and resentful like Esau did. Instead he digested his suffering and continued to serve uncle Laban without complaining. Some scholars believe that this was a time when Jacob matured, learning through those experiences to understand why his brother Esau had become so angry. His attitude became a model for Jewish people, teaching them how they could survive and prosper even in the most unjust and hostile environment by keeping a good attitude and not complaining while using their wits and energy.

According to the traditional Jewish texts, Jacob lived a life that paralleled the descent of his offspring, the Jewish people, into the darkness of exile and suffering. His personal struggles—the hatred of his brother Esau, the deceptions of his father-in-law Laban, a violent and injurious struggle with the angel of God, a near attack by the armed forces of Esau, the early death of his favorite wife Rachel, the apparent death of his son Joseph, the rape of his daughter Dinah, and the enmity of the people of Canaan on account of his sons' slaughter of the Schechemites, are all symbolic of the future difficulties and struggles the Jewish people would undergo during their many exiles, which continues to the present day.[1]

Return to Canaan

As time passed and Jacob's possessions grew, Laban's sons grew jealous of Jacob's success, and Laban's friendly attitude toward Jacob began to change. He began to allege that Jacob had taken livestock from his flocks. God told Jacob he should now leave, and thus he and his clan did so without informing Laban. Before they left, Rachel stole all the "household idols" (teraphim) from Laban's house.

Laban, in a rage, pursued Jacob for seven days. The night before he caught up with him, God spoke to him in a dream and warned him not to say anything good or bad to Jacob. When the two met, Laban played the part of the injured father-in-law and also demanded his teraphim back (Laban was hardly a pious man. His rage is explained by the ancient custom, according to Nuzi documents, that the teraphim represented title deeds to the contested property).[2] Ignorant of Rachel's theft of the idols, Jacob told Laban that whoever stole them should die, and offered to let him search. When Laban reached Rachel's tent, she hid the idols by sitting on them, pleading that she could not rise because of menstrual cramps—"the way of women is upon me" (Gen. 31:35). This comical scene shows Rachel to be every bit as clever as her husband. Laban is unable to substantiate his claim to the property, and he parts from Jacob in peace, Laban returning home and Jacob continuing on his way.

Wrestling with a Mysterious Being

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Gustave Doré, 1855

As Jacob neared the land of Canaan, he sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau. They returned with the news that Esau was coming to meet Jacob with an army of four hundred men. In great apprehension, Jacob prepared for the worst. He felt that he must now depend only on God, and he went in earnest prayer to God. Jacob then sent rich gifts of livestock and other wealth to Esau. When Esau asked the messangers who owned the flocks they replied, "They belong to your servant Jacob; he sends them as a present to my lord Esau, and he is behind us." Through such language Jacob humbled himself in front of his older brother and made it easier for him to forgive Jacob.

With his family on one side of the ford of Jabbok, Jacob spent the night alone in communion with God on the other side of the river. There, a mysterious being—usually considered to be an angel—wrestled with Jacob, even striking him painfully in the hollow of his thigh. Yet Jacob would not give up, even until daybreak when the being apparently had to leave. When he tried to leave, Jacob demanded a blessing first, and the angel declared that from now on, Jacob would be called “Israel,” meaning "he who struggles with God." Jacob then asked the being's name, but his opponent refused to answer. Afterward Jacob named the place Penu-el (meaning "face of God"), saying "I have seen God face to face and lived."

This incident still has an impact on many Jews today, as Orthodox Jews will not eat the area of an animal's thigh containing the gid hanasheh (commonly identified as the sciatic nerve) on an otherwise kosher animal.

There are varying views as to whether this mysterious being who wrestled with Jacob was a man, an angel, or God Himself. According to the Jewish commentator Rashi, he was the guardian angel of Esau himself, sent to destroy Jacob before he could return to the land of Canaan. Other rabbinic traditions hold that the being refused to identify itself for fear that if its secret name was known, it would have been conjurable by incantations. Some commentators, however, argue that the stranger was God, citing Jacob's own words and the name he assumed thereafter ("struggles with God"). They point out that although later scriptures maintain that God does not manifest as a mortal, several instances of it arguably occurs in Genesis, for example, in 18:1, with Abraham. Finally, there are modern psychological interpretations that see the wrestling as an inner struggle where Jacob must confront his own demons of fear and insecurity on the eve of his fateful meeting with his brother.

The Encounter with Esau

Jacob and Esau meet in peace at the Ford of Jabbok

In the morning Jacob assembled his wives and 11 sons, placing Rachel and her children in the rear and Leah and her children in the front. Jacob himself took the foremost position. Jacob's bounteous gift of camels, goats and flocks had convinced Esau he meant no threat. As he approached his brother, Jacob humbled himself and bowed to the ground seven times, signifying his sincere apology for all the bad feelings between them. Their reunion was an emotional one. "Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept." When Esau asked about the people with him, Jacob humbly said they were all a gift from God and told his slaves and family members to bow down to Esau. Esau assured his brother that he needed no gifts, being wealthy himself, but Jacob implored him to accept his presents, saying, "To see your face is like seeing the face of God". (Gen. 33:10)

This is the climax of the Jacob story. The dramatic reconciliation between brothers may be the very first example of a man who successfully practices the dictum "love your enemy." It is paradigmatic for how all people can win over a bitter rival, attaining the goal through generosity, humility and unselfish love. The story contains many practical lessons for how to effect such reconciliation: (1) thorough preparation that includes gaining a foundation of accomplishment that can earn the rival's respect; (2) abiding love for the rival brother, leading one to risk the danger of confrontation; (3) overcoming a spiritual struggle over inner demons and doubts before meeting one's rival; (4) generous giving with a humble heart; and (5) unshakable faith in God's protection.

Jacob's Journey Home

Esau then offered to accompany them on their way, but Jacob preferred that they go their separate ways. Jacob was now the leader of a considerable clan, and besides, Esau had become a chieftain of Edom (Seir). It was time for Jacob to be a clan leader in his own right, as befitted the owner of the birthright.

Jacob arrived in Shechem, where he bought a parcel of land that would eventually house Joseph's Tomb. There he dwelt for several years and set up an altar and called it "El Elohe Israel" (El, the God of Israel). Finally, Jacob set out for Bethel, the place where God had appeared to him and where he had made his vow. As his clan neared Bethel, Rachel went into labor and died as she gave birth to her second—and Jacob's twelfth—son, Benjamin. Jacob buried her and erected a monument over her grave, which is located just outside Bethlehem. Rachel's Tomb remains a popular site for pilgrimages and prayers to this day.

Jacob was finally reunited with his father Isaac in Mamre (outside Hebron). When Isaac died at the age of 180, Jacob and Esau buried him together in the Cave of Machpelah which Abraham had purchased as a family burial plot.

Jacob's Later Life

In his old age, Jacob functions as an aged patriarch who can barely control the actions of his offspring. In Shechem, Dinah, his daughter through Leah, was raped by the prince's son, who then fell in love with her and desired to marry the girl. Dinah's brothers, pretending friendship, agreed on the condition that the men of Shechem first be circumcised. While the men were recovering from their wounds, Levi and Simeon slaughtered the male residents of the town and fled not only with Dinah, but also with much plunder including their victims' wives and children. Jacob would rebuke his two sons for this act only on his deathbed (Gen. 49:5-7).

Jacob was especially fond of his and Rachel's son Joseph, for whom he made a richly-embroidered coat. This incited Joseph's brothers to jealousy, which was exacerbated by Joseph's reported dream that the sun, moon and stars had bowed to him. The obvious interpretation was that Jacob (the sun), Rachel (the moon) and Joseph's brothers (the stars) would one day prostrate themselves before Joseph. The brothers then sold Joseph into slavery, telling Jacob that he had been killed by a wild beast.

Jacob (at right) blessing his grandchildren, Ephraim and Manasseh, in the presence Joseph and their mother

More than a decade later, in the midst of a famine, Jacob ordered his sons, except for Benjamin, the youngest, to travel to Egypt to procure grain for their starving families in Canaan. When they returned with the grain, they informed Jacob that they had been accused as spies and that Simeon had remained behind as a hostage. To redeem him, they must return with young Benjamin to show their good faith. Jacob initially refused, but after the initial token shipment of grain had been consumed and the famine continued to plague the clan, he reluctantly agreed that Benjamin could accompany the brothers on the return trip. While there, they learned that the great Egyptian lord with whom they had been dealing was none other than their long lost brother Joseph. After testing his siblings several times, Joseph was now satisfied that they had seen the error of their earlier ways and changed. He richly rewarded them with grain and other wealth and sent them back to report the whole story to Jacob.

Overjoyed to see his beloved Joseph—now the prime minister of Egypt—again, Jacob's last 17 years were spent in tranquility in Egypt, knowing that all his 12 sons had become righteous men. Before he died, Jacob elevated Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to the status of full tribes. He also blessed all twelve of his sons, each with a prophetic blessing related to the character of the tribe that would spring from them. To his fourth son, Judah, he gave a particularly significant blessing, signaling the tribe's future pre-eminence and the coming of the Messiah from Judah's lineage:

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs
and the obedience of the nations is his. (Gen. 49:10)

With the Pharaoh's permission, after Jacob died, Joseph led a huge state funeral back to the land of Canaan, with the 12 sons carrying their father's coffin and many Egyptian officials accompanying them.

Jacob in Islam

In Arabic, Jacob is known as Yaqub. According to the Qur'an, Jacob is of the company of the Elect and the Good (38:47, 21:75). He is revered as a prophet. The Qur'an does not give the details of Jacob’s life. He was honored by God with the name Isra'il not after his fight with the angel, but after he faithfully migrated during the night at God's command. Isra' means Night Journey and Il simply means God (Allah) (a cognate of the word El in Hebrew). God bestowed his special favor on Jacob and his posterity as He did on Abraham and Isaac (Qur'an 12:6). Jacob was a man of might and vision (38:45) and was chosen by God to preach the Message. The Qur'an stresses that true service to the One true God, especially in worship, was the main legacy of Jacob and his fathers (2:132-133). Salvation, according to the Qu'ran, hinges upon this legacy rather than one's religious identity (2:130-141).

Critical Views

Jacob, along with the other patriarchs, is at the center of numerous controversies among biblical scholars, historians, and archaeologists. Was he an historical person at all? If so, was he truly the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham? Is the biblical story of Jacob accurate? Was it written by Moses, as traditionally claimed, or from several sources later combined by scribes during the period of the kings?

According to the documentary hypothesis, some sections of the Jacob saga are derived from the northern "Elohist" source (derived from its author's use of the word "Elohim" for God), while the greater part is derived from the southern Yahwist source, (derived from its use of the word Yahweh for God).

The traditions of Yahweh-worship and El-worship were eventually unified in the monotheistic tradition. However, enmity between northern and southern tribes was often strong. It is interesting to note Jacob's erecting of a sacred pillar at Bethel in this context. The southern priests in Jerusalem later condemned such pillars—called asherim and translated as "Ashera poles"—as idolatrous. In a campaign to centralize worship in Jerusalem, the northern sanctuary at Bethel was destroyed by King Josiah, and its sacred pillar was obliterated (2 Kings 23:13). The town of Shechem, where Jacob reportedly established another altar, later became a center of Samaritan tradition.

Some scholars doubt the lineal descent of the patriarchs. They believe that several distinct peoples—the tribes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—eventually federated into one nation which called itself the Israelites. Accordingly, the stories of their origins were similarly unified, by making them a single lineage. Other scholars, usually referred to as biblical "minimalists," reject the historicity of these men altogether.

In a similar vein, the story of Jacob and Esau can be seen as explaining the ancient enmity that existed in later times between the Israelites and the Edomites, supposedly descended from Esau. Historically, Israel and Edom were sometimes allied, sometimes tributaries of each other, and sometimes outright enemies. The story of Jacob and Esau justifies Israel's dominance over Edom on the grounds that "the elder must serve the younger." Later, the prophet Malachi would declare God's words: "I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated" (Mal. 1:2-3).

Literary critic Harold Bloom sees Jacob as the only real male hero in the Yahwist narrative, which he believes to have been written by a female literary genius in the time of King Rehoboam. "Partly it is his energy of being, partly his heroic persistence," Bloom says, "but mostly it is because J [the Yahwist] persuades us that Jacob, Israel, has the Blessing."[3]


  1. Stories and interpretations of Jacob's life abound in the rabbinical literature. See Emil G. Hirsch, M. Seligsohn, Solomon Schechter and Julius H. Greenstone, “Jacob: In Rabbinical Literature,” Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved September 7, 2007.
  2. E. A. Speiser (ed.), The Anchor Bible: Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 250-251.
  3. Harold Bloom, The Book of J (Grove Press, 2005, ISBN 0802141919).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bloom, Harold. 2005. The Book of J. Grove Press. ISBN 0802141919
  • Heap, Norman. 1999. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: Servants and Prophets of God. Family History Publications. ISBN 978-0945905028
  • Smith, Mark S., 2002. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. ISBN 978-0802839725


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