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Encyclopedia of The Bible – Jacob

JACOB (יַעֲקֹֽב). The son of Isaac and Rebecca; the younger twin brother of Esau; the husband of Leah and Rachel. He later was called Israel (Gen 32:28; 49:2) and thus his sons became known as the twelve sons of Israel (Exod 1:1; 1 Chron 2:1).


1. Birth. At his birth he was holding his older brother’s heel (Gen 25:26). The same Heb. root (עקב) is found in the noun “heel” and the verb “to take by the heel” (Hos 12:3). This same root also means “to deceive” (Jer 9:3; Gen 27:36) and the name Jacob is based on this root. When Jacob stole his older brother’s blessing, Esau affirmed that Jacob was correctly named, “for he has supplanted me (וַֽיַּעְקְבֵ֨נִי׃֙) these two times” (27:36). Personal names containing this same Sem. root (but prob. with different meanings) are also found in the extra-Biblical documents contemporary with the patriarchs but are not found elsewhere in the OT. No individual in Israel, apart from the patriarch, bore the name Jacob until the Hel. period, when it usually occurs in the form ̓Ιάκωβος, G2610.

The birth of Jacob is described in Genesis 25 and his death is recorded in Genesis 50, which makes his life presented throughout one-half of Genesis. Since Rebecca, like Sarah, was barren, the birth of Jacob was miraculous and an answer to prayer (25:21). This miraculous conception of Rebecca resulted in the birth of twins: Esau, the firstborn was hairy and later became a hunter; but Jacob, who was born holding Esau’s heel, became “a quiet man, dwelling in tents” (25:25-27). Almost immediately, tension and strife existed in the home because Isaac favored Esau whereas Rebecca favored Jacob.

2. Jacob and Esau. One day when Esau the hunter came in from a futile chase, he bargained away his birthright to Jacob for a batch of pottage (25:30), and thus Jacob gained the rights which by birth were not his. This custom of selling a birthright is described in the Nuzi tablets.

On another day when Esau was out hunting, Jacob listened to his mother’s suggestion and followed her strategy for deceiving his father, and he received the father’s blessing that was intended for Esau, the first-born (ch. 27). Although Isaac was suspicious and doubtful, in his blindness he pronounced upon Jacob the death-bed benediction. Shortly thereafter Esau returned, and Isaac realized how he had been deceived but the oral blessing could not be revoked (another custom confirmed and illuminated by the Nuzi tablets). Since Isaac’s blessing was irrevocable, as the Bible emphasizes (27:33ff.), Jacob became the bearer of God’s promise and the inheritor of Canaan (cf. Rom 9:10-13), and Esau received the less fertile area known as Edom. Rebecca, the mother, obtained Isaac’s permission for Jacob to flee from Esau’s anger to her home in Paddan-aram (Gen 27:41-28:5). Jacob was not a young man when he sought to escape from his brother’s vengeance and to find a wife from his mother’s kindred, for it was before this that Esau at the age of forty had married the Hitt. women (26:34; 27:46).

3. In Haran. Enroute from Beersheba to Haran, Jacob camped one night near Bethel, and as he slept he was granted a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth with ascending and descending angels upon it. The God of his fathers again revealed Himself and confirmed to Jacob the promise previously given to Isaac and Abraham. Jacob commemorated this dream by setting up the stone on which he had rested his head, pouring a libation of oil over it, and assigning the name Bethel (“House of God”) to the site (28:18, 19).

The next scene reveals Jacob at a well in the land of “the people of the east” (29:1). The following vv. reveal the great love Jacob had for Rachel, a love prob. reflected in the great display of physical power at the wellside (29:10) and during the patient years of toil for Rachel which “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (29:20). After this love at first sight episode, Laban came and took his nephew Jacob home and agreed to give him Rachel in exchange for seven years’ service. Jacob fulfilled the bargain and brought his uncle great prosperity (30:27-30). Laban, however, deceived Jacob, making him take the elder and less attractive sister, Leah. A week later Jacob married Rachel after agreeing to serve Laban seven additional years. Jacob should not be primarily blamed for the polygamy that brought trouble into his home life. The rivalry between Leah and Rachel—Judah and Joseph—was not based on Jacob’s choice but Laban’s fraud. Laban “changed the wages” of Jacob ten times (31:7, 41).

Jacob’s years of service for his wives were followed by six years of service rendered for a stipulated wage. Laban’s cunning in limiting the amount of this wage in a variety of ways was matched by Jacob’s cunning in devising means to overreach his uncle, so that the poor wanderer of twenty years before became the wealthy owner of countless cattle and of the hosts of slaves necessary for their care (32:10). God gave to each his due reward: to Jacob, the rich returns of skillful, patient industry; to Laban, rebuke and warning.

Twelve children were born to Jacob during his stay in Mesopotamia (Gen 29:31-30:24). The disdained Leah bore Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah; and her maid Zilpah bore Gad and Asher. Rachel, being barren (29:31; 30:1, 2), gave her maid Bilhah to Jacob to obtain children by her (30:3-8). Bilhah bore Dan and Naphtali. Finally, Rachel bore a son, Joseph, a positive answer to her prayer (30:22-24).

4. Return from Haran. Eventually the Lord told Jacob (31:3, 13) to leave the area of Haran, a region noted for trade as well as agriculture and pasturage, and return to “the land of your fathers and to your kindred.” A two-day head start enabled Jacob and his flocks to travel as far as Gilead in N Trans-Jordan before he was overtaken by Laban after seven days travel. Jacob reminded Laban of how well he had served him, complying with all the requirements of a good herdsman, and how ill he had been rewarded. A pact was made and Laban used his authoritative position to dictate the terms: his daughters would not be harmed, nor would Jacob take another wife. A pillar was then erected to commemorate this covenant, a sacrifice was made, and the two parties shared a meal as a sign of their good will. Throughout these episodes in Jacob’s life, the hand of God was at work, protecting and prospering Jacob in the midst of family quarrels.

As Jacob approached the land that God had promised him, a band of angels met him (ch. 32) so he called the place “Mahanaim.” Next he sent out scouts to discover Esau’s attitude. Meanwhile, Jacob took care to safeguard half of his possesions and also sent a large gift to his brother. After he had asked for divine protection, and as he was about to ford the river Jabbok, he became engaged with a stranger who wrestled with him until daybreak. The man prevailed only by dislocating Jacob’s thigh, but Jacob eventually won from the antagonist a blessing that entailed the change of Jacob’s name to Israel, showing that he was able to contend with God (cf. Hosea 12:4).

As Esau came to meet him, Jacob feared that Esau’s hostility had not subsided with the years, and therefore approached the dreaded meeting with his usual cleverness, seeking to pacify his wronged twin and also to protect himself and his family from any possible attack. To his strategy, however, Jacob added prayer (Gen 32:9-12) for he realized that it was ultimately God with whom he dealt. Esau’s friendly greeting, however, did not overcome Jacob’s fears and Jacob turned down to Succoth instead of following Esau. Esau went to Seir and there became the ancestor of a nation; Jacob remained in Pal. to assume his inheritance. These twins were not to meet again until their father’s death (35:27-29).

From Succoth Jacob traveled to Shechem where he built an altar (33:20). Jacob’s experiences at Shechem (ch. 34) in his relations with the Canaanites are reminiscent of Abraham’s relations with these inhabitants of the land (14:23), or Isaac’s (ch. 26).

In Genesis 35, God instructed Jacob to return to Bethel and dwell and make an altar “to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau” (v. 1). In preparation for this, the people put away their foreign gods and purified themselves. At Bethel, the patriarchal promises were again given to Jacob, and again he was told that Israel would be his new name. At this, Jacob raised anew his monument of stone, and stamped forever by this public act upon ancient Luz (35:6) the name of Bethel, which he had privately given it before (28:19).

Losses and griefs characterized the life of Jacob during this period. The death of his mother’s nurse at Bethel (Gen 35:8; 24:59) was followed by the death of his beloved wife Rachel at Ephrath (Gen 35:19; 48:7) in bringing forth the youngest of his twelve sons, Benjamin. At about the same time the eldest of the twelve, Reuben, forfeited the honor of his station in the family by an act that showed all too clearly the effect of recent association with Canaanites (35:22, 23). Finally, death claimed Jacob’s aged father, whose latest years had been robbed of the companionship, not only of this son, but also of the son Esau. At Isaac’s grave in Hebron the poorly matched twins met once more, thenceforth to go their separate ways, both in their personal careers and in their descendants’ history (35:29).

Next, Jacob resided near Hebron (37:14). Although the following material revolves around Joseph, yet Jacob, not Joseph, remains the true center of the narrative until his death. The self-willed older sons come and go at his bidding (42:1-5) and Joseph’s great concern is for his aged father (Gen 43:27; 44:19; 45:3, 9, 13, 23; 46:29).

Finally, when severe famine gripped Canaan, Jacob and his sons set out for Egypt. At Beersheba he received further assurance of God’s favor (46:1-4). In Egypt he dwelt in the land of Goshen until his death. At the end, Jacob bestowed a blessing upon Ephraim and Manasseh (48:8-20) and then upon his own sons (ch. 49). God’s promise to Jacob was beautifully fulfilled; at his death the Egyptians paid him great homage, and his sons buried him with Isaac and Abraham at the family grave in Machpelah.

5. Jacob the patriarch. The mighty patriarch Jacob inherited from his father Isaac an affectionate attachment to his family, which appears in his life from beginning to end; from his mother Rebecca he inherited shrewdness, initiative, and resourcefulness—qualities that she apparently shared with her brother Laban. Like both Isaac and Abraham, he sometimes lacked courage, and his life frequently revealed deceit and dishonesty. Yet through the entire narrative there is a persistent faith in the God of his fathers. Jacob’s life is a story of conflict. He was constantly beset with dangers from every area of life, and upon many occasions his inheritance of the blessing was threatened.

Outside the Book of Genesis there still remains almost the entire outline of Jacob’s life (Josh 24:3, 4, 32; Ps 105:10-23; Hos 12:2-4, 12; Mal 1:2ff.). If the Book of Genesis were lost, the significance as well as the basic outline of his life can be reconstructed. The NT references recall events in his life or traits of his character (John 4:5, 6, 12; Acts 7:12, 14-16; Rom 9:10-13; Heb 11:9, 20ff.).

In the rest of the Bible, outside Genesis, Jacob is considered the child of favor (Mal 1:2; Rom 9:10-13), an heir of the divine promise (Heb 11:9), and a man of blessing (Heb 11:20, 21). As Israel’s third great patriarch, he is often linked with Abraham and Isaac, esp. in connection with their God (Deut 29:13; 2 Kings 13:23; Matt 8:11; Mark 12:26, 27; Acts 3:13).

Jacob as a synonym for Israel and thus as a poetic name for the Israelites occurs esp. in the prophets. Besides being called the house of Jacob (Exod 19:3; Isa 2:5ff.; 8:17; 27:9; Amos 3:13; 9:8; Mic 2:7), or the sons of Jacob (1 Kings 18:31; Mal 3:6), or the seed of Jacob (Isa 45:19; Jer 33:26), or the community of Jacob (Deut 33:4), the Israelites are also simply called Jacob (Isa 9:8; Hos 10:11); Micah 1:5 refers to the northern kingdom alone, and in Nahum 2:2 to Judah alone. Jacob is sometimes used also as a representative of the nation that bears his name. Israel is the “house of Jacob” (Luke 1:33); its God is the “King of Jacob” (Isa 41:21); and His temple is a “habitation for the God of Jacob” (Acts 7:46).

Although the Jacob narrative lacks in sufficient historical references to establish an absolute chronology, the geographical references are numerous. Jacob was associated with Bethel (Gen 28:10-22; 31:13; 48:3), Haran (ch. 29), Gilead (31:21), Mahanaim (32:2), Peniel (32:30), Succoth (33:17), Shechem (33:18), Hebron (37:14), Beersheba (46:1), Goshen (47:27).

The customs reflected in the Jacob narrative (selling of birthright, oral blessing, “teraphim”) are esp. illuminated by the Nuzi tablets found SE of Nineveh.

Jacob (̓Ιακώβ, G2609), the son of Matthan and the father of Joseph, Mary’s husband, is listed in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1:15ff.), but not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.

Bibliography C. Gordon, “The Story of Jacob and Laban in the Light of the Nuzi Tablets,” BASOR, 66 (1937), 25-27; C. Gordon, “Biblical Customs and the Nuzi Tablets,” BA, 3 (1940), 1-12; C. Gordon, “The Patriarchal Age,” JBL, 21 (1953), 240; J. M. Holt, The Patriarchs of Israel (1964); I. Hunt, The World of the Patriarchs (1966). of Israel (1964); I. Hunt, The World of the Patriarchs (1966).