Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, are the sons of Rebekah and Isaac. As Abraham’s grandchildren, they are inheritors of the covenant that God makes with Abraham in Gen 15 and Gen 17. Esau emerges first from the womb with Jacob following after, grasping his brother’s heel. This birth scene sets up the rivalry between Esau and Jacob, who will spend his early years attempting to supplant his brother. Jacob triumphs in the struggle with Esau because of his trickster nature. He goes on to marry Leah and Rachel who, along with their servants Zilpah and Bilhah, give birth to his thirteen children from whom the twelve tribes of Israel are formed.
Why did Jacob steal his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing?
Because Esau is born first, he is destined to inherit a double portion of his father’s estate (his birthright) and to receive his father’s blessing. Jacob and his mother, however, have other plans. In Gen 25:29-34, Esau comes in from the field exhausted and starving. He asks Jacob for some of the red stew that he is making. When Jacob offers to give Esau the stew in exchange for his birthright, Esau readily agrees and complains that his birthright is of no use to him when he is on the point of death. He swears to pass his birthright to Jacob and, according to the narrator, thus disdains his birthright.
Rebekah is instrumental in securing Isaac’s blessing for the younger twin. In Gen 27:5-13, Rebekah overhears Isaac promising Esau his blessing and she springs into action. She prepares a stew for her husband and dresses Jacob in goatskin so that he can pass for Esau who is “a hairy man.” The ruse works, and Isaac blesses Jacob. When Esau finally enters the tent and realizes that his father has given his blessing away, he begs Isaac to offer him a blessing, too. The only blessing that Isaac can offer, however, is that Esau will eventually become restless and break Jacob’s yoke from his neck (Gen 27:40).
In Jacob’s acquisition of both birthright and blessing, he exploits his brother’s hunger and takes advantage of his father’s old age to trick him. The narrator does not criticize Jacob for his deception though, but instead upholds him as an example of cleverness. The valorization of Jacob’s sly tactics is tied to this story’s political message. The twin brothers represent the kingdoms of Edom and Israel, which strove against one another for supremacy throughout Israel’s history. King David conquered Edom during his reign (2Sam 8:11-12), thus representing Jacob’s (and Israel’s) ascendancy, but Edom later achieved independence under the reign of King Jehoram of Judah (2Kgs 8:20-22), thereby breaking the yoke, just as Isaac promised. Thus, this compelling tale of family drama reflects the reality of a fraught political history.
Why is Jacob also called Israel?
Jacob received his name because he emerged from the womb clinging to his brother’s heel. His name in Hebrew, ya‘aqob, means “he will follow/supplant” and is related to the biblical word for heel: ‘aqeb. Over the course of his adventures, he acquires a new name as well. In Gen 32, Jacob waits alone to re-unite with his brother Esau. During the night, a man (later designated as God) wrestles with him until the dawn. When the man asks Jacob to let him go, Jacob refuses to do so until the other man blesses him. The resultant blessing is actually a re-naming. The man says that Jacob should be called Israel (yisra’el) because “you struggled [sarita] with God [’elohim] and with humans and have prevailed.” This blessing, and Jacob’s conclusion that the place should be called peni’el “face of God,” indicates that the man with whom Jacob wrestled was, in fact, God. Jacob’s new name is the name under which his descendants, the twelve tribes of Israel, unite to form a single nation.
- Friedman, Richard Elliott. “Deception for Deception.” Pages 131-44 in Abraham and Family: New Insights into the Patriarchal Narratives. Edited by Hershel Shanks. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2000.
- Walters, Stanley D. “Jacob.” ABD 3:599.
- Hendel, Ronald S. The Epic of the Patriarch. Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1987.
- Niditch, Susan. A Prelude to Biblical Folklore: Underdogs and Tricksters. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.