Jacob by Sarah Cook

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.

Sarah Cook, "Jacob", n.p. [cited 27 Nov 2022]. Online:



Sarah Cook
PhD Student, University of Georgia

Sarah Cook is a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. Her research interests include prophecy in the E-source, the redaction of the Torah, and translation in the ancient world with a specific focus on the Septuagint translation of the Torah.

Jacob, son of Isaac, is the third patriarch of the people Israel.

Did you know…?

  • Jacob was the father of thirteen children, to whom the twelve tribes of Israel traced their ancestry.
  • Jacob’s name comes from the Hebrew, ya’aqob, meaning “he will follow/supplant.”
  • Jacob was later called Israel (yisra’el), a reference to a narrative in which he struggled (sarita) with god (’elohim).

Gen 15

God's Covenant with Abram
1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be v ... View more

Gen 17

The Sign of the Covenant
1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameles ... View more

Gen 25:29-34

Esau Sells His Birthright
29 Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30 Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of th ... View more

Gen 27:5-13

5 Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau. So when Esau went to the field to hunt for game and bring it, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “I ... View more

Gen 27:40

By your sword you shall live,
    and you shall serve your brother;
but when you break loose,
    you shall break his yoke from your neck.”

2Sam 8:11-12

11 these also King David dedicated to the Lord, together with the silver and gold that he dedicated from all the nations he subdued, 12 from Edom, Moab, the Amm ... View more

2Kgs 8:20-22

20In his days Edom revolted against the rule of Judah, and set up a king of their own.21Then Joram crossed over to Zair with all his chariots. He set out by nig ... View more

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Gen 32

1Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him;2and when Jacob saw them he said, “This is God's camp!” So he called that place Mahanaim.Jacob Sends Presen ... View more

the people from whom an individual is descended

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

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