red stuff


[jey-kuhb for 1, 3; Fr. zha-kawb for 2]

Jacob (Hebrew: יַעֲקֹב, Standard Yaʿaqov Tiberian Yaʿăqōḇ; Arabic: يعقوب, Yaʿqūb; "holds the heel"; Septuagint Greek Ἰακώβ), also known as Israel (Hebrew: יִשְׂרָאֵל, Standard Yisraʾel Tiberian Yiśrāʾēl; Arabic: اسرائيل, Isrāʾīl; "Struggled with God", Septuagint Greek Ἰσραήλ), is the third Biblical patriarch. Jacob was the son of Isaac, the twin brother of Esau, and grandson of Abraham. Jacob played a major part in some of the later events in the Book of Genesis.

Jacob had twelve sons by his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and his two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. He thus sired the twelve Tribes of Israel. His sons were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin.

Biblical accounts

Jacob, together with his older brother, Esau, was born to Isaac and Rebekah after 20 years of marriage, when his father was 60, and Abraham was 160 years old. He and Esau were markedly different in appearance and behaviour. Esau was a ruddy hunter, while Jacob was a gentle man who "dwelled in tents," interpreted by many biblical commentators as a mark of his studiousness and reserved personality.

During Rebekah's pregnancy, "the children struggled together within her".

Esau was the firstborn. His brother Jacob was born immediately afterwards, and was grasping Esau's heel. His name, Ya'akov (יעקב), derives from the Hebrew root "עקב," "heel." Commentators explain that Jacob was trying to hold Esau back from being the firstborn, and in that way claim the Abrahamic legacy for himself. According to the text, Jacob was favored by his mother, while Esau was favored by his father.


During their youth, the twins were raised in the same environment and exposed to the same teachings of their father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. One day, Esau returned from the field faint from hunger. Seizing an opportunity, Jacob informed Esau that he would sell him some lentil soup which he had just cooked, in exchange for the birthright which belonged to Esau as the older brother. Esau agreed "I am going to die — what is this birthright to me?" The fact that Esau would sell his familial rights in exchange for soup indicates the disdain in which he held his fathers' traditions. In the words of the Bible, "Esau despised the birthright. However, there are many interpretations of this statement. Some believe he meant that if he were dead, then his brother would have the birthright anyway; why should he die? If Esau were not to sell his birthright, he may have died from starvation, giving Jacob the birthright either way. The blessing however, wasn't in the possession of the twins either for Esau to sell or for Jacob to buy, as it was a Given Potestas of Isaac's. That both brothers knowingly or unknowingly attempted such iniquity made them guilty equally. Although naturally, the descendants of Jacob would exonerate their Patriarch in placing the blame on his brother. Isaac knew better, not to curse both or bless further.

The text further explains that since he referred to the soup as "red, red, stuff," he was given the name "Edom" (Hebrew: אדום, red one). The name Edom is thus seen as an eponym which gave rise to the national name of the Edomites.

The birthright included not only the traditional Biblical birthright, which granted superior rank in the family (Genesis 49:3), a double portion of the paternal inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17), and the priestly office in the family (Numbers 8:17-19), but the Abrahamic blessing as well, which promised that his descendants would be a source of blessing for all the nations of the earth (Genesis 21:15-18). However, Esau, knowing that God had declared that Abraham's descendants would be enslaved for 400 years before returning to their own land (referring to the Hebrews' enslavement in Egypt) (Genesis 15:13-14), wanted to exclude himself from being part of God's chosen people.

According to the Midrash, the day on which Esau sold his birthright was the very same day that Abraham died; the lentil soup which Jacob had cooked was a food traditionally eaten at times of mourning. This sheds some light on Esau's comment that he "was going to die." The midrash further states that Esau had committed the three cardinal sins – murder, adultery and idolatry, which is why he was tired that day. Setting the scene at the time of Abraham's death would mean that Jacob and Esau were both 15 years old at that time.

Paternal blessing

When Isaac was aged and blind, he decided to bless his eldest son before he died. He sent Esau out in the fields to hunt down some meat and prepare him a meal, after which he would receive his blessing. (According to the Jewish commentators, since the blessing would be prophetic, and prophecy only rests on one who is in a joyful state of mind, Isaac desired to first eat meat and drink wine to arouse himself to happiness.)

Rebecca overheard this exchange. As Esau went out to the hunt, she instructed Jacob to fetch her two goats so that she could prepare a tasty meal for his father, and commanded him to bring the meal to Isaac to receive the blessing in his brother's stead. Jacob protested that his father might notice the substitution through touch, since Esau was hairy and he was smooth-skinned. Rebecca told him not to worry, and placed hairy goatskins over his neck and arms.

Thus disguised, Jacob went into his father's tent. Isaac was surprised that he had returned so soon from the "hunt." "Who are you, my son?" Isaac asked suspiciously. "I am Esau your firstborn," Jacob replied (the Hebrew words, however, can be divided into two statements: "I" and "Esau is your firstborn"). Isaac was still suspicious and asked to feel him, since Esau was hairy. The goatskins seemed to fool him, although he maintained, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau." Nevertheless, Isaac blessed him and sent him on his way.

As soon as Jacob left the tent, Esau arrived and exposed the deception. Isaac was shaken, but he affirmed that Jacob would indeed be blessed. To Esau's pathetic entreaties, he agreed to give Esau a lesser blessing. Esau exclaimed, "Is that why he is called Jacob (יעקב), because he has deceived me (ויעקבני) these two times?" (Genesis 27:35), another play on Jacob's name. Then Esau swore to himself that he would kill Jacob in revenge as soon as his father was dead.

Return to Canaan

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 400 men. In great apprehension, Jacob prepared for the worst. He felt that he must now depend only on God, and he betook himself to him in earnest prayer, then sent on before him a munificent present to Esau, "a present to my lord Esau from thy servant Jacob."

Jacob then transported his family and flocks back across the ford Jabbok, then crossed over towards the direction from which Esau would come, spending the night alone, in communion with God. There, a mysterious being ("a man", according to Genesis 32:24, or "the angel", according to Hosea 12:4) appeared and wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. When he saw he could not defeat Jacob, he touched him on the sinew of his thigh (the gid hanasheh - גיד הנשה). As a result, the Israelites would not consume that part of an animal's thigh from that point on (Genesis 32:32) and Jacob would forever have a limp. This incident still has an impact on many Jews today, as Orthodox Jews will not eat the area containing the gid hanasheh (commonly identified as the sciatic nerve) on an otherwise kosher animal.

Jacob then demanded a blessing, and the mysterious being said that from now on, Jacob would be called Israel (Hebrew ישׂראל Yisra'el or Yiśrā’ēl, meaning "one who has struggled with God"). Jacob then asked the being's name, but the being refused to answer. Afterwards Jacob named the place Pnei-el (Penuel, meaning "face of God"), saying "I have seen God face to face and lived."

Because of the ambiguous and varying terminology, and because the being refused to reveal its name, there are varying views as to whether this mysterious being was a man, an angel, or God himself. According to Rashi, he was the guardian angel of Esau himself, sent to destroy Jacob before he could return to the land of Canaan. Trachtenberg theorizes that the being refused to identify itself for fear that if its secret name was known, it would have been conjurable by incantations (Trachtenberg 1939, p. 80). Some commentators, however, argue that the stranger was God himself, citing Jacob's own words and the name he assumed thereafter ("One who has struggled with God"). They point out that although later holy scriptures maintain that God does not manifest as a mortal, several instances of it arguably occur in Genesis, for example in 18:1 with Abraham.

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. Some commentators cite this placement as proof that Jacob continued to favor Rachel's children over Leah's, as presumably the rear position would be safer from a frontal assault by Esau, which Jacob feared. Jacob himself took the foremost position. Esau's spirit of revenge, however, had by this time been appeased by Jacob's bounteous gift of camels, goats and flocks. Their reunion was an emotional one. Esau offered to accompany them on their way back to Israel, but Jacob protested that his children were still young and tender; they would eventually catch up with Esau at Mount Seir. According to the Sages, this was a prophetic reference to the End of Days, when Jacob's descendants would come to Mount Seir, the home of Edom, to deliver judgment against Esau's descendants for persecuting them throughout the millennia (Obadiah 1:21).

Jacob arrived in Shechem, where he bought a parcel of land that would eventually house Joseph's Tomb. In Shechem, his daughter through Leah, Dinah, was raped by the prince's son, who desired to marry the girl. Dinah's brothers, Simeon and Levi, offered to go ahead with the match as long as all the men of Shechem first performed the mitzvah of circumcision upon themselves, ostensibly to unite the children of Jacob in familial harmony. On the third day after the circumcision, when all the men of Shechem were most weak, Simeon and Levi put all the residents to death by the sword and escaped with their sister, Dinah. Jacob remained silent about the episode, but later rebuked his two sons for their anger in his deathbed blessing (Genesis 49:5-7).

As Jacob and his entourage neared the border of Canaan, 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.


The Bible next relates the story of Joseph, who was separated from his father Jacob at the age of 17 and sent down to Egypt as a slave by his brothers, who were jealous of his dreams of kingship over them. Jacob was deeply grieved by the loss of his favorite son, and refused to be comforted. Christian commentators have speculated that this was a punishment from God due to Jacob's earlier sins, which included impersonation of Esau (a form of lying or deception).

When Joseph got to Egypt, he was sold as a slave to Potifar, who treated him well. Disaster struck when Potifar's wife accused Joseph of committing adultery with her. So Joseph was thrown into the royal prison. Two other men came to join him in the prison. One was a butler. The other a baker. Both used to work for Pharaoh and both had a dream. Joseph interpreted the dreams and they came true. The butler went back to work for the Pharaoh and the baker got executed. Joseph was left in prison. Nearly ten years after the sale of Joseph, Pharaoh had two troubling dreams which could not be interpreted to his satisfaction. Joseph, who was still in the royal prison, was recommended to Pharaoh as an interpreter of dreams, by the butler and Joseph explained the dreams as relating to seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh was so impressed that he made Joseph viceroy over Egypt and the manager of Egypt's grain stores. Joseph artfully managed first the storage and then the distribution of Egypt's grain, making Pharaoh quite wealthy.

When the famine struck, 10 of Jacob's sons went to Egypt to procure grain for their starving families in Canaan. Upon meeting Joseph for the first time in nearly 20 years, they did not recognize him, since he now dressed and spoke like an Egyptian. However, Joseph recognized them and demanded to see the twelfth brother of whom they spoke, his own full-brother, Benjamin. As a way of making sure they would come back, he took Simeon (being the oldest who plotted to sell him, since Reuben intended to rescue him) as a hostage until they returned with Benjamin.

Jacob was distraught when he heard this news, for Benjamin was all that was left to him of his beloved wife Rachel's children, and he refused to release him lest something happen to Benjamin, too. But when their food stores ran out and the famine worsened, Jacob agrees to Judah's promise to protect Benjamin from harm. The brothers returned to Joseph with Benjamin, and when Joseph saw Benjamin he was overcome with emotion, and revealed himself to his brothers. He invited them to bring their families and their father, Jacob, down to Egypt to live near him, and gave them a place to live in the Egyptian province of Goshen.

Jacob's last seventeen years were spent in peace and tranquility in Egypt, knowing that all his 12 sons were righteous people, and he died at the age of 147 (Genesis 47:28). Before his death, he made Joseph promise that he would bury him in the Cave of Machpelah, even though Jacob had buried Joseph's mother, Rachel, by the side of the road and not in the Cave (Leah had been buried there, instead, along with Abraham, Sarah, Rebecca and Issac). With Pharaoh's permission, 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.

Before he died, Jacob adopted Joseph's two teenage sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as his own. He also blessed each one of his sons. According to the Midrash, he desired to tell them the exact date when the Messiah would arrive, but the prophecy failed him. He feared lest one of his sons was not righteous, but they responded, "Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad" - "Hear O Israel [Israel being another name of Jacob], the Lord Our God, the Lord is One!" Satisfied that his sons were united in the service of God, Jacob proclaimed, "Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuso Le'Olam Va'Ed" - "Blessed is the Name of His glorious Kingdom for ever and ever". Today these two verses are said together, the first one aloud and the second one quietly, in the morning and evening Jewish prayer services.


Jacob's wives and concubines had twelve sons and one daughter: Reuben Simeon Levi Judah Dinah Dan Naphtali Gad Asher Issachar Zebulun Joseph and Benjamin ():

The offspring of Jacob's sons were destined to become the twelve tribes of Israel following the Exodus, when the Israelites conquered and settled in the Land of Israel.

Rabbinical teachings

According to the classic Jewish texts, Jacob, as the third and last patriarch, lived a life that paralleled the descent of his offspring, the Jewish people, into the darkness of exile. In contrast to Abraham—who illuminated the world with knowledge of God and earned the respect of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan—and Isaac—who continued his father's teachings and also lived in relative harmony with his neighbors—Jacob experienced many personal struggles both in the land and out of it (including the hatred of his brother Esau, the deception of his father-in-law Laban, the rape of his daughter Dinah, the death of his favorite wife Rachel, and the sale of his son Joseph). For this reason, the Jewish commentators interpret many elements of his story as being symbolic of the future difficulties and struggles the Jewish people would undergo during their long exile, which continues to the present day.

According to Rashi, whenever Rebecca passed a house of Torah study, Jacob would struggle to get out; whenever she passed a temple of idolatry, Esau would struggle to get out. Fearful of the excessive movement, Rebecca questioned God about the tumult and learned that she was to give birth to two children who were twins, who would become the respective founders of two very different nations. They would always be in competition, the elder would serve the younger, meaning one's success is attained at the expense of the other. She did not tell her husband Isaac about this prophecy, but kept it in mind.

Eastern Christianity

The Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite see Jacob's dream as a prophesy of the Incarnation of the Logos, whereby Jacob's ladder is understood as a symbol of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary), who, according to Orthodox theology, united heaven and earth in her womb. The biblical account of this vision is one of the standard Old Testament readings at Vespers on Great Feasts of the Theotokos.

The account of Jacob's blessing of Joseph's sons is also seen as prophetic: when he crossed his arms to bestow his patriarchal blessing this is seen as a foreshadowing of the blessings Christians believe resulted from Jesus' death on the cross.


In Arabic, Jacob is known as Yakub. He is revered as a prophet who received inspiration from God. The Qur'an does not give the details of Jacob’s life. Isra'il is the Arabic translation of the Hebrew Yisrael. God perfected his favor on Jacob and his posterity as he perfected his favor on Abraham and Isaac (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 worshiping and bowing to the One true God was the main legacy of Jacob Kaaihue and his fathers (2:132-133). Salvation, according to the Qur'an, hinges upon this legacy rather than being a Jew or Christian (See Qur'an 2:130-141).

According to the Qur'an, Jacob was of the company of the Elect and the Good (38:47, 21:75). Yaqub is a name that is accepted in Muslim community showing the value attributed to Jacob.

See also

  • History of ancient Israel and Judah
  • Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, the name given to at least three different major paintings
  • During the Second World War the French writer and anti-Nazi resistance fighter André Malraux worked on a long novel, The Struggle Against the Angel, the manuscript of which was destroyed by the Gestapo upon his capture in 1944. The name was apparently inspired by the Jacob story. A surviving opening book to The Struggle Against the Angel, named The Walnut Trees of Altenburg, was published after the war.


Further reading

External links

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