Jacob was the younger of Isaac and Rebekah's twin sons. He started fighting with his brother before they were born, symbolizing the conflict their descendants (the Israelites and the Edomites) would have throughout history. Before they were born, God told Rebekah that the younger would rule over the older. The eldest was named Esau, which means "red," because when he was born his skin was red. Jacob came out holding onto Esau's heel, as if trying to prevent him from leaving first. "Jacob" means "one that takes by the heel" and came to mean "supplanter" (Genesis 25:19-28)
What is the biblical account of Jacob?
As they grew, Esau roamed the fields hunting, which Isaac appreciated, while Jacob stayed mostly in the family tents, which endeared him to Rebekah. After one of his many hunting trips, Esau arrived home to find Jacob cooking lentil stew. Famished, and goaded by Jacob, Esau traded his birthright as firstborn for a bowl of the stew, setting the stage for the fulfillment of God's promise to Rebekah (Genesis 25:29-34).
The story of Rebekah and Jacob tricking Isaac into giving Jacob the firstborn blessing is pretty well known (Genesis 27). Isaac sent Esau out to hunt and prepare a meal before his blessing. Rebekah cooked a goat and covered Jacob's smooth arms with the skin. Since Isaac's eyesight was so bad, he couldn't tell the difference, and gave Jacob the firstborn blessing before Esau returned. It is this moment where the descendants of Abraham stop branching off and the nation of Israel is truly established — although there are many different Semitic people (descended from Shem, to include Ishmael and Esau), all Israelites/Jews are descended from Jacob. Isaac blessed Jacob, saying that his brother's people would serve his. When Esau returned and they realized what had happened, Isaac could only promise that Esau would eventually get out from under Jacob's rule.
Despite his parents' wishes to the contrary, Esau married two Hittite women who caused no end of grief for Isaac and Rebekah. Esau was also waiting for Isaac to die so he could kill Jacob and reclaim his inheritance. Realizing that, despite his wishes, Jacob was his heir, Isaac sent Jacob to Rebekah's people to find a wife so he could find a more suitable wife and stay out of Esau's way (Genesis 27:41—28:5). Struck with guilt in the face of Jacob's obedience, Esau tried to make amends with his parents by marrying an Ishmaelite (Genesis 28:6-9).
It was on his way to Laban in Haran (the city that Abraham's father, Terah, had established in honor of his deceased son, Lot's father) that Jacob had a dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending. There, God passed on the covenant He'd made with Abraham to Jacob, Abraham's grandson (Genesis 28:10-22).
Things were more complicated in Laban's house, however. Before he even arrived, Jacob met and fell in love with Laban's younger daughter, Rachel. Jacob agreed to serve Laban for seven years for Rachel's hand. But at the wedding, Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel's older sister, Leah, claiming it wasn't right for the younger sister to marry first. Jacob threw a fuss, and Laban agreed to give him Rachel immediately if he promised to serve another seven years (Genesis 29:1-30).
Then began an intense battle of fertility warfare (Genesis 29:31—30:24). God felt pity on Leah because Jacob didn't love her, so He allowed her to have sons while Rachel remained infertile. Rachel countered by having Jacob sleep with her handmaiden, Bilhah. Leah then offered her handmaiden, Zilpah. Finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin. In all, Jacob had twelve sons and a daughter, Dinah.
Jacob tried to leave Laban and return home, but Laban didn't want to lose such a good shepherd. Laban agreed to give Jacob all the speckled sheep, and then snuck in and removed all the speckled sheep from his flock. It's unclear how Jacob could have used sticks in the watering places to induce the sheep to have speckled babies. Some speculate on the chemical components of the water or perhaps a sheepish aversion to sticks, but there is no proven scientific explanation. It could be that it was just divine intervention (Genesis 30:25-43). At any rate, Jacob bred so many speckled sheep, he had to gather his wives, concubines, kids, and livestock, and sneak away. Leah and Rachel were more than willing, as Laban had somehow cheated them. But it didn't stop Rachel from stealing one of Laban's household gods. For what purpose, we're never told.
Laban gathered a group of men and set out after them, easing his violent intensions only when God came to him in a dream and told him to back off. Laban refrained from attacking Jacob, but did search for his missing household idol. Rachel, proving that she was a perfect match for Jacob, kept Laban from searching her tent by claiming she was on her period.
Jacob lost his temper and gave Laban the riot act. Laban, still angry about losing all those sheep, but more afraid of God, claimed that he was only looking after the welfare of his daughters and that he was doing Jacob a favor by letting him keep the sheep. At any rate, the two made a pact that they would never attack each other, and that Jacob would never take another wife. Just in case four wasn't enough (Genesis 31).
Finally free, Jacob remembered that while Laban had wanted him to stay and become a part of his empire, Esau was waiting at home to kill him. Jacob gave a pretty humble prayer for protection, and then prepared a healthy peace offering for Esau, including a goodly amount of livestock. Jacob then sent his family and the rest of his livestock to safety for the night. "A man" — the pre-incarnate Christ — wrestled with him all night, but Jacob was determined enough that he would not yield until the man touched Jacob and dislocated his hip. Still, Jacob refused to let go until he received a blessing (Genesis 32:22-32).
The next morning, Jacob met Esau with much bowing. The humility (and the bribe) must have worked, because Esau met him in peace. There was then some politicking regarding whether Esau should accept the livestock and if Jacob should travel with him. It may have been Middle-Eastern hospitality, but it may have been Esau's attempt to absorb all of Jacob's family and wealth. At any rate, Jacob settled away from Esau near the city of Shechem, where he bought a plot of land (Genesis 33).
If Isaac had thought raising two boys was challenging, Jacob could have told him some stories about raising twelve. When Dinah was raped, Leah's sons were furious. The attacker's father, a prince, asked that Dinah be allowed to marry his son (which, while vile to our ears, was common in that time). Dinah's brothers agreed, as long as the men of the city agreed to be circumcised. But while the men of the city were recovering, Simeon and Levi, Dinah's brothers and Leah's sons, killed them all and plundered the city. Jacob chastised them because their family was not strong enough to defend against an attack should the cities in the surrounding area wish revenge, but Simeon and Levi stood firm that their sister's virtue was worth the risk (Genesis 34).
God did not change His mind about Jacob, however. Jacob followed God's instruction and returned to Bethel, the same place where Abram had built an altar (Genesis 12) and Jacob had had the dream of the ladder. After collecting and burying all the idols his family had hidden, Jacob made an altar to God. God reiterated the Abrahamic covenant and changed Jacob's name to "Israel," or "he who contended with God," reflecting his stubbornness during the wrestling match (Genesis 35).
Before they were able to return home, Rachel had her second son, Benjamin, and died in childbirth. Shortly after, Jacob's oldest, Reuben, slept with Bilhah, a horrible breach of honor and respect. Some time later, Jacob returned home to be with his father, Isaac, as he died.
The struggles between Jacob's sons came to a head with Joseph. He was already Jacob's favorite when he gave a bad report of Bilhah and Zilphah's sons' shepherding skills. But what clinched it was his dreams. The images inferred that one day, Jacob, his wives, and all their sons would honor Joseph. Joseph's older brothers responded by selling him to merchants bound for Egypt and telling Jacob that Joseph had been attacked by a wild animal and killed. Distraught by the death of his favorite wife's first son, Jacob set his energy on protecting little Benjamin.
Several years later, while Joseph was leading Egypt out of a widespread famine, Jacob and his family found themselves unprepared and starving. Jacob sent his older sons to Egypt where he heard they could buy grain. They returned with the grain, but were surprised to discover the money they thought they had paid the government official in charge of the grain. Jacob also learned that this official had kept Simeon and would neither release him nor sell them more grain unless they brought their youngest brother (Genesis 41:37—45:28).
Jacob was heartbroken, but they needed food. Judah vowed his life in exchange for Benjamin. When his sons returned from their second foray, Jacob learned that the mysterious official was actually his son Joseph, who had not been killed after all. Jacob packed up the entire family and moved to Egypt where Joseph, with the Pharaoh's blessing, had prepared a place for them. Jacob was reunited with Joseph and settled in Goshen (Genesis 46:1—47:12). As Jacob lay ill, he blessed his sons (Genesis 48:1—49:27), counting Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasseh as his own, and functionally giving Joseph a double portion. He then moved on to his older sons. Reuben had slept with Bilhah, Jacob's concubine, and his slight blessing reflected the insult. Simeon and Levi were the brothers who had killed the men of Shechem. So, despite being the third born, Judah was given the firstborn blessing. Judah's descendants include David and Jesus.
Jacob died after giving his sons instructions to return his bones to Abraham's tomb. Joseph had him embalmed like the Egyptians, and took him personally. The sons of Jacob then returned to Egypt for what would turn out to be an unusually long stay (Genesis 49:28—50:14).
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