Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch

Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch

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by Yair Zakovitch

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A powerful hero of the Bible, Jacob is also one of its most complex figures. Bible stories recounting his life often expose his deception, lies, and greed—then, puzzlingly, attempt to justify them. In this book, eminent biblical scholar Yair Zakovitch presents a complete view of the patriarch, first examining Jacob and his life story as presented in the Bible


A powerful hero of the Bible, Jacob is also one of its most complex figures. Bible stories recounting his life often expose his deception, lies, and greed—then, puzzlingly, attempt to justify them. In this book, eminent biblical scholar Yair Zakovitch presents a complete view of the patriarch, first examining Jacob and his life story as presented in the Bible, then also reconstructing the stories that the Bible writers suppressed—tales that were well-known, perhaps, but incompatible with the image of Jacob they wanted to promote. Through a work of extraordinary “literary archaeology,” Zakovitch explores the recesses of literary history, reaching back even to the stage of oral storytelling, to identify sources of Jacob's story that preceded the work of the Genesis writers.

The biblical writers were skilled mosaic-makers, Zakovitch shows, and their achievement was to reshape diverse pre-biblical representations of Jacob in support of their emerging new religion and identity. As the author follows Jacob in his wanderings and revelations, his successes, disgraces, and disappointments, he also considers the religious and political environment in which the Bible was written, offering a powerful explication of early Judaism.

Editorial Reviews

Israel Finkelstein

“Zakovitch draws a colorful picture of the complex and enigmatic patriarch, whose story is essential for understanding the traditions of ancient Hebrews regarding their early days. This is an irreplaceable, must-read book for whoever is interested in the Hebrew Bible and the history of ancient Israel.”—Israel Finkelstein, author of The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts

Jewish Book World - Wallace Greene

"Zakovitch has provided us with a brilliant analytical biography utilizing traditional rabbinic sources, ancient Near Eastern literature, non-canonical biblical books, modern critical techniques, and incisive hermeneutical interpretation. The scholar will appreciate the nuances and the neophyte will be enthralled by new discoveries."—Wallace Greene, Jewish Book World

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Yale University Press
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Jewish Lives
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Unexpected Patriarch


Copyright © 2012 Yair Zakovitch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-14426-0

Chapter One

"The children struggled in her womb": The Fight for the Birthright

When the time arrived for Isaac to wed, Abraham sent a servant to find a bride for his son in Haran, his homeland, since a local, Canaanite woman was unacceptable (Gen 24:3; this derives from the Pentateuch's isolationist ideology). On arriving in Haran the servant, aware of the enormous responsibility entrusted him, wants a sign from God that will signal a woman worthy of his master's son. Standing by a well, he prays:

Oh Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, "Pray, lower your jar that I may drink," and who replies, "Drink, and I shall also water your camels"—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master. (vv 12–14)

The sign is granted almost instantaneously: before the prayer's final words have left his mouth, a handsome maiden, Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel, son of Abraham's brother Nahor, arrives at the well and lowers a jar from her shoulder. Her response to the servant's request for water exceeds his hopes when she offers water to his camels "until they finish drinking" (v 18). The servant is received generously by the young woman's father and her brother Laban, who perceive the hand of God moving behind the events (v 50), and Rebekah is willing to accompany the servant back to Canaan, where he brings her to Isaac. At this point, this chapter in the history of the patriarchs comes to the desired conclusion: "Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death" (v 67).

The story of the birth of Isaac and Rebekah's sons is preceded by a chronological report of the patriarch's age at the time of his marriage: "Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-Aram, sister of Laban the Aramean" (25:20). (Whoever inserted this verse, whether writer or editor, was not the same person who penned the birth story that follows, but its effect is considerable, as will soon become clear.) The next verse reveals important information about the future matriarch: "Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren ..." (v 21). Like Abraham's wife Sarah, Isaac's wife is barren—as will be Jacob's beloved wife, Rachel—leading one to suspect that no biblical hero is truly certified unless his mother conceived him following an extended period of infertility. This is because the birth stories of the Bible's heroes require a miracle, and that miracle takes the form of God's intervention in opening the woman's womb. Unlike Sarah, however, who tried to maneuver around her barren fate when she supplied Abraham with her Egyptian maidservant to bear children who would be considered Sarah's own (Gen 16), Isaac knows that the power to open wombs is God's alone, and so he prays. The end of the verse that tells of Isaac's prayer even creates the impression that Isaac had barely finished praying when "the Lord responded to his plea and his wife Rebekah conceived." But verse 26—another chronological verse given us by the same hand that penned verse 20—makes clear that, in fact, twenty years have passed between Isaac and Rebekah's marriage and the birth of their sons, Jacob and Esau: "Isaac was sixty years old when they were born." It is to their credit that, throughout the long wait, the couple placed their full trust in God.

In contrast to other stories about barren women who finally conceive (Sarah, Rachel, Samson's mother, and Hannah, mother of Samuel), our storyteller spares no words for the opening of Rebekah's womb nor does he tell of any announcement to the parents about the impending birth, whether by angels or a vision. Our storyteller doesn't want to distract us with miracles but rather to tell us the more significant news: Rebekah carries in her womb not one child but two.

This news hints at possible fraternal conflict, following a tendency that already runs in the family. Abraham, Jacob's grandfather, parted from his cousin Lot in order to escape the rivalry between them, and suggested dividing the land (13:5–12). Next, Abraham's son Ishmael and Ishmael's mother, Hagar, Abraham's concubine, were expelled because of Sarah's resolve that "the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac" (21:10), thereby ensuring the less-than-amicable separation of the two. Overt conflict was thus avoided in both cases. Now, however, with the rivals being twin sons of the same mother, a furious battle between them begins even before birth: "but the children struggled in her womb" (v 22). This is a presage of what is to come. The verse prompts us to think of the friction between the antediluvian brothers Cain and Abel and its terrible outcome, and we begin to fear that the present rivalry, too, will end in tragedy.

Rebekah's response to her sons' scuffle in utero is twofold. She first asks herself, "If so, why am I [alive]?" (v 22; the word in brackets is preserved in the Old Syriac translation of the Bible, the Peshitta)—seemingly prophetic words. (Their fulfillment is discussed in chapter 8.) Next, Rebekah turns "to inquire of the Lord" (v 22). The mother-to-be expects an explanation from God and it arrives, in the form of a poetic oracle:

    Two nations are in your womb
      Two peoples shall issue from your loins.
    One people shall be mightier than the other,
      Older younger shall serve. (v 23)

The oracle indicates that the twins' birth will not be of the ordinary sort but will mark the birth of the progenitors of two nations, Israel and Edom. The second stich informs us that the two will fail to live in harmony and will be separate. The second half of the oracle makes clear that their parting will not be amicable and that the brothers will continue to struggle until one prevails over the other. The oracle's final words sound like its Delphic counterpart, and can be understood in contrary ways: the older will be served by the younger (an extraposed sentence) or, alternatively, the older will serve the younger. The medieval commentator Radak (the acronym for Rabbi David Kimh·i) wrote: "the word 'et [the Hebrew object signifier], which shows which is the object, is not mentioned. The matter is dubious. It wasn't made clear who would serve the other, the older the younger, or the younger the older ..."

Rashi, in contrast, explained the verse's vagueness to mean that sometimes one brother would prevail, sometimes the other—"they will not be equal in power, when one rises the other falls ..."—that is, the verse's contrary readings reflect the vicissitudes that would characterize future power relations between the nations of Edom and Israel. Another reason for the verse's lack of decisive clarity was so that it would serve as both a prefiguration and an illumination of Jacob's subsequent behavior in the story of the buying of the birthright (told later, in vv 27–34) as well as of Rebekah's actions, which cause Isaac to bless Jacob and not the intended Esau.

The words used in the very next verse convey surprise—"When her time to give birth was at hand, behold! There were twins in her womb" (v 24)—as though nothing had been known previously of the twofold story developing in her swelling middle. This incongruity suggests strongly that, in the original version of our story, verse 24 directly followed verse 21 and read: " ... and his wife Rebekah conceived. When her time to give birth was at hand, behold! There were twins in her womb." As we will see, the intervening verses, 22 and 23, which relate the brothers' struggle, the mother's complaint, and the divine announcement, were added by a writer whose eye was on the continuation of Jacob's story, on the story of the birthright and blessing.

The existence of twins becomes known, therefore, only at their birth, when "the first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau" (v 25). Esau is the forefather of the nation that is called both Edom and Seir (Gen 36:8). In order to give expression to all three names, the storyteller explains both that he emerged "red" ('admoni), an allusion to the name Edom, and that he was "like a hairy mantle" (ke'aderet se'ar), an allusion to the name Seir. The third name given upon his birth, Esau, is not explained.

Immediately afterward the second brother, the patriarch Jacob, is born: "Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob" (v 26). At this point Jacob is given only one name, ya'aqov, which is explained as relating to his having emerged clinging to the heel ('aqev) of his brother. But why, we must ask, did Jacob hold his brother's heel? Might this have been a final, desperate attempt to delay his brother's birth, to pull him back so that Jacob might be born first? This explanation of Jacob's grip on Esau's heel could also explain the nature of the brothers' prebirth struggle: it was a fight for the birthright. And in fact we find this explanation stated explicitly in the midrash: " ... What is the meaning of 'struggled'? That they would ascend and descend inside her ... this one saying, 'I will come out first,' and this one saying, 'I will come out first'" (Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 25:22).

Biblical name etymologies are not offered naively, however, and were often used to convey significant interpretative information. Some were even fierce—albeit covert—arguments against another interpretation of the name, one that the biblical writer wanted to refute. This seems to have been the case with Jacob and the "heel" explanation. The prophet Hosea blamed the nation, the descendants of Jacob, with deceit, and gave a different explanation of the patriarch's name when he cried, "in the womb he deceived ['aqav] his brother" (12:4): for Hosea, Jacob was named ya'aqov because he cheated Esau inside his mother's womb! This tradition, preserved in the literary periphery, far from the Book of Genesis, is utterly different from that found in the Torah: cheating his brother inside their mother's womb is not the same as innocently holding onto a brother's heel. In the principal telling of a story, where all eyes gaze, much effort will have been made to present the "official" viewpoint, the doctrine that the writer wanted to instill in his readers, whereas on the periphery, more ancient traditions will often survive—traditions against which the center was aimed. Hosea's "marginal" tradition was well known; it was the popular tradition, and an allusion to it of several words was enough for the prophet's audience to identify and recall its details.

Is it possible for us to reconstruct the fuller tradition to which Hosea refers? The Bible's only other story about the birth of twins is that of Perez and Zerah, the sons of Jacob's son Judah. Perez and Zerah are born from Judah's relations with his daughter-in-law Tamar, who disguised herself as a prostitute (see Gen 38). The writer of that story was from the Kingdom of Ephraim, rival of the Kingdom of Judah, and he sought to cast aspersions onto Judah, founder of the tribe and kingdom that bore his name, and particularly onto Perez, progenitor of the Davidic dynasty (see Ruth 4:18–22). For this reason Genesis 38 relates how Perez stole his brother's birthright in the moments before they emerged from their mother's womb:

When the time came for her to give birth, behold, there were twins in her womb! While she was in labor, one of them put out his hand, and the midwife tied a crimson thread on that hand, to signify: This one came out first. But just then he drew back his hand, and out came his brother; and she said, "What a breach you have breached [paratsta ... parets] for yourself!" So he was named Perez [perets]. Afterward his brother came out, on whose hand was the crimson thread; he was named Zerah. (vv 27–30)

The author of Genesis 38 used the birth story to allude to David's having stolen the birthright—the kingship—from Saul and his descendants, in a like-father-like-son scenario.

The relationship between Perez and Zerah's birth and Jacob and Esau's is signaled by the singular phrase that appears in both—"behold, there were twins in her womb!" The exact nature of this relationship—the birth story of the second set of twins being taken from the rejected story of the former—can still be detected in the interpretation covertly given for Zerah's name. The root of zerah, means "to shine," and the story relates it to the "crimson [thread]" (shani) that was tied to Zerah's hand. (Rashi explained it was "on account of the shining appearance of the crimson [thread].") But the name derivation also—and perhaps better—suits Edom (Esau's other name), since Edom has the same spelling as 'adom, "red," that is, crimson (see, e.g., Isa 1:18). What's more, Zerah was also the name of an Edomite clan (Gen 36:17; 1 Chron 1:37).

Apparently, then, in the popular, orally transmitted version of Jacob and Esau's birth, the midwife tied a red thread to the hand of Esau-Edom, who was about to be born, but Jacob cheated and successfully pushed his way out first—as is now told about Perez.

We have reconstructed an ancient tradition about the birth of Jacob and Esau by using a story that was cast in its mold (our suspicions having been triggered by the allusion in Hosea). The ancient story about Jacob and Esau was silenced and changed almost beyond recognition, but it influenced Perez and Zerah's birth story, in which we still detect traces of the original tale about Jacob and Esau.

Though the authoritative story no longer blames Jacob with any act of deceit in his mother's womb, the biblical writers did not manage to banish the ancient tradition entirely and it continued to make its way, told and retold, for generations. The rejected tradition surfaced not only in Hosea but in the words of other prophets, too, who mined the Pentateuch's stories for meaningful material with which to educate their listeners. Those prophets blamed the people of Israel with deceitful behavior reminiscent of Jacob's. When a prophet cried out " ... Though I know that you are treacherous, that you were called a rebel from the womb ..." (Isa 48:8), he meant that Jacob's name and perfidious nature were decided by his iniquitous deeds in his mother's womb, when he rebelled against his brother's authority. The prophecy in Jeremiah 9:3–5, too, contains an echo of this ancient explanation of Jacob's name:

    3 Beware, every man of his friend!
      Trust not even a brother!
    For every brother acts deceitfully ['aqov ya'aqov],
      every friend is base in his dealings.
    4 One man cheats the other,
      they will not speak truth;
    They have trained their tongues to speak falsely,
      they wear themselves out working iniquity.
    5 You dwell in the midst of treachery,
      in their treachery they refuse to heed Me, declares the

Jeremiah, wanting to illustrate the rampant depravity and deceit he observed among the people, called upon the memory of Jacob and Esau. Not only friends can't be trusted, he says: beware of even your brother!

Let us return to Genesis where, we now know, a tradition about a prebirth act of deviousness was replaced by a tamer one that admitted a struggle from which Esau emerged the winner, the firstborn of Isaac and Rebekah. With the installation of this more palatable tradition, the transfer of the firstborn rights from Esau to Jacob was deferred until the next scene in the patriarch's biography, to which we now turn.

The episode begins with the words "When the boys grew up" (25:27). As usual, the Bible skips the years between birth and early adulthood (cf. Gen 4:1–2, about Cain and Abel). To indicate their having reached adulthood the storyteller relies on distinguishing features that characterize the brothers' individual natures: "Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a blameless man who stayed in camp" (v 27). The characterizations are formally symmetric, each consisting of three elements in which the first is the brother's name and the third his work-sphere: Esau the hunter is "a man of the outdoors," while Jacob "dwelled in tents," an allusion to his being a shepherd (cf. what was told of Jabal in Gen 4:20: "he was the ancestor of those who dwell in tents and amidst herds [lit., "tent and livestock dwellers"]"). No symmetry exists, however, between the central elements: Esau was "a skillful hunter," whereas Jacob was "blameless." This was noticed by the writer of the apocryphal Jubilees, a book written in the second century b.c.e. that retells the stories of Genesis and Exodus, who added a derogatory characteristic to Esau to balance the positive one given Jacob: "Jacob was a blameless and upright man while Esau was ruthless, a man of the field, and hairy; and Jacob stayed by the tents" (19:13).

This desire to grant Jacob a certificate of blamelessness should attract our attention. In a moment, the fateful story of the selling of the birthright—one of the two watershed scenes in Jacob's life—will commence. The narrator, it seems clear, is trying to erase any impression of Jacob as a cheater, and to prepare us to read the next story as he wants us to.


Excerpted from Jacob by YAIR ZAKOVITCH Copyright © 2012 by Yair Zakovitch. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Israel Finkelstein
Zakovitch draws a colorful picture of the complex and enigmatic patriarch, whose story is essential for understanding the traditions of ancient Hebrews regarding their early days. This is an irreplaceable, must-read book for whoever is interested in the Hebrew Bible and the history of ancient Israel.—Israel Finkelstein, author of The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts

Meet the Author

Yair Zakovitch is Emeritus Father Takeji Otsuki Professor of Bible, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Professor of Jewish Peoplehood, Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. He is author of numerous commentaries and monographs on the Hebrew Bible, and co-author (with Avigdor Shinan) of two Israeli bestsellers. He lives in Israel.

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