Jacob (Hebrew, Ya’akov) the name seems to have several meanings: ja’kob, heel-catcher, supplanter, by popular etymology; but perhaps “he whom God protects” from south Arabian and Ethiopic akaba, guard, keep.
He was the younger of the twin sons, his brother Esau, born of Isaac and Rebekah. In early years Jacob showed a preference for a quiet life instead of being a hunter. He was his mother’s favorite while Isaac showed partiality toward Esau. It seems that Jacob bought Esau’s birthright, the first mention of this involves the paltry price of a mess of pottage; Jacob made use of his brother’s hunger to advance his own interests. By obtaining Esau’s birthright, Jacob would become the third Hebrew patriarch. “The birthright consisted afterward in a double portion of his father’s inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:17); but with the patriarchs it embraced the chieftainship, rule over the brethren and the entire family Jacob (Genesis 27:29), and the title to the blessing of the promise (Genesis 27:4, 27:29), which included the future possession of Canaan and covenant of fellowship with Jehovah (Genesis 28:4).”
Isaac, now aged, was about to pronounce his blessing upon Esau, his older son, which blessing acted with all the force of a modern testimony bequest. This was thwarted with the help of his mother, Rebekah; through deception Jacob personated Esau and received his father’s blessing (Genesis 27:1-29). Esau hated his brother for the deception played on him; he resolved to slay him, but waited because of the approaching death of their father. Rebekah learning of Esau’s resolve, urged Jacob to flee to her brother, Laban, in Haran; she obtained Isaac’s consent with the plea that she wished Jacob to marry on of his kinswomen, and not a daughter of a Canaan. Isaac blessed Jacob again and sent him away (Genesis 27:41-28:5).
When Jacob begun his journey to Haran it is calculated that he was seventeen years old. He stopped in Luz the first night where he was given a vision of the ladder and the ascending and descending angels. God there confirmed the promise given to his fathers and promised him protection on his journey and a safe return home. In recognition of this divine presence Jacob called the place Bethel, and made a vow, and dedicated a tenth of all that God gave him to Jehovah (Genesis 28:10-22). Arriving in Haran, Jacob met Rachel, Laban’s daughter who had made Jacob’s coming known to him. After a month Laban asked what Jacob required for his services. Jacob asked for Rachel on the conditions of seven years of services. At the end of this time, which seemed to Jacob “but a few days for the love he had for her,” Laban availed himself of the customs of the country to substitute the elder daughter, Leah. Upon the discovery of the deception, Laban excused himself by saying, “It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the first-born.” Jacob knew he had been deceived, if this was the custom of Haran Laban should have told him right away; he had worked another seven years before he got his beloved Rachel.
Leah was the mother of Jacob’s firstborn Reuben; three other son successively followed: Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel bore no children so gave Jacob her maid Bilhah who bore Dan and Naphtali. Two other sons, Gad and Asher, were born of Leah’s maid Zilpah. Leah bore two more sons, Issachar and Zebuhun, and a daughter, Dinah. At length Rachel became the mother of a son, whom she named Joseph (Genesis 29:1-30:24). After a number of years Benjamin was born. At the expiration of fourteen years, Laban induced Jacob to remain for six more, and, by a hardly honorable pretense, increased greatly in wealth. This displeased Laban, so a separation was deemed advisable (Genesis 30:25-31:16).
Departing with his family and property, Jacob set out to return to Canaan. When Laban discovered this he started to follow Jacob but God warned him not to interfere with the latter’s return. After much reproach and recrimination peace was restored, and Laban returned home (Genesis 31:17, sq.). Shortly after Laban departed, Jacob met a company of angels, and named the place after them, Mahaniam, two hosts.
Jacob sent messengers with a friendly greeting to Esau, but the returned with word that Esau was on the way to meet him with four hundred men. This caused much alarm, Jacob divided his people and flocks and herds into two companies, so if one was attacked the other might escape. Jacob also prepared a present from his substance for Esau, hoping it might pacify his brother.
There was a night that Jacob spent in prayer in which the angel of the Lord wrestled him In attestation of his power with God, through faith, his name was changed from Jacob to Israel, “wrestler of God.” His request to know the name of the person with whom he wrestled was denied him, but Jacob named the place, near Jabbok, of the remarkable event, Peniel, the face of God (Genesis 32:24, sq.).
The next morning the brothers met. Jacob saw Esau, with his army coming, and sent forward first his handmaids, then Leah and her children, and finally Rachel and Joseph. Esau’s bitterness subsided at the sight of his brother, his liberal gifts, and earnest entreaties. They embraced as brother, and maintained friendly relations the rest of their lives.
For some time Jacob remained on the other side of the Jordan, at Succoth. Then he came to Shechem, and pitched before the city of Shalem, a purchasing a plot of ground, “erected an altar, and called it El-Elohe-Israel,” Mighty one, God of Israel (Genesis 33:1-20). Here is located the well named after Jacob (John 4:6).
Jacob was brought into collision with the people of Shechem because of the violation of Dinah, and the revenge taken by her brothers, and was commanded to go and dwell in Bethel. He took the strange gods that he found in his family and buried them “under the oak which is by Shechem.” There God appeared to Jacob again and blessed him, renewing the Abrahamic covenant.
While journeying from Bethel to Ephrath his beloved Rachel died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin (Genesis 35:20). It was not too long after Jacob suffered this loss that he was afflicted by two other sorrows: Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, and the death of Isaac.
A famine hit Canaan very hard. Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to purchase grain. He kept his youngest son Benjamin with him “lest mischief should befall him.” His sons returned with a good quantity of supplies, but informed Jacob that they had been taken for spies, and could only disprove this charge by taking Benjamin to the “lord of the land.” Jacob’s credulity was greatly tested when his sons returned home with the news that “Joseph is yet alive.” Convinced of the truth of their story, however, he decides to go to see Joseph before he died. On his way to Egypt he was encouraged by a vision at Beersheba. Going onward he is received by Joseph who presented him to the Pharaoh, and he and his family are located in Goshen. (Genesis 47:1-12). It is speculated that this pharaoh was one of the powerful rulers of the splendid Twelfth Dynasty (2000-1780 BC).
After residing seventeen years in Egypt, Jacob sensed “the time drew near that Israel must die,” and, calling Joseph to him, acquainted him with the divine promise of the land of Canaan, and took from him a pledge that he would bury him with his fathers. He then adopted Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, as his own, and pronounced his benediction upon his sons. And, when Jacob made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered his feet up in the bed and “yielded up the ghost” (Genesis 49:33), at the ripe age of one hundred forty-seven years of age. Joseph took his embalmed body back to Canaan and buried it in the Cave of Machpelah (Genesis 50:1-13) containing the remains of his fathers and wife Leah.
In the aggadah, the story of Jacob is understood as being symbolic of later Hebrew history–so Esau struggling with Jacob in their mother’s womb is interpreted as the conflict between Rome and Israel (Gen.R. 63. 8). There is a consistent tendency among the rabbis to explain Jacob’s conduct in the best possible light–so Jacob’s desire for his brother’s birthright was the desire for the privilege of offering the sacrifices of the first-born. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 548-550
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 485