Israel Drazin

What we don’t know about Jacob, the third patriarch

Much about Jacob in the Torah is obscure. This is good because the Torah wants us to think about esoteric subjects. We enjoy them and learn much from our thoughts when we think about them. The following is a sample of the obscure items.

  • Jacob is the third of the patriarchs. Why are there no more than three? Were Jacob’s sons not good enough to merit this position?
  • Why are there not only two? What did Isaac do to merit being a patriarch?
  • Why does the Torah mention that Esau and King David have red hair?
  • What is the significance of the statements that Rebekah had twins, the first to leave the womb was Esau, “and after that, his brother came out, and his hand had hold of Esau’s heel, and his name was Jacob”? Jewish tradition asserts that Jacob tried to stop his twin from being the firstborn. Is this what the Bible is indicating? Does it make sense that an unborn embryo can have a thought and be able to act upon it? Is this initial introduction to Jacob rational? Does it demean Jacob?
  • The same tradition focuses on Jacob’s name, saying that one meaning of ei-c-b, the Hebrew root of Jacob, is “heel.” The tradition is that Jacob fought to obtain the birthright even before birth. He was trying to hold Esau back from being the firstborn. But ei-c-b also means “detained, “delayed,” and “held up.” The name may more realistically suggest that Jacob was the second twin, delayed by Esau being born first.
  • Esau is described as a “cunning hunter, a man of the field,” and an active personality, while Jacob is portrayed as “a quiet man, dwelling in tents,” seemingly passive and plotting, as we will see. Does this initial depiction of Jacob seem to be derogatory? Is the depiction of the patriarch being passive a good role model for his descendants? Shouldn’t Jews be active in trying to improve themselves and society? The rabbis attempted to justify the passivity by saying he stayed home to study, but this implication is not in the Torah.
  • What did Jacob gain when he gave his brother Esau food as payment for his birthright? Did Esau have the power to give up his birthright? What is a birthright? According to tradition, Jacob was interested in obtaining God’s promise of a good future for Abraham and his descendants. Neither Abraham, Isaac, nor Esau had the power to cause God to obey their will and give the blessing they wanted. Only God had the power to do what He wanted to do. At most, these three could petition God and beg God to do what they wanted done. This is all that Isaac’s blessing could do. So, what did Jacob acquire for the soup that he gave Esau?
  • Did Jacob act appropriately when he deceived his dad Isaac into thinking he was Esau when he wanted Isaac to bless him rather than Esau? Did he think he was correcting his dad because Isaac should have given him the birthright? Isn’t this an example of hubris?
  • After hearing Esau’s promise to kill him when their father Isaac dies, Jacob escapes to his uncle’s house, the brother of his mother, to avoid Esau killing him. He stayed with his uncle Laban for some twenty years. Why so long? Did he imagine that it would take Esau twenty years to cool down? Is this reasonable?
  • Genesis 32:2-3 relates an obscure event that occurred while Jacob was traveling home. Angels met him at Mahaneh Elohim, “God’s Camp,” with Camp being singular. The angels said nothing to him and did nothing. What is the Torah telling us? What was the angels’ mission?
  • When Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel was barren and saw that her sister had many children, she pleaded with her husband to pray to God for her that she have a child. Jacob became extremely angry with her and said he lacked the power to do so (30:1 and 2). Why did he act this way to a woman he loved? Did he no longer love her? What he said was apparently untrue. His father, Isaac, prayed for his wife Rebekah, and she conceived. His birth was the result of Isaac’s prayer. Is there some irony here?
  • There are different rabbinical and non-rabbinical ideas concerning the origin of three prayer services daily.The Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 26b’s imaginative interpretations believes that each of the three patriarchs established one of the three services. Abraham the morning Shacharit service, Isaac the afternoon Mincha service, and Jacob the evening Ma’ari service. This notion comes from interpretations of biblical words that do not even hint at this idea. Why did some rabbis invent this notion?
  • Why is there a Jewish tradition generally accepted as accurate that erroneously describes both Ishmael, Abraham’s son, and Esau, Jacob’s son, as evil men? The Bible does not indicate that they were terrible. Ishmael attended Abraham’s burial. Isaac considered Esau a fine young man and wanted to give him the preferred blessing so that he and not Jacob would inherit God’s promise of a very favorable future for him and his descendants. Esau attended his dad’s burial with Jacob. He was justifiably angry with Jacob for stealing his blessing when the theft occurred, but when the two met, Esau kissed his brother Jacob and wished him well.
  • Why do many ancient rabbis identify Rome, whom they hated, with Esau saying literally or metaphorically that the Romans are descendants of Esau?
About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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