Israel Drazin

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

The Bible says much about Jacob, a lot of which seems to be negative. Virtually all if not all is obscure and can therefore if one is so moved, be interpreted to depict Jacob in a positive or negative manner. Here are examples of just some of the many obscurities.

  • Jacob is the third of the patriarchs. Why are there no more than three? Is it because none of Jacob’s sons was that good to merit this position?
  • Why aren’t there only two? What did Isaac do to merit being a patriarch?
  • Why are both Esau and King David said to 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 called Jacob”? Jewish tradition, but not the Torah, asserts that Jacob was trying to stop his twin from being the firstborn. Is this what the Bible is indicating? Does it make any sense that an unborn embryo has these thought and is sufficiently 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,” and the Bible is stressing that Jacob fought to obtain the birthright even before he was born. But ei-c-b also means “detained, “delayed,” “held up.” The name may simply and 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,” an active personality, while Jacob is portrayed as “a quiet man, dwelling in tents,” seemingly passive and, as we will see, plotting. Doesn’t this initial depiction of Jacob seem to be derogatory? The rabbis said that he stayed home to study, but the Torah does not even imply this.
  • What did Jacob gain when he gave his brother Esau food for his birthright? Did Esau have the power to give up his birthright? What is a birthright? Apparently, Jacob was interested in obtaining the promise God gave to Abraham of a good future for him and his descendants, Neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Esau had the power to cause God to obey their will and give the blessing as they wanted. Only God had the power to do what He wanted to do. At most, these three could petition God, 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?
  • When Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel was barren and saw that her sister had many children, she begged her husband to pray to God for her that she have a child. Jacob became extremely angry at 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. In fact, his birth was the result of Isaac’s prayer.
  • Jacob’s name is changed to Israel twice in the Torah, in 32:29 and 35:10. Why is he still called Jacob after the change? All other biblical figures use the new name when their name is changed. Why is Jacob different?
  • One of the Bible’s most famous narratives about Jacob is Jacob’s wrestling with a stranger (Genesis 32:25–33). The Torah is unclear whether this stranger is a human, an angel, or part of a dream. He is identified as “a man” in verse 25. Yet, in verses 29 and 31, Scripture calls him Elohim, which could denote an angel, as in Judges 13:22, or a human of some distinction, as in Exodus 22:7. Hosea 12:4–5, Genesis Rabbah, the Aramaic translations Neophyti and Pseudo-Jonathan identify the man as an angel with the appearance of a man. What happened here?
  • Maimonides recognizes that it is impossible to wrestle with an angel, and explains the encounter as a dream. Abrabanel, in the fifteenth century, criticizes Maimonides. He says that the Torah notes that the angel hit Jacob and he limped when he awoke. If this was just a dream, Abrabanel claims, Jacob should not have limped. My father Rabbi Dr. Nathan Drazin explained that psychology has recognized that some dreams can be so traumatic that the dreamer can feel its affects after wakening. Also, he continued, the Torah does not say that Jacob limped for the rest of his life.
  • In Genesis 28:20-21, Jacob makes two vows while leaving home, sleeps during the journey to his mother’s brother’s house, and has a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven. One is very puzzling. Also, there is no indication that he kept the second vow. In the first, he vowed when he awakened from the dream: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in the way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiments to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God.” In addition to making y-h-v-h his God only if He does certain favorable things for him, Jacob added a promise that if the conditions are fulfilled he will give God a tenth of all that he acquires – but there is no indication of Jacob ever giving God a tenth of all he acquired. Does it make sense that Jacob would accept God only if God fulfilled certain conditions? Can/should we do the same? Why is the Torah silent about the giving of the tenth?
  • The Aramaic translation of the Five Books of Moses Pseudo Jonathan, in which the author or authors translated the Hebrew into Aramaic and added comments, criticized Jacob for not keeping his promise of giving God a tenth of all he acquired. Specifically, the author(s) condemned Jacob who had more than ten children for not devoting one of them (Levi) as a priest. The absence of information about the fulfillment of the promise of giving a tenth can be considered one of the multitude of biblical obscurities. Is it fair or even logical for the targumist to berate Jacob for a biblical obscurity, an argument based on silence?
  • Is Pseudo Jonathan hinting at an idea that when one is supposed to do something but does not do it, it will get done by some other means, for the tribe of Levi was later assigned work in the temples and was given cities throughout Canaan among the other tribes to be teachers of the other tribes?
  • In 35:3-4, Jacob tells his family that because God “answered me in the day of my distress and was with me in the way I went,” he and the family are now going to Beth-el where he will build an altar to God and bury all the family idols that they have with them. Is this a fulfillment of the conditional vow he made in 28:20-21 that if God takes care of him while he is away from home, “then shall the Lord be my God”? Doesn’t the reason he gives for going to Beth-el seem to indicate this? Also, Beth-el was the place where he made the conditional vow mentioned in 28:20-21. Did Jacob and his family worship the idols he was now burying during the past twenty years he lived with his mother’s brother Laban? If it is not because of his vow, why was it only now that he is collecting the idols from his family and burying them? Why is he burying them instead of destroying them – burial is a respectful way of handling items that you no longer respect entirely but still think they have some sanctity.
  • Why didn’t Jacob take the relatively short trip to the burial site where Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and Rebekah were buried and where he wanted to be buried himself with Leah?
  • Remarkably, after the experiences of his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac in having difficulties because they gave the divine blessing of a joyous future to a second son, and after he himself suffering for twenty years exile because of the same situation, he repeated it showing preference to his the younger son Joseph which resulted in Joseph’s absence from home for twenty years during which time Jacob mourned thinking he was dead. And he continued the practice on his death bed when despite the protest of Joseph, he gave a preferred blessing to his second son. Why is it that the Bible preferred a younger son over a first-born for many generations? Are scholars correct in maintaining that this was a rejection of the practice still current in England until the recent past known as primogenitor, the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child, especially the feudal rule by which the whole real estate of passed to the eldest son?
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.