Study Guide

Jacob in Book of Genesis

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Given his rap sheet, it's kind of a wonder that Jacob always tops the list of favorite baby names in the U.S.

His first offense? Enticing his brother into trading his birthright for stew. Yep, lentil stew. Talk about pulling one over on your brother.

Playing Dress-Up

When Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, are in their forties, things get kind of crazy. Go reread "Chapter 27" for the lowdown. Long story short, Jacob, donned in goat skin and Esau's Sunday best, fools Isaac just long enough to secure the Super Bowl ring of blessings (27:28-29). With the masterful use of irony, the text leaves us with the impression that Isaac, knowing Esau had lost his birthright, ramps up the blessing in order to compensate. Unfortunately for him, he's unaware that he is doling out the goods to the heel-grabber himself.

If and Only If

After that whole fiasco, he still has a couple more heels to grab, and at least one of them belongs to the deity. The glass ceiling means nothing to Jacob. After getting caught by Esau (27:33), being sent on the run by his mother (on the noble mission of finding a wife who's a relative), and—could we add just a little more salt in Esau's wound?—being handed the baton of Abraham's destiny by his dad (28:1-5), Jacob camps for the night in the wilderness and ventures to make a bargain with God (28:10-22).

In a pretty sweet dream, God gives Isaac the crown jewel of promises: "Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go" (28:15 NRSV). You'd think his response would be something like "Thank you and goodnight," right? But no. Jacob says "if." If God keeps his word, plus gives him food and clothes and protection, then Jacob will agree to worship God and give him ten-percent of his revenues.

Yep, there those humans go again, bargaining with God. Why does the deity fall for Jacob's snatch and grab routine?

The Trickster

Jacob has one more heist to pull before we get a better sense of how to answer that question. He manages to use what seems like an ancient Ponzi scheme to walk away with his uncle's fortune in cattle (27:31-43).

After burning a bridge with his uncle Laban, Jacob heads home, knowing all the while that a fire-breathing Esau will likely be his welcome party (27:41; 31:17-18). Hearing the news that Esau is heading his way with 400 men, Jacob sends up an anguished prayer to God. His fear of Esau finally brings out some humility in him, as he begs for his life and the life of his family (32:6-12). And in a last-ditch effort, Jacob tries to buy Esau's forgiveness with a payload of critters (32:13-15).

He spends the night wrestling WWE-style with God in human form. This incident has inspired myriad reflections (from Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to American novelist Flannery O'Connor on what 16th century St. John of the Cross termed "the dark night of the soul."

Once Jacob pins the mysterious stranger securely in the pretzel hold, he threatens him, saying, "I will not let you go unless you bless me" (32:26 NRSV). How's that for bold? Jacob exits the ring with a hip out of joint but wearing the victor's belt, since he literally wrests from God a blessing that not even Big Daddy Isaac could have given him.

Remember how important Jacob's name was at the beginning? Well, think about it now. His fought-for blessing turns out to be a new name, Israel, meaning "the one who strives with God." God tells Jacob that it's because "you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed" (32:28 NRSV). Now that's a nametag you want to be seen wearing.

P.S. For an alternate version of how Jacob gets his new name, just skip ahead a few pages in Genesis to 35:9-15.

Why Put Up With This Guy?

Now we have a lead on the question of why God puts up with this guy whose moral compass always points to himself. Hint: God likes wranglers. Striving and prevailing and general willingness to wrangle, especially with God, is respected by the deity. God seems to savor a good challenge.

Remember Lot, who chose the easy way out? Yeah, things didn't turn out too well for him. And then there are Adam and Eve, who also challenged God. If you think of that as "The Rise" instead of "The Fall," things worked out pretty well for them (and us).

Playing Favorites

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree when it comes to Jacob. As his parents before him played favorites, so does Jacob. First, he does so with his wives, always preferring the younger Rachel, whose beauty moved him to love at first sight, to her sister Leah (29:10-11). He continues the trend with his children, placing Rachel's eldest born, Joseph, on such a high pedestal that knocking him off becomes his brothers' obsession (40:2-4).

Humans aren't the only ones who play favorites in Genesis. When humans do it, we can't help but think of God, who's always looking after his faves, Old Abe, Isaac, and Jake.

But have they made it onto the party train yet? At the end of Jacob's life, the number of descendants is enough to build a nice sandcastle (22:17; 32:12), but his family is living in Egypt, forced again to leave home sweet home by yet another famine (45:9-11). Still, Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, concludes his life on a noble note as a wise, elderly father whose descendants will populate the twelve tribes. Not too shabby.

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