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Jacob or Ya'akov, (יַעֲקֹב "Holder of the heel", Standard Hebrew Yaʿaqov, Tiberian Hebrew Yaʿăqōḇ; Arabic يعقوب Yaʿqūb), later known as Israel (יִשְׂרָאֵל "Prince with God", Standard Hebrew Yisraʾel, Tiberian Hebrew Yiśrāʾēl; Arabic اسرائيل Isrāīl) is a biblical patriarch. His story is told in the Book of Genesis.

Jacob was continually praised by God, and never criticized. In fact, he is the only person in Scripture whom God said he "loved". (Malachi 1:2–3, "...I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau...")

He stole the birthrights from his brother Esau, and his wife Rachel from his uncle Laban. God later renamed Jacob to Israel after wrestling with an angel (Genesis 32:23-30), and he would become the father of the Israelites.



Jacob was probably born at Lahai-roi, twenty years after Isaac and Rebekah were married, at which time his father was sixty (Gen. 25:26), and Abraham one hundred and sixty years old. Like his father, Jacob was of a quiet and gentle disposition because, the Hebrew tells us, he was an ish tam, which means "simple" or "pure" in the sense of a "perfect simplicity" . Jacob dwelt "in tents", interpreted as a mark of his studiousness.

Jacob was the second born of the twin sons of Isaac, by Rebekah. During the pregnancy, "the children struggled together within her", (Genesis 25:22). When Rebekah questioned God about the tumult, she was told that two very different nations were in her womb, and the elder would serve the younger. Later, Rebekah remembered this, but Isaac forgot it.

Jacob was favored by his mother for his honesty. His father, Isaac, favored Esau, who was "a man of the fields and a cunning hunter", his father saw him as the one who could step into tribal leadership when Isaac could no longer lead. (Genesis 25:29–34).

Birthright blessing

According to the Bible, when Isaac was 136 years of age (60 at Jacob's birth + Jacob's age of 76 = 136), Rebekah learned that Isaac was about to give his blessing to the "wrong" son, Esau. (Genesis 27). She thought Isaac's choice for both the birthright blessing of material inheritance (property), and the Abrahamic blessing of the Land and a Seed (bloodline, leadership), should bless "all the families of the earth."

The birthright secured to him who possessed it:

  • superior rank in his family (Gen. 49:3);
  • a double portion of the paternal inheritance (Deut. 21:17);
  • the priestly office in the family (Num. 8:17–19);

The Abrahamic blessing secured to him who possessed it:

  • the promise of the seed in which all nations of the earth were to be blessed (Gen. 22:18).

Since the Lord had said that Jacob was the one chosen to have these blessings, and since Esau had "despised" the birthright blessing (Genesis 25:34, "Esau despised his birthright"), trading it for a bowl of soup when--as the tribal chief's favored son--he could have simply walked to another tent for a meal. And since Esau had already married two pagan women, Rebekah knew that it would be a terrible miscarriage of justice, and a terrible distortion of the faith of Abraham, to give the Abrahamic blessing to Esau.

A woman couldn't directly confront a tribal chief, so Rebekah decided to disguise Jacob as Esau, so that he could go to the blind Isaac and get the blessings due him before Esau arrived to get them. Jacob objected (Genesis 27:12), saying his father might detect the disguise and curse him. But Rebekah told him not to worry, she would take any curse. This was due to his sincerity; she knew he was not able to fend for himself, and needed some way of making Isaac do what God had said to do many years before.

In the event, however, Isaac only gave Jacob the birthright blessing of material inheritance, and did not mention any aspect of the Abrahamic blessing.

Then, when Esau arrived to receive his blessing, the deception became known, and Esau and Isaac showed their contempt for Jacob by falsely accusing him of taking a blessing that did not rightly belong to him, and called him a supplanter, when it was Esau who had supplanted Jacob by struggling out of the womb first.

The evidence that Isaac knew what he was supposed to have done with the blessings--both of them--is that he then calls Jacob to him and gives him the Abrahamic blessing! (Genesis 28:1–4).

The full Abrahamic blessing was delivered directly by God to Jacob as he traveled to Haran in Padan-aram to find a wife. This is the blessing God gave Jacob:

"And, behold, the Lord stood above [the ladder], and said,

'I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of'." (Genesis 28:13–15)

Thus God put his seal on Jacob's divine right of the inheritance of the birthright and the Abrahamic blessing by giving them to him in person.


After this blessing, Jacob was stunned and joyous, and worshipped God. Then he continued the journey to find a wife among his relatives. Unguided, he arrived in Haran -- for the location of Haran, see here -- and found the family of Laban, his mother's brother. (28). There he met Rachel (29) and burst into tears: He had survived the journey of hundreds of miles and found his cousin, Rachel. He asked for her to wife, but Laban would not consent to give Jacob his daughter in marriage until he had served seven years; but to Jacob these years "seemed but a few days, for the love he had to her".

But when the seven years were expired, Laban craftily deceived Jacob, and gave him his older daughter, Leah. In the morning, when Jacob discovered the switch and complained, Laban told him "fulfill her week." That is, Jacob could have Rachel after he gave a week of "honeymoon" to Leah (Genesis 29:27–28). And that was on the condition that Jacob stay and serve another seven years for Rachel.

Some question why Laban was so cruel to Jacob. The Bible shows us that when Abraham wanted a bride for Isaac, he sent a servant with a well-supplied retinue of servants and camels and gifts for the bride of silver and gold and clothing, and "precious" gifts for her family (24). Then many years later, a man named Jacob comes out of the wilderness with nothing but the staff in his hand, and claims to be the son of wealthy Rebekah and Isaac, and the grandson of fabulously wealthy Abraham. So Laban didn't forbid the match, but he extracted a promise of seven years labor for Rachel--in advance of the wedding. And switched brides. And extracted another seven years for Rachel. It is not clear from the Bible if Jacob married Rachel at the end of the second lot of 7 years or before them. Around the time that Joseph was born (after the 14 years had been served), Jacob desired to return to "mine own place and to my country", but at the entreaty of Laban he tarried yet six years with him, tending his flocks (31:41). Laban had begged him to stay, since "the Lord hath blessed me for thy sake". But when God warned Jacob to leave, and Jacob noted that Laban's sons were hostile to him, Jacob felt it was time to return home and establish his "own house". He then set out with his family and property "to go to Isaac his father in the land of Canaan" (Genesis 31:18).

Laban was furious when he heard that Jacob had set out three days earlier on his journey--really a flight to preserve his life and property. So he pursued after Jacob, overtaking him in seven days. But the night before he caught up with Jacob, God spoke to Laban in a dream and said:

"Take heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad." (Genesis 31:24)

So Laban was constrained from his original plan of taking all Jacob had, including wives and children, and perhaps killing Jacob if he resisted--which was the implication of Laban's sons' threatenings. So instead of a battle, there was a conference. Laban kept starting to explode, then regained his composure. Jacob told Laban that after all his labor, "Except the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the fear of Isaac, had been with me, surely thou hadst sent me away now empty. God hath seen mine affliction and the labour of my hands, and rebuked thee yesternight." (Genesis 31:42)

Laban's response confirmed that. He said, "These daughters are my daughters, and these children are my children, and these cattle are my cattle, and all that thou seest is mine: and what can I do this day unto these my daughters, or unto their children which they have born? Now therefore come thou, let us make a covenant, I and thou; and let it be for a witness between me and thee." (Genesis 31:43–44)

After offering worship to God, and a sacrifice, and having a meal together, they tarried all night. And early in the morning, a chastened Laban kissed his daughters and grandchildren goodbye, and returned home:

Return to the Promised Land

"And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him", perhaps to congratulate him on his great 20-year victory over evil through his faith in the God of Abraham. He called the name of the place Mahanaim, i.e., "the double camp", probably his own camp and that of the angels. Here he saw the angels; previously he'd had a dream and seen the angels of God "ascending and descending on the ladder whose top reached to Heaven" (28:12).

As he neared the Promised Land, Jacob sent a message ahead to his brother, Esau. His scouts returned with the news that Esau was coming to meet Jacob with an army of 400 men. In great agony of mind Jacob prepared for the worst. He felt that he must now depend only on God, and he betook himself to Him in earnest prayer, then sent on before him a munificent present to Esau, "a present to my lord Esau from thy servant Jacob".

Jacob then transported his family and flocks back across the ford Jabbok, then crossed over towards the direction from which Esau would come, spending the night alone, in communion with God. While thus engaged, a mysterious man appeared to Jacob and wrestled with him until daybreak, when the man asked to be let go. Jacob refused to do so until the man blessed him; and the man, after asking his name, blessed him with the name Israel (Hebrew ישׂראל Yisra'el or Yiśrā’ēl, meaning "one who has struggled with God"). Jacob then asked the man's name; but the man refused to answer. Afterwords Jacob named the place Pnei-el (Penuel, meaning face-god), saying "I have seen [either 'a god' or 'God'] face to face and lived."

Some commentators believe that there is some suggestion that Israel may be another name for Jacob's father Isaac (Amos 7:9, 16) but it is far more common to take Israel to refer only to Jacob (Gen 32:22–28, especially 28). Since only Jacob was named "Israel" in Genesis, this is a safe assumption.

Interpretations about the exact nature of the figure Jacob wrestled with are varied; some believe it to be God himself, or an aspect of God, while others believe it to be an angel or some kind of spirit.

After the night of wrestling with the mysterious figure, Jacob sees that Esau is coming. So he sets his wives and sons in order, with his most beloved Rachel and Joseph in the read, and himself in front (Genesis 33:3)

Esau came forth and met him; but his spirit of revenge had been somewhat appeased by the gifts. But Jacob refused to travel with Esau, or to allow any of Esau's men to accompany him. And shortly thereafter, Esau moved all his family and belongings far to the south of the Promised Land. Jacob settled in Succot for a time, then while journeying to Ephrath (the Canaanitish name of Bethlehem), Rachel died in giving birth to her second son Benjamin (35:16–20), about six years after the birth of Joseph.

Jacob then pitched his tent near Shechem, (33:18); but at length, under divine directions, he moved to Bethel, where he made an altar unto God (35:6,7), and where God appeared to him, formally changed his name to Israel, and renewed the Adamic, the Noahic, and the Abrahamic covenants with him, as described above.

After the appearance of God at Bethel--and all his family there to witness it--Jacob reached the old family residence at Mamre, the dwelling place of Isaac.

Finding Joseph

Isaac died at the age of 180, 44 years after he blessed Jacob and sent him to Haran to find a wife, and at the time that Joseph (age 30) was raised from prison in Egypt and made ruler of that land. This means that Jacob and his family had been back in the Promised Land about 24 years at the time of Isaac's death. Esau and Jacob buried their father in the burial place of Abraham and Sarah and Rebekah (35:27–29).

Long before this, Jacob had been deeply grieved by the disappearance of his beloved son, Joseph, through the jealousy of his brothers (37:33). The rest of Genesis follows the story of the famine, and the successive goings down into Egypt to buy corn (Genesis 42), which led to the discovery of the long-lost Joseph, and the patriarch's going down with all his household, numbering about seventy souls (Exodus 1:5; Deuteronomy 10:22), to sojourn in the land of Goshen.

In Egypt, Jacob, "after being strangely tossed about on a very rough ocean, found at last a tranquil harbour, where all the best affections of his nature were gently exercised and largely unfolded". At length the end of his course draws nigh, and he summons his sons to his bedside that he may bless them. Among his last words he repeats the story of Rachel's death, although 51 years had passed since that event took place, as tenderly as if it had happened only yesterday; and when "he had made an end of charging his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost" (49:33) at the age of 147 (Genesis 47:28).

At that time, Joseph was about 57, having been about 40 when Jacob was 130 (at the time he and his family arrived in Egypt). This means Joseph was born when Jacob was 90, at the end of the 14 years of service for Rachel, which means his father was 76 when he arrived in Haran, and not a youth as many suppose.

Jacob's body was embalmed and carried with great pomp into the land of Canaan, and buried beside his wife Leah in the Cave of Machpelah, according to his dying charge.

See also: History of ancient Israel and Judah

Initial text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897. Please update.

Jacob's sons

Jacob had twelve sons.

By his first wife Leah, Jacob had Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and his only daughter Dinah.

By Bilhah, handmaiden of Rachel, he had Dan and Naphtali.

By Zilpah, handmaiden of Leah, he had Gad and Asher.

Finally, by his favourite wife Rachel, he had Joseph and Benjamin.

Ten of these founded ten of the twelve Tribes of Israel. However with Levi and Joseph it is a bit more complicated. The Tribe of Levi were priests, and as such had no lands. In order to make up the number of tribes to twelve, where the tribes are listed without Levi, there is no Tribe of Joseph, instead there are listed with the other ten the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, Joseph's two sons by his Egyptian wife Asenath.

Jacob in Islam and the Nation of Islam

In Arabic Jacob is known as Yaqub. He is regarded as a prophet in Islam.

In the mythology of the black supremacist movement the Nation of Islam, Jacob's name is spelled Yakub. Instead of being seen as the father of the twelve tribes of Israel he is presented as an evil scientist who created the white race by genetic experimentation on an isolated group of the original black peoples of the world, conducted on the island of Patmos. Breeding this white race took six hundred years. Jacob's progeny are destined by God to be the ruling race of the world for an allotted period of six thousand years, before the original black race regains dominance, a process that is supposed to have begun in 1914. Originating with Wallace Fard Muhammad, the prophet of Nation of Islam, the sources of this idiosycratic theory have yet to be fully traced, but probably derive from anti-Semitic ideas of the time according to which Jews are an "artificial race". This notion is then generalised to white people, of which Jews are perceived as a sub-group.

Last updated: 10-11-2005 14:36:13
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