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Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
Events relating to a child’s birth often influenced parents in their choice of a name for the child. Isaac and Rebekah gave the second of their twin sons the name Jacob (meaning ‘to hold the heel’) because at the birth the baby Jacob’s hand took hold of the heel of the first twin, Esau (Genesis 25:24-26). When the two boys grew to adulthood, Jacob proved to be true to his name when he again took hold of what belonged to his brother, by cunningly taking from him the family birthright and the father’s blessing (Genesis 27:36).
From the beginning God made it clear that he had chosen Jacob, not Esau, as the one through whom he would fulfil his promises to Abraham. But that was no excuse for Jacob’s trickery (Genesis 25:23; Malachi 1:2; Romans 9:10-13).
The line of descent from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob was the line God used to produce the nation that became his channel of blessing to the whole world (Genesis 28:13-14). To the generations that followed, God was known as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 50:24; Exodus 3:6; Deuteronomy 1:8; Matthew 22:32; Acts 3:13). The nation descended from Jacob was commonly called Israel (after Jacob’s alternative name; Genesis 32:28), though in poetical writings it was sometimes called Jacob (Numbers 23:21; Isaiah 2:5; Isaiah 43:28; Malachi 3:6; Romans 11:26).
Building for the future
Jacob was a selfishly ambitious young man who was determined to become powerful and prosperous. By ruthless bargaining he took from Esau the right of the firstborn to become family head and receive a double portion of the inheritance (Genesis 25:27-34; see ). Later, by lies and deceit, he gained his father’s blessing This confirmed the benefits of the birthright, in relation to both the family and the nation that was to grow out of it (Genesis 27:1-29; see ). (Concerning the lesser blessings given to the elder brother see .)
To escape his brother’s anger, Jacob fled north. His excuse was that he was going to Paddan-aram to look for a wife among his parent’s relatives (Genesis 27:41-46; Genesis 28:1-5). Before Jacob left Canaan, God graciously confirmed the promise given to Abraham, and assured Jacob that one day he would return to Canaan (Genesis 28:10-22).
It was twenty years before Jacob returned. In Paddan-aram he fell in love with Rachel, younger daughter of his uncle Laban, and agreed to work seven years for Laban as the bride-price for Rachel. Laban tricked Jacob by giving him Leah, the elder daughter, instead. He then agreed to give Rachel as well, but only after Jacob agreed to work another seven years as the extra bride-price (Genesis 29:1-30).
Upon completion of the second seven years, Jacob decided to work an additional six years. His purpose was to build up his personal flocks of sheep and goats, which he considered to be compensation for Laban’s repeated trickery. There was a constant battle, as two cunning dealers tried to outdo each other (Genesis 30:25-43; Genesis 31:41).
During these twenty years Jacob also built a large family. Leah produced several sons, but Rachel remained childless. Rachel therefore gave her maid to Jacob, so that through the maid he might produce sons whom Rachel could adopt as her own. Not to be outdone, Leah did the same. Finally Rachel produced a son, Joseph, and he became Jacob’s favourite (Genesis 29:31-35; Genesis 30:1-24). When at last Jacob and his family fled from Laban, Laban pursued them. In the end Jacob and Laban marked out a boundary between them and made a formal agreement not to attack each other again (Genesis 31).
A changed man
As he headed for Canaan, Jacob knew that if he was to live in safety he would have to put things right with Esau. Esau by this time had established a powerful clan (Edom) in neighbouring regions to the south-east. Jacob was beginning to learn humility such as he had not known before and cried to God for help (Genesis 32:1-12).
God taught Jacob, through a conflict he had one night with a special messenger from God, that his proud self-confidence had to be broken if he was really to receive God’s blessing. The crisis in Jacob’s life was marked by God’s gift to him of a new name, Israel, ‘an overcomer with God’ (Genesis 32:13-32). Jacob began to change. He humbled himself before Esau and begged his forgiveness, with the result that instead of further tension and conflict between the two brothers there was friendship and cooperation (Genesis 33:1-17).
Jacob then crossed the Jordan into Canaan, where he demonstrated his faith in God’s promises by buying a piece of land. He at least now had permanent possession of part of the land God had promised to him and his descendants (Genesis 33:18-20). At Bethel God renewed his promises (Genesis 35:1-15; cf. Genesis 28:13-22). As if to emphasize that this occupancy of Canaan was by God’s grace alone, the writer of Genesis includes two shameful stories that show the unworthiness of Jacob’s family to receive God’s blessings (Genesis 34; Genesis 38). The only son of Jacob to be born in Canaan was the youngest, Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-26).
The family moved south to Hebron to be with the aged Isaac in his last few years (Genesis 35:27-28). It seems that Jacob remained there while his sons took his flocks from place to place looking for pastures (Genesis 37:14-17). Out of these circumstances came the dramatic sequence of events recorded in the long story of Joseph (see ). The outcome of that story was that Jacob and all his family moved south through Beersheba and settled in Egypt (Genesis 46:1-7; Genesis 46:26).
Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years (Genesis 47:28). Before he died, he raised Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to the same status as his own sons (Genesis 48:1-6). This was because he had given Joseph the birthright that the eldest son had lost (1 Chronicles 5:1-2; cf. Genesis 35:22). Now Joseph, through his two sons, would receive twice the inheritance of the other sons (Genesis 48:14-16; Genesis 49:26). Jacob then announced his blessing on all his sons in turn (Genesis 49:1-27; Hebrews 11:21). By insisting that his sons bury him in Canaan, he expressed his faith that Canaan would become the land of his descendants (Genesis 47:29-31; Genesis 49:28-33; cf. Genesis 46:4). His sons carried out his wish (Genesis 50:12-13).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Jacob'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/j/jacob.html. 2004.