Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, April 20th, 2024
the Third Week after Easter
StudyLight.org has pledged to help build churches in Uganda. Help us with that pledge and support pastors in the heart of Africa.
Click here to join the effort!

Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Search for…
Prev Entry
Next Entry
Jacob's Well
Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

JACOB. 1. Son of Isaac and Rebekah. His name is probably an elliptical form of an original Jakob’el , ‘God follows’ ( i.e. ‘rewards’), which has been found both on Babylonian tablets and on the pylons of the temple of Karnak. By the time of Jacob this earlier history of the word was overlooked or forgotten, and the name was understood as meaning ‘one who takes by the heel, and thus tries to trip up or supplant’ ( Genesis 25:26; Genesis 27:36 , Hosea 12:3 ). His history is recounted in Genesis 25:21 to Genesis 50:13 , the materials being unequally contributed from three sources. For the details of analysis see Dillmann, Com ., and Driver, LOT [Note: OT Introd. to the Literature of the Old Testament.] 3 , p. 16. P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] supplies but a brief outline; J [Note: Jahwist.] and E [Note: Elohist.] are closely interwoven, though a degree of original independence is shown by an occasional divergence in tradition, which adds to the credibility of the joint narrative.

Jacob was born in answer to prayer (Genesis 25:21 ), near Beersheba; and the later rivalry between Israel and Edom was thought of as prefigured in the strife of the twins in the womb ( Genesis 25:22 f., 2Es 3:16; Esther 6:8-10 Esther 6:8-10 , Romans 9:11-13 ). The differences between the two brothers, each contrasting with the other in character and habit, were marked from the beginning. Jacob grew up a ‘quiet man’ ( Genesis 25:27 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ), a shepherd and herdsman. Whilst still at home, he succeeded in overreaching Esau in two ways. He took advantage of Esau’s hunger and heedlessness to secure the birthright, which gave him precedence even during the father’s lifetime ( Genesis 43:33 ), and afterwards a double portion of the patrimony ( Deuteronomy 21:17 ), with probably the domestic priesthood. At a later time, after careful consideration ( Genesis 27:11 ff.), he adopted the device suggested by his mother, and, allaying with ingenious falsehoods ( Genesis 27:20 ) his father’s suspicion, intercepted also his blessing. Isaac was dismayed, but instead of revoking the blessing confirmed it ( Genesis 27:33-37 ), and was not able to remove Esau’s bitterness. In both blessings later political and geographical conditions are reflected. To Jacob is promised Canaan, a well-watered land of fields and vineyards ( Deuteronomy 11:14; Deuteronomy 33:28 ), with sovereignty over its peoples, even those who were ‘brethren’ or descended from the same ancestry as Israel ( Genesis 19:37 f., 2 Samuel 8:12; 2 Samuel 8:14 ). Esau is consigned to the dry and rocky districts of Idumæa, with a life of war and plunder; but his subjection to Jacob is limited in duration ( 2 Kings 8:22 ), if not also in completeness ( Genesis 27:40 f., which points to the restlessness of Edom).

Of this successful craft on Jacob’s part the natural result on Esau’s was hatred and resentment, to avoid which Jacob left his home to spend a few days (Genesis 27:44 ) with his uncle in Haran. Two different motives are assigned. JE [Note: Jewish Encyclopedia.] represents Rebekah as pleading with her son his danger from Esau; but P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] represents her as suggesting to Isaac the danger that Jacob might marry a Hittite wife ( Genesis 27:46 ). The traditions appear on literary grounds to have come from different sources; but there is no real difficulty in the narrative as it stands. Not only are man’s motives often complex; but a woman would be likely to use different pleas to a husband and to a son, and if a mother can counsel her son to yield to his fear, a father would be more alive to the possibility of an outbreak of folly. On his way to Haran, Jacob passed a night at Bethel (cf. Genesis 13:3 f.), and his sleep was, not unnaturally, disturbed by dreams; the cromlechs and stone terraces of the district seemed to arrange themselves into a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, whilst Jehovah Himself bent over him ( Genesis 28:13 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ) with loving assurances. Reminded thus of the watchful providence of God, Jacob’s alarms were transmuted into religions awe. He marked the sanctity of the spot by setting up as a sacred pillar the boulder on which his head had rested, and undertook to dedicate a tithe of all his gains. Thence forward Bethel became a famous sanctuary, and Jacob himself visited it again ( Genesis 35:1; cf. Hosea 12:4 ).

Arrived at Haran, Jacob met in his uncle his superior for a time in the art of overreaching. By a ruse Laban secured fourteen years’ service (Genesis 29:27 , Hosea 12:12 , Jdt 8:26 ), to which six years more were added, under an ingenious arrangement in which the exacting uncle was at last outwitted ( Genesis 30:31 ff.). At the end of the term Jacob was the head of a household conspicuous even in those days for its magnitude and prosperity. Quarrels with Laban and his sons ensued, but God is represented as intervening to turn their arbitrary actions ( Genesis 31:7 ff.) to Jacob’s advantage. At length he took flight whilst Laban was engaged in sheep-shearing, and, re-crossing the Euphrates on his way home, reached Gilead. There he was overtaken by Laban, whose exasperation was increased by the fact that his teraphim , or household gods, had been taken away by the fugitives, Rachel’s hope in stealing them being to appropriate the good fortune of her fathers. The dispute that followed was closed by an alliance of friendship, the double covenant being sealed by setting up in commemoration a cairn with a solitary boulder by its side ( Genesis 31:45 f., Genesis 31:52 ), and by sharing a sacrificial meal. Jacob promised to treat Laban’s daughters with special kindness, and both Jacob and Laban undertook to respect the boundary they had agreed upon between the territories of Israel and of the Syrians. Thereupon Laban returned home; and Jacob continued his journey to Canaan, and was met by the angels of God ( Genesis 32:1 ), as if to congratulate and welcome him as he approached the Land of Promise.

Jacobs next problem was to conciliate his brother, who was reported to be advancing against him with a large body of men (Genesis 32:6 ). Three measures were adopted. When a submissive message elicited no response, Jacob in dismay turned to God, though without any expression of regret for the deceit by which he had wronged his brother, and proceeded to divide his party into two companies, in the hope that one at least would escape, and to try to appease Esau with a great gift. The next night came the turning-point in Jacob’s life. Hitherto he had been ambitious, steady of purpose, subject to genuine religious feeling, but given up almost wholly to the use of crooked methods. Now the higher elements in his nature gain the ascendency; and henceforth, though he is no less resourceful and politic, his fear of God ceases to be spoilt by intervening passions or a competing self-confidence. Alone on the banks of the Jabbok ( Wady Zerka ), full of doubt as to the fate that would overtake him, he recognizes at last that his real antagonist is not Esau but God. All his fraud and deceit had been pre-eminently sin against God; and what he needed supremely was not reconciliation with his brother, but the blessing of God. So vivid was the impression, that the entire night seemed to be spent in actual wrestling with a living man. His thigh was sprained in the contest; but since his will was so fixed that he simply would not be refused, the blessing came with the daybreak ( Genesis 32:28 ). His name was changed to Israel , which means etymologically ‘God perseveres,’ but was applied to Jacob in the sense of ‘Perseverer with God’ ( Hosea 12:3 f.). And as a name was to a Hebrew a symbol of nature ( Isaiah 1:26; Isaiah 61:3 ), its change was a symbol of a changed character; and the supplanter became the one who persevered in putting forth his strength in communion with God, and therefore prevailed. His brother received him cordially ( Isaiah 33:4 ), and offered to escort him during the rest of the journey. The offer was courteously declined, ostensibly because of the difference of pace between the two companies, but probably also with a view to incur no obligation and to risk no rupture. Esau returned to Seir; and Jacob moved on to a suitable site for an encampment, which received the name of Succoth, from the booths that were erected on it ( Isaiah 33:17 ). It was east of the Jordan, and probably not far from the junction with the Jabbok. The valley was suitable for the recuperation of the flocks and herds after so long a journey; and it is probable, from the character of the buildings erected, as well as from the fact that opportunity must be given for Dinah, one of the youngest of the children ( Isaiah 30:21 ), to reach a marriageable age ( Isaiah 34:2 ff.), that Jacob stayed there for several years.

After a residence of uncertain length at Succoth, Jacob crossed the Jordan and advanced to Shechem , where he purchased a plot of ground which became afterwards of special interest. Joshua seems to have regarded it as the limit of his expedition, and there the Law was promulgated and Joseph’s hones were buried ( Joshua 24:25; Joshua 24:32; cf. Acts 7:16 ); and for a time it was the centre of the confederation of the northern tribes ( 1 Kings 12:1 , 2 Chronicles 10:1 ). Again Jacob’s stay must not be measured by days; for he erected an altar ( 2 Chronicles 33:20 ) and dug a well ( John 4:6; John 4:12 ), and was detained by domestic troubles, if not of his own original intention. The troubles began with the seduction or outrage of Dinah; but the narrative that follows is evidently compacted of two traditions. According to the one, the transaction was personal, and involved a fulfilment by Shechem of a certain unspecified condition; according to the other, the entire clan was involved on either side, and the story is that of the danger of the absorption of Israel by the local Canaanites and its avoidance through the interposition of Simeon and Levi. But most of the difficulties disappear on the assumption that Shechem’s marriage was, as was natural, expedited, a delight to himself and generally approved amongst his kindred ( Genesis 34:19 ). That pressing matter being settled, the question of an alliance between the two cians, with the sinister motives that prevailed on either side, would be gradually, perhaps slowly, brought to an issue. There would be time to persuade the Shechemites to consent to be circumcised, and to arrange for the treacherous reprisai. Jacob’s part in the proceedings was confined chiefly to a timid reproach of his sons for entangling his household in peril, to which they replied with the plea that the honour of the family was the first consideration.

The state of feeling aroused by the vengeance executed on Shechem made it desirable for Jacob to continue his journey. He was directed by God to proceed some twenty miles southwards to Bethel. Before starting, due preparations were made for a visit to so sacred a spot. The amulets and images of foreign gods in the possession of his retainers were collected and huried under a terebinth (Genesis 35:4; cf. Joshua 24:26 , Judges 9:6 ). The people through whom he passed were smitten with such a panic by the news of what had happened at Shechem as not to interfere with him. Arrived at Bethel, he added an altar ( Genesis 35:7 ) to the monolith he had erected on his previous visit, and received in a theophany, for which in mood he was well prepared, a renewal of the promise of regal prosperity. The additional pillar he set up ( Genesis 35:14 ) was probably a sepulchral stele to the memory of Deborah (cf. Genesis 35:20 ), dedicated with appropriate religious services; unless the verse is out of place in the narrative, and is really J [Note: Jahwist.] ’s version of what E [Note: Elohist.] relates in Genesis 28:18 . From Bethel Jacob led his caravan to Ephrath, a few miles from which place Rachel died in childbirth. This Ephrath was evidently not far from Bethel, and well to the north of Jerusalem ( 1 Samuel 10:2 f., Jeremiah 31:15 ); and therefore the gloss ‘the same is Bethlehem’ must be due to a confusion with the other Ephrath ( Ruth 4:11 , Micah 5:2 ), which was south of Jerusalem. The next stopping-place was the tower of Eder ( Genesis 35:21 ) or ‘the flock’ a generic name for the watch-towers erected to aid in the protection of the flocks from robbers and wild beasts. Genesis 4:8 applies a similar term to the fortified southern spur of Zion. But it cannot he proved that the two allusions coalesce; and actually nothing is known of the site of Jacob’s encampment, except that it was between Ephrath and Hebron. His journey was ended when he reached the last-named place ( Genesis 35:27 ), the home of his fathers, where he met Esau again, and apparently for the last time, at the funeral of Isaac.

From the time of his return to Hebron, Jacob ceases to be the central figure of the Biblical narrative, which thenceforward revolves round Joseph. Among the leading incidents are Joseph’s mission to inquire after his brethren’s welfare, the inconsolable sorrow of the old man on the receipt of what seemed conclusive evidence of Joseph’s death, the despatch of his surviving sons except Benjamin to buy corn in Egypt (cf. Acts 7:12 ff.), the bitterness of the reproach with which he greeted them on their return, and his belated and despairing consent to another expedition as the only alternative to death from famine. The story turns next to Jacob’s delight at the news that Joseph is alive, and to his own journey to Egypt through Beersheha, his early home, where he was encouraged by God in visions of the night ( Genesis 46:1-7 ). In Egypt he was met by Joseph, and, after an interview with the Pharaoh, settled in the pastoral district of Goshen ( Genesis 47:6 ), afterwards known as ‘the land of Rameses’ (from Rameses ii. of the nineteenth dynasty), in the eastern part of the Delta ( Genesis 47:11 ). This migration of Jacob to Egypt was an event of the first magnitude in the history of Israel ( Deuteronomy 26:5 f., Acts 7:14 f.), as a stage in the great providential preparation for Redemption. Jacob lived in Egypt seventeen years ( Genesis 47:28 ), at the close of which, feeling death to be nigh, he extracted a pledge from Joseph to bury him in Canaan, and adopted his two grandsons, placing the younger first in anticipation of the pre-eminence of the tribe that would descend from him ( Genesis 48:19 , Hebrews 11:21 ). To Joseph himself was promised, as a token of special affection, the conquered districts of Shechem on the lower slopes of Gerizim ( Genesis 48:22 , John 4:5 ). Finally, the old man gathered his sons about him, and pronounced upon each in turn a blessing, afterwards wrought up into the elaborate poetical form of Genesis 49:2-27 . The tribes are reviewed in order, and the character of each is sketched in a description of that of its founder. The atmosphere of the poem in regard alike to geography and to history is that of the period of the judges and early kings, when, therefore, the genuine tradition must have taken the form in which it has been preserved. After blessing his sons, Jacob gave them together the directions concerning his funeral which he had given previously to Joseph, and died ( Genesis 49:33 ). His body was embalmed, convoyed to Canaan by a great procession according to the Egyptian custom, and buried in the cave of Machpeiah near Hebron ( Genesis 50:13 ).

Opinion is divided as to the degree to which Jacob has been idealized in the Biblical story. If it be remembered that the narrative is based upon popular oral tradition, and did not receive its present form until long after the time to which it relates, and that an interest in national origins is both natural and distinctly manifested in parts of Genesis, some idealization may readily he conceded. It may be sought in three directions in the attempt to find explanations of existing institutions, in the anticipation of religious conceptions and sentiments that belonged to the narrator’s times, and in the investment of the reputed ancestor with the characteristics of the tribe descended from him. All the conditions are best met by the view that Jacob was a real person, and that the incidents recorded of him are substantially historical. His character, as depicted, is a mixture of evil and good; and his career shows how, by discipline and grace, the better elements came to prevail, and God was enabled to use a faulty man for a great purpose.

2 . Father of Joseph, the husband of Mary ( Matthew 1:15 f.).

R. W. Moss.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Jacob'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​j/jacob.html. 1909.
adsFree icon
Ads FreeProfile