Last modified on July 21, 2016, at 14:00


Jacob Wrestling with the Angel By Gustave Doré, 1855

Jacob (Hebrew: יעקב, Yaʿăqōḇ; Arabic: يعقوب, Yaʿqūb; "holds the heel"), or Israel (Hebrew: יִשְׂרָאֵל, Standard Yisraʾel Tiberian Yiśrāʾēl; Arabic: اسرائيل, Isrāʾīl; "struggled with God") (2168 AM–m. 2245 AM–2315 AM) (1836 BC–m. 1759 BC–1689 BC), is the third of the patriarchs of Israel and the man who gave the nation of Israel its name. He was the younger son of Isaac and Rebekah and the grandson of Abraham. He had two wives, two concubines, and thirteen children in all.


Isaac entreated Yahweh for his wife, because she was barren. Yahweh was entreated by him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her. She said, “If it be so, why do I live?” She went to inquire of Yahweh. Yahweh said to her, "Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples will be separated from your body. The one people will be stronger than the other people. The elder will serve the younger." When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red all over, like a hairy garment. They named him Esau. After that, his brother came out, and his hand had hold on Esau’s heel. He was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. Genesis 25:21-26 (ASV)

The name Jacob means "holds the heel" and refers to this incident. Holding the heel is the posture of a supplanter. This name was prophetic of Jacob's life, since he supplanted his elder brother Esau as the heir of God's promise to Abraham.[1]

Buys Esau's Birthright

Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field. Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Now Isaac loved Esau, because he ate his venison. Rebekah loved Jacob. Jacob boiled stew. Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom. Jacob said, “First, sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die. What good is the birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” He swore to him. He sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils. He ate and drank, rose up, and went his way. So Esau despised his birthright. Genesis 25:27-34 (ASV)

Esau is a type of the unsaved man; he cares nothing for God or God's promise and is willing to give it up merely to relieve a temporary hunger.

Also will I make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth. Psalm 89:27

Here, the word for firstborn is related to the word for birthright. Therefore, the birthright is also related to the coming Messiah, Jesus, and Esau despises him and is a type of all men who will despise and reject him. Esau, then, is justly deprived of his birthright.

Nevertheless, Jacob does not appear well here. The word for "boiled" is one that elsewhere has overtones of pride and Jacob's methods can hardly have been pleasing to God.

Isaac blessing Jacob

Obtains Isaac's Blessing Deceitfully

As Isaac continued to age, he could no longer see as well. At the same time, he clearly favored Jacob, and Rebekah knew it. She and Jacob conspired together to deceive Isaac into blessing Jacob instead of Esau.

Jacob wore goatskins, to simulate Esau's hirsute body, and served Isaac a savory stew made from goat kid meat, calling it venison. The plan worked. Esau found out about it when he returned from his hunting trip, and observed rather hotly that Jacob was aptly named. Template:BibleRef[2]

Here Isaac's weakness of character is evident, since he loves Esau in preference to Jacob because Esau satisfies his appetite for savoury food; he does not enquire of God to discover his will. Rebekah in turn shows her favoritism. Neither parent seems to have been a good guide of character to their sons; it is hardly surprising that Jacob is willing to go along with deceit. But that can neither justify nor excuse Jacob, who used dishonorable methods.

Nevertheless, it was God's will that the elder should serve the younger and that was accomplished. Romans 9:13 Presumably, it would have been accomplished in nobler but now unknown ways had Rebekah and Jacob been willing to leave things in the Lord's hand.

Flees from Esau to Laban

Esau was determined to kill Jacob, and so Jacob had to flee. Rebekah "covered" for Jacob by quite reasonably telling Isaac that for Esau to marry Hittite women was bad enough, and for Jacob to do the same would be worse. Genesis 27:41-46 This was perfectly true, but was not Jacob's actual reason for leaving.

On his way to Padan-aram and the home of his uncle Laban, Jacob had a dream of a ladder extending all the way from earth to heaven. In that dream, God spoke to Jacob directly and confirmed that Jacob inherited all the blessings previously bestowed upon Abraham and Isaac. Jacob changed the name of the place from Luz to Bethel.[3]

Serves Laban to Obtain His Wives

Jacob arrived in Padan-aram, and stopped at the community well. He noticed that the well was capped with a heavy stone. He asked the local villagers about it, and they told him that the stone was always removed when all the local flocks were gathered at the well for water. Then he saw a lovely girl leading a flock of sheep to the well. This, of course, was Rachel. When he saw her, he uncapped the well himself, watered the sheep, and introduced himself as her cousin.

Rachel was one of two daughters of Laban, but was the younger of the two. Jacob served Laban without a wage for a month, and then Laban asked Jacob to name his wage. Jacob named Rachel as his wage, and agreed to serve Laban for seven years to pay her bride price. Laban agreed.[3]

The custom in those days was for a man to wait at least a week after arranging to marry a woman. After the week had passed, Jacob prepared for his wedding night. But Laban substituted Leah, Rachel's older sister, in her place. Jacob protested, and Laban answered that local custom did not permit a younger sister to marry before the older sister. Laban immediately said that if Jacob would serve him for an additional seven years, he could marry Rachel as well. Jacob agreed to this.[4][5][6][7][8]

In addition, Laban gave each of his daughters a handmaid to serve her: Zilpah for Leah, and Bilhah for Rachel.

Births of Jacob's Sons

Main Article: Twelve sons of Israel

Leaves Laban after Twenty Years

Jacob served Laban for twenty years—seven years for the right to marry Leah, seven more years for Rachel, and six more years for the right to select certain livestock from Laban's herds. Even in that transaction, Jacob indulged his penchant for trickery. The terms of his agreement with Laban were that he would select all the livestock that were spotted or streaked or "ringstraked." So Jacob made sure that certain livestock would be spotted or speckled or otherwise marked in that manner, and only if the said livestock were strong and hardy and robust. Genesis 30:25-43

Whether Laban's sons suspected anything untoward in Jacob's practices, the Bible does not say. The Bible does say that Laban's sons knew that Jacob was getting the best of the livestock, and they resented him for that and told Laban so. Not long after that, Laban ceased to look at Jacob in the same way, and Jacob noticed. Genesis 31:1-2

At this point, God sent Jacob a message that it was time for him to leave. Genesis 31:3 Jacob then informed his wives of that message—and then proceeded to exaggerate the enmity between himself and Laban, so that his wives would be certain to take his side against that of their father. Genesis 31:4-13 For their part, Rachel and Leah were suspicious of their father's motives in any case. As they saw it, Laban had sold them for Jacob's service, and those wages had already been spent. Genesis 31:14-26 [9]

Jacob and his family did leave—largely in secret. And in one respect, Jacob perhaps succeeded all too well in turning Leah and Rachel against their father. Rachel stole some household idols, or teraphim, from Laban.[10] Whether she did this because she feared that the teraphim would somehow inform against her, or because she still trusted images made by man rather than God, the Bible does not say. Jacob knew nothing of the theft.

Laban learned of Jacob's flight three days later, and also discovered the theft of the teraphim. Consequently, he gave chase. He caught up with Jacob and demanded to know why Jacob had left so abruptly, and without informing him, and especially why Jacob had stolen the teraphim. Jacob resented that last suggestion (because he did not know what Rachel had done) and even permitted Laban to search Jacob's camp. Laban did. Laban never found the teraphim, however—because Rachel hid them in her camel's bag, sat on it, and told Laban that she could not rise to greet him because "the custom of women" (which is to say, the monthly cycle) was "upon [her]." Genesis 31:34-35 (This was a lie. In fact, Rachel was probably pregnant with Benjamin at the time, though not progressed enough to show.) Jacob took advantage of Laban's embarrassment and shamed Laban into concluding a permanent treaty of peace. The two even set up a stone pillar to solemnify the peace.[11]

Prepares to Meet Esau

Shortly after this last meeting with Laban, Jacob saw a small company of angels in his path. He recognized (correctly) that he was looking at a portion of God's army.

Jacob also knew that Esau lay ahead of him. He sent messengers to Esau's camp with greetings of peace. The messengers came back and informed Jacob that Esau was coming to meet him, at the head of a four-hundred-man force. Jacob, fearing that Esau meant war, divided his company into two parts, so that if Esau were to destroy one, the other part might still escape. He also prepared a large gift of livestock for Esau and sent that ahead next.

Esau met Jacob and received him graciously. At first he declined Jacob's gifts, saying that he, Esau, had enough on his own. But Jacob insisted, and Esau took the gifts. The two brothers parted on friendly terms, and eventually would reunite in burying their father Isaac. Genesis 32-33 [12]

Wrestles with an Angel

In Genesis 32:22-32 , shortly before his meeting with Esau, Jacob was caught alone and actually wrestled with an angel. This angel could not win against Jacob, so he dislocated Jacob's thigh; still Jacob held on and refused to release the angel without a blessing.

The angel did deliver a blessing, and declared that from that day forward, Jacob's true name would be Israel ("he struggles with God"), because he had actually struggled with a messenger of God and won.

When Jacob went on to meet Esau, he acknowledged this encounter in his discussion with him and implied that the encounter had changed him as a man.[12]

Lives at Bethel

At this time, God instructed Jacob to go to Bethel, where Jacob had earlier seen the vision of the ladder. Jacob instructed all within his camp to put away all foreign gods and other idols. Presumably Rachel gave up the teraphim that she had earlier stolen from Laban at this time. Jacob hid all these articles under an oak before they marched.

When they came to Bethel, God specifically renewed with Jacob all the vows He had earlier made to Abraham and Isaac, and also confirmed Jacob's change of name to Israel. Genesis 35:1-15

Death of Rachel

At this time, Rachel went into labor. The labor was difficult, and in fact she died in childbirth. Before she died, she said that the child should be named Ben-oni, or "son of my pain." Jacob insisted on giving the child the name of Benjamin, or "son of my right hand."[4] Genesis 35:16-20

Jacob buried Rachel at or near the site where she died, and erected a pillar that stood at least until the life of Moses. Today the government of Israel guards the traditional site of Rachel's tomb.[6] This traditional site lies four miles south of Jerusalem and one mile north of Bethlehem.[4]

Lives at Shechem

Main Article: Rape of Dinah

Jacob next pitched camp outside the city of Shechem, on a parcel of land that he bought from the city's ruling family. Jacob stayed at this site for seven years. Then his daughter Dinah strayed from the camp, and Prince Shechem, son of the king of the city, saw Dinah and took her by force. The prince then went to his father and asked his help in negotiating his marriage to Dinah. And so King Hamor of Shechem came to Jacob to open the negotiations.

Two of Jacob's sons, Simeon and Levi, hatched a plot of revenge. They told Hamor that they could not consent to see their sister married to an uncircumcised man. Hamor offered to have himself, his son, and all the men of the city circumcised, and Jacob's sons accepted that offer.

The night that the men of Shechem circumcised themselves, Simeon and Levi attacked the city in force, killed all the adult males, and plundered the city. Jacob rebuked Simeon and Levi for this act, but they said that they would not deal with their sister as though she were a prostitute. Jacob and his troop struck camp and marched away. Genesis 34

Loss of Joseph

Main Article: Joseph

Three years later came the greatest tragedy of Jacob's life: the loss, as Jacob supposed, of his son Joseph. Jacob favored Joseph (and probably Benjamin as well) over his other sons, for Rachel's sake and also because Joseph (and Benjamin) were born late in his life. (In fact, Jacob was 91 years old when Joseph was born.)

In fact, Jacob made for Joseph a coat with sleeves—an extravagance that his other sons resented. Joseph was also arrogant and tactless, and tended to bear evil tales. When Joseph began to dream of later having dominion over the rest of his family, his brothers resented him even more. Even Jacob himself regarded Joseph's dreams with suspicion when Joseph told him of his dream of the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowing before him.

One day, Jacob sent Joseph to find his brothers, whom he had sent with the livestock to the Shechem country. Joseph did not return, but his brothers did—bearing Joseph's ripped and bloodstained coat and telling Jacob that a wild beast had killed Joseph and eaten him. Jacob announced that he would go to his grave mourning for Joseph. Genesis 37 [13]

Move to Egypt

Jacob would not hear of Joseph again for another twenty-two years. These years included seven years of extraordinarily good harvests, followed by a most severe famine.

Like his grandfather and his father before him, Jacob heard that in Egypt he might find relief. Unlike them, he did not go to Egypt immediately. Instead he sent his remaining sons (except Benjamin) to go to Egypt to buy grain. His sons returned only after some delay. They were laden with grain, but also had had all their money returned to them. More disturbing still, they told Jacob that the viceroy of the country had accused them all of spying, briefly imprisoned one of them (Simeon), and then had released them, and even given them the grain they had bought and returned the money they had bought it with. But he had charged them strictly that they must not return to Egypt to buy any more grain, unless Benjamin accompanied them. Genesis 42

Jacob at first refused. Having (as he supposed) lost Joseph, he did not want to lose Benjamin as well. But the famine was so severe that eventually the family had eaten all the grain that they had earlier bought, so they had to go back to buy more. Judah promised Jacob that he would personally guarantee the safety of Benjamin; only then did Jacob consent to send Benjamin along. (By then Benjamin was a married man with ten sons of his own.) Jacob also instructed his sons to take double the price they had earlier taken, plus the original money they had tried to buy grain with, thinking that the return of the money was an oversight on the Egyptian viceroy's part. Genesis 43

When Jacob saw his sons next, they told him an incredible story: that Joseph was alive, and was none other than the viceroy of Egypt! Jacob did not believe the story at first, until his sons showed Jacob the great wagon train that Joseph had specifically sent to bring Jacob and all his household into Egypt. Genesis 45:25-28

Jacob entered Egypt, together with his wife Leah (if she still lived; the biblical text is not clear on this point), his sons, and their wives and sons, on 2298 AM (1706 BC). He was, as he stated to the Pharaoh of the time, 130 years old.

Prophecies concerning his children

As Jacob prepared to die, he summoned all his sons to his bedside. Furthermore, he adopted Joseph's two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, as his own, and preferred Ephraim over Manasseh.[14] He then spoke multiple prophecies concerning the future of his sons, and of the tribes that each son would found.


Jacob lived a total of 147 years. He died in 2315 AM (1689 BC). In accordance with his wishes, Joseph had him buried in the cave of Machpelah, along with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah, who had died earlier.[15]


  1. James Ussher, The Annals of the World, Larry Pierce, ed., Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2003 (ISBN 0890513600), pghh. 98-99
  2. Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 112
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 113
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Driscoll, James F. "Rachel." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. Accessed November 13, 2008.
  5. Hirch E and Seligsohn M. "Rachel." The Jewish Encyclopedia, n.d. Accessed November 13, 2008.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Schoenberg, Shira. "Rachel." Jewish Virtual Library, American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2008. Accessed November 13, 2008.
  7. Konig, George. "Rachel.", 2001. Accessed November 13, 2008.
  8. Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 115-6
  9. Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 122
  10. Zucker, Robert. "Teraphim of the Hebrews." Teraphim pages, 2006. Accessed December 31, 2007.
  11. Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 124-5
  12. 12.0 12.1 Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 126-7
  13. Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 129
  14. Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 146
  15. Ussher, op. cit., pgh. 146-7