Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch

Translated from the Hebrew by Valerie Zakovitch
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    A powerful hero of the Bible, Jacob is also one of its most complex figures. Bible stories recounting his life often expose his deception, lies, and greed-then, puzzlingly, attempt to justify them. In this book, eminent biblical scholar Yair Zakovitch presents a complete view of the patriarch, first examining Jacob and his life story as presented in the Bible, then also reconstructing the stories that the Bible writers suppressed-tales that were well-known, perhaps, but incompatible with the image of Jacob they wanted to promote. Through a work of extraordinary "literary archaeology," Zakovitch explores the recesses of literary history, reaching back even to the stage of oral storytelling, to identify sources of Jacob's story that preceded the work of the Genesis writers.

    The biblical writers were skilled mosaic-makers, Zakovitch shows, and their achievement was to reshape diverse pre-biblical representations of Jacob in support of their emerging new religion and identity. As the author follows Jacob in his wanderings and revelations, his successes, disgraces, and disappointments, he also considers the religious and political environment in which the Bible was written, offering a powerful explication of early Judaism.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18897-4
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    Yair Zakovitch
    (pp. 1-12)

    The story of Israelite history that unfolds in the Pentateuch and Early Prophets stretches from the creation of the world to the people’s exile to Babylon. It describes the relationships between three sides of a (nonequilateral) triangle: the God of Israel, the people of Israel, and the Land of Israel. The question emerges: Why would this nation conceive their history as beginning with the creation of the world, the very beginning of time, when only one of the triangle’s sides existed? We could easily imagine beginning the account at another point, such as the meeting between the people and God...

  5. 1 “The children struggled in her womb”: The Fight for the Birthright
    (pp. 13-27)

    When the time arrived for Isaac to wed, Abraham sent a servant to find a bride for his son in Haran, his homeland, since a local, Canaanite woman was unacceptable (Gen 24:3; this derives from the Pentateuch’s isolationist ideology). On arriving in Haran the servant, aware of the enormous responsibility entrusted him, wants a sign from God that will signal a woman worthy of his master’s son. Standing by a well, he prays:

    Oh Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as...

  6. 2 “He should cheat me twice? He took my birthright and now he has taken my blessing!”: Jacob the Deceiver
    (pp. 28-45)

    With the taste of the birthright incident still bitter in our mouths, we find ourselves before yet another, even more difficult episode in which Jacob challenges the dominant position of his older twin. The story told in Genesis 27, where Jacob steals the blessing his father intended for Esau, is the direct continuation of the birthright purchase story. Its plotline is propelled by the father’s love for his firstborn—rooted in Isaac’s fondness for the meat that Esau feeds him—and the mother’s unconditional love for the younger Jacob (25:28). The story opens with meetings between each pair of protagonists:...

  7. 3 “And behold, a stairway was set on the ground and its head reached to the sky”: Jacob’s Dream at Bethel
    (pp. 46-60)

    People can flee their pursuers while never breaking free of their conscience and past. Jacob escaped his brother’s wrath but he left behind an elderly, blind father and a loving and worried mother without knowing whether he would see them ever again. If he did turn to glance back, he caught a parting glimpse of his country, the wide fields in which he had shepherded his flocks and, stretched out above them, open sky. Who can know his thoughts in those moments? Did he reflect on his behavior toward his twin brother? Did he feel regret? The uncertainty of his...

  8. 4 “It is not the practice in our place”: Wives and Sons, A Mixed Blessing
    (pp. 61-75)

    The Book of Genesis, steadfast in the ways of the biblical narrative, spends no time describing the hardships Jacob suffers on his journey from Bethel to Haran nor, as I’ve already mentioned, does it reveal any regrets he may have felt during the days and nights of his journey: Was his conscience bothered? Was he thinking of what might await him, at his uncle’s house? The writer is silent; instead, all the days of journey have been condensed into a single verse, “Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners” (29:1), after which we find our...

  9. 5 “Let me go and I will go to my place and to my land”: Jacob’s Odyssey from Slavery to Freedom
    (pp. 76-92)

    Twenty years of hard labor elapse between the day Jacob met Rachel by the well to when God finally removes her shame and opens her womb, leading to the birth of Joseph (as we learn from Gen 31:41). Now that Jacob and Rachel’s union has finally borne fruit, Jacob can attend to unfinished business—the other reason for his flight to Haran—and return home from exile: “And it came to pass, when Rachel bore Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban: ‘Let me go and I will go to my place and to my land’” (30:25). Jacob adds a further...

  10. 6 “For you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed”: Jacob’s Homebound Encounters
    (pp. 93-115)

    The next segment of Jacob’s biography is perhaps the most complicated, though the problem is not in the events themselves, which are rather straightforward: Jacob parts from Laban and, after a brief encounter with some angels (told in half a verse) at a place he then calls Mahanaim, he prepares for the much-anticipated meeting with his brother. He sends messengers ahead with explicit instructions and a sizable gift, and he camps for the night alongside the Jabbok River. That night Jacob meets another divine being who wrestles with him and changes his name to Israel, after which Jacob names the...

  11. 7 “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”: Jacob in Shechem
    (pp. 116-135)

    Jacob’s first stop after crossing the Jordan and arriving in the Land of Canaan is in the outskirts of Shechem, the city that would become the political and religious heart of the Kingdom of Israel. Three traditions connecting Jacob’s biography with Shechem appear in succession between the end of Genesis 33 and the beginning of chapter 35. A fourth, compact and startling, is tucked into Jacob’s testament to his son Joseph at the end of the patriarch’s life. Let us now examine these traditions, their meanings, and the nuances between them.

    The verse that opens the story of Jacob’s first...

  12. 8 “And Isaac breathed his last and died and was gathered to his kin in ripe old age”: Deaths in the Family
    (pp. 136-150)

    As if the hardships Jacob faced in Shechem were not enough, more would come. As the family makes its way from Bethel to Ephrath, the unimaginable suddenly occurs: Rachel, Jacob’s beloved, dies while giving birth to Benjamin, her second son (Gen 35:16–20). Rachel’s birth pains increase on the journey from Bethel (v 16) and the midwife tries to instill confidence: “Have no fear, for it is another boy for you” (v 17). These words are enough to remind us of the demand Rachel made to her husband back in chapter 30 when envy of her sister Leah and Leah’s...

  13. 9 “And Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, for he was the son of his old age”: Priority of the Young
    (pp. 151-168)

    There comes a time when a person must make room for the next generation; pushed off center stage, you suddenly become the “father of …” or “mother of …” And indeed, with the rising of Joseph’s sun, Jacob’s begins to slowly set. Genesis 37:2, “This is the line of Jacob: Joseph was seventeen years old … ,” signals this hegemonic transition, the opening of Joseph’s biography, which continues (with light interruption) till the very end of the Book of Genesis and reserves only a secondary role for Jacob. The literary quality of Joseph’s story differs from Jacob’s. We can characterize...

  14. 10 “Gather together that I may tell you what is to befall you in the days to come”: An End, A Beginning
    (pp. 169-180)

    In contrast to his father and grandfather, who each left one heir destined to continue the family line and make manifest the divine promise, Jacob leaves twelve sons, evidence that God’s promise has already begun to be fulfilled and that Jacob-Israel will indeed become the founder of a nation. Jacob knows this—through a prophetic spirit—and he gathers his sons in order to inform them about “what is to befall you in the days to come” (Gen 49:1). Jacob’s words reveal a change in his character: he has become a prophet. Indeed, with this chapter we witness the transformation...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 181-192)

    The conundrum of this book is that it is a biography that rests on a biography—on a relatively short life story (with emphasis on “story”) that resembles (as biblical stories do, generally) a theater production in which the inner worlds of the Bible’s heroes are hidden from us, as is that of the narrator(s), whose opinions are almost never expressed overtly. As we now attempt to summarize what we have examined in the ten chapters of this book, we will do well to distinguish between our conclusions concerning the mosaic that is the whole story of Jacob’s life, and...

  16. INDEX
    (pp. 193-203)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 204-206)