In Defense of Jacob
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 11 October 2007; Revised 15 September 2014
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Updated edition). Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Grammar: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB."
"Afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau's heel, so his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she gave birth to them. When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field, but Jacob was a peaceful man, living in tents." (Gen 25:26-27)
"I have loved you," says the Lord. But you say, "How have You loved us?" "Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" declares the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and appointed his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness." (Mal 1:2-3)
Throughout church history Jacob (Heb. Ya'akov) has been the subject of much criticism from biblical scholars, teachers and ministers. Much of the criticism stemmed from antisemitism borne of replacement theology that began with the church fathers. Replacement theology is the belief that God rejected Israel because of failure to accept Yeshua the Messiah and decreed the Christian Church as the New Israel. This negative attitude is manifest in modern Evangelical commentaries and pulpits and modern Christian translations of the Bible. The NASB and NIV that I own label the section beginning at Genesis 27:30 as "The Stolen Blessing," which represents ignorance at best and defamation at worst. Jacob couldnít steal what already belonged to him, but in fact his deceit prevented Isaac from committing a monstrous fraud. Letís consider the evidence from the biblical record.
Nowhere in Scripture does God criticize Jacob. He was a good son. In fact, Genesis 25:27 describes Jacob with the Hebrew word tam, "perfect, complete, morally innocent, having integrity" (BDB 1070). The word tam occurs 13 times in Scripture, some of which are attributed to the patriarch Job (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3). An adjectival form of tam, tamiym was applied to Noah (Gen 6:9) and prescribed as Godís expectation of Abraham (Gen 17:1). In regard to Job and Noah Bible versions translate tam as "perfect" or "blameless." However, Christian translations do not want to accord Jacob the same status as Noah and Job and inexplicably render tam in his case as "quiet," "peaceful," "plain," or "mild."
The nondescript adjectives used for Jacob reduce the significance of tam to a personality type rather than as a description of his true character. Calling Jacob tam does not mean that he had achieved a state of perfection superior to anyone else, because there are elements of the stories of Job and Noah where we might find fault. The point is that Jacob, like Job and Noah, was morally blameless before God. Unfortunately, Christian interpreters typically put greater weight regarding Jacob's character on his uncharacteristic deception than by anything that followed.
The meaning of Jacob's Hebrew name Ya'akov, "heel-catcher," derived from aqeb ("heel, footprint or hind part," BDB 784), was not a pejorative name when the parents gave it. The fact that Jacob held Esau by the heel as they were born portended the competition between the two men. In Scripture the heel serves as a metaphor for a point of weakness in a person (Gen 3:15; Job 18:19; Jer 13:22), or a military force (Gen 49:19; Judg 5:15; Dan 11:43). Esau himself later drew attention to the meaning of Jacob's name in Genesis 27:36, "Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted [Heb. aqab] me these two times." A number of Christian Bibles inaccurately translate the verb aqab as "cheated," "tricked" or "deceived." According to BDB the verb means to follow at the heel, to circumvent or to overreach (784). Other versions (e.g. CJB, HNV, KJV, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) translate the verb as "supplanted," which is much more appropriate because Jacob never deceived, cheated or tricked Esau.
Hosea 12:3 gives more insight into the meaning of Jacob's name by saying, "In the womb he took his brother by the heel, and in his maturity he contended with God." Hosea's contrast of Jacob before his birth and after his re-birth, i.e. gaining a new identity as Israel, depicts Jacob as a man of strength and power. He was the man God had chosen to bear His name in the world and continue the Messianic line toward fulfillment in Yeshua. Perhaps the best tribute to Jacob is that the phrase "God of Jacob" appears 21 times in Scripture, 13 of which include the longer formula, "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." God was never embarrassed being associated with Jacob.
On the other hand there is strong censure of Esau in Scripture (Gen 27:41; 28:6-9; Jer 49:8, 10; Obad 1:6, 8-9, 18-19, 21; Mal 1:2-3; Rom 9:13). The fact that Esau was a "cunning hunter" shows that he was too much like Nimrod (cf. Gen 10:9). With their extensive herds the family did not need to hunt for food and there's no evidence of endangerment from wild animals. Esau apparently hunted for sport and his prowess along with the game he brought home appealed to Isaac (Gen 27:4). Esau is also described as sexually immoral and godless and became a grief to his parents because of his ungodly associations (Gen 26:34-35; Heb 12:16). Then, the fact that Esau was actually willing to sell his birthright for such a paltry price (Gen 25:32) demonstrates his total lack of qualification to have the birthright.
In order to determine whether anything was stolen we must first understand what was at stake. In ancient times the eldest son would inherit a double portion of the fatherís property and the leadership authority over the clan. However, God had decreed to Rebecca and Isaac before the birth of the twins, "Two nations are in your womb; and two peoples will be separated from your body; and one people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger" (Gen 25:23). In other words, the inheritance rights ordinarily granted to the eldest son would in this case be transferred to the younger son, although he was only younger by mere seconds. God's choice is not so unusual in this instance. Seth, Shem, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, & David were all younger sons. In the Messianic line only Abraham and Yeshua were firstborn sons in lists where brothers are mentioned!
More important than the material inheritance of Isaacís personal property was the covenantal legacy given to Abraham. The covenantal inheritance included a specific territory that would be bounded on the east by the river Euphrates, on the west by the Mediterranean, on the north by the "entrance of Hamath," and on the south by the "river of Egypt." This extent of territory, about 60,000 square miles, was at length conquered by David, and was ruled over also by his son Solomon (2Sam 8; 1Chr 18; 1Kgs 4:1, 21). God duly passed the covenantal promises to Isaac (Gen 26:2-4). Isaacís blessing makes reference to this "land", but translations render the Hebrew erets as "earth" (Gen 27:28). While erets can mean earth in the sense of the planet or soil, it frequently refers to the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants (Gen 12:7; 15:18-21; 26:3; 28:13; Ex 33:1; Num 34:1-12).
God had also promised that a Seed would come forth to crush the serpentís head. The Seed of salvation would come through a specific genetic family line, now referred to as the Messianic line. That promise was reinforced to Abraham. His child of promise would be the ancestor of Israel's Redeemer (Matt 1:2; Luke 4:34). In addition, the spiritual responsibilities of clan leadership included building and officiating at the altar (Gen 22:9; 26:25; 35:1), as well as transmission of the tablets bearing the record of Godís history (i.e., "the records of," Gen 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27) that would be used by Moses to construct the Genesis story. Esau did not possess the spiritual character worthy of these great privileges and responsibilities.
There is a tragic irony in the fact that just as Esau voluntarily sold his birthright for a bowl of soup Isaac was willing to bequeath the covenantal legacy and the spiritual promises associated with it to Esau and his descendants for a venison steak. The content of the blessings pronounced for Jacob (Gen 27:27-29) and Esau (Gen 27:39-40) demonstrate that Isaac knew Godís will that Esau and the rest of the clan were to serve Jacob and yet Isaac deliberately planned to give the leadership rights to Esau. Isaac was willing to mortgage the future to satisfy his appetite. Why isn't Isaac ever criticized? His culpability is far worse than Jacob.
Rebeccaís Ethical Dilemma
Some may regard Rebecca as lacking faith in Godís plan and believe she should have just waited for God to intervene. Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac believing that he would be resurrected (Heb 11:17-19), but God intervened in time to save Isaacís life. Surely Rebecca could have trusted God to rescue Isaac from his stupidity and selfishness. Perhaps Rebecca could have openly confronted her husband in love as Sarah had done to Abraham with the Lordís support (Gen 21:10-12). But, she also knew that Isaac was her lord (cf. Gen 18:12; 1 Pet 3:6) and confrontation would be risky given his mood. What we don't know is whether it would have done any good. He would simply have ordered her to mind her own business. And, Isaac had already sent Esau out to hunt. In the end Rebeccaís action actually accomplished Godís will, so how can it be wrong or even sinful?
Rebecca's intention and goal were right, even if it did involve lying to her husband. In reality it is Rebeccaís method for achieving Godís will that bothers people, although Jacob has borne the brunt of peopleís calumny. (I suppose no other family has ever practiced a little deception.) Rebecca's action to deceive Isaac was no different than the Hebrew midwives lying to Pharaoh to protect the innocent (Ex 1:15-20) and Rahab lying to the king of Jericho to protect the Israelite spies (Josh 2:3-6; 6:25). Joshua also used deception in order to take the Canaanite city of Ai (Josh 8:3-8). Even Yeshua deceived his family in order to protect the secrecy of a trip to Jerusalem (John 7:1-10).
In war there is no obligation to help the enemy. Little considered is that during World War II the family of Corrie Ten Boom and others deceived the Nazis in order to save Jews from the Holocaust. In the case of Jacob his deception was an important tactic in the continuing war against God that began in the Garden. Rebecca did what many other wives have done when faced with a stubborn husband about to make a bad decision. Only consider Abigail who did not tell her husband Nabal of her plans to save his skin (1Sam 25:18). Rebecca had no way to predict what might happen if Isaac went against God's sovereign plan, so she acted decisively and appropriately under the circumstances.
Isaac apparently realized his error and offered no rebuke of Rebecca or Jacob. Indeed, before Jacob fled Isaac pronounced a second blessing on Jacob that emphasizes even more the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham (Gen 28:3-4). God affirmed this blessing afterwards (Gen 28:13-15). If Isaac and God were not angry over the outcome why perpetuate the unfair defamation of Jacob?
While Jacob has been accused of stealing from Esau, the historical record proves that Jacob never stole from anyone. Jacob did not ask for any specific property from Isaac, only to be blessed (Gen 27:19). Isaac's blessing on Jacob did not bequeath his personal fortune, but pronounced Godís blessing on whatever Jacob may do with the land and the clan leadership rights. Jacob took no property belonging Esau when he fled to Padan-Aram and he never possessed any property that Esau claimed to be his. The lavish gift of livestock that Jacob bestowed on Esau upon his return was not restitution, but simply an effort to appease a non-existent anger and show respect (Gen 33:8-11). Once back in the land Jacob never stood on his legal rights to demand anything from Esau even though that authority had been conveyed to him by Isaac.
The narrative of the reunion between the brothers seems quite genuine (Gen 33:4), although Jacob's actions sort of reflect the "trust but verify" proverb. There is no evidence that Esau maintained a lingering resentment. Indeed his anger probably was the quick explosive type as described by Rebecca (Gen 27:43-45). Her prophecy that Esau would not hold a grudge turned out to be correct. Jacob may not have had her confidence, however, since after returning he kept his distance from Esau. The much later resentment of the Edomites most likely arose because of how they were treated under the Judean kings, beginning with Saul (1Sam 14:47).
Many Bible readers are understandably uncomfortable with the deception employed by Jacob. Lest the reader misunderstand, applying Scripture does not mean that disciples should do everything that Bible characters did. (Just because Isaiah went naked for three years at God's direction is not a call for me to do the same.) By the same token the Bible examples of godly people facing tough ethical dilemmas does provide an example for us. We may, like the apostles, have to tell civil authority sometime "We must obey God rather than men." So, does the deception of Rebecca and Jacob justify our deceiving a family member, employer, the community of faith? No. Our deceptions typically have a base motive, not a truly righteous one.
In the context of Jacob's situation, deception became necessary to accomplish the will of God. If Rebecca and Jacob were wrong in what they did to secure the divine blessing, then the basis of the Jewish claim to the holy land has been destroyed. Even today the Muslims claim Jews stole the land they "occupy." God's promise of the Land and the Seed was not a defensive reaction to bring good out of "sin." It was Godís plan from the beginning. Many Christians frankly hate the idea of the election of Israel and once Jacob can be painted as a scoundrel, then that reputation taints all his descendants. In my view it's time for Christians to rise to the defense of Jacob and affirm his rights to the blessing as God intended.
BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. London: Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981. Online at BibleHub.com.
Copyright © 2012-2014 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.