Jacob 1
Jacob wrestling with the angel, as depicted by Rembrandt.

The third of the patriarchs, son of Isaac and father of the 12 tribes, Jacob was also the man who wrestled with God in a dream and woke up with a new name: Israel.

The story of Jacob (Ya’akov יעקב in Hebrew), son of Isaac and Rebecca, grandson of the patriarch Abraham, begins in Genesis (Bereishit) 25:19. The classic Biblical theme of contending and contrasting brothers (Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael) is repeated with Jacob and his twin, Esau. Jacob was the younger of the two, a pastoral herder; Esau was a nomadic hunter. Some interpret their struggle for ascendancy as symbolising the clash between social orders (or even civilisations) in the ancient Middle East.

In the biblical story, God tells the pregnant Rebecca that both her twins would found great nations: Jacob would head the House of Israel, Esau the Edomites. But God decreed that “the elder will serve the younger”. Jacob cheats Esau out of his birthright, first by bribing the latter with a bowl of lentil soup; then by disguising himself as Esau in front of his dying blind father, Isaac. Here is another classic yet controversial biblical theme: the use of duplicity to achieve God’s plans for mankind.

Esau was livid at his brother’s claim, so Jacob fled to his family’s ancestral home in Mesopotamia. En route, God informs Jacob that he will receive lands, and that his descendants will ‘bless the earth’. Jacob arrives in Haran, and works seven long years for his uncle Laban. He also falls in love with his cousin, Rachel. Yet Laban substitutes his elder daughter, Leah, as Jacob’s wife. Agadah (Talmudic lore) suggests this was God’s revenge on Jacob for deceiving Esau.

Jacob shows other traits in light of his failing attempts to marry Rachel: stubborn determination and passionate loyalty. He works for another six years to win the hand of his beloved Rachel. With two wives and bounteous property, he leaves Laban at last, and sets off southwards, to Canaan (the Land of Israel). Jacob’s later clash with Laban might be understood as the Israelites’ historic break with their north Semitic origins.

During his return journey to Canaan, Jacob has a dream in which he wrestles with an angel but neither he nor the angel is able to defeat the other, after which the angel renames him Israel: “he who contends with God”. This may just be a delightful fantasy, or perhaps a metaphor for God’s tempestuous yet ultimately respectful relationship with Jews and mankind.

From his four wives, Leah, Rachel and their handmaids, Zilphah and Bilhah, Jacob begot 12 sons and one daughter, Dina. All but the youngest child, Benjamin, were born in Mesopotamia. Many stories ensue, each with a moral. After Dina’s rape at Shechem comes Jacob’s rededication of Bethel, burial of Isaac at Hebron, the story of Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers, the family’s reconciliation in Egypt, and Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Mannaseh, before his death and his own burial in Hebron.

Jacob also appears in Christian lore and aspects of his biblical tale furnished frescoes, paintings, cathedral triptychs, symphonies and operas. Jacob also appears in several suras (chapters) of the Muslim Qur’an (Koran). There he is known as Yakub and called an ‘upright man’ who fathered the Banu Isra’il (children of Israel).

The story of Jacob contains a myriad of contrasts (Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers) and moral themes (loyalty, faith, retribution, justice, filial duty and the danger of favouritism) which have entranced Jewish people through the centuries.