Isaac’s wife Rebecca (Rivka) gave birth to fraternal twin sons: Jacob (Ya’akov) and Esau. The two brothers were at war with each other even before they were born. They struggled within Rebecca’s womb. Esau was Isaac’s favorite, because he was a good hunter, but the more spiritually-minded Jacob was Rebecca’s favorite.
Esau had little regard for the spiritual heritage of his forefathers, and sold his birthright of spiritual leadership to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. When Isaac was growing old, Rebecca tricked him into giving Jacob a blessing meant for Esau. Esau was angry about this, and about the birthright, so Jacob fled to live with his uncle, where he met his beloved Rachel. Jacob was deceived into marrying Rachel’s older sister, Leah, but later married Rachel as well, and Rachel and Leah’s maidservants, Bilhah and Zilphah. Between these four women, Jacob fathered 12 sons and one daughter.
After many years living with and working for his uncle/father-in-law, Jacob returned to his homeland and sought reconciliation with his brother Esau. He prayed to G-d and gave his brother gifts. The night before he went to meet his brother, he sent his wives, sons, and things across the river, and was alone with G-d. That night, he wrestled with a man until the break of day. As the dawn broke, Jacob demanded a blessing from the man, and the “man” revealed himself as an angel. He blessed Jacob and gave him the name “Israel” (Yisrael), meaning “the one who wrestled with G-d” or “the Champion of G-d.” The Jewish people are generally referred to as the Children of Israel, signifying our descent from Jacob. The next day, Jacob met Esau and was welcomed by him.
Jacob fathered 12 sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin. They are the ancestors of the tribes of Israel, and the ones for whom the tribes are named. Joseph is the father of two tribes: Manasseh and Ephraim.
What does the name, Jacob mean?
In the Genesis narrative, Jacob, Yaakov in Hebrew, is so called because at his birth he seized hold of the heel (akev) of his twin brother, Esau (Genesis 25:25), while the name Israel was given to him by the angel with whom he wrestled (Genesis 32: 25-33).
A Struggle Between Brothers
Among the salient features in Jacob’s life, as told in Genesis, are that Esau sold him his birthright for a “mess of pottage” (24: 27-34); that, at the instigation of his mother, Rebecca, he tricked his father, Isaac, into giving him, instead of Esau, the blessing (ch. 27); that he fled from Esau’s wrath to his uncle Laban whose two daughters, Rachel and Leah, he married and by them, and by the two concubines Bilhah and Zilpah, he had twelve sons in all (chs. 29 and 30); that he came to sojourn in the land of Egypt (chs. 45 and 46); and that he was taken after his death to be buried in the land of his fathers (“the land of Israel”) in the cave of Mahpelah (ch.50).
It is a moot point whether the Genesis narrator approves or disapproves of Jacob’s subterfuges in wrestling the birthright and the blessing from his brother. The prophet Hosea certainly indicts Jacob for “supplanting” (akav, a pun on the name Yaakov) his brother and in subsequent Jewish commentary on the narrative there are echoes of disapproval of Jacob’s stratagems, if not of his right to both the birthright and the blessing. On the other hand, there are many attempts to defend Jacob as acting honorably given the circumstances in which he found himself. It has to be appreciated that Jacob is seen in the Jewish tradition as representing the Jewish people so that attacks on the character of the patriarch are often seen as, and, indeed, sometimes are, motivated by anti-Jewish sentiment.
In Rabbinical Literature
Even before their birth the struggle between the two brothers Esau and Jacob commenced. Each of them wished to be born first, and it was only after Esau threatened to kill Rebekah, his mother, if he was not permitted to be born first that Jacob acceded (Midrash ha-Gadol [ed. Schechter, Cambridge, 1902] on Gen. xxv. 22; comp. Pesiḳ. R. [ed. Friedmann, Vienna, 1880], p. 48a). The respective characters of the two brothers were thus revealed before they were born. Whenever Rebekah passed a pagan house of worship Esau moved within her; and whenever she passed a synagogue or bet ha-midrash Jacob moved (Gen. R. lxiii. 6; Yalḳ., Gen. 110). There was also a conflict between them as to who should inherit this world, and who the world to come. In the conflict the angel Samael was about to kill Jacob, when Michael intervened; and the struggle between the two angels was settled by a court which God Himself convened for that purpose (Yalḳ., Gen. 110, from Midrash Abkir). All these legends are based upon the word “wa-yitroẓeẓu” (= “and they struggled”; Gen. 25:22).
Sale of Birthright.
Jacob was born circumcised (Ab. R. N. ii. 5; Gen. R. 63:7). Until the age of thirteen both he and Esau attended school; but later Esau became a hunter, while Jacob continued his studies under various tutors—Abraham, Methuselah, Shem, and Eber (ib.; Gen. R. l.c.). The sale of the birthright occurred after Esau had slain Nimrod and two of his associates and fled from his pursuers. Jacob did not desire the material benefits of the birthright as much as the spiritual prerogatives attendant upon it. According to one opinion, this transaction was the final settlement of the quarrel which the brothers had had before they were born; and Esau thus sold to Jacob his portion in the world to come. Another opinion is that Jacob wished for the birthright because the first-born was the forerunner of the priest who offered the family sacrifices; and he thought that Esau was not fit to bring offerings to God (Yalḳ., Gen. 111; comp. Zeb. 112b). With the purchase of the birthright Jacob came into possession of the garments which Esau had inherited from Adam and which were the official robes of the officiating minister (Midr. Tan. 67b).
The Rabbis attempted to explain that Jacob did not intend to deceive his father in the words, “I am Esau thy first-born” (Gen. 26:19), but meant by them: “I am the one whose children will accept the Decalogue which begins with I (“anoki”); but Esau is thy first-born” (Gen. R. 65:14; Yalḳ., Gen. 115). By confirming the blessing before Jacob’s departure (Gen. 38:1-4), Isaac established the fact that the blessing really belonged to Jacob (Gen. R. 67:10).
Furthermore, it was only to please his mother that Jacob allowed himself to be disguised; and he brought the venison to Rebekah in a very distressed frame of mind and crying (Gen. R. lxv. 11). The goodly raiment which Rebekah put upon Jacob was that which Esau had taken from Nimrod when he murdered him (ib. 12). Rebekah accompanied Jacob to his father’s door, and then said, “Thus far I was obliged to go with you, but now may thy Maker assist you.” When Jacob entered and Isaac said, “Come near, I pray thee, that I may feel thee” (Gen. 27:21), Jacob felt his heart melting like wax; but two angels supported him (Gen. R. 65:13, 15). He then came near to his father, who said unto him, “See, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed”; that is, according to the Rabbis, the fragrance of paradise came with him (ib. 18).
When Jacob left the presence of his father he, by reason of the blessing he had received, came out crowned like a bridegroom, and the dew which is to revive the dead descended upon him from heaven; his bones became stronger, and he himself was turned into a mighty man (Pirḳe R. El. xxxiii.). Jacob then fled from Esau, and went to the school of Shem and Eber, devoting himself to the study of the Words of God. There he was hidden for fourteen years, and then returned to his father. He found that his brother was still purposing to kill him; whereupon he accepted the advice of his mother to go to Padanaram, (Gen. R. 68:5; see also “Sefer ha-Yashar“).
The fourth Rule of Bible Interpretation is THE LAW OF FIRST MENTION
- The meaning of the law of First Mention: The Law of First Mention may be said to be the principle that requires one to go to that portion of the Scriptures where a doctrine is mentioned for the first time and to study the first occurrence of the same in order to get the fundamental inherent meaning of that doctrine.
- When this law is applied the simple precedes the complex.
- A history of the development of anything will show that it sprang from something in the very simplest form (for example the steamship; airplane; automobile).
- In the Scriptures the growth and development of ideas and doctrine might be illustrated by some simple word.
- Throughout the history of a term it may have increased its meaning and undergone certain changes, yet the basic, original, fundamental thought is seldom lost.
- The fundamental concept usually controls or is dominant in coloring every shade of idea expressed by a term in its current usage.
So what is the first mention of the name, Jacob?
Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. (ESV)
Interestingly, the first time the name is mentioned the scripture actually gives us the meaning of the name, “Heel Grabber.” Notice that the word, “Usurper” is nowhere present.
So where does this word “Usurper” come from?
The first mention of the name, Jacob, being related in some way to something negative happens in Genesis 27:36, which says,
Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” (ESV)
Let’s ask some important questions that most people do not ask:
- For how long had Jacob been named, “Heel Grabber”?
- How old were the twin boys, Jacob & Esau at the time when Esau said these words?
- Was Esau cursing Jacob in this passage?
- Did God have a choice of one son over another?
According to Jewish tradition, Jacob and Esau were about 40 years old when Esau said this curse about his brother, Jacob. It is important to note that Esau’s words are just that, a curse. Jacob had worn his name for 40 years. In Jewish tradition, Jacob was a man of prayer and study of God, while Esau was a hunter, thief and a murderer. Esau is credited with murdering the evil king Nimrod and stealing his holy garments (which had been given to Adam by God) (Yasher chapter 27), on the very day when he spoke this curse on his brother, Jacob.
God makes it clear that His opinion is that one brother He hated, and the other was loved by Him.
What does God say about Jacob & Esau?
The oracle of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the border of Israel!” (ESV)
But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac,though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (ESV)
In other words, our own opinions about what Jacob did to his brother, Esau, are of no moment. It is God who sees the heart and chose the son whose heart and the hearts of his children would follow after Him.