Jacob: A Story of Crime, Punishment, and the Birth of Nation

How do you write a biography with only one source of information? Such is the challenge for Yair Zakovitch, author of Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch,who takes on the role of biblical biographer and, consequently, literary archaeologist. Rather than dig deep in the earth for clues of the past, Zakovitch dives into the text, subtext, and context of the Bible. But the authorized biblical account of Jacob’s life provides only one side of the story and Zakovitch knows there is more to be said about one of the Bible’s pivotal characters. For this reason, he explores apocryphal and rabbinic texts to reconstruct a multifaceted, rounded account of Jacob’s life and its significance in the context of the founding of Israel.

As the third patriarch of Israel, Jacob was a seminal character in the birth of the Jewish nation, but he was also far from innocent; Jacob is perceived as a cheat by prophets from the moment of his birth. Jacob leaves the womb holding on to his twin brother Esau’s heel, an act that has led to conflicting interpretations of its significance. The prophet Hosea accuses Jacob of cheating his brother in the womb, but the Torah does not suggest such a negative reading of Jacob. But while Hosea’s position is not “official,” Zakovitch posits that the prophet’s opinion taken to be true and influenced subsequent narratives. He refers to the parallel narrative of the birth of twins Zerah and Perez, Jacob’s grandsons, to show how this later story, among others, was influenced by Hosea’s interpretation rather than that of the Torah.

As Jacob grows up, we realize how he exhibits a lot of negative qualities and behavior. Jacob tricks his father Isaac into receiving the paternal blessing meant for Esau the firstborn; turns shrewdness and magic to avenge his father-in-law Laban; becomes a submissive stud at the hands of his squabbling wives, who fight each other using babies and maidservants; and even fails to avenge his daughter’s rape, choosing to have his sons do the work instead. Are these the qualities we expect in a founding father of the Jewish nation? Perhaps not, but Zakovitch argues that the biblical compilers go to great lengths to “cleanse Jacob from outside the Book of Genesis.” They make Jacob appear less of a villain by inserted more redeeming language into the original text or by emphasizing the circumstances of that drive Jacob to bad deeds.

As an educative text for later generations, the Bible makes it very clear that Jacob is punished repeatedly for his bad deeds. But what could be the editors’ motive in giving Jacob’s image a moral makeover? Zakovitch wisely states that “Historians have six eyes: two looking into the past, two for observing the present, and two for gazing into the future.” Jacob is named Israel by God and his personal struggles can be read as representative of the Jewish nation’s own ups and downs: Jacob’s conflicts with Esau and Laban personify the tensions between the Israel with neighboring nations Edom and Aram, respectively. Despite the morally tumultuous life that he leads, however, it is evident in the Bible that Israel, as the individual and as the nation, is nevertheless chosen by God to fulfill the holy covenant bestowed upon him.

Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch is now available as part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series. For more information, visit www.jewishlives.org.

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