Jacob had not seen his estranged brother Esau for many years when he returned from Mesopotamia to the land of his birth. Naturally he was afraid of meeting the man whom he had cheated out of his birthright blessing. Yet though he feared, his life was going to be protected. An early signal of this was his vision of angels as he drew closer to home. Jacob named the place where this happened Mahanaim (“two hosts”), a reference to the hosts or camps of God and Jacob present there (Genesis 32:1–2). Angels had similarly appeared to Jacob in a dream as he was leaving the land for his family’s ancestral home in Padan Aram (28:12). There, God (Yahweh) had said, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (verse 15, English Standard Version).
Sending emissaries to Esau in the nearby land of Seir, or Edom, south of Ammon and Moab, Jacob sought to placate his brother (32:3–5). The servants returned to tell Jacob that Esau was coming out to meet him with four hundred men. The prospect filled Jacob with alarm. His first response was self-protective: he divided his camp into two, thinking that an attack could only do harm to one, thus allowing the other to escape. His second response was to pray for protection to the God (Elohim) of his fathers in a more humble frame of mind than we have seen so far. Jacob said, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant” (verse 10); he claimed God’s help, reminding Him of His earlier promise recorded in Genesis 28:13–15, and recalling what God had said to Abraham: “I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude” (32:12; see also 22:17). Jacob had left with nothing but staff in hand, been protected for more than 20 years, and returned with a large family and material possessions.
“The Torah portrays the patriarchs and matriarchs in all their human complexity so that we can identify with them and take strength from their stories rather than seeing them as impossibly remote from all we know and are.”
Jacob’s strategy was to send Esau gifts ahead of his entourage in the form of five separate droves of animals—more than 500 in all. This he hoped would gradually soften his brother’s heart toward him. That evening Jacob and his family stayed encamped in Gilead. But during the night he sent his two wives, the two female servants and his eleven sons across the River Jabbok, in what is today Jordan, en route to the encounter with Esau. Then he stayed alone on the opposite bank.
That night he wrestled with what is described first as a mysterious angelic visitor (verses 24–28; Hosea 12:4). This was in reality Yahweh Elohim, the One who later became Jesus Christ. Though Jacob’s hip was dislocated in the struggle, he refused to cease from holding on until the visitor had blessed him. Tenacity in pursuing God’s way would be essential to Jacob’s further spiritual development, and this encounter demonstrated his willingness not to be defeated, yet to trust in his Opponent. The blessing came in the form of a name change. Yahweh asked Jacob his name in order to get him to admit his nature as a “Heel-grasper” or “Deceiver.” His renaming as Israel (“Prince, or Overcomer, with God”) emphasized his dependence on God rather than self. After this extraordinary experience, Jacob concluded, “I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30). The Hebrew word pen (“face”) appears several times in this section. Not only did Jacob come face-to-face with God, he also had to appease (make atonement with) his offended brother, come face-to-face with him, and have his face lifted up (verse 20).
When the two brothers came within a short distance of each other, Jacob bowed to the ground seven times as he approached. He called Esau “my lord” and referred to himself as Esau’s “servant.” Esau, far from being angry, ran to greet his brother. Again the important concept of face appears in the story; Jacob said to Esau, “I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me” (33:10). God is merciful and forgiving, and Esau demonstrated the same characteristics. Jacob then insisted that Esau take the droves of animals, not as a gift but as his “blessing.” That day the brothers were reconciled, Jacob implying that he would go to Seir and visit Esau after he and his household were rested and settled (verses 11–17).
Essentially, Jacob returned to Esau the blessing Isaac had mistakenly given him—a blessing of wealth and power: “May God give you of the dew of heaven, of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be master over your brethren, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be those who bless you!” (27:28–29). This was distinct from the blessing that Isaac gave to Jacob as he left for Mesopotamia. In that instance he had repeated the blessing of progeny and specific land given to Abraham (28:3–4).
“Before Jacob could be at peace with Esau he had to learn that he was not Esau but Israel—he who wrestles with God and never lets go.”
Jacob and Israel
Other personalities in Genesis undergo name changes (Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah), but their new names are used from then on. In Jacob’s case, both his old and new names are used following his name change and in some instances mirror the ups and downs of his spiritual progress.
Within the story of Joseph, Jacob is used 31 times and Israel 20 times. The Word Biblical Commentary points out that “since Jacob is the normal form, it is the exceptional appearance of Israel that needs to be explained.” It goes on to note that while “in prose Jacob always refers to the historical individual, Israel sometimes refers to the people” (see Genesis 46:8; 47:27; 48:20).
Further, “when Israel is used of the individual, it seems to allude to his position as clan head” (see Genesis 43:6, 8, 11; 46:1; 48:2), “whereas Jacob seems to be used where his human weakness is most obvious” (see, for example, Genesis 37:34; 42:4, 36; 47:9).
The commentary explains that the etymology of the two names supports these differences: Jacob means “struggler” or “deceiver,” whereas Israel means “prevailer with God.” Thus “Jacob turns into Israel when his strength revives” (Genesis 45:28; 48:2). Also “in those scenes where Joseph is present, Israel seems to be preferred” (Genesis 37:3, 13; 46:29–30; 48:2, 8, 11, 14, 20–21; 50:2).
This reversal on Jacob’s part signaled his gradual coming to terms with what was more important in life: seeking the face of God and His blessing, rather than the physical wealth and power that had rightly been Esau’s. Jacob was on his way to fulfilling his destiny as Israel rather than trying to become Esau, the firstborn. That said, there would be many more challenges to Jacob’s commitment to his new identity in the years ahead. This is borne out in the continuing use of his two names.
Violation and Vengeance
Genesis records next that Jacob bought land from Hamor, who owned property around the city of Shechem (33:18–19). Signaling his new identity, he built an altar there to El Elohe Israel (“God, the God of Israel”). But trouble lay ahead.
Hamor was a Hivite, one of the tribes of Canaan. Soon after Jacob’s arrival, his and Leah’s daughter, Dinah, formed a relationship with “the daughters [or women] of the land” (34:1). This resulted in her rape by Hamor’s son, Shechem.
Jacob appeared unconcerned—perhaps because she was the daughter of the less-loved Leah—and did nothing until his sons, who were taking care of the livestock, rushed home at the news. By contrast, Dinah’s brothers were outraged. Knowing that their sister was being held in Shechem’s house (verse 26), they first pretended to a peace agreement and the blending of families with the Hivites. A central condition was male circumcision for the Hivites. Despite the fact that Shechem had professed love for Dinah and agreed to immediate circumcision, being “more honorable than all the household of his father” (verse 19), her full brothers, Simeon and Levi, attacked and killed them all, plundering (raping) the city and taking the women and children captive.
“As often in Genesis, the narrative [in chapter 33] illustrates the triumph of the divine promises despite human folly and fallibility.”
Their actions troubled Jacob greatly, and he became fearful of reprisal by the indigenous people. As for Simeon and Levi, they showed no regret (verses 30–31) and by their words condemned Shechem and perhaps even Jacob: “Should he treat our sister [not “your daughter”] like a prostitute?” (ESV, emphasis added).
Back to Bethel
When he fled from Esau, Jacob had left the land via Bethel. There, in a dream, he had seen a vision of angels going up and down a ladder that reached heaven and had been assured that the birthright of descendants and a specific land was his, not Esau’s. Now God (Elohim) told him to return there and set up an altar to Him.
Jacob obeyed with gratitude for the protection and prosperity he had received over the years and took the opportunity to purge his household (including the captives from Shechem) of any idols and related jewelry: “So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears” (35:4, ESV). They also ritually cleansed themselves as part of their purification.
Jacob named the place of the altar El Bethel (“the God of the House of God”), “because there God [Elohim] appeared to him when he fled from the face of his brother” (verse 7). In the Hebrew-language version of this passage there is a reminder of the plurality of God, not just in the term Elohim but also in the third-person plural ending of the verb niglu (“appeared” or “revealed”). It should then read literally, “because there Elohim revealed Themselves to him.”
In a second appearance to Jacob after his return from Padan Aram, Elohim reconfirmed Jacob’s new name, Israel, and the promises of land and progeny made to Abraham and Isaac (verses 9–15). In this meeting God referred to himself as El Shaddai (“God Almighty”) as He had to Abraham (17:1). But whereas He told Abraham that he would be a father of a hamon (many or a multitude) of nations, Jacob/Israel was to become a nation and a kahal (community or congregation) of nations. This appearance took place once again at Bethel, where Jacob had set up a pillar stone in thanks and remembrance (see Genesis 28:18–19).
Despite this doubtless welcome reinforcement of God’s favor, tragedy struck Jacob once more as he traveled on to the south. His wife Rachel died following the birth of her second son, Ben-Oni (“Son of My Sorrow”), later named Benjamin (“Son of the Right Hand”) by Jacob. Rachel was buried close to Bethlehem, Jacob setting up another pillar stone to mark her grave (35:18–20).
Jacob’s grief over Rachel was not the only sorrow of that time. Soon after the family settled in the land, he learned that his eldest son Reuben had had sex with Jacob’s concubine, Bilhah, mother of his half-brothers Dan and Naphtali (verse 22). This resulted in Reuben’s loss of firstborn status (49:4; 1 Chronicles 5:1). What Reuben had done was a breach of the laws of incest and possibly an attempt to elevate himself above Jacob. The stresses and strains between Jacob, his wives and his family members were becoming more and more evident.
The toledoth or account of Isaac’s life ends at this point with the recording of his death at Hebron. Now Jacob and Esau came together again to bury their 180-year-old father at the cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and Sarah had been laid to rest (Genesis 49:29–32). Because Isaac lived 12 more years after Jacob returned, this section is chronologically out of sequence. The style of Genesis is to end one generational account before beginning another.
The next section is devoted to the descendants of Esau (also known by the national name Edom), who were born to his wives in Canaan and Seir. It also details the key peoples and individuals who inhabited Seir, land of the indigenous Horites, before Esau arrived and to whom his family became related (36:1–43). In these lists one name that stands out is Amalek, whose descendants played a role in the continuing history of the children of Israel.
Amalek was Esau’s grandson through his son Eliphaz and the Horite concubine Timna (verse 12). The Amalekites eventually lived in the Sinai and the Negev and were the first people to attack the children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land following their departure from Egypt (Exodus 17:8–16). Though defeated on that occasion, they became a thorn in Israel’s side for centuries, particularly after the Israelites had entered the land (Judges 6:3) and again in the days of Saul and David (1 Samuel 15:1–9; 27:8). During the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah, some from the tribe of Simeon defeated their remnant in Seir (1 Chronicles 4:42–43).
As for Jacob, what happened to him in terms of the continuing story of the descendants of Abraham was ultimately tied directly to his son Joseph, though the stories of Reuben and Judah are also important as they interacted with Jacob and Joseph.
Jacob’s toledoth begins in Genesis 37 and continues through the end of chapter 50. The firstborn of Jacob and Rachel was the one through whom the children of Israel came to inhabit Egypt until their eventual exodus under Moses.
The story of Joseph begins in detail when he was 17 years old and looking after his father’s sheep (37:2). Joseph was his father’s favorite son, born in Jacob’s later years when he was about 90.
The brothers he seems to have associated with most were the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, the handmaids of Jacob’s wives. Though they were all older than Joseph, he was not afraid to report on their bad behavior to his father (verse 2). The tension caused by this only added to the feeling of dislike the various brothers had for Joseph because he was his father’s favorite. Jacob showed his preference quite openly by making his son a special coat (ketonet passim) that signified rulership (verse 3). The Hebrew does not mean a coat of many colors, as often translated, but a long coat with long sleeves worn by royalty.
All of this made life difficult for Joseph: “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him” (verse 4). Their hatred was compounded by Joseph’s relating a dream he had where he was superior to his brothers, who bowed down to him. Joseph did not seem to realize that his dreams and words were gaining him no friends. He added a second dream about being in a superior role. To this Jacob responded: “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and I and your brothers indeed come to bow down to the earth before you?” (verse 10).
Nevertheless Jacob, unlike the envious brothers, thought about what this dream might mean.
“The text relates lapses [of faith] in Abraham, in Isaac, and in Jacob, but no lapse is mentioned in the case of Joseph.”
Some time later, Jacob sent Joseph to look for his brothers, who were feeding the flock away from home (verses 12–17). When Joseph found them it set in motion a train of events that would bring both anguish and blessing to the family over many years. Joseph’s brothers took the opportunity to rid themselves of him and his troublesome dreams. At first they planned to kill him and tell their father that a wild animal had taken him. It was only Reuben’s intervention that prevented the murder and saw Joseph put into a pit, perhaps a dry water cistern. As firstborn he no doubt felt responsibility to protect Joseph and planned to rescue him later and return him to Jacob (verses 21–22).
At this point Reuben must have gone away for a while, because when he returned Joseph was gone. What had happened in the meantime was that a caravan train en route to Egypt had passed by, and at Judah’s suggestion the remaining brothers had sold the 17-year-old to the Ishmaelite traders (verses 25–28) for the going price of 20 shekels (see Leviticus 27:5). The irony here is that these descendants of Abraham’s unelected son Ishmael had traded with some of Abraham's great-grandsons for their elected brother Joseph, taking him from Canaan, the Land of Promise, to sell him in Egypt, birthplace of Ishmael’s mother. But once again in the Genesis story we will see evidence of God’s faithfulness to the promises made to Abraham.
When the brothers returned to deceive Jacob about his son, though his supposed death was not now necessary, they callously continued with the lie and brought his coat stained with goat’s blood as evidence. This is a double irony when we consider that Jacob had deceived his father by wearing goatskin coverings and his brother’s garment.
The brothers added to their deceit by attempting to console their father, but “he refused to be comforted, and he said, ‘For I shall go down into the grave to my son in mourning’” (verse 35). Hardened as they were, they allowed him to suffer for years.
As for Joseph, he had been sold into the household of a high-ranking Egyptian officer named Potiphar (verse 36), where he would be first esteemed and then betrayed on the way to recognition and great power under Pharaoh himself.
Next time, Judah’s sin, Joseph’s success, and Jacob’s sons (once more).