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Israel's Messenger,

JACOB: SCOUNDREL OR SAINT?..

by Rev. Mark Robinson

In a marriage arranged from “on high”, Isaac, at the age of forty, would marry Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel, Abraham’s brother’s son. They had a great desire to have children, but for twenty years Rebekah had been barren. They sought the LORD that her inability to conceive would be removed. God granted their petition, and twin boys named Jacob and Esau were born to Isaac and Rebekah.

These two sons had conflict with each other even in the womb of their mother. The Scripture tells us that “… the children struggled together within her.”1 When she inquired of the LORD as to the reason for this struggle, He responded: “…Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.”2

The two nations were represented by Esau (so named because of the redness covering his body), and Jacob (which literally means “heel.”)3 Jacob’s name was given him because of the order of his birth; he emerged second, grabbing hold of Esau’s heel.

The Scripture presents an interesting contrast of these two individuals. Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field, loved by his father Isaac, and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents, and loved by Rebekah. They came from the same womb but lived as if they were from two different worlds.

As the firstborn, Esau had the promise of the birthright. Esau, though, was a profane man. Coming in from the field famished, Esau saw the meal that Jacob was cooking. He asked Jacob to give him the meal he had prepared. Jacob offered to sell the meal to Esau for his birthright. With undeniable overstatement, Esau responded, “… Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?”4 Jacob consummated the agreement by having Esau swear to it, and the birthright was sold for a meal of pottage.

The above incident has resulted in Jacob being described as a cunning, conniving, manipulative individual. He is oftentimes erroneously referred to as a supplanter because of what took place in this activity. Unfortunately, this unscriptural portrait of Jacob is frequently applied to Jewish people as a whole. Just as Jacob’s character has been maliciously maligned, so too Jewish people have suffered under the same type of character assassinations. How much has this portrait of Jacob contributed to anti-Semitic treatment of Jewish people?

The unfolding of subsequent events in this story is oftentimes seen through this distorted initial supposition about Jacob.

Isaac was old and nearing the time of his death; his eyesight was failing. He called Esau to him and told him to go kill a deer and provide some venison for him which was his favorite meal. After having partaken of this meal, Isaac would then bless him. Rebekah overheard this conversation and concocted a plan.

She called Jacob and told him to follow her instructions. He was to go get some kids of the goats and she would make a delicious meal for Isaac. Rebekah gave Jacob some of Esau’s clothing to wear, and out of the skins of the goats she produced a hairy-like covering for Jacob’s hands and neck. This being done, Jacob went in to Isaac and after serving the meal to him he was blessed by his father.

Upon returning from the field and learning that Jacob had received the blessing, Esau was bitter and angry. In anger he proclaimed to Isaac, “… Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing. And he said, Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?”5

It seems many people give more weight to this statement about Jacob than all the rest of the biblical record of these two men and the events of their lives. The angry, vain, and profane immediate response of Esau to the seeming injustice in his life certainly should merit less emphasis than the entire context of the happenings in the lives of Jacob and Esau.

Rebekah was told by God of the future of her twins while they were in the womb. “And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger,” Genesis 25:23. Dr. Henry Morris in his Genesis Record commentary, commenting on Rebekah being told by God of the reason for the struggles in her womb, aptly suggests, “No doubt, Rebekah told all this to her husband Isaac; and later, when the time was appropriate, she told it to Jacob and perhaps even to Esau. As time went on, however, Isaac and Esau began to reject and to forget this decision of the Lord, even trying to thwart it. Strange it is, and a sad commentary on the spiritual discernment of most believers even today, that they tend to favor Esau rather than Jacob, just as Isaac did.”6

Strange indeed, that many preachers and writers give more credence to Esau than to Jacob. It is my opinion that Jacob has been one of the most unjustly maligned individuals in the Word of God. Following are some thoughts for your consideration.7

1) Not one verse in the entire Word of God condemns Jacob. In fact, God says “Jacob have I loved…” This silence from Scripture about any negative actions or attitudes by Jacob is totally different from the usual portrayal of Jacob from too many pulpits and pens.

2) In Genesis 25:27 Jacob is referred to as a “plain man.” Aaron Pick’s Dictionary of Old Testament Words for English Readers translates this word as “perfect.” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament likewise translates this as “perfect,” and adds that it also means “undefiled, upright.” It seems God’s understanding of Jacob’s character is quite different from many others.

3) Esau was a profane man. We are warned “lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.”8 Profane speaks of someone not interested in religious things.

4) Jacob entered into a legal transaction when he bought the birthright. It was Esau who despised the birthright and the promises of God, not Jacob. An effective argument has been made that Jacob (and certainly, Rebekah) was seeking the spiritual blessings of God and the Messianic succession of the birthright so the promise would not stay with an ungodly, selfish individual.9 Based on this transaction; the birthright now legally belonged to Jacob.

5) It was Rebekah who told Jacob to do the things he did. It seems that Jacob did not believe he was doing something wrong since the birthright now belonged to him. Hear his response to his mother’s request to obey her. “My father peradventure will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a deceiver; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing.”10 Jacob says “I will seem to him to be a deceiver.” Since Isaac knew nothing about what had transpired between Jacob and Esau he could possibly think of Jacob as a deceiver. But from Jacob’s statement it seems that he did not look on his actions as deceptive, but rather the receiving of what was now rightfully his.

6) It would seem that Esau was the deceiver in this case. Despising the birthright, he sold it to his brother and then tried to get it back by misleading his father.

7) When Isaac asked Jacob to identify himself, his response has seemed to many to be an outright lie. The Artscroll Tenach commentary suggests an interesting understanding of the Hebrew Krkb wse ykna, “I am Esau your firstborn.” The comment is made that, “the commentators agree that technically Jacob did not lie. He chose his words deliberately, the intent of his response being as Rashi explains: ykga, It is I who bring this to you; Krkb wve, Esau, (however) is your first born. Thus, by adding Krkb, your first born, Jacob was presenting an ambiguity and intimating what was, in fact the truth.;11

8) The blessing given to Jacob by Isaac was never rescinded. One would think if Isaac thought he had been duped, he would have removed the blessing. But he didn’t. He actually confirmed it. The Scripture records that “… Isaac trembled very exceedingly, and said, Who? where is he that hath taken venison, and brought it me, and I have eaten of all before thou camest, and have blessed him? yea, and he shall be blessed.”12 Isaac somehow knew (possibly by the Holy Spirit’s leading), that the blessing should reside with Jacob, not Esau, and perhaps he trembled realizing how close he came to giving the blessing to the “wrong” son. The inspired writer to the Hebrews confirms this understanding, “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.”13 How can we miss the understanding of Hebrews 11:20, that Isaac blessed Jacob through his faith in the God of his father. He was doing exactly what God wanted and, again, there is no hint of condemnation of wrong actions on the part of Jacob recorded in the entire Word of God. No wonder Isaac would say “and he shall be blessed.”

9) The unfortunate label of “supplanter” on Jacob has largely come about because of a statement by Esau. This ungodly, bitter individual’s testimony has become the standard character description of Jacob. How tragic, especially since this verse as translated does not express the meaning of the verse. Let me quote Dr. Joseph Cohn.

“We have mentioned before in this volume the fact that nowhere can it be shown that the word Jacob in the Bible means “supplanter.” This is purely an imagination of certain Bible translators or interpreters; whether such imagination was deliberate or accidental we cannot of course assert. But the word Jacob means only ‘heel,’ and nothing else. And so the original Hebrew passage of Genesis 27:36 has been grossly misinterpreted and mistranslated in the English. The English rendering in the St. James version reads: ‘Is not he rightly named Jacob? For he hath supplanted me these two times.’ But if we take the Hebrew just as it is written, the passage will read as follows: ‘Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he hath Jacobed (heeled) me these two times.’ In other words Esau simply made a play on the word Jacob, which means heel, and not supplanter.”14

Even if one were to accept supplanter as the meaning of Jacob, the word supplant(er) basically means to supersede or replace another. Although Webster’s Dictionary does say it is especially done by force or treachery, it does not need to have that inference. I would suggest that the negative connotation of the phrase supplanter has been read into Jacob’s actions, and is not based on a consideration of the entire context.

10) Jacob would go to Padan-aram to get a wife as he was told to do by his mother and father. Before leaving, Isaac again gave him his unqualified blessing. Would this have been done to an unrepentant fraud and deceiver? I think not.

Rabbi Riskin, a regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post, comments on the possible motives of Rebecca and the deception of Esau in this episode which are helpful.

“…Rebecca sees the world – and Esau – with different eyes. First of all, God Himself (as it were) had told her that two nations were in her womb, and that the elder would serve the younger. And even more to the point, she grew up with Laban, the Aramean – a word linguistically connected with rama’i, deceiver, and its repetition three times in our portion suggests that Rebecca knew only too well the sounds of a person speaking with forked tongue.

“Perhaps Rebecca sees such a machination as an opportunity to demonstrate Esau’s true character. Rebecca cannot criticize Esau outright, the apple of his father’s eye. The Matriarch must demonstrate to her naive husband that he is capable of being deceived, he would also understand that the same deception had been practiced by Esau all these years.

“And this is precisely what happens. Esau’s arrival with the venison produces a great trembling in Isaac, possibly evoking the trembling he felt on the altar. He realizes that just as his father once nearly sacrificed him, he has unconsciously been sacrificing Jacob, overlooking the son given over to study and morality in favor of the son who craves animal blood.

“Rebecca, sister of Laban the Aramean deceiver, saw it all along. Isaac realizes at last that he is capable of being fooled. Hence, anger directed at Jacob is not appropriate. On the contrary, Jacob is the true heir to the blessing, which is why the key phrase is, ‘Moreover, and he shall be blessed.’

“Jacob is not the deceiver. Esau is, and has been all along.”15

Upon leaving Beersheba and heading for Haran, Jacob bedded down for the night in a place he would eventually call Bethel. In the midst of his sleep, through a dream, God reestablished the blessing to him: “… I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.”16

Jacob, according to Scripture, was an “upright, undefiled, perfect” man. God’s promises to Abraham, through Isaac, would continue through Jacob. Jacob would be the direct progenitor of the twelve tribes, the nation of Israel. Jacob being listed among the men and women of faith of Hebrews 11, suggests God’s understanding of him and his character is different from most preachers and writers.

End Notes

1. Genesis 25:22a
2. Genesis 25:23
3. The common teaching that Jacob means supplanter is erroneous. The Artscroll Tenach Series, Genesis Vol. III, p. 1061, says, “His father [sc. Isaac] named him Jacob [Yaakov, a play on the word ekev, heel] because he grasped Esau’s heel.”

4. Genesis 25:32
5. Genesis 27:36
6. Dr. Henry Morris, The Genesis Record, page 181, Baker Book House, 1976
7. I am indebted to the book I Have Loved Jacob, (ABMJ, now Chosen People Ministries, 1948) by Dr. Joseph Hoffman Cohn for much of the following insights.
8. Hebrews 12:16
9. See pages 31 – 37 of I Have Loved Jacob.
10. Genesis 27:12
11. The Artscroll Tenach Series, Genesis Vol. III, p. 1130. The commentary adds “The commentators take pains to show that Jacob remained as close as possible to the truth during the course of his conversation with Isaac. Some of the interpretations seem very strained in the light of the translation. It should be borne in mind, however, that the construction of the Hebrew allows for such interpretation even where the English does not.” It then footnotes this comment with “However, it must be understood that only the Divinely ordained nature of the mission justified Jacob’s clever choice of words to avoid an outright lie. He did mislead his father, and in everyday affairs such behavior would be halachically (religious law) forbidden as deceptive…”
12. Genesis 27:33
13. Hebrews 11:20
14. Dr. Joseph Cohn, I Have Loved Jacob, (ABMJ, 1948) p. 45-46
15. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, A Lesson in Deceit, Shabat Shalom Column, The Jerusalem Post International Edition, week ending November 16, 1996, page 31
16. Genesis 28:13-15

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