The Magazine

Patriarch of Identity

Who is Jacob, and what does he mean?

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By DAVID WOLPE
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Jacob dreams of ladders. A romantic reading of his story would see the ladder as a metaphor of ascent. This child who begins as a deceiver ends surrounded by his children, and is brought back home to Israel for burial. A preacher would tie it up (as many have) with a nice didactic bow.

‘Jacob Receiving the Tunic of Joseph’ by Diego Velázquez (ca. 1630)

‘Jacob Receiving the Tunic of Joseph’ by Diego Velázquez (ca. 1630)

But Yair Zakovitch is not a preacher, and this is not a homiletic book. It is a profound, unsparing, and deeply learned look at a character who demonstrates the uneasy and charismatic qualities of a flawed hero. This is also a book about the underside of the Bible: the manner in which it hides the shadow of its own story, and the way in which a biblical scholar with a keen eye can bring that tale to light.

Zakovitch begins his short, lucid inquiry by asking why the Torah needs to tell the patriarchal story at all. Why not begin with the Exodus narrative, the chronicle of a people? He reminds us that the early days of Israel were concerned with self-definition. In a land where many tribes shared customs (and perhaps ethnicity), the question was: What made Israel different? The stories of the founders serve to identify Israel by contrast. Other possible tribal associations are repudiated. A people with a unique lineage cannot be confused about its origins, and enemies are wonderfully clarifying when establishing identity.

Paradoxically, this patriarch of identity—whose name is changed to Israel—turns out himself to be entangled in deceit from his first moments. Zakovitch has coauthored, with Avigdor Shinan, a wonderful book in Hebrew called That’s Not What the Good Book Says, which excavates allusions to stories left as mere hints in the text. He demonstrates how widely Jacob’s very name is identified with deceit throughout Scripture. When Jacob is himself deceived, believing his bride to be Rachel when it turns out to be her older sister Leah, the rabbis imagine Leah answering his complaint: “Is there a school without teachers?” Jacob had deceived his father and placed himself before his older brother. Well, Leah says with some justice, my father has deceived you by placing the older (Leah) before the younger.  

Of course, were he only a con artist, Jacob would not be worthy of our interest. But Jacob is a dreamer, a legacy he will pass on to his son Joseph, and, in a supreme moment of self-transcendence, he wrestles with an angel and is transformed into Israel—one who struggles with God. Faithful and guileful, there is an unevenness to his character. “We see,” writes Zakovich, “that Jacob alternately exhibited initiative and passiveness.” The patterning of his life, made so clear in this exposition, reveals something important about Jacob that is a model for human understanding.

Jacob’s life is not only a story of cunning; he is the “victim” of parental favoritism. While his father preferred his brother Esau, his mother guided him to steal the birthright. Jacob, in turn, practices favoritism with Joseph, with near-catastrophic results: Joseph’s brothers intend to kill him and end up selling him into slavery. Jacob is separated from his beloved mother by deceit and is later separated from his favorite son for decades, deceived by his own children. (They bring a bloody coat to Jacob recounting that Joseph was eaten by wild animals.) He is threatened by his brother Esau but ultimately reconciles with him, much as he later watches his son Joseph reconcile with his brothers. 

These stories are part of the many accounts of fractured families that characterize all of Genesis. To close the circle, Jacob, who was blessed by his old blind father in his dotage, blesses his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menasseh, and insists on preferring the younger to the older. The alert reader is ready for a new confrontation. Indeed, Joseph tries to correct his father, but Jacob insists on the inverted order. Only, this time it occasions no fight: The brothers are reconciled. Menasseh is the unsung hero of the Torah because he does not protest. And now that some of the family breaches have been healed, the saga of a people can begin with the book of Exodus. In a beautiful moment of clarity, Jacob, the victim and perpetrator of so much family anguish, becomes the agent of its healing.

Zakovitch tells all this both straight and slant, recounting the story so that the reader is refamiliarized, but also pointing out where the seams of the text show through. For instance, in the story of Dinah, known as the “Rape of Dinah,” was the rape, in fact, added later for justification? Was Jacob’s story a pattern for the saga of King David? Where was Rachel’s gravesite, and why are two different locations given?