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Biblical Israel – Jacob & His Sons


Third of the Israelite Patriarchs, Jacob is portrayed in Genesis as a strong, thoughtful man, capable of fox-like cunning as well as deep emotion. Like his father, Isaac, and his grandfather Abraham, he made a pact with God who would eventually rename him 'Israel'. His 12 sons would become the founders and namesakes of the tribes that formed the ancient nation of Israel.

Jacob's Origins

Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, were born around the nineteenth century B.C. near Beersheba, in the Negeb region of southern Canaan. These times were peaceful throughout the whole Near East. Isaac had been married for 20 childless years to Rebekah, when at last she became pregnant with her twin sons.

'The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is thus,

why do I live?” so she went to ask the Lord. And the Lord said to her,

“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be

divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve

the younger.”' (Gen 25:22-23)

To later Israelites, this prophecy proved to be true. Rebekah's sons became the founders of the Israelites and the Edomites. When the time came, Rebekah gave birth to the twins in the privacy of her tent.

'The first came forth red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so

they called him Esau. Afterward, his brother came forth, and

his hand had taken hold of Esau's heel; so his name was called

Jacob [he who takes by the heel].' (Gen 25:25-26)

A name which afterwards was adopted to mean 'a supplanter', since he who takes hold by the heel 'trips up' the other. Maidservants assisted with the delivery, probably aided by a midwife.

Isaac, delighted to be the father of sons, was consulted about what names should be given, and eight days later, the boys were circumcised according to Abraham's covenant with God.

The boys were by no means identical twins. In fact, they were very different in both appearance and temperament. Esau, the elder by a few minutes, grew to be an active boy, strong and aggressive. From early youth, his greatest love was to hunt wild animals. Jacob, the younger, was quite the opposite. He was quiet and patient, but intelligent and shrewd. Unlike his brother, Jacob was perfectly content to stay at home. When he was old enough, he went out with his father and the other herdsmen to observe how they handled the flocks, learning enough to become a shepherd himself, later in life.

This was probably the only education either of the boys received. Since almost nothing was written down and few children learned to read and write, tribal lore and history were passed on by word of mouth. The boys spent most of their childhood in or near the family tents, located on a wide, rocky valley near Beersheba. Its open, nearly treeless fields provided good pasturage and a number of wells supplied water for drinking and washing. Rain fell occasionally, but the water was quickly absorbed by the dry soil, so the nomads' colorfully striped goat-hair tents were clustered around wells.

As is so often the case, Isaac and Rebekah made favorites of the sons who had the opposite of their own disposition. The quiet, retiring Isaac preferred his bold, daring, strong, roaming elder son; while Rebekah, who was naturally energetic, felt chiefly drawn to her gentile son Jacob. Yet at bottom, Esau was also weak and easily depressed, as appeared in his tears and impotent reproaches when he found himself really deprived of the blessing; while Jacob, too, like his mother, was ever ready to take matters into his own hands.

As a young boy, Jacob sometimes stayed home with his mother, assisting her with the daily chores of grinding grain, churning butter and baking flat loaves of bread. She would spin fleece into woolen thread, dye it and weave colorful clothes for the family in her loom. On this loom, Rebekah also wove strips of goat-hair fabric to make separate tents for the boys as they grew older and to repair the old tents as they began to wear out.