Jacob (Heb. ya'ăqōb, meaning uncertain), also known as Israel, son of Isaac and twin of Esau. By popular etymology his name was associated with the Hebrew word 'āqēb, "heel" (Gn 25.26) and the denominative verb 'āqab, "to trip someone by seizing his heel, to supplant" (Gn 27.36 and Hos 12.4). Either the sacred writer did not know the true derivation and meaning of the name, or he deliberately set it aside to highlight the fact that, because of divine election, Jacob, and through him, the Israelites, were destined to supplant Esau, and his progeny, the Edomites. It is probable that the name Jacob was originally an abbreviated form of a theophoric name such as ya'ăqōb-’el (M. Noth, Personennamen 179, 197, associates it with the South-Arabic root 'qb and suggests the meaning "God protects").
Ostensibly the biblical narratives concerning Jacob appear as straightforward records of the personal exploits of Israel's progenitor. Yet closer scrutiny reveals that these narratives are, in reality, quite complex. They are skillfully edited accounts of traditional material to teach the significance of the patriarch's life both in relation to God's salvific plan and the character of the chosen people. Archeological data has demonstrated the genuine historical milieu of these narratives, and we are assured that the sacred writers did not arbitrarily create these stories. Yet the narratives are given a function beyond that of mere biography. They are deliberately didactic and succinctly evaluate national tendencies observed in the nation's progenitor, e.g., Jacob's cunning, occasionally rather unscrupulous, and his ready recourse to physical strength are portrayed as national traits that tend to hinder the divine plan of salvation and lead to the brink of disaster. Consider, for example, Jacob's fraudulent acquisition of the blessing reserved to the firstborn and the consequent threat to his, and the nation's, life. There can be no doubt that the author intends to censure these national traits and appeal for a humble faith and compliance to the divine plan. At times the narrative presages what has come to pass at the time of the actual editing of the narratives. Thus, Israel supplanted Edom at the time of the establishment of the Davidic empire, yet the very name, Jacob, is interpreted in terms of this supplanting, and the early narratives highlight its initial steps. Again, the flight of Jacob to Padan-Aram is reinterpreted (Gn 27.46–28.5) to emphasize the patriarch's concern for racial purity and depict him as an initiator of the later policy against mixed marriages.
One should be mindful, therefore, of the didactic rather than strictly biographical bent of the narratives. Some of the main religious themes of the Jacob stories are as follows: the cultural and religious differences and the hostile relations between the two nations, Edom and Israel (Gn 25.27–34); Jacob's fraudulent acquisition of the blessing-of-the-firstborn (Gn 27.1–46) and, by contrast, God's free choice of unworthy Israel as His instrument for the establishment of His kingdom (Gn 27.46–28.22); the conversion of Jacob, and the imposition of the name israel (Gn 32.22–33); the establishment in shechem (Gn 33.18–20); the pact between the Israelites and the amorrites, and the later conquest of Sichem by the Israelites, thus giving Israel a right to the Holy Land (Gn 34.1–31; 48.21–22); the cleansing of the nation from paganism and the renewal of the divine pledge of election (Gn 35.1–15).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 1094–95. m. noth, Überlieferungsgeschichte des Pentateuch (Stuttgart 1948) 86–111.
[j. a. pierce]