Who is Jacob in the Bible?

I have been asked several times, who is Jacob in the Bible?

This article will answer that question. However, this is not an attempt to write a full biography of Jacob.

Rather, I will look at the basic facts of Jacob’s life and his family.

Jacob’s Father and Mother

Jacob’s father was Isaac / Yitzchak. Isaac was the only son born to Abraham and Sarah.

Abraham had other sons with his other wives (Hagar and Ketura).

Jacob’s mother was Rebecca / Rivka. Rebecca’s father was Bethuel. She also had a brother, Laban, who played an important part in Jacob’s life.

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Birth of Jacob

Jacob was born when his father Isaac was 60 years old. This was in the year 2108 from the creation of man.

Here’s how the Torah describes Jacob’s birth:

Bereshit / Genesis Chapter 25

24 When her [Rebecca’s] days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb.
25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau.
26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so he called his name Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.

Jacob’s twin brother was named Esau. Note the verse says “they (plural) called his name Esau.” It seems that everyone who was present were in agreement that this baby should be named Esau.

However, with Jacob the verse says “he (singular) called his name Jacob.” The verse doesn’t make clear who gave the name.

Rashi in his commentary suggests two possibilities. First he suggests that God told Isaac that he should name this son Jacob. Second, he suggests that Isaac decided on the name himself without any prompting.

Meaning of Jacob

Verse 26 states that Jacob was holding Esau’s heel. The Hebrew word for heel is “ekev” which is spelled ayin-kuf-bet.

Jacob’s name in Hebrew is Yaakov which is spelled yud-ayin-kuf-bet. As you can see, Jacob / Yaakov is a play on the Hebrew word for heel.

Jacob’s Wives

Jacob had four wives. Here are their names in the order he married them:

  1. Leah
  2. Rachel
  3. Bilhah
  4. Zilpah

Here are more details about how Jacob ended up with 4 wives.

Jacob was commanded by his father to not marry a Canaanite woman.

Bereshit / Genesis Chapter 28

1 Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and commanded him and said to him, “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women.
2 Arise, go to Paddan Aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take for yourself a wife from there from the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother.

When Jacob arrived in Paddan Aram he started working for Laban. They made a deal that Jacob would work for 7 years. At the end of 7 years he would be permitted to marry Rachel.

Jacob worked as a shepherd
Jacob worked for Laban as a shepherd for 7 years to marry Rachel

At the end of 7 years, Laban arranged the wedding. However, he tricked Jacob and substituted his daughter Leah in place of Rachel.

Laban permitted Jacob to marry Rachel one week later. Laban required Jacob to work an additional 7 years for the privilege of marrying Rachel.

Therefore, at this time Jacob has worked for Laban for 7 years and he has 2 wives.

Zilpah and Bilhah

When Yaakov married Leah, Laban gave her a maidservant named Zilpah.

Also, a week later when Yaakov married Rachel, her father gave her a maidservant named Bilhah.

At first, Bilhah and Zilpah were not married to Jacob. As we will see in the next section, God granted Leah the privilege of bearing 4 sons to Jacob.

Rachel was upset that she had not given birth to any children. Here is what happened next:

Bereshit / Genesis Chapter 30

1 When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, so Rachel envied her sister. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, and if not I am dead!”
2 Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?”
3 Then she said, “Here is my maidservant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my knees, that even I may be built up through her.”
4 So she gave him her maidservant Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her.

Rachel gave Jacob permission to marry her maidservant Bilhah as a wife. Bilhah became one of Jacob’s wives in every sense of the word and gave birth to 2 sons.

Later, a similar thing happened with Leah and Zilpah.

Bereshit / Genesis Chapter 30

9 When Leah saw that she had ceased bearing children, she took her maidservant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife.
10 Then Leah’s maidservant Zilpah bore Jacob a son.

Zilpah became Jacob’s fourth wife and ended giving birth to 2 sons.

Jacob’s Sons in Order

Here is the list of Jacob’s 12 sons in the order their births are recorded in the Bible. The following list gives the son’s name and then his mother’s name after the dash:

  1. Reuben / Reuvain – Leah
  2. Simeon / Shimon – Leah
  3. Levi – Leah
  4. Judah / Yehudah – Leah
  5. Dan – Bilhah
  6. Naphtali – Bilhah
  7. Gad – Zilpah
  8. Asher – Zilpah
  9. Issachar – Leah
  10. Zebulun – Leah
  11. Joseph / Yosef – Rachel
  12. Benjamin / Binyamin – Rachel

The births of Jacob’s first 11 sons are recorded in Genesis chapters 29 and 30. These sons were all born in Paddan Aram.

The birth of Benjamin is recorded in Genesis chapter 35. Benjamin was born after Jacob returned to the Land of Israel.

Jacob’s Daughters

How many daughters did Jacob have?

The Torah mentions explicitly only one daughter, Dinah the daughter of Leah.

Bereshit / Genesis Chapter 30

19 And Leah conceived again, and she bore Jacob a sixth son (Zebulun). …

21 Afterward she bore a daughter and she called her name Dinah.

However, later in the Torah we see a mention of “daughters.”

When Joseph was sold into Egypt by his brothers, Jacob thought his son was dead. Here is how the Bible describes Jacob’s reaction:

Bereshit / Genesis Chapter 37

34 Then Jacob tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son (Joseph) many days.
35 All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to the grave to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

Who are these “daughters” mentioned in verse 35? In Jewish tradition two answers are suggested.

1. The daughters are Dinah, his granddaughter Serach (daughter of Asher), and all of his daughters-in-law. In other words, Jacob had only 1 daughter. But other women were closely related and also referred to as daughters.

2. The second approach is that the birth of each of the 12 sons was accompanied by the birth of a twin sister.

Based on these opinions, Jacob either had 1 daughter or 12 daughters. If he had 12, there is no clear mention of the other 11.

Jacob’s Death and Burial

Jacob was 147 years old when he died which would have been in the year 2255 after the creation of man. He was buried in Hebron in the Machpelah Cave.

Here are more details about these events.

Before he died, Jacob called his sons together to bless them. The blessings are recorded in Genesis 49:1 – 27.

Here’s what he told them next:

Bereshit / Genesis Chapter 49

29 Then he commanded them and said to them, “I will be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite,
30 in the cave that is in the field of Machpelah, before Mamre, in the land of Canaan, which field Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a burying place.
31 There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife. There they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife. And there I buried Leah
32 The purchase of the field and the cave that is in it from the children of the Hittites.”

Jacob gives his sons his burial instructions. Also, he gives a little recap of the history of the burial cave that Abraham purchased.

Then Jacob died:

Bereshit / Genesis Chapter 49

33 And Jacob finished commanding his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired, and was gathered to his people.

Jacob’s burial is recorded in Genesis chapter 50.

Bereshit / Genesis Chapter 50

7 And Joseph went up to bury his father. With him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt,
8 and all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his father’s household. Only their children, their flocks, and their herds they left in the land of Goshen. …

12 Thus his sons did for him as he had commanded them,
13 for his sons carried him to the land of Canaan, and they buried him in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which field Abraham had bought as a burying place from Ephron the Hittite before Mamre.-

Further Reading

Jacob is the only of the patriarchs to have all of his sons follow in his footsteps. He established what we now call the 12 Tribes of Israel.

Jacob’s life is recorded in Genesis Chapters 25 – 49. You can read more about his life in starting with this summary of Parshat Toldot.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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