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Jacob: The Unexpected Patriarch Offers Non-Traditional Approaches to Bible Study

As the forbearer of the ten tribes, Jacob is usually viewed as a hero that, despite great adversity, becomes the father of the Jewish people. A rudimentary glossing of the Jacobean stories, however, leads the reader in a very different direction. Jacob is the figure who sells soup to his brother for an exorbitant fee and then fools his father into giving him the birthright. While the Rabbis certainly see Jacob in an unequivocally positive light, the reader of Scripture itself is in some ways left wondering why Jacob merited to be chosen by God.

In Jacob: The Unexpected Patriarch, Yair Zakovitch investigates each of the stories of Jacob’s life by means of literary archeology. As a method, literary archeology examines other literary expressions of the stories in question to gain a greater understanding of the actual happenings of the stories. Zakovitch looks at statements from the traditional Jewish corpus, such as Isaiah and Midrash Rabbah, and analyzes the wording of various passages. While his method is somewhat familiar—it follows in the footsteps of traditional commentators like Ibn Ezra—it also relies on certain assumptions that could be fairly troubling to a traditional reader. One of his main beliefs is that the story portrayed in Genesis is a story that has itself been modified to portray Jacob in an amenable light. One short example of this can be seen from Zakovitch’s analysis of Jacob’s name. When dealing with Jacob’s given name, Zakovitch quotes from Hosea, where Hosea rebukes the Jewish people for acting deceitfully (aqov ya’aqov). At the same time the biblical narrative of Jacob’s birth discusses that Jacob is named for holding on to his brother’s heel (aqev). Zakovitch sees inconsistencies in this story and others and posits that there were multiple traditions of the Jacob narratives, some of which were more favorable than others. The writers of Genesis put together a series of tales that portrayed Jacob in the best light possible, but other traditions still existed, one of which found its way into Hosea.

In another chapter, Zakovitch discusses Jacob’s encounter with a man who blesses him and gives him the name Israel. Later on, the verses state that God had spoken to Jacob in Bethel but no mention of struggle is made. The text says explicitly that he fought a “man”, however, innumerable traditions speak of a battle with an angel or God himself. The Midrash says that this man is the angel of Esau, and the Bordeaux pilgrim, who kept a travel diary which is the oldest Christian writing of a pilgrim in Israel in 33 BCE, also mentions Jacob’s fight with an angel. In Hosea, the prophet discusses Jacob “who strove with God and prevailed.” All these sources indicate a struggle with God or his messenger, which Genesis leaves out. Zakovitch posits that the Biblical writers did not want Jacob to have a struggle with God. The great hero would never have such a struggle, so they tried to obscure this story with a man. Again, Zakovitch uses many literary sources to work his method of literary archeology, where he works only within texts to try and uncover the true traditional story, which is not represented by the Genesis story. Rather, the writers of the Genesis narrative purposely tried to whitewash certain traditions that they felt denigrated Jacob.

When a religious person who believes in the singularity and divinity of the Biblical text confronts Biblical criticism, they are faced with a predicament. Writers such as Zakovitch begin with different assumptions about what the text is and is supposed to be than the devout reader. Many times these commentaries offer brilliant analysis, displaying new patterns and ideas. Specifically, Zakovitch’s explanation of the Bilhah and Reuven story as a punishment for selling Esau the birthright at an inflated price is extremely compelling. However, at other times his ideas are based on assumptions that the more conservative reader may not hold. In the aforementioned examination of Jacob’s name, Zakovitch assumes that the statement in Hosea is on equal footing with Genesis itself, and without it, the question never leaves the ground. Many traditional readers read the statement in Hosea and see a prophet using play on words to express his ideas in a poetic fashion. For Zakovitch, Genesis, just like Hosea, was written by a man, or men, who by definition have an agenda that compelled them to write. For the more traditional reader, the Pentateuch is straight from the divine and exemplifies emet. The Rabbis may have their agenda when they are casting Jacob in a positive light, but the Bible itself cannot.

The Yeshiva University student experiences a place that is willing to engage with ideas that it does not believe in, but still learn from them in a meaningful way. Apropos to the topic of this article, the Bible department is a perfect example of this confrontation. Professors like Aaron Koller, Rabbi Bernstein, Rabbi Carmy and others, present exegetes, archeological findings, and manuscripts that do not necessarily jive with traditional thought. In these classes the professors strive to understand the Biblical text in a meaningful fashion, while still holding to the idea of the divinely inspired word. Outside of the context of a Bible class given by a qualified specialist, the task becomes much more tricky. An engagement with the criticism may be helpful to your learning, but it may not necessarily share the same values you hold dear. The question for each person becomes: how far are you willing to go in exploring ideas beyond tradition? 

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