This is part of a series of articles, describing each of the 66 books of the Bible and how it relates to the one overall story of God’s relationship with man. The story is examined in terms of the five recurring themes below. The series cover page can be reached here.
The book of Genesis is traditionally considered to have been written by Moses, who lived somewhere around 1300-1400 B.C. 1 However, the events referred to go much farther back — literally to the beginning of time — so the information must have been conveyed orally for generations. The lineage from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was deeply ingrained into the Hebrew people’s history by the time of Moses, though. It was the glue that held the people-group together.
The literary style of the book is literal, historical narrative. The tone is matter-of-fact, even when describing obvious miracles. People and places are named in real-world context, with nothing “once upon a time” or “in a galaxy far, far away”.
This book provides the start of our story, and lays the foundation for everything that comes afterward. It includes all five of the major themes presented in this article series.
Note: Genesis is a long book, covering everything from Creation, through the Flood, through the Israelite patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and ending with the story of Joseph. It has been split into four smaller articles:
- Creation through Abraham (chapters 1 through the first part of 11)
- Patriarchs – Abraham and Isaac (end of chapter 11 through chapter 26)
- This article: Patriarchs – Jacob and Esau (chapters 27 through 36)
- Patriarchs – Joseph (chapters 37 through 50)
The Lineage Passes to Jacob
In chapter 27, the prophecy from chapter 25 comes true. The firstborn twin, Esau, loses his birthright to his minutes-younger brother Jacob. From then on, the line of Abraham — and its associated promises from God — would be descended from Jacob. The family dysfunction continued: Jacob was his mother Rebekah’s favorite, so she helped him deceive Isaac. Isaac was blinded with age, unable to visually tell his sons apart. Jacob was able to dress and smell like Isaac’s favorite son (Esau) long enough for Isaac to pronounce the family blessing on him. When Esau came in minutes later, it was too late. He was now the second son instead of the first.
Unsurprisingly, Esau was displeased. He swore vengeance on Jacob. Rebekah convinced Isaac to send Jacob back to her family (Abraham’s brother and his family back in Paddan Aram of Mesopotamia). This served the dual purpose of providing Jacob with a non-Canaanite wife 2, and getting him away from Esau’s reach.
In Genesis 28, God met with Jacob in a dream, reassuring him of His presence and blessing.
I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.Genesis 28:13-15
Jacob named that place Bethel, “House of God”, and vowed that the altar he set up there would be God’s house if God would bring him safely back to that spot.
Jacob’s Wives and Children
Chapters 29 and and the first half of chapter 30 tell of Jacob starting a family in Paddan Aram, along with some family drama. When he arrived there, he made contact with his relatives, Rebekah’s and Abraham’s family. He stayed with his uncle Laban, and fell in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel. But deceiver Jacob had the tables turned on him: When it came time for Jacob to marry Rachel (after providing seven years of free labor for that privilege), Laban snuck in his other daughter, Leah, as a substitute. Jacob was forced to accept Leah, and to work another seven years before he could have Rachel as well.
Leah had children first: sons Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel had no children, so by the custom of the day she gave Jacob her servant to provide children for her: sons Dan and Naphtali. Then Leah followed suit, and her servant gave Jacob two more sons: Gad and Asher. Then Leah herself had two more sons, Issachar and Asher, and a daughter, Dinah. After all this, Rachel, the wife Jacob really wanted all along, finally had a son: Joseph. Later, in chapter 35, Rachel has one other son, Benjamin, but dies in childbirth. These twelve sons of Jacob later became the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jacob Heads Home
In the last part of chapter 30 and all of chapter 31 we see Jacob preparing to return to Canaan. However, this didn’t happen without some more drama. When Jacob first tried to leave, Laban convinced him to stay. Jacob had been working for Laban, tending his flocks of sheep. Laban agreed to give Jacob some so he could start his own flock. Jacob could have any that were off-color: speckled or streaked or dark instead of white. Then Laban secretly removed all animals matching that description from the flocks! Jacob manipulated the breeding to cause the remaining solid-color animals to bear mixed-color young. Now his flocks were increasing in spite of Laban’s trickery. 3
Laban was unhappy with Jacob’s increased wealth, and their relationship deteriorated. Jacob left town, quickly, with all his wives, children, and flocks, and without telling Laban. Laban followed after him. Things could have gotten ugly, but the two of them managed to come to a truce. They made a covenant of peace, and called the location “Mizpah”, from which we get the saying “May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.” 4
Jacob Reconciles with Esau, Struggles with God
In chapters 32 and 33, Jacob reconciles with his brother Esau. As he neared his homeland, Jacob sent messengers ahead to Esau to let him know that he was on the way…and to feel out Esau’s attitude toward their reunion. The word came back that Esau was coming to meet him…with 400 men. Oops!
Jacob went into damage-control mode. He split his party into two groups, in the hope that one would survive if the other did not. He also dispatched more messengers, this time with gifts for Esau. Those were in four groups, spaced apart so that Esau would receive gift after gift. And, he prayed. He reminded God of His earlier promises, and asked for protection from Esau’s vengeance.
On the last night before the confrontation, Jacob was alone with God. He spent the night wrestling with a “man” until daybreak. After the night of stalemate, the man simply touched Jacob’s hip socket and dislocated it 5. Jacob held on, insisting on a blessing before he would let the man go. He received his blessing, and also a new name: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Jacob called the place Peniel, the “face of God” because “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared“. See the full story at Genesis 32:24-32.
After that pivotal event in his life, Jacob looked up to see Esau coming to him…in peace. Whether because the gifts had worked, or because Esau had changed during the years that Jacob had been away, he was no longer seeking revenge for Jacob’s theft of his birthright. They parted as friends, with Esau going back to his home in Edom while Jacob settled in Canaan near the town of Shechem.
Rape and Treachery
Chapter 34 is a disastrous side trip that happened while Jacob and his family were living near Shechem. A man, also named Shechem, the son of the city’s ruler, fell in love with Jacob’s daughter Dinah…and showed it by raping her! He then asked his father to arrange a marriage between them. Jacob’s sons were displeased by this treatment of their sister. They made it a condition of the marriage contract that all the men of the city had to be circumcised 6. The Shechemites agreed, thinking that the economic value of Jacob and his people was worth it. But while the men were indisposed, Jacob’s sons Levi and Simeon slaughtered them all.
In chapter 35, Jacob found it prudent to leave Shechem. God sent him back to Bethel, where his journey had begun in chapter 28. When he arrived, God appeared to him again. He reiterated his new name, Israel instead of Jacob, and blessed him again:
I am God Almighty; Be fruitful and multiply; A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come forth from you. The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, and I will give the land to your descendants after you.Genesis 35:11-12
After this, Jacob’s wife Rachel gave birth to his last son, Benjamin. The birth was difficult, however. Rachel died, and was buried near Bethlehem. Jacob’s father Isaac also died at age 180, leaving Jacob, now Israel, as the head of the household.
Chapter 36 is a genealogy of Esau’s children. They settled in the land of Edom, south of Canaan. We will meet the Edomites later on in Israel’s history.
Continue to Genesis – Patriarchs – Joseph.
Footnotes and Scripture References
- There are differing schools of thought on the exact dates.
- Esau had married Canaanite (Hittite) women, much to his mother’s distress. (Genesis 26:34-35, Genesis 27:46, Genesis 28:8-9)
- Exactly how Jacob’s breeding tactics worked is unclear. He used sticks of certain woods with part of the bark peeled away. Some commentators see this as superstition or magical thinking, effective only because God intervened. Others see it as advanced genetics mixed with creative manipulation, again effective because of God’s intervention. In any case, Jacob’s flocks and wealth increased more than would normally be expected.
- An interesting side note: Unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel had stolen her father’s household idols. Why? When Laban accused Jacob of the theft, Jacob denied it. He offered to let Laban search everything, and put the thief to death if any stolen goods (or “gods”) were found. Rachel managed to keep them hidden. Crisis averted.
- Obviously, he could have done that at any point. The struggle was for Jacob’s sake, not God’s.
- The ritual had begun in Genesis 17:9-14 as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. This was definitely a misuse of that!