Son of Isaac and Rebekah and younger brother of Esau. The Bible presents Jacob in a double light. On the one hand, he is the revered ancestor of the people of Israel, and indeed the name “Israel” is said to have been given him by God after he had wrestled with God himself at Penuel (Gen. 32.28; but see also Gen. 35.10); on the other, he is a trickster, who deceives his brother into parting with his birthright (Gen. 25.29–34) and his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn that should have belonged to Esau (Gen. 27). Hosea 12.2–6 and Isaiah 43.27 may well indicate that Jacob's acts were later regarded as sinful, although the accounts in Genesis seem to record them without censure. Jacob is presented as a pastoralist, whereas Esau is a hunter (Gen. 25.27), and the stories about them may reflect rivalries between these two groups in later times, as with the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4.1–16); equally, they are contrasted as the ancestors respectively of Israelites and Edomites (Gen. 32.3).

Jacob, like his father Isaac, seeks a wife in Mesopotamia (Gen. 28.1–5). On the way Jacob encamps at Bethel and there in a dream sees divine messengers ascending and descending on a staircase between earth and heaven (see Angels) and erects a pillar to commemorate the incident—perhaps a story to explain why Israelites worshiped at what had been a Canaanite sanctuary. Jacob the trickster is himself tricked by his uncle Laban into working fourteen years to obtain the wife he desires, Rachel; Jacob contracts to work for seven years but at the end of that time is given Leah, her elder sister, instead (Gen. 29.15–30). Jacob has his revenge on Laban by swindling him out of large flocks and herds (Gen. 30.25–31.21) and flees from Laban's house to return to the land of Canaanas but is finally reconciled with his uncle (Gen. 31.36–54). After the mysterious incident at Penuel there follows a reconciliation also with Esau (Gen. 33.1–16).

The remaining stories of Jacob focus on the deeds of his children, the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob appears as an old man in the story of Joseph (Gen. 37; 39–50), where the theme of trickery recurs in the deceit by which he is robbed of his favorite son by Joseph's jealous brothers (Gen. 42.36). Eventually Jacob goes down to Egypt with his sons and dies there (Gen. 49.33), but his embalmed body (Gen. 50.2–3) is taken for burial to the land of Canaan by Joseph and his brothers (Gen 50.7–13). The blessing of Jacob (Gen. 49.2–27) is widely held to contain some of the oldest poetry in the Bible.

John Barton