Photo courtesy of Laura Padgett
By Katie Habash

The narrative of Jacob’s life consumes exactly half of the book of Genesis, making it the first fully-developed story in the Bible. From his birth as an already-ambitious baby in Canaan to his death as a resigned and anguished old man in Egypt, the readers are exposed to one of the most complex character development the Bible offers in its entirety. Nonetheless, Jacob’s character and deeds during the first few minutes of his life even lend themselves to inner-biblical exegesis, in which texts comment on or re-interpret each other within the Bible. Jacob’s first sign of his ambitious nature – which later turns into a deceiving one – occurs in the womb, where he and his brother Esau “wrestle each other” in order to be born first and receive the birthright (Gn 25:22). Unfortunately for Jacob, Esau wins the wrestling match, leaving Jacob trailing behind him: “And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had a hold on Esau’s heel (aqeb); and his name was called Jacob (ya’aqob)” (Gn 27:26). As we can see here, the word “heel” and the name “Jacob” are derived from the same Semitic root (a’q’b), and in this verse it is explained that the original reason for Jacob’s naming is his hold on Esau’s “heel.” Nevertheless, different Biblical writers re-interpreted the meaning of the root (a’q’b) in order to reflect Jacob’s character. In his writings, the prophet Hosea re-interprets the original Biblical account of Jacob’s by changing one vowel in the word “heel” (aqeb) to mean “cheat” (aqab): “In the womb he cheated (‘aqab) his brother” (Hosea 12:5). Hosea changes the etymology of Jacob’s name to one of “deceit” rather than a simple human “heel,” which also is an attack on Jacob’s character as a deceptive son to his father Isaac and brother to Esau. The prophet Jeremiah also continues the practice of using the root of Jacob’s name to have a connotation of duplicity in his book. In his warning of the corruptness of human nature, the prophet Jeremiah exclaims, “Trust not even a brother/For every brother cheats (‘aqob ya’aqob)” (Jeremiah 9:3). Once again, the root (a’q’b) is used as the root of the verb “to cheat” in regards to Jacob’s dishonesty against his brother. The conniving personality of Jacob, one of Israel’s most significant patriarchs, paved the way for many other biblical characters to take a jab at commenting and re-interpreting his fascinating story.

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