Yale University Press has been publishing biographies of famous Jews, in a series called “Jewish Lives.” The latest release is Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch, by Yair Zakovitch, emeritus professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As Zakovitch himself admits in the introduction, it would be a stretch to call this book a biography. It is actually a close literary reading of texts in the Bible, some that are clearly about Jacob and others that Zakovitch argues are about Jacob, even though they do not appear to be. The book was published in Hebrew two years ago and has now been translated into very readable English by the author’s wife, Valerie Zakovitch.
Zakovitch describes the Jacob story as akin to a theatre production in which we can watch the action unfold but we don’t really know what the characters are thinking. He notes, as have many scholars of biblical narrative, that the narrator rarely tells us how to assess the characters.
Still, Zakovitch states that “the story of Jacob’s life was not put into writing simply to recount what occurred.” The most constant message that he identifies in the Jacob stories is retribution for misbehaviour. In the middle chapters in Genesis, Jacob purloins his older brother’s birthright and blessing. Zakovitch argues that the Bible gives Jacob his comeuppance for these deceptions again and again.
The idea that Jacob’s actions come back to haunt him later in life is not new. It can be traced back to early midrashim and was later made famous by Martin Buber and by Nechama Leibowitz. Recall that Jacob, at his mother’s instigation, fooled his blind father, Isaac, into thinking that he was Esau in order to get the blessing meant for the firstborn son. He carried out the deception by taking his brother’s clothes without permission and putting goat skins on his arms to make them feel more like those of the hairier Esau (Genesis 27). Later Jacob’s future father-in-law, Laban, fooled Jacob by having him marry his older daughter, Leah, when Jacob was hoping once again to put the younger, Rachel, before the older (Genesis 29). And later yet, Jacob’s sons deceived him tit for tat by stealing the clothes of their younger brother, Joseph, and covering those clothes with the blood of a goat (Genesis 37).
But aside from these well-known examples, Zakovitch finds a series of other payback stories about Jacob, which to the best of my knowledge are his own insights.