Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yetze 5765/ November 20, 2004

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


The G-d of Jacob

Dr. Raphael Yarhi


Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz [1] notes that the story about our patriarch Jacob fills about 58% of the book of Genesis, and from this he concludes that the book ought to be called “The Book of our Patriarch Jacob.”  Further, he concludes that if Abraham is presented in Genesis as the father of acknowledgment of the Lord, monotheism and love of G-d, according to the tradition that he passed on to his children, then Jacob is the father of the people of Israel in actual fact.  The life of Jacob served as “a precursor for his offspring” (siman la-banim) [2] more so than the lives of Abraham or Isaac. [3]   Therefore, G-d accompanies the children of Israel, as a nation, throughout their history, in a manner resembling the way He related to Jacob—Elohe Yaakov-- and not the way He related to Abraham and Isaac.   We shall expand on this subject below.

The G-d of Abraham was the “G-d of going forth” – “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house” (Gen. 12:1).   Abraham went forth to Beth-El, to Mount Moriah, to Hebron, to Beer-sheba, to Gerar, to Egypt, and other places.   Abraham needed G-d’s constant assistance and His revelation every step of the way, and therefore we are told that the Holy One, blessed be He, intervened and delivered him at almost every turn.  G-d revealed Himself to Abraham numerous times:  at the covenant of the pieces, after he parted from Lot, in Egypt, when Hagar was sent off, in the story of the binding of Isaac, and others.   Abraham’s war on the four kings also was miraculous.

The G-d of Isaac was the “G-d of residing” – “Reside in this land, and I will be with you and bless you” (Gen. 26:3).   G-d accompanied him behind the scenes, as he resided in the land.  Isaac was like a pampered son who lived on the merits of his fathers.   He was the preferred son.   He had no family struggles as did Jacob with Esau, since Ishmael had been cleared out of his way by his parents.   He did not have to toil in order to marry his heart’s delight, since Abraham had arranged him a marriage.   Likewise, Isaac did not have to cope with preferring the good son over the bad one, as did Rebekah, since Isaac loved Esau quite simply, without any reservations or misgivings.

Isaac never left the land.   He roamed over a fairly limited part of the land, ranging from Beer-sheba to Gerar and Hebron.  Isaac did not fight for his place in the family or outside it, and he was not involved in wars, as were Abraham and Jacob, aside from his struggles over the wells, in which he gave in. [4]   He sowed the land and reaped one hundred-fold, the Holy One, blessed be He, making his undertaking succeed.   In his youth he went out to walk – “And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening” (Gen. 24:63); as a grown man he finds pleasure with his wife at midday (Gen. 26:8), and as an old man he asked Esau to prepare him a dish “such as I like” (Gen. 27:4).   He had not much need of help, since everything went well for him.  Only in old age, when he was one hundred and twenty-three, did Rebekah get the better of him, instructing Jacob to steal the blessing, resulting in Isaac experiencing a sense of dread when his son deceived him.

G-d’s way with Jacob was different from His way as the G-d of Abraham or the G-d of Isaac.  The G-d of Jacob was the G-d of fleeing and coping, the G-d of drama and tragedy; we do not see Him intervening in all that happened to Jacob, and on the surface level of Scripture He left Jacob to cope almost entirely on his own for one hundred and forty-seven years of his life.   G-d revealed Himself to Jacob five times, at long intervals, and in each revelation He made him promises, as we shall detail below, but He did not actually do anything to save him from his troubles.   Even when the Holy One, blessed be He, appeared to Laban in a dream, He intervened after Jacob had already solved his problems himself, and the success of his flight was not guaranteed him beforehand.  Likewise, the Holy One, blessed be He, did not intervene in the drama of buying the birthright from Esau, neither in the act of stealing the blessing, nor in the deceit practiced by Laban or in Joseph’s sale, or other events.

G-d first revealed Himself to Jacob at Bethel, in his flight from Esau, when he was sixty-three years old. [5]   From this it would appear that the Holy One, blessed be He, had not intervened in Jacob’s affairs earlier.   What had Jacob been doing until age sixty-three?  According to the Midrash, Jacob purchased the birthright from Esau at age fifteen. [6]   Thus, between his buying the birthright and his fleeing from Esau, forty-eight years had passed.

The second revelation was in the ninety-seventh or ninety-eighth year of Jacob’s life.  In this revelation the Holy One, blessed be He, told Jacob to return to the land of his ancestors, after having spent twenty-one years with Laban. [7]   In other words, G-d’s second revelation to Jacob was around thirty-five years after the first one at Bethel, so the Holy One, blessed be He, had left Jacob to go through all his travails in Laban’s household without help, leaving him to run all his affairs and those of his family, as well as his dealings with Laban, without open divine intervention.

The third revelation was when an angel appeared to Jacob at the ford across the Jabok, after he had left Laban.   Presumably this revelation was not long after the second one. Jacob struggled with the angel and hurt his groin; but here, too, there is no mention of G-d helping him.  The fourth revelation was after the Dinah affair, as he was en route from Padan Aram, and after the massacre of the men of Shechem (Gen. 35:9-11).   This revelation, as well, was not in order to bring Jacob deliverance, rather to give him a blessing and promise:  “Be fertile and increase; a nation, yea an assembly of nations, shall descend from you.”

The last revelation occurred when Jacob was one hundred and thirty years old, prior to his descent to Egypt (Gen. 46:2-4).   Thus it turns out that Jacob received no revelations for thirty-two years.  Especially noticeable is the absence of revelation to Jacob during his years of agonizing over Joseph’s disappearance.   The lack of any words of comfort or promise from G-d must have been sorely felt.  From age one hundred and thirty until the day of his death another seventeen years passed during which Jacob saw no more revelations. [8]

As the G-d of Jacob, the Holy One, blessed be He, did not intervene overtly in directing Jacob’s life or in delivering him from harm, [9] it is as if He were saying to Jacob that the sort of protection and divine intervention that his forerunners, Abraham and Isaac, had enjoyed was gradually diminishing. Jacob was left to cope with his fate on his own.   The Lord blessed Jacob, made him promises and encouraged him, but He did not directly intervene.   If Jacob failed, it was a failure that depended on him; for example, the sale of Joseph, which came about because he had favored Joseph over his brothers and had aroused their jealousy; or the story of Dinah, which happened because he did not insist on her behaving modestly.  When Jacob succeeded, his success depended on himself, being the fruit of his own initiatives.

As we have said, in the history of the Jewish people, the G-d of the children of Israel is the G-d of Jacob.   As with Jacob, the history of the Jews in actual fact is one of fleeing, wandering and exile. [10] As with Jacob, so too the history of the Jews is replete with drama and tragedy.   Most important, however, is that the history of the Jews, like the life of Jacob, is a story of coping on one’s one in order to survive.  Therefore, the G-d of the Jewish people is the G-d of coping by oneself and of survival. [11]

Support for the idea of coping oneself can be found in G-d’s words to Jacob in the revelation at Bethel:   “You shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south...  Remember, I am with you:  I will protect you wherever you go ... I will not leave you” (Gen. 28:14-15).  The Holy One, blessed be He, essentially told Jacob:  first you, Jacob, must surge forward, in all directions; and if you do that, the Holy One, blessed be He, will protect you wherever you go.   This is also the message given us, as the offspring of Jacob.  The faith in G-d’s assistance that is derived from the way in which G-d treated Jacob is that we must first cope with our problems ourselves, taking positive initiative and accepting responsibility for our actions.   The Holy One, blessed be He, will not intervene if we slacken off, if we are negligent, or if we have done something unbefitting.  The results of our own deeds are our own responsibility.  The Holy One, blessed be He, helps us by making our good deeds succeed, but He leaves us to deal with the results of our bad deeds.

The G-d of Jacob hints at another message, as well.   At Bethel G-d blessed Jacob that “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants.”  According to the literal sense, ve-nivrekhu [rendered as “shall bless themselves”] means that blessing shall come upon them, but Rashbam interpreted this as related to mavrikh and markiv, words coming from the world of agriculture and referring to grafting a branch onto the trunk of a tree in order to improve the branch and its fruit or to give the tree certain characteristics from the grafted branch.  According to this interpretation, the expression ve-nivrekhu bekha meant that Jacob was the trunk and onto him would be grafted branches from the families of the earth, and those would be his descendants. [12]   An illustration of this idea appears in the list of Jacob’s descendants.  Jacob included the sons of the handmaids among the tribes of Israel, with no differentiation between them and his other sons.   Abraham expelled the son born to the handmaid, and Esau did not carry on the line of Isaac, but with Jacob there was a turning point; the sons of the handmaids were part of the twelve tribes that became a single people, [13] and Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph and Asnat, daughter of Potiphera the priest of On, became part of the Israelite people (Jacob said:   Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon,” Gen. 48:5). [14]   The message was passed on to his offspring, and the Jewish people in the course of their history indeed grafted on and improved individuals and groups from outside of the Jewish world, thereby extending their ranks:  beginning with the sons of Jacob and Joseph, through Ruth the Moabite, Rabbi Akiva and Onkelos the Proselyte, and others in later generations.

         Dr. Raphael Yarhi


[1] Y. Leibowitz, Sheva Shanim shel Sihot al Parashat ha-Shavua, 2001, p. 117.

[2] See what the Netziv says in Harhev Davar (I) on verses 30-31.

[3] Rabbi Aviner draws a distinction between the world of Abraham and Isaac versus the world of Jacob according to the parameter of the level of complexity.   Abraham and Isaac’s world was not complex, whereas Jacob’s world was full of complexity.   Tal Hermon, Beit-El 1995, Parashat Va-Yeshev.

[4] Aviner sees Isaac as someone who does not get into trouble and who cannot be gotten into trouble.  It was his shepherds who had the disagreement; he himself was not involved in it.   Loc. sit., p. 71.

[5] When Isaac was old and his eye-sight failing him and he asked Esau to prepare him the dishes he enjoyed, he was then one hundred and twenty-three years old.  This is based on the calculation that when the birthright was sold Isaac had been seventy-five, because Jacob and Esau were then fifteen (see the next note), and when the blessing was stolen they were sixty-three.   In other words, forty-eight years passed from the sale of the birthright to the theft of the blessing, and therefore at the time the blessing was stolen Isaac was one hundred and twenty-three.   Since Isaac died at the age of one hundred and eighty, according to Scripture (Gen. 35:28), Isaac lived another fifty-seven years after Jacob stole the blessing and fled to Padan Aram.   When Jacob returned to the land at the age of ninety-nine (according to Rashi on Gen. 28:9, after Jacob left Laban he spent another two years on the road), Isaac was one hundred and fifty-nine.  When Joseph was sold, Jacob was one hundred and eight (see Rashi on Gen. 35:29), and therefore Isaac was one hundred and sixty-eight.  In other words, Isaac lived another twelve years after the sale of Joseph.  See note 7 below for further details.

[6] This calculation is based on the legend that the stew Jacob was cooking was a dish made for the mourning over Abraham’s death.   Abraham passed away at the age of one hundred and seventy-five, and since Isaac was born to him when he was one hundred, Isaac must have been seventy-five years old at the time.   If Isaac had Jacob and Esau when he was sixty, Jacob and Esau must have been fifteen years old.

[7] He arrived at Laban’s when he was seventy-seven (see Rashi on Gen. 35:29).   (When he fled from Esau he was sixty-three, but then he spent fourteen years studying in the study house of   Eber.)   Also according to Genesis Rabbah (Va-Yetze 68.5) Jacob was eighty-four when he married Leah, after having worked in Laban’s household for seven years.  Hence, Jacob fled from Laban at the age of ninety-seven, and that was when he received his second revelation.

[8] The Lord ceased speaking to Jacob almost entirely after his return to his father Isaac (end of chapter 35); the word of the Lord only came to him once after the conclusion of the dramatic events preceding his descent to Egypt (according to the above calculations, he was then one hundred and thirty).   See Meshulam Margaliyot, “Hakdamah le-Masekhet ‘Joseph ve-Ehav,’Mi-Perot ha-Ilan, Bar Ilan University, 1998, p. 119. 

[9] See the article by Y. Alfasi, “Ya’akov ve-Yisrael,” loc. sit., p. 93.

[10] See the Netziv, note 2.

[11] Judah Elitzur sees a message from the sons of Jacob to those who were their heirs in transmitting the heritage of Israel and his teaching.   See “Yosef   ve-Ehav – Ma-hi Megamat ha-Sippur?,” Bar Ilan Parasha Page on Parashat Mi-Ketz (no. 216), 1998.  The message that I suggest in this article is different; see below.

[12] See Leibowitz, note 1, p. 122.

[13] Rabbi Judah Halevi in The Kuzari notes this development as a change in the way the Divine interest applied.  He says (First dialogue, 95):  “The chosen of Abraham’s sons was Isaac, and therefore Abraham sent off all his others sons from that special land, the land of Canaan, and reserved it only for Isaac.  And the chosen of Isaac was Jacob, and therefore his brother Esau was distanced from that land, for Jacob alone was found worthy of it.  But the sons of Jacob were all chosen, all of them together being worthy of the Divine interest.”  This included the sons of the handmaids, which is a new development in comparison with the treatment of the sons of the handmaids of Abraham and Isaac.

[14] Rashi comments on the words, “His sons carried him” (Gen. 50:13):   “And not his grandsons, for he had commanded them thus:  My bed shall not be carried by an Egyptian, nor by one of your sons, who were born of Canaanite women, rather you yourselves.”  Here I shall not cite the various other views put forth by commentators on this subject.