The predominant interpretation of the Jacob story is as follows: Jacob was an unconverted cheater who stole his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing, yet he was later converted when God appeared to him in a dream in Genesis 28.
This all sounds reasonable, as the Jacob narrative (Genesis 25–35) involves stories of Esau selling Jacob his birthright and Jacob deceiving his father Isaac and his uncle Laban. Moreover, readers assume a negative view of Jacob early on, as Jacob came out of the womb holding Esau’s heel, and Bibles like the ESV add the footnote that Jacob’s name means “He cheats.”
However, there are several reasons to rethink this common reading of the Jacob story. The following points support the view that Jacob was actually righteous from birth.
First, Jacob is called “blameless” in contrast to Esau (Genesis 25:27).
This is an important description that follows the birth narrative of Jacob and Esau:
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet [תָּ֔ם] man, dwelling in tents (Genesis 25:27).
The ESV (quoted above) translates the Hebrew adjective תָּ֔ם (tam) as “quiet,” and almost every other translation does something similar (Genesis 25:27). The problem here is that when תָּ֔ם is used for humans, it means “blameless” (e.g. Deuteronomy 18:13; Joshua 24:14; Judges 9:16, 19; 2 Samuel 22:24, 26; Psalm 18:23; 37:37; Job 1:1, 8; 2:3; Proverbs 29:10). Job is described as “blameless” in Job 1:1 using the same word as that for Jacob (תָּ֔ם). Noah is described as “blameless” (Genesis 6:9) and Abram is commanded to be “blameless” (Genesis 17:1) using a variation of the same word (תָמִֽים, tamim).
The NET Bible notes even recognize that תָּ֔ם “normally has the idea of ‘blameless,” though the NET text translates it as “even-tempered” in Genesis 25:27. Translators of Genesis 25:27 would likely argue there is a contextual argument for translating תָּ֔ם as “quiet” or “even-tempered.” However, I contend that translators refuse to use “blameless” because the way they interpret the entire Jacob story. Most interpreters rule out that Jacob was “blameless” and therefore do not want to use the normal translation of the word תָּ֔ם.
As for context, there is nothing in the immediate context of Genesis 25:27 that requires the translation of “quiet” for תָּ֔ם. All the verse does is contrast Esau, a “hunter” and man of the “field,” with Jacob, who was תָּ֔ם and lived in “tents.” If Esau’s “fields” are contrasted with Jacob’s “tents,” then this leaves Esau’s description as a “hunter” (literally “a man knowing hunting,” צַ֖יִד יֹדֵ֥עַ אִ֛ישׁ) contrasted with Jacob’s description as תָּ֔ם, which normally means “blameless.”
Does “quiet” really make sense in contrast to “hunter”? Not really. However, “blameless” does contrast well with “hunter,” especially when the likely negative background in Genesis is understood. In Genesis 10:9, Nimrod was described as a “mighty hunter before Yahweh” [לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה גִבֹּֽר־צַ֖יִד]. This could also be translated as a superlative (“the greatest hunter in the world”), or it could be translated as “a mighty hunter against Yahweh.” Though not much else is known about Nimrod, he is described as a warrior and hunter who had a large kingdom (Genesis 10:8-12). This was likely a negative description of a violent, godless ruler in the ancient world. With this as the background in Genesis, Esau’s description as a “hunter” probably had a negative connotation and an association with violence.
Regardless, “blameless” is the normal translation of תָּ֔ם when used to describe a human, and there needs to be good contextual evidence to translate it otherwise. Such evidence is lacking. Instead, Esau’s description as a “hunter,” which is probably negative, strengthens the argument that תָּ֔ם should be understood positively and in its normal sense of “blameless.” Thus Genesis 25:27 contrasts the violent Esau with the righteous Jacob.
Second, the Bible attributes failure to Esau, not Jacob (Genesis 25:34).
When Esau came in from the field and was hungry, Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now” (Genesis 25:31). Esau should have rejected such a lousy offer. But despising his responsibility as firstborn and lacking patience, Esau accepted Jacob’s offer. Many read the story of Esau selling his birthright as an example of Jacob’s “cheating.” But this is not how the author of Genesis evaluates the event. The story concludes, “Thus Esau despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34). It says nothing of Jacob “stealing” the birthright or “cheating” his brother. This is affirmed by the author of Hebrews, who describes Esau as “unholy” and states that he “sold his birthright for a single meal” (Hebrews 12:16).
Further, Esau married Hittite women (Canaanites) that made Isaac and Rebekah miserable (Genesis 26:34-35; 27:46). Isaac thus instructed Jacob not to marry Canaanite women but marry from within his family (Genesis 28:1-5). This led Esau to a foolish decision of taking a third wife simply because she was not a Canaanite but a daughter of Ishmael (Genesis 28:6-9). Of course, Esau was also a violent man who “hated” Jacob “because of the blessing” and planned to kill him (Genesis 27:41). The point is that the author of Genesis assigns blame to Esau throughout the Jacob story. Jacob is never said to have done anything wrong but in fact serves as a contrast to his wicked brother.
Third, God told Rebekah that He chose Jacob, not Esau, to inherit the covenant (Genesis 25:22-23).
Of course, this does not say how Jacob would inherit the covenant, whether it would be given directly to him or whether he would have to deceive to gain it. (Though since the older child normally inherited the blessing, something out of the ordinary had to happen.) However, the point is that God spoke directly to Rebekah and told her that Jacob would inherit the promise:
And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other; the older [Esau] shall serve the younger [Jacob]” (Genesis 25:23).
Rebekah knew this word from Yahweh, and she most certainly told Isaac. And since Isaac would have known that Jacob was heir of the covenant, he should have been willing to give Jacob the blessing. This was even more the case since Isaac had to have known that Esau signed his birthright over to Jacob. Jacob and Esau made a valid contract that Isaac should have recognized.
Instead, Isaac sought to undermine God’s promise by blessing Esau, whom Isaac loved “because he ate of his game” (Genesis 25:28). Isaac’s behavior forced Jacob, along with the help of his mother Rebekah, to deceive Isaac in order to receive the blessing and thus fulfill God’s promise. It is not Jacob and Rebekah who should be viewed negatively here, but Isaac, who sought to interfere with God’s plan. Rebekah is actually the heroine in the story, as she protected the covenant by tricking the serpent. She is the one who insisted that Jacob go through with the deception of Isaac in order to receive the blessing. Rebekah was willing to die for the covenant and took the potential curses of Jacob’s actions on herself (Genesis 27:12-13).
Objection 1—Does Not Jacob’s Name Mean “He Cheats”?
Now we must deal with some objections to the case above. Does not Jacob’s very name mean “he cheats”? Not exactly. Jacob came out of the womb holding Esau’s “heel” (עָקֵב, aqev), so they called his name “Jacob” (יַעֲקֹ֑ב, yaaqov) (Genesis 25:26). Jacob’s name is a verb, and according to the NET Bible notes it probably means “may he protect,” as in “a rearguard, dogging the heels.”
It is important to note that Jacob is initially given his name because he held Esau’s heel at birth (Genesis 25:24; Hosea 12:3). It was a play on words and may have been completely neutral, just as Esau’s name came from his red appearance at birth. The later negative connotation of Jacob’s name was given by Esau:
Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing” (Genesis 27:36).
Esau plays off Jacob’s name by using it as a verb—“he has cheated me” [וַֽיַּעְקְבֵ֙נִי֙]. The NET Bible translates this, “He has tripped me up.” Words have a semantic domain, and in this case, Esau is using Jacob’s name negatively, as in “to trip up/supplant.”
However, it is important not to read Esau’s new negative interpretation of Jacob’s name in Genesis 27:36 back into the original meaning of Jacob’s name or into the prior events of Jacob’s life. This is merely Esau’s evaluation of Jacob. Esau was understandably upset and thus interpreted Jacob’s name negatively. But Jacob’s name only has something to do with a “heel.” It could have a positive meaning (as in “rearguard”), or it may simply refer to his incident at birth in a neutral manner.
Either way, we should not read the entire Jacob story in light of Esau’s angry words in Genesis 27:36. Esau was not even correct in his evaluation of the events, as he blamed Jacob because he “took away” his birthright, when the author of Genesis blames Esau for “despising” it (Genesis 25:34).
Objection 2—Was Not Jacob Converted During His Dream in Genesis 28?
When Jacob fled from Esau and was on his way to Haran to take a wife, Jacob had a dream where Yahweh confirmed his covenant to Jacob. Just as Yahweh promised Abraham and Isaac land and offspring, He also promised to give them to Jacob (Genesis 28:10-15). Jacob rejoiced that Yahweh was in that place, so he set up a pillar and called the place Bethel (“house of God”) (Genesis 28:16-22).
Many interpreters infer that Jacob was unconverted prior to this event because he “did not know” that Yahweh was there (Genesis 28:16) or because he made a vow that if Yahweh protected him then Yahweh “shall be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21). However, this inference is unnecessary. Jacob had just fled from the violent Esau, and he was understandably in a fearful state (Genesis 27:41-45). This dream from God was a time of encouragement and confirmation to Jacob, and Jacob responded properly by worshiping God (Genesis 28:22).
This was likely Yahweh’s first appearance to Jacob, which would explain why Jacob “did not know” that Yahweh was in that place (Genesis 28:16). Jacob did not expect Yahweh to appear to him in a dream. As for Jacob’s vow in Genesis 28:20-22, this was merely a declaration of worship:
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you” (Genesis 28:20-22).
If God would protect him and provide for him on his journey, then Jacob declared that Yahweh shall be his God, that he would set up a pillar to God, and that he would tithe all his future belongings to God. If read in isolation this could sound like a conversion story. But in context this is better understood as an event leading Jacob to increased faith, or even a recommitment to Yahweh after doubt. That Jacob “struggled” with the wicked Esau while their mother was pregnant suggests that Jacob was regenerate in the womb (Genesis 25:22). But like the experience of all believers, Jacob had reached one of the low points in his faith. He was just forced to flee from home because his brother wanted to kill him. Yet God calmed his doubts and reaffirmed His promises. That Jacob worshiped Yahweh so readily is evidence that Jacob was already a man of God.
Jacob—The Righteous Deceiver
Yes, Jacob was a deceiver. But deception is not always sinful. In this case, Jacob was the righteous deceiver. Along with the help of his mother Rebekah, Jacob deceived his father in order to uphold the covenant. (See also the midwives in Exodus 1 and Rahab in Joshua 2.) Having righteously deceived Isaac, Jacob faced a wicked deceiver in his uncle Laban, who deceived Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel (Genesis 29:23-25). Laban sought to deceive Jacob again in regards to the flock, but Jacob would get the better of him through God’s help (Genesis 30:25-43; 31:1-16). Jacob “tricked” Laban “by not telling him that he intended to flee” (Genesis 31:20), but God watched over Jacob (Genesis 31:24).
Then angels met Jacob on his way to meet Esau (Genesis 32:1). Jacob was still fearful of Esau and prayed to God (Genesis 32:9-12). That night God wrestled with Jacob and renamed him “Israel,” which means “he fights with God” or “God fights” (שׂרה, sarah combined with אֵל, el). God said to Jacob:
Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven [שָׂרִ֧יתָ] with God and with men, and have prevailed (Genesis 32:28).
Jacob’s entire life was a fight. He fought with Esau, Isaac, Laban, and even God Himself. But Jacob always prevailed. And he prevailed because Yahweh was with Him. This new name did not signify some conversion from a sinful past but was part of God’s continued “blessing” of Jacob (Genesis 32:26). God recognized Jacob for what he was—a fighter. And now he would bear the name that would be used for all of God’s people, Israel.
But God was not done blessing Jacob. He appeared again to Jacob and reaffirmed the Abrahamic promises of land, offspring, nations, and kings (Genesis 35:9-13). Only this time, God also commanded Jacob to “be fruitful and multiply,” just as He had commanded Adam and Eve in the Garden (Genesis 35:11; cf. 1:28; 28:3). Jacob was thus not only the eponym of Israel, but also a new Adam. God was redeeming His people Israel and giving them a new garden, the land of Canaan.
The Greater Jacob
Of course, Jacob points to someone even greater, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jacob was father of a nation, and Jesus Christ is head of the church. Jacob had 12 sons who formed the tribes that would inherit the Promised Land, and Jesus chose 12 disciples who would lead God’s people into the new heavens and earth. Jesus is a new Israel and a new Adam. But instead of being commanded to “be fruitful and multiply” like Jacob and Adam and so bear physical offspring, Jesus commanded His disciples to multiply by discipling the nations (Matthew 28:19). The nation of Israel would fail its wilderness testings, but Jesus would be faithful in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11).
Jacob was a good man, a “blameless” man. He fought with God and men, yet he prevailed because God chose him and was with him. Along the way, Jacob righteously deceived those who opposed God’s covenant. In this way, Jacob points to Christ, whose death on the cross deceived the serpent in his plan to kill the Son of God. Instead, the serpent only bruised Christ’s “heel” (עָקֵֽב, aqev), as God raised Him from the dead and brought about the salvation of mankind (Genesis 3:15). Jesus not only crushed the head of the serpent but also conquered sin and death, thus prevailing over all His enemies and proving Himself to be the true and greater Israel. It is time we properly interpret Jacob as a hero of the Old Testament, a godly man who points to One even greater than himself.