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Outlines Of Jewish History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.


              1. Importance of Jacob in Jewish History.




              2. Birth and First Period of Life:

              A. Birth of Esau and Jacob.


                            B. Purchase of Birthright.


                            C. Acquisition of Paternal Blessing.




              3. Journey to and Sojourn in Haran:

              A. Reasons and Incidents of the Journey.


                            B. Jacob and Laban’s Household.


                            C. His Shepherd Life.




              4. Return from Haran and Subsequent Life:

              A. Motives of Departure.




                            B. Principal Incidents

              East of the Jordan (Mt. Galaad, Mahanain, Phanuel, Socoth).


                                          West of the Jordan (Sichem, Bethel, Ephrata, Mambre).




                            C. Life in Hebron; removal to and Death in Egypt.




              5. Character: Constrast with







1. Importance of Jacob in Jewish History. As might naturally be expected, Isaac was treated by God, after his father’s death, as the lawful and sole heir of the Divine promises, and, in fact, his history resembles in many ways that of Abraham. Like him, he moves under Jehovah’s guidance and protection (Gen. 26:1–3, 11) and receives glorious promises of a large posterity “in which shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 26:3, 4, 24); like Abraham, he exhibits genuine devotion to Jehovah (Gen. 26:25), and God makes him very prosperous, victorious over his enemies, grants him children and length of years (Gen. 26:12–14; 27–31; 25:21–26; 35:29). And yet the patriarch next to Abraham in importance in Jewish history is not his son Isaac, whose deeds are only summarized in the Book of Genesis, but his grandson Jacob, whose history is recorded with so many details in the Sacred narrative. If we possess so many particulars about Jacob’s life, it is not simply because his was a very eventful life. It is also because (1) even before his birth, he was chosen by God, in preference to his twin-brother Esau, to become the actual father of the twelve heads of the tribes of Israel (Gen. 25:22, 23); because (2) during the first period of his life he succeeded in purchasing Esau’s birthright (Gen. 25:28–34) and in obtaining the last blessing of Isaac (Gen. 27); and, finally, because (3) the tribes which eventually united into a powerful (the Jewish) nation, trace back their respective origin to his immediate posterity.

2. Birth and First Period of Life. Great, indeed, must have been the love of Isaac for Rebecca and his faith in the Divine promises, since he remained twenty long years without the blessing of children, and yet neither thought of taking another wife—as allowed by Oriental customs—nor gave up all hope of obtaining children through her. At length, his trustful and earnest entreaty with God in Rebecca’s behalf secured the long-desired offspring. Rebecca conceived twins who seemed to struggle in her womb, and filled with apprehension she appealed to Jehovah who returned this prophetic answer:

Two nations are in thy womb,

And two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels;

And a people shall overcome a people,

And the elder shall serve the younger.

In due time the twins were born, and were called respectively Esau and Jacob, from the well-known circumstances which accompanied their coming forth.

Esau was the elder, and as such was beloved by Isaac, who naturally considered him as his lawful heir, and who, later on, enjoyed—as Orientals do down to the present day—the game which Esau’s love of the chase often secured in the surrounding country of Bersabee. On the other hand, Jacob was the favorite of Rebecca who ever considered him as the lawful heir of Jehovah’s promises to Abraham, soon acquainted him with the Divine oracle in his behalf, taught him how invaluable was the birthright therein promised to his exertions, and urged him to avail himself of every opportunity that might make sure the attainment of so desirable an object. To this maternal influence of Rebecca over Jacob’s mind and feelings we may naturally ascribe the eagerness with which Jacob proposed to Esau the selling of his birthright for a savory dish, a transaction to which the latter readily agreed, through a lack of proper appreciation of the Divine blessings then connected with primogeniture (Genesis 25:21–34).

The Sacred narrative does not tell us whether this transfer of Esau’s birthright to his brother was made known to Isaac; but we can easily gather from it that Esau, relying on his father’s special affection, continued to feel sure of the paternal inheritance, and that Isaac really intended to transmit it to him with his last blessing. This would have indeed occurred if Rebecca had not, in her part of the tent, overheard the words of Isaac, when, in his old age, he directed Esau to “go abroad,” bring him of his hunting and “make him savory meat thereof,” and if, under her influence, Jacob had not taken advantage of his father’s dimness of sight to obtain the last paternal blessing intended for Esau. Jacob’s blessing was irreversible and gave him henceforth the most unquestionable outward claim to all the privileges of birthright, and this is why now, sadly frustrated in his expectations, Esau begins to cherish murderous designs against his brother (Gen. 27:1–41).

3. Journey to and Sojourn in Haran. Two reasons demanded that leaving Bersabee, the actual residence of his father, Jacob should start for Mesopotamia. He would thereby (1) secure himself against the wrath of Esau, who only waited for the decease of Isaac to recover the advantages of birthright by the death of Jacob (Gen. 27:41–45); and (2) avoid all connection with the surrounding tribes by obtaining a wife from among the descendants of his forefathers (Gen. 27:46; 28:1–6). On his way northwards Jacob soon reached the spot “where Abraham had already erected an altar, and at which he may have determined to make a halt on that account” (RAWLINSON, Isaac and Jacob, p. 91). This was then, as it is now, a stony district; and at night, the fatigued traveller used for a pillow one of the many smooth stones scattered around him. Comforted by a mysterious dream, wherein God renewed to him the glorious promises already made to Abraham and Isaac, Jacob dedicated this spot the next morning to God, and called it Bethel (that is, the House of God) and vowed exclusive worship to Jehovah should He accompany him during his wanderings and bring him back safely home. Then he went on his way, following probably the same road as Eliezer, and reached Haran after a journey of upwards of four hundred miles (Gen. 28:10–22).

The relations of Jacob with Laban’s household in Haran form an interesting episode, the details of which are perfectly true to Eastern life. “The well (by which Jacob met Rachel) is in the field, that is in the open pasture-land. Water being scarce, all the flocks, for miles round, meet at it to be watered. The heavy stone rolled over its mouth may be seen by any traveller in many parts of Palestine. The daughters of the flock-masters still go, in many places, to tend and water the flocks.… That Laban kissed Jacob effusively is only what one sees Orientals doing every day, on meeting a neighbor or a friend. The wily Syrian, in admitting that it is better to give Rachel to the son of Isaac than to another man, acted simply on the Bedouin law that a suitor has the exclusive right to the hand of his first cousin.… To give a female slave to a daughter as a part of her dowry is usual now, where means permit, so that Zelpha’s being given to Lia at her marriage is another proof of the unchanging sameness of Eastern life in all ages. Excuses for sending home an elder daughter, instead of a younger, to the bridegroom, need still to be made in not a few cases, and are exactly the same as those with which Laban palliated the substitution of Lia for Rachel” (GEIKIE, The Holy Land and the Bible, chap. xx). Even the agreement of Jacob with Laban to serve long years to obtain Rachel in marriage is not without parallel in modern Eastern life (cfr. MILMAN, History of the Jews). He indeed succeeded in marrying Rachel, to whom Laban gave Bala as a part of her dowry, but this, instead of securing his domestic happiness, brought only in its train the many evils naturally entailed by the practice of polygamy, and to which allusion has already been made in connection with Abraham (Genesis 29:30–30:26).

It was through Lia and her sister Rachel and their two handmaids that Jacob obtained a large family, all destined by God to share in the paternal inheritance, and to become in their turn the fathers of numerous descendants who later on developed into the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jacob’s manner of life during his entire sojourn in Haran was that of an Eastern shepherd. Soon after his arrival in Mesopotamia, Laban had realized how valuable his services could prove in this line and entrusted to him the care of his flocks, and the book of Genesis tells us not only how these prospered under Jacob’s skilful management, but also how Laban succeeded in keeping him twenty long years in his service. It is easy to picture to ourselves the mode of life followed by Jacob during this period, for the life of an Eastern shepherd has varied little from what it was in the patriarchal age; even in its minutest details, it is the same hard and responsible life. Now as then, the shepherd must defend his flock against robbers and wild beasts and “make good all the damage”; now as then, he has to suffer from the heat of the day and from the frost of the night, especially in those places where the flocks are kept out of the sheep-fold at night all the year round, and as of old, his share in the flock for the reward of his hard labors is but small, although years of persevering efforts may increase it so that finally he may possess a flock of his own (Gen. 31:39, sq.); etc. (For a full description of this arduous life, see GEIKIE, The Holy Land and the Bible, chap. x; and VAN-LENNEP, Bible Lands, p. 182, sq.)

4. Return from Haran and Subsequent Life. It was for two principal reasons that after his long sojourn in Haran, Jacob started for his father’s house. He justly feared the ill-will of Laban if he remained longer in Mesopotamia (Gen. 31:1, 2) and Jehovah had bidden him return to the Promised Land (Gen. 31:3). As he fled with all that he had (Gen. 31:18), with wives and children, maid-servants and men-servants, flocks and herds, camels and asses (Gen. 32:5, 15) his retinue formed a large Oriental caravan which moved but slowly in a south-western direction. The Euphrates once passed (Gen. 31:21), he hastened with all speed to cross the mountainous region of Galaad, but was overtaken in its northern part by Laban, who bitterly accused him of a breach of courtesy and even of theft. Jacob vindicated himself with truly Eastern vehemence, but finally agreed to a covenant between him and his father-in-law. Neither party was to trespass the limits now agreed upon to injure the other, and by a common repast—as is customary down to the present day—the covenant of peace was solemnly ratified (Gen. 31:22–55. See H. A. HARPER, Bible and Modern Discoveries, fifth edition, p. 31).

Delivered from all anxiety on that side, Jacob continued his journey, deeply concerned as to the best means of appeasing his brother Esau whose rancor he still feared. Whilst in this painful frame of mind, he was favored with two visions calculated to encourage him greatly. The first occurred before he crossed the Jaboc river, at a place which he called Mahanain, the second after he had passed this river, at a place which he surnamed Phanuel and where his own name was changed into that of Israel (Gen. 32). It was also at Phanuel that the much dreaded meeting of Jacob and Esau took place. It was a friendly one, and Jacob could have continued his journey homewards, had he not preferred to interrupt it so as to give a much needed rest to his household; in consequence, he sojourned in a place East of the Jordan which he called Socoth from the more permanent kind of dwellings (viz.: booths instead of tents) which he erected there (Gen. 33:1–17).

Leaving Socoth, Jacob crossed the Jordan, passed on in peace to Sichem and pitched his tents by the town. To be independent of the Chanaanite inhabitants, he bought from them a parcel of ground wherein he dug a well—which still bears his name—and erected an altar to Jehovah, the God of Israel, probably on the very spot where Abraham had set up his first altar to God in the land of Chanaan. Soon followed the sad story of Dina’s outrage by Sichem and the perfidious and awful revenge of Jacob’s children upon the Sichemites, after which the prudent patriarch withdrew from the neighborhood and according to Divine direction, repaired to Bethel where he probably fulfilled the vow which he had made when on his way to Haran. Resuming his journey southward, he halted first at Ephrata (the ancient name of Bethlehem) where Rachel died in giving birth to Benjamin, and next a little beyond the Tower of Eder, and finally reached Mambre beside Hebron, the actual residence of his father (Gen. 33, sq.).

It was probably but a short time after the return of Jacob, that both he and his brother Esau joined in paying the last tribute of respect to the mortal remains of Isaac (Gen. 35:29). After their father’s burial, Esau withdrew to his possessions in Mount Seir and Jacob dwelt in Chanaan, leading probably the same manner of life as his father. Like him, he had near Hebron a permanent abode, and was considered by the neighboring Chanaanite tribes as a prosperous and powerful head of a pastoral family. Like him also, he evinced partiality towards one of his children, the young Joseph, and this gave rise to family dissensions which prepared the way for the most important changes in the history of the children of Israel. We shall soon see how Jacob was induced to repair to Egypt to rejoin the object of his special affection, and how he died there after a settlement of his descendants in the land of Gessen “which seemed to break forever the connection between the sons of Abraham and the Promised Land, but ended in establishing them as the sole possessors of the whole territory” (MILMAN, History of the Jews).

5. Character of Jacob. “Abraham was a hero, Jacob was a ‘plain man dwelling in tents.’ Abraham we feel to be above ourselves, Jacob to be like ourselves.” Such is the contrast drawn between the two patriarchs by Cardinal Newman (Sermons, vol. v, p. 91) and amply justified by an examination of the main features of their character. In Abraham we easily notice a nobility of soul, a firmness of faith, a perfect devotion to God’s service seldom met with in men’s nature, and because of which he became “the Friend of God” and “the Father of the Faithful,” but which we would look for in vain in the character of his grandson. Jacob is above all a shrewd man of the world, not indeed deprived of religion, yet relying much more on his exertions to attain the object of his ambition than on God’s power and providence, and even at times using means whose lawfulness was at least questionable. Again, whilst Abraham was ever kind and considerate towards every member of his household, Jacob formed passionate attachments to some, like Rachel and Joseph, and was barely just to others, such as Lia and the majority of his sons (BLAIKIE, Manual of Bible History, p. 75).

Jacob’s character appears also inferior in many respects to that of Isaac his father. Of course they were two very different men, each one having both strong and weak points of character. Jacob had more strength of will, and, all things considered, seemed better fitted to push his way through opposition and difficulty, and to govern a numerous household, but Isaac had more gentleness of disposition, greater submission to God’s holy will, and in the end succeeded as well as Jacob in getting the better of those who thwarted him; and one instinctively feels that although Isaac’s nature seems at times too passive and his life too retired, yet his character is on the whole much nobler and better than that of his son.

But it is beyond question that Jacob has the advantage in a comparison with his brother Esau. The latter is the very type of ardent and rough natures, frank but impulsive, regardless of lawful social customs, and animated by such low feelings as to make him sell his birthright for a passing pleasure and contemplate with satisfaction both the near death of his father and the possible murder of his brother. The former is a living model of self-command combined with shrewdness and perseverance, of faithful compliance with social duties, and especially of that frame of mind which whilst it pursues the increase of earthly possessions, never loses altogether sight of higher blessings promised to its untiring exertions. Esau is indeed “the likeness of the fickle, uncertain Edomite, now allied, now hostile to the seed of promise,” whilst Jacob is no less truly the likeness of the crafty persecuted Jew, with “his unbroken endurance and undying resolution which keep the nation alive in its present outcast condition, and which, in its brighter days, were the basis of the heroic zeal, long-suffering and hope of Moses, of David, of Jeremias and of the Maccabees” (STANLEY, Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church, vol. i, p. 61).

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