Vayetse: Jacob Our Patriarch
'Jacob is truly our forefather and one to not be ashamed of'
Torah Portion Vayetse
Focus on Genesis 29 - 31
I tend to find myself at a loss when it comes to the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah.
It’s a hard story to reconcile with the fact that this Jacob is our forefather and that Rachel and Leah are our matriarchs. When one considers Torah Portion’s like Vayetse, with Jacob’s flight from Esau after his deception, the circumstances surrounding Jacob’s marriage to Leah and subsequently to Rachel; and the involvement of their servants in the conception of the 12 tribes of Israel, it can, at face value be difficult to see how these people are our Biblical role models. It’s understandable why so many commentators are harsh in their words towards Jacob and even denigrating to the process in which Jacob sired his sons and daughter.
Having listened to and read so much criticism of Jacob, due to his flight, his deception, and his polygamy, there’s a few ‘goal posts’ or markers I would like to establish and remind ourselves of before we proceed.
Long before all this, God called Jacob ‘perfect’ as we read in Genesis 25;
Genesis 25:27 (The Scriptures)
27 And the boys grew up. And Ěsaw became a man knowing how to hunt, a man of the field, while Ya‘aqoḇ was a complete man, dwelling in tents.
The word for ‘complete’ which is curiously translated as ‘mild’ elsewhere is the Hebrew word for ‘tam’. In reality it means ‘perfect, blameless, sincere, whole, and complete’.
As for Jacob dwelling in tents, it is a reference to one who engages in the study of God’s ways and law. It is a commonly understood Hebrew idiom that is largely misunderstood by Western commentators. People may call Jacob a ‘sissy’ for dwelling in tents, yet God reserves a strong sense of love for Jacob’s tent.
Numbers 24:5 (The Scriptures)
5 “How good are your tents, O Ya‘aqoḇ, your dwellings, O Yisra’ěl!
Considering that Jacob is called ‘perfect’, which yes can include a good deal of God’s grace, is a fact that needs to be held up against our judgment of Jacob. Because if God has said that he is perfect, or, like in Vayetse multiple times, that ‘I am with you’, then surely we should reconsider the commonly spoken harsh words leveled at Jacob and re-examine some commonly drawn conclusions.
There’s a well known Jewish maxim that ‘the deeds of the forefather’s portend the deeds of the children’. Meaning, that what we are reading in Genesis is prophetic of what will happen to Israel, and therefore has a relevant application to our own lives and circumstances.
Understand then that you are not reading the story of a man who lived thousands of years ago, and that maybe there’s some nice lessons for us to learn, but that Jacob, who is later called Israel, is telling us our own personal and national story.
Jacob’s exile then, is about Israel’s exile.
Wherever there is a correlation with Israel, there is also a connection to Messiah. Jacob is not only prophetic of Israel’s exile, but of Messiah’s.
To grasp this you need to understand Hebraic thinking which is capable of thinking and balancing different levels of understanding all at the same time (they have to work in sync). So Jacob is about Israel just as much as he is about Messiah. With this ‘layered’ thinking we are also able to see that Jacob is imperfect, i.e. deceptive, whilst yet being called, perfect, and because we are able to hold multiple layers of truth simultaneously, we are then able to deepen our understanding of scripture as these things weigh in the balance.
With depth and a mature mind we can avoid unhelpful comments that Jacob is purely some kind of malicious deceiver or some kind of ‘sissy’ or coward as many have said.
The story before us in Vayetse follows after Jacob has acquired the birthright from Esau. You may recall the episode in Genesis 27 where Esau was out in the field and Jacob, with the help of Rebecca, dressed up as Esau in order to see Isaac and receive the first born blessing from him.
We won’t go into this story at any depth but it is notable that God has the tendency of choosing people that we would otherwise reject. Like Genesis says, Isaac loved Esau for he was a hunter, and Esau being the first born is the obvious choice for the blessing and the obvious choice for the one who would continue God’s ‘chosen line’. Despite this, Jacob is the one that God calls perfect; Jacob is the one studying God’s law, assumedly practicing God’s law (to some effect), while Esau was the rough likable man of the field who would like to hunt.
Studying Genesis 27 and earlier yields that the blessing was always going to go through Jacob, he wronged in that he took matters into his own hands perhaps, however the language of the Torah alludes to far deeper truths. Two examples of this are;
Genesis 25:28 (The Scriptures)
28 And Yitsḥaq loved Ěsaw because he ate of his wild game, but Riḇqah loved Ya‘aqoḇ.
There is in fact a play on words here. The Hebrew for Esau eating his game is difficult and could be rendered as implying that not ‘game’ was in the mouth of Esau, but that Esau ate of ‘entrapment’. The alternative rendering, often discussed in Jewish circles is that;
Isaac loved Esau “because entrapment was in his mouth [ki tzayid befiv].”
This is further understood idiomatically as referring to someone highly skilled in Torah knowledge, or with significant knowledge of God’s ways, but of someone who uses that knowledge to entrap others or to cause them to stumble in their observance. Esau then, sounds himself like a deceiver and is commonly understood, again in Jewish circles as they are familiar with the language, as someone who attained his Father’s love through false Torah observance.
Second example of the Torah alluding to a sort of reversal in our understanding of who the deceiver was is in;
Genesis 27:27 (The Scriptures)
27 And he came near and kissed him. And he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him and said, “See, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which יהוה has blessed.
Here Jacob is in the middle of deceiving his Father Isaac. This verse however states that Isaac smelt Jacob’s garments, which were in fact Esau’s. Interestingly enough, that word for garment, beged, can also be translated as ‘deception’. Thus Isaac, who is smelling Esau, because Jacob is wearing Esau’s garments, ‘sniffs out’ the deception, and despite this proceeds to give Jacob the blessing of the first born anyway.
The image of Jacob’s ‘great deception’ is actually a very profound image of the Messiah who dressed in the flesh of mankind, because Esau’s name is the equivalent to ‘Adam’ which means mankind or man, is therefore dressed in our sin/deception, and who dressed so is able to present himself to the Father, and despite all, receive blessing. What is labeled as Jacob’s ‘great deception’ is in reality of beautiful image of Messiah’s work and our Father’s unwavering grace who despite ‘smelling out’ our deception, provides us with blessing. Jacob in this scenario is representative of spirit enclosed in flesh (Esau/mankind).
Ironically, the fact that Jacob is criticized so much is also a reflection of Yeshua, who is the suffering and rejected Messiah.
Following this deception it is interesting that Isaac goes on to bless Jacob a second time (failing to reprimand him), and as we’ve read in Vayetse, God himself communicates with Jacob and tells him some of the most beautiful words written in scripture;
Genesis 28:14–15 (The Scriptures)
14 “And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall break forth to the west and to the east, to the north and the south. And all the clans of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your seed.
15 “And see, I am with you and shall guard you wherever you go, and shall bring you back to this land. For I am not going to leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.”
Shortly earlier in Vayetse the image of ‘Jacob’s ladder’ is also deeply related to Messiah who is our connection between heaven and earth. In the New Testament (John 1:51) Yeshua says that the day will come when you shall see angels ascending and descending upon the ‘Son of Adam’. Son of Adam is a messianic title and it is a clear allusion to Jacob’s story in Vayetse where the angels where ascending and descending upon him. Thus Yeshua in John is identifying himself as Messiah but also identifying Jacob as a foreshadow of Messiah himself.
But I have to be honest now. All this beautiful imagery, of Jacob our forefather, called perfect by God, blessed and cherished by God through all his trials, hits a real snag when it comes to Rachel and Leah.
How do we reconcile the fact that Jacob had multiple wives including children to their maidservants?
My first response is that Biblical imagery can only go so far. We must read the Bible ‘literately’ and not ‘literally’. So if I’m saying that Jacob is foreshadow of Messiah then is that saying that Messiah will have multiple wives? Like Paul says, let it not be! We must still understand that we are dealing with real people within a real historical context and that these people are not perfect (making it all the more beautiful that God declared Jacob perfect…ironically).
-Rachel and Leah-
Here is what I know when it comes to Rachel and Leah;
Firstly, Lavan himself said;
Genesis 29:26 (The Scriptures)
26 And Laḇan said, “It is not done this way in our place, to give the younger before the first-born.
Meaning that Leah was older and in the ancient world that meant that she would ideally be married first which is exactly what Lavan did.
In the ancient world brides where veiled, as we saw with Isaac and Rebecca when Rebecca veiled herself at their marriage. Not only where they veiled; but they were completely covered and the veil itself is not like what we see today. It was a covering that really didn’t allow the male to see through it at all
When it comes to further…particulars…as to how Jacob did not notice it was Leah we can only speculate. Some commentators assume that Jacob was drunk at the time which is complete here say and a reflection on the wider negative perception of Jacob
Jacob is receiving ‘measure for measure’. His own reference to Lavan deceiving him is a clear reference to his own deception of Esau and one of the fundamental principles of scripture is receiving ‘measure for measure’ i.e. eye for an eye.
Interestingly enough, Lavan himself reflects this idea of measure of measure. His name is derived from the word in Hebrew for ‘trickster’ and considering Jacob’s earlier behaviors; you might say that he is a fitting adversary for Jacob the ‘deceiver’.
We see their bad relationship start initially in 29:15 which states;
15 Then Laḇan said to Ya‘aqoḇ, “Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for naught? Let me know, what should your wages be?”
This may not seem so clear but understand that family members do not receive a wage. In the ancient world, servants receive wages and so Lavan here is denigrating the familial relationship that he has with Jacob. Not surprisingly then, due to the complexity of the Hebrew, this verse can also be translated as;
‘Are you my family that you shall serve me for nothing? Let me know what should your wages be’
This translation helps see the comment in its more negatively intended light.
Further, as the story progresses in Genesis 30, the deal Lavan entered into with Jacob, to give Jacob the striped and speckled flock was a deal intended to short change Jacob, however Jacob managed to beat Lavan at his own game.
In that episode, in Genesis 30 from verse 37, where Jacob places the mating flock in front of the striped and speckled rods, we again see people accusing Jacob of been deceitful, yet in Genesis 31, YHWH takes the credit for this interestingly enough and takes the credit for increasing Jacob’s wealth.
Jacob’s ‘measure for measure’ also refers to his union with Leah. In Jewish tradition they say that Esau was destined to marry Leah and that due to Jacob taking Esau’s place as the first born that Jacob also inherited Esau’s destined wife, Leah. This may seem ridiculous but as we know the family tradition included the males marrying the daughters of Nahor from Haran. So it is not that inconceivable of an idea and it’s an interesting explanation as to why Jacob loved Rachel so much and yet unwittingly ended up marrying Leah.
The Midrash expounds on the story of Jacob waking up to Leah and it quite nicely sums up the concept of measure for measure;
Jacob said to her ‘what, you are a deceiver and the daughter of a deceiver!’
‘Is there a teacher without its pupils’ she responded; ‘did not your father call you ‘esau’ and you answered him!’. So too did you call me and I answered you.
- Midrash Rabbah
I wanted to point out that the 7 years Jacob served for Rachel were indeed Jacob’s way of paying for the bride price. Remember, Jacob left Israel with nothing but his staff and garment and was not in a position to acquire a wife. The arrangement he entered into was indentured servitude in order to pay the bride price for his wives.
This actually connects to the idea of Israel living in exile and creating wealth for the nations. Whilst Jacob served that first 14 years for Lavan he wasn’t making any profit for himself but only for Lavan. Then, having paid the price for his brides Jacob says to Lavan;
Genesis 30:30 (The Scriptures)
30 “For the little you had before I came has increased greatly, and יהוה has blessed you since my coming. But now, when am I to provide for my own house too?”
Which again, is prophetic of Israel living in servitude amongst the nations, creating wealth for the nations and bringing blessings to the nations, just like what was spoken in the original blessing God spoke to Abraham.
Having stated the above though, when it comes to the story of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, I am still at a loss.
Allow me to say this however. The absolute ideal for us is that a man will marry and have only 1 wife.
I have heard multiple teachings on polygamy and some say that it was the norm in the ancient world; others say that it was actually not the norm. Honestly, it doesn’t matter, what matters for us is that the perfect will of God, and the perfect example given by our Messiah, is one man for one wife.
There is another view that polygamy, though not the ideal, was permitted, or allowed within the Scripture. I do not agree with this but this position is worth a look.
Briefly put, the argument is that polygamy was permitted only if males were capable of looking after the other wives. This was important because an ancient society a woman without a Father, or a family, and a woman with no husband, was likely to have a very tough and difficult life. Polygamy then was permitted in these circumstances to allow these women to join and be a part of a family that could provide for their needs whilst also producing children which was of the upmost importance in the ancient world.
I bring that out because whilst I disagree with polygamy, in that explanation, I can see some sort of good intention.
For men today who argue for polygamy there is no excuse however. Women are not looking at a death sentence if they are without a husband and without a family. Men that argue for polygamy are doing so without any good intentions. I know this is not a scholarly supported position, but men that want polygamy today are not thinking with their brains and their motivations are chauvinistic in nature and incredibly damaging to the Scripture and the Body of Messiah. (Support for polygamy is a view that does not fly at HRM).
Permitted or otherwise, we have the perfect example in our Messiah, who displayed that the definition of love is to be willing to die for someone and to surrender your life to that person (mutually). It is with that in mind that I cannot understand how Jacob participated in having two wives, despite the culture of the day accepting this.
I will however offer an alternative for you to consider; what if Polygamy was never permitted by God and is and was always a sin? I hold that sin results in curses, as we have learnt in the Torah, and we know that curses do affect our spouses and our offspring down into the generations. As we look at the lifespan of Israel it has been one affected by curses and sin. Interestingly enough, one of the curses for transgressing God’s commandments is exile, which sadly has always characterized our existence. So what if Jacob here is actually sinning and that what we are reading is Israel’s conception, but Israel’s conception in a state, if you will, of sin.
That’s just a thought.
A Prophetic View
Another view of Jacob and his two wives is that it is indeed prophetic.
This week I read a suggestion that the two wives correspond to the two messiahs i.e. Messiah Ben David and Messiah Ben Joseph (if you’re unfamiliar with this idea then please do read up on it, it’s fascinating). Considering that Judah was born of Leah and that Joseph was born of Rachel there is some credence to this idea.
It is interesting to note that Rachel has long been associated with sorrow which corresponds to the suffering servant Messiah Ben Joseph. As it is written in Jeremiah;
Jeremiah 31:15 (The Scriptures)
15 Thus said יהוה, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing, bitter weeping, Raḥěl weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”
Jeremiah 31 continues to describe the return of Israel to its land causing Rachel and her tears to long be associated with Israel’s exile.
Further, Jeremiah 31:15 which states that Rachel is weeping for her children, for ‘they’ are no more is actually rendered, in the latter part of the verse, in the singular. So correctly translated the verse states;
Jeremiah 31:15 (The Scriptures)
15 Thus said יהוה, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing, bitter weeping, Raḥěl weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because he is no more.”
Therefore, we can see that Rachel, prophetically, is weeping due to the death of the Messiah Ben Joseph.
This isn’t just a ‘Christian’ take on Rachel because in Jewish though they also say that Rachel’s tears are for the Messiah. The Jewish perspective actually takes us back to Genesis 29 where Jacob himself wept upon kissing Rachel for the first time. Speaking of this a Jewish Commentary states;
‘we might consider that Jacob foresaw that the Messiah son of Jospeh will be killed…on foreseeing the death of the Messiah Jacob lifted his voice to weep because he saw through the Holy Spirit the sorrows which his children would endure in their exile…for their exile is closely connected with the death of Messiah Son of Joseph (Yalkut Moshiach)
Additionally, this idea of the two messiahs can obviously be connected to us and the Jewish nation at the moment. Jews have long associated Messiah only with Messiah Ben David (the conquering King), whilst the likes of you and I have long been associated with Messiah Ben Joseph (Yeshua).
We could also conceptualize this as the difference between grace and law.
What needs to happen between the sons of Leah and the sons of Rachel is reconciliation, and the need for reconciliation was borne at the beginning in the book of Genesis. Israel here, referring to the nation, was born out in the world, in a place of sin, and in the end ‘grace’ and ‘law’, Messiah Ben Joseph and Messiah Ben David, Jew and Gentile, will be reconciled.
Thankfully, our portion ends today with Jacob returning to Israel. I wanted to close and point out these verses;
Genesis 31:36–42 (The Scriptures)
36 And Ya‘aqoḇ was wroth and contended with Laḇan, and Ya‘aqoḇ answered and said to Laḇan, “What is my transgression? What is my sin, that you have hotly pursued me?
37 “Now that you have searched all my goods what have you found of all your household goods? Set it here before my brothers and your brothers, and let them decide between the two of us!
38 “These twenty years I have been with you. Your ewes and your female goats have not miscarried their young, and I have not eaten the rams of your sheep.
39 “That which was torn by beasts I did not bring to you, I myself bore the loss of it. You required it from my hand, whether stolen by day or stolen by night.
40 “Thus I was! By day the heat consumed me, and the frost by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes.
41 “These twenty years I have been in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock, and you have changed my wages ten times.
42 “Unless the Elohim of my father, the Elohim of Aḇraham and the Fear of Yitsḥaq, had been with me, you would now have sent me away empty-handed. Elohim has seen my affliction and the labour of my hands, and rendered judgment last night.”
Here the scenario is that Jacob is leaving Lavan to return home. Rachel has stolen Lavan’s idols, a contentious issue we’ll discuss another time, and Lavan has searched Jacob’s belongings in order to find his missing idols.
Notably, and keep a prophetic eye on this, Jacob said that God ‘rendered judgment last night’ which I see as a great affirmation of Jacob. The man who was once considered deceitful was searched, judged, and found to be innocent. Jacob then is no deceiver; Jacob is truly our forefather and one to not be ashamed of.
Jacob’s judgment demonstrates the purpose of exile, that though we may be afflicted and born in sin, made to serve as slaves for the benefit of the world, in the end exile truly serves the purpose of benefiting us and of returning us ‘perfect’ to the land. Just like Jacob, may we too be searched and found to be innocent.
Jeremiah 31:16 (The Scriptures)
16 Thus said יהוה, “Hold back your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work,” declares יהוה, “and they shall return from the land of the enemy…