The Yaakov Cycle

I quite like scholar’s section introductions. Unlike issues, arguments and conclusions which I may or may not welcome, follow or share, good introductions are forward looking – full of hope. The writer seems freer, almost stating the obvious while pulling us onward.

I find Everett Fox’s following introduction to the Yaakov  Cycle most helpful as our lectionary reads highlights of  the Jacob Cycle through these last and coming few weeks. It is taken from his  excellent English translation and commentary “The Five Books Of Moses”

I especially like his last paragraph reminder of “the two levels of biblical reality.”

Last week our discussion ranged from “reads like a novel” to “dysfunctional family” to other literature e.g. “The Red Tent” and I would hope these and Fox’s thoughts below would lead us to read beyond our lectionary samplings and encounter the whole story.

YAAKOV (Jacob)


BEFORE  COMMENTING ON THE YAAKOV CYCLE, IT IS APPROPRIATE TO CONSIDER WHY HIS father  Yitzhak (Isaac), the second of the Patriarchs, receives no true separate group  of stories on his own.

Yitzhak functions in Genesis as a classic  second generation-that is, as a transmitter and stabilizing force, rather than  as an active participant in the process of building the people. There hardly  exists a story about him in which he is anything but a son and heir, a husband,  or a father. His main task in life seems to be to take roots in the land of  Canaan, an admittedly important task in the larger context of God’s promises in  Genesis. What this means, unfortunately, is that he has almost no personality  of his own. By Chapter 27, a scant two chapters after his father dies, he  appears as (prematurely?) old, blind in both a literal and figurative sense, and as we will see, he fades out of the text entirely, only to die several
chapters, and many years, later.

The true dynamic figure of the second  generation here is Rivka (Rebeccah). It is she to whom God reveals his plan,  and she who puts into motion the mechanism for seeeing that it is properly  carried out. She is ultimately the one responsible for bridging the gap between the dream, as typified by Avraham (Abraham), and the hard-won reality, as  realized by Yaakov.

Avraham is a towering figure, almost  unapproachable as a model in his intiimacy with God and his ability to hurdle nearly every obstacle. Adding to this the fact that Yitzhak is practically a noncharacter, and that Yosef (Joseph), once his rise begins, also lacks dimension as a personality, it becomes increasingly clear that it is Yaakov who emerges as the most dynamic and most human personality in the book. The stories about him cover fully half of Genesis, and reveal a man who is both troubled and triumphant. Most interestingly, he, and not Avraham, gives his name to the people of Israel.

Distinctive themes of the cycle include physical struggle, deception, and confrontation. These are expressed through the key words of Yaakov’s name (“HeellHolder” and “Heel-Sneak,” then Yisrael (Israel), “God-Fighter”), “deceive” and similar words, and “face.” Also recurring are the terms “love,” ‘bless,” “firstborn-right,” and “wages/hire” (one word in Hebrew). The cycle is structured partly around etiologies (folk explanations of place-names and personal names) and also around Yaakov’s use of stones in several of the stories.

Continuing from the Avraham cycle are such earlier themes as wandering, sibbling rivalry, the barren wife, wives in conflict, the renaming of the protagonist, God perceived in dreams and visions; and particular geographical locations such as Bet-EI, Shekhem, and the Negev (Cassuto 1974).

Finally, it should be mentioned that the Yaakov stories are notable in the manner in which they portray the two levels of biblical reality: divine and human. Throughout the stories human beings act according to normal (though often strong) emotions, which God then uses to carry out his master plan. In this cycle one comes to feel the interpretive force of the biblical mind at work, understanding human events in the context of what God wills. It is a fascinating play between the ideas of fate and free will, destiny and choice – a paradox which nevertheless lies at the heart of the biblical conception of God and humankind.

Everett Fox,
The Five Books of Moses: A New English Translation with Commentary and Notes
(New York: Schocken Books, 1995).

One thought on “The Yaakov Cycle”

  1. Great insight, well spoken by Everett Fox. Thank you for sharing this. Of course, it is all the better since it affirms much of what I have already suspected and/or learned. I had never much thought about Isaac; the insight about him is new territory for me. Thank you, again, for sharing.

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