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Jacob, also known as Israel, was the son of Isaac and Rebekah and the twin brother of the red-haired hunter Esau. At his mother's insistence, he traveled to her hometown to find a wife. There he found her nieces, Leah and Rachel. Their father, his uncle Laban, was a conniving man, getting over two decades of work as the price for his daughters.
By these two women, and their slave girls, Jacob would have thirteen children: twelve sons and a daughter. The sons would become the founders of the twelve tribes of "Israel" a new name given to him after an encounter with God.
His son Joseph, the first of his favorite wife Rachel, would become second in command of Egypt. Jacob and his large household would migrate to that land where he would die at the age of 130 years old.
The Hebrew, יעקב, traditionally transliterated Ya’aqob, is formed from the root word עקב -- `aqab, meaning “heel” and thus the cognate, to grab the heel. The traditional pointing of the name gives the name is יַעֲקֹב or Iaqob (the tiny dot on the ק representing the "o" sound). This was pronounced "Ee-ah-kohb" or simply "yah-kohb."
Jacob's mother had been told by God that the younger of the twins would prevail over his brother, the rightful heir. The firstborn was covered with red hair from the beginning, so the called him "Esau." He would later be renamed "Edom" ("Red") after Jacob bribed him with a lintel stew -- "that red stuff" as Esau called it.
Esau was Isaac's favorite son, while Rebekah preferred her quiet son Jacob. This rivalry was under control for a while, but Rebekah conspired with Jacob to secure the patriarchal blessing as her husband who was suffering from his advanced age (over 100). This resulted in a split in the family, with Esau swearing to get even after Isaac's death. Rebekah sent Jacob back to her relatives, where he first met and fell in love with Rachel, younger daughter of Laban. Laban claimed custom as demanding the older daughter to marry first, sending the veiled Leah into Jacob's tent to consummate the marriage.
Having agreed to work seven years for Rachel, Jacob worked another seven years for the hand of his true love. During that period, his two wives competed to have babies. Rachel was unable to bear children on her own, employed her slave girl Bilhah as a surrogate after Leah had born four sons. Leah was jealous when two sons were born to Bilhah and she had stopped bearing, so she had her slave girl Zilpah bear two sons to match her rival. Leah would go on to have two more sons and a daughter before Rachel would bear Joseph. Finally, after an encounter with the angel of Yahweh, Jacob would sire his final son, Benjamin.
Jacob had two memorable encounters with God - one dream and one actual struggle against a physical manifestation of God known as "the Angel of the Lord." In the dream, he saw that the way to heaven was by way of a ladder upon which God's messengers (Hebrew: Malak = "angel" or "messenger") made trips to and from earth. Later, he would encounter one of the chief among the angels, a being many consider the to be a "pre-incarnate" visit from God the Son, Jesus the Christ. During that fight, Jacob was injured as a sign to others that he had been changed. From that day on he would walk with a limp. He was also told to take on a new name—Israel, "a prince with God."
In Canaan, Israel would reconcile with Esau (aka Edom) and the two of them would soon bury Isaac, their father. Their mother had died years earlier, never having seen her grandchildren. A changed man, Israel still found it hard to break away from the mindset of his parents. As a result, most of the children were raised to live much like their cousins in the land of Canaan. The first test of character came when Dinah reached her early teens and became the object of desire of the son of a local tribal leader. After what was taken as rape in the eyes of her brothers, Simeon and Levi, a devious plan was hatched to destroy a whole city. They told this young man, Shechem by name, that he and all the men would have to become part of Israel's covenant family through circumcision. After falling for the ruse, the city was destroyed with every man being killed while weakened by the pain of the procedure.
A year or two later, Joseph would share his dreams with the family. Even though he fawned over his son, Jacob joined the rest in laughing at the dreams. Soon after that, the brothers, only teens or in their early twenties, planned to kill their younger brother. Reuben would save his brother from death, but not from slavery. Jacob did not take the lie about his son's death by wild animals well at all. Even Reuben, his firstborn, would disgrace him by sleeping with the mother of two of his half-brothers, Bilhah, Rachel's slave girl. For this, Reuben would lose his birthright, which would go to Judah, his full brother and next in line after Simeon and Levi. Even Judah, though, had proven to have moral defects that led to his daughter-in-law prostituting herself to continue the family line.
Finally, when faced with losing Benjamin during the famine at the end of his life, Israel could not bring himself to trust his older sons even in face of starvation. Had Joseph not worked out his secret plan, the patriarch of the family would not have seen the fruition of God's mercy upon his wayward people. In the end, though, Israel lived under Joseph's protection in Egypt and received a state funeral complete with burial in the tomb of Abraham in a cave near Mamre, Canaan, in 1627 BC.
Laws about Sons of Two Wives
In the Book of Deuteronomy Moses speaks about laws given to him by God. One such law regarding inheritance rights of firstborn son of an unloved wife. Jacob's predicament with favoring Rachel over Leah may have influenced the establishment of this law. The law made it forbidden to forfeit's sons inheritance rights if he was not born of the loved wife.