Jacob as a Father Figure

Jacob as a Father Figure

By: Shmuel Blau*

Jacob is one of the more prominent figures in the book of Genesis.  His story extends over seven weekly readings (whereas Abraham, father of the nation, only appears in four readings).  Jacob became Israel and fathered the tribes of Israel from whom the Israelites descended.  In this article we examine the behavior of the patriarch Jacob as described in Scripture and ask whether the father’s comportment influenced the actions of his sons.  We shall attempt not to cite the numerous interpretations of the Sages, but focus primarily on what is plainly said in the Torah portion.

Jacob’s comportment throughout his life

The Torah does not tend to go into extensive character descriptions.  One of the few figures that it does describe is Jacob, “a mild man who stayed in camp.”  Jacob was born to Isaac, who was financially successful but less dominant, it seems, in the education of his children.  From the plain text we understand that Rebekah was the strong figure in the home—maneuvering the switching of the blessings between Jacob and Esau, sending Jacob to her brother Laban, and more such actions. 

Was Jacob a more dominant and authoritative figure than his father?  Did he project a father figure to his children?

In the following table we give a brief presentation of Scripture’s account of several problematic events in Jacob’s life, in the order they transpired:

The event

The problematic aspects of Jacob’s behavior

Taking the blessing from Esau and misleading Isaac:  “If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing” (Gen. 27:12)

Young Jacob is not troubled by the fact that he was lying to his father; what troubled him was the possibility he might receive a curse instead of a blessing.

Laban giving him Leah instead of Rachel:  “Laban said, ‘It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older...’  Jacob did so; he waited out the bridal week” (Gen. 29:26)

Jacob agreed to the deal Laban cooked up, but there were two flaws in the deal:  1) it was not what had been agreed; 2) he married a woman (Leah) whom he did not love and did not want.

Jacob’s response to Rachel’s request, “Give me children”:  “Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, ‘Can I take the place of G-d, who has denied you fruit of the womb?’” (Gen. 30:2)

Jacob was angry at Rachel and unsympathetic, and showed lack of empathy.[1]

Rachel and Leah explaining to Jacob why they agreed to flee with him from the house of their father Laban:  “Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, ‘Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house?  Surely, he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us’” (Gen. 31:14)

Leah and Rachel still held a grudge against their father for selling them to Jacob.  It also does not sound good from Jacob’s side.  Had they been sold against their will?[2]

Jacob fleeing from Laban:  “Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the dark, not telling him that he was fleeing” (Gen. 31:20)

Not exactly what we would call brave behavior.

Jacob playing no part in giving names to his children.  Leah and Rachel give all the names (save for Benjamin, but on account of tragic circumstances).

This is beyond plain passiveness.  All the sons’ names are based on the sisters’ rivalry and competition for Jacob’s attention.  Should not Jacob have prevented such names from being given?

Preparing for his encounter with Esau:  “putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last” (Gen. 33:2)

Preferring blood (the children of his wives, the matriarchs) to blood (the children of his concubines).  Jacob placed the matriarchs with a view to preventing harm befalling them.

Jacob’s response to Simeon and Levi after they massacred the inhabitants of Shechem:  “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed” (Gen. 34:30)

Jacob feared the reaction of those around him and showed not the least awareness of the moral gravity of Simeon and Levi’s deed.[3]

The affair of Reuben and Bilhah:  “Reuben went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine” (Gen. 35:22)

“and Israel found out.”  And that’s all?

Favoring Joseph:  “Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him an ornamented tunic” (Gen. 37:3)

Clear and problematic preferential treatment of Joseph over his brothers.

Jacob’s response to Joseph’s dreams:  “and his father kept the matter in mind” (Gen. 37:11)

His silence just made the brothers’ jealousy and hatred of Joseph worse.


The deeds of Jacob’s sons

Even before we get to the narrative of the difficult meeting with Joseph in Dothan, recounted in next week’s reading, the Torah tells us of several unpleasant things that happened to Jacob’s sons.  Here we list the more serious of them, according to the order in which the sons were born:

Jacob’s son

The event

The problematic aspect of the behavior


Lying with Bilhah, his father’s wife.[4]

Serious and immoral misconduct, a great affront to his father, mother, and the whole family.

Simeon and Levi

Cooking up a shady deal with Shechem and Hamor, in the wake of which they massacre all the inhabitants of the city.

Notwithstanding the circumstances (of Dinah having been abducted), Simeon and Levi behaved outrageously in massacring an entire city, most of whom were completely innocent.


Judah lying with the “prostitute” (his daughter-in-law Tamar) by the roadside.

Judah adds insult to injury when he orders, “Bring her out and let her be burned.”

All the brothers

Wanting to kill Joseph, throwing him into a pit, selling him to the Ishmaelites, and fabricating a story to tell their father.

Hatred and jealousy caused them to lose their sanity to the point of being willing to kill their brother.


These things were done by the brothers as grown men.  The most grave and perhaps most dramatic narrative in all the Bible is the story of Joseph and his brothers.[5]  A part in this heinous act was played by most of the brothers, and perhaps on account of it we have gotten into this entire discussion—willingness to kill their brother Joseph in cold blood, and to lie to their father, causing him to mourn for the rest of his life.  The first-born Reuben substituted throwing Joseph into a pit (almost certain death) for outright killing him, and in turn the leader Judah replaced that with selling him to the Ishmaelites.  These are four far from simple stories of illicit sex and bloodshed.

Is there a connection?

Now we return to the question with which we began.  Is there a connection between what Jacob’s sons saw in their father when they were children and their behavior when they grew up?  Did the fact that their father Jacob let his two wives give all their children names that perpetuated competition and jealousy[6] contribute to the subsequent ugly relations between the brothers?  When they were grown, would a more assertive response by their father Jacob to the deeds of Reuben (with Bilhah) and Simeon and Levi (with Shechem and Hamor) have prevented the gravest deed of all by the brothers towards Joseph?  In modern psychological-educational terms we can ask whether the unclear, unauthoritative behavior of Jacob towards his sons, behavior that was not always consistent, had a bad influence on his sons.

Jacob’s sons, growing up in the tents of the four matriarchs, perhaps did not see sufficient presence of a dominant father figure.  Perhaps Jacob did not pay enough attention to their education and did not display clear and coherent parenting.  We may surmise that the rearing of Jacob’s sons had an impact on their deeds as adults.

In conclusion, of course we cannot know if there was a connection between Jacob’s actions and the actions of his sons.  So why do we presume to analyze the behavior of our patriarch Jacob and raise such hypotheses?  Because it is in Scripture!  We cannot ignore the fact that the Torah took the trouble to tell us these stories in the language and order in which they were presented.  Perhaps it wishes thereby to teach us something.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

* Shmuel Blau is a psychologist in the Center for Student Counselling and Career Development in the Office of the Dean of Students.

[1] Several commentators, including Radak, defend Jacob’s response and put some of the “blame” on Rachel for making such a demand:  “Since she implied it was up to him [Jacob], and not the Lord” (Radak on Gen. 30:2).

[2] The Torah emphasizes repeatedly that Jacob loved Rachel (but did Rachel love Jacob?  That is not clear), and hints that Leah was hated.  The Torah makes no mention of Rachel and Leah’s feelings towards Jacob, aside from their complaint about being as outsiders, having been sold by their father.

[3] It should be noted that, unlike his response at the time of the occurrence, at the end of his life Jacob calls Simeon and Levi to account and expresses outright dissatisfaction with their behavior, even “blessing them”:  “Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless.  I will divide them in Jacob, scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:7).

[4] In the writings of the Sages, some interpret that Reuben did not really have intercourse with Bilhah.  Rashi, loc. cit., says, “He roughed up the sheets of his father’s couch.”  He bases this on the gemara, “Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said…:  Whoever maintains that Reuben sinned is merely making an error” (Shabbat 55b).  But Jacob himself proves that it was indeed so.  In his blessing in Parashat Va-Yehi he says of Reuben, “Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer; for when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace—my couch he mounted!” (Gen. 49:4).

[5] The drama of the Joseph narrative captivated the imagination of other peoples, too, inspiring the writing of books and plays, such as the German Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

[6] From the first-born son Reuben—“‘The Lord has seen my affliction’; it also means:  ‘Now my husband will love me’” (Gen. 29:32) to the eleventh, Joseph:  “May the Lord add another son for me” (Gen. 30:24), all the sons, including those born to the concubines, were given names expressive of the jealousy between the sisters and their rivalry over Jacob’s heart.


For more on Parashat Vayishlach

Last modified: 08/11/2015