During our weekly Bible study last Wednesday, I discussed with my fellow Christians the significance of the Old Testament patriarchs in the Bible. Today, we still revere the foundation that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob laid for all Christians in the beginning. Among the topics that we discussed, I was most curious about one question: “What does Jacob symbolize in the Bible?”
Jacob was a complex and multifaceted man who symbolized different things in the Bible. Since he was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob symbolizes the foundation of the Jewish faith. Also, Genesis 28:13–15 suggests that Jacob’s descendants symbolize the lasting covenant that God made with his ancestors, Abraham and Isaac. He had promised to make their descendants as numerous as the stars, and he fulfilled this promise through the long lineage of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Join me as I explore the biblical symbolism and significance of Jacob so that you can obtain a deeper understanding of God’s purpose for his chosen people.
What does the name Jacob mean according to the Bible?
According to Genesis 25:26 and Hosea 12:3, Jacob was Isaac and Rebekah’s second-born twin son who was born with his hand grasping his brother’s heel. The Bible goes on to explain that in Hebrew, the name Jacob means “he grasps the heel,” which is an idiom for “he takes advantage of” or “he deceives.”
In Genesis 25:22–23, the Lord said to Rebekah that two nations were in her womb, and the older one would be a servant to the younger one. Despite the Lord’s plan to have Jacob succeed Isaac, Rebekah and Jacob used trickery and deception to steal Esau’s birthright and blessings (Genesis 25:29–34; Genesis 27:18–29). Upon finding out, Esau affirmed that his brother was rightly named “Jacob” because he had taken advantage of him twice (Genesis 27:36).
Based on these texts, theologians agree that the name Jacob means “supplanter” or “deceiver.”
Why is Jacob called Israel?
Jacob is among the few individuals in the Old Testament whom God renamed, aside from Abraham and Sarah. So why did God change Jacob’s name to Israel?
Jacob received the name Israel as he was preparing to meet with Esau for the first time since he stole his birthright and fled to Haran. According to Genesis 32:22–30, Jacob wrestled with God till daybreak, after which God blessed him and changed his name to Israel. In verse 28, God gives his reason for changing Jacob’s name to Israel: because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome. Pastor Craig Rikard suggests that Jacob’s struggle with God sheds light on the struggle Jacob was experiencing within himself. He was wrestling with his own fears and tendencies towards deception, and God wouldn’t make a covenant with him until he surrendered and admitted that he needed God’s blessings in his life. He then went on to meet with his brother Esau, confident that God’s favor and blessings were with him.
Therefore, God called Jacob “Israel” to signify that Jacob had overcome his struggle with men and God and that he had been blessed to be the father of many nations, just like Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 35:11–13). Jacob decided to call the place where he had wrestled with God “Peniel” to honor the fact that his life was spared despite having seen God face-to-face. Other theologians also suggest that Jacob’s struggle with God shows us that reconciling with God paves the way for us to reconcile with others.
What is the meaning of Israel?
Since Jacob received the name Israel after he struggled with God and men and prevailed, some theologians perceive Israel to mean “one who struggles with God.” If you’re wondering why they don’t take Israel to mean “one who prevails,” these theologians argue that the struggle is what matters in our pursuit of goodness. We will prevail over the challenges that come our way, but the struggle of the here and now is what makes the journey worthwhile. Therefore, the meaning of Israel focuses on the struggle rather than the victory.
Also, the Hebrew variation of the name Israel is Yisra’el, which is a combination of the words sarita (you have wrestled) and ‘elohim (God). Other theologians suggest that the name Israel also signifies God’s covenant with Jacob, since God gave it to him when he blessed him and made him the founder of many nations. Jacob’s descendants are referred to as Israelites to show their covenantal and spiritual relationship with God. Israel, therefore, is a holy nation that was sovereignly chosen by God to carry out his divine purposes and obey his commandments. Although some Israelites responded to God’s calling with unfaithfulness, rebellion, and disobedience, God remained steadfast and faithful to his chosen people.
How does the bible describe Jacob?
According to Genesis 25:19–26, Jacob was the second born son of Isaac and Rebekah, and the younger twin brother of Esau. The Bible suggests that his struggle for the first position began in his mother’s womb, when Rebekah felt the babies jostling each other within her. The Lord said to her that she carried two nations in her womb, and the older one would serve the younger one (Genesis 25:22–23). During birth, Jacob came out second, grasping his brother’s heel, hence his name which means “supplanter” or “deceiver” (Genesis 25:26).
Genesis 25:27 goes on to say that as Jacob and Esau grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter who preferred the open countryside while Jacob preferred to stay at home. When Isaac was old and he thought he was about to die, he asked Esau to go out and hunt for him, then prepare him a delicious meal so that he could bless him. Jacob, with his mother Rebekah, deceived Isaac into giving him his older brother’s blessings (Genesis 27:14–29). This happened after Jacob had tricked Esau into selling him his birthright (Genesis 25:31–34).
The Bible continues to depict Jacob as crafty and deceptive, even after he fled to Haran to live with his uncle Laban. When he was about to return to his homeland, Jacob asked Laban to pay him every spotted or speckled sheep and goat as his wages. Although the Bible is unclear about how it worked, Jacob put striped almond and plane trees in the watering troughs so that the flock would mate in front of the branches and bear him streaked, speckled, or spotted animals. He only did this for the strong animals, so that while his flock grew stronger, Laban’s remained weak (Genesis 30:31–43).
Overall, Jacob’s life was characterized by conflict that often put his values to the test, but he remained a faithful servant of God. Jacob changed his deceitful nature after wrestling with God and receiving his blessings before he reunited with his brother. The Bible suggests that he wrestled with God until daybreak, after which he asked for God’s blessings, and God changed his name to Israel (Genesis 32:22–31). From then on, the Bible describes Jacob as a flawed yet faithful servant of God, and he lives the rest of his life learning to trust and rely on God.
What was the purpose of Jacob in the bible?
First, Jacob was the patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel. His wife Leah bore him eight sons, two through her servant Zilpah, while his wife Rachel bore him four sons, two through her servant Bilhah (Genesis 30). Altogether, Jacob’s descendants grew to form the twelve tribes of Israel, which continued the lineage of Jacob and his ancestors.
Second, through Jacob, God fulfilled the covenant he had made with his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac, promising them that he would make their descendants as numerous as the stars (Genesis 17:5; Genesis 26:4). Jacob had twelve sons, who were referred to as the sons of Israel, and they produced a long line of offspring, just as God had promised.
Third, Jacob depicts the cycle of sin and redemption in a Christian’s life. He spends most of his life lying, deceiving, and tricking to get what he wants, and this leads to alienation and enmity with his family. As he is returning to his homeland, he has a struggle with God, which eventually yields blessings and new beginnings for him. Christians can draw inspiration from this story by perceiving it to mean that when we admit our weaknesses and ask for God’s help, we can receive redemption and second chances as well.
What does Jacob symbolize in the bible?
For all his flaws and struggles, Jacob symbolizes the following in the Bible;
God’s covenant with his people
In Genesis 17:5–8, God made a covenant with Abraham, promising to make him the father of many nations. He promised Abraham that kings would come from his line and that he would be the God of his descendants as well. God repeated this covenant to Isaac when he promised to make his descendants as numerous as the stars and to bless all nations through his offspring (Genesis 26:4). God fulfilled these covenants through Jacob, who founded the twelve tribes of Israel through his sons and descendants. Kings and rulers came out of the different tribes of Israel, including Jesus Christ, who descended from the tribe of Judah. Jacob’s descendants multiplied and filled the earth, just as God had promised his faithful servants Abraham and Isaac. Therefore, Jacob’s continuing lineage symbolizes God’s covenant with the patriarchs in the Old Testament.
The foundation of the Jewish faith
Jacob is the founding father of the twelve tribes of Israel, as they descend from his sons and descendants. Just like Abraham and Isaac, Jacob is one of the patriarchs who founded the Jewish faith and whose descendants continue to participate in it up to date. Therefore, Jacob symbolizes the foundation of the Jewish faith.
The consequences of deceit and trickery
God had planned for Jacob to succeed Isaac despite being the second-born son, but Jacob didn’t wait to receive God’s blessings. Instead, he tricked Esau into selling him his birthright in exchange for a bowl of soup (Genesis 25:31–34), and he deceived Isaac into giving him his older brother’s blessings (Genesis 27:14–29). Consequently, this created enmity between himself and his brother, and Esau vowed to kill Jacob because of his betrayal (Genesis 27:41). Jacob was forced to flee his homeland and alienate himself from his family. Therefore, this story symbolizes the consequences that Christians might encounter if they use deceit or trickery against others.
The promise of forgiveness and redemption
Although Jacob is a deeply flawed man, he received forgiveness from his brother and redemption from God when he accepted his weaknesses and sought God’s blessings (Genesis 32:28; Genesis 33:4). Before God changed his name to Israel, Jacob relied on his deceitful ways to get what he wanted. As a result, his life was marked by conflict within himself and against those around him. But after he wrestled with God and asked for his blessings, God changed his name to Israel and renewed with him the covenant he had made with Abraham and Isaac. Jacob’s reconciliation with God also paved the way for his reconciliation with his brother, whom Jacob was afraid was still holding a grudge against him. Therefore, Jacob symbolizes the promise of forgiveness and redemption for Christians.
Why did Jacob wrestle with God?
Even before he was born, Jacob’s life was marked by constant struggle with those around him. He was justifiably named Jacob, as he tricked, deceived, and manipulated those close to him. The turning point of Jacob’s life was when he wrestled with God in Genesis 32:22–32.
Jacob was alone in the wilderness when a man attacked him, and they wrestled until daybreak. Jacob asked for a blessing from the stranger, and the stranger called Jacob “Israel” because he had fought with God and humans and had overcome (Genesis 32:28). Theologians have interpreted this event to mean that God manifests himself to us in the midst of our struggles so that we can receive transformation, freedom, and encouragement. Therefore, Jacob wrestled with God so that he could receive the forgiveness and encouragement he needed to reconcile with his brother. After wrestling with God, Jacob ceased his struggle and received God’s blessings to be the founding father of the tribes of Israel. He then went on to meet his brother, who embraced him and forgave him as well.
What is the spiritual meaning of Jacob?
Based on the above symbolisms, we can perceive the following spiritual meanings of Jacob;
First, Jacob’s descendants are an assurance that God remains faithful and steadfast to the covenants he makes with his people. He promised Abraham and Isaac a long line of descendants who would carry on their lineage and bring honor and glory to their names. He fulfilled this promise through Jacob’s descendants, who formed the twelve tribes of Israel, which then produced numerous descendants and great kings and rulers. God used the Israelites to carry out divine duties, and he protected them against enemies. Therefore, Christians can perceive Jacob’s descendants as a sign of God’s faithfulness and loyalty to his chosen people.
Second, Jacob’s betrayal of his brother is a warning against deceit and trickery. Jacob used deceit and trickery to obtain his brother’s birthright and blessings, but it cost him greatly. He was alienated from his family, and he created enmity between himself and his brother. Therefore, Christians are urged to wait to receive the Lord’s blessings rather than deceiving or tricking others so as to obtain them on their own terms.
Last, Jacob’s journey of redemption is a comforting message for Christians to seek reconciliation with God. Some theologians suggest that only when we are in accord with God can we mend our relationships with other people. The story of Jacob encourages Christians to be humble and repentant before the Lord, and he will forgive us our sins. He will give us new identities and second chances to fulfill the purposes he has for us.
They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, right? Being raised by Christians significantly impacted my life since I started professing Christ from a young age. My passion for the Christian faith made me pursue a degree in Religious studies and a Masters in Theology. I am a believer and pastor dedicated to spreading the word of God. I have been in the Christian ministry for over a decade and am currently ministering in Life Christian Church. I have also been privileged to teach 4 Christian courses in a college and university. Please check the About Us Page for more details.