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Following Abraham’s death, God reveals to Isaac’s wife Rebekah that she will soon give birth to two sons who will represent two nations, one stronger than the other. When Rebekah delivers, Esau is born first and is extremely hairy. Jacob, who is smooth skinned, is born immediately after, grasping the heel of his brother. Isaac’s two sons grow to be opposites. Esau is a hunter and a brash man. Jacob stays at home, soft-spoken but quick-witted. One day, Esau comes home famished, demanding to be fed, and agrees to give Jacob his inheritance rights in exchange for a bowl of soup.
Like his own father, Isaac prospers in Canaan and, despite occasional errors in judgment, enlarges his property, making alliances with area rulers and continuing to erect monuments to God. One day, when he is old and blind, Isaac instructs Esau to catch some game and prepare him a meal so that he may give the elder son his blessing. While Esau is gone, Rebekah helps Jacob deceive his father, preparing a separate meal and disguising the younger son with hairy arms and Esau’s clothing. When Jacob presents Isaac with the meal, Isaac—smelling Esau’s clothing and feeling the hairy body—proceeds to bless Jacob, promising him the inheritance of God’s covenant and a greater status than his brother. Esau returns to discover the deception, but it is too late. Isaac, though dismayed, says that he cannot revoke the stolen blessing.
Jacob flees in fear of Esau, traveling to the house of his uncle Laban in upper Mesopotamia. En route, Jacob dreams of a stairway leading up to heaven, where angels and God reside. In the dream, God promises Jacob the same covenant he previously made with Abraham and Isaac. Jacob arrives at Laban’s house, where he agrees to work for his uncle in exchange for the hand of Laban’s daughter, Rachel, in marriage. Laban deceives Jacob into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister, before marrying Rachel. The two wives compete for Jacob’s favor and, along with their maids, give birth to eleven sons and a daughter.
After twenty years, Jacob heeds God’s urging and leaves to return to Canaan, taking his family, his flocks, and Laban’s collection of idols, or miniature representations of gods. Rachel, who has stolen the idolic figurines from her father, hides them under her skirt when Laban tracks down the fleeing clan in the desert. Unable to procure his belongings, Laban settles his differences with Jacob, who erects a pillar of stone as a “witness” to God of their peaceful resolution (31:48). Jacob continues on and, nearing home, fears an encounter with Esau. Jacob prepares gifts to appease his brother and, dividing his family and belongings into two camps, spends the night alone on the river Jabbok. Jacob meets God, who, disguised as a man, physically wrestles with Jacob until dawn. Jacob demands a blessing from his opponent, and the man blesses Jacob by renaming him “Israel,” meaning, “he struggles with God.”
The next morning, Jacob meets Esau, who welcomes his brother with open arms. Jacob resettles in Shechem, not far from Esau, who has intermarried with the Canaanites and produced a tribe called the Edomites. Jacob and his sons prosper in peace until one day Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, is raped by a man from Shechem. Enraged, Jacob’s sons say they will let the Shechemite marry Dinah if all the members of the man’s family will be circumcised. The man agrees and, while the greater part of his village is healing from the surgical procedure, Jacob’s sons take revenge and attack the Shechemites, killing all the men. Isaac and Rachel die soon thereafter.
Jacob’s sons grow jealous of their youngest brother, Joseph, who is Jacob’s favorite son. When Jacob presents Joseph with a beautiful, multi-colored coat, the eleven elder brothers sell Joseph into slavery, telling their father that Joseph is dead. Joseph is sold to Potiphar, a high-ranking official in Egypt, who favors the boy greatly until, one day, Potiphar’s flirtatious wife accuses Joseph of trying to sleep with her. Potiphar throws Joseph in prison, but—ever faithful to God—Joseph earns a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. Years pass until the Pharaoh of Egypt, bothered by two troublesome dreams, hears of Joseph and his abilities. Pharaoh summons Joseph, who successfully interprets the dreams, warning Pharaoh that a great famine will strike Egypt after seven years. Impressed, Pharaoh elects Joseph to be his highest official, and Joseph leads a campaign throughout Egypt to set aside food in preparation for the famine.
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