by Glen Penton

In the history of Biblical studies, our ancestor Jacob is sometimes presented as a tricky and selfish individual, one who would not be a good role model for his descendants. This misperception is based on a misunderstanding of some statements in the Book of Genesis, and has played an ugly part in the history of Christian anti-Semitism. It has also become self-propagating, by influencing Bible translators to mistranslate a verse in Genesis that could otherwise help correct the mistake. Let's look at what God, in writing the Book of Genesis, actually says about Jacob's character.

The first notice that the Torah gives about Jacob's character is in Genesis 25:27. The first part of the verse mentions that Jacob and his fraternal twin brother Esau grew up, and that Esau became a man of the open fields, who became a skillful hunter. That may sound innocuous unless you know something about the brothers' culture and family situation.

Esau was the firstborn son of Isaac and Rebecca. As a firstborn son in that culture, it was his job to learn the family business and prepare himself to serve as the family head upon the death of his father. Esau and Jacob's father Isaac was a nomadic shepherd with very large flocks and many families of live-in workers. If some hunting needed to be done for some reason, there were plenty of servants to send on that errand. Esau's hunting would come under the category of sport, not work. But Esau was not a young student learning to be a wise chieftain to those who would someday look to him for leadership. It wasn't that he liked to hunt occasionally for relaxation. No, the text says, he was "ish sadeh," 'a man of the open fields'. His life orientation was to shirk his responsibilities to go hunting.

The Hebrew text draws a sharp contrast between the character of Esau and the character of his brother Jacob. Whereas Esau was "ish sadeh", Jacob was "ish tam", 'a man wholeheartedly for God.' This Hebrew word "tam" occurs in its various forms 135 times in the text of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is one of the most common words the Bible uses to refer to being wholeheartedly devoted to walking with God. This word is the opposite of our English word "hypocrite," more precise than the English word "sincere."

I make a point of this word "tam" in this text because it is the Holy Spirit's basic assessment of Jacob's character, and because nearly all translations of Genesis mistranslate it. Checking the versions in my personal library, Leeser, NIV, TEV and TLB translate "quiet." NKJV translates "mild." (Were they thinking of Clark Kent?) NASB translates "peaceful." The old King Jimmy translates "plain." Lamsa translates "simple." Perhaps CEV is most original, with the translation "settled down." The standard translations into German, Russian, Spanish and Ukrainian make the same kind of mistake, but the Greek LXX does not. The Targumim translate this verse so freely that it is hard to be sure how the targumists understood this particular word.

The last phrase of Genesis 25:27 gives a specific behavior of Jacob's that demonstrated the contrast between Esau's character and the character of our ancestor Jacob. That phrase refers to Jacob as "a tent-dweller." I've heard people who have misunderstood this verse in mistranslations call Jacob "a mamma's boy" and Esau "a he-man." That is probably how Esau understood the situation, too. But the Holy Spirit, through the text of this verse, is introducing us to Jacob as a man who showed his sincere devotion to God by honoring his parents and working at the family business, while his older brother, the heir to the business, spent his time skillfully hunting down animals for fun.

"The boys grew up, and Esau became a man knowing game, a man of the open fields. But Jacob was a man who wholeheartedly followed the LORD, and a tent-dweller." I think I want Jacob for my role model. And you?

For more about Esau and Jacob, click here.
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