The Reinterpretation of a Name
Jacob’s In Utero Activities
The birth of the twins Jacob and Esau did not progress altogether smoothly. Before proceeding into the world, the twins fought fiercely — “the children struggled in her womb” (Genesis 25:22) — at which point Esau appears first, and “then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel [‘aqev] of Esau; so they named him Jacob [yaaqov]” (v. 26). Not simple wordplays, biblical name etymologies often shed light on the beliefs and worldviews — sometimes even the ideological conflicts — of the ancients. Moreover, they can enable us to reconstruct traditions that have otherwise disappeared.
The Bible contains more than one explanation for many names, including Jacob. The placement of one of the explanations for Jacob’s name in his birth story, “holding on to the heel of Esau,” does not necessarily mean that it is the only or oldest explanation or even that it was the most well known. Quite the opposite, we propose, is true: this etymology was placed here in order to dispute the prevailing explanation of the name ya’aqov and to offer an alternative that would cast a more favorable light on the business of the twins’ birth. The popular tradition and the story it conceals are the topic of this chapter.
The root of the Hebrew name Jacob, ‘-q-v, sometimes appears with the meaning “deceive,” “cheat,” such as we find in 2 Kings 10:19: “Jehu was acting with deceit [be-’oqbah] in order to exterminate the worshipers of Baal.” This is the meaning of the root also in the Jacob and Esau story cycle. After Jacob acquires his brother’s blessing from their father