Hosea’s Characterization of Jacob
Stories About Jacob in Hosea
Hosea, the first of the minor prophetic books, is a collection of prophecies relating to the decline and fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C.E. In the 12th chapter of Hosea, YHWH details a complaint against Israel and Judah regarding their poor behavior, which includes a review of certain acts of Israel’s namesake ancestor Jacob/Israel.
The references to Jacob first appear in the early part of the chapter:
הושע יב:ד בַּבֶּ֖טֶן עָקַ֣ב אֶת־אָחִ֑יו וּבְאוֹנ֖וֹ שָׂרָ֥ה אֶת־אֱלֹהִֽים׃ יב:ה וָיָּ֤שַׂר אֶל־מַלְאָךְ֙ וַיֻּכָ֔ל בָּכָ֖ה וַיִּתְחַנֶּן־ל֑וֹ בֵּֽית־אֵל֙ יִמְצָאֶ֔נּוּ וְשָׁ֖ם יְדַבֵּ֥ר עִמָּֽנוּ׃ יב:ו וַֽי־הוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י הַצְּבָא֑וֹת יְ־הוָ֖ה זִכְרֽוֹ׃
Hos 12:4 In the womb he tried to supplant his brother; grown to manhood, he strove with a divine being. 12:5 He strove with an angel and prevailed—the other had to weep and implore him. At Bethel [Jacob] he met him, there to commune with him. 12:6 And YHWH, God of Hosts, YHWH is his name!
Later in the chapter, he appears again:
הושע יב:יג וַיִּבְרַ֥ח יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׂדֵ֣ה אֲרָ֑ם וַיַּעֲבֹ֤ד יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּאִשָּׁ֔ה וּבְאִשָּׁ֖ה שָׁמָֽר׃
Hos 12:13 And Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard [sheep].
These acts are familiar to us from stories in in Genesis, which is the reason parts of this chapter are included in haftarah for Parashat Vayeitzei (in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions).
- He struggles with his twin brother in-utero/birth (Gen 25:26);
- He wrestles with a divine being (Gen 32:25);
- He defeats the divine being (Gen 32:26);
- The divine being asks to be let go (Gen 32:27);
- He communicates with the divine at Bethel (Gen 28:10–22; Genesis 35);
- He flees to Aram (Gen 28:1–5);
- There he works in exchange for a wife (Gen 29:18–20, 25–28);
- Specifically, he watches his father-in-law’s sheep (Gen 30:29).
Differences Between Hosea’s Descriptions and Those of Genesis
Despite these overlaps, a number of differences stand out:
- Timeline—The order of events in Hosea is different: Hosea presents the wrestling with the divine being between struggling with Esau and fleeing to Aram. In Genesis, the angel episode occurs when Jacob is on his way home from Aram. This difference may be due to genre differences – Hosea’s back-to-back placement of the struggles with Esau and the angel may reflect poetic rather than narrative logic. Nevertheless, a different sequence is given.
- Details—Other differences are more subtle. For instance, Hosea refers to the divine being as both ʾelohim, God, and malʾach, angel, while the same character is referred to as an ʾish, man, in Gen 32:25. In Gen 32:27 the “man” asks to be released because day was breaking, whereas Hos 12:5 states that “he had to weep and implore him,” implying a more desperate tone than Genesis.
- Missing pieces—Several stories that are central to the Genesis narrative of Jacob, namely Jacob’s sly acquisition of the birthright via lentil stew (Gen 25:29–34) and his successful attempt at getting Isaac to give him the firstborn blessing (Gen 27), are absent in Hosea’s retelling, even though they occur in the early part of Jacob’s life and would fit here.
It is likely, then, that Hosea is using a different version of the Jacob cycle rather than what we are familiar with from Genesis. The bulk of Hosea was likely written shortly before or after the fall of the Northern Kingdom (720 B.C.E.), which would make the northern, E source, or perhaps E’s sources, the most likely candidate for a Jacob tradition Hosea may have known.
And indeed, most of what appears above is found in E, and much of what is missing comes from sources other than E. The author of Hosea 12 couldn’t reference Jacob’s acquisition of the birthright or his sneaky efforts to ensure he received the blessing if he was not familiar with those southern, J traditions.
It would be injudicious, however, to assume that Hosea could not have known any traditions which are now found in texts assigned to J. The very first reference to a Jacob story in Hosea 12, the struggle in-utero with his brother Esau, only has a parallel in J! Therefore, it appears that Hosea 12 was familiar with a good part if not all of E’s Jacob stories as well as some other Jacob traditions that end up in J.
With this in mind, we may return to our literary comparison. The Genesis Jacob cycle, as we have it now, depicts a sly Jacob who is eager to overtake his brother as his father’s heir, and yet he receives divine affirmation of his role as favored son. But what about Hosea 12? I suggest that the verses in Hosea allow for three distinct readings, the final of which I find most compelling.
Reading 1: Jacob Was Bad, Through and Through
The Jacob stories in Hosea 12 are introduced as part of a complaint against Israel:
הושע יב:א סְבָבֻ֤נִי בְכַ֙חַשׁ֙ אֶפְרַ֔יִם וּבְמִרְמָ֖ה בֵּ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
Hos 12:1 Ephraim surrounds Me with deceit, the House of Israel with guile…
The complaint against the contemporaneous people of Israel or Ephraim is traced back:
הושע יב:ג וְרִ֥יב לַֽי־הוָ֖ה עִם־יְהוּדָ֑ה וְלִפְקֹ֤ד עַֽל־יַעֲקֹב֙ כִּדְרָכָ֔יו כְּמַעֲלָלָ֖יו יָשִׁ֥יב לֽוֹ׃
Hos 12:3 YHWH once indicted Judah, and punished Jacob for his conduct, requited him for his deeds.
This verse implies that the stories about Jacob (which begin immediately following this verse) are related to this indictment. In this reading, the references to Jacob are meant to be representative of the patriarch’s poor conduct, which in turn represents the ill deeds done by people of the Kingdom of Israel during the time of Hosea.
Jacob overtakes his older brother and moves on to act inappropriately even to an angel of God. He is forced to flee to Aram, like a fugitive, and must watch sheep in order to secure a wife. The mention of Aram is taken as a negative indicator—Jacob was so bad that he had to leave the land of Israel. Additionally, his serving for a wife could be seen as punishment for his ill deeds, or more improbably, as emphasizing that he was not serving YHWH, but others.
Even meeting God in Bethel can be interpreted in a negative light. While Bethel is considered to be sacred space (the name Bethel means “house of El/God”) in many biblical texts, Hosea is consistently negative about this, even calling it Beth-Aven, “House of Iniquity,” instead of Bethel.
In fact, it is possible that Hosea is not referring to the place Bethel, but to a divine name, that is, the god Bethel. Bethel as a deity may be attested in the Hebrew Bible, such as in Jer 48:13, where Bethel is parallel to Chemosh, the chief Moabite god. Among the extrabiblical evidence for divine Bethel are documents from the Jewish community of Elephantine, Egypt. A papyrus from the year 400 B.C.E. indicates that the Yahu (=YHWH) temple at Elephantine was also associated with deities named Eshem-Bethel and Anat-Bethel, and Bethel appears as a theophoric element in Elephantine personal names (i.e., Bethel-natan, son of Yeho-natan).
With this background in mind, Hosea may be accusing Jacob of worshipping a god other than YHWH, which he then polemicizes against in v. 6 with his strong statement, “Yet YHWH, the God of Hosts, must be invoked as ‘YHWH.’”
The final Jacob reference in the chapter has also been read in a negative light, especially in conjunction with the following verse:
הושע יב:יג וַיִּבְרַ֥ח יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׂדֵ֣ה אֲרָ֑ם וַיַּעֲבֹ֤ד יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ בְּאִשָּׁ֔ה וּבְאִשָּׁ֖ה שָׁמָֽר׃ יב:יד וּבְנָבִ֕יא הֶעֱלָ֧ה יְ־הוָ֛ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם וּבְנָבִ֖יא נִשְׁמָֽר׃
Hos 12:13 And Jacob had to flee to the land of Aram; there Israel served for a wife, for a wife he had to guard [sheep]. 12:13 But when YHWH brought Israel up from Egypt it was through a prophet; through a prophet they were guarded.
Some have read this pair of verses as intentionally contrasting the prophet (Moses), who is portrayed as chosen by YHWH to deliver Israel, with Jacob, who is described in more mundane terms. Jacob simply existed, while Moses was the true founder of the Israelite people.
This first reading has suggested that Jacob is portrayed entirely negatively in Hosea 12, and is invoked precisely as a model of the Israelite’s poor behavior. However, if Hosea 12 was intended to paint the ancestor Jacob as a paradigm of deceit and sin, it does not do a convincing job.
Neither Jacob’s struggle with his brother nor with the angel are inherently negative. They both depict a Jacob/Israel who is aggressive, but also one who is strong, capable, and successful, especially when he was able to overcome an angel. Similarly, the references to Bethel and Jacob’s marriage are far from explicitly condemning. Thus, Hosea’s version of the Jacob cycle is more ambivalent than scathing, and can even be read positively, as will be demonstrated below.
Reading 2: Jacob Was a Model of Good Behavior
If we read Hosea’s mention of Bethel as referring to the city rather than the deity, this reference is likely to be positive, for, in the stories with which we are familiar, Jacob communes with God in this holy place.
In this reading, Hosea is using the references to the ancestor Jacob in order to contrast Jacob’s proper behavior with the Israelites’ current poor behavior. This contrast is highlighted in verse 7, in which the focus shifts from Jacob to Hosea’s audience:
הושע יב:ז וְאַתָּ֖ה בֵּאלֹהֶ֣יךָ תָשׁ֑וּב חֶ֤סֶד וּמִשְׁפָּט֙ שְׁמֹ֔ר וְקַוֵּ֥ה אֶל־אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ תָּמִֽיד׃
Hos 12:7 But you must return to your God! Practice goodness and justice, and constantly trust in your God.
The notion of returning (or simply turning) to God indicates Hosea’s opinion that unlike Jacob, the contemporary Israelites were not properly obeying YHWH.
The final Jacob verse in the chapter, v. 13, can also be read in a positive light, again when read along with v. 14 (quoted above). Jacob’s act of guarding (שמר) is parallel to Israel being guarded (נשמר) by a prophet of YHWH (i.e. Moses).
YHWH guarding Israel through a prophet is certainly a positive act, and therefore Jacob’s act of guarding, as well as his serving for a wife, likewise seems to be depicted as something positive. Verse 13 portrays a loyal Jacob, and one who acts like YHWH. The parallelism – in which Jacob relates to YHWH and his wife relates to Israel – is reinforced when read through the lens of Hosea 1–3, which employs a marriage/lover metaphor to refer to YHWH (as man) and Israel (as woman).
This is certainly how traditional commentaries read the text. See, for instance, Rashi’s gloss on v. 6:
וה' אלהי הצבאות ה' זכרו—כאשר הייתי מאז כן אני עתה ואם הייתם הולכים עמי בתמימות כיעקב אביכם הייתי נוהג עמכם כאשר נהגתי עמו:
“And Hashem, God of Hosts, Hashem is his name”—As I have been of old, I am still to this day. And if you walk properly with me, like Jacob your father, I will act with you as I have acted with him.
For Rashi, the Jacob stories depict a “proper” Jacob, who serves as the paradigmatic example of how to walk properly with YHWH.
Like the first reading, this second reading is not fully convincing. If Jacob is being cited by Hosea as a model of good behavior, why are the first two stories, which involve physical disputes, told? It is conceivable that the struggle with the angel could be construed as a positive event, but how could grabbing his brother’s heel in-utero be paradigmatically good behavior?
Reading 3: Jacob Finds YHWH After a Shaky Start
I suggest a third, compromise reading. This approach adopts the strengths of both of the previous readings and argues that Hosea 12 portrays a Jacob/Israel who was not originally an ideal follower of YHWH (vv. 4 – 5a), but who came to know and emulate YHWH (vv. 5b – 6, 13).
As in the first reading, the initial actions of Jacob—his grabbing at his brother and his striving with the angel—are to be viewed critically. This behavior may project power, but the expressions of power, being over a brother and a divine representative, do not come across as completely virtuous. However, Jacob/Israel then becomes intimately acquainted and reconciled with YHWH at Bethel.
Verse 5b states “At Bethel [Jacob] would meet him, there to commune with him.” The Genesis composite JE parallel to this line can be found in Gen 28:10–22, where Jacob arrives at a site then called Luz, has a dream vision, performs a ritual and makes a conditional oath accepting YHWH as his god. Notably, (in J) this is the first time that Jacob is introduced to YHWH with the name YHWH:
בראשית כח:יג וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְ־הוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֮ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְ־הוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
Gen 28:13 And YHWH was standing beside him and He said, “I am YHWH, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.
In J, following the rest of YHWH’s blessing, and an initial exclamation by Jacob, Jacob makes a conditional promise that he will accept YHWH as his god if YHWH returns him home safely. In contrast, in the E version of this story there is no explicit verbal revelation at Bethel, but Jacob receives a dream (v.12) which is explicitly referred to later in the E narrative as an act of divine revelation so important that Jacob needed to return there to build an altar (Gen 35:1,7).
The reference in Hosea 12:5 to God speaking with Jacob at Bethel should not be interpreted as directly related to either the E or J tradition, but it likely reflects the same idea shared by both E and J that the revelation at Bethel was foundational (figuratively and literally) for the relationship between Jacob and God/YHWH.
Following the reference to Jacob’s encounter with God at Bethel in Hosea 12:5b, v. 6 then states: “And YHWH, God of Hosts, YHWH is his name!” Instead of condemning Jacob’s worship at Bethel as following a different deity, this verse emphasizes the importance of what happened for Jacob at Bethel—he became intimately acquainted with God.
In this nuanced reading, Jacob the ancestor is a dynamic character. He begins life in an aggressive manner, attempting to fight his way to the firstborn position. He then goes further down the path of arrogance, fighting an angel of God, even making the angel plea for release! However, after meeting God at Bethel, Jacob accepts God as his god. This reconciliation is reinforced in vv. 13–14, which parallel Jacob with YHWH – Jacob is loyal (to his wife) just as YHWH is loyal (to Israel).
Jacob Found YHWH—So Should Israel
The Jacob stories in Hosea 12, unlike those in Genesis, are explicitly employed as part of an argument, specifically a complaint God has against Israel. The exact function of the stories in the argument, however, is ambiguous. Jacob’s actions appear to be neither grievously bad nor sagely good, and attempts to portray them as such are not persuasive. Instead, it is likely that Hosea uses Jacob traditions for the purpose of portraying Israel’s eponymous ancestor as ultimately finding YHWH, despite his arrogance–exactly what the author of Hosea 12 wants Israel to do.
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Noam Cohen is a Ph.D. student in Hebrew Bible/Ancient Near East at NYU. He received his B.A. and M.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. Noam’s current research is focused on studying domestic abuse in the Ancient Near East.
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