Where Do Isaac and Rebecca Live When Jacob Leaves Home?
Jacob Leaves Home
Why does Jacob leave his parents’ home to stay with his maternal uncle Laban? A close look at the Torah shows two different reasons.
Jacob Runs from Esau to Haran at His Mother’s Behest (J)
In one story, Jacob, to receive the blessing, tricks his blind father into believing he is Esau. The trick has the unintended but inevitable consequence of infuriating Esau, who plans on killing Jacob after their father’s funeral. Rebecca learns of Esau’s intention and informs Jacob of it, urging him to flee to her brother:
בראשית כז:מג וְעַתָּה בְנִי שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי וְקוּם בְּרַח לְךָ אֶל לָבָן אָחִי חָרָנָה. כז:מד וְיָשַׁבְתָּ עִמּוֹ יָמִים אֲחָדִים עַד אֲשֶׁר תָּשׁוּב חֲמַת אָחִיךָ. כז:מה עַד שׁוּב אַף אָחִיךָ מִמְּךָ וְשָׁכַח אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ וְשָׁלַחְתִּי וּלְקַחְתִּיךָ מִשָּׁם לָמָה אֶשְׁכַּל גַּם שְׁנֵיכֶם יוֹם אֶחָד.
Gen 27:43 Now, my son, listen to me. Flee at once to Haran, to my brother Laban. 27:44 Stay with him a while, until your brother's fury subsides, 27:45 until your brother’s anger against you subsides and he forgets what you have done to him. Then I will fetch you from there. Let me not lose you both in one day!”
Rebecca’s plan is for Jacob to stay with her brother for short time, until Esau cools down.
Jacob Goes to Paddan-aram to Find a Wife at His Father’s Behest (P)
In a different story, lacking this strife between the brothers, Jacob goes to Laban’s house for the purposes of finding a wife. Here too, the problem begins with Esau, but in a different way:
בראשית כו:לד וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו בֶּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה וַיִּקַּח אִשָּׁה אֶת יְהוּדִית בַּת בְּאֵרִי הַחִתִּי וְאֶת בָּשְׂמַת בַּת אֵילֹן הַחִתִּי. כו:לה וַתִּהְיֶיןָ מֹרַת רוּחַ לְיִצְחָק וּלְרִבְקָה.
Gen 26:34 When Esau was forty years old, he took to wife Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite; 26:35 and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebecca.
The story picks up a chapter later:
בראשית כז:מז וַתֹּאמֶר רִבְקָה אֶל יִצְחָק קַצְתִּי בְחַיַּי מִפְּנֵי בְּנוֹת חֵת אִם לֹקֵחַ יַעֲקֹב אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת חֵת כָּאֵלֶּה מִבְּנוֹת הָאָרֶץ לָמָּה לִּי חַיִּים.
Gen 27:46 Rebecca said to Isaac, “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me?”
Isaac agrees with Rebecca, and in the next verse tells Jacob to take a wife from Laban’s daughters:
בראשית כח:א וַיִּקְרָא יִצְחָק אֶל יַעֲקֹב וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ וַיְצַוֵּהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן. כח:ב קוּם לֵךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם בֵּיתָה בְתוּאֵל אֲבִי אִמֶּךָ וְקַח לְךָ מִשָּׁם אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת לָבָן אֲחִי אִמֶּךָ...
Gen 28:1 So Isaac sent for Jacob and blessed him. He instructed him, saying, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. 28:2 Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother…”
Scholars have long posited that the two stories derive from two different Pentateuchal sources. The story of the stolen blessing is from J, and that of going to find a wife is from P. The presence of two sources is confirmed by the fact that each makes use of a different toponym for Laban’s place of residence: J has him living in Haran, while P has him in Paddan-aram.
Jacob’s story continues with what happened to him on the way to his uncle’s land (Gen 28:10–22). As argued by Hebrew University Bible professor Baruch Schwartz, in his “Did Jacob Meet YHWH at the Stairway to Heaven in Beth-El?” (TheTorah 2018), here too we can isolate two storylines:
Dream, Stairway, and Beth-El (E)
Jacob stops somewhere at night, goes to sleep, and dreams of a stairway (or ladder, or ramp) to heaven, with angels going up and down it. He wakes up afraid, saying that this place is the house of God (=Beth-El) and the gate to heaven. In the morning, he sets up a pillar and declares it is now an abode for God, and he promises to spend a tenth of his wealth for God. This story is a hieros logos, i.e., a sacred legend, about the founding of the northern Israelite worship site in Beth-El, originating from a northern source like E.
YHWH’s Promise of Land and Progeny (J)
As Jacob is travelling, suddenly YHWH is standing beside him. He introduces himself as the god of Jacob’s fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and promises Jacob that he will have many descendants and they will inherit the land.
As is typical, E’s God reveals himself indirectly, through a dream, while YHWH reveals himself directly in J. The geographic setting of the E story is Beth-El in the Cisjordan, but other than knowing that Jacob was on the way from his father’s house to that of Laban in Haran, we do not know where Jacob is when YHWH speaks to him in J.
The Problem of Verse 10
Jacob’s journey has one introductory verse:
בראשית כח:י וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה.
Gen 28:10 Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran.
Which source is this verse from? The latter half of the verse, which refers to Haran, fits with J, but the former half poses a problem: In the story of Jacob stealing the blessing, Isaac’s family is not living in Beersheba, but in Beer-lahai-roi.
בראשית כה:יא ...וַיֵּשֶׁב יִצְחָק עִם בְּאֵר לַחַי רֹאִי.
Gen 25:11 …And Isaac dwelt in Beer-lahai-roi.
This J verse leads directly into the J story of the birth of Esau and Jacob, once we put aside the interceding Priestly verses (25:12–20).
As I argued in my “Locating Beer-lahai-roi,” (TheTorah 2014), the imagery of Esau as a game hunter, who can be sent out and expected to return immanently with a kill, is inappropriate to Beersheba, situated in the arid Negev, but it fits quite well with the oasis of Ein el-Chai in the Transjordan, which I have elsewhere identified as biblical Beer-lahai-roi. (For a discussion of J’s placement of Isaac in Beersheba in Gen 26, see appendix.) Thus, according to J, Jacob would not be leaving Beersheba, but Beer-lahai-roi.
Isaac Lives in Kiryat-arba (P)
The claim that Jacob left Beersheba cannot come from P either, since this source already contains a verse (28:5) stating clearly that Jacob left home and went to Paddan-aram; an additional such statement would be superfluous. More significantly, according to P, Isaac does not live in Beersheba, but in Kiryat-arba (=Hebron). This is stated explicitly when Jacob returns home:
בראשית לה:כז וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב אֶל יִצְחָק אָבִיו מַמְרֵא קִרְיַת הָאַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן אֲשֶׁר גָּר שָׁם אַבְרָהָם וְיִצְחָק.
Gen 35:27 And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre, at Kiriath-arba, that is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned.
The fact that Esau marries Hittite women further suggests that Isaac is living in Kiryat-arba. Earlier, when Abraham buries Sarah outside Kiryat-arba, he negotiates with Hittites (בני חת), among whom he is “a resident alien” (Gen 23:3–4). Thus, P likely envisions Jacob leaving Kiryat-arba.
If Jacob is not coming from Beersheba according to either J or P, that leaves one further option: the E source.
The Remnants of the E Source
The early part of the E source is not well preserved, and we are missing everything between the story of the binding of Isaac (Akedah) and Jacob’s dream in Beth-El. The final verse of the Akedah reads:
בראשית כב:יט ...וַיֵּשֶׁב אַבְרָהָם בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע.
Gen 22:19 …And Abraham dwelt in Beersheba.
This does not necessarily mean that Isaac also lived in Beersheba, but it is suggestive. That this phrase comes from E makes sense with the overall redactional strategy in this story. When the compiler of the Pentateuch spliced the E and J narratives together, he chose the E story as the framing narrative, making the reader imagine that YHWH’s revelation to Jacob was part of Jacob’s dream at Beth-El, instead of something he experienced while he was awake, somewhere in the Transjordan. He thus opened the story with E’s “and Jacob left Beersheba.”
What About Haran?
While the opening of 28:10 must be E, the ending cannot be, since according to E, Jacob was not headed to Haran but to the east, as stated explicitly in the following chapter:
בראשית כט:א וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב רַגְלָיו וַיֵּלֶךְ אַרְצָה בְנֵי קֶדֶם.
Gen 29:1 Jacob resumed his journey and came to the land of the Easterners.
The biblical term easterner (qedem) refers to people in Jordanian and Arabian deserts, not the lands of the Arameans, which is far to the north of Israel. Thus, in E’s itinerary, Jacob is travelling from Beersheba to the desert regions in the east, not to Haran. This means that verse ten is actually a hybrid verse, with the first half coming from E and the latter half from J.
Accordingly, E’s original opening originally read as follows (28:10a, 11):
וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע // וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם כִּי בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ...
Jacob left Beersheba // and he chanced upon a place and stopped there for the night…
Reconstructing J’s original opening is more complicated. The leftover phrase וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה, “and he went to Haran,” lacks a subject and thus cannot be an appropriate beginning. Perhaps the name Jacob originally appeared in this phrase, וַיֵּלֶךְ יַעֲקֹב חָרָנָה, “and Jacob went to Haran,” but it was cut by the redactor because it already appears in the first half of the verse. A more compelling possibility, however, is that the original opening is still extant, only that it has been reworked surreptitiously into the Priestly text.
A Superfluous Verse
After blessing Jacob, the Priestly text offers a narrative summation:
בראשית כח:ה וַיִּשְׁלַח יִצְחָק אֶת יַעֲקֹב וַיֵּלֶךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם אֶל לָבָן בֶּן בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי אֲחִי רִבְקָה אֵם יַעֲקֹב וְעֵשָׂו.
Gen 28:5 Then Isaac sent Jacob off, and he went to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean, the brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.
Following the send-off of Jacob, P turns back to Esau and his reaction to what Isaac does (Gen 28:6–9). Verse 7 of that episode, noted in bold below, is problematic:
בראשית כח:ו וַיַּרְא עֵשָׂו כִּי בֵרַךְ יִצְחָק אֶת יַעֲקֹב וְשִׁלַּח אֹתוֹ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם לָקַחַת לוֹ מִשָּׁם אִשָּׁה בְּבָרֲכוֹ אֹתוֹ וַיְצַו עָלָיו לֵאמֹר לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן. כח:ז וַיִּשְׁמַע יַעֲקֹב אֶל אָבִיו וְאֶל אִמּוֹ וַיֵּלֶךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם. כח:ח וַיַּרְא עֵשָׂו כִּי רָעוֹת בְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן בְּעֵינֵי יִצְחָק אָבִיו. כח:ט וַיֵּלֶךְ עֵשָׂו אֶל יִשְׁמָעֵאל וַיִּקַּח אֶת מָחֲלַת בַּת יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אַבְרָהָם אֲחוֹת נְבָיוֹת עַל נָשָׁיו לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה.
Gen 28:6 Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him off to Paddan-aram to take a wife from there, charging him, as he blessed him, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women.” 28:7 Jacob listened to his father and his mother and went to Paddan-aram. 28:8 Esau saw that the Canaanite women displeased his father Isaac. 28:9 So Esau went to Ishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nebaioth.
Right in the middle of the text’s description of how Esau came to realize that his father was unhappy with his marriage to the Hittite women, the text returns to Jacob and reports for a second time that he listened to his father and went to Paddan-aram. Not only is this repetitive and unnecessary, but it interrupts the flow of Esau’s thoughts.
The secondary nature of v. 7 is confirmed by the resumptive repetition/Wiederaufnahme in verse 8 (underlined above), which brings us back to Esau’s realization. Verse 7 is thus a redactional insertion by the compiler, but for what purpose?
Jacob and His Mother
I suggest that the verse is a reworking of the missing J opening in 28:10b. One key difference between the J and P stories has to do with who tells Jacob to leave home. In P, while Rebecca works behind the scenes by complaining to Isaac, it is only Isaac who speaks with Jacob and tells him to go. In contrast, in J, it is only Rebecca. And yet verse 7 has Jacob listening to them both.
I suggest that this verse is actually the compiler’s reworking of the J opening which read:
וַיִּשְׁמַע יַעֲקֹב אֶל אִמּוֹ וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה.
Jacob listened to his mother and went to Haran.
Since the compiler decided to begin the story with opening from E, he removed the first part of the J verse and placed it here. Nevertheless, he added the element of Jacob also listening to his father, following the P story, and creating a summary statement of Jacob listening to both of his parents. In the original J story, however, Jacob never speaks to his father about leaving. Having stolen the blessing at the coaxing of his mother, he runs away to Haran upon the warning of his mother. His old blind father is never consulted.
Gerar and Beersheba in Genesis 26: The Sequence Problem in J
While Genesis 25 puts Isaac in Beer-lahai-roi, Genesis 26 claims that Isaac moves to Gerar, and afterwards to Beersheba. This creates a geographical problem, since in Genesis 27, Isaac is almost certainly back in Beer-lahai-roi. While it is possible to suggest that Isaac returned to Beer-lahai-roi, or that he moves back and forth between the two, this is unnecessary since Genesis 26 is out of place from a chronological perspective.
First, these stories, which feature only Isaac, or Isaac and Rebecca, interrupt the flow of the Jacob and Esau narrative which begins at the end of chapter 25 and picks up again in chapter 27. More importantly, chapter 26 simply doesn’t work in its current narrative context.
The story of Isaac in Gerar, with which the chapter opens, is about how Isaac tries to pass off his young beautiful wife as his sister, for fear he would be killed otherwise. If this narrative was really meant to follow the previous chapter, it would mean that Isaac and Rebecca already have two sons, which certainly would have tipped off the king of Gerar that they were married! Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban, 1194–1270) tries to solve this problem by suggesting (Gen 26:7):
ועל הבנים לא שאלוהו, כי יאמר בני אשה אחרת הם לו.
They didn’t ask about the boys since he said that they are his sons from another woman.
While this is possible, it is forced and absent from the text. More likely, as already suggested in the commentary of Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800–1865) to Genesis 26:1, this story is set in a time before Isaac and Rebecca had children.
ויהי רעב בארץ – לדעת ר' וואלף מאיר, בעל המעמר, זה היה קודם לידת יעקב ועשו, ואין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה, כי רחוק הוא שבאורך הימים לא ירגישו אנשי המקום כי הבנים בניו ושרבקה היא אמם.
“And there was a famine in the land”—according to Rabbi Wolf Meir (late 18th–early 19th cent.), author of The Meʿamer, this happened before Jacob and Esau were born, and [as the rabbinic principle states], “the Torah does not necessarily write in sequence.” For it is hard to imagine that as the days went by, the locals would not realize that the boys were his sons and that Rebecca was their mother.
The same is true for the rest of chapter 26, which flows naturally from Gerar story: Isaac is a successful herdsman, strong and virile, digging multiple wells until he settles in Beersheba, in peace and as a wealthy man. By the time we get to the birth of the twins (ch. 25), Isaac is an older man, since he is elderly and dying when they are but teenagers (ch. 27).
Although it is unclear why the J episodes have been compiled out of sequence, it seems clear that in J, Isaac lived in Beersheba when he was a young man, but in Beer-lahai-roi when he was an old man.
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Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.
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