Parashat Vayeitzei: Jacob’s Family
[This is part seven in a series of analyses on appearances of the Hebrew word for name, shem, in the weekly Torah portion. Start here.]
Last week’s parasha ended on a cliffhanger: Jacob runs away from home, fleeing his brother Esau’s wrath after stealing Isaac’s blessing from him — a blessing intended as Esau’s birthright and inheritance. Jacob seizes that legacy for himself.
Jacob — the natural inheritor of the Abrahamic legacy and the next link in the generational chain — is called to task for his actions.
Isaac calls his behavior something akin to cleverness / sleight of hand / trickster בְּמִרְמָ֑ה (Genesis 27:35) while Esau laments in anguish over Jacob’s exploitations, using Jacob’s very name יעקב, his identity and legacy, to describe how he supplanted / outwitted him וַֽיַּעְקְבֵ֙נִי֙ (Gen. 27:36).
Now, Jacob is forced into exile. He will need to find his way back home.
In the opening words, Jacob encounters God for the first time. He identifies Himself as the God of his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham, and repeats the blessings of land, offspring, and greatness He promised them. He assures Jacob He will return him to his home and wont forsake him.
Jacob awakes from his dream encounter with God, and we encounter shem:
וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִאשֹׁנָֽה׃
He named that site Bethel; but previously the name of the city had been Luz. (Gen. 28:19)
Jacob names the place ‘a house of God,’ following in Abraham’s footsteps in naming a place to commemorate his encounter with God in the Binding of Isaac.
Jacob changes the name of that place which had previously been known as Luz. This is reminiscent of Isaac’s re-naming the wells according to their previous Abrahamic names. The significance is indicated by the double use of shem in the text.
Indeed, according to tradition, this ‘place’ will later house the Holy Temple, and it’s the same site as the Binding of Isaac.
In shem’s next appearances we meet the future Matriarchs:
וּלְלָבָ֖ן שְׁתֵּ֣י בָנ֑וֹת שֵׁ֤ם הַגְּדֹלָה֙ לֵאָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַקְּטַנָּ֖ה רָחֵֽל׃
Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.
We meet Rachel in the previous verses but only now does the Torah use shem. This narrating verse sits inside a dialogue between Laban and Jacob discussing Jacob’s wage as Laban’s employee. Jacob answers that marrying Rachel is his price. It fits, then, that shem appears here when Jacob is considering his spouse — one of the most important components of one’s legacy — and that the Torah uses shem here in a narrative interruptive verse to the reader, once again calling attention to shem’s association with legacy. Both the Matriarchs’ and Jacob’s.
Abraham was promised to be a father of nations but he had just two [main] sons and his main legacy was bequeathed to just one. Isaac was similarly promised greatness and abundant descendants but only had two children with Jacob as heir. No great nations in sight.
In this parasha, Jacob has 12 children and shem appears with each one (**see full text at bottom). It seems that God is starting to fulfull His promise of many children.
This challenges the paradigm we grew accustomed to with Abraham and Isaac and stretching back to the first man: just one member of each generation as torchbearer, one male to carry on God’s special mission and serve as the generational link.
Can Jacob succeed in extending God’s inner circle to comprise his entire family, or will he have to choose just one son? This struggle underlies the rest of the book of Genesis.
Jacob packs up his family and flees from Laban, just like he ran away from Esau. And, similarly, the Torah’s narrative doesn’t sound so complimentary of his actions: “Jacob deceived / stole the heart of Laban the Aramean by not telling him he was fleeing.” (Gen. 31:20) Not that Jacob’s actions are necessarily wrong — after all, his mother Rebecca advised him to run from Esau and now God advised him to leave and return home — but they aren’t befitting a Patriarch.
So Jacob again finds himself in a similar position fleeing antagonists, this time with his own family in tow.
Laban catches up to Jacob, confronts him, and Jacob stops running. He finally stands up for himself.
Following Jacob’s passionate self-defense Laban relents and offers to make peace, but not before showing his true colors (archetypal of anti-Semitism) in claiming Jacob’s family and possessions as his own.
Their covenant of peace is commemorated with shem:
וַיִּקְרָא־ל֣וֹ לָבָ֔ן יְגַ֖ר שָׂהֲדוּתָ֑א וְיַֽעֲקֹ֔ב קָ֥רָא ל֖וֹ גַּלְעֵֽד׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָבָ֔ן הַגַּ֨ל הַזֶּ֥ה עֵ֛ד בֵּינִ֥י וּבֵינְךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ גַּלְעֵֽד׃
Laban named it Yegar-sahadutha but Jacob named it Gal-ed. And Laban declared, “This mound is a witness between you and me this day.” That is why it was named Gal-ed. (Gen. 31:48)
Laban’s name and Jacob’s name mean the same thing, just in different languages (Jacob’s Hebrew versus Laban’s Aramean). This is reminiscent of shem’s first appearance in this parasha when Jacob bestows a name on a place that contradicts a different given name.
shem’s final appearance is in the parasha’s very last verse:
וְיַעֲקֹ֖ב הָלַ֣ךְ לְדַרְכּ֑וֹ וַיִּפְגְּעוּ־ב֖וֹ מַלְאֲכֵ֥י אֱלֹקים׃ וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יַעֲקֹב֙ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר רָאָ֔ם מַחֲנֵ֥ה אֱלֹקים זֶ֑ה וַיִּקְרָ֛א שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא מַֽחֲנָֽיִם׃
Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. When he saw them, Jacob said, “This is God’s camp.” So he named that place Mahanaim. (Gen. 32:3)
A mysterious encounter with God’s angels and no description of what transpired.
Like shem’s first appearance, the name bestowed by Jacob commemorates his encounter with God.
Jacob’s own shem — his identity and legacy — is called into question leading in to this parasha, as he flees from Esau whose legacy he took. Right away we see God confirming Jacob as the next Patriarch and we see him using shem to praise God, reclaiming a site in His Name.
We meet the Matriarchs — shem included — and Jacob’s family blossoms, each of his 12 children bestowed with shem.
Then, after again fleeing an adversary, this time Laban, Jacob finally confronts his foe and shem sides with his naming over Laban’s. Jacob is becoming a new man and starting to write his own legacy.
Jacob is on a mission to start a family enterprise. Unlike Abraham and Isaac before him, Jacob intends to bequeath God’s mission to each of his children, setting the foundation for a growing family to become a great nation.
The making of his legacy continues in next week’s parasha.
**Birth of Jacob’s first 12 children — 11 sons of the 12 tribes and daughter Dinah:
וַתַּ֤הַר לֵאָה֙ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֔ן וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ רְאוּבֵ֑ן כִּ֣י אָֽמְרָ֗ה כִּֽי־רָאָ֤ה יְי בְּעׇנְיִ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֖ה יֶאֱהָבַ֥נִי אִישִֽׁי׃ וַתַּ֣הַר עוֹד֮ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּן֒ וַתֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֤ע יְי כִּֽי־שְׂנוּאָ֣ה אָנֹ֔כִי וַיִּתֶּן־לִ֖י גַּם־אֶת־זֶ֑ה וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ שִׁמְעֽוֹן׃ וַתַּ֣הַר עוֹד֮ וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּן֒ וַתֹּ֗אמֶר עַתָּ֤ה הַפַּ֙עַם֙ יִלָּוֶ֤ה אִישִׁי֙ אֵלַ֔י כִּֽי־יָלַ֥דְתִּי ל֖וֹ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה בָנִ֑ים עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ לֵוִֽי׃וַתַּ֨הַר ע֜וֹד וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֗ן וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַפַּ֙עַם֙ אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת־יְי עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרְאָ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ יְהוּדָ֑ה וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֖ד מִלֶּֽדֶת׃
Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben, for she declared, “It means: ‘The LORD has seen my affliction’ [Reuben-conjugation]; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’” She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This is because the LORD heard [Simeon-conjugation] that I was unloved and has given me this one also”; so she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, “This time my husband will become attached [Levi-conjugation] to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will praise [Judah-conjugation] the LORD.” Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing. (Gen. 29:32–35)
וַתֹּ֤אמֶר רָחֵל֙ דָּנַ֣נִּי אֱלֹקים וְגַם֙ שָׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלִ֔י וַיִּתֶּן־לִ֖י בֵּ֑ן עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרְאָ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ דָּֽן׃
And Rachel said, “God has vindicated me [Dan-conjugation] indeed, He has heeded my plea and given me a son.” Therefore she named him Dan. (Gen. 30:6)
וַתֹּ֣אמֶר רָחֵ֗ל נַפְתּוּלֵ֨י אֱלֹקים ׀ נִפְתַּ֛לְתִּי עִם־אֲחֹתִ֖י גַּם־יָכֹ֑לְתִּי וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ נַפְתָּלִֽי׃
And Rachel said “A fateful contest I waged [Naphtali-conjugation] with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed.” So she named him Naphtali. (Gen. 30:8)
וַתֹּ֥אמֶר לֵאָ֖ה (בגד) [בָּ֣א גָ֑ד] וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ גָּֽד׃
Leah said, “What luck!” [Gad-conjugation] So she named him Gad. (Gen. 30:11)
וַתֹּ֣אמֶר לֵאָ֔ה בְּאׇשְׁרִ֕י כִּ֥י אִשְּׁר֖וּנִי בָּנ֑וֹת וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ אָשֵֽׁר׃
Leah declared, “What fortune!”[Asher-conjugation] meaning, “Women will deem me fortunate.” [Asher-conjugation] So she named him Asher. (Gen. 30:13)
וַתֹּ֣אמֶר לֵאָ֗ה נָתַ֤ן אֱלֹקים֙ שְׂכָרִ֔י אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי שִׁפְחָתִ֖י לְאִישִׁ֑י וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יִשָּׂשכָֽר׃
And Leah said, “God has given me my reward [Issachar-conjugation] for having given my maid to my husband.” So she named him Issachar. (Gen. 30:18)
וַתֹּ֣אמֶר לֵאָ֗ה זְבָדַ֨נִי אֱלֹקים ׀ אֹתִי֮ זֵ֣בֶד טוֹב֒ הַפַּ֙עַם֙ יִזְבְּלֵ֣נִי אִישִׁ֔י כִּֽי־יָלַ֥דְתִּי ל֖וֹ שִׁשָּׁ֣ה בָנִ֑ים וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ זְבֻלֽוּן׃ וְאַחַ֖ר יָ֣לְדָה בַּ֑ת וַתִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמָ֖הּ דִּינָֽה׃
Leah said, “God has given me a choice gift; this time my husband will exalt [Zebulun-conjugation] me for I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun. Last, she bore him a daughter, and named her Dinah. (Gen. 30:20–21)
וַתַּ֖הַר וַתֵּ֣לֶד בֵּ֑ן וַתֹּ֕אמֶר אָסַ֥ף אֱלֹקים אֶת־חֶרְפָּתִֽי׃ וַתִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ יוֹסֵ֖ף לֵאמֹ֑ר יֹסֵ֧ף יְי לִ֖י בֵּ֥ן אַחֵֽר׃
She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” So she [Rachel] named him Joseph, which is to say, “May the LORD add [Joseph-conjugation] another son for me.” (Gen. 30:23–24)
- Each son gets not only shem but also their own explicit naming derivation.
- The love triangle and collective legacies of Jacob and sisters Leah and Rachel underpin the naming of each of the children’s names.
- The sisters give their maidservants as wives to Jacob to bear more children and build up their own legacies, echoing Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham’s similar arrangement.
- This is the first time a daughter is born to the Patriarchs.
- References to God: Leah refers to God by His Tetragrammaton Name — symbolizing mercy — for three of the first four children born to her, then Rachel uses a different Name of God — symbolizing justice — for her two maidservant children, then Leah uses no God-reference for her two maidservant children, then Leah switches to God’s justice Name for her last two sons, then Rachel uses both Names for her first son but highlights His merciful Name.