There have been dozens of attempts to write biographies of major biblical characters. Some attempt to delve into a character through the pshat, simple meaning of the text. Others look toward midrash, traditional and modern interpretation, to fill out a character. Still others use modern scholarly techniques to get to the “real” story.
In “Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch,” Yair Zakovitch attempts to use all three methods and falls short in each area. In trying to interpret using the pshat and midrash, Zakovitch tries to force the evidence into his particular theory, suggesting everything that happens in Jacob’s life is punishment for his treatment of Esau.
Some events are punishment, such as Jacob’s treatment by Laban and even his son’s treatment of Joseph. But with other events, there is a tenuous connection, such as Joseph’s request to see Benjamin before revealing himself is a test of the brothers’ character, not a punishment of Jacob. Joseph would seem unlikely to further bereave his beloved father intentionally.
On the scholarly side, Zakovitch has a difficult task, as there are no direct extra biblical references to Jacob (or any of the patriarchs). While his connection of Jacob’s dream to being a claim on
the land by Israel during a time of war with a neighboring nation seems plausible, the paucity of outside references makes the scholarly interpretation somewhat thin.
While there are some interesting insights in this work, ironically it would have been better served by being longer. If Zakovitch had taken the space to delve more deeply into each type of interpretation and then blend them in the end, this book may have been a more useful compendium of Jacob’s life and times.