What is the meaning of the names “Esau” and “Jacob”?

The story about Esau and Jacob may be found in the book of Genesis 25-27. Here is a brief passage we shall examine:

24 When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.d Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them (NRSV).


d That is He takes by the heel or He supplants


Explanation:

25:24 וַיִּקְרְאוּ שְׁמוֹ עֵשָׂו  — so they named him Esau. — The etymology of the name עֵשָׂו (asev = Esau) is unclear. Some scholars think that it is related to the Arabic athaya to be covered with hair;  athai, ‘hairy’  Based on this conjecture, Esau may mean “the hairy one” The Hebrew wording suggests that he was completely developed, made, formed, or perfected; or perfect, robust.

Esau’s hairy skin also becomes an important detail in the story of Jacob stealing his father’s blessing (Gen. 27:11-23). In addition, it hints at Esau’s wild and unrefined nature which is in some ways, and is reminiscent to the Babylonian hero Enkidu (whose hairy body is similar to Esau), who also  lived  among the animals in the forest.

25:26 וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב — so he was named Jacob — The name “Jacob” means  “one who grabs the heel,” or “one who trips up,”  or “one who supplants.”  Jacob’s name comes from  the root  עָקַב (eqab) “to take by the heel,” or “supplant.” Hence, the name “Jacob” ought to be rendered as “Supplanter,” or, “Deceiver.” Further scriptural evidence supports this hypothesis.  The verb עָקַב   is often used for those who ambush an unsuspecting party (this was actually Gad’s method of warfare alluded to in Gen. 49:19),  and implies cunning and deceit (e.g. Psa. 41:10;49:5; et al.).

Only a punster could appreciate the beauty of the biblical text here. Puns embedded in this name might suggest an interesting translation seldom seen in English translations. Jacob might just as easily mean “trickster”  and lends itself to an unusual but common English pun–we could say that Jacob behaves like a real “heel”!

The narrative’s irony is remarkable–note how the “quiet homebody” Jacob hunts and ambushes his brother–Esau–“the hunter”!

6 thoughts on “What is the meaning of the names “Esau” and “Jacob”?

  1. anna kamenka says:

    clear inference that in palaeontological terms esau was Neanderthal man and jacov his deceptive follower?currently the suggestion is that some mixing of Neanderthal and modern humans happened.neanderthal didn’t simply disappear,but was absorbed.so Jacob could be this mix.
    clearly genealogy is very important in bereshit and the genetics of in or outmarriage

    I also got as far as Abraham ?brahman, compassionate transcendent father of all creation in hindu belief and sara as ?sarasvati his consort. she is associated with knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning. so not quite the same as shkhina female aspect of g-d or g-d active in world or at any rate not so much physical as non-material activity which of course the shkina may include.

    i think that when in tora the name avraham replaces av ram the name ram could refer to the hindu upholder of creation ,whose role in the Ramayana might be interpreted as that of the perfect ruler and man, upholder of halacha .

    current studies of early man and scientific history generally tend to confirm the accuracy of tora -provided one isn’t stupidly literal about it, or regard tora and science as incompatible in principle.(‘faith must reject all evidence and reason’- a not entirely false argument when referring to the importance of allowing due weight to our emotional cognition.however traditionally Judaism doesn’t reject reason per se when studying tora, just includes it among permitted interpretations)

    thank you for your clear discussion of the etymology of esau.

  2. Mai says:

    I found the meanings of these names to be quite interesting, considering the fact that the descendants of Jacob and Esau do not live up to their Fathers names. Example: Esau means “perfected” yet his descendants are from it. In fact, they are what you call “deceivers”. Isn’t that what you are doing right now?….. Trying to deceive. More and more people are becoming aware of Satan and his tactics. We all know who the edomites are and what they stand for…the so called White people. We know who Jacob’s descendants are, the true people of YAH. The Israelites! The Blacks and all the people of color! Time is at hand.

  3. Cathy says:

    Rabbi Samuel;

    I have a something on my heart. For startes I’m an European America, over here called ‘white.’

    There are hundreds of websites put up by black people here stating that Esau was called red which means white since we do have that pink tone showing througb our skin.

    All the sites say we are Edomites and that God hates us all regardless of where we live. They scream out about our passed and they say God is going to kill us all according to Obadiah.

    What is one to think of this? Am I doomed no matter how fair I am to all people? They scream even if we haven’t enslaved them that we’re all doomed due to white privilege. My family isn’t privileged in any way, in fact we’re those Irish that the Europeans hated and called us the N word of Europe.

    What am I to think? Even after many prayers I feel anger and fear at these black people for hating me when I haven’t hurt them or any minority.

    Am I an Edomite and if so does that mean I’m doomed?

    Rabbi, I’m not Jewish, I’m supposedly Christian but don’t feel like I’m very good at that either.

    Thank you for your time.

    Sincerely,
    Cathy

    • admin says:

      I think any black website that makes such an absurd claim obviously doesn’t know anything about Semitic peoples, which can range in color pigmentation. These pseudo scholars write from a certain political agenda. If anything, the racism comes from these people’s wild and twisted imagination.

    • admin says:

      Dear Cathy,

      Unfortunately, Shakespeare said it best:

      “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
      An evil soul producing holy witness
      Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
      A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
      O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”

      ― William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

      Anyone who uses the Bible, the New Testament, or the Quran or any scriptures believed to be inspired by God for evil–is in my view an evil person and what that person is promoting is demonic religion that is attempting to parody authentic faith. I would ignore all those awful statements and read something more enlightening and inspiring in your spare time.

      Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

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