Methodology for the Mirror-Reading of The Elohist Source - Jacob Cycle

The Jacob Cycle is primarily concerned about keeping the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Laban separated but also maintaining peace between them.  More speculatively, the Elohist may also be concerned about merging the descendants of Jacob with the descendants of Israel.  If you’d like a less technical overview, please check out my podcast episode on the Jacob Cycle. If you’re not familiar with the Elohist Source and it’s cycles, be sure to check out that podcast episode as well.


Please note that the argumentation below is that of the opposing narrative that the Elohist was addressing and is opposed to the Elohist narrative itself.

Color Code:
Black: These statements are mirrors or echoes
Blue: These statements are an inferred cause/effect of a mirror/echo or connects two mirrors/echoes
Green: These statement have no corresponding mirrors or echoes but have supporting (e.g. alternates, denials) statements that imply them.
Orange: Words within a statement that could be variations of the opposing narrative

Italics are causal connectors (e.g. “because”)
[Brackets] are replacements for pronouns or changing tense for better flow.

For more information about mirrors, echoes, supporting categories and my methodology, please visit this post.

Aspect#1: The relationship of Jacob and Rachel

1. Jacob loved Leah

2. Jacob did not love Rachel more than Leah
3. because Jacob married Leah first

4. Jacob did not love Rachel
5. We know because Jacob withheld sexual relations from Rachel

Aspect#2: The relationship of Jacob and Laban   

1. [Jacob served Laban] for nothing

2. [Laban did] not regard [Jacob] as favorably as he did before
3. because Jacob cheated Laban
4. and because [Jacob deceived Laban]
5. and because [Jacob] carried away [Laban's] daughters like captives
6. and because [Jacob stole Laban's] gods

Aspect#3: Which Bethel should Elohim be worshiped at?

1. Some were not giving a tenth to Bethel in Canaan
2. because [Bethel in Canaan] is not none other than the house of God, & [it] is not the gate of heaven.

Aspect #4: Where did Jacob originate from?

1. Jacob was not from Canaan

Aspect #5: Did Jacob worship other gods besides Elohim?

1. Jacob served Elohim only after he returned to Canaan
2. We know because Jacob hid [foreign gods] under the oak that was near Shechem.

Aspect #6: Were Jacob and Israel two separate people?

1. Jacob and Israel were two separate people
2. because Jacob's hip [was out] of socket and Israel’s was not

Aspect #7: The relationship between Jacob and Esau

1. Esau was hostile towards Jacob

Aspect #8: Was Benjamin a descendant of Jacob?

1. Benjamin was not a descendant of Jacob
2. because Jacob’s son was Benoni, not Benjamin

Aspect #9: Is Elohim a God of fertility?

1. Elohim is not a God of fertility


The commentary attempts to show how the Elohist responds to the opposing narrative.

Aspect  #1: The relationship of Jacob and Rachel

  1. In response to the opposing narrative that said Jacob didn’t love Rachel, the Elohist switches it around to show that Jacob didn’t love Leah.
  2. Not only did Jacob love Rachel, but he loved Rachel more than Leah.
  3. The Elohist agrees with the opposing narrative that Jacob did marry Leah first, but this was not an indication of who he loved more.  An alternative explanation is provided, in that Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah first, and that he had really wanted to wed Rachel first.
  4. The Elohist makes it abundantly clear that Jacob loved Rachel, even serving Laban 14 years in order to get her, which also serves as an alternative for Aspect #2.
  5. An alternative is provided to show that it was Elohim that withheld the fruit of the womb and not Jacob withholding sexual relations. According to Biblical scholar, Robert Alter, the Hebrew is quite clear about Jacob’s desire for Rachel.  Via Tim Keller’s description: “Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” Of course that means he wants to have sex with her. Alter says that this statement is so blunt, so graphic, so sexual, so over-the-top and inappropriate and non-customary that, over the centuries, Jewish commentators have had to do all kinds of backpedaling to explain it. But he says it is not that hard to explain the meaning. He says that the narrator is showing us a man driven by and overwhelmed with emotional and sexual longing for one woman.”

Jacob’s and Rachel’s relationship could have established two things for the Elohist.  First, it establishes that Joseph and Benjamin are descendants of Jacob.  This forms a close blood tie with the descendants of Jacob and Leah.  Second, it gives the offspring of Rachel and Jacob higher status than those of Leah and Jacob since she was the favored wife. 

Aspect#2: The relationship of Jacob and Laban   

  1. The opposing narrative was likely saying that Jacob was a servant or even a slave of Laban.  The Elohist counters this by saying that Jacob did work for Laban but not as a slave or a typical servant.  The wages he requested was Rachel. The relationship is described in friendly terms as Laban greets Jacob with a kiss and embraces him as well as offering for him to stay in his house.  The statement that Jacob was a kinsman of Laban makes it less likely that he was his slave.    
  2. The Elohist counters the idea that Jacob and Laban’s relationship turned negative by saying that it was all just a misunderstanding and the relationship was restored at the end.
  3. There seems to have been a transfer of wealth from Laban to Jacob.  The opposing narrative explains this by saying that Jacob cheated Laban, primarily in regards to livestock, which is what seems to be what most of Laban’s wealth consisted of.  Other reasons for the statement that Jacob cheated Laban are discussed in the points below.  The Elohist responds by saying that Jacob served Laban with integrity and that all of his livestock were rightfully his. An alternative is provided that explained that the wealth was transferred because Laban was financially irresponsible and because Elohim transferred the wealth to Jacob. The Elohist even flips the narrative, making Laban out to be the one who cheated Jacob.
  4. The Elohist does not deny that Jacob sneaked away from Laban but shows that it wasn’t for nefarious reasons. Rather, he provides the alternative that Jacob was afraid. The opposing narrative said that Jacob deceived Laban by secretly leaving and taking much, if not all, of Laban’s wealth as well as his daughters and idols. But the Elohist points out that what Jacob fled with was all his own.
  5. The Elohist points out that Jacob bought his wives fair and square, to put it bluntly.  The reason Jacob had taken them secretly was because he was afraid that Laban would steal them from him.
  6. The Elohist agrees that Laban’s idols had come with Jacob but provides an alternative that Jacob was unaware of it by saying that Rachel had taken them without his knowledge.

The Elohist’s narrative serves to smooth hostilities between the descendants of Jacob and the descendant’s of Laban.  We can assume that they were in close proximity to each other somewhere around the pillar that was set up as a boundary marker between them. The Elohist seems to want them on friendly terms by recasting Jacob and Laban on good terms. He wants them connected (Jacob was a kinsman of Laban) but not too close (Jacob’s descendants are not Laban’s descendants).  The rightful taking of Leah and Rachel as Jacob’s wives may be at play on this point as well.  If Jacob has stolen them, then it could be argued that his descendants belonged to Laban and so should be merged with Laban’s descendants.  The Elohist doesn’t want this and shows that they were rightfully Jacob’s wives and that even Laban considered them foreigners. The stolen gods would have also been a concern to the Elohist since he wanted only Elohim to be worshipped.  There may have been some evidence of a connection between Jacob and foreign gods during the time of the original reader. Distancing Jacob from the stolen gods would encourage his descendants to worship only Elohim and would further distance them from Laban’s descendants. Not only was the Elohist trying to distance Jacob descendants from Laban’s descendants, he may have also been trying to merge the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Israel, assuming Aspect #6 is true.  If Jacob had the reputation of a scoundrel that ripped off Laban, then there would be more resistance to the merging of Jacob’s and Israel’s identities. So the Elohist shows how Jacob acted with integrity.       

Aspect#3: Which Bethel should Elohim be worshiped at?

  1. In the ancient near east, meteorites were regarded as chunks of God’s house that had fallen from the sky.  These meteorites became places of worship and were referred to as bethels (houses of God). So it’s feasible that there were competing “Bethels” to the one in Canaan. Where these competing Bethel’s were, the text does not explicitly say, although, we could speculate that the pillar set up by Jacob and Laban may have been viewed as such.  Less likely is Rachel’s pillar since it was also in Canaan and the Elohist does not seemed concerned about it. Jacob sets an example for his descendants by saying that he will give his tithes at the Bethel in Canaan.
  2. Jacob’s building an altar at Bethel in Canaan, both before he leaves and after his return, marks that Bethel as the place for his descendants to worship.

With tithes likely being the main financial source for the priesthood and cult of Elohim in Israel, they would have had a vested interest in compelling Israelites to bring their tithes to the Bethel in Canaan.  If Aspect #6 if true, then either the Jacobites or the Israelites may have been worshipping at a different Bethel and so this part of the narrative was directed at them.

Aspect #4: Where did Jacob originate from?

  1. The Elohist again wants to make sure that Laban’s descendants and Jacob’s descendants are not too closely connected.  They are relatives but Jacob is tied to Canaan and not from where Laban originated.

This could be a concern about keeping those on the border of Israel, part of Israel and preventing them from defecting to other tribes and kingdoms.  Laban’s descendants may have been one such competing tribe and the Elohist wanted to keep them separated from them.

Aspect #5: Did Jacob worship other gods besides Elohim?

  1. It’s shown that Jacob committed to Elohim at Bethel, before leaving Canaan.  When the man that Jacob wrestled, asks him why he asked his name, this could be an indication that Jacob already knew his name because he already worshiped Elohim.            
  2. Since the Elohist admits that Laban’s gods were transported to Canaan via Rachel, he needs to show Jacob remained faithful to Elohim and that they were disposed of to support the idea that only Elohim is to be worshiped.  He does this by saying that they were buried.

A couple of issues are being addressed here. One, Jacob’s actions promote the idea that only Elohim is to be worshiped. Jacob discarding of the foreign gods eliminated “competition”.  Second, showing that the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Laban worship different gods, makes them less connected and prevents them from merging.

Aspect #6: Were Jacob and Israel two separate people?

  1. Jacob is renamed as Israel to show that they were the same person.
  2. One of the distinctive differences between Jacob and Israel, according to the opposing narrative, was Israel’s limp.  The Elohist shows that Israel gained his limp from wrestling during his divine encounter, which was at the same time Jacob was renamed Israel and also around the same time he entered Canaan.

If Jacob and Israel were two different people then Jacob’s descendants would have less motive to be a part of the kingdom of Israel and more likely to merge with another tribe, such as Laban’s descendants. The question is, who was the opposing narrative viewing as descendants of Jacob but not Israel? They remained unnamed by the Elohist.  We might refer to them as the Jacobites for lack of a better term.  We could speculate that the Jacobites were the children of Rachel, since the two wives offer a natural genetic division for the opposing narrative, with Rachel being Jacob’s wife and Leah being Israel’s wife . Whoever, they were, at least some of them seemed to have lived on the transjordan, south of the pillar that Jacob and Laban had erected. In the end Israel seems to have not only retained the “Jacobites” as part of Israel but may have also absorbed the descendants of Laban since East Manasseh is north of the pillar that Jacob and Laban had erected.

Aspect #7: The relationship between Jacob and Esau

  1. Esau acts friendly towards Jacob and shows know ill will.

Why Esau is at play here is a bit of a mystery to me.  The descendants of Esau (the Edomites) did not border Israel.  Moab sat between them, so we could speculate that Israel formed an alliance with Edom to keep Moab in check.  Jacob’s subservient behavior and gift giving to Esau may indicate the kingdom of Israel was subjugated to Edom and paying tribute to them at that time. If the “Jacobites” in Aspect #6 were new to this arrangement, or if they had a history of hostility with the Edomites, this part of the narrative would have been directed at them.

Aspect #8: Was Benjamin a descendant of Jacob?

  1. The Elohist shows that Rachel had another son right before she died.  This not only supports the idea that Benjamin was a descendant of Jacob but also supports the idea that Jacob loved Rachel, as discussed in Aspect #1.
  2. This could be another issue like Aspect #6 in that Benoni and Benjamin were seen as separate people by the opposing narrative. Israel had an ancestor name Benjamin and the Benjaminites had an ancestor name Benoni.  Or vise versa. The Elohist combines these two people into one. It’s possible it may have been just about giving the tribe of Benjamin more honor since Benoni means “son of sorrow” and Benjamin means “son of my right hand”.   That is interesting because it would seem to elevate Benjamin above Joseph, which is not the case in the Joseph Cycle. This may signal a shift that took place, even within the Elohist writings, to promote a kingly line from the tribe of Benjamin over a kingly line from the tribe of Joseph.     

If the tribe of Benjamin was not a descendant of Israel, then they would have less motive to be a part of the kingdom of Israel and could be influenced to be part of another tribe or kingdom since they were on the border of the Kingdom of Israel. (It’s interesting to note that the Southern Kingdom may have been trying to keep Benjamin in it’s kingdom later on, according to 2 Samuel.) This is much like the “Jacobites” in Aspect #6.  We might even speculate that the Benjaminites were the Jacobites discussed in that Aspect. The Elohist seems concerned to show that Benjamin is tied to the land of the tribe of Benjamin, saying that he was born in Bethlehem and Rachel died and was buried there.  The focus on Bethel could be another indication of promoting Benjamin over the rest of the tribes, however, Bethel may have belonged to the tribe of Ephraim at that time, as mentioned in the story of Deborah.

Aspect #9: Is Elohim a God of fertility?

  1. Elohim is given a prominent role in the birth of most of Jacob’s children.  Jacob also credits Elohim for conception when discussing Rachel’s barrenness with her (thereby addressing Aspect #1 as well) and he also credits Elohim for his children when talking to Esau.

We saw that “god competition” in Aspect #5 was at play.  This is similar in that the Elohist is attempting to move the Israelites away from any other fertility gods and showing that Elohim is able to produce conception of children.

Biblical References

The spreadsheet embedded below is a list of verses used to compose the argumentation above.   You can also view the spreadsheet here.  For further information about how these statements were categorized, please visit this post.