The historian in me wonders if we can know anything about a historical Jacob/Israel. We know from Egyptian records that by the time of Pharaoh Merneptah near the end of the 13th century B.C.E. Israel was the name of a significant people somewhere in the neighborhood of Canaan.
I have read the Amarna letters from the mid 14th century and, in spite of the theories about the ‘apiru, I see no evidence of Israel’s presence in the area at that time. (It looks to me like the ‘apiru were surrogates for the Hittites or the Mitanni, whose job was to make trouble for Egypt. There is zero evidence that Israel ever took on that role.) So I would think that Israel arose about the time of Egypt’s 19th dynasty and Rameses II when his treaty with the Hittites made Canaan a kind of buffer zone. However, the peak of the village settlements in the hill country, which archaeologists now often associate with Israel, come late in this period or in the 12th century.
Jacob’s first geographical location in Genesis is east of the Jordan in the Jabbok river valley. When we get to the passage about the burial of Jacob, I will elaborate about my notion that the historical Jacob’s place and the origin of Israel was across the Jordan. For now I will just mention that what seems to be an old memory of the epic tradition is that Jacob was “a wandering (or perhaps the Hebrew means “starving”) Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5). I think there really was a man named Jacob/Israel. You just have to dig way down through the layers of epic tradition to find him.
Genesis 46:1-5 clues us in to the nature of some of those epic traditions. Some of them were sanctuary legends. That is, they were legends that grew up among and were passed down by the priests at particular sanctuaries. An important truth about ancient Israel is that before–and even for a long time after–Solomon’s temple, there were lots of sanctuaries or temples in Israel. The old sanctuaries at Shechem, Hebron, and Beersheba had stories that connected them to Jacob.
As far as our Joseph epic goes, sanctuary legends about Jacob from Hebron and Beersheba seem to play a role. In the story Jacob’s original location is in the Hebron valley (Genesis 37:14). That was also Abraham’s location in the earlier story about Sodom and Gomorrah. So in 45:25, when the brothers find their father he is still in the Hebron valley–as far as we know. But in 46:5, he sets out from Beersheba. Was the journey in 46:1 an attempt to knit two sanctuary legends together?
There were important early sanctuaries at both Hebron and Beersheba. Hebron would dominate the tradition, because David later brought the high priest from there, Zadok, to Jerusalem and made him one of his high priests. Solomon made him the sole high priest and the Zadokite priests became the temple priests at Jerusalem. But Beersheba, even though isolated out in the barren Negeb, remained a sanctuary and pilgrimage site into the time of Amos (Amos 5:5). Both sanctuaries apparently passed on stories about Jacob.
At Beersheba there was a story about how Jacob had a vision before he departed for Egypt (46:2-4). The vision sets up the Exodus story as God promises eventually to bring Jacob’s descendants back from Egypt. Beersheba may have especially been a place where stories about the Exodus developed. From 1 Kings 19:3, where Elijah begins a pilgrimage to Mount Horeb, we see that Beersheba was a starting place for such pilgrimages. This may explain why people from north Israel still went way down there in the time of Amos.
The historical Jacob might have had a vision at Beersheba. He might have settled for a while near Hebron. My point is that these stories became important in that they anchored an important patriarch to certain sanctuaries. The unintended result for historians is that the historical Jacob got buried under these sanctuary legends.