Genesis 29:1 So Jacob went on his journey and came to the land of the people of the East.
Jacob was sent by his father Isaac to the city of Haran, the place where Laban (Rebekah’s brother) lived. Recall (from Genesis 24) that when Abraham wanted his servant to locate a bride for Isaac, he sent the servant to the city of Nahor, located in the vicinity of Ur (where Abraham grew up). Ur was located in the southeastern region of Mesopotamian, and was probably a coastal town in those times. The city of Haran was located in the northern region of Mesopotamia, and you will remember that this is where Abraham first settled when God called him out of Ur. Apparently, when Laban started his own family, he left Ur and traveled up to Haran.
In this chapter we will study how Jacob met his wife (ok, wives) and started his family. There is a similar feel to the story of how Isaac obtained his bride (similar because in Isaac’s case the bride came from the east, out of the original family). But in most other ways the stories are very different. For one, the locations are completely different (Abraham’s servant traveled all the way to Ur, while Jacob traveled to Haran). For another, Isaac’s bride was brought to him (and so we used this as a picture of the Church being brought to Christ as His bride), but Jacob went to find his. So we won’t be spending any time comparing the two stories, because really, they are very different.
Genesis 29:2-3 And he looked, and saw a well in the field; and behold, there were three flocks of sheep lying by it; for out of that well they watered the flocks. A large stone was on the well’s mouth. 3 Now all the flocks would be gathered there; and they would roll the stone from the well’s mouth, water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place on the well’s mouth.
OK, so here is another similarity. Abraham’s servant also arrived at a well. I don’t think there is too much significance in this. Back then, when you arrived at a new town and you were looking for someone, your chances of locating your resident were going to be highest at either the city gate, or, where the residents got their water. Civil and judicial matters were handled at the city gate by all the “important people”. Jacob was looking for people like him, so he looked for the wells.
Apparently, the well he found was used for watering flocks, and the stone that covered it was so heavy that all of the shepherds needed to be present in order to move it. This was their well’s “lock” so that some rogue shepherd couldn’t come and steal their water. The owners collectively worked together to open the well and then re-secure it when they were finished. Laban was part of this collective, and so we can see that the Lord had guided Jacob to the specific place he needed to be.
Genesis 29:4-6 And Jacob said to them, “My brethren, where are you from?” And they said, “We are from Haran.” 5 Then he said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” And they said, “We know him.” 6 So he said to them, “Is he well?” And they said, “He is well. And look, his daughter Rachel is coming with the sheep.”
Isaac told Jacob to select his wife from among Laban’s daughters, his cousins. Jacob arrived at a well, met these guys who are from Haran, and who new Laban well enough that they could answer a specific question about his well-being. There could have been many wells to choose from around Haran, but Jacob found himself at the right one. He also found himself there at the right time, because Rachel arrived. Out of the nearly infinite possibilities, there was a short window of time that Jacob would meet Rachel at that well. If he arrived at a different well, or was too early or too late, he would have missed her. God’s plan for us leads us to particular places at particular times, and it really is miraculous to think about.
Genesis 29:7 Then he said, “Look, it is still high day; it is not time for the cattle to be gathered together. Water the sheep, and go and feed them.”
Jacob was not a mama’s boy. In fact, he knew how a lot about tending and keeping flocks, and he was confused as to why these shepherds would not have their sheep out in the pastures, because it was still the main part of the day, the time to be out grazing the flocks. So basically he was saying, “What are you guys waiting for, give your sheep their water and then get them out into the fields so they can eat!”
Genesis 29:8 But they said, “We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together, and they have rolled the stone from the well’s mouth; then we water the sheep.”
They responded that this is how they did things, and if it meant waiting, then so be it, because the stone got rolled away only when all the flocks had arrived. Jacob didn’t say anything in response to this, but in the back of his mind he must have wondered where these guys got their training, because sitting around was a waste of time, and the sheep needed to be out eating clover, not sitting in the dirt waiting for water. A little later in Jacob’s story we read about how he greatly increased Laban’s flocks. Apparently, Jacob introduced some really “advanced” animal husbandry techniques, such as letting the sheep spend all day in the pastures fattening up. As you can see, the local competition hadn’t figured that one out yet.
Genesis 29:9-10 Now while he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. 10 And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother.
Maybe the real reason that Jacob didn’t respond to the other guys was because once Rachel showed up, they didn’t exist anymore. All he saw from that point on was Rachel. The other shepherds were going to wait for help in order to roll that heavy stone out of the way, but Jacob just went and did it himself. That would have earned Jacob the privilege of watering Rachel’s sheep first (even though she showed up last). The other guys would have to wait a bit longer.
Rachel was a shepherd girl, and was working for her father in a job that could have been done by Laban’s servants. This might tell us something about Laban (that he was trying to save a few bucks?), but it definitely tells us something about Rachel. She was willing to do the work. By the way, her name means ewe, she was a little sheep girl. She was wearing something drab and had her hair tied back out of her face, and was probably sun burned and dirty. Jacob was very smitten by her.
Genesis 29:11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept.
Very likely, Jacob had heard the names of Laban’s daughters, and maybe even had heard something about them. After all, Isaac did know enough about Laban’s family to direct Jacob to Haran to choose one of his daughters. The information could have included names and something about their personality. Meeting “the Rachel” that he had heard about would have been a very emotional experience for Jacob, and seeing that she was pretty was probably a great relief.
Rachel must have thought the whole thing strange. She arrived at the well thinking that she would have to wait her turn for water (fourth), and instead this strange man (and strong) single-handedly rolled the big rock out of the way, gave her sheep water, kissed her, and then cried out of happiness. She was probably looking around wondering who was playing the practical joke on her.
Genesis 29:12-14 And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s relative and that he was Rebekah’s son. So she ran and told her father. 13 Then it came to pass, when Laban heard the report about Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. So he told Laban all these things. 14 And Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh.” And he stayed with him for a month.
Rebekah was famous in Laban’s family, because of the way she was swept away to be part of the amazing work that God started in Abraham. Laban would have remembered the expensive gifts that Abraham’s servant brought. Jacob had arrived empty handed, but he had already demonstrated his expertise in tending flocks, his willingness to work hard, and his care for what belonged to Laban. Perhaps Laban viewed Jacob’s arrival as a potential windfall.
Jacob told Laban his story, which likely included his falling out with Esau. Laban’s response, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh” was Laban’s way of telling Jacob that he had Jacob’s side in the family dispute. Rebekah (Laban’s sister) was preferential towards Jacob, and Laban would have been more likely to support his sister’s perspective than Esau’s.
Laban could have been suspicious, because his sister left to become an extremely wealthy and powerful wife. Then her son showed up on his doorstep with nothing but his story? Yet we know God was working in all of this, and Laban’s reception of Jacob was definitely influenced by the moving of the Holy Spirit in everyone’s hearts, including his.
A month went by, and from what we already know about Jacob, he was not treating it like a vacation. He probably pitched right in to the family chores, especially when they gave him an opportunity to spend time with Rachel. He was willing to work, and to work hard. Visiting a relative can make for a nice vacation, but we can wear easily wear out our welcome (Proverbs 25:17 Seldom set foot in your neighbor’s house, lest he become weary of you and hate you). Jacob behaved as if he was part of the family and assumed responsibilities so that he wouldn’t wear out his welcome.
Genesis 29:15-17 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what should your wages be?” 16 Now Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah’s eyes were delicate, but Rachel was beautiful of form and appearance.
Laban allowed Jacob to set his own salary! That sounds very generous, if not risky. But I think Laban knew what Jacob wanted, and I think we can also begin to see Laban’s manipulation of Jacob for his own benefit. We will see later that Laban needed someone to marry Leah, and the local guys weren’t coming around, because they didn’t like Leah.
Leah’s problem was that her eyes were delicate. Modern translations of the Bible, and most commentaries do Leah a great disservice, by implying that she was either a plain-looking girl or had something wrong with her face. The proper translation for Leah’s eyes is not that they were ugly or that she was ugly. The proper meaning is that her eyes were “tender, soft, delicate, or weak” and the original words were most likely a figure of speech, rather than a literal description. If this is the case, then the meaning of delicate does not indicate that there was something physically wrong with her eyes. Instead, one possibility is that her eyes were blue or some other shade other than brown. Unfortunately for Leah, in her culture blue eyes were a sign of weakness. Men would have thought that her sons would also be weak and timid. Leah could have been very pretty by modern standards, just not by the standards of her day. Rachel, on the other hand, had dark eyes, and a dark complexion, and “looked” just like the kind of girl that the men of the time would have thought would create lots of strong, strapping sons.
Rachel had an outward beauty that was highly prized by the culture of her day. Leah was probably not ugly (she came from a family that produced a lot of knockouts! Sarah? Rebekah?), but she did not have the physical characteristics that were valued by her culture. As we get to know her better, we will see that she did have something inside that set her apart from Rachel. Jacob was drawn to the outward beauty of Rachel, but he apparently was also drawn to what society defined as “beauty” rather than what would have been truly beautiful. God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Jesus said in Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
Genesis 29:18-20 Now Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.” 19 And Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to another man. Stay with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed only a few days to him because of the love he had for her.
Did Jacob choose Rachel over Leah because Leah looked weak? Maybe Jacob just fell in love with the one he met during a Divine appointment at the well. From the moment he met her, he probably believed that God had orchestrated the whole thing. He had nothing against Leah, but he made his choice. That is, after all, what Isaac told him to do: choose from among his cousins. We don’t know if Jacob knew, at this time, Laban’s rule that the older daughter must be married first. If we assume that he didn’t know, then we can see how Laban planned to manipulate him from the beginning. If we assume that Laban did share the “eldest daughter rule” with Jacob, then Laban must have promised Jacob that either Leah would be married off within the seven years, or, Laban would waive the rule for Jacob’s sake. So, either Laban was running a con, or he was a liar. Either way, he did Jacob wrong. That is easy to see. It is not so easy to see where Jacob’s heart was. He chose Rachel and loved her, and we can only speculate as to why. By the end of this chapter, though, I will explain why I think that God would have rather that Jacob chose Leah.
Why did Jacob need to work for seven years? In that culture, a man needed to provide a suitable dowry in order to receive permission to marry a girl. The purpose of the dowry was to provide for the girl in the event that her husband left her. Think of it as alimony paid in advance. Besides, a man was less likely to leave a wife in which he had invested so much into before they even made their vows.
Since Jacob had nothing to offer except his labor, his offer to work for seven years was intended to build up a proper dowry for Rachel, and the wages that he was earning during that time were to be kept by her father in her dowry account. Essentially, Jacob was saying, “You don’t have to pay me a salary. Take what I would earn during the seven years and apply it to Rachel’s dowry.” We will see later that Laban actually kept the money Jacob earned for himself.
Genesis 29:21-22 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in to her.” 22 And Laban gathered together all the men of the place and made a feast.
Jacob fulfilled his part faithfully, and he assumed that Laban would fulfill his (keeping Rachel’s dowry safe for her, and then giving her to be Jacob’s wife). So far so good, because Laban hosted a big party. Leah hadn’t been married yet, but Jacob didn’t seem too concerned. Either he didn’t know about the eldest daughter rule, or he assumed Laban had waived it for him.
Genesis 29:23 Now it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her.
This one verse summarizes so much intrigue that must have played out that day. Laban had to have been plotting for some time, because a lot of things needed to fall into place for this ruse to be successful. The feasting and ceremonies during the day were just a big show for Jacob’s sake. All of the festivities would have involved Rachel, with Jacob thinking that she was the bride. If there were vows spoken and toasts given, Rachel would have been right there with Jacob. But the actual marriage was not consummated until that first night in Jacob’s quarters. Knowing this, perhaps Laban made sure that Jacob drank a lot of wine. Then according to custom, the bride would be conducted to the groom’s bedchamber in darkness and silence. All Laban had to do was to dress Leah up as Rachel and have both of them be silent. Everyone else in the wedding party would have needed to be silent as well. Some of them could have seen that it was Leah being escorted to Jacob, not Rachel (where was Laban’s wife – or wives?). What this means is that Laban had to have brought in multiple people into his plot. This was not a simple con. It was a complicated and calculated sequence of steps performed by a master.
Leah also needed to be complicit in the plot. She probably wanted to become Jacob’s wife all along and secretly wished he felt the same about her. It’s actually really sad to think how her father must have used her in this scheme, playing with her emotions and then putting her in a position where her love for a man would not be returned to her. She could have resisted very easily. Once she was alone with Jacob, she could have spoken and told him what was going on. She didn’t, and my belief is that her dad lied to her and led her to believe that Jacob loved her too.
If Rachel truly loved Jacob, then she would have expected that it was her that would be brought to Jacob’s room. In that case, she was probably practically kidnapped and secured from rushing into Jacob’s room to stop her sister from going through the plan. There is no mention of her love for Jacob in any of the verses about Rachel, leading to the question. Did she love him to the same degree that Jacob loved her? One possibility is that she did not, and did not really care that Laban switched Leah into her place at the last minute. In that scenario, she wouldn’t have needed to be held against her will. As we can imagine, the whole scenario was filled with deceit and ugliness, and multiple people were involved to some degree. However, while each person involved had some responsibility for what happened, it was Laban who was behind it all.
Laban and Jacob’s mother (Rebekah) were definitely related! Just seven years before this, Jacob had performed in a similar switch-a-roo con on his father, orchestrated by his mother. The most likely con victims are those that are trying to pull one over on someone else. Jacob pulled one over on his dad and brother, and might have set himself up to be conned himself. There is no such thing as karma, but there is a spiritual principle of reaping what you sew (Galatians 6:7-8). Another passage of scripture speaks of a heathen king who was finally caught and punished for his wickedness. He said, “As I have done, so God has repaid me.” (Judges 1:7) If we are going to take shortcuts, lie, cheat and steal in order to get ahead in life, we can expect that at some point we are going to be on the wrong end of the justice scale.
Genesis 29:24-25 And Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah as a maid. 25 So it came to pass in the morning, that behold, it was Leah. And he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why then have you deceived me?”
What a surprise. When it was dark and he might have been drinking, with poor Leah basically pretending to be Rachel during their first night, Jacob was certain that he was with the woman he loved. In the morning light, he discovered it was someone else. Scripture doesn’t record for us what Jacob said to Leah that morning. It would not have been very nice, though. The more I think about this whole story, the more I feel bad for Leah.
Genesis 29:26-27 And Laban said, “It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. 27 Fulfill her week, and we will give you this one also for the service which you will serve with me still another seven years.”
So it is possible that Jacob first learned about the “eldest daughter rule” here. Yet, if it really was a rule of that country, then Jacob had seven years to hear about it and take steps to make sure he wasn’t deceived. At any rate, what could he do? He worked seven years to raise a dowry, and if he left Leah, that was gone (little did he know that Laban had already taken it). I don’t think Laban would have cared what Jacob did with Leah, because Laban got what he wanted: his oldest daughter out of the way, he had received seven years of free labor from a hard worker, and he had Leah’s dowry money.
Perhaps the right thing for Jacob to do was to accept Leah as his wife and then move on with his life. That might be hard to imagine because of the emotions that were involved, but looking at the big picture, we know that God calls for marriage to be between one man and one woman, and any other combination (or numbers) is outside of His perfect will. We should also consider that when we have participated in acts of unrighteousness (as Jacob had when he deceived Isaac), the Lord is going to allow the rotten fruits of that planted seed to come to harvest. If God, by His mercy, chooses to not pay us back fully with what we deserve, perhaps the best attitude to maintain is one of thankfulness, because it could have been worse. If Jacob had received back in full measure the harm he had done to Esau and his father, he would have had the birthright and the blessing stolen from him.
There is also the perspective that Jacob and Leah were meant to be together. In that culture, people didn’t always choose their spouses. If Isaac and Laban had negotiated directly (as was the custom of the day), then Leah would have been chosen for Jacob, and he would have no choice but to be obedient and to love her as his wife. Based on Jacob’s history and character, he would have been obedient, and he would have believed that it was God’s will for his life to be married to Leah. His belief would have been credited as righteousness.
Laban was not basing his actions on any sort of righteousness, though. Instead, he actually saw a way to squeeze Jacob for even more. Seven more year’s dowry, and Jacob could have Rachel, too. But let’s be respectful. Finish the honeymoon (one week) with Leah first. What a dad!
Genesis 29:28-30 Then Jacob did so and fulfilled her week. So he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife also. 29 And Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as a maid. 30 Then Jacob also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served with Laban still another seven years.
Jacob didn’t have to wait seven years to marry Rachel. He got her after the first seven days with Leah. But he was obligated to work seven more years to pay her dowry.
Right away, we see the ugly consequence of polygamy, as wives can be treated preferentially, creating jealousies and rivalries (we will see those between Leah and Rachel in the next chapter). I’m sure it wasn’t Jacob’s original intent to hurt Leah, nor was it Rachel’s. If they could have had their wishes, it would just be the two of them and Leah would be a great older sister and an aunt to their kids. But regardless of the intentions, the atmosphere in Jacob’s household could not have been peaceful under those circumstances.
Today, we have clear instructions in Scripture that define marriage as between a man and a woman. During Jacob’s days, there was no clear instruction regarding polygamy. There was the tradition passed down from Adam and Eve of a husband and wife, but no written Word (as we would know it – Genesis hadn’t been written yet!). Polygamy was common in their culture, and almost all of the patriarchs had multiple wives. I think we can see in the cases of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that God ordained for each man a wife, and the other women in these men’s lives were not appointed in the same way, but acquired in some way outside of God’s perfect plan.
We should be thankful that when the entire Bible was written and put together under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, God clearly defined marriage (especially in the New Testament, Ephesians 5:25-33, 1 Corinthians 7-16, 1 Timothy 3:2 & 12, Titus 1:6) to be between one man and one woman, because any other form of marriage just doesn’t work according to God’s purposes for the Church. If marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church, then we need to be very careful about how marriage’s definition is protected. To allow other forms of human relationship into marriage’s definition (besides a one-flesh joining of a man and woman) is to cheapen and weaken the relationship that the Bible shows us exists between Christ and His Church.
Genesis 29:31-32 When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. 32 So Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben; for she said, “The Lord has surely looked on my affliction. Now therefore, my husband will love me.”
Reuben’s name means, “See, a son.” You can imagine Leah calling Jacob over to her and telling him that she has given him what he wants, a son, and that he should love her. Leah didn’t deserve to be unloved by her husband, regardless of what had happened in the past.
Genesis 29:33 Then she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon.
The words for “unloved” in these verses could be taken as “loved less” (than Rachel) or could be taken to the extreme as “treated hatefully.” Either way, Jacob did not treat Leah very well, perhaps not forgiving her for what she did that first night. Maybe Rachel was the one holding bitterness against her sister, and Jacob didn’t do anything to protect Leah. But nothing changed after Reuben and Simeon were born. Jacob wasn’t getting the message, but the Lord was hearing the cry of Leah’s heart, so she named her next son Simeon (which means “hearing”).
In the previous two verses, we see that Leah had a personal relationship with the Lord. In each, she is seen responding to what the Lord has done for her, which tells us that the Lord had responded to her prayers. She had been praying about her situation, and praying for her husband, and acknowledging how God had answered her prayers. Leah was a godly woman.
Genesis 29:34 She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi.
Leah’s hope was that by this time, Jacob would begin to love her as his wife, and become “attached” to her according to God’s model for marriage (Genesis 2:24 – and be joined to his wife). This “joining” is not just physical, because if it was, Leah’s need would have been met. But she wanted something that could only be met if Jacob added his emotional and spiritual components as well. Did he by this time?
Genesis 29:35 And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Now I will praise the Lord.” Therefore she called his name Judah.Then she stopped bearing.
I think that this is the answer to our question. Leah was praising the Lord with the birth of Judah (whose name means “praise”). Why was she praising the Lord? Likely, because God had heard Leah’s heart and answered her prayers. She wasn’t praying for sons, per se. Her prayers were to be loved by Jacob. The Lord probably softened Jacob’s heart towards Leah, and opened his eyes to see her in a way that he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) before.
While Scripture at this point indicates that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, by the end of their lives, Jacob chose to be buried next to Leah. They apparently grew closer as time went by.
Carefully consider Leah’s character throughout all of this. Leah might have chosen to mistreat Jacob in return for his unfair treatment of her. But we don’t see any evidence of that in this chapter. Instead, except for her part in the wedding night deception, we see a godly woman who loved her husband, and remained loyal to him in spite of his unfairness. Rather than take it out on Jacob or blame her sister or her father, she took her struggles to the Lord and waited patiently for Him to make the changes in Jacob’s heart. God did that for her, and more: He favored her with six sons and at least one daughter. She is the mother of half of the tribes of Israel, one of which is Judah, from which Jesus came. So God chose Leah to be in the genealogy of Jesus.
What does Scripture ask of a wife who is married to a husband who is not serving the Lord? Jacob was a follower of the Lord, but in the case of his marriages (and especially his treatment of Leah), he was not living according to God’s will, and so the question also applies to women married to saved men who are straying. The Bible answers in 1 Peter 2:1-6 by directing women to the example of Sarah, who suffered through more than a few boneheaded moves by her husband. She didn’t jump all over his case:
Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. 3 Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— 4 rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. 5 For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.