GENESIS 24-29: THE CONTEXT
This story parallels, at least in some respects, the story of Abraham finding a bride for Isaac, Abraham’s son and Jacob’s father (chapter 24):
• In the earlier story, Abraham tasked his servant with finding a bride for Isaac, saying, “Please put your hand under my thigh. I will make you swear by Yahweh, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live. But you shall go to my country, and to my relatives, and take a wife for my son Isaac” (24:2-4).
• In Jacob’s story, Rebekah complains to Isaac about the Hittite women whom Esau has married, so Isaac says to Jacob, “You shall not take a wife of the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan Aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father. Take a wife from there from the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. May God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful…” (28:1-3). Both Isaac’s wife and Jacob’s wife come from the same family. Abraham’s servant and Jacob both meet the prospective brides at the same well.
But there is a major difference between the two stories. When Abraham’s servant seeks a bride for Isaac, all parties seek God’s guidance (24:7, 12-14, 21, 26-27, 50). However, in Jacob’s story, there is no mention of God after Abraham asks God to bless Jacob.
But God is present, nevertheless. God’s promise to Jacob (28:13-15) will be fulfilled. The Good News for Jacob (and us) is that a perfect God can accomplish his purposes through imperfect people like Jacob (and us)—and God blesses imperfect people like Jacob (and us).
And God shows his favor to those who are less favored. Leah, the wife whose heart is broken because Jacob prefers Rachel, becomes the mother of Jacob’s firstborn (Reuben) as well as five more sons and Jacob’s one daughter. Jesus will trace his lineage to Abraham through Judah, one of Leah’s sons. Leah’s son, Levi, will be the father of the priesthood. Leah’s handmaiden, Zilpah, will produce two more sons for Jacob. Rachel’s handmaiden, Bilhah, will produce two more sons. Rachel, Jacob’s beloved, will produce only two of Jacob’s twelve sons (Joseph and Benjamin), and will die in childbirth with Benjamin.
The story of Jacob seeking a wife is a story of negotiations that end up favoring Laban and slighting Jacob, so when considering the context we need to look back to the earlier negotiations between Esau and Jacob that resulted in Esau selling his birthright to Jacob (25:29-34) and Jacob deceiving his father to obtain Esau’s blessing (27:1-29). When Esau learned of Jacob’s deceit and the loss of his blessing, he resolved to kill Jacob—and their mother, Rachel, who favored Jacob, persuaded Jacob to flee (27:30-45).
At Rebekah’s instigation (27:46), Isaac sent Jacob to Paddan-aram to find a bride (28:1-5). Paddan-aram was the place where Abraham’s servant found a bride (Rebekah) for Isaac (25:20). As we shall see, Rebekah’s brother, Laban, still lives in that area. The geography can be confusing, because there are also references to Haran (27:43; 28:10), but Paddan-aram is the region and Haran is a city in Paddan-aram.
Then we have the account of Jacob’s dream at Bethel—the ladder ascending into heaven—the angels ascending and descending—God reaffirming the earlier covenant with Abraham and Isaac, this time choosing Jacob to be the person through whom the promise will be achieved (28:13-15).
When Jacob arrived in Paddan-aram looking for Laban, he met Rachel, kissed her and wept (29:10-11). Laban embraced Jacob and welcomed him into his home (29:13-14).
JACOB’S WIVES AND SONS:
LEAH, Jacob’s first wife, bore Reuben (Jacob’s firstborn), Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah.
ZILPAH, Leah’s maid, bore Gad and Asher.
RACHEL, Jacob’s true love, bore Joseph and Benjamin. She died in childbirth with Benjamin.
BILHAH, Rachel’s maid, bore Dan and Naphtali.
GENESIS 29:15. TELL ME, WHAT WILL YOUR WAGES BE?
15Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my brother, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what will your wages be?”
“Because you are my brother” (v. 15a). Laban begins by reminding Jacob that they are kinsmen—a disarming technique.
“should you therefore serve me for nothing?” (v. 15b). Laban offers to pay Jacob wages for his labor. While on the surface this appears to be kind and generous, Laban will turn out to be anything but a kind and generous benefactor to Jacob. His offer to pay Jacob wages changes their relationship from host-guest (a relationship that in that culture binds Laban to observe a very high standard of hospitality) to employer-employee (a relationship that demands far less of Laban and far more of Jacob).
“Tell me, what will your wages be?” (v. 15c). Laban asks Jacob to set his own wage. While this again seems generous, it places the burden on Jacob to set a reasonable wage. Today, skilled negotiators know that they are far more likely to strike a favorable agreement if they can get the other person to make the first offer. If the other person is not a skilled negotiator, he/she is likely to ask less than a reasonable price. If he/she asks too much, the skilled negotiator can use that offer as a starting point for negotiation and make a more satisfactory counter-offer. Laban, a crafty man who will turn out to be less than fully forthcoming (and somewhat ethically challenged) seems intuitively to understand the advantage that he can gain by inviting Jacob to set his own wage.
GENESIS 29:16-17. RACHEL WAS BEAUTIFUL AND ATTRACTIVE
16Laban had two daughters. The name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and attractive.
“Laban had two daughters. The name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel” (v. 16). The mention of the elder Leah and the younger Rachel reminds us of the elder Esau and the younger Jacob.
The narrator establishes early-on that Leah is older and Rachel is younger, but we have no clue that this apparently minor detail will be important. However, Laban will later use this detail to unhinge Jacob’s plan to marry Rachel and to implement Laban’s plan to marry off his elder daughter, Leah.
“Leah’s eyes were weak” (Hebrew: rakkot) (v. 17a). The meaning of rakkot is uncertain. It means “gentle, tender, weak, indecisive. It describes a desirable quality of meat used for food (Gen. 18:7); but indicates frailty, weakness in a person (Gen. 33:13; 2 Sam. 3:39)” (Baker and Carpenter, 1053).
In this verse rakkot can be translated “weak” (NIV) or “dull” (REB). It is possible, therefore, that the narrator is calling attention to the positive appearance of both women, in which case Leah’s eyes are lovely. However, the context tends to favor a contrast between the elder but less lovely Leah and the younger but beautiful Rachel. If that is the narrator’s intention, Leah’s eyes are weak or dull.
Whether lovely or weak, a woman’s eyes are especially important in a culture where she is veiled so that her eyes are the only part of her face that shows.
However, eyes are important in every culture. We say, “The eyes are the window of the soul,” which means that we are able to see deeply into the person’s character through his/her eyes. We speak of a truly vital person as “bright-eyed.” Jesus said, “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22).
“but Rachel was beautiful in form and attractive“ (v. 17b). There is no ambiguity here. Even a long robe cannot completely hide Rachel’s lovely figure and graceful manner. It is not difficult to imagine Jacob being instantly thunderstruck by Rachel’s obvious beauty and grace.
GENESIS 29:18-19. JACOB LOVED RACHEL
18Jacob loved Rachel. He said, “I will serve you seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” 19Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you, than that I should give her to another man. Stay with me.”
“Jacob loved Rachel” (v. 18a). It seems certain that Laban, who will turn out to be a crafty negotiator, has noticed Jacob’s desire for Rachel. The fact that Jacob loves Rachel and Laban knows that puts Jacob at a decided disadvantage in these negotiations.
“I will serve you seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter” (v. 18b). In that culture, a woman’s father can expect to receive a bride-price for his daughter. In most cases, he will negotiate with the groom’s father, who will pay the bride-price, but Isaac is not present. Isaac sent Jacob to obtain a wife from one of Laban’s daughters (28:1-2), but apparently sent him without resources to pay the bride-price. Jacob therefore has only his labor to offer to pay the bride-price.
As would be expected of a young man in love and with no training in negotiation, Jacob sets the price high. He offers to serve Laban for seven years to pay the bride-price for Rachel. He states this quite clearly. His obligation is to work for seven years.
Laban’s obligation is to give Jacob his Rachel, his younger daughter, as a bride. Once again, as we read these words, “younger daughter,” we have no clue that “younger” will turn out to be a serious impediment to Jacob’s plans. It is the second red flag that nobody notices.
We have only a few pieces of data to tell us how much a fair bride-price might be:
• Abraham, a wealthy man, sent his servant to the land of his birth with ten camels laden with “a variety of good things” (24:10) to serve as a bride-price for Isaac’s bride. Note that Isaac’s bride was Rebekah, Jacob’s mother. Note further that the recipients of Abraham’s largess were Bethuel, Rebekah’s father, and Laban, Rebekah’s brother. This is the same Laban who is now negotiating the bride-price for his daughter, Rachel.
• Deuteronomy 22:29 will require a man who has violated a woman to take her as his wife and to pay her father fifty shekels of silver as a bride-price. However, we can assume that this price has been set high to punish the violator. It seems likely that the average bride-price is much lower than fifty shekels.
• A laborer might expect to be paid from one-half to one shekel per month, so seven years labor would be worth as little as 42 shekels or as much as 84 shekels (Hartley, 263; Wenham, 235). The lower amount would be a generous bride-price. The higher amount would be exorbitant. However, since Jacob has set his own wage, Laban is well within his rights to accept.
“Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you, than that I should give her to another man'” (v. 19a). Because of Jacob’s ardor, Laban holds the upper hand in these negotiations. Laban responds masterfully. He compliments Jacob by saying that he finds Jacob preferable to other potential suitors for Rachel’s hand—but this also serves to remind Jacob that Laban has alternatives—that other potential suitors exist and would likely compete vigorously for the privilege of marrying such a beautiful young woman.
Laban does not mention Rachel’s name. When he says, “that I give her to you,” Jacob will naturally assume that he is speaking of Rachel, given the clarity of Jacob’s offer. However, Laban responds to Jacob’s clarity with ambiguity.
“Stay with me” (v. 19b). Laban is purposely vague. He gives Jacob the impression that he has accepted Jacob’s offer, but his words leave him lots of wiggle room.
GENESIS 29:20. JACOB SERVED SEVEN YEARS FOR RACHEL
20Jacob served seven years for Rachel. They seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had for her.
“Jacob served seven years for Rachel” (v. 20a). Jacob, who in his relationship with his father and brother, proved to be a schemer, plays it straight this time. He has agreed to serve seven years for Rachel’s hand, and he serves seven years without complaint. He follows the terms of the agreement exactly. Perhaps he has become more honorable as he has matured. More likely, he wants Rachel badly enough that he refuses to risk losing her by cutting corners. In any event, his seven years’ labor demonstrates a capacity for great self-discipline—perseverance—faithfulness. Crooked Jacob plays it absolutely straight for the sake of his beloved.
“They seemed to him but a few days, for the love he had for her” (v. 20b). During these seven years, Jacob would see Rachel frequently. We can imagine that each glimpse of her would fuel his ardor and his determination to win her. Seven years doesn’t seem like an exorbitant price to him. They seem like almost nothing compared to the prize that he expects to win.
GENESIS 29:21. GIVE ME MY WIFE
21Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in to her.”
“Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife'” (v. 21a). Seven years earlier, Jacob entered into a contract that was crystal-clear (or so he thought)—seven years’ labor for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Now payday has arrived, and he again speaks clearly and directly, telling (not asking) Laban to pay what he owes—his daughter, Rachel, in marriage.
Jacob refers to Rachel as “my wife” rather than “your daughter.” In that culture, betrothal is legally binding. In a sense, Rachel is already Jacob’s wife, except that he has not yet been granted the sexual privilege associated with marriage.
“for my days are fulfilled” (v. 21b). Jacob contracted for seven years’ service, and he has served seven years.
“that I may go in to her” (v. 21c). This is a euphemism for having sexual relations.
GENESIS 29:22-24. LABAN BROUGHT LEAH HIS DAUGHTER TO JACOB
22Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast. 23It happened in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him. He went in to her. 24Laban gave Zilpah his handmaid to his daughter Leah for a handmaid.
“Laban gathered together all the men of the place, and made a feast” (v. 22). The narrator does not tell us what Jacob said in response to Jacob’s demand. Instead, we are told what Laban does. He gathers the community for a feast, giving Jacob the impression that he is complying with the terms of their agreement—seven years’ service for Rachel’s hand in marriage. However, as we will soon see, Laban’s response, like his response to Jacob in verse 19, gives the impression of complying without actually doing so.
Jacob, the deceiver, should know better than to accept Laban’s actions at face value, but just as Isaac had been blinded by old age so that he was susceptible to Jacob’s deception (27:1), so also is Jacob blinded by his love for Rachel. The prize is at hand. Everything points to a satisfactory outcome. Just as Isaac could not imagine that Jacob would deceive him, so also Jacob is unprepared for Laban’s deception.
“It happened in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him” (v. 23a). Laban complies with their earlier agreement with one exception—he substitutes Leah for Rachel. He honors his obligation to provide his daughter to be Jacob’s wife, but he gives Jacob the wrong daughter.
“He went in to her” (v. 23b). This is the part of the story that is difficult to understand. How could Jacob fail to notice that Laban had given him the wrong daughter? How could he, having looked at Rachel so longingly for seven years, fail to notice that his bride lacked Rachel’s lovely figure? Leah would have to disrobe to consummate the marriage. How could Jacob fail to discern the substitution before engaging in sex with her?
The answer is threefold. First, wine would have flowed freely at the marriage feast, and Jacob probably drank freely. Second, the bride was almost certainly veiled until she and Jacob entered the bedchamber. Third, the bedchamber would be dark. The combination of these three factors made it possible for Laban to deceive the deceiver.
At any rate, once Jacob goes in with Leah (engages in sex with her), he is bound to keep her as his wife.
“Laban gave Zilpah his handmaid to his daughter Leah for a handmaid” (v. 24). Just as it was customary for a bridegroom to pay a bride-price for his bride, so also it was customary for a father to give a gift to the bride. A maidservant is a generous gift.
But the real significance of this verse will be revealed in the future, when Leah offers Zilpah to Jacob as a concubine and Zilpah bears two of Jacob’s twelve sons—Gad and Asher (30:9-13).
GENESIS 29:25: WHY THEN HAVE YOU DECEIVED ME?
25It happened in the morning that, behold, it was Leah. He said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Didn’t I serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?”
“It happened in the morning that, behold, it was Leah” (v. 25a). Imagine Jacob’s surprise when he wakes up, more than likely with a hangover, to find the wrong woman in his bed.
“He said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Didn’t I serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?'” (v. 25b). Jacob, who was clear and direct in establishing his wage and demanding payment, is now clear and direct in his accusation. He reminds Laban that he (Jacob) has done his part. He has served his seven years. He has neither quibbled nor complained. Then he demands to know why Laban deceived him. Of course, what he really would like is not an explanation, but a remedy. However, he surely understands that, having slept with Leah, he is stuck with her.
We are torn. In part, our hearts are broken for the broken-hearted Jacob. But we are also glad to see him get his comeuppance.
Later, Jacob will take his wives and depart without telling Laban, and Laban will say, “What have you done, that you have deceived me, and carried away my daughters like captives of the sword?” (Genesis 31:26). This is a relationship where tensions are ongoing.
GENESIS 29:26-27. FULFILL THE WEEK OF THIS ONE
26Laban said, “It is not done so in our place, to give the younger before the firstborn. 27Fulfill the week of this one, and we will give you the other also for the service which you will serve with me yet seven other years.”
“Laban said, ‘It is not done so in our place, to give the younger before the firstborn'”(v. 26). “Younger” and “firstborn” remind us of the younger Jacob and the firstborn Esau.
Laban responds to Jacob’s accusation by appeal to local custom—”It is not done so in our place”. An honorable man would have explained that when Jacob first agreed to work for seven years. Laban’s was a sin of omission—a fact that does not diminish his guilt.
However, Laban still holds the advantage. Rachel is still his daughter to give or to withhold. Laban is also on his own home turf. Jacob, having come from afar to find a bride, is the supplicant. Jacob, who tricked his father and brother has now been tricked, and is helpless to do anything about it.
“Fulfill the week of this one” (v. 27a). The wedding festivities would last for a week. Jacob and Leah consummated their marriage on the first night of the festivities. Laban is asking Jacob to see the week through—to accept Leah as his wife—to withhold public protest.
“and we will give you the other also for the service which you will serve with me yet seven other years” (v. 27b). If Jacob will complete the week with Leah, Laban promises to give Rachel to be Jacob’s bride—in return for another seven years’ labor.
Laban’s language fails to make it clear whether he will allow Jacob to marry Rachel at the beginning or the end of the second seven-year period of service. We would hope that Jacob clarifies the situation before complying, but the narrator doesn’t make us privy to further negotiations that take place here.
In the future, Leviticus 18:18 will prohibit a man marrying two sisters like this.
GENESIS 29:28. LABAN GAVE JACOB RACHEL HIS DAUGHTER
28Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week. He gave him Rachel his daughter as wife.
This time, both men act honorably. Jacob completes the week with Leah, and Laban gives Jacob Rachel as a wife.
GENESIS 29:29-30. JACOB LOVED RACHEL MORE THAN LEAH
29Laban gave to Rachel his daughter Bilhah, his handmaid, to be her handmaid. 30He went in also to Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah, and served with him yet seven other years.
These verses are not in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. As noted above, Jacob will have children by four women—Leah, Zilpah, Rachel, and Bilhah.
Laban gives Rachel to Jacob at the beginning rather than at the end of his second seven-year service. Jacob, who will later take his wives and flee (31:1-21), stays to complete his seven years.
The fact that Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah will cause Leah a great deal of pain. She will have the compensation of bearing children while Rachel will remain childless for a long time (29:31-35).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
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Tucker, Gene M., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
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Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan