Genesis 29: Jacob Marries Rachel and Leah

By Mary Jane Chaignot

When Jacob arrives in the land, he stops at a well. He asks the shepherds gathered there if they know Laban. They do, and while they are talking, the shepherds point out that Laban’s daughter, Rachel, is coming with the sheep. As soon as she arrives, Jacob gets up, grabs the stone covering the well, and rolls it away. He, then, proceeds to water Laban’s sheep. In moving the stone, Jacob single-handedly does what would normally be hard for two to three men to accomplish.

Then, Jacob kisses Rachel – one of the few instances of biblical kissing. What is even more interesting, though, is the fact that immediately afterwards, it states, “he wept aloud.” Although no explanation is given for his tears, commentators are only too happy to speculate. They point out that he has reached the end of a long and dangerous journey. He is so grateful to be alive that he is overcome with emotion. Perhaps. But maybe his tears are tears of joy. He has just met the most beautiful woman he has ever laid eyes upon, and she is exactly the one that he is supposed to find. He is so overcome with his good fortune, with her beauty, that he can do nothing else. He is head over heels in love from the first moment – and he weeps.

Rachel says nothing, but she runs home to tell her father about Jacob. Laban runs back and immediately embraces Jacob. Laban brings Jacob to his home, saying, “You are my flesh and blood.” These words do more than celebrate a family connection; Laban is instituting a relationship here, a bond between nephew and uncle.

Jacob stays with him for a month, helping—and falling deeper in love with Rachel. After a month, Laban brings up the subject of wages. Perhaps he wants a more formal arrangement. It will also cement the nature of their relationship – one of employer and employee. Before Jacob has a chance to respond, the narrator states that Laban has two daughters. Rachel, in fact, is the younger of the two. The elder is Leah, a name that is related to the word, “wearied.” Then it states that Leah’s eyes are “weak.” It’s the only description that is given. The combination of her name and her eyes presents a picture of someone who is not very desirable. It’s an unfortunate translation because more often the word translated as “tender or delicate.” It could also be rendered, “soft,” or “young.” It could have been a way of saying that Leah has lovely eyes. We know that Rachel is lovely in form and beauty. So maybe Leah isn’t as pretty, but she has lovely eyes. Nevertheless, it is Rachel that Jacob loves.

Because he is thoroughly smitten with her, Jacob makes an astounding offer. He tells Laban that he will work for “seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.” If the number seven represents “completion,” as is usually thought to be the case, then Jacob is willing to pledge that length of labor for Rachel, for the right to marry her. During that time his love will mature, endure; he will learn patience, and steadfastness. Indeed, with the lofty vision of Rachel before him, the seven years of servitude seem “but a few days.” He loves Rachel that much.

When the seven years are up, Jacob reminds Laban of their agreement. Arrangements are made for the wedding. It appears that Laban spares no expense in providing a great feast. The words really mean, “drinking party,” and no doubt the drinks flowed freely. Typically, people partied throughout the day; in the evening the bride is escorted to the man’s tent. That comprises the wedding. In this case, Laban waits until after dark, then he takes Leah to the tent instead of Rachel. Unwittingly, Jacob “went in to her.” After a night of passion, the text says, “In the morning, behold, it was Leah!” Jacob is furious, firing off three short questions to Laban. Laban justifies his actions by saying the older daughter needed to be the first to marry; then he offers Rachel in exchange for another seven years of hard labor. A deal is brokered. Jacob must finish out the week with Leah, rounding off the seven days of the marriage festival. Then he can “marry” Rachel, but he must work for another seven years. Jacob agrees – without comment. There is no indication that he ever says anything directly to Leah.

It is easy to point out the irony in this passage. Jacob tricks Esau; now Laban tricks him. The deceiver has been deceived. The text encourages connections by providing language that is similar to both incidents. Jacob pretends to be Esau with Isaac. Leah pretends to be Rachel with Jacob. Jacob pretends to be the older son; Leah pretends to be the younger daughter.

Sadly, neither woman has a voice at this point. Laban is a shrewd businessman who has used his daughters to get what he wants. Interestingly, there is no mention of having another feast to celebrate Jacob’s marriage to Rachel. This also leads one to think that Laban’s actions are deliberate, perhaps even necessary to dupe Jacob into taking Leah first.

The tragedy, of course, remains in the fact that we have no knowledge of the sisters’ reaction to the deception of their father, or to sharing a husband. Later biblical laws will condemn the practice of marrying sisters (see Lev. 18:18), but there is no indication that it is prohibited at this time.

In the text, the deception is told in a few lines. But the lives of all these people will be forever changed. The sisters have been placed in an untenable situation. The conflict will boil down to the contrast between love and motherhood. Leah bears sons; Rachel is beloved. Continuation of the covenant requires descendants, but true marriage requires love. Neither is satisfied with half of the equation. They both want it all and envy what the other has.

And so far there has been no mention of God in this story. The last scene involving God occurred seven years ago when He spoke to Jacob at Bethel, while Jacob was still journeying to Haran. But now it is Leah who will call out to God. The text says, “God perceived that Leah was unloved;” the word is really “hated.” She is hated. The phrase is written in the passive. We presume it is Jacob who hates her, but that remains open. It is also possible that her father does not love her, and her sister might not love her either. It is possible that no one loves Leah, so God “opens her womb.” Within a very short time, she has a son, and names him Reuben. It is through the names that Leah chooses for her children that we get a glimpse into her hopes and dreams. This first name, Reuben, means, “see, a son.” She says that God has seen her distress. Taking this quite literally, it would mean that her humiliation has been so obvious, her rejection so complete, that it can be “seen.” And God has seen it and responded to her affliction with a son. Leah’s choice of Reuben’s name is a confession of her trust in God, incorporating a complaint and a petition. God has seen that she is hated; this is her complaint. The petition is that her husband will now love her, that their marriage will be consummated in love, now that they have their first child. This is affirmed by the word order of her prayer. First, she comments on God’s sight, then her lamentable situation, then the petition for her husband. With the birth of this son, her husband will now love her. Of this she is certain.

But she is wrong. The very next line has her bearing another son. She names this one Simeon, because God has “heard” that she is unloved. Not much has changed. Leah would not be the first woman to discover that having a child does not guarantee the love and support of a spouse. This second name is directly related to the verb “has heard.” It is God who has heard about her plight. And no doubt he hears it from her. She has been pouring her heart out to God, and God has responded with another son. One might have hoped that things would have gotten better, but shortly thereafter comes a third son, and he is named Levi. This word is drawn from the verb “to join,” expressing her hope that her husband will now be drawn to her. After all, three sons should account for something. She has not given up on him yet.

We, of course, wonder why on earth he keeps sleeping with her if he doesn’t love her. The text doesn’t tell us. But it is doubtful that much has changed in their relationship. The very next line reports the birth of her fourth son. For the first time, Leah does not mention her unhappy lot. She names this son, Judah, from the verb “to praise” and resolves to praise God for his wonderful provisions. The fact that Jacob is not mentioned suggests that she has resigned herself to her situation and has stopped having children for the purpose of gaining her husband’s love. Now she praises God. It is noteworthy that from these last two sons will evolve the ancestry of the Levitical priests and the principal line of the monarchy, sons who were conceived from a loveless and unplanned marriage. After this fourth child, Leah stops conceiving.