THE BEGINNIG OF WISDOM – PART VI – SECTION III
JACOB, LABAN, RACHEL AND LEAH
AND FAMILY FEUDS
I. Chapter 29 begins with a scene of Jacob and Rachel falling in love, but with a possible conflict with the local culture arising in the background.
A. The scene begins with Jacob arriving at Haran and rejoicing at his success so far.
1. The meeting
place, here as often is at a well. The well is logical as a meeting
place in a society where water was a precious commodity. But here,
as with the meeting between Abraham's servant and Rebekah, later between
Moses and Zipporah his future wife, and Jesus and the Samaritan woman,
the water from the well is also a symbol of grace, life giving water
from heaven. See St. Caesereus of Arles, Sermon on Genesis
2. On the well is a stone that the shepherds, by custom or necessity, will lift together. There are three flocks present; presumably there are more flocks they are waiting for.
- It is not
clear whether they are unable to lift the stone covering the well (and
therefore preventing evaporation) without the strength of all present,
or whether by custom they wait for everyone to get there. It may
be some combination thereof.
- The shepherds,
however, point out their custom of only watering the sheep together.
1. He has not
brought wealth, as Abraham's servant did long ago, and so he must
impress her (and by extension Laban) by his talents.
- The love between
Isaac and Rebekah was the first clearly romantic love in Genesis (at
least after Adam and Eve.) This scene is the first clear case
of love at first sight. The book of Tobit has a similar scene
as Tobias falls in love with Sarah even before seeing her. See
- There is an
irony in Laban declaring that Jacob is of his flesh and blood.
At one level, he means that Jacob is a relative. At another level,
the phrase could mean that Laban is as clever and deceptive as Jacob.
II. The next sixteen verses describe fourteen years, as Jacob works for Rachel, and ends up with her sister Leah as well, in addition to a harder bargain that he wanted.
A. Presumably because
he brings no wealth or obvious power, Jacob begins working for Laban
and the relationship is uncertain. He cannot simply take Rachel
as his wife.
B. Laban proposes that he should pay Jacob for his labor.
1. At one level,
the proposal could simply come from a sense of justice; Laban does not
want to take advantage of Jacob, who is presumably a clever person.
1. Thus, Jacob
proposes a very generous offer of seven years' service for Rachel's
hand. Given that he was probably talented and certainly blessed
by God, and that Laban had many flocks to attend to, the offer may well
have been more valuable that the great gifts that Abraham's servant
offered sixty years later. Seven years' service is certainly
a greater testimony of the character of the prospective husband.
2. Laban agrees, although with a somewhat ambiguous statement. He says that he prefers Jacob to anyone else. But he may not want to give up Rachel at all; he may have considered the seven years a test, or even thought that Jacob would tire of the service.
- One must
presume Rachel was relatively young that Jacob did not worry about losing
seven years of fertility.
A. At the end
of the seven years, Jacob has plainly fulfilled his side of the bargain
and now wants Rachel for his wife. Laban cannot object, but rather
has a fine wedding feast.
B. Laban invites all of the neighbors to the feast. At one level, the invitation seems that obvious custom, although it is in contrast with the marriage of Isaac, which did not seem to involve a lot of ceremony. It is possible that the increased ceremony indicates that marriage is becoming thought of as more sacred. On a more prosaic note, Laban may want witnesses to the events that will happen, so that Jacob cannot deny that he first took Leah (albeit unintentionally.)
- Laban does
not seem to worry about the possibility that the neighbors will look
down on him for his deceit. It is possible that, because Jacob
is an outsider who has changed customs, and possibly because he is prosperous,
the neighbors want to see him tricked.
C. In any case, Laban commits the trickery of substituting Leah for Rachel to Jacob, who had probably been drinking a large amount of wine.
- Rachel presumably
had to agree to the trickery. It appears, at this point at least,
she is very willing to help Laban and Leah. The situation will
very much change later.
- The fact that
the deceit could work indicates: (1) positively, that he and Rachel
were chaste before marriage; but (2) negatively, that Jacob did not
know Rachel's voice, and perhaps her personality, well.
D. Jacob is quite understandably furious at the deceit, but Laban justifies his move and offers a new arrangement.
1. Laban says
that it is not custom for the younger to marry before the older.
At one level, one can sympathize with the concern for Leah, who is probably
now in her early 30s. At a more subtle level, Laban (or perhaps
the author) is hinting at the fact that Jacob substituted himself for
Esau through deceit. And now he is receiving his just recompense.
The word here for firstborn (habekhirah) is very closely related to
the word for birthright (habekhorah.) The similarity emphasizes
the connection between this deception and the deception and maneuverings
2. Laban tries
to increase his profit from the arrangement by offering Rachel in exchange
for seven more years of service.
3. Jacob accepts
the new offer, for he cannot obtain Rachel any other way, being a foreigner
in the land. He may also have taken the hint that he deserved
to be deceived. However, interpreting an ambiguity in Laban's
offer, he does take Rachel as his wife first, and then works for the
seven years. Having been deceived once, he will not trust Laban
to fulfill his side of the bargain again.
F. Some of the Church
fathers explain that polygamy was permitted in an earlier era because
children were needed and there was a lack of men. Some of the
father's also compare Jacob's two wives to the Jews (compared to
Leah, who was fruitful at first) and the Gentiles (compared to Rachel,
fruitful only later) who feuded but whom Christ would eventually join
together. See St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis
56; St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermon on Genesis 88.
IV. Leah and eventually Rachel have children, demonstrating their differences and a rivalry increasing between them and troubles for Jacob.
D. Finally, grace seems to be present as Rachel is at prayer and God hears her prayer, leading to the birth of Joseph. The seven years have been both fruitful and tragic. Here, one hopes, God will resolve the situation. But there is still the relationship with Laban and Esau to resolve.