We’ve already seen that Jacob was a person who was willing to deceive others in order to get what he wanted. In Genesis chapter 29, we’re going to meet someone with a similar attitude, but this time, Jacob is going to be the victim…
“Then Jacob continued on his journey and came to the land of the eastern peoples” (Genesis 29:1).
The distance that Jacob covered during this journey was about 500 miles (800 km) and in those days, that distance probably represented a 4-6 week journey. So after spending a month or more on the road, Jacob finally arrived in the land where his mother Rebekah and his grandfather Abraham originally lived.
“There he saw a well in the field, with three flocks of sheep lying near it because the flocks were watered from that well” (Genesis 29:2a).
Don’t forget that there were no road signs, maps, or global positioning satellite (GPS) units to help people get around back in those days. This meant that anyone on a journey was dependent on whatever information he or she could get from other people during their trip.
If you were a stranger coming into town during that time, the place where you wanted to go first was the local water well. The reason for that was simple: a local shepherd or someone from a nearby town would eventually have to come out to draw water from the well. Once that happened, a traveler could ask that person some questions and quickly determine his or her location and how much further they had to go.
“The stone over the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone away from the well’s mouth and water the sheep. Then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well” (Genesis 29:2b-3).
Water wells of this time were often covered with large stones to keep out sand and other pollutants. A large stone over the mouth of the well also helped to keep the water inside from evaporating out. If a well was on private property, a stone could also be used to restrict access so the owner could decide who had permission to use the well and how often.
So Jacob saw this well and sure enough, there were a few flocks of sheep hanging around waiting to get a drink. Now wherever there’s sheep, one or more shepherds are likely to be nearby as well. So Jacob wandered over to find the local shepherds and ask a few questions- and we’ll look at those questions and their answers next.
“Jacob asked the shepherds, ‘My brothers, where are you from?’ ‘We’re from Haran,’ they replied. He said to them, ‘Do you know Laban, Nahor’s grandson?’ ‘Yes, we know him,’ they answered. Then Jacob asked them, ‘Is he well?’ ‘Yes, he is,’ they said, and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep'” (Genesis 29:4-6).
It can be interesting to place yourself within the story of a Biblical character or event to get an appreciation for the people that God used to communicate His Word. For example, if Jacob spoke with these shepherds in a more up to date manner, his conversation with them might have gone something like this…
Jacob: “So, where are you guys from?”
Shepherds: “We live in the town of Haran.”
Jacob: “Wow, what a coincidence- my grandfather Abraham came from Haran too. Hey, do you know a guy named Laban- he’s the son of my grandfather’s brother Nahor.”
Shepherds: “Yeah, sure- we know Laban.”
Jacob: “So how is Laban doing? Is everything OK with him?”
Shepherds: “Yeah, Laban is doing fine; in fact, here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep from his family’s ranch.”
So this short conversation provided Jacob with some important information and told him that he had finally arrived at his destination. Now watch what happens next because we’re about to see just how sharp Jacob really is…
“‘Look,’ he said, ‘the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to pasture'” (Genesis 29:7).
Did you notice that as soon as Jacob heard about Rachel, he immediately started thinking a few steps ahead: “Why don’t you water the flocks so they can get back to grazing? …They’ll be hungry if you stop so early in the day” (TLB). Judging from this, it seems that Jacob’s probable meaning was: “Look, why don’t you guys go find something else to do while I get to know Rachel a little better, OK?” But unfortunately for Jacob, these shepherds weren’t willing to be so cooperative…
“‘We can’t,’ they replied, ‘until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep'” (Genesis 29:8).
Perhaps these shepherds weren’t interested in taking orders from someone they just met or maybe they just didn’t understand Jacob’s real meaning very well. In any event, it wasn’t long before Rachel caught up with the rest of the group- and that’s when Jacob decided to put on a little demonstration.
“While he was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother, and Laban’s sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep” (Genesis 29:9-10).
It’s likely that the stone covering the top of this well normally required more than one person to move it. That may explain why the other local shepherds wanted to wait for all the flocks to gather at one time before watering their sheep (Genesis 29:8). But instead of waiting for their help, Jacob went ahead and moved this stone all by himself. Now it may be that Jacob wanted to show off his physical strength to impress Rachel or perhaps he was just older and stronger than the other shepherds. In any event, Jacob moved this stone on his own and then took it upon himself to provide water for the flock that Rachel was caring for.
This little demonstration becomes important when we take a moment to remember the instructions that Jacob received from his father back in Genesis 28:2: “Go at once to your mother’s father Bethuel in northern Syria and choose a wife from one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother” (CEV). Jacob’s conversation with the local shepherds told him that Rachel fit those requirements, so this was a good opportunity for him to demonstrate his strength and kindness to her. Even so, what happened next might have come as a bit of a surprise to the young shepherdess…
“Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud. He had told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father” (Genesis 29:11-12).
This day probably started off just like any other day for Rachel- just another day of following the same old routine. But this day was not going to be the “same old thing” for Rachel because God was about to begin a sequence of events that would change her life forever.
Now the “kiss” that Jacob gave Rachel wasn’t the kind of romantic kiss that we’re used to seeing in the movies. This kiss was the customary kiss of greeting that is still seen in some Mediterranean cultures today. But this still had a big emotional effect on Jacob because he had finally accomplished what he had set out to do. Jacob had not only arrived at his destination, but he had also met an eligible bachelorette as well.
“As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things.
Then Laban said to him, ‘You are my own flesh and blood.’ After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month, Laban said to him, ‘Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be'” (Genesis 29:13-15).
You may remember that we first met Laban back in Genesis chapter 24 when his sister Rebekah left home to marry Jacob’s father Isaac. And while it’s very nice that Laban said to Jacob, “You are my nephew, and you are like one of my own family” (CEV), we’ll soon see that Laban actually plans to treat Jacob more like a slave than a loved and respected member of the family.
But before we get to that part, let’s first take a look at the family reunion that’s described for us here in these verses. The passage quoted above tells us that Jacob initially stayed with his uncle Laban for an entire month. During this time, Jacob probably talked about the latest news from his side of the family and the events that brought him to Haran in the first place. There were two other items that Jacob surely talked about during this time as well. One was the dream that featured an image of a staircase reaching up to heaven that God gave him while he was on his way to Haran. The other had to do with the instructions that his father gave to him before he left: “…go at once to Paddan-aram… and marry one of your uncle Laban’s daughters” (Genesis 28:2 NLT).
At the end of this one month period, Genesis 29:15 tells us that Laban responded by saying, “‘…Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what should your wages be?'” (NKJV). It seems that Jacob had quickly become such a crucial and essential member of Laban’s household that Laban basically told him, “If you want to stay on and work for me, you can name your own salary.”
So Laban asked Jacob to name his wages, but he will soon find out that Jacob wasn’t only looking for a paycheck. When it came to negotiating his salary, Jacob had something else in mind- and we’ll take a look at exactly what Jacob wanted in return for his labor next.
“Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was lovely in form, and beautiful” (Genesis 29:16-17).
These verses give us some more information about Laban’s family and they also introduce us to a woman named Leah, Rachel’s older sister. Leah will eventually go on to become a very important person in the history of the nation of Israel but there are some questions about what this passage means when it says that “Leah had weak eyes.”
You see, the word that’s translated “weak” means,“tender, soft, or delicate.” (1) Now this could mean that Leah simply had bad eyesight. It might also mean that Leah’s eyes were somewhat dull-looking without any life or sparkle. Some people feel that this passage implies that Leah actually had blue eyes. Since brown eyes were thought to be more acceptable in that culture, this would mean that Leah was someone who was looked down on because of her appearance. But none of that mattered to Jacob because Rachel was the daughter that he really wanted- and since Laban had already asked Jacob to name his own salary, Jacob decided to make him an offer:…
“Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, ‘I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.’ Laban said, ‘It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me'” (Genesis 29:18-19).
When a marriage agreement was accepted in that culture, it was a custom for the groom to give a gift of some money or goods to the family of the bride. These gifts served two basic purposes. First, they demonstrated that the groom had enough financial ability to provide for his bride after they were married. Secondly, these gifts helped to compensate the bride’s family for the loss of their daughter as a valuable worker.
The problem was that even though Jacob came from a very wealthy family, he arrived with very little money or possessions- and going back home was out of the question, at least in the short term. However, Jacob did have the ability to compensate Laban’s family in another way- by providing seven years of free labor. So Laban considered this offer and said, “OK, I’ll take it.”
So now the arrangements have been made, but Jacob is about to learn a big lesson from Uncle Laban- whenever you make a deal, be sure to check the merchandise first!
(1) OT:7390 “rak” The Online Bible Thayer’s Greek Lexicon And Brown Driver & Briggs’ Hebrew Lexicon.
“So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:20).
Imagine what it must be like to work for someone for seven years without any pay. Well, that’s exactly what Jacob did in order to earn the right to marry Laban’s daughter Rachel. This tells us that Jacob must have really, really been in love with this girl- in fact, it says that Jacob loved Rachel so much that those seven years worth of work for her seemed to go by in just a few days.
“Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to lie with her'” (Genesis 29:21).
After his seven years of work were completed, Jacob was naturally ready to get married and start the honeymoon with his new bride, just as he had been promised. But notice that Jacob was the one who had to go to Laban and tell him that his seven years of work were finished and not the other way around. Although Jacob had completed his end of their agreement, Laban probably wasn’t very happy about the potential loss of all his free labor- and that may be one reason why Jacob had to go to Laban and remind him that “My time is completed.”
But Laban was a pretty sharp guy- and he wasn’t willing to let Jacob go so easily. So he came up with a plan to ensure that Jacob wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon…
“So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant. When morning came, there was Leah!” (Genesis 29:22-25a)
Now it’s possible for someone to read this and say, “Come on- how could Laban get away with something like that?!? How could Jacob not know that he was getting married to the wrong girl?” Well, if Laban was living in our 21st century culture, there is no realistic way that he could have gotten away with a stunt like this. But remember that this event didn’t take place today in the 21st century. This event took place around 2000 BC -and things were a lot different back then. We’ll look at how and why Laban was able to successfully deceive Jacob next.
“Jacob said to Laban, ‘The time is up, and I want to marry Rachel now!’ So Laban gave a big feast and invited all their neighbors. But that evening he brought Leah to Jacob, who married her and spent the night with her” (Genesis 29:21-23 CEV).
So how was Laban able to deceive Jacob into spending his wedding night with a woman that he didn’t want to marry? Well, there were a few things that allowed Laban to get away with this deceptive plan. First, keep in mind that unmarried men and women were much more segregated in that culture than people usually are today. There were strict social guidelines that kept unmarried couples apart from each other during that time, so Jacob would not have been as familiar with Rachel as he might have been if they were a couple today.
Next, the wedding customs of that time made it much easier for Laban to trick Jacob into this marriage with Leah. For example, one wedding tradition of that time required a bride to remain veiled until she was finally alone with her husband in the “honeymoon suite.” So as strange as it may sound today, it was customary for a man to get married to a woman without ever actually seeing her face during the ceremony.
This also meant that if it was dark outside by the time that Jacob and his bride were finally alone, it would explain how Jacob was tricked into thinking that Leah was actually Rachel. While 21st century electrical power makes it easy to light up a room today, the best interior lighting that Jacob was likely to have was a few flickering candles. That would have made it very difficult for Jacob to get a positive ID on his new bride.
So let’s put all these things together. First, we have a bride who was wearing a wedding veil that kept her face totally hidden. It was probably dark outside when the couple was finally alone because Laban brought Leah to Jacob “in the evening” (Genesis 29:23). Finally, Jacob and his new bride were together on their wedding night in a tent or a room with interior lighting that probably wasn’t very good. If we combine those things and then say that Jacob may have also had a few too many glasses of wine at the wedding reception, then it could explain how he ended up getting married to one woman when he was really expecting to get married to someone else.
Of course, it didn’t take Jacob long to find out that he had been tricked- and we’ll see how Jacob responded to Laban’s deceptive scheme next.
So when the sun came up on the morning following his wedding night, Jacob suddenly found out that his new bride was not who she was supposed to be- and Jacob knew exactly who was responsible…
“When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?’
Laban replied, ‘It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.’ And Jacob did so. He finished the week with Leah, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.
Laban gave his servant girl Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maidservant. Jacob lay with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he worked for Laban another seven years” (Genesis 29:25-30).
There is a wise Biblical saying that helps describe what happened to Jacob in these verses: “A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7). This Scripture reminds us that our actions today will eventually lead to the consequences that we will have to face tomorrow. In Jacob’s case, this act of deception against him may have seemed all too familiar because it mirrored another event that had taken place in his own life many years earlier.
You see, Jacob was once involved in a similar scam of his own when he tricked his elderly, blind, father out of an inheritance that his father originally wanted to give to his older brother. Now things had changed and Jacob the deceiver was the one who had been deceived by someone else. In other words, Jacob reaped what he sowed just as the Scriptures tell us in Galatians 6:7.
So Jacob had a big problem, but Laban was all ready with a helpful solution -helpful for him, that is: “Finish the week of wedding festivities with this daughter. Then we will give you the other one too. But you’ll have to work for me another seven years” (GW). Since it was customary to hold a week-long wedding celebration at that time, Laban was basically saying to Jacob, “Let Leah enjoy her honeymoon and when that’s over, you can marry Rachel too.”
So Jacob will end up working for another seven years in order to get married to the woman that he originally wanted to get married to in the first place.
First there was Laban, Leah and Rachel’s father. Laban didn’t view his daughter Rachel’s marriage as a time of celebration- instead, he simply saw it as an opportunity to obtain another seven years worth of free labor out of Jacob. Since Laban also had to arrange a marriage for his daughter Leah (as parents were responsible to do in that culture), Laban used Rachel’s wedding as an opportunity to marry off both of his daughters and get seven more years of free work out of his new son in law.
Of course, there was one major problem with this scheme- there was always the possibility that Jacob would refuse to do any more work once he found out that he had been tricked by Laban. But even if that happened, Laban could always find someone else to marry a good-looking girl like Rachel (see Genesis 29:17). The real problem for Jacob was that he was so crazy in love with Rachel (Genesis 29:20) that he could never stand to see her get married to another man. Laban obviously realized this and used Jacob’s love for his daughter to his own advantage.
But even if Rachel and Jacob decided to run away together and elope (something that is common today but practically unheard of back then), that still wouldn’t do anything to change the status of his new relationship with Leah- plus Laban still had the benefit of receiving the seven years of free labor that Jacob had already performed. So Laban really had Jacob in a “no-win” situation- if Jacob wanted to be with Rachel, he would have to agree to Laban’s terms and provide him with another seven years of work at no charge.
Yet as bad as this was for Jacob, Laban’s actions may have been worse for his two daughters- and we’ll find out why next.
“Jacob had intercourse with Rachel also, and he loved her more than Leah. Then he worked for Laban another seven years” (Genesis 29:30 GNB).
So what was Leah’s involvement in this whole situation? Well, there’s no question that Leah had to be in on this plan to deceive Jacob, but why would she do it? In other words, why would Leah get married to a man who…
- Didn’t really love her
- Really wanted to get married to her sister instead?
Well, one possibility is that Leah was secretly in love with Jacob herself. If Laban knew that Leah had feelings for Jacob, then he probably had an easier time convincing her to go along with his plan to deceive Jacob.
Or perhaps Leah felt that this was her best chance to find a husband and she didn’t want to miss it. Another possibility is that Laban somehow forced Leah to go along with his plan to keep Jacob working for him without any pay. You see, a father was the undisputed leader of his family in the society of that day and it would be unthinkable for a daughter to disobey a direct command from her father. Since Laban’s plan required Leah’s involvement, we can’t ignore the possibility that Laban used his position as her father to force her to do something that she really didn’t want to do.
In any event, just think about what it was like for Leah on her wedding night. Sure, Leah and Jacob were together, but Leah knew that Jacob really believed that he was with someone else- and that “someone else” was her own sister!
Then there was Rachel. Rachel had waited seven long years for Jacob only to have him get married to somebody else at the last minute- and that “somebody else” was her own sister! How could she possibly allow something like that to happen? Well, Laban was clearly a very devious person- maybe her father tricked her in some way, just as he did with Jacob. We should also remember that what was true for Leah was also true for Rachel as well: in that culture, a father had absolute authority and could not be questioned. It’s possible that Laban simply told Rachel, “This is the way that it’s going to be whether you like it or not.”
So it’s hard not to feel sorry for Rachel in this situation. After all, how would you feel if someone else took your place on your wedding day? That’s what Rachel had to endure on the day that she was supposed to get married to Jacob.
So what application can we take from Jacob’s experience in Genesis chapter twenty-nine?
Well, do you remember when Jacob tricked his father into giving him the family’s inheritance back in Genesis chapter 27? Even though Jacob successfully deceived his father into giving him the blessing that his father originally wanted to give to his older brother, Jacob’s actions really did nothing to affect God’s plan at all. You see, even before Jacob was born, God said that Jacob would be the one to carry on his family’s inheritance– and that included the promises that God had already made to his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham. This meant that Jacob didn’t have to trick his father into giving him this inheritance because God had already said that He was going to give it to Jacob anyway.
However, what did happen was that God eventually brought this man Laban into Jacob’s life- and Jacob got to experience what it was like to be on the receiving end of a scam like the one that he pulled on his father so many years earlier. In fact, Jacob is going to spend another thirteen years (in addition to the seven that he had already spent) learning some pretty hard lessons from Laban.
So Jacob’s experience tells us that God’s plan for our lives will always move forward, but our actions may influence how we experience that plan for better or worse. For instance, Jesus gave us this good advice in the New Testament gospel of Matthew…
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).
A “yoke” is a device that is placed between two animals to unite them together when pulling a load or a plow. So in it’s most basic sense, this Scripture tells us that we can do things the easy way by listening to and applying Jesus’ teachings in our lives. Or we can do things the hard way by ignoring God’s instructions and substituting our own plans and schemes to get what we want- just like Jacob did. But either way, God’s agenda is going to move forward whether we are on board with His plan or not.
Remember that the Bible tells us that the characters and events that we read about in the Scriptures were specifically put there to help us learn some valuable lessons (see Romans 15:4). So one thing we can learn from Jacob is that if you do things God’s way, you may be able to avoid going through a situation like the one that he experienced here with Laban.
“When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31).
While it’s easy to feel sorry for Rachel in this situation, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for Leah as well. Unfortunately, Leah is now stuck in a marriage where her husband obviously doesn’t want her- in fact, the word used for “not loved” in this passage can also be translated as “to hate.” (1) So it seems that Jacob was still angry at Leah for her involvement in Laban’s plan to deceive him. But it also appears that Jacob wasn’t angry enough to stop having sex with her and she eventually became pregnant with a son…
“Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, ‘It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now'” (Genesis 29:32).
The first child born to Jacob through Leah was named Reuben. As Jacob’s firstborn son, Rueben would normally be the one to inherit the all promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But as we’ll see later on, things will end up working out very differently for Reuben.
“She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too.’ So she named him Simeon” (Genesis 29:33).
The name Simeon means “heard” (1) and Leah specifically gave him this name because, “The LORD has heard that my husband doesn’t love me” (CEV).
“Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.’ So he was named Levi” (Genesis 29:34).
Son number three was named “Levi,” a name that means, “joined to.”(1) So it seems that Leah is hopeful that these children will encourage her husband to become emotionally attached to her.
“She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord.’ So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children” (Genesis 29:35).
Finally, son number four was named Judah, a name that means “praised.” (1) Judah will later go on to become the ancestor of King David, King Solomon, and Jesus, the Savior. So even though Leah was neglected and unloved by Jacob, she still had a place in the plan of God and she learned to praise and honor God despite her circumstances.
(1) All definitions taken from Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon