Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28
Love stories in the Bible, such as this First Lesson where Jacob marries his beloved Rachel (and unexpectedly her sister Leah as well!), reveal how much has changed since biblical times.1
Yet, aspects of this family tale with its strong emotions, sibling rivalry, deception, and loyalty continue to resonate, challenging us to think more deeply about our lives together and how God works even through our flawed interpersonal relations and most ordinary activities.
The classic Hebrew love story portrays a young man meeting his future spouse at a well. When Jacob sees his cousin Rachel approaching a well to water the family flock (Genesis 29:9-12), we anticipate romance! The woman at the well motif also foreshadows marriage elsewhere in the Bible, as in the cases of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 24:10-67) and Moses and Zipporah (Exodus 2:15-22). (Compare also the striking variant of the woman at the well motif in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4:10-42.)
The intrusion of Rachel’s older sister Leah (“When morning came, it was Leah!” Genesis 29:25) highlights additional dynamics that connect this story to previous events. This instance of mistaken identity turns the tables, as Jacob who earlier deceived Isaac by impersonating his elder brother (Genesis 27:1-40) now finds himself deceived by Laban’s substitution of his elder daughter in the marriage bed.
The competition between the two sisters for the affection of their husband and for children parallels the earlier sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob for the birthright and blessing (Genesis 25:29-34; 27:1-40). Rachel’s boast that she has wrestled mightily with her sister and has prevailed (Genesis 30:8) foreshadows her husband Jacob’s wrestling with the divine being before being renamed “Israel,” the one who strives with God and with humans and prevails (Genesis 32:28).
Much about this narrative reveals the distance between the biblical world and our own twenty-first century context. The patriarchal, tribal society in Genesis assumes that marriage is first and foremost an alliance between men involving the exchange of women, here between an uncle and the nephew he calls “my bone and my flesh” (Genesis 29:14, 19). It is not primarily a commitment between individuals intending to share their lives as today. Laban and Jacob work out the marriage price of seven years of labor, and there is no consultation of the bride to be (unlike Rebekah who gives her consent in Genesis 24:58).
Polygamy is portrayed as an unobjectionable arrangement, with two sisters given in short succession, after only a honeymoon week for the first. (Note, however, that a man’s marriage to sisters is a prohibited practice even in ancient times, according to Leviticus 18:18.) Clearly, we cannot read Genesis 29 as a programmatic description of how our society and marriage laws should operate, nor as a moral template for our own cultural context and family dynamics.
Despite the differences, similarities of human nature establish an empathy with the imperfect members of this family. The intensity of Jacob’s love for the beautiful Rachel is emphasized three times (Genesis 29:18, 20, 30), which is especially remarkable given the usual taciturn narrative style of the Bible. Jacob’s ardor is also indicated by his super human feat of lifting the massive rock covering the well upon seeing Rachel for the first time (Genesis 29:3), and by his heedlessness of the passage of time while working to earn her in marriage (Genesis 29:20).
This very human tale of intense love has its complications. Jacob’s singular passion for Rachel strands her older sister in the loveless marriage that Laban has orchestrated to provide for his eldest daughter (Genesis 29:26). God favors Leah as the unloved wife by giving her many children (Genesis 29:31; cf., Deuteronomy 21:15), but still the tragedy continues. Leah names her sons to express her unfulfilled desire of gaining her husband’s affection through childbearing (Genesis 29:32-24; 30:20). Only with her fourth son, Judah, whose name is based on a Hebrew root meaning “to praise” or ”to thank,” does Leah cease her striving to please her husband and give thanks to God instead (Genesis 30:35).
Rachel, for her part, envies her elder sister’s fertility, as she herself desperately tries to conceive (30:1). Through their unrelenting jealousy and competition, the two sisters and their servant women raise up a large family capable of fulfilling God’s promise to Jacob that his descendants would be as abundant as the dust or topsoil, covering the ground in every direction for purpose of blessing all the families of the earth (Genesis 28:14).
Many in the congregation will identify with the intense emotions in this family tale of inexplicable preference, deception, competition, and jealousy. Women in particular may resonate with the feeling of being judged by their appearance, the despair due to infertility, or the ecstasy over a baby’s birth, all so poignantly depicted. Leah and Rachel’s central roles in the emergence of the people of Israel highlights women’s agency as an important means through which God continues to work today.
The casual introduction of servant women in this narrative raises issues of social class, slave and domestic labor, reproductive rights, and sexual trafficking and abuse with which we still wrestle in the twenty-first century. Although they hold a lowly position, the handmaids are treated with dignity through their introduction by name, Zilpah (given by Laban to Leah upon her marriage, Genesis 29:24) and Bilhah (given to Rachel, Genesis 29:29).
These women have an important role in the emergence of the people of Israel, giving birth to four of Jacob’s thirteen named children (Genesis 30:3-13), which include the twelve sons who stand for the twelve tribes as well as his daughter Dinah. The almost invisible presence of Zilpah and Bilhah in a passage that includes discussion of appropriate wages (Genesis 29:15) encourages reflection on the precarious status of minimum wage earners, surrogate and birth mothers, domestic workers, and others who perform vital but largely underappreciated work in our society.
- Commentary first published on this site on July 27,2014.