Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28
Genesis 29:15-28 is small slice of a much larger story.
This is the story of the Mothers and Fathers of Israel and their descendents, the people of Israel. Rebekah and Isaac have sent their son Jacob to his mother’s brother Laban, with instructions to marry one of his daughters, (the as yet unnamed Leah and Rachel in Genesis 27:46-28:1).
Their family practices internal marriage among relatives: Jacob’s grandparents Sarah and Abraham were siblings, his grand-uncle Nahor married his own niece, Jacob’s aunt Milcah, his cousin Lot fathered children with his own daughters in a bizarre set of circumstances, and he, Jacob, has been given instructions to marry one of his cousins. Leah and Rachel are the only two women who meet his parents’ requirements.
In the back-story, Jacob meets Rachel first while she is shepherding her father’s flocks. He tells her and eventually her father who he is and who his mother is, identifying himself as Rebekah’s son (ben Rivkah) but never as Isaac’s son, (29:12). And he spends an undescribed month with them before the subject of marriage is brought up. At some point during that month Jacob decides that he wants Rachel, but the text tells us nothing about their relationship or her feelings about the matter. Rachel and Leah’s mother is missing from the story; it is not clear whether the authors and editors found her irrelevant or whether she was truly absent, either through death or some other circumstances.
In our lesson, the story is told from Jacob’s perspective. Jacob is famously described as loving Rachel, so much so that when he is thwarted in his desire to marry her, he soldiers on in servitude to her for a total of fourteen years that pass in the blink of an eye for him. The story has no interest in Rachel’s or Leah’s lives or experience of those years. Rachel’s feelings for Jacob are never described. (In fact no woman in the scriptures is described as “loving” anyone else, using the primary Hebrew verb ahav or even “love” in the NRSV.) This is a reminder that even when the text seems inclusive or even egalitarian, it is an androcentric text, that is, it is written from (and primarily for) a male perspective.
This lesson has a number of challenges for women and other readers: Rachel and Leah are given to Jacob like chattel. This contrasts dramatically with his own mother’s marriage, to which she consented (24:57) after a ten-day deliberation period. Laban’s claim that he could not give his younger daughter in marriage before the elder has no foundation in the text. If that were the case why did he not tell Jacob?
Laban may well have lied, adding dishonesty to his deceit. He may have thought that he could only marry Leah off through deception. The larger narrative says that there was something peculiar about Leah’s eyes — a notoriously difficult to translate expression. Whatever Leah’s circumstance she was compared unfavorably to Leah. And perhaps, the largest challenge: How could Jacob not know with whom he was being intimate? The story conjures up images of complete darkness, total silence, and perhaps drunkenness, perverting the biblical sense of intimate “knowing.”
Whether Rachel and Leah had a difficult relationship prior to their marriage is not revealed in the text. But there is a suggestion that Leah was regularly devalued in comparison with her sister in the way that they are described. Laban’s deception, combined with the assessment that Rachel was more desirable — including to Jacob, set the stage for a sororal sibling rivalry that would plague Jacob and populate Israel at the same time. Leah, Rachel and their slaves, Bilhah and Zilpah would become the mothers of the Twelve Tribes while competing for Jacob’s time and attentions.
This story demonstrates that “love is not enough.” Even if Jacob’s love for Rachel is not based on her appearance or the fact that he was limited in his choice to Rachel and her (in some way undesirable) sister Leah, his love does not translate into a happy, healthy family.
In modernity, some people elevate romantic and sexual love as the highest expressions of love. Neither form of love brings enduring happiness to Jacob who loves Rachel or to Rachel or to Leah who compete to sleep with Jacob and bear his children in the aftermath of the text. This story also illustrates the common practice of reducing people, women in particular, to their physical appearance: Rachel was beautiful; there was something odd about Leah’s eyes.
Yet both women found themselves in the same situation. Only in death were they separated. Rachel was buried alone on the road to Bethlehem, (Genesis 35:19). Leah was buried in the ancestral tomb with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, (Genesis 49:31). And before he died, Jacob gave Joseph instructions to send his bones back to that family tomb, (Genesis 50:13). He was buried with Leah.