Bible Commentary: Genesis 29:1-30:24

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Genesis 29:1-30:24

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Laban’s Deception

Jacob’s arrival in Padan Aram gives us a revealing look at him. From his conversation with the shepherds gathered at the well, we may observe that Jacob was polite, sociable and knowledgeable of the business of herding. Jacob’s life “in tents” was not cloistered—he was, as previously stated, civilized and refined, and most likely skilled in the family business. Moreover, Jacob was no pampered weakling. For when he saw Rachel, he went and rolled the stone off of the mouth of the well—and well stones were massive circular stones of considerable weight. Also, notice verse 10’s triple reference to “Laban, his mother’s brother.” Some commentators have taken this pointed emphasis to indicate that Jacob’s mind at this point may have been more on attempting to ingratiate himself into the favor of Laban through a favorable report from Rachel, and less on the woman herself. Of course, the tenderness of verse 11 should demonstrate a genuineness of feeling regarding his meeting up with close relatives. That is only natural. Still, putting all the evidence together, it would appear that Jacob is a cultured, sociable, business-savvy and physically imposing man who, though at least sometimes genuine in feeling, is not always genuine in his dealings with others—that he is often looking for a way to further his own ends.

God is about to embark on a long course of knocking Jacob down to a more humble self-appraisal—using Laban as a significant tool in the process. Jacob may have been a smooth operator in Canaan, able to run the family business and outwit his elder brother, but he can in no way compare to the devious Laban. Jacob has unknowingly met his match. When Rachel brought her father the news of Jacob’s arrival, Laban ran to meet him—perhaps naturally happy to see a visiting relative (verses 13-14) but also, knowing the type of person Laban is, surely thinking back on the gifts that were given for his sister Rebekah (Genesis 24:30 Genesis 24:30And it came to pass, when he saw the earring and bracelets on his sister's hands, and when he heard the words of Rebekah his sister, saying, Thus spoke the man to me; that he came to the man; and, behold, he stood by the camels at the well.
American King James Version×
). Jacob stayed with Laban for a month, and during that month two things happened: Jacob fell in love with the beautiful Rachel, and Laban observed it. Now Laban had a way to get Jacob into his service; he may have even begun planning something when Jacob “told Laban all these things” (verse 13), which no doubt included the reason for his journey to Haran.

Sensing his opportunity, Laban asked an apparently magnanimous question: “Shall you serve me for nothing because you are family? Name your wages” (compare verse 15). Jacob asked for Rachel, as Laban had no doubt anticipated. Laban set Rachel’s price at seven years’ service, which Jacob happily rendered. But on the wedding night, Laban substituted Leah for Rachel. Jacob’s senses and wits may have been dulled by festive drinking (perhaps urged on all the more by Laban). Jacob was further blinded by the darkness of the nuptial tent—darkness probably arranged as part of Laban’s conspiracy, which appears to have involved Zilpah (verse 24). Leah herself must have kept silent, probably on orders from her father. In any event it is clear that Jacob did not realize he had slept with the wrong woman until the morning (verse 25). Laban’s reply when an angry Jacob confronted him: “It must not be done so in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.” Firstborn—the word must have been like a dagger in Jacob’s ears, for in his own family, as we earlier read, Jacob had contrived to gain for himself the birthright and blessings that normally would have gone to his own fraternal twin brother, Esau, the firstborn. Jacob’s deviousness was now coming back to haunt him. For committing to another seven years’ service Jacob obtained Rachel the following week, but the die was now cast for a divided, unhappy household. Jacob was reaping what he had sown.

Jacob’s Dysfunctional Family

Jacob’s competition with Esau had brought near-open warfare to Isaac’s household. Now Jacob would live the remainder of his life eating the bitter fruits of his ways. Leah and Rachel vied with each other for the affection of Jacob. Jacob loved Rachel deeply but he lacked love for Leah. Where the New King James Version says Leah was “unloved” (Genesis 29:31 Genesis 29:31And when the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren.
American King James Version×
), the old King James Version has “hated.” Tne Nelson Study Bible says that “hated” is the literal translation. According to New Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies, the Hebrew word here “sometimes means only a less degree of love and regard; to be cold and indifferent to, to show less favor to” (p. 209). In any case Leah was second-rate in Jacob’s eyes, a very difficult position for any woman. Because Jacob treated Leah this way, God blessed her with children (which would seem to indicate that, in God’s eyes, Leah was not principally at fault in the whole mess—her father having forced her into it). In the meantime Rachel was barren and very frustrated in general. She felt betrayed by her father and resentful of her sister, whom she no doubt viewed as an unwelcome interloper in her marriage. Between these two squabbling women, and their maids, Jacob would father 12 sons and a daughter. The sons of the various wives and concubines would likewise squabble and fight. Jacob’s house was in constant turmoil—a classic picture of the dysfunctional family.

Part of the dysfunction in Jacob’s family may have had its roots a generation earlier in Isaac and Rebekah, who fell into a devastating pitfall in parenting—favoritism within the family. Isaac greatly favored Esau; Rebekah favored Jacob. This divided affection produced an unhealthy atmosphere of competition, mistrust, double-dealing, disrespect and lingering resentment. The two sons of Isaac and Rebekah were the unwitting victims, and Jacob likewise repeated the error in his own family: Rachel was favored over Leah, Joseph over his brethren, then later Benjamin over his brethren. Of course this is a lot more understandable in Jacob’s case, since he had not wanted to marry Leah in the first place. Still, she was his wife and they had children together—so he should have done his best to show them all love and affection.

God later gave the following law to Israel: “Nor shall you take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive” (Leviticus 18:18 Leviticus 18:18Neither shall you take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time.
American King James Version×
). It does not appear that God had revealed this to be sin to those of Jacob’s day. But Jacob’s life demonstrated the great need for the revelation of this law.

Map of Jacob's
Jacob's Journey

Jacob's Travels: Leaves Beersheba; Has vision in Bethel; Marries in Haran, works for Laban; Wrestles with God in Penuel; Builds house in Succoth; Builds altar in Shechem; Settles in Bethel; Buries Rachel in Bethlehem; Buries Isaac and Leah in Hebron; Settles in Beersheba; Dies in Egypt (later reburied in Hebron).

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