Read Genesis 29:1–30
Jacob has traveled the great distance from his parents’ lodging in southern Canaan to the region of Paddan-Aram. The LORD came looking for Jacob, and He revealed His covenant promises to Jacob by means of a dream at the place that is renamed Bethel (“house of God”). Jacob hears for himself the covenant promises of God, and he responds in faith with a vow to serve the LORD God in the future.
Meeting at the watering-hole (29:1–12)
Jacob can now continue his journey to his relatives, to “the land of the eastern peoples”. We remember in our reading of Genesis of another arrival there in an earlier chapter. In Genesis 24 Abraham had sent his servant to this region to look for a wife for his son Isaac. The issue then is the same issue now for Jacob (at least in part), namely, the wife must be from the same larger clan and thus (presumably) from the same faith. But there is something that is quite different: Abraham’s servant goes with ten camels and “all kinds of good things” (Gen. 24:10). Abraham wanted to impress the potential bride for Isaac (and the bride’s family) with his wealth, presumably a bridal gift. But what does Jacob have in his hand when he arrives at the local well? He has his staff. In other words, he is virtually empty-handed when it comes to the physical things of this world.
Jacob heads to the local watering hole where people would bring their flocks for a drink of water. It is remarkable that this kind of story in the Bible is almost a kind of “type scene,” the kind of story that is repeated at several points to indicate where a man meets the woman whom he would marry. We have already referred to Genesis 24, where Abraham’s servant travels to obtain a wife for Isaac, Abraham’s son. He comes to a well (Gen. 24:11). Moses also meets his future wife at a local watering hole in Exodus 2:15ff. We see the pattern: 1) a man travels and stops at a well; 2) a girl (or girls) comes along to get water for her flocks; 3) the man introduces himself, often by drawing water for the flocks; 4) the girl informs her parents of the man; 5) the man is brought to her home; and 6) a marriage is then arranged.
Jacob actually tries to get the shepherds to move along, to leave the site of the well since they have told him that Rachel, Laban’s daughter, is making her way to this well. “It’s the middle of the day. This is not the time to water the flocks,” Jacob says to them in verse 7. “Get back to work… in the fields!” in other words. Apparently Jacob wants his meeting with Rachel to be relatively private.
The well is covered by a large stone. This is obviously done in order to prevent excessive amounts of dirt, filth, and garbage from falling into the water, thus polluting it. A large stone covering may also have been a safety feature, used to keep a person (perhaps a child) or an animal from falling into it, especially at night. It may also be in order to restrict its use to the local residents. Outsiders perhaps may have been required to pay for the use of the well. The shepherds would have to work to roll this large stone away to use the well, and then roll it back in place. Some stones in these situations might require two or three men to remove them in order to get the needed water.
Verse 3 notes that the shepherds (plural) were the ones who rolled this stone away, but in verse 10 the text says that Jacob alone rolled it away. Not bad for a man in his late 70s! He experiences a surge of strength that enables him to perform this particular feat. We think of the strength of Samson later on, when the Spirit comes upon Samson to enable him to carry out his warfare against the Philistines. Apparently the shepherds are still hanging around and witness this act of great strength (see verse 9).
But more importantly, these shepherds show no hostility to this recently arrived stranger. In fact, they know Jacob’s uncle Laban and that he is doing well (verse 6). God’s providence is clearly in evidence here in this encounter at the watering hole. At Bethel earlier God had promised to be with Jacob (Gen. 28:15), and here is a meeting that shows God to be true to His word. There are no chance encounters or accidental meetings. God is working out the events so that He might advance His plans in Jesus Christ. Jacob had fled Esau to escape being murdered, but God has bigger things in mind for His Kingdom in Christ.
A further example of God’s timing and arrangement of meetings here is the fact that at this very moment, while Jacob is talking with the shepherds, Rachel is coming along with the sheep. Here comes his cousin Rachel, a woman whom he probably had never met before in his whole life. She is in charge of her father’s sheep, since in that culture, care for sheep might be handled by either a man (e.g., Moses, David) or a woman. Jacob proves himself quite useful as it is he who “puts his shoulder to the stone,” so to speak, removes it and proceeds to water the flock. Whereas Jacob has been in a conversation with the shepherds, the text does not report any conversation (at least not yet) between Jacob and Rachel. Jacob acts, he works, and once he has finished watering the sheep, he kisses his cousin and breaks down in tears.
Why the tears? What is it that releases such emotion in Jacob? Perhaps it has struck him deep in his soul to see the coming together of so many providences from the Lord. His original reason to flee his own home was to escape his murder-plotting brother Esau. The story about getting a wife was a useful cover story. But then God steps directly into the picture via the dramatic dream at Bethel. “I will be with you wherever you go,” the Lord had promised Jacob. And who else but the Lord could have brought Jacob to this particular well at this particular moment when his own cousin, Rachel, daughter of his own uncle Laban, was coming to the well?
Jacob explains who he is to Rachel (verse 12), and this sets her into motion to report this remarkable news to her father Laban. Jacob has found “family,” or better put, God has guided his steps in such a way that this man now finds himself in the midst of his own people. Many English translations do not bring this out so clearly, but in the original text there is the frequent use of the word “brother.” See, for example, verses 4, 10, and 12. On one level, the word “brother” may simply be a term of general friendship; in Genesis 29 it has even stronger connotations. Read verses 4-12 and see how many times a word or phrase of family relationship is used. God truly is putting this solitary figure Jacob into a new circle of family.
Meet the parents (29:13–20)
By the field well, Jacob had kissed Rachel. But when Laban hears this news from his daughter Rachel that this relative Jacob has arrived in the area from such a great distance away, he appears to drop everything in order to run out to meet Jacob. We read in verse 13 that he “embraced him and kissed him,” immediately showing his own emotional acceptance of Jacob and happiness at his arrival. This is an embrace of a family member as Laban says literally to Jacob, “Indeed you are my bone and my flesh” (verse 14).
In verse 13 we read that Jacob told Laban “all these things.” Everything? Did Jacob tell Laban that he had followed his mother’s directions (remember: Rebekah is Laban’s sister) in order to mislead his father Isaac and take the blessing away from his twin brother Esau? Or, did Jacob say that he’s now here in Paddan-Aram in order to find a proper wife? If that is the story, Laban may very well have wondered what the bride-price was that Jacob had to offer. After all, Jacob is really empty-handed at this point. Would Jacob have traveled all this way to get a bride, but his wallet is empty, so to speak? The text leaves us with some questions at this point: what was the whole story that Jacob told to Laban? And how does Laban react?
A month passes, and Laban has an idea about how the relationship with Jacob might be brought into line. We must also admit that we are not exactly sure about the nature of the relationship that develops between Laban and Jacob. By saying to Jacob that he is “my bone and my flesh” (“flesh and blood”), Laban uses the language of blood relationship (verse 14; cf. Gen. 2:23; 37:27; etc.). Some scholars claim that a man with only daughters might adopt a male heir in order to keep his property in the family. Does Laban “adopt” Jacob as his own son? If so, we are surprised Jacob never calls Laban his “father,” and Laban never calls Jacob his “son.” In any case, Laban proposes paying Jacob for his work. And while we might be favorably inclined to receive a wage, does this perhaps reduce Jacob to the status of a hireling? What is Laban’s game-plan in all this? Is there a hidden agenda at work here?
Meet your first wife… and second wife! (29:21–30)
Laban has two daughters, as Isaac has two sons. Just as Esau and Jacob differ from each other, so the daughters also differ, at least in appearance. We have read about the elder – younger sibling difference already in Genesis 25. Will something develop here along similar lines? Leah (her name means “cow”) has delicate eyes, while Rachel (her name means “ewe”) is beautiful in appearance. “Delicate” eyes need not mean that Leah has poor eyesight. It may mean that she does not have the dark eyes that many consider a feature of beauty. Jacob comes to love Rachel, the younger daughter, and he proposes to Uncle Laban that he work for seven years to acquire Rachel as his wife. Laban agrees, noting that it is good if such a marriage stays within the larger family circle. Better Jacob than some other man, reasons Laban. And Jacob’s love for Rachel grows.
The seven-year engagement goes by quickly, and the day of the wedding arrives. This was an occasion of feasting and celebration, as weddings of two people in love should be. But evening comes, and darkness falls. Jacob takes his bride to bed; she is almost certainly veiled. Father of the bride Laban gives his maidservant Zilpah as a wedding gift to the newlyweds. Perhaps Jacob thinks, “It does not get better than this!” But in the morning, Jacob wakes up to a new reality… and a different wife! What a surprise, even shock, for Jacob! After seven years of work, and it’s Leah who is now his wife. Jacob had deceived his father, who could not see who was before him, and now the deceiver has been deceived when he could not see who his new bride is. But it is all legal and according to custom: Leah is now Jacob’s lawfully wedded wife. In reading this we feel a bit scandalized by Laban’s behavior, but for this wedding-night trick to succeed, both Leah and Rachel are playing along with it. We do not read of any protest from Rachel, for what happens here is not done in secret to her. In other words, the whole household of Laban is playing along with this, and therefore we can understand Jacob’s morning-after outrage. “What is this you’ve done to me?… Why have you deceived me?” (verse 25). Laban gives Jacob a very lame answer. “Oh, sorry! Didn’t I tell you that the oldest daughter must be married first before the younger one?” A deal is worked out: the wedding week celebration with Leah must be completed, and then Jacob may take Rachel as his second wife. But he must work another seven years to acquire Rachel as well. Very shrewd deal, indeed! Laban gets fourteen years of work from Jacob, marries two daughters off to a close relative (his own nephew), and Jacob has two wives, not just one. Aren’t we all happy? But Jacob’s love remains focused
But Jacob’s love remains focused on Rachel, and the seeds of a new conflict have been planted.
Rev. Mark Vander Hart is Associate Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.