Our third patriarch has now officially taken center stage. Jacob is now on his journey, and is coming of age away from the home of his father and brother. He wanders for a while, and eventually comes to the land of Haran, where Laban, Rebecca’s brother, lives. When he asks about his uncle, he is told that Laban is well, and ironically enough, his daughter Rachel happens to be approaching at that moment.
Here, we have the iconic meeting of Jacob and Rachel at the well. In the previous story of a meeting at a well, it’s the emissary of Abraham that encounters Rebecca, and it is he who tests her to see if she’s the one intended for Isaac. In this iteration of the theme, however, there is no test. Jacob is like a teenager when he sees Rachel. First, he shows off: “And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother (Genesis 29:10).” Removing the stone from the well usually requires all of the shepherds to assemble and work together, but in his eagerness to impress Rachel, Jacob does it himself.
“And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept (Genesis 29:11).”
Jacob’s encounter with Rachel brings up a full range of emotions within him. In one moment, he falls in love with her, wants to proclaim the love, and is overwhelmed by the experience of the moment. It’s a beautiful image of their instant connection and truly seems to depict soul mates. Rachel brings Jacob to her father’s house, and the two men negotiate. Jacob offers to work for Laban for seven years in exchange for Rachel’s hand in marriage. “And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her (Genesis 29:20).” Again, Tanakh gives us a glimpse of a true love story, where Jacob is so committed to Rachel and so deeply in love with her that the time literally flies by when he’s in her presence, even without being married.
Now, of course, a wrench needs to be thrown into this biblical fairytale.
“Now Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were weak; but Rachel was of beautiful form and fair to look upon (Genesis 29:16-17).”
This time, we’re introduced to sibling issues between sisters, instead of the regular family politics between brothers that we’ve seen thus far. It’s clear that in the early stories of Tanakh, older siblings don’t come off very well (Ishmael, Esau, and now Leah). Unlike the men though, Leah isn’t made out to be evil in any way. Instead, she’s a character deserving of pity, overshadowed by her beautiful younger sister. And when it comes time for Jacob and Rachel to finally get married, Laban switches his daughters and gives Leah in her place. According to the basic reading of the text, Jacob doesn’t realize this until the next morning. There are many commentaries that delve into the issues of the deception. Some say that Rachel hid under the bed and spoke the words for Leah throughout the night, so that her sister wouldn’t be embarrassed. Others paint Laban as the clear villain, trying to trick Jacob, and the modern midrash of The Red Tent has Rachel asking Leah to take her place because she was scared.
Regardless of the motivation, I don’t think the parallel between this moment and Jacob’s recent deception of his own father can be ignored. Is this karma bringing him a taste of his own medicine?
Jacob confronts Laban, and agrees to work another seven years in order to marry Rachel as well. But none of the parties in this love triangle seem to live happily ever after. “The Lord saw that Leah was hated, and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren (Genesis 29:31).”
Who is Leah hated by? We are told that Jacob loves Leah more, but does this correlate to hate? Does Rachel hate her sister? Or do we learn that Leah hates herself and lacks self-confidence and love? Leah is given the gifts of four sons: Reuben, Shimon, Levi, and Judah, while Rachel fails to give any children to her husband. While I see that God could be trying to level the playing field between the two sisters, I wonder how, in this seemingly unique situation, any of them could be truly happy? The innocent love at the beginning of this chapter now has layers of drama, which will only continue to build now that the next generation is being introduced.