Genesis 29:15-28 Jacob Marries Laban’s Daughters
15Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ 16Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. 18Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ 19Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.’ 20So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
21Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.’ 22So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast; 23but in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. 24(Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) 25When morning came, Jacob realised it was Leah, and he said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’ 26Laban said, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. 27Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.’ 28Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.
Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.
Is it a case of deceit, or one of comeuppance?
Last week the revised common lectionary gave us the story of Rebekah having the twins Esau and Jacob. Being the first-born Esau had a “birth-right” which allowed him the lion’s share of his father’s estate when Isaac died, and the right for a special blessing as responsibility for the household was handed to the elder son. “Jacob” is the Hebrew equivalent of “taker” or “supplanter”; and “Isaac” is Hebrew for laughter. When Esau came home at the end of a day’s work so hungry that he thought he was dying, an astute Jacob used his culinary skills, and Esau’s hunger, to get his older brother to pass on the birth-right, much to Esau’s displeasure when he had recovered. Furthermore, some years later, Jacob had connived with his mother to deceive a by then blind Isaac into believing that he was giving his elder son the special blessing before he died. That’s one theory. Another is that Isaac knew that Esau didn’t deserve the blessing he would receive, but without being ‘tricked’ custom wouldn’t allow him to give the blessing to Jacob, so he went along with the ruse as that let him do what he wanted without being seen as a rule breaker.
With the birth-right and the blessing now his Jacob absconds and goes to Haram, which was where Abraham had left, hoping to meet up with Rebekah’s brother, Laban (“white”). In the lead up to today’s reading Jacob shows his willingness to break the rules yet again, so that, when Laban’s daughter, Rachel, appears the well is already accessible for her to get water, though it is Jacob, showing his prowess, who actually waters the flock, and ahead of the customary opening of the well when all have arrived. Jacob is already smitten by his love for Rachel, and goes with her to meet her father, his uncle, and to work for him so he can be close to Rachel. Ahh! Play some nice romantic music.
The custom in Haram is that the oldest daughter must marry first, but Laban isn’t going to let Jacob know that. He agrees that Jacob can work seven years for him in order that he might marry the love of his life. One common custom in my upbringing was that a man would ask his potential father-in-law for the hand of the appropriate daughter in marriage. Indeed, my son-in-law-to-be did exactly that some months ago, but would any of us, these days, be willing to wait seven years?
So Jacob toils for seven years in the expectation of getting to marry Rachel, after which Jacob, justifiably in our eyes, asked for Rachel to be his wife. The trickster is about to be tricked. Laban’s elder daughter, Leah, still isn’t married, and custom requires that she marries first.
Weddings, at the time, weren’t the half-hour ceremony followed by photos and a celebration meal before the bridal couple go off to start their honeymoon, like they tend to be today. These were major celebrations, lasting a week, and with people coming from afar to participate at some time during the festival. On the first night of festivities Jacob is presented with Leah, not Rachel. She is heavily disguised with a veil, but you would think that, unless the sisters were very much alike, spoke alike, and smelled the same, Jacob would have realised before going to bed with her. Alas, he might have been under the influence of too much alcohol and food, and didn’t realise he had been conned until the next morning. Got him!
As if he were the totally innocent party, Jacob complains to Laban about being deceived. Only now does Laban tell Jacob the custom of having the first-born daughter marry before a younger daughter. A deal is done between the two tricksters: after making it look, during the time of the festivities, as if nothing was wrong, Laban allows Jacob to take Rachel as a second wife on condition that he works for him another seven years. No, there was nothing “wrong” at the time about polygamy: indeed, it was common. It wasn’t until the Greeks and Romans began dominating the Ancient Near East that monogamy became the norm.
All this, so far, has to do with misbehaving men who should have known better, but what of the women in the story? Rachel and Leah were ‘bought’ by Jacob working for Laban, and verse 24 mentions the maid Zilpah being given to Leah. Even Jacob’s request to Laban: “Give me my wife …” shows that Laban owned Rachel (and Leah). Such treatment of women was common in that era. Hopefully we have a more respectful approach and consider the woman’s choice and desires, not just those of the men, or am I too much of an optimist?
We can read much into the story. Jacob, as the deceitful one early in his life tries to run away but his sins catch up with him. Laban outfoxes Jacob by getting him to marry Leah before Rachel, and, later in this story Jacob outfoxes Laban to take daughters, maids, children, herds and money, only to be outfoxed again by his own children who sell Joseph into slavery. Some call it karma. The treatment of women says a lot about how their roles have changed over the centuries since this story was written, but have we really made any progress?
If you want to read the reflection on Romans 8:26-39 see http://frends.biz/reflections/30th-july-2017-trinity-8/.