The Pentateuch: Jacob and His Wives, Genesis 29-32
Rebekah had just sent her younger son, Jacob, away to find a wife with her family in order to keep him away from Esau, who had vowed to kill Jacob. Rebekah instructed Jacob to deceive Isaac, the boys’ father, in order to receive the blessing Isaac intended to give to Esau, the older of the twin boys. Jacob then set out to find Rebekah’s family, and we pick up with him when he comes upon shepherds with their flocks of sheep.
Jacob discovers that these shepherds are from Haran, and they are Laban’s people. Laban was Rebekah’s brother, son of Bethuel. He had two daughters, Leah, the older, and Rachel, the younger. Leah is not described as a beautiful woman, but Rachel takes this praise. Jacob met Rachel on the road and immediately fell for her, and Laban took Jacob in with the agreement that Jacob would work for Laban for seven years in exchange for his daughter, Rachel, as Jacob’s bride.
15 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what should your wages be?” 16 Now Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah’s eyes were [a]delicate, but Rachel was beautiful of form and appearance.
18 Now Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.”
19 And Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to another man. Stay with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed only a few days to him because of the love he had for her.Genesis 29:15-20 NKJV
Jacob officially met his match with Laban. Jacob had been a deceiver, a heel grabbed, constantly seeking to make his way in the world by means of trickery. His mother, Rebekah, had been deceptive as well, and now her brother, Laban, was doing precisely the same. Jacob worked the seven years, the wedding happened, and the next morning Jacob realizes he had been duped into marrying Leah instead of Rachel as they had agreed. After Jacob impersonated his brother Esau, later Leah impersonates her sister Rachel, and Jacob gets a taste of his own medicine.
Laban claims that it is customary for the older daughter to be married first, but he promised that in exchange for another seven years of labor, Jacob could marry Rachel as well. Jacob wanted Rachel so badly that he agreed to take both sisters as his wives for additional years of work. Jacob was now tied to Laban for 14 years in exchange for his two wives.
21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in to her.” 22 And Laban gathered together all the men of the place and made a feast. 23 Now it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. 24 And Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah as a maid. 25 So it came to pass in the morning, that behold, it was Leah. And he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why then have you deceived me?”
26 And Laban said, “It must not be done so in our [a]country, to give the younger before the firstborn. 27 Fulfill her week, and we will give you this one also for the service which you will serve with me still another seven years.”
28 Then Jacob did so and fulfilled her week. So he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife also. 29 And Laban gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as a maid. 30 Then Jacob also went into Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served with Laban still another seven years.Genesis 29:21-30 NKJV
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During the second seven years, Leah was neglected by Jacob who loved Rachel and seems to have begrudged Leah, whom he did not choose to marry. While Leah was neglected by Jacob, she was seen by the Lord. God saw her, had compassion, and blessed her with many children. At first, she began naming the children with the hope her husband would finally love her. She craved the love of her husband. She and her sister clearly didn’t get along well either, leaving Leah surely feeling very alone. She was surely lonely, hurting, and neglected. Yet, God showed her favor and blessed her. Eventually, Leah refocused her praises and attention toward the Lord rather than her husband, and there she found contentment.
31 When the Lord saw that Leah was neglected, he opened her womb; but Rachel was unable to conceive.Genesis 29:31 CSB
Leah and her children
Leah was blessed with 6 sons, and we also see a daughter named from Leah. Leah was unloved by her husband, but she was not neglected by the Lord. He cared for her, and gave her many children. Two very important tribes came from her sons Judah and Levi. Judah’s tribe was a kingly line, while Levi’s descendants later became the priestly line. This showed love and favor to Leah, and teaches a vital point that God does not look at what people look at – He values all of His creation, and cares even for those who lack love from people. Leah is a great encouragement for all of us who have faced these kinds of heartaches and loneliness.
- Wife, Leah (H3812) – weary
- Reuben (H7205) – behold a son
- Simeon (H8095) – heard
- Levi (H3878) – joined to
- Would later become the priestly tribe
- Judah (H3063) – praised
- Would later become the kingly tribe
- Issachar (H3485) – there is recompense
- Zebulun (H2074) – exalted
- Dinah (daughter) (H1783) – judgment
Leah’s children through Zilpah
When Leah stopped having children for a while, she sent her maid, Zilpah, to bear more children on her behalf. It was customary in that culture and time that if a woman was not able to bear children she would have a slave woman have children with her husband, but the children would be legally the wife’s. Zilpah being Leah’s maidservant, her children legally belonged to Leah. Zilpah bore two sons.
Rachel was the favored wife of Jacob – the wife he ended up working 14 years to be able to marry. Rachel was a physically beautiful woman, but as we read through her part in history she reveals herself to be just as deceptive as her husband, aunt, and father. As she was barren for so long, she grew bitter and took it out on Jacob. She begged her sister for mandrakes, which in their culture was believed to increase fertility, showing that Rachel was taking matters into her own hands versus trusting God with her barrenness.
When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she envied her sister. “Give me sons, or I will die!” she said to Jacob.
2 Jacob became angry with Rachel and said, “Am I in the place of God? He has withheld offspring[a] from you!”Genesis 30:1-2 CSB
Eventually, God gave her a son, the last son born to Jacob for a very long time. Many years later, Rachel would have a second son, the final son of Jacob, making Jacob father to 12 sons who would become the 12 tribes of Israel.
Rachel and her children
- Wife, Rachel (H7354) – ewe
- Joseph (H3130) – Jehovah has added
- Benjamin (Genesis 35) (H1144) – son of the right hand
Rachel’s children through Bilhah
While Rachel was barren she gave her maid Bilhah to her husband to bear children for her. Bilhah bore two sons with Jacob on behalf of Rachel.
- Concubine, Bilhah, Rachel’s maid (H1090) – troubled
- Dan (H1835) – a judge
- Naphtali (H5321) – wrestling
Jacob wrestles with Laban
Jacob had two wives, two concubines, and at that point 11 sons. He had been working for Laban, his uncle and father-in-law, for 14 years and wanted to begin planning for the long-term care of his growing family. He knew he would eventually inherit the land promised to Abraham and his father Isaac, and he would need to go back home to claim it. He also knew his brother, Esau, was still back at home but he did not know if Esau still wanted to kill him.
Jacob made a final agreement with Laban to work another seven years, but this time it would be for a portion of the flock. He would take the less desirable flock, leaving the spotless sheep for Laban. Jacob asked for the spotted, speckled, and miscolored animals while leaving the spotless, pure-colored ones for Laban, making it easy to distinguish from one another’s animals. Before sending the flock with Jacob, though, Laban continued to cheat Jacob and separated all the current flock that was the coloring allocated to Jacob, gave them to his own sons, and handed the remaining spotless flock over to Jacob – the coloring designated to belong to Laban.
31 So he said, “What shall I give you?”
And Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this thing for me, I will again feed and keep your flocks: 32 Let me pass through all your flock today, removing from there all the speckled and spotted sheep, and all the brown ones among the lambs, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and these shall be my wages. 33 So my righteousness will answer for me in time to come, when the subject of my wages comes before you: every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats, and brown among the lambs, will be considered stolen, if it is with me.”
34 And Laban said, “Oh, that it were according to your word!” 35 So he removed that day the male goats that were speckled and spotted, all the female goats that were speckled and spotted, every one that had some white in it, and all the brown ones among the lambs, and gave them into the hand of his sons. 36 Then he put three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks.Genesis 30:31-36 NKJV
Jacob didn’t ask to be handed the flock, but to continue caring for all of them and over the seven years he would then take all the miscolored and Laban would have the spotless. The flock Jacob was breeding started as spotless, but they produced offspring that were the coloring that was agreed to be Jacob’s. In that time, Jacob showed his faith in God’s provisions, and both he and Laban couldn’t help but acknowledge the favor bestowed on Laban by the Lord while Jacob was with him.
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Jacob flees for home
Jacob’s allotted flock was flourishing far greater than Laban’s, Jacob was growing prosperous, his family was expanding nicely, and Laban’s sons were growing envious of the success and growing wealth of Jacob. Jacob realized that he was no longer favored by Laban, and receives instruction from the Lord that it was time to head back home.
Now Jacob heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, “Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s, and from what was our father’s he has acquired all this wealth.” 2 And Jacob saw the countenance of Laban, and indeed it was not favorable toward him as before. 3 Then the Lord said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you.”Genesis 31:1-3 NKJV
Unbeknownst to Jacob, Rachel took along her family’s idols. These idols were false gods that her family worshipped and were seen as an inheritance for the oldest son. It is unknown why Rachel took them, but this was an excuse for Laban to chase after Jacob, accusing him of theft, and we see Jacob begin to stand up for himself and the 20 years of deceit and manipulation he experienced from Laban. Rachel lies to conceal her theft, and we again see a glimpse of Rachel’s true colors. Jacob’s favored wife is beautiful on the outside, but deceptive on the inside.
The relationships especially between Laban, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel were all founded on lies and mistrust, and the fruits of that deception are evident all over this story. Leah was lonely and unloved by her family, Rachel was a bitter liar and a thief, Jacob was a heel grabber through and through, and Laban was a trickster and manipulative head of the family. Eventually, they all parted ways with a covenant between them and the Lord.
51 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Here is this heap and here is this pillar, which I have placed between you and me. 52 This heap is a witness, and this pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. 53 The God of Abraham, the God of Nahor, and the God of their father judge between us.” And Jacob swore by the [a]Fear of his father Isaac. 54 Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his brethren to eat bread. And they ate bread and stayed all night on the mountain. 55 And early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his sons and daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned to his place.Genesis 31:51-55 NKJV
Jacob wrestles with God
Jacob continues on his journey home with his large family, flocks, and great wealth he has accrued over those 20 years serving Laban. He knows he will have to face Esau but he does not know what this will be like. He develops a plan to appease his brother, but along the way when Jacob was alone he found himself wrestling with a stranger. Jacob fought and fought, yet neither prevailed until the stranger touched the socket of Jacob’s hip and put it out of joint. Jacob still would not let go – until he received a blessing. In this moment, Jacob was subdued by the Lord and Jacob knew it. He was desperate for a blessing from the Lord, and clung to Him until he received one.
22 The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children,[a] and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel,[b] for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel,[c] saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.Genesis 32:22-32 ESV
Through these 20 years of hiding from his brother, the Lord taught Jacob that he should have trusted God all this time rather than living in fear, scheming and plotting, manipulating and grasping, thinking he could do better on his own terms. He needed to submit to the Lord, let the Lord lead him and his plans, and recognize that it was God alone who would bless and provide for him, as well as correct and discipline him. Nothing Jacob could do would bring the best outcome God had in store for him. Trusting God was the only way – and likewise, trusting God is the only way for us as well.
Just as we receive a new identity as “Child of God” when we submit to the Lord in faith, Jacob was given a new name – Jacob would now be called Israel. Israel means “to face God” or to “struggle with God” but with the emphasis that God prevails. This name is given to God’s people – the Israelites – who would struggle with God, as well, for centuries. Jacob was the father of the Jewish nation and the people’s hearts so often resemble Jacob’s example.