Commentary on Genesis 29:1-30

Last updated: September 29, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Then Jacob went on his journey and came to the land of the people of the east. 2As he looked, he saw a well in the field, and behold, three flocks of sheep lying beside it, for out of that well the flocks were watered. The stone on the well’s mouth was large, 3and when all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone from the mouth of the well and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place over the mouth of the well.

4Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where do you come from?” They said, “We are from Haran.” 5He said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” They said, “We know him.” 6He said to them, “Is it well with him?” They said, “It is well; and see, Rachel his daughter is coming with the sheep!” 7He said, “Behold, it is still high day; it is not time for the livestock to be gathered together. Water the sheep and go, pasture them.” 8But they said, “We cannot until all the flocks are gathered together and the stone is rolled from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep.”

9While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. 10Now as soon as Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, Jacob came near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. 11Then Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud. 12And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son, and she ran and told her father.

13As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he ran to meet him and embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, 14and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month.

15Then Laban 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 older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. 18Jacob loved Rachel. And 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 female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.) 25And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob 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, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. 27Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” 28Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. 29(Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.) 30So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.

Notes

2-3 As he looked, he saw a well in the field, and behold, three flocks of sheep lying beside it, for out of that well the flocks were watered. The stone on the well’s mouth was large, and when all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone from the mouth of the well and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place over the mouth of the well.

The large, heavy stone over the well prevented a single shepherd or a small group of shepherds from watering the sheep. This information, repeated in the dialogue with the shepherds (v 8), allows the reader to appreciate Jacob’s ability to single-handedly remove the stone (v 10). The mention of the stone also echoes the stone pillar Jacob set up at Bethel where God promised to protect the patriarch on his journey (28:18). The reader is reminded that God is present with Jacob as he promised.

7 He said, “Behold, it is still high day; it is not time for the livestock to be gathered together. Water the sheep and go, pasture them.”

Jacob believes the shepherds are not working as hard or as long as they should be. He is essentially urging the shepherds to go back to work. Perhaps he is hoping to be alone with Rachel, though he has shown no immediate interest in her at this point.

10 Now as soon as Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, Jacob came near and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother.

Jacob’s success in finding Laban and Rachel as well as his super-human display of strength confirms for the reader that God is protecting Jacob (28:15, 20).

Whereas Rebekah cared for the animals of Abraham’s servant, confirming the divine guidance of the servant (24:19-20, 22), here the direction is reversed: the stranger sustains the thirsty flocks of Laban with inaccessible waters. This depiction foreshadows the role that Jacob plays in Laban’s household. He becomes of the omen of blessing that Laban strives to hold on to at all costs (e.g., 30:27-36).1

13-14 As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he ran to meet him and embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month.

Laban’s kiss proved to be as incongruous with his treatment of Jacob as the patriarch’s own beguiling kiss of his father (27:27).”2 “[W]e have a hint of what is to come when Laban comments that Jacob is his own flesh and blood (29:14). This is, of course, an innocent statement on Laban’s part, but the reader has already gotten a taste of Jacob’s nature, and in Laban we will encounter one ‘cut from the same cloth.’”3

15 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”

Laban’s question sounds concerned and friendly, but the very mention of “working” and “pay” introduces a jarring note. It sounds friendly to offer one’s destitute nephew wages, but should family relationships be reduced to commercial bargaining? The words “work, serve” and “pay” are key terms in the subsequent narrative (29:18, 20, 25, 27, 30; 30:26, 29; 31:6, 41; 30:16, 32, 33; 31:7, 41) and are laden with echoes of the exploitation Jacob suffered at Laban’s hands. But Laban is canny; he has learned Jacob’s motives for coming (29:13) and in the last few weeks has observed his attachment to Rachel, which he is willing to exploit by inviting Jacob to make an offer.4

17 Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.

Hamilton suggests:

The traditional rendering “Leah’s eyes were weak” (RSV, NIV; cf. NEB, JB) is in need of reexamination. The adjective rak means “weak” only in a few places, particularly Gen. 33:13 (“frail” children) and Deut. 20:8 (“softhearted, timid” paralleling “fearful,” yare). More often it describes something that is tender (flocks, Gen. 18:7), gentle (a king’s reign, 2 Sam. 3:39), soft (speech, Prov. 15:1; Job 40:27 [Eng. 41:3]), delicate (a woman, Deut. 28:56; Isa. 47:1), and young (an inexperienced lad, 1 Chr. 22:5; 29:1; 2 Chr. 13:7). In the last three references rak is paralleled with naar, “inexperienced, youthful.” Leah may be older, but her eyes are the beautiful eyes of a person who looks much younger.5

Matthews replies:

The tenor of the passage, however, contrasts Leah and Rachel, first their order of birth and perhaps here their charm. This suggests that the term has the negative nuance of feeble, impotent (e.g., Deut 20:8; 2 Sam 3:39), meaning “dull-eyed” (REB). If so, the irony is that though lackluster in her appearance, Leah is the fertile one of the sisters. Alternatively, R. Gradwohl contends that if a contrast were intended in the passage, it would be between Leah’s and Rachel’s eyes or between Rachel’s and Leah’s loveliness. But the author’s description of the women followed immediately by the narration of Jacob’s love for Rachel implies that her beauty captivated him, whereas Leah was not enticing (v. 18). Moreover, there is the same association of beautiful form (yapeh) and love in Amnon’s attraction to Tamar (2 Sam 13:1; cp. 1 Kgs 1:3-4, where the narration must clarify that the woman’s beauty in this case did not result in sexual relations). Also if the name “Leah” (le’a) invoked a sound play on the word “weary, impatient” (la’a), there may be a subtle play with her name, reminding one of her lifeless eyes (v. 17). The term la’a first occurs in 19:1, describing the blind Sodomites who “wearied (la’a) themselves groping for the door” (RSV).6

18 Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”

The agreement reached between Laban and Jacob is intended to provide for the bride price that was an essential part of marriage contracts. This was a payment made from the groom or his family to the family of the bride. Its function was to serve as a trust fund of sorts to provide for the support of the wife should the husband divorce her or die. In texts from Nuzi the typical bride price was thirty to forty shekels. Since a shepherd’s annual wage was ten shekels a year, Jacob is in effect paying a premium by working seven years, but he is in no position to negotiate. Theoretically, Laban will garner Jacob’s would-be wages and secure them into a bride-price account of some sort.7

19 Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.”

Marriage between relatives safeguarded the blood line, tribal property, and the daughter’s welfare. Laban may be speaking in an intentionally ambiguous way when he says he will give her (not Rachel explicitly) to Jacob.

22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast.

Laban does not give a verbal reply to Jacob’s demand.

23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her.

How was Laban able to pull of this deception? The obvious answer is that the bride was veiled (24:65) and it was dark. But one should not rule out the influence of alcoholic beverages served at the feast.

25 And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob 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?”

Jacob’s masquerading as his brother meets its appropriate counterstroke in the substitution of Leah for her sister. But retributive justice is not the only motif. Just as Jacob’s succession to the birthright was divinely ordained, irrespective of human machinations (25:23), so Jacob’s intended marriage to Leah is seen as the working of Providence, for from this unplanned union issued Levi and Judah, whose offspring shared spiritual and temporal hegemony in Israel through the two great institutions of the biblical period, the priesthood and the Davidic monarchy.8

26 Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.

This is an instance of dramatic irony, as in a Greek drama. The contrasting term “our place” and the substitution of the terms used in verses 16 and 18 for “younger, older” by tseirah, bekhirah deftly evoke the Jacob-Esau rivalry, an underlying meaning that must have been perceived by Jacob and the audience but not comprehended by Laban, the speaker, who is not privy to the previous history. Jacob is stunned into silence and does not even reprove Laban for not having informed him about the local custom in the first place.9

However, Laban’s attempt to justify his action by local convention is weak. Why did he not make the point earlier, if this was his intention? Or why had he not found a husband for Leah during the seven years Jacob had worked for him? Was it because Leah was too ugly to attract a husband, or had Laban been planning all along to palm her off on Jacob? Either way, Jacob had good reason to be incensed by his father-in-law.10

27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.”

The “week of this one” refers to seven days of feasting in celebration of the marriage (Judges 14:12, 17; Tobit 11:18; Mish. Neg. 3:2).11

28 Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife.

It is an act of trust on Laban’s part to give Rachel to Jacob after the week-long feast and not after the additional seven years of service. It is a testament to Jacob’s character that he did not abscond with Rachel. Leviticus 18:18 prohibits a man from marrying a sister of his wife during her lifetime. The author felt no need to rewrite history to make it conform to a later age.

30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.

Jacob’s parents displayed favoritism towards their sons and now Jacob shows favoritism towards his wives. These seven years are not said to pass by like only a few days (v 20).

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 455.

2Ibid., 464.

3Walton, Genesis, 586.

4Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 234-235.

5Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 258-259.

6Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 467.

7Walton, Genesis, 586.

8Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 205.

9Ibid.

10Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 237.

11Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 205.

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