Jacob leaves Bethel and completes his trip to the house of Rebekah’s brother – Laban. Unbeknownst to Jacob, this will be his home for the next 20 years. His interactions with Laban will seldom be happy and will dictate the direction of the rest of his life. Laban becomes the instrument of retribution to Jacob. God didn’t rebuke Jacob for his lying and cheating, but in Haran He allows circumstances to pay him back for his actions toward his father and brother.
Ages of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel
There is nothing in the text about the ages of Jacob, Leah, or Rachel. As a matter of fact, Genesis never mentions anything about Leah’s and Rachel’s ages at all. Some Jewish traditions hold that Leah and Rachel are twins and are 14 years old when Jacob arrives in Haran. If this is the case, Leah is older than Rachel in the same way Esau is older than Jacob. There is no way to know if this age is correct, but it makes sense that both are young since Jacob waits seven years before officially consummating his marriages to both of them.
For Jacob, there are other texts that mention his age and allow us to at least conjecture as to how old he is as this story begins. In 47:9, it says that Jacob is 130 years old when he meets Pharaoh after going to Egypt. In 45:6, it says that the famine that causes Jacob to travel to Egypt is two years old. We know that before the famine there are seven years of plenty. In 41:46, it says that Joseph is 30 years old when he interprets Pharaoh’s dream and becomes the second greatest ruler in Egypt. If we take 130 and subtract two years for the famine, seven for the years of plenty, and 30 for Joseph’s age, we get 91 as Jacob’s age when Joseph is born. In 30:25-43 and 31:38, it appears that Joseph is born roughly 14 years after Jacob begins to serve Laban. If this is correct, then Jacob is 77 when he comes to Haran (while his future wives are possibly 14).
Bear in mind that this is at best a reasonable estimate. The text that says Joseph is 30 when he ascends to the throne in Egypt could also be interpreted to mean it’s been 30 years since he came to Egypt. If that’s the case then Joseph might be in his late 40s when he appears before Pharaoh, and Jacob is younger than 91 when Joseph is born (and thus younger than 77 when he comes to Haran). Also, there isn’t any specific mention of the year of Joseph’s birth in 30:25, so it could be that he is born before the 14th year after Jacob begins to work for Laban.
Using other texts, we can judge the reasonableness of Jacob’s age of 77 when he meets Rachel and Laban in Haran. We know Esau is 40 (and thus Jacob is 40) when he takes his first two wives from the Hittites (26:34-35). This makes Isaac 100 (he’s 60 at the boys’ birth – 25:26). Isaac lives to be 180 (35:28) and apparently lives long enough to see Jacob and his family when they come back to Canaan. If Jacob is 91 when Joseph is born, then Isaac is 151 at the same point and still has another 29 years to live – easily long enough to see Jacob again when he returns. Interestingly, however, if these ages are correct, then it means that roughly 37 years pass between the end of Chapter 26 and the beginning of Chapter 27 (which means Rebekah has hated Esau’s wives for a LONG time when she asks Isaac to send Jacob away – 27:46).
The one problem with an age of 77 for Jacob is that it seems oddly old for a man seeking a wife for the first time. Why doesn’t his status as an unmarried man come up before he steals the blessing from Esau? Also, if he’s 91 when Joseph is born, it means he’s around 97 when Benjamin is born and at the same age the text made it sound as if it was a miracle that Abraham was able to father a son. In the record of Benjamin’s birth nothing is said about Jacob’s advanced age at all.
In the end there’s really no way to know Jacob’s age definitively, but it’s worthwhile to work through the numbers and at least discuss what’s reasonable in order to better understand the story.
Jacob leaves Bethel and completes his trip to Haran. In verse 1 it says that he comes to the land of the sons of the east. East – as we’ve mentioned many times in the study of Genesis – typically refers to a direction away from God or into exile. That the author refers to the people of Haran in this way may mean to show that they are not God-worshipers.
When Jacob arrives he comes to a well with three flocks of sheep standing around it. The well has a large stone over the opening. Jacob asks the men tending the sheep where they are from and finds out they are from Haran. He asks them if they know Laban and they say they do, and then tell him Laban’s daughter Rachel will soon be along with her father’s sheep (she perhaps is within sight). Note God’s sovereignty here. Jacob has just traveled 550 miles over many days and yet arrives in the place just as Rachel comes to water the sheep.
Jacob asks them why they have gathered the sheep since it’s the middle of the day and it’s not time to put the sheep up for the night (he seems to question their work ethic). They say they must wait until all the flocks are gathered around the well so they can collectively roll the stone away and water the sheep. Apparently the stone is too heavy for any one man to open the well.
While they talk to Jacob, Rachel arrives with her sheep. Jacob sees her and then goes to the well and rolls the stone away by himself. The text reports this with no comment. What appears to happen, however, is that either God allows Jacob to have his own Samson moment with miraculous strength, or Jacob is not the mama’s boy we have assumed him to be and is quite the he-man (perhaps this is another knock against the theory that he’s 77 at this point?). Either way, since this is a reaction to seeing Rachel it shows that he’s stricken from the very start.
After he opens the well he waters all of Rachel’s sheep (this is somewhat similar to how Moses will meet his wife in the wilderness of Midian – Ex 2:16-17). He then introduces himself to her (we can probably assume she’s wondering who in the world this man is and is quite impressed with all he’s done – it’s interesting that he waters her sheep before introducing himself) as her father’s relative. He kisses her – likely just a familial kiss, nothing romantic – and lifts up his voice and weeps. This may show how much stress he’s been under and the relief he now feels. Not only has the trip been very long, but fleeing Esau and being in exile from his family have taken a toll.
After finding out who he is, Rachel runs to her father’s house and tells him about Jacob. That she runs shows how important and unusual this news is.
After Rachel tells Laban about Jacob, Laban runs back to the well (if Jacob is 77 then Laban has to be in his 90s or even older – for him to run is extraordinary [and probably pretty slow]). He comes to Jacob and embraces him and kisses him, and then brings him back to the house.
The text says in verse 13 that Jacob tells Laban all these things. This likely means he tells all about Rebekah’s health and how he’s come to Haran to find a wife. It’s probable he does NOT mention having to flee Esau after cheating him out of the blessing (at least it would be out of character for him to be completely truthful).
Jacob stays with Laban for a month – and presumably works for him – before Laban discusses with him what he wants. Laban says that Jacob is his relative but even so he doesn’t have to work for free (although he’s been fine with it for a month). He asks Jacob to name his wages.
Jacob gives Laban a very interesting answer. Instead of naming an amount, he tells Laban he will work seven years without wages in return for Laban giving Rachel to him for a wife. The whole point of Jacob’s coming – apart from fleeing for his life – is to get a wife, so he decides it’s time to get the process rolling.
The reason Jacob discusses his marriage to Rachel in terms of wages is that it’s customary for the groom to pay a ‘bride-price’ for a woman he wants to marry. When Abraham’s servant came to Haran to find a wife for Isaac he brought along many expensive gifts to give to Rebekah’s family for the same purpose (24:10,53). Jacob, on the other hand, seems to come with nothing. Thus he has to offer his years of service to pay for Rachel.
In the midst of this negotiation the author offers an aside about Laban’s family. He says that Laban actually has two daughters – Leah and Rachel. Leah is the oldest and Rachel the youngest. The text says Leah has weak eyes. What this means isn’t entirely clear (the Hebrew isn’t clear). It could mean that her eyes are lifeless and dull, with little energy or light. It could also mean, however, that her eyes are gentle and kind, and are her best feature (remember that in this culture the eyes are very important because women are often veiled with only their eyes visible – like Muslim women in burqas today). Either way, she pales in comparison to her sister who is beautiful of form and face. Leah has nice eyes, but Rachel is a stunner.
Laban agrees to Jacob’s terms and the marriage is set. Note, the marriage is official at this point. Nothing more has to happen for Rachel to be considered Jacob’s wife. What has to wait is the consummation of the relationship. This can’t happen until the bride price is paid. Thus Jacob will wait seven years to physically take Rachel as his wife, but her status as his wife is immediate (similar to how Joseph and Mary will already be considered married when she becomes pregnant with Jesus). There is no formal observance to mark this change of status. The agreement between Jacob and Laban is all that’s required.
Jacob loves Rachel (interestingly, the text never says Rachel loves him – perhaps a 63-year age difference has something to do with that) and gladly serves the seven years for her. As a matter of fact, the years seem like just a few days because of his great love.
At the end of seven years, Jacob tells Laban, “Give me my wife (note the terminology), for my time is completed, that I may go into her.” The seven years may have seemed like a few days, but the few days are over and Jacob isn’t a young man. It’s time to consummate the marriage. Jacob’s statement to Laban isn’t a request so much as a demand.
Laban holds a great feast to celebrate the occasion. It is likely that at this feast there is much wine and much celebratory drinking. The text says that at the end of the evening Laban brings Leah – not Rachel – to Jacob and he goes into her. It’s not entirely clear if Jacob sees her before they enter their room (or tent) or if she’s already in the room and he goes to her. Either way, it’s likely very dark and he’s probably had his fair share of alcohol and perhaps doesn’t have full control of his faculties. [Remember that the text made it clear that there is a significant difference between the sisters physically – it is likely that a sober man doesn’t mistake one for the other.]
It’s important to understand that there isn’t a ceremony on this night. As mentioned before, Rachel and Jacob are already married because of the agreement between Jacob and Laban. The only thing that needs to happen is the consummation. So we don’t need to figure out how Laban can deceive Jacob during a ceremony where he presumably stands beside his new wife.
How this works on Laban’s end is difficult to know. What do Leah and Rachel think about this? Both obviously know what’s supposed to happen. How does it make Leah feel to know her dad is having to trick someone into marrying her? How does Rachel feel about her rightful husband being given to Leah? Though nothing is in this text about their reaction, they will say something in the future that perhaps reveals what they think. When they decide twenty years later to leave Haran and go to Canaan with Jacob, they effectively tell him that they feel like foreigners in their father’s house and that he sold them and consumed their purchase price (31:14-16). Here they go along with their father’s plan because they culturally have no choice, but they may resent him very much for doing it.
Jacob spends the night with Leah – thinking that he’s with Rachel – and consummates the marriage with her. When he wakes in the morning he finds to his horror that it’s not Rachel. He’s been tricked into marrying Leah in direct violation of the agreement he made with Laban.
Jacob goes to Laban and expresses his dismay. “What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served with you? Why then have you deceived me?” Note the last question. The shoe is on the other foot. The deceiver has been deceived. And he doesn’t like it at all.
Laban – who apparently has no conscience – calmly tells Jacob that marrying off the younger daughter before the older daughter is not the practice in our place. He expresses no remorse at all. He doesn’t apologize or ask forgiveness. He simply tells Jacob that this is how it has to be – as if he hasn’t violated an agreement or cheated a man out of seven years of his life.
He then offers Jacob an olive branch. He tells him to complete the wedding week (the celebration lasts a week) for Leah and then he can take Rachel and consummate another marriage with her. Of course, this agreement has a few strings. If Jacob takes Rachel then he owes ANOTHER seven years of service. Fourteen total years of working for no wages to pay off two brides – only one of which he wants.
Jacob agrees and finishes the week ‘celebrating’ his marriage to Leah. At the end of the week he takes Rachel as his second wife. He then begins to work another seven years to pay the second bride-price. So he ends up with two wives but really loves only one. And he evidently doesn’t hide his feelings. The man who grew up with his parents playing favorites gets his family started off by playing favorites with his wives. And of course there’s no reason to think this will be a problem going forward at all.
The irony of this story is rich. The justice in this story is perfect. The man who cheated his brother and tricked his father by pretending to be his brother, now gets cheated and tricked into a marriage he doesn’t want by a woman pretending to be her sister. The younger who pretended to be the older gets duped by the older who pretended to be the younger.
It’s hard not to see God’s hand here. The circumstances that envelop Jacob in this story don’t have to happen. They aren’t the natural outcome of his earlier actions. This is not a case of God simply allowing ramifications to run their course. Instead, He seems to bring this out of the blue to specifically match Jacob’s sin. And Jacob never sees it coming (God tends to expose us when we least expect it – see Nathan’s conversation with David – II Sam 12:1-14). He is completely fooled by Laban’s ruse. He worked seven years and looked forward every day to spending his life with Rachel. Instead he’s cheated and now lives the rest of his life with the consequences. NOTHING will ever be easy as far as family life goes for the rest of his life. He’s now Esau and Laban is him.
This story is an example of what Paul says in Gal 6:7 – Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. Also, the words of Hosea (8:7) – For they sow the wind, and they reap the whirlwind (and perhaps also Matt 26:52 – …for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword). Jacob appeared to get away with what he did scot-free without any punishment or rebuke from God. But God now seems to visit his own sin upon him and make him feel what it’s like to be on the receiving end of what he did to Esau.
It also pays to compare Jacob’s experience with Laban to Abraham’s servant’s experience with him. When Abraham wanted a wife for Isaac, he sent his servant loaded with gifts to Haran so as to pay the bride price. The servant gave gifts to Laban’s family and brought Rebekah back immediately. For Jacob, because of his sin against Esau and Isaac he flees his home with apparently nothing to offer for a bride (even though Isaac is by all accounts immensely wealthy), and has to work 14 years to marry two women – one of whom he doesn’t want. Again, God doesn’t directly rebuke Jacob for his cheating and deception, but the price Jacob pays for his sin is dear and lifelong.