Chronologically our next significant “Woman of the Bible” is Rachel. Her story is much entwined with that of her sister Leah. Rachel is noted for her beauty and she wins the heart of Jacob, Leah, the other sister, unloved, married by a trick to the trickster Jacob, she however is the ancestor of Joseph the husband of Mary, mother of the Messiah. It is not easy to pick out each one’s story separately, but we start with Rachel.
We finished the tale of Rebekah with her beloved son fleeing his parental land, due to the trickery in obtaining the blessing for the elder son. However, his mother ensures that he flees to relations.
Nicholas King Bible – Genesis 29 v1 sets the scene for the next generation:
“And Jacob lifted up his feet and went to the land of the East, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Syrian, the brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.”
He arrives at the Well, perhaps/probably the well where his mother encountered Abraham’s servant. The entrance to the well is blocked by a large stone, which would be rolled away by the shepherds (as a joint effort) when it was time for watering the flocks. He speaks to the shepherds gathered there asking if they know Laban. They do and moreover, his daughter is coming now with the sheep. Jacob steps forward, and no doubt, in an effort to impress Rachel he rolls the stone away and draws water for her flock of sheep. He then steps forward and kisses her and bursts into tears. Explanations follow and she runs home to impart the news of long-lost relatives turning up again. The parallels to Rebekah’s story are interesting – arrival at a well – a gathering place, so not surprising, but this time Jacob draws water to impress the girl. He does not arrive with a string of ten camels, but as a fugitive with nothing except himself and the promise of the covenant with God.
Laban, who perhaps remembers the wealth that accompanied Rebekah’s suitor, welcomes him warmly “Truly you are my bone and flesh!” After a month of working for free, Laban thinks he had better formalise the situation so asks Jacob what wages he would like. Jacob says he will work seven years in return for the younger daughter Rachel, with whom he has fallen in love.
Rachel is like an image that comes forward in the picture and then recedes. We have her as a shepherd, working independently, bringing the flocks to the well, able to interact with others, probably male. A shepherd is a demanding job, looking after the flock, ensuring none are lost, keeping count, watering them. Whether Rachel did all or some of this, she is demonstrating that independence that we saw in her Aunty Rebekah. Perhaps necessity made it so – her brothers weren’t willing or able or the family economics meant that all had to assist. Probably she was in her early teens or in an otherwise not yet needing to be married category, which explains the idea of waiting seven years until she is old enough to marry, but our modern sensibilities get a bit fidgety when we think of the relative ages of male and female.
She has an older sister Leah, who is not mentioned as working, but that she has “delicate eyes”. Much ink has been spilt wondering about the meaning of that phrase. In this context we read it as the counterpoint to the beautiful Rachel. Seven years pass; seven years in which no effort seems to be made for a husband to be found for Leah. I think there is an indication that Laban is not wealthy or not very skilled at maintaining wealth – remember in an earlier encounter with him he had quite a large house (with stabling for 10 camels). He seems to take advantage of Jacob’s willingness to work for him and then plays a devastating trick on Jacob. Sometimes this is seen as a retribution for Jacob’s deception when receiving the blessing from his father.
When the seven years are up, Jacob goes to Laban and reminds him of his promise to give him his daughter Rachel as his wife. Laban organises the customary festivities, but when morning comes it transpires that the bride was Leah not Rachel. We don’t hear what was said between the sisters or between Jacob and the two sisters. Reflections can be made about the ruining of a relationship between the sisters, perhaps one much older than the other pretty baby sister. Perhaps Rachel was the beautiful baby of the family, but we should forget sentimentality, she had also worked as a shepherdess, a tough, outdoors job.
Jacob is not impressed and asks Laban what he’s playing at to which Laban says it is not the custom for the younger to marry before the elder, but never mind let this marriage week go by and then Jacob can marry Rachel (for the payment of another seven years labour). This is what happens, but we are told that he loved Rachel more than Leah.
Whatever the reason, the devastation and hurt that Laban’s swop of Leah for Rachel on the wedding night caused, becomes the focus of the next part of the story and so, next time we will put Leah centre-stage.