Jacob was promised the birthright of the first born, even though he was the second born twin. His older brother sold him the birthright for a bowl of red lentil soup. His mother had him trick his father and pretend to be his brother in order to get the firstborn blessing as well. Then she had him flee to her brother’s house to protect him from his brother wanting to kill him, but she said it was for him to get a wife and when he got there he met Rachel. His uncle Laban wasn’t impressed with his lack of gifts but agreed to let him stay and now they were discussing terms for Jacob working for him. Jacob said he doesn’t want money, he just wants permission to marry Rachel.
Let’s meet the women
Laban had two daughters.
Rachel was the youngest daughter and Jacob met her at the well when he first arrived. Scripture says she was beautiful of form and appearance.
Leah was the older daughter and Scripture says her eyes were “tender.”
Christian scholars have debated whether this meant she wasn’t much to look at, or maybe she was partially blind.
Jewish scholars believe this was because she wept constantly in prayer. The thought is that because she was the oldest daughter she would be expected to marry Esau and she heard stories about his character and did not want to be partnered with someone who held God in such low esteem. Leah is honored for being so devoted to prayer that God excused her from the obligation to marry Esau and allowed her to marry Jacob who was the recipient of the birthright of the oldest.
In Judaism Jacob is seen as the Patriarch who unites heaven and earth. One of the ways he does this is through marriage to the woman who will give birth to the earthly savior of his descendants, Joseph, and the spiritual savior who will come through Judah. This is very significant and something to keep in mind while reading the rest of the story.
Three more things you need to know before we continue
There are three things that are very important to know in understanding this story. One is understanding the Bride Price and another has to do with tents. The third is about the right to sex and who held it.
Many people mistakenly think the bride price was the amount paid to the father to “purchase” the bride. This is not at all the case. Jacob is not buying Rachel from Laban.
The Bride Price was the amount that was pledged by a bridegroom to the bride and it was her money. Originally this would have been money given to her when they agreed to be married. Eventually, during times of poverty for the Jewish people, there was added an option of pledging it at the time the marriage was negotiated and giving it if the marriage should end.
The Dowry from the bride’s family would also belong to the bride and was hers to save or invest in the marriage or business of the family as she chose. She was the final say on how that money was spent and whether it was used during the marriage or not.
In addition to these two funds that belonged to the bride, the groom was culturally expected to lavish gifts on his intended’s family. Any gifts brought to the family were for the purpose of showing how wealthy and able the groom and his family were of providing for their daughter.
None of this constituted purchasing a bride or a man selling his daughter.
The tent was also something that belonged to the woman and she had the right to invite her husband into it or not.
Even more importantly, sex was the right of the woman, not the man. She had the right to children and her husband was obligated to have sex with her to fulfill that right. This is especially significant in this story and will help you understand the dynamic of the family and some of the exchanges that are made.
These three rights of the bride were eventually formalized into the ketubah that is signed by the bride when she marries. The ketubah is only signed by the bride as it is a formal and legal declaration of the offers made to the bride by the groom and the ketubah must include an acknowledgement of her right to provision (Bride Price — especially documented if she is accepting this as a future promise should the marriage end), a home, and sex in order to bear children. In modern ketubahs there is often included the right, at any one time during the marriage, for the woman to demand the right to have the family move to Israel.
The Fateful Agreement
As we return to our story, Jacob is agreeing to work for seven years for Laban in exchange for Laban granting him permission to marry Rachel, his younger daughter. We cannot think of this as a bride price, or a gift offered to Laban by the man who wants to marry his daughter. This is a negotiation between two men who don’t really trust each other and who want to make sure they get the better end of a deal. This is about the men, not the women. Laban wanted to make sure he got something out of the deal and since Jacob had come empty handed with no gifts for his future father in law, Laban was going to even things out.
When Jacob states that he would work seven years for the opportunity to marry Rachel, Laban’s response was that he may as well allow her to marry him as anyone, and the terms of their deal were set.
Jacob worked seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him a few days because of his love for her.
This seems like we are reading an epic love story. Jacob’s love for Rachel was epic. It was also very earthly and sensual and with little to no concern for the character of the woman she was. He loved her blindly when it came to matters of the soul because he saw so clearly her beautiful form and appearance.
At the end of the seven years Jacob went to Laban and demanded that his bride be delivered to him so that they could consummate their marriage and start their life together.
Weddings today in most Western cultures are silly affairs compared to weddings in the ancient world. Weddings in the Middle East in the Ancient World involved a week that the couple spent in the wedding chamber having sex and getting to know each other more intimately. Outside the tent the father of the bride would be celebrating his family’s joy by throwing the most lavish party he could afford involving food and drink for the entire town for the week. As a side note, witnesses in the middle east generally stood outside the tent to assure that the couple had in fact finalized the act of marriage.
The wedding Laban delivered involved an entire day of feasting and drinking before the bride and groom were allowed to enter the marriage tent and begin their marriage by consummating it.
It was a very drunk and happy Jacob who entered the marriage chamber and waited for his Rachel.
And it was a very drunk and happy Jacob who did not realize that his father in law had tricked him and instead of Rachel he sent Leah to Jacob to become his wife.
As horrible a deception as this was, and as angry as Jacob was, it was God who allowed this marriage to take place and Leah who was allowed to become Jacob’s wife. This will be confirmed later in the story, but for now let us continue with what happened after Jacob realized how he had been deceived.
A tragic plot twist
When Jacob woke and realized what had happened, and that he was married to Leah instead of Rachel, he went to Laban and demanded an answer about how and why this had happened! Instead of waking to find his dreams all come true, Jacob had found himself in a nightmare of being married to a woman he had no intention of marrying. Jacob reminded Laban that they had an agreement that he would work in exchange for being allowed to marry Rachel — why had Laban deceived him?
At this moment let us pause to consider the irony of the situation. Jacob purchased the eldest birthright from Esau. Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing intended for the firstborn. Jacob now finds himself married to the woman who would rightfully be married to the firstborn. And all he wants is his second-born right!
With Leah came Zilpah as her maidservant.
Laban now called Jacob out with the fact that what Jacob thought he was agreeing to was never what he was agreeing to because that’s not their custom. The younger was not given in marriage before the older. If he wanted the younger he had to take the older daughter first.
Laban told Jacob to finish the week in the wedding chamber with Leah and then he would allow him to marry Rachel as well . . . if he would agree to work another seven years for him!
Jacob accepted his fate and spent the rest of the week with Leah. The following week he was allowed to marry Rachel.
With Rachel came Bilhah as a maidservant.
Jacob had just arranged to take Rachel on credit and he owed Laban the next seven years of his labor, but he had the woman he loved and there was no doubt that Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved Leah.
God saw Leah and how she was unloved by her husband.
Yes, Jacob had stronger emotions of love for Rachel, but love is an action word and no doubt his attentions were given to Rachel far more than they were given to Leah.
God had mercy on Leah and she began to give birth right away, despite how rarely her husband may have ventured to her tent compared to her sister.
Leah first gave birth to Reuben whose name is given because, “God has discerned my humiliation, for now my husband will love me.”
As a wife and mother this breaks my heart. She was convinced that giving Jacob his firstborn son would cause at least some of his love to turn towards her. Yet this child was conceived in a marriage with little to no love and this pregnancy was endured in a marriage of little to no love.
No doubt Jacob blamed Leah for her part in the deception, and his feelings are understandable. But her lot in life was to be the daughter of a trickster and in honoring him she became the wife of a trickster who blamed her for the deception. We cannot forget her plight in all of this and we are made aware of it by the names of her children as they are born. We can see her struggle to come to terms with her life over the years that she is giving birth, even while her sister, the favorite wife, remains barren. Even having children cannot change the pain of knowing they are the children of a man who doesn’t love you.
Leah’s second son is born and she names him Simeon. She declares that God has heard that she is unloved and has given her a second son. It is not the love of her husband, but it is love and it is the opportunity to mother and raise young ones in the Lord.
The Rabbi’s teach that the Matriarchs were prophetesses who knew that Jacob was to be the father of 12 sons whose tribes would populate Israel. They assumed that these children would come from Leah and Rachel as well as their maidservants because they believed that each of them would only be granted three children.
When her third son is born Leah is sure that her husband will turn his attentions and affections towards her because now she has provided him with three sons and she named him Levi to signify this. Surely he would love her for fulfilling this for him.
He did not.
Her fourth son was a gift of mercy from God, above and beyond the three sons she believed she would provide. She named him Judah because, “This time let me gratefully praise Adonai.”
A note about the name Adonai
Adonai is the word used in translations when the text reveals the name of God as YHVH (Yod Hey Vav Hey). The name YHVH cannot be spoken as it is the sound of breath. There are no vowel markers offered with the name to tell us how to say it and therefore Jewish tradition is not to try (especially because of all of the ways it can be said at least one is a blasphemous word).
Instead, in the text you will find the vowel markers for the word Adonai imposed over the letters YHVH as a reminder to say Adonai instead of trying to pronounce YHVH.
There are many conspiracy theories and strange doctrines that have surfaced over this and many people who insist on saying the letters YHVH with the vowel markers for Adonai and that is how we get names for God like Jehovah and Yahweh. However, these are not what is revealed in the text and I refuse to call on God with the pronunciations of manmade names that are believed to define him.
It is so offensive to the Jewish community to try and say the name of God that many will not even write the o in the word God, rendering it G-d. In the Orthodox and Hassidic communities the name Hashem is substituted for YHVH as Hashem means “the Name.”
Judah’s name is significant because the letters of the name of God, YHVH, are all found in his name along with the root word that means “thankfulness.”
Leah knew that Judah was a gift beyond the three sons she would be expected to bring to Jacob and she realized this was purely a gift from God to her. She was now the mother of 1/3 of Jacob’s expected sons and she knew she had been granted more than her rightful share.
Jewish scholars believe that the Jewish people have come to be called Jews, after the name of Judah, because of the expectation from God that one of their character qualities should always be gratitude to God for all that they are given, because He has given more than a rightful share.
Leah has completed her childbearing
Or so she thought. There’s a lot more to come from Leah, but tomorrow we will dive into the dynamics of this family even more. There really is nothing new under the sun and this story would rival any soap opera on daytime tv today, so be ready.