When we left Jacob yesterday he was running away for fear that his twin brother would kill him if he didn’t get out of there. He had tricked his father and received his brother’s blessing. His mother was wise enough to adapt the plan to involve an escape option. He would be sent to her brother to find a wife.
When he stopped to sleep for the first night he had a dream and he saw God standing over him. God told him that because of his covenant with Abraham and with Isaac he was going to do the things with Jacob that needed to be done. What was clearly missing from what God said was any mention of a covenant relationship with Jacob. This is confirmed when Jacob promises God that if God does all the things he is saying he will do then God would be his God too. This is a very important part of the story so I want to make sure we revisit it, and I want to make sure that we keep this relationship in mind in the things that Jacob does while working for Laban.
Jacob meets his uncle
Jacob headed East, to Abraham’s ancestral home, and found himself at a well in a field. Wells have strong significance in Hebrew stories. It’s where Eliezer found Rebecca for Isaac, where Moses will meet Zipporah, and eventually where Jesus will meet the woman at the well and disclose to her all of the things about her life that are kept hidden deep inside her. Wells represent hidden wisdom — just as the water in a well is below the ground. Yet the water is accessible to those who understand how vital it is to life and are willing to put in the effort it takes to unearth it. Women are also a symbol of wisdom (see Proverbs 14:1) and the two symbols of wisdom are often brought together.
Jacob found sheep and the shepherds caring for them at the well. He found out they were from Haran and knew his uncle Laban. They assured him Laban was well and pointed out his daughter Rachel who was coming to the well with her father’s sheep. Jacob tried to get the men to water their sheep and head out to graze them but they insisted they had to wait for all of the flocks to be gathered before they could roll back the stone from the well. When Rachel arrived and Jacob saw her he jumped to roll back the stone from the water and watered her sheep.
The description of this act includes three mentions of the sheep belonging to “Laban his mother’s brother.” There is some debate about why this is referenced three times. Some suggest that it reveals everything Jacob did was in honor of his mother. Others suggest it was made clear to those present so that when he kissed Rachel they would already know his intentions. These are suggestions from men. I’m not a man and the thing I see lacking in these thoughts is any reference to Rachel, or the fact that the story doesn’t say he spoke this three times. It is not part of his speech, it is for the reader to give us insight into Jacob and what he was thinking.
Jacob was sent to find a bride from his mother’s family. Jacob was on his way to his uncle Laban’s house. At the symbolic site for wisdom hidden below the surface he meets a beautiful symbol for wisdom (woman) and learns she was in fact his mother’s brother’s daughter. Jacob realized he has hit the jackpot! “THIS is the woman for me!” And he kissed her, then raised his voice and wept.
Only now does Rachel learn that this man who had kissed her at the well was her father’s relative. I believe this young woman who was old enough to tend to sheep on her own, and who had not found a husband, understood that this man who had kissed her was suitable to marry and she did not waste a second before telling her father. She ran to tell him.
When Laban heard that Jacob was there he ran out to greet him. He embraced him and kissed him. He insisted he come home for dinner and over dinner Jacob shared his story. He told of all that had transpired to bring him to where he was sitting at their table for dinner.
What’s under the surface?
The rabbinic commentary for the story up to this point delves into some wonderful and intriguing ideas based on the character of the people in the story. I ‘d like to share a bit of that now as learning about this commentary helped me flesh out the characters and the story far beyond what I’d encountered before.
We talked yesterday about how Jacob, in a family tradition shared by Isaac and Esau, was a master at wordplay. He knew how to walk the line between a lie and trickery. We discussed how this goes back to Abraham and how he attempted to get around the issue of Sarah being so desirable that he might in fact die if certain leaders knew she was his wife. She was related to him by blood and this was not an outright lie, but it was also not the full truth and the words were parsed in Abraham’s favor. Even Rebecca knows how the game works and is behind Jacob wearing goat skins to trick Isaac into thinking he was their oldest, Esau.
Keeping that in mind, when we look at the story of Jacob at the well we can begin to see wordplay already at work in the story. Did he ask how Laban was because he was genuinely concerned? Or because he wanted to get some information about him that might help him as he went into this attempt to negotiate for a bride? No one would be able to accuse him of anything questionable from the simple act of asking about the condition of his uncle. He hasn’t done anything “wrong.” Yet there are some people for whom information is a commodity.
What of the Arameans he encountered? They have to wait for everyone to be present to roll the rock away from the well and water the sheep. Is that because the rock is too heavy for only one or two people to roll it away? Is this an effort to keep anyone from stealing their precious water and leaving their well dry? If so, then Jacob’s ability to roll it away becomes miraculous and super hero like. Or is this a practice that has begun because none of the locals trust each other and they have made an agreement to wait until everyone is there so that all of the sheep are watered together and they can all keep an eye on each other? Are they trying to make sure no one takes more than their “fair share” and monitoring each other’s activities here?
And why did Laban run to him? Was it because he was family? Or might Laban have been excited at the wealth that someone coming from that side of the family must be bringing? Eliezer, a mere servant, came to get a bride for Isaac with ten camels carrying serious wealth (see Genesis 24:10). Laban was there. He remembers. Did he hug him out of familial love? Or was he surprised to find no outward signs of wealth and decided there was need for a pat down to see if wealth might be hiding in some secret pocket? This might explain why, after hearing Jacob’s story, he responded with, “Nevertheless, you are my flesh and blood!” and allowed Jacob to stay with them for a month. That ‘nevertheless’ makes a lot more sense if it is expressing the disappointment of his nephew having come to get a bride empty handed. Out of obligation he would allow him to stay.
I would also like to suggest that this acknowledgement that Jacob is Laban’s flesh and blood is issued as a challenge as well. The story Jacob had told him involved an incredible amount of trickery, deception, intrigue. Laban heard this story and realized this kid was a chip off the old block. He had encountered an opponent that it would be enjoyable to beat.
Jacob strikes a deal with Laban
After Jacob has stayed with Laban a month, Laban introduced the idea of him staying and working for him. He asked what it would take for Jacob to enter that arrangement. Jacob offered to work for seven years in exchange for the opportunity to marry Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter. He didn’t want money, he wanted the young woman he loved. Laban agreed.
There is a lot to unpack in that agreement, and in what follows, that we will talk about tomorrow. This story has no shortage of excitement and intrigue and introducing these new characters will blow the story open in a whole new direction. I hope you’ll join us.