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Leah and Rachel: Builders of Israel
When the Moabitess Ruth married Boaz, she needed a role model—an example of a true Israelite woman to follow. She was pointed in the direction of two in the most unique way.

As a near relative, and according to the legal custom of the day, Boaz acquired the property of Elimelech, Chilion and Mahlon, which included Ruth, Mahlon’s widow. The elders and people in attendance at the transaction, acknowledging the impending wedding of Boaz to the young alien widow, said: “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11; Revised Standard Version).

What an honorable statement to make about Jacob’s wives, two women who helped build up the house of Israel. Ruth’s path was laid out before her: She was to build up the house of Israel just like Rachel and Leah. She did so by giving birth to Obed, the grandfather of David. Ruth is remembered forever for her devotion to God and Israel. Her great-grandson David is destined to rule over the 12 tribes of Israel forever. Jesus Christ, her greatest descendant, will rule from David’s throne forever (Luke 1:31-33).

We need to recognize the noble respect that God gives unto Leah and Rachel—both mothers of Israel. Leah gave birth to Judah, keeper of the awesome scepter promises. Rachel gave birth to Joseph, carrier of the extraordinary rich material wealth of the birthright promise. Together with their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah, they gave birth to the 12 princes of Israel—the progenitors of the 12 tribes. Like their predecessor Sarah and their aunt Rebekah, they became the mothers of millions. Their extremely short Bible chronicle is glorious, tragic and wonderful—full of lessons for generations.

Journey For A Bride

Let’s remember that Isaac, the one man God was working with at that time, sent his son Jacob to Rebekah’s father, Bethuel, to find a wife (Genesis 28:2). Isaac had no idea that his son was fleeing from his brother. In Isaac’s mind, Jacob’s journey was similar to that of Abraham’s trusted servant at the time of the search for his own wife, Rebekah. Yet God shows us that there were some striking differences.

Abraham’s servant found Rebekah as the direct result of heartfelt prayer (Genesis 24:12-15). God’s invisible hand brought Rebekah to Eliezer. However, Rachel was pointed out to Jacob by shepherds at a well. They told Jacob, “[B]ehold, Rachel his daughter cometh with the sheep” (Genesis 29:6). This is a huge difference. What is God telling us? Could it be God is showing us that Jacob was still very green in his reliance on God, making him vulnerable spiritually?

God gives us no indication that Jacob was praying about a wife. This doesn’t mean he didn’t pray, but what is not said in the Bible is often very telling!

The Bible introduces Rachel in the same manner it does Rebekah. As Jacob talks to the shepherds at the well, he sees her for the first time. “And while he yet spake with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep: for she kept them” (verse 9). The scene is full of pastoral beauty—a vibrant young virgin leading a flock of tender sheep. This is beautiful Bible imagery—peaceful and stirring.

Typical of many young women of her day, Rachel helped her father by tending his sheep. At this time of intense stress for Jacob, nothing could have been more appealing to him, a shepherd himself. He was undone by the beauty of it all. Suddenly he was filled with uncanny strength. “And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother” (verse 10). The weary traveler rolled back a rock that may have required several men to do. Jacob then watered Laban’s sheep. This is a radical departure from what happened with Rebekah. Remember, she watered Eliezer’s camels—a sign that she was to be Isaac’s wife. The event here could be more prophetic of Jacob’s future relationship with Laban—that he would become Laban’s servant—rather than an indication from God that Rachel was selected as Jacob’s wife. On a positive note, we can look at Jacob’s service to Laban’s flock and Rachel as an indication of his willingness to serve others. Overall, it is clear that God wanted Jacob to find Rebekah’s family.

The People of the East

Very emotional, Jacob then kissed his cousin and wept out loud (Genesis 29:11). Only after this startling greeting does he tell Rachel that he is Rebekah’s son. Lange’s Commentary assures us that Jacob’s kiss is that between cousins and not lovers. Still, Rachel must have been a little shocked. Like her aunt Rebekah, she ran and told her father about Jacob. Laban ran to meet his nephew. What did he find? Another huge difference. When Laban met Eliezer, there were 10 camels filled with wealth (Genesis 24:10). Meeting Jacob, that was it—Jacob! A difficult and grimy two-week journey on foot, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a staff, would have made Jacob a smelly sight. Laban had to wonder, “What is going on here?”

Jacob fully explained the whole reason for his rapid, unaccompanied departure from Beersheba. Understanding the details of Jacob’s difficulties, Laban invited his nephew to stay with him. Homeless and destitute, Jacob stayed a whole month (Genesis 29:13-14). Unfortunately, real trouble was about to begin for Laban’s nephew. Here is why.

Moses tells us: “Then Jacob went on his journey, and came into the land of the people of the east” (verse 1). The expression “the land of the people of the east” is a weird way to describe the people of Padanaram in Mesopotamia. The ESV Study Bible suggests, “In Genesis, however, the ‘east’ is often associated with those who are expelled or move away from God’s presence (Genesis 3:23-24; 4:16; 21:14; 25:6). This brief comment possibly signals that Jacob’s relatives do not worship [God].” This is an interesting point when we consider what happens in Jacob’s life over the next 20 years. Remember, Abraham demanded that Isaac not travel to idolatry-laden Mesopotamia (Genesis 24:4-9). Surely Isaac also wanted to protect his son from the sinful pitfalls associated with idolatry. Yet, because of his own sinful nature and actions, Jacob was forced to flee east.

The towering lesson for us is that God allowed Jacob to live among people that were just like himself—far removed from God. The events we witness next in Jacob’s account are the tragic fruits of carnal people attempting to work out huge problems without God’s help and intervention. It is a lesson for us to live differently. We desperately need God to guide and direct us daily. We must rely on God to work out our problems. If we don’t keep God at the forefront of our lives—the result of an active prayer life—we create problems that could last generations. This is Jacob’s legacy.

Two Beautiful Daughters

It didn’t take the wily Laban long to sum up Jacob’s situation and work it to his own advantage. He had 30 days to think things out. For one month, Jacob proved himself to be a very competent shepherd. Taking care of Laban’s sheep put him in close proximity to Rachel. Laban surely became aware that Jacob was falling for his daughter. When no word came from Rebekah encouraging Jacob to return to Canaan, Laban made his move. “Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’” (Genesis 29:15; English Standard Version). We must see the crafty manipulation behind Laban’s question.

Not only was Jacob spiritually weak, he was destitute. All of his wealth was left behind in Beersheba. Because of his fear of Esau, he was unlikely to return home to retrieve it. Laban recognized this fact and coupled it with Jacob’s romantic interests in Rachel. At best, he could get Jacob to remain working for him for a while.

Moses gives us insight into Jacob’s thinking at the time. “And Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured. And Jacob loved Rachel …” (verses 16-18). These are important verses to understand. In fact, they lay the groundwork for the rest of the story.

Many have interpreted these verses to mean that Leah was less beautiful than Rachel. Many have imagined that if Leah were living in our time, she would look a little nerdy, probably in need of thick-lensed eyeglasses. That actually may not be the case. When we study verse 17 more closely we see that Moses is making a comparison of the two women’s eyes—not necessarily their entire appearance. The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary suggests that the description of Leah as tender eyed could mean that she had soft blue eyes, which was “thought a blemish.” Lange’s Commentary states: “To the oriental, but especially to the Arabian, black eyes, full of life and fire, clear and expressive, dark eyes, are considered the principal part of female beauty.” Rachel likely had black eyes full of life and fire, which made her more appealing to the men of her day. Leah would have been less desirable because she had lighter-colored eyes, yet in reality she was still a very beautiful woman. Moses’s short statement actually communicates this fact, yet it can be missed with careless reading. Discussing verse 17, Lange’s Commentary remarks, “Thus the passage indirectly says that Leah’s form was beautiful.”

From these two daughters, Jacob made his choice. He loved Rachel and wanted her to be his wife.

High-Priced Wife

“I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (Genesis 29:18; esv). Laban had to have been shocked, but very pleased with Jacob’s offer. He would benefit from Jacob’s proven experience with little out-of-pocket expense. Laban quickly agreed and essentially sold off his daughter (verse 19). In essence, Jacob’s offer of service to Laban was a marriage proposal. As we saw with Rebekah’s history, it was customary at that time to give wealthy gifts to the bride’s family at the time of a proposal. These gifts were known as the “bride-price.” Since Jacob could not offer 10 camels weighted with wealth, he committed to seven years of labor for the oriental beauty. Lange’s shows that this was a common custom. Men without wealth worked off the payment of the bride-price. Jacob valued Rachel so highly that he was willing to pay seven years’ wages for her. That is truly amazing!

Jacob was so in love with Rachel that the seven years seemed like just a few days (verse 20). He and Rachel had plenty of time to get to know each other. Clearly, one of Jacob’s strengths was patience. Some today can hardly wait seven months or even seven weeks before rushing into marriage. Patience certainly is a virtue we all need (2 Peter 1:6). Of course, Jacob’s love and desire for Rachel to be his wife matured over time.

We must not overlook the fact that Jacob also had the same amount of time to get to know Leah. Similarly, the sisters had ample time to get to know Jacob. One thing that we are not told in the Bible is how Rachel felt about Jacob. Did she love him as ardently as he loved her?

The deceit

When the seven years ended, Jacob demanded his wife. Laban, appearing to honor his contract with Jacob, held the customary wedding feast, which normally lasted one week. We all know the story well. On an evening near the beginning of the feast, when it was time to give Jacob his bride, Laban substituted Leah for Rachel. Jacob consummated the marriage, yet did not discover that his new bride was Leah until the morning (Genesis 29:23-25). Who does not wonder how this could have happened? Josephus suggests that Jacob was drunk with feasting. This may be true, yet it seems that a man waiting seven years for a wife would be more careful in preparation for his wedding night. However, there may be another explanation.

God does not reveal how Laban successfully substituted Leah for Rachel. However, we can safely surmise that Leah and Rachel were not opposed to the switch. They were a party to Laban’s deceit. The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia does offer an interesting solution to the question. Referring to Rabbinic tradition, the encyclopedia suggests that Rachel and Leah were twins. Of course, the Bible does not say they were twin sisters. So we really do not know. However, being twins is not outside the realm of possibility. Remember, Laban’s sister Rebekah was the mother of twin boys—Esau and Jacob. It is possible that Laban’s wife also gave birth to twin girls.

If they were twins, Leah would have been born first and Rachel second, making Leah the older daughter and Rachel the younger. If twins, Leah and Rachel would not have to be identical to look very similar. Many sisters even sound alike. Because of what the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary suggests, the only striking difference between the two women may have been their eye color. The sisters could have been of similar height and build. Leah was most likely fully veiled when brought to Jacob in the evening, and even once unveiled, it would be extremely difficult to detect Leah’s lighter eye color in darkness. If Jacob did have a little too much to drink, the switch may have been very easy to pull off.

What do we know for sure here? For whatever reason, Jacob did not notice he had been deceived until the morning (Genesis 29:25). He was husband in a consummated marriage with a wife not of his choosing! The supplanter had been supplanted.

God Favors Leah

We must see that Jacob was put into an intensely trying situation. Study carefully how he handled the trial. What would you do? When confronted about the horrendous fraud he foisted on his son-in-law, Laban coughed up a lame excuse that custom in Padanaram required the older daughter to be married before the younger. Yet, he had a simple solution for his incensed son-in-law. If Jacob finished Leah’s wedding feast week (most likely to ensure a conception), he would give him Rachel at the end of the week—to be a second wife. “And Jacob did so …” (verse 28).

These four words tell us a lot. We should ask, why did Jacob cave in so quickly to Laban’s plan? What he agreed to was a direct violation of God’s law. Christ instructed the Jews of His day that from the very beginning of man’s creation, God intended for men to have only one living wife (Matthew 19:3-9). Because of Abraham’s intense loyalty to God’s way of life and his own mistakes with Hagar, Jacob would have been instructed well in the sinful pitfalls of multiple wives (and concubines) (Genesis 18:19). His own parents were strictly monogamous. Jacob would have been fully aware of their upset over Esau’s polygamy (Genesis 26:34-35). The bottom line is, Jacob knew God’s law.

When he discovered the switch, Jacob had the opportunity to declare the marriage a fraud and be released from Leah. However, Laban was a master wrestler. He knew how much Jacob loved Rachel. The cruel conniver suspected Jacob could not stand to live without her. Jacob believed the veracity of Laban’s “marriage custom” trick. Emotionally shaken, he must have feared losing Rachel if he rejected Leah as a fraud. With one hasty decision, within eight days, Jacob allowed himself to be trapped in a polygamous marriage that created catastrophic problems—written into the histories of generations.

“So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years” (Genesis 29:30; esv). Even though the Bible does not call out Jacob’s sin here, we do know how God felt about the whole situation. “And when the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren” (verse 31). Leah was Jacob’s only legal wife. When God saw that she was loved less than Rachel, He took action and allowed Leah to give Jacob sons. Sadly for Leah, they were not births of joy.

To be continued…