[I've gotten way behind in posting in this series. But I'm trying to catch up in small bits. Previous installments are linked at the bottom of this one.]
1. Fortified by the revelation of God and of God's plans for him and his descendants, Jacob continues his journey to his family's ancestral home in modern day Iraq. The scene that unfolds in Genesis 29:1-13 is the second case of "love at first sight" recorded in the book. The first incident involved Jacob's father and mother, Isaac and Rebekah.
As Jacob approaches Haran, his uncle Laban's home, he meets a number of shepherds with their flocks, near the town well. The well would have been a large hole in the ground, connected to an underground spring, set in the midst of low-lying land. A large rock covered the hole.
When Jacob asked the shepherds why they hadn't rolled the stone away from the well, they said that they had to wait for all the shepherding families of the community to be represented. There may be two reasons for this: (1) Water is a precious commodity in the Middle East, the subject of ongoing diplomatic discourse to this day. The neighbors may have not trusted one another to refrain from taking a fair share of the water from the well. (2) The stone may have been so heavy that several people would have to move it together. Probably both reasons are in play here.
If the second reason is right--and scholars seem to unanimously agree that it is--then what happens next in the scene is a testimony to Jacob's immediate attraction to Rachel. When she approaches, he singlehandedly moves the stone! We've already seen that Jacob is particularly strong. So this explanation is plausible. When the man is inspired, whether by God or Rachel, he seems able to use his strength to stupendous ends. This is clearly "love at first sight."
Rachel seems as excited to meet Jacob as he is to meet her. She runs to tell her father about it.
[Note: Apparently, there's no problem with people marrying their cousins in this culture. When we read this, we're inclined to say, "Yecccccchhhhh!" But it is what it is, folks.]
2. In Genesis 29:14, Jacob meets his uncle, Laban, and were it not for Rachel, he may have later rued this meeting. In Laban, Jacob has met a schemer as selfish as him.
3. In Genesis 29:14b-27, we read a story of incredible deception. Laban knows how much Jacob loves Rachel. Yet, after Jacob worked the agreed-upon seven years for him as a slave, Laban, sends Rachel's sister Leah to the marriage bed instead of Rachel, his agreed-upon prize.
We moderns read this and wonder how Jacob could have consummated a marriage to Leah and not known that she wasn't the woman he loved. But in those days, brides entered the darkened bridal bed room heavily veiled. It wouldn't have been until sunset that Jacob would know that Laban had tricked him.
Of course, in spite of sympathy we might have for Jacob as we read this story, we might also see a kind of justice at play here. This is Jacob, after all: the guy who leveraged his brother's birthright when Esau was famished for a bowl of soup; the guy who decieved Isaac, his father, the blessing meant for Esau.
Jacob is incensed at what Laban (and Leah) have done to him and he expresses his anger to Laban. About seven years too late, Laban explains that it was the custom in his country that the oldest daughter must be married off first. Jacob is over a barrel and so agrees to work an additional seven years for Rachel's marriage. This isn't the last time we'll see that in Laban's culture, women were regarded as property. Laban viewed his daughters as commodities he can use to get what he wants from Jacob.
Throughout the account of Jacob in Haran, Laban reminds me of Mr. Haney from the old Green Acres sitcom. Haney always seemed to have some ace up his sleeve, some conveniently-overlooked custom, fee, or fact that would require the series' main character, Oliver Wendell Douglas, to fork over more money to him.
Fortunately for Jacob (or perhaps unfortunately), the customs of the day allowed a man to have more than one wife. So, he could be married to both Leah and Rachel.
4. Genesis 29:28-35 shows the strange contest between the two sisters for their husband's affections.
One key to understanding this passage is to remember that in Biblical times, having children was regarded as a particular blessing from God. The lack of children was seen as a curse. Thus, the couple not having children would feel even greater pressure than moderns who find themselves in the same situation.
Leah, often overlooked by her husband and knowing that she isn't first in his affections, relishes that she so easily conceives and gives birth (to sons, the more valued offspring, no less), while her sister Rachel remains barren for a long time.
This is one more example of the suspense that is a common element of Genesis. We're conversant enough with the story of Israel's patriarchs to know that Jacob must become the father Joseph, who will save the people from famine. But if Rachel can't become pregnant, where will Joseph come from?
What we learn in Genesis is that God acts at just the right time to advance His will. What seems impossible to us, God pulls off.
[[Here are links to the previous installments in this series: