15 Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” 16 Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17 Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. 18 Jacob loved Rachel. And he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” 19 Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” 20 So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” 22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast. 23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her. 24 (Laban gave his female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.) 25 And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” 26 Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. 27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” 28 Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. 29 (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.) 30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years. – Genesis 29:15-30 ESV
Jacob had found his bride-to-be, and as he shared the purpose of his quest with Laban, he must have divulged his intention to marry Rachel. But Laban appears to have been reluctant to hand over his daughter to this newcomer, despite the fact that Jacob was his own nephew. So, to buy time, he convinced Jacob to stay with him, a delay that soon extended to a solid month. During that time, Jacob must have made himself useful, and it seems likely that he offered to help with the flocks because Rachel was a shepherdess. What better way to get to win the affections of his future wife than by serving alongside her as she performed her daily duties.
At the end of the month, Laban decided to offer Jacob some form of compensation for his services. In other words, he attempted to make Jacob a permanent employee. And when he asked Jacob what his salary should be, the young man asked for the right to marry his youngest daughter, Rachel. Jacob was so infatuated with her that he agreed to a seven-year labor contract in order to earn the right to marry her. It seems odd, given the fact that Jacob had come in search of a bride, that he had brought no gifts or money to offer as a bride price.
When Abraham’s servant had gone in search of a bride for Isaac, he had carried gifts for the bride and her family. When he met Rebekah, he had given her “a gold ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels” (Genesis 24:22 ESV). And when the servant eventually met Rebekah’s family, he had presented additional gifts.
And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments. – Genesis 24:53 ESV
And it’s interesting to note that the brother referred to in this passage was Laban. He too had been received expensive gifts from Abraham’s servant and these items had been intended to serve as a bride price for Rebekah.
But when Jacob showed up in Haran and shared his desire to marry one of Laban’s daughters, no gifts were given or exchanged. A month later, there had still been no bride price offered by Jacob. So, in order to win the right to marry Laban’s daughter, he offered to spend seven years as Laban’s indentured servant.
All of this begs the question: Had Isaac failed to give Jacob any gifts to present? Or had Jacob squandered them along the way? Perhaps Jacob had decided to keep the treasures for himself in order to fund what he knew would be an extended stay in Mesopotamia. After all, his mother had told him to not return until she sent word that it was safe to do so.
“Get ready and flee to my brother, Laban, in Haran. Stay there with him until your brother cools off. When he calms down and forgets what you have done to him, I will send for you to come back.” – Genesis 27:43-45 NLT
Whatever the case, Jacob was committed to a lengthy stay in Haran. And it seems that Laban was once again hoping for some kind of profitable exchange between himself and the grandson of Abraham. His overly enthusiastic welcome of Jacob would suggest that Laban was expecting another big payday. As head of the house, he stood to gain a substantial bride price for allowing Jacob to wed Rebekah. And, since no gifts had forthcoming, Laban decided to accept Jacob’s terms. But this is where the story gets interesting.
Moses points out that the deceit-prone Jacob actually kept his word.
Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. – Genesis 29:20 ESV
His love for Rachel overpowered any desire he may have had to cut corners or skirt the rules. But his decision to do things the right way would actually end up costing him.
When his seven-year commitment had been fulfilled, Jacob demanded that Laban keep his end of the bargain.
“I have fulfilled my agreement,” Jacob said to Laban. “Now give me my wife so I can sleep with her.” – Genesis 29:21 NLT
You can almost sense Jacob’s impatience as he rather crassly demands the right to consummate his marriage to Rachel. This almost leaves the impression that Jacob and Rachel had been betrothed the entire seven years, and everyone would have known that Laban had agreed to the arrangement. So, this makes what Laban does next especially evil.
Having agreed to the betrothal and marriage, Laban decided to take advantage of Jacob’s unbridled enthusiasm in order to accomplish another pressing matter. It seems that Leah, Rachel’s older sister, remained unmarried. The text states that “Leah’s eyes were weak” (Genesis 29:17 ESV). The Hebrew word is רַךְ (raḵ) and it can be translated as “tender,” “delicate,” or “weak.” Given the fact that Leah’s eyes are being compared to Rachel’s outward beauty (Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance), it would appear that Leah suffered from some kind of eye condition. Perhaps she was partially blind or had some other ocular ailment.
But as a father, Laban would have felt a special responsibility to find a suitable husband for his firstborn daughter. The day would come when he could no longer care for her, so it was essential that he provide her with a man to provide for and protect her after he was gone. This led Laban to do the unthinkable.
After throwing a feast for the newlyweds and, most likely, after ensuring that Jacob was highly inebriated, Laban snuck Leah into the bridal tent in place of Rachel. This time, the firstborn pretended to be the youngest. In the same way that Rebekah helped Jacob to deceive Isaac, Laban assisted Leah in her deception of Jacob. Overcome by the effects of the alcohol and due to the darkness of the tent, Jacob never realized that he had slept with the wrong woman – until the sun came up.
…in the morning, behold, it was Leah! – Genesis 29:25 ESV
What a shock that must have been. And it’s amazing to consider that Leah went along with it all. She willingly participated in the deception, not seeming to consider how her actions would impact her own sister. And the righteous indignation of Jacob, while justified, is still somewhat comical.
“What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” – Genesis 29:25 ESV
How hypocritical these words sound coming from the mouth of Jacob. The deceiver has just been deceived and he can’t believe it. How dare someone take advantage of him? But Jacob had it coming.
In response to Jacob’s anger, Laban provided a rather lame explanation having to do with local social customs. It was not proper to marry off the younger daughter ahead of her older sister. But this excuse doesn’t explain why Laban failed to disclose this rather important detail before he had made the agreement with Jacob. He had withheld it on purpose, having already decided to use Jacob’s love for Rachel as the pretext for marrying off his less-attractive daughter. In a sense, Laban killed two birds with one stone. And then he had the audacity to suggest that Jacob’s seven years of service would be counted as payment for his marriage to Leah. Another seven-year contract would be required if Jacob wanted Rachel as well.
One can only imagine the look on Jacob’s face as he heard these words come out of Laban’s mouth. He must have been beside himself with rage and frustration. But he was not in a position to declare his rights or negotiate a better deal. If he wanted Rachel, he was going to have to swallow his pride and agree to Laban’s less-than-generous terms. And that’s exactly what he did. After a week of honoring his conjugal responsibilities to Leah, Jacob was allowed to marry Rachel as well. But he would spend the next seven years of his life paying off his debt. Suddenly, his one-month stay in Haran had turned into 14 years of forced labor. The man who had cheated his own brother out of his birthright and blessing had been taken to the cleaners by his future father-in-law.
But as has become evident all throughout this story, God was operating behind the scene on this occasion as well. Despite the despicable actions of Laban, God had a purpose behind Jacob’s unplanned marriage to Leah. Due to her physical infirmity, she was the unwanted daughter whom no man desired for a wife. But it would be through Leah that the family tree of Jesus would come. This weak-eyed, undesirable woman would become the one through whom God’s plan for the Messiah of Israel would be fulfilled. Jacob loved Rachel. But God had a special love for Leah that would produce the greatest expression of divine affection the world has ever seen.
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.