Genesis (Part 128)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 29: 21-30

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.


Laban pulls the ole switcheroo on Jacob. It’s almost the plot of a bad comedy. Man has big party. Perhaps drinks too much. Wakes up with a woman he did not expect to wake up with. Here, when Jacob learns he has been deceived, Laban explains why. However, rather than allow their situation to become too rocky, he agrees to give Rachel to Jacob, right away, but also under the condition that Jacob work for him another seven years.

We do not know this from the text, but it may be that Jacob is in no hurry to return home to face Esau. Perhaps the terms of this arrangement give him a plausible reason to stay away.

Looking at this story more closely, we can start in verse 21 with The Pulpit Commentaries:

And Jacob said unto Laban (who, though the term of servitude had expired, appeared to be in no haste to implement his part of the bargain), Give me my wife (i.e. my affianced wife, as in Deuteronomy 22:23Deuteronomy 22:24Matthew 1:20), for my days are fulfilled (i.e. my term of service is completed), that I may go in unto herquo significant intactam adhuc esse virginem (Calvin); a proof that Jacob’s love was pure and true.

give = יָהַב yâhab, yaw-hab’; a primitive root; to give (whether literal or figurative); generally, to put; imperatively (reflexive) come:—ascribe, bring, come on, give, go, set, take.

my wife = אִשָּׁה ʼishshâh, ish-shaw’; feminine of H376 or H582; irregular plural, נָשִׁים nâshîym;(used in the same wide sense as H582) a woman:—(adulter) ess, each, every, female, × many, none, one, together, wife, woman. Often unexpressed in English.

The term of service ends, and Jacob goes to Laban and insists that he “give [me] my wife/woman.” He wishes to consummate the marriage.

Laban agrees and they have a marriage feast. From The Pulpit Commentaries at verse 22:

And Laban (unable to evade or delay the fulfillment of his agreement with Jacob) gathered together all the men of the place (not the entire population, but the principal inhabitants), and made a feast—a “mishteh, or drinking (cf. Genesis 19:3), i.e. a wedding banquet (cf. bride-ale—bridal), which commonly lasted seven days (Judges 14:10; Tobit 11:18), though it appears to have varied according to the circumstances of the bridegroom.

feast = מִשְׁתֶּה mishteh, mish-teh’; from H8354; drink, by implication, drinking (the act); also (by implication) a banquet or (generally) feast:—banquet, drank, drink, feast((-ed), -ing).

The definition of the word implies a drinking element to this activity. Combined with the context of the text, I think it might be fair to assume that Laban arranged for Jacob to become quite intoxicated. And then in verse 23, we have the now well-known deception that features Leah. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(23)He took Leah his daughter.—As the bride is taken to the bridegroom’s house closely veiled (see Note on Genesis 24:65), and as probably there was some similarity in voice and form between the two sisters, this deception was quite easy. But Leah must have been a party to the fraud, and therefore Jacob’s dislike of her was not altogether without reason.

The note makes the point that Leah was a party to the deception and thus she may have therefore earned some of her dislike from Jacob. That may be true.. However, it is worth remembering that Leah was disliked by Jacob before the ruse and also that she may not have even had a choice with respect to her participation. Rachel – beloved of Jacob – almost certainly also participated (willingly or not.) Continuing to verse 24 with The Pulpit Commentaries:

And it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him. The deception practiced on Jacob was rendered possible by the fact that the bride was usually conducted into the marriage chamber veiled; the veil being so long and close as to conceal not only the face, but much of the person (vide Genesis 14:1-24:65). And he went in unto her. The conduct of Laban is perfectly intelligible as the outcome of his sordid avarice; but it is difficult to understand how Leah could acquiesce in a proposal so base as to wrong her sister by marrying one who neither sought nor loved her. She must herself have been attached to Jacob; and it is probable that Laban had explained to her his plan for bringing about a double wedding.

The Commentary again seems to align Leah with the scheme without really considering whether she actually had the choice to decline participation. That said, if we are going to consider that Leah is a party to this scheme, is it not also possible that Rachel is as well? We have no indication that she was not.

In verse 26, Jacob has asked Laban about the deception. He is told by Laban that it is the practice in their country to marry the elder daughters first. From Ellicott:

(26) It must not be so done in our country.—Heb., It is not so done in our place, to give, &c. We have seen that it is still customary for the elder cousin to take the elder daughter, and the younger the younger. But Laban affirms that if the elder daughter be not claimed, it was the rule in Haran for her to take precedence over her sisters. In India the practice is such as Laban describes, but we have no proof of the existence of any such custom among the Bedaween. Apparently Leah loved Jacob (Genesis 30:15), and Laban wanted a continuance of his service, and so this unscrupulous plot was arranged between them upon a pretext which, if not false, was yet overstrained. Jacob plainly had no idea of such a custom, and would not have given seven years’ service for Leah.

It may actually be true that this was the practice and if so, perhaps Jacob should have done a negotiation that was a bit more thorough or shrewd. It is the habit I think of a modern reader to take the side of the protagonist in interpreting the events of the story. However, it may be that Jacob’s offer for Rachel was problematic from the outset and that he should have known from the outset. As Laban is subsequently something of a villain in the text we interpret this event from Jacob’s perspective as well. That might not be the right way to do it. We already know that when he negotiated for Rachel, his eventual second wife was still a child. Leah may not have been. The text does not give us the motivations of anyone other than Jacob. Perhaps young Rachel preferred that her older sister come with her in this marriage to a much older foreign man (foreign to her, even if he is a relative.)

Continuing at verse 27 with Ellicott:

(27) Fulfil her week.—The marriage festival seems to have lasted a week, as was the custom in later times (Judges 14:12), and. to have forsaken Leah during this period would have been to offer her an insult which her brothers must have avenged. Appeased, therefore, by the promise of Rachel as soon as the seven days are over, Jacob, rather than quarrel with the whole family, submits to the wrong. The Hebrew is remarkable, “Fulfil the week of this, and we will give to thee also the this for the service.” But in Hebrew this . . . this means the one and the other (Genesis 31:38Genesis 31:41), and it is a mistake to suppose that the language will allow the first this to be understood of any one but Leah, and the second this of any one but Rachel.

At the end of the marriage feast for Leah, Laan tells Jacob that he can also marry Rachel – on the condition that he search seven more years after he marries Rachel as her bride price. Jacob agrees.

In verse 30, we see that Jacob consummates his second marriage. One supposes that polygamy is quite complicated on its own but polygamy when the brides are sisters is perhaps more so. Add to that the context of how the polygamy occurs and that Jacob overtly prefers one sister to the other? Quite difficult indeed. The text that follows in Genesis seems to bear that out. From The Pulpti Commentaries on verse 30:

And he went in also unto Rachel, and he loved also Rachel more than Leah (implying, however, that Leah had a place in his affections), and served with him yet seven other years. The seven years cunningly exacted for Leah was thus the second fraud practiced upon Jacob (Genesis 30:26Genesis 31:41Hosea 12:12).

This section draws our focus to marriage in the ancient near east. For more on that, I direct your attention to an article by Dr. Kristine Henriksen Garroway (HERE) at with a snippet below. I highly encourage reading the entire article:

Marriage Contracts in the Ancient Near East

In addition to the bride-price, ancient Near Eastern documents also mention a marriage contract. For example, the Laws of Eshnunna, dating to the 20th century B.C.E., states (⸹28):

“If … he arranged for a marriage contract and libation (symbolic action)[7] with her father and mother and took her, she is a wife; the day she is caught with (another) man she shall die; she shall not live.”[8]

Similarly, the 18th century Laws of Hammurabi state (⸹128):

If a man took a wife and did not arrange for her marriage contract, that woman is not a wife.

The word used for “marriage contract” in both cases is riksātum. Martha Roth translates this as “formal contract,” highlighting the legal nature of the agreement.[9] Contracts were not always written documents; most times they were oral agreements, such as we see between Jacob and Laban.[10]

The terms of the contract included the dowry (Akkadian tirḫatum), from the father to the husband, and the marriage gifts (Akk. biblum), from the husband to the bride’s family.[11] This latter parallels the biblical mohar, and was generally composed of movable objects, such as: household items, furniture, clothing, textiles, silver, jewelry, handmaids, and sometimes land.[12] In Old Babylonian texts, the presentation of the marriage gifts, either by the groom or a proxy for the groom, often occurs concurrently with the recitation of the verba solemnia by which the marriage contract is made.[13]

Later, Judaism developed its own version of the marriage contract, called the ketubah, focused on the husband’s financial obligations to the wife (like the ancient Near Eastern tirḫatum), but in the Bible, we only hear of the bride-price payment by the suitor.

The Betrothal and Terms

When a girl’s father agreed to a union between a suiter and his daughter, the suiter often did not have the bride-price handy. This may be one reason for the betrothal period, what the rabbis call ʾerusin [14](from the root א.ר.שׂ). The girl’s betrothal to the man made her unavailable to other men, but she still lived with her father until the man paid the bride-price.

Another reason for the betrothal period is that the marriage agreement was often concluded when the girl was still a minor (i.e., pre-puberty), which was considered to be too early for marriage in ancient Near Eastern cultures.[15] The deal would be concluded and the girl betrothed, but she would not enter the husband’s house and the marriage bed until she reached an appropriate age.[16]

Thus, the time between betrothal and consummation of the marriage could be quite long. For example, this Old Babylonian Contract (YOS 8 51) speaks of a five- to ten-year betrothal:

Ellum has distrained (received as a debt-pledge)[17] Tabbi-Ištar, daughter of Dašuratum. Concerning Tabbi-Ištar, daughter of Dašuratum: he [Ellum] had sworn an oath at the gate of “the Great Goddess,” not to approach her and not to take her. Dašuratum swore an oath by King Rim-Sin: “For five or ten years I shall look after/preserve my daughter for Ellum, for marriage I shall give [her] to him.”[18]

This contract helps us understand Jacob’s deal with Laban. He wishes to marry Rachel, but he has no land or money to speak of; he is a guest in Laban’s house. Marriage is not free, so he offers his own labor as the bride-price (mohar/tirḫatum). While the text makes no mention of his being betrothed first,[19] Jacob’s need to wait until the bride-price is paid in full in order to marry Rachel fits with biblical and ancient Near Eastern practice.

It is almost easy to skip past the two parenthetical verses which mention Laban giving each of his daughters a servant. However, those two female servants become mothers of future tribes of Israel. From by Leibel Gniwisch – “Who Were Bilhah and Zilpah?” Again, this is just a snippet below and I encourage following the link to read the entire article

The twelve tribes of Israel were conceived by four women. Two of them, Rachel and Leah, are lionized in history as the matriarchs of our people. They are so well known that in the list of the most popular American girls’ names, Rachel and Leah rank 235 and 61 respectively.1 Lesser known are the other two, Bilhah and Zilpah, mothers to Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.2 Bilhah and Zilpah were originally Rachel and Leah’s handmaids, but when Rachel and Leah struggled to conceive, they proposed that Jacob marry and have children with their handmaids.

Who Were They, Anyway?

In Biblical times, men often had many wives. Sometimes, the wives were of different social castes and would retain that social status after marriage. The woman of the higher caste was considered the man’s primary wife and her children received preferential treatment. When a man married into the slave’s caste, on the other hand, the children of their union usually remained slaves. Social anthropologists have coined a rarely used term to describe the practice of a man marrying women from both higher and inferior castes: polycoity.

Our tradition tells us that Laban also had (at least3) two wives.4 Most traditions5 assert that Laban’s second, inferior wife was a concubine, while others6 posit that she was actually his maidservant. Leah and Rachel were sisters born of Laban’s primary wife, and Bilhah and Zilpah were daughters of his second wife, making Bilhah and Zilpah the half-sisters of Rachel and Leah. Before they married, Laban gifted Bilhah and Zilpah to Leah and Rachel as handmaidens (in Hebrew amah or shifchah).7

Bilhah means “to become alarmed” (lehibahel). Bilhah was named so because of her stunning beauty.8 Zilpah means “to flow” (lezalef). This name proved to be prophetic, as when Zilpah was told—as a young girl—that she was destined to join Leah in her marriage to the evil Esau,9 tears would flow down her face.10

The Rebbe explains that the patriarchs agreed to observe the Torah not as an obligation (like it became after the Torah was given) but as a self-imposed stringency. The Seven Noahide Laws and other accepted moral practices, however, were absolutely binding. As such, when faced with competing values, an accepted moral precept would trump their non-binding acceptance of the Torah’s prohibitions. In our case, Jacob promised Rachel he would marry her.45 Keeping one’s promise was an accepted moral law at the time,46 so even after he married Leah he would have to fulfill his promise to Rachel despite the Torah’s prohibition against doing so.47

This explanation does not justify his marriage to Bilhah and Zilpah, however, to whom no promises were made. In a long and complex legal treatise, the Rebbe argues, a) that Bilhah’s and Zilpah’s mother was a maidservant according to Rashi,48 and b) that the children of a maidservant do not have the legal status of siblings.49 Therefore, Jacob did not violate a Torah prohibition by marrying them.

On a final note, while little has been recorded about these two great women, Bilhah and Zilpah, that which we do have paints a portrait of devotion, piety and goodness, traits they undoubtedly passed on to their children.

In the next section of verses, we will see children born to Jacob and his wives and the Lord intervening directly as to which woman has children and how many.

2 thoughts on “Genesis (Part 128)

Leave a Reply