Apparently like a man infused with new life on account having received God’s blessing in a dream, Jacob “lifted up his feet” and proceeded on his journey, arriving in the land of the sons [or people] of the East (Mesopotamia). After “east,” the Septuagint adds, “to Laban the son of Bathouel [Bethuel] the Syrian, but brother of Rebekkas [Rebekah], mother of Jacob and Esau.” The wording of the Hebrew text suggests that the long journey seemingly appeared to Jacob as if it had been shortened so that he just lifted up his feet and then arrived at his destination. (29:1) In Targum Neofiti this is expressed literally as a miracle. “When our father [or forefather] raised his feet to go to Haran the earth shrank before him and he was found in Haran in a short hour.” Targum Jonathan and the Jerusalem Targum basically convey the same thought.
In a field near Haran, Jacob saw three flocks of sheep lying beside a well that was covered with a large stone. Customarily, once all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled away and the animals would be watered. Afterward the stone would be rolled back over the top of the well. (29:2, 3)
Jacob addressed the shepherds with the three flocks as “my brothers” and asked them from where they came. They happened to be from Haran and, therefore, Jacob inquired whether they knew “Laban the son [grandson] of Nahor.” They did know him. In response to Jacob’s asking about the welfare (“shalom” or peace) of Laban, they said, “Shalom” (peace or all is well), and informed him that his daughter Rachel was coming with his sheep. (29:4-6) According to Targum Jonathan, a plague from God had reduced the number of Laban’s sheep, leading to his dismissing the shepherds in his service and entrusting the greatly diminished remaining part of the flock to the care of Rachel.
It was then still broad daylight (literally, “high day”) and, as Jacob observed, not a time for the flocks to be lying down around the well. Therefore, he recommended that the shepherds water the sheep and lead the animals to pasture. They told him that they could not do so until all the flocks were gathered and the stone was rolled away from the well opening. While Jacob was still speaking to them, Rachel arrived with her father’s sheep. Seeing Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of her father, Jacob rolled the stone away from the well opening and watered Laban’s flock. Possibly Jacob, as a man who was not a resident of the area, did not consider himself bound by the requirement to wait until all the flocks were gathered at the well. (29:7-10) Targum Jonathan represents this act as a miracle and says that Jacob rolled the stone away with “one of his arms.”
Jacob kissed Rachel and was so greatly moved emotionally that he began to weep. He told her that he was her father’s kinsman and the son of Rebekah. (29:11, 12) According to Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 5), Jacob identified Rebekah as the sister of Rachel’s father Laban and, therefore, himself and Rachel as cousin-germans. Josephus continued: “At the mention of Rebekah, as usually happens to young persons, [Rachel] wept out of the kindness she had for her father and embraced Jacob.” This was because she had learned about Rebekah from her father. All the family would mention Rebekah, “always thinking of her and her alone.” Rachel added, “This will make you equal in [my father’s] eyes to any advantageous circumstances whatsoever.” Targum Jonathan, however, represents Laban very unfavorably. Rachel is quoted as telling Jacob regarding her father, “You cannot dwell with him, for he is a man of cunning.” To this, Jacob replied, “I am more cunning and wiser than he; nor can he do me evil, because the Word of the Lord is my helper.”
Rachel ran to her father to tell him about Jacob’s arrival. Upon hearing the news about Jacob, Laban ran to meet him, embraced him, kissed him, and brought him into his house. Jacob related to Laban everything that had happened to him, and Laban responded, “You are indeed my bone and my flesh,” meaning that Jacob was closely related to Laban. (29:12-14)
After Jacob had remained with him a whole month (literally, a “month of days”) and apparently had worked for him during his stay, Laban acknowledged that, even though he was a relative, Jacob should not be serving him for nothing. He then asked him, “What shall your wages be?” (29:14, 15)
Jacob had fallen in love with Rachel who was more beautiful than her older sister Leah. The eyes of Leah are described as “weak.” This probably meant that her eyes lacked luster. According to the Jerusalem Targum, her eyes “were tender, for she had wept and prayed that she might not be brought up in the lot of Esau” (or be destined as his wife). Targum Neofiti indicates that the eyes of Leah “were raised in prayer, begging that she be married to the just Jacob.” It appears that Jacob was particularly attracted to Rachel because she was beautiful like his mother Rebekah. Therefore, he expressed his willingness to serve Laban for seven years so that he might have Rachel as his wife. Laban replied that it would be better for Jacob (rather than another man) to have her and asked him to continue staying with him. (29:16-19) Targum Jonathan adds that Laban spoke “deceitfully.”
In view of his great love for Rachel, Jacob’s seven years of service to Laban passed quickly. To him, the time seemed to be just a few days. At the end of the seven years, Jacob asked that Rachel be given to him so that he could be intimate with her. Laban assembled all the men of the place and made a feast. In the evening, Laban brought Leah to Jacob, and he consummated the marriage. To be a maid for his daughter, Laban gave her his maid Zilpah. (29:20-24) Targum Jonathan identifies Zilpah as the daughter of Laban’s concubine.
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 7) indicates that Jacob was under the influence of drink and that it was dark when Leah was given to him. She doubtless was veiled and did not say much to Jacob. According to Targum Jonathan, Rachel had made available to Leah all the things that Jacob had given to her. This Targum indicates that Laban took the advice of the men who had been invited to the feast. He is quoted as telling them, “Look, seven years since Jacob came to us the wells have not failed and the watered places have increased. And now come, let us counsel against him cunning counsel, that he may remain with us.” The cunning counsel was that Laban should take Leah to Jacob instead of Rachel.
In the morning, Jacob came to know that he had been deceived, and he confronted Laban about it. Laban claimed that he had done this because it was not customary in the land to give the younger daughter in marriage before the firstborn. This was a very weak reason for having deceived Jacob, for he could have told him from the beginning that the older daughter had to be married first. As Jacob had deceived Isaac at the directive of his mother Rebekah to obtain his father’s blessing, he similarly had become the victim of deception. (29:25, 26)
Laban asked that Jacob complete the bridal week with Leah and then offered to give him Rachel as his wife for an additional seven years of service. Once the week with Leah ended, Laban gave Rachel to Jacob. To be her maid, he gave her Bilhah. In Targum Jonathan, Bilhah is identified as the daughter of his concubine. The marriage with Rachel was consummated, and Jacob loved her more than her sister Leah. He continued to render service for Laban seven more years. (29:27-30)
Often, in the Scriptures, even when no direct divine intervention is involved, developments are attributed to YHWH. This is because all things are considered as taking place according to his will or his permission. In the case of Leah’s four pregnancies, no divine intervention may have been involved. Likewise, the barrenness of Rachel does not have to be regarded as having resulted from direct divine action. Instead, in view of his letting Leah become pregnant, YHWH may be considered as opening her womb because of his seeing that Leah was “hated” or loved to a far lesser degree than Rachel. (29:31)
Although Jacob was more attached to the beautiful Rachel, Leah appears to have been the wife with greater devotion to YHWH. It was Rachel, not Leah, who stole the “teraphim” or family idols from her father Laban. (31:19, 30) Leah’s expressions in connection with the birth of three of her sons reflect appreciation for what YHWH had done for her. Upon the birth of her firstborn son whom she named Reuben (“See a son”), Leah said, “YHWH has seen my affliction, for now my husband will love me.” She named her second son Simeon (“Hearing”) and said regarding him, “YHWH has heard that I am hated, and he has given me this son also.” In connection with the birth of the third son whom she named Levi (“Joined”), Leah did not mention YHWH but said, “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, for I have borne him three sons.” She named her fourth son Judah (“Lauded” or “Praised”) in gratitude to YHWH, saying, “This time I will praise YHWH.” (29:32-35)
In Antiquities (I, xix, 7), Josephus represents the words of Laban to Jacob in a more favorable light than does Targum Jonathan. “Laban promised to treat him with great humanity” not just on account of his ancestors but “particularly for the sake of his mother” Rebekah. Laban stated his purpose to make Jacob the head shepherd of his flock and to entrust him with sufficient authority to function in this position. Laban, however, was unwilling to send Rachel to be among the Canaanites and regretted that he had agreed for his sister Rebekah to have been married there.
Josephus (Antiquities, I, xix, 8) wrote that Leah attributed the birth of her firstborn son Roubelos (Reuben) to the “mercy” of God. Regarding Seme or Symeon (Simeon), Josephus said that the name signified, “God had listened to her.” The name Leuis (Levi) meant “confirmer of fellowship.” Ioudas (Judah), the name of the fourth son, denoted “thanksgiving” (or “gratitude”).
The first part of the Hebrew name “Reuben” is linked to the verb ra’ah (“see”) in Leah’s quoted expression, “YHWH has seen my affliction.” The second part of the name is linked to ye’ehabani (“will love me” [“my husband will love me”]). In Leah’s words about Simeon, the verb shamá‘ (“hear” or “listen”) forms part of her acknowledgment of God, “YHWH has heard.” Her expression regarding Levi connects his name with the verb yillaweh (“will be joined” [“my husband will be joined to me”]) The name Judah is linked to ’odeh (“I will praise” [“I will praise YHWH”).
It should be noted that Jacob did not desire to enter a polygamous marriage, but he was tricked into doing so. Sadly, the rivalry between the two sisters proved to be a source of great distress and emotional pain. To prevent problems like those that Jacob, Leah, and Rachel experienced, the law given to their descendants prohibited a man from marrying the sister of his living wife. (Leviticus 18:18)