Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Then Jacob went on his journey, and came into the land of the people of the east.XXIX.
MARRIAGE OF JACOB WITH LEAH AND RACHEL.
(1) Jacob went on his journey.—Heb., Jacob lifted up his feet, that is, hastened forward. Confirmed in the possession of the birthright by God as well as man, and encouraged by the promise of the Divine presence, and of a safe return home, he casts no wistful glances back, but pursues his journey under the inspiriting influence of hope.
The people of the East.—Usually the Arabians are designated by this phrase, but it here signifies the tribes who inhabited northern Mesopotamia.
And he looked, and behold a well in the field, and, lo, there were three flocks of sheep lying by it; for out of that well they watered the flocks: and a great stone was upon the well's mouth.(2) Behold a well in the field.—This was not the well whence Rebekah drew the water; for it was in the field, the open pasture ground, whereas Rebekah’s well was just outside the city (Genesis 24:11), and she obtained the water by going down the steps which led to it (Genesis 24:16).
A great stone was upon the well’s mouth.—The region round Haran, though fertile, is very dry, and the chief use of the stone was to prevent the well from being choked with sand. As the proper translation is the stone upon the well’s mouth was great, it would also serve to prevent the well from being used, except at fixed times; for it probably required the strength of two or three men (comp. Robinson, Bibl. Res. ii. 180) to remove it; nor does the language of Genesis 29:10 necessarily imply that Jacob rolled it away without the aid of others. Besides this, the stone may have marked that the well was private property: for, as we have seen in the account of the covenants of Abraham and Isaac with Abimelech, no possession was morevalued than that of wells. And as we find the shepherds all waiting for Rachel, and that immediately on her arrival the stone is rolled away, and her sheep watered first, while the rest, though they had been there long before her, yet have to bide their time till her wants are supplied, it is probable that Laban had at least a first claim upon its enjoyment. No such courtesy was shown to the daughters of Jethro (Exodus 2:17).
And he said unto them, Know ye Laban the son of Nahor? And they said, We know him.(5) Laban the son of Nahor.—Laban was really the son of Bethuel and grandson of Nahor; but Nahor was the founder of the family, as being the original immigrant from Ur, who came to supply Abraham’s place on his departure.
And he said, Lo, it is yet high day, neither is it time that the cattle should be gathered together: water ye the sheep, and go and feed them.(7) Neither is it time that the cattle should be gathered together.—Rather, neither is it time for folding the cattle. As there were still several hours of daylight, Jacob is surprised that they do not immediately upon their arrival give the sheep water, and drive them back to the pasture. But if the well belonged to Laban, their reason for waiting till Rachel came is plain.
And they said, We cannot, until all the flocks be gathered together, and till they roll the stone from the well's mouth; then we water the sheep.(8) And till they roll the stone . . . —More correctly, then they roll the stone from the well’s mouth, and we water the sheep. As soon as the flocks were all collected round the well the stone is removed. and all in their turn give their sheep water.
And while he yet spake with them, Rachel came with her father's sheep: for she kept them.(9) Rachel came with her father’s sheep.—Comp. Exodus 2:16; and so in modern times Mr. Malan saw “the sheik’s daughter, the beautiful and well-favoured Ladheefeh, drive her flock of fine patriarchal sheep” to a well for water in this very region (Philosophy or Truth, p. 95). As forty years at least elapsed between this meeting of Jacob and Rachel and the birth of Benjamin, she must have been a mere child at this time.
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.(10) Laban his mother’s brother.—The threefold repetition of these words has no other reason than that given in the Note on Genesis 28:5.
And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept.(11) Jacob kissed Rachel . . . and wept.—Jacob first made himself, useful to Rachel, and then discloses to her who he is, claims her as a cousin, and kisses her. Then, overcome with joy at this happy termination of his long journey, and at finding himself among relatives, he can restrain his feelings no longer, but bursts into tears. In this outburst of emotion we see the commencement of his lifelong affection for the beautiful child whom he thus opportunely met.
And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father's brother, and that he was Rebekah's son: and she ran and told her father.(12) Her father’s brother.—Really his nephew; but terms of relationship are used in a very indefinite way in Hebrew. (Comp. Genesis 29:5; Genesis 29:15, Genesis 13:8, &c.)
And it came to pass, when Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister's son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him, and kissed him, and brought him to his house. And he told Laban all these things.(13) Laban . . . ran to meet him, and embraced him.—Rachel told her father, because it was a matter simply of the hospitable reception of a relative, and not such news as Rebekah had run to tell those of her mother’s house. And to Laban the tidings must have been most welcome, as he called to mind now, seventy-seven years ago, he had seen his dear sister depart to marry the son of the distant sheik. It seems strange, however, that the daughters of this old man should be so young. Either they must have been the children of a wife of his old age, or his granddaughters, but regarded as his own because their father was dead. As Laban’s sons are not mentioned till Genesis 31:1, probably on account of their youth, the former is the more probable explanation.
And Laban said to him, Surely thou art my bone and my flesh. And he abode with him the space of a month.(14) The space of a month.—Heb., a month of days, that is, a full month.
And Laban said unto Jacob, Because thou art my brother, shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought? tell me, what shall thy wages be?(15) What shall thy wages be?—As Jacob had given upon his arrival a full account of himself (Genesis 29:13), Laban probably expected the very answer he received; nevertheless, the proposal was fair and upright. Doubtless he had seen, during Jacob’s stay of a month, that his services would be very valuable.
Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured.(17) Leah was tender eyed.—Leah, whose name signifies languor, weariness, had dull bleared eyes. Probably she suffered, as so many do in that hot sandy region, from some form of ophthalmia. Rachel (Heb., the ewe) was, on the contrary, “beautiful and well favoured” (Heb., beautiful in form and beautiful in look). Leah’s bleared eyes would be regarded in the East as a great defect, just as bright eyes were much admired. (See 1Samuel 16:12, where David is described as fair of eyes.) Yet it was not Rachel, with her fair face and well-proportioned figure, and her husband’s lasting love, that was the mother of the progenitor of the Messiah, but the weary-eyed Leah.
And Jacob loved Rachel; and said, I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter.(18) I will serve thee seven years for Rachel thy younger daughter.—Heb., thy daughter, the little one, just as Leah, in Genesis 29:16, is called the great one. (See Note on Genesis 9:24.) So in Genesis 44:20, the phrase “the little one” simply means the youngest. Wives had to be purchased in the East (Genesis 24:53), and as Jacob had brought no rich presents, such as Abraham had sent when seeking a wife for his son, he had only his personal services to offer. As the sale was usually veiled in true Oriental fashion under the specious form of freewill gifts, we shall find that both Leah and Rachel are offended at being thus openly bartered by Laban.
And Laban said, It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man: abide with me.(19) It is better that I give her to thee.—It is still the custom among the Arabs to prefer a relative as the husband of a daughter, and on giving a moderato dowry the elder cousins can claim the elder daughters in marriage, and the younger the younger. Thus Jacob, as the second son, had a claim upon Rachel. The Rabbins even say that Leah’s eyes were weak from weeping, because Esau had not come to marry her. This absurd idea bears witness, nevertheless, to the custom of the intermarriage of cousins being an established rule, and gives a reason for Laban’s acceptance of Jacob as the husband of his younger child. As Jacob offered seven years’ service for Rachel, and gave a second seven years’ service for her after he had been tricked into taking Leah, we may conclude that the length of time was not unreasonable.
And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.(20) They seemed unto him but a few days.—Jacob was at least fifty-seven years of age, but the late marriages hitherto of the patriarchs show that they only slowly arrived at manhood. We need not be surprised, then, at the warmth of his affection, nor was it a passing emotion, but lasted all his life through. This, however, is the last of these late marriages; for Jacob’s sons married when young.
And Jacob said unto Laban, Give me my wife, for my days are fulfilled, that I may go in unto her.(21) My days are fulfilled.—That is, the appointed time of service is completed. It was undeniably at the end of the seven years that the marriage took place.
And it came to pass in the evening, that he took Leah his daughter, and brought her to him; and he went in unto her.(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.
And Laban gave unto his daughter Leah Zilpah his maid for an handmaid.(24) Laban gave unto his daughter Leah Zilpah . . . —Bethuel had given Rebekah not only Deborah her nurse, but also damsels (Genesis 24:61); but then she had been obtained by presents of unusual costliness. Still, Laban does not seem to have acted very liberally by his daughters, and they resented his treatment of them (Genesis 31:15).
And Laban said, It must not be so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn.(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.
Fulfil her week, and we will give thee this also for the service which thou shalt serve with me yet seven other years.(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 31:38; Genesis 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.
And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week: and he gave him Rachel his daughter to wife also.(28) He gave him Rachel . . . to wife also.—After the monogamy of Abraham, and the stricter monogamy of Isaac, how came Jacob to marry two wives? Abravanel says that as Esau ought to have married Leah, and Jacob Rachel, he acted only as his brother’s substitute in taking the elder, and was still free to marry the younger sister, who was his by custom, He thinks also that Jacob, recalling the promise of a. seed numerous as the dust (Genesis 28:14), and seeing how near the family had been to total extinction in the days of his father and grandfather, desired to place it on a more secure basis. More probably, even after Leah had been forced upon him, Jacob regarded Rachel as his own, and as polygamy was not actually forbidden, considered that he was only acting justly by her and himself in marrying her. He had seen Esau blamed, not for marrying two wives, but for taking Hittites; and his love for Rachel would make him need but little argument. The only other alternative, namely, to have divorced Leah, would have been worse, and happily divorce was not a practice as yet introduced.
(31) Leah was hated.—We must not soften this down too much; for plainly Leah was not the object of love at all. It was her fruitfulness which gave her value in her husband’s eyes, and when this ceased, Jacob utterly neglected her (Genesis 30:15).
And Leah conceived, and bare a son, and she called his name Reuben: for she said, Surely the LORD hath looked upon my affliction; now therefore my husband will love me.(32-35) She called his name Reuben.—There is something very touching in the history of these four births. When the first child is born, Leah joyfully calls him “Reuben,” that is, See, a son! and fondly hopes that now she is a mother her husband will love her. And the mention of her “affliction” shows that, while she loved Jacob tenderly, he was to her more than unloving. Her second son she calls” Simeon,” that is hearing, and, disappointed in her first hope, regards the child as a gift of Jehovah to compensate her for the lack of the affection for which she so longed. Her third son she calls “Levi,” that is, joined, still hoping that as in her tent alone there were children to play around the father, he would be more united to her. But her hope remains unfulfilled. And when her fourth son is born, she calls him “Judah,” that is, praise. Throughout, in the midst of her melancholy, there is a tone of fervent piety, and that not merely to God, but to the covenant Jehovah. And now slowly she parts with her hope of human affection, and finds comfort in Jehovah alone. This time, she says, I will praise Jehovah. And it was this son of the despised one, whose birth called forth from her this hymn of simple thanksgiving, who was fore-ordained to be the ancestor of the promised seed.