“Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine
In the very heart of your house,
Your children like olive plants
All around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
Who fears the LORD. ” Psalm 128:3-4
After Jacob deceived his father and stole Esau’s blessing, he fled from Esau’s wrath to his Uncle Laban’s house. When he arrived in the area where his uncle lived, he saw shepherds tending sheep. One of the shepherds was a beautiful young lady – a young lady who turned out to be his Uncle Laban’s daughter, Rachel. Jacob fell in love with Rachel, so that when his uncle asked him after a few weeks what wages he would like for working for him, Jacob asked that he be allowed to marry Rachel in exchange for seven years’ work.
Seven years sounds like a long time to work and wait for someone you love, but Jacob loved Rachel so much that it seemed like only a few days to him. Finally, the time had passed, and it was time for Jacob to receive his bride.
There was a problem, however. Rachel had an older sister, Leah, who was still unmarried. Leah apparently had poor eyesight and wasn’t as good a catch, and it seems that Laban was afraid he wouldn’t be able to find a husband for her. The brides were heavily veiled, so Laban substituted Leah for Rachel in the wedding. In the light of the next morning, Jacob realized he had been tricked into marrying the wrong sister! When he went to Laban demanding an explanation, Laban told him that it was against the custom to marry off a younger sister before the elder. Laban told Jacob to complete the 7 days of celebration with Leah, and then they would do another 7 day celebration so that Jacob could marry Rachel … in exchange for yet another seven years of work!
What could Jacob do? He finished out the week with Leah and then married Rachel, but it was clear from the beginning that Rachel was the loved wife. Talk about a situation ripe for sibling rivalry!
The Lord saw that Leah was unloved, and therefore He opened her womb and blessed her with children while Rachel was barren. When Leah gave birth to her first son, she named him Reuben, meaning “see, a son”, hoping that a son would cause Jacob to love her. It didn’t work. Leah gave birth to another son that she named Simeon (which means “hearing”), saying that the Lord had given her another son because He had heard that she was unloved. By the time her third son was born, Leah was beyond looking for love, and merely hoped that her husband would now become attached to her. She named that son Levi, meaning “attached”.
Perhaps Leah finally came to accept the idea that she would never hold Jacob’s heart. When her fourth son was born, she named him Judah, meaning “praise”, saying, “now I will praise the Lord.”
Rachel, meanwhile, was jealous. She even went so far as to demand that Jacob give her children, causing him to angrily say to her, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?” As was the custom of the day (first seen with Sarah), Rachel then gave her maid, Bilhah, to Jacob as a wife so that she could claim Bilhah’s child. When Bilhah gave birth to a son, Rachel named him Dan, meaning “judge”, saying, “God has judged my case and heard my voice and given me a son.” Bilhah gave birth to a second son, and Rachel named him Naphtali, meaning “wrestling”. In this she referred to the rivalry between herself and her sister as “great wrestlings”, and considered herself to have prevailed.
Leah had now stopped bearing children, and she couldn’t let Rachel catch up to her. She gave her maid, Zilpah, to Jacob as a wife. Zilpah also gave birth to two sons, and Leah named them Gad (meaning “a troop”) and Asher (meaning “happy”).
The rivalry wasn’t going away. Leah’s oldest son, Reuben, went out during the wheat harvest and collected mandrakes for his mother. Also known as “love apples”, mandrakes were considered a fertility herb. Rachel was still longing for a child of her own, so she asked Leah to give her the mandrakes. Leah responded, “Isn’t it enough that you have taken my husband? Would you also take away my son’s mandrakes?” Rachel bargained that Jacob would spend the night with Leah in exchange for the mandrakes.
Leah may not have kept the mandrakes, but she did conceive another son that night. She named him Issachar, meaning “hire”, considering him to be her wages for given her maid to her husband. She then gave birth to another son, and named him Zebulun, meaning “dwelling”. She was hoping that since she had born her husband six sons, he would want to spend his time with her. Finally, she gave birth to a daughter she named Dinah, which means “judgment”.
Between Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, Jacob now had ten sons. Rachel was still longing for a child, and the Lord finally opened her womb and gave her a son. Rejoicing that the Lord had taken away the reproach of barrenness and believing that she would now have more, she named her son Joseph, which means “He will add”.
During all this time, Jacob had continued to work for Laban. He completed his 7 years of service for Rachel and went on to work another 6 years in exchange for some of the flocks he shepherded. The Lord blessed him to the point where Jacob’s flocks outnumbered Laban’s, and Laban wasn’t looking very favorably on his son-in-law. Even Leah and Rachel were noticing that their father didn’t seem to look lovingly on their family, and they readily went with Jacob when the Lord told him that it was time to return to his own home.
Jacob served the Lord, the One True God. Laban, however, served idols. Although it seems that Jacob had at least somewhat taught his family to serve the Lord, Rachel apparently still clung to some of the old ways. When they left Laban’s house, she stole her father’s household idols. Laban chased after the travelers, accusing them of the theft, but Rachel had hidden them underneath where she was sitting and Laban did not find them. We don’t know whether or not Jacob ever knew that Rachel had stolen the idols, but we do know that sometime later, he called for everyone to give him the idols that they had with them, and buried them in preparation for worshipping the Lord.
The journey took quite some time, with stops for significant periods along the way. Near the end, Rachel finally gave birth to a second son. However, the labor was a hard one, and cost her her life. As she was dying, she named her son Ben-Oni, meaning “son of my sorrow”. Jacob changed his name to Benjamin, meaning “son of my right hand”.
Leah returned home with Jacob and lived for some years after that. While Rachel was buried along the journey, a short distance from Bethlehem, Leah was buried in the family tomb that Abraham had purchased for Sarah. When Jacob died, he asked to be buried in that tomb – where Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah had been buried, and where he had buried Leah.
Rachel and Leah, together with their maids, gave birth to the twelve sons who would become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. (Jacob’s name was changed by the Lord to Israel.) Rachel’s firstborn, Joseph, became the Prime Minister in Egypt and saved his family (and the Egyptians) from starvation during seven years of famine. Through the line of Leah’s son Judah, the Savior would one day be born.