The Faithless Father-in-Law and the Wrestling Wives – 40 Days of Exoduses (10)

The Vision at Bethel

In my previous post I set the scene for Jacob’s great exodus cycle. Jacob, the serpentine seed of the woman, outwits his wicked brother and unfaithful father, gains the birthright and the blessing, and then flees from his murderous brother, travelling towards Haran, to stay with his uncle Laban. Jacob’s departure from Beersheba (28:10) might recall Abraham’s sacrifice of Ishmael and later of Isaac, both of whom left from Beersheba (21:14; 21:33—22:2, 19). One might also argue that Jacob is reversing Abram’s exodus from Haran here (12:1-9). In Jacob we are also seeing a very clear recurrence of the pattern of the son leaving his father’s house to go into the far country (cf. 12:1), a pattern that we will see again in the story of Joseph. The fact that Jacob is travelling alone perhaps particularly relates this journey to that of Joseph and Moses in Genesis 2.

While travelling to Haran, Jacob stops at a particular place for the night. When the sun set, he took a stone as a pillow and slept (28:11). The setting of the sun should remind us of the various references to the sunset in 15:12, 17 during Abram’s night vision of Exodus, the vision that begins the great series of exodus cycles leading up to the birth of Isaac. Once again, there is going to be an encounter with YHWH after the sun goes down, followed by a period of symbolic darkness, before the sun rises again, after the exodus cycle has been completed.

The significance of the descent of the sun here will become clearer in light of the emphasis placed upon the rising of the sun after Jacob’s wrestling with the Angel. All of the intervening events occur in a period of symbolic darkness. The same thing can be seen in Exodus 4:24-26: there is a night encounter with YHWH in the camp between the origin and destination of the journey, just prior to the start of an exodus cycle.

In my second study, I drew attention to the fact that Terah and Abram’s exodus from Ur of the Chaldees and later from Haran was framed by the events at Babel, where Shemites working under the guidance of the empire-founder, Nimrod, sought to build a tower whose top was in the heavens (11:4). The ladder of Jacob’s vision, upon which the angels are ascending and descending, is YHWH’s answer to Babel’s tower (later in Scripture, we will see this ladder imagery being applied to Christ – John 1:51).

At the top of the ladder stands YHWH himself, who declares to Jacob that he will give him and his descendants the land on which he is lying, and that he will make his descendants like the dust of the earth, a dust that bears a divine blessing to replace the dust that mediated the curse (vv.13-14; 3:17-19). Through Jacob and his seed, all of the families of the earth will be blessed. YHWH promises to accompany and protect Jacob wherever he is going and that he will bring back Jacob to the land, completing his exodus.

Jacob is afraid (v.17), like Abram was at his vision (15:12), recognizing the place as the house of God and gate of heaven (v.17) and renaming the place Bethel – ‘house of God’ (v. 19). Jacob makes a vow, declaring that, if God will protect and uphold him where he is going and bring him back safely, he will establish the worship of YHWH in that place and give YHWH his tithe (vv.20-22). Once again, as in the stipulated animals of Abram’s vision in chapter 15, we see an anticipation of the later worship of Israel in the reference to the tithe. In chapter 35, Jacob will fulfil this vow.

Rachel at the Well

Arriving in the land of Haran, Jacob sees a well in a field, surrounded by flocks. The field, rather than the city or town, will be the central site of action throughout most of the Jacob narrative. The well is covered with a stone and the shepherds are waiting for the arrival of Rachel with her father’s sheep, so that all of the flocks can be watered together. Just as he has finished enquiring after his uncle Laban, Rachel arrives and Jacob removes the stone.

As I have already mentioned on a few occasions, there is a symbolic connection between women and wells and the encounter with the woman – typically a future wife – at the well is a common theme in the Old Testament. Robert Alter describes what he refers to as a betrothal type scene, of which Genesis 29 provides one:

What I would suggest is that when a biblical narrator—and he might have originally been an oral storyteller, though that remains a matter of conjecture—came to the moment of his hero’s betrothal, both he and his audience were aware that the scene had to unfold in particular circumstances, according to a fixed order. If some of those circumstances were altered or suppressed, or if the scene were actually omitted, that communicated something to the audience as clearly as the withered arm of our twelfth sheriff would say something to a film audience. The betrothal type-scene, then, must take place with the future bridegroom, or his surrogate, having journeyed to a foreign land. There he encounters a girl—the term “na‘arah” invariably occurs unless the maiden is identified as so-and-so’s daughter—or girls at a well. Someone, either the man or the girl, then draws water from the well; afterward, the girl or girls rush to bring home the news of the stranger’s arrival (the verbs “hurry” and “run” are given recurrent emphasis at this junction of the type-scene); finally, a betrothal is concluded between the stranger and the girl, and in the majority of instances, only after he has been invited to a meal.

This incident is not merely formally familiar to readers as a betrothal type scene, but is also symbolically freighted. The reader would recognize that there is some symbolic relationship between Rachel and the well. Rachel, an unmarried virgin and later the barren wife, is like the well covered with the stone (cf. Song of Solomon 4:12). Jacob, who is associated with stones throughout his narrative (28:11, 18; 31:46; 35:14), removes the stone from the well and brings forth the water. The mention of three flocks and the arrival of a final one, which are then watered from the well, might suggest a possible allusion to the water that flowed from Eden, which split into four rivers and watered various parts of the earth (2:10-14). We can also note that Rachel’s name means ‘ewe’, which strengthens the woman/well/flock connection. The connection between the stone and bringing forth the water might also suggest some connection between Jacob and Moses, who brings forth water from the rock.

Having watered Laban’s flocks, Jacob greets Rachel with a kiss and weeping, telling her who he is. She runs to tell Laban her father that Jacob has arrived. Laban greets him warmly, declaring that Jacob is ‘his bone and his flesh’, a recognition of deep kinship (v.14). This isn’t our first encounter with Laban in Genesis. The last time that we saw Laban, in Genesis 24, he received great gifts from Abraham’s servant (24:53). Perhaps he is expecting a repeat occurrence, which explains his later change in attitude towards Jacob, when no such great gifts were forthcoming.

Laban’s Mistreatment of Jacob

Jacob had originally started off being treated as a full member of the family, working in Laban’s household for nothing, but as one who was regarded as having a share in the family’s wealth. In v.15 we see a change in Jacob’s status. While we might think that Laban is being generous to Jacob, paying him for his work, this was actually a lowering of Jacob’s status. No longer was he being treated as a full member of the house, but was now more akin to one of Laban’s servants. This initial welcoming, followed by a reduction of the status of the stranger relates to Joseph’s Pharaoh’s initial welcoming of Jacob and his sons, followed by the later Pharaoh’s enslaving of them.

Laban offers Jacob his choice of wages and Jacob requests Rachel’s hand. Jacob will serve Laban for seven years in payment of Rachel’s bride price. The bride price would have served to give Rachel some degree of independent financial security, to vet Jacob’s suitability as a future provider, to acknowledge the authority of Rachel’s family and strengthen the bond between the families, and would also ensure that daughters were not regarded as a drain upon the family wealth. The dishonourable way in which Laban treated his daughters’ bride prices will come to light later in the narrative.

Jacob serves Laban for seven years for Rachel, a period of time that feels like no more than the few days that he had originally intended to stay (v.20, cf. 27:44) on account of his love for her. At the end of this period of time, he asks for his wife, the woman to whom he has been betrothed for seven years. Laban tricks Jacob, as Leah is given to him instead of Rachel. Leah would have been veiled at this point: while the women in Genesis weren’t regularly veiled, the veil was associated with the time of marriage (cf. 24:65). The darkness theme also comes to the surface here again. Finally, Jacob would probably have drunk well at the feast (v.22). By going into Leah, Jacob was trapped – sexually married to one woman, but legally married to another, he had become an inadvertent polygamist.

The parallels between Jacob’s own deception of his father Isaac should be clear to us. Jacob was blind like Isaac in the dark and Rebekah’s no less wily, though unrighteous, brother disguised one of his children as another in order to fool the ‘blind’ man. We might think that YHWH is giving Jacob a dose of poetic justice here, but that seems unlikely, given what we have said about the previous passage. Rather, Jacob is the bearer of the covenant legacy and he must deal with the failure of those who went before, much as Christ will one day bear the bitter covenant legacy of Israel’s unfaithfulness upon himself. In particular, Jacob has to take upon himself the consequences of Isaac’s sin. He becomes as Isaac, but must handle things differently, picking up the dropped stitch of the covenant and working it back into YHWH’s plan. It is important that we recognize that these developing patterns involve succession and a legacy, each new generation working with and building upon the successes and failures of the generations that preceded them.

Through this action, Laban reveals himself as a double-dealing scoundrel, who explains his bait and switch by reference to a custom of which Jacob was never apprised when they first made an agreement (v.26). There is also a possibility that Laban planned to use the customs of his people to take advantage the fact that Jacob would insist on completing his marriage to Rachel too as a means of lowering his status and defrauding him even further. Such treatment of his new son-in-law also reveals how the unscrupulous Laban was prepared to mistreat and use his daughters for his own gain. Laban is the serpent and tyrant figure with whom the serpentine Jacob will have to wrestle.

The Wives and the Sons

Naturally, given all that had happened and the fact that he had never wanted to marry Leah in the first place, Jacob preferred Rachel over her. However, Leah, who in all probability had limited choice in the deception of Jacob, being put up to it by her father, suffered greatly as a result as an unloved wife. YHWH, who sees the sorrowful and oppressed, was gracious to her and opened her womb.

Like Abraham learnt through having to send Ishmael away and Isaac failed to learn in seeking to bless Esau over Jacob, Jacob must recognize that the course that YHWH charts for his covenant purposes does not always match our desires. The preferred son doesn’t receive the blessing and the unfavoured wife is the fruitful one.

The lengthy description of the struggle of the wives and their maids in pregnancy and YHWH’s gift of children, a story in which Jacob plays only an incidental role, should be seen as a key turning point in the narrative. Within the exodus pattern, as we shall see in various other studies, it is with the oppressed or barren women seeking to give birth to the seed that YHWH’s salvation begins. To this point, Jacob has been reduced in status, tricked, and made into a servant of his uncle. Rachel and Leah have both been misused by their father, Rachel robbed of the exclusivity of her relationship to her rightful husband and made a competitor of her sister and Leah forced into a marriage as an unloved wife, playing second fiddle to her younger sister. These actions again identify Laban as a serpent figure who mistreats the woman.

It is with YHWH’s hearing of the affliction of Leah that the story begins to change direction. To this point YHWH has seemingly abandoned Jacob to Laban’s clutches, but in response to the distress of Leah, he enters the story. 29:31—30:24 is all about what YHWH does through the prayers and wrestling of Leah and Rachel. Jacob hardly acts in this passage at all, but Leah and Rachel do all of the planning, struggling, and naming, while YHWH accomplishes the salvation.

In light of 30:25, 31:38, 41, the chronology of the birth narratives would barely seem to be possible, as it would suggest that all of 29:31—30:24 occurred within a seven year period. A far more likely explanation is that the order is theological, with Joseph – the miraculous child who will play the role of the firstborn and chief bearer of the covenant legacy – being the fifth of the sons of the wives (not the maids), after Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah.

As the miraculous child, Joseph comes at the climax of the narrative. The opening of Rachel’s womb also continues the theme of the barren wombs of the patriarch’s wives. Joseph is the child who, like Moses, will secure the future and destiny of the people of God. The whole passage is structured in a way that highlights themes of divine action and salvation. We see the God who looks on affliction (29:32), who judges a person’s case (v.6), who leads to people being called blessed (v.13), who listens (v.17), who remembers (v.22), and removes people’s reproach (v.23). All of these themes are repeated in the context of the exodus.


In this passage we see Jacob as a stranger going to a new land where he is first welcomed, but then reduced in status, mistreated, and oppressed by a serpent figure. Jacob must bear the flawed legacy of his father. Jacob and his wives become fruitful and multiply, much as the children of Israel will later multiply in Egypt. This passage is the Exodus 1:1—2:10 of the Jacob story. It is about the oppression and growth of the people of God, about the struggles and victories of faithful women, of YHWH’s remembering of them and dealings with them and, finally, about the birth of the future deliverer.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Exodus, Genesis, Lent, OT, OT Theology, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Faithless Father-in-Law and the Wrestling Wives – 40 Days of Exoduses (10)

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  8. toddott says:

    Who do Rachel and Leah represent is Jacob represents Jesus?

    • They don’t have to represent anything. The fact that one element of a biblical narrative explores a particular symbolic motif doesn’t mean that every detail of the narrative is symbolic. However, in certain respects one could probably make a case for them representing Eve, Woman, or the Church at various points. Then they also have various other typological resonances with other characters in Scripture.

  9. toddott says:

    Having watered Laban’s flocks, Jacob greets Rachel with a kiss and weeping, telling her who he is. She runs to tell Laban her father that Jacob has arrived.
    There is a further connection: Having fed his brothers grain, Joseph greets Benjamin with a kiss and weeping, telling him who he is. The brothers run to tell Jacob that Joseph is alive. Both stories also contain two periods of seven.

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