What does Genesis chapter 29 mean?After his journey east, Jacob arrives at the home of Laban, his mother's brother. Laban lives in Haran in Mesopotamia, outside of the land God has promised to Abraham, Isaac and, in the previous chapter, to Jacob. Jacob had left his homeland in Canaan, both to find a wife among his father's people (Genesis 28:1–2) and to escape the murderous rage of his older twin brother, Esau (Genesis 27:41). Jacob's plan is to seek out the former household of his mother, Rebekah, and her brother, Laban.
First, though, Jacob comes across a well in a field. He asks some shepherds gathered near the well with their flocks if they know Laban and if he is thriving. They do know him and point to Laban's daughter Rachel arriving with a flock of her own. Jacob immediately rolls the heavy stone away from the well and waters the sheep that belong to Rachel's father (Genesis 29:1–10). This might have been an effort to impress her, as later verses will show that Jacob comes to love Rachel very much.
Jacob becomes emotional about finding these relatives he has never met before. He kisses Rachel and weeps loudly. Finally, he tells her who he is, and she runs to tell Laban. Laban quickly arrives. He hugs and kisses Jacob and welcomes him into his home. Jacob tells Laban some version of his story and how he came to be there, and Laban acknowledges that Jacob is truly his relative (Genesis 29:11–14).
After Jacob has been with the family for a month and working for Laban, the uncle asks the nephew what wages he would ask to continue working for him. The implication is that Jacob is a good worker and very helpful to Laban. Jacob, who has come in part to find a wife, offers to work for seven years in exchange for marrying Laban's younger daughter Rachel, whom Jacob loves (Genesis 29:15–18). This intense love for Rachel will be an important contrast to Jacob's feelings for her older sister, Leah, later in this chapter.
Laban quickly agrees to this generous offer and the years fly by for Jacob. When the time has passed, Laban throws a wedding feast. On the wedding night, however, Laban manages to switch out Rachel with her older, less attractive sister Leah. Jacob sleeps with Leah without realizing she is not Rachel; apparently in that time and place, this was enough to constitute a legal marriage (Genesis 29:19–25).
When Jacob realizes the next morning what has happened, he demands to know why Laban has committed this outrageous deception. Laban calmly tells Jacob that their custom does not allow the younger daughter to marry first (Genesis 29:26). Obviously, even if this were true, it is information Laban had seven years to pass along to Jacob. The entire arrangement was an obvious ploy on Laban's part. Here, then, is Jacob "getting a taste of his own medicine:" the lying manipulator (Genesis 27:34–36) feeling the sting of deception and fraud.
As if in generosity, Laban offers to allow Jacob to marry Rachel the next week in exchange for another seven years of work. In spite of Laban's manipulation, Jacob agrees (Genesis 29:27–30). Looking back on this passage after reading about Jacob's remaining life, it turns out he has gained four wives (two of whom are really servants or concubines) in the span of a week! Both of the servants given to Laban's daughters, at their weddings, will wind up bearing children to Jacob, as well (Genesis 30:2–3; 30:9–10).
Now married twice over, and with seven more years of unpaid work ahead of him, Jacob settles in. Leah, though, is deeply wounded by the fact that Jacob loves Rachel more than her. In fact, Jacob is said to hate Leah, at least by comparison. Given the circumstances of their marriage, this is hardly a surprise. The Lord, who is always with Jacob, takes notice of Leah's heartbreak and allows her to begin having children while her younger, better-loved sister remains barren (Genesis 29:31).
Jacob's first three sons from his unloved wife are named as a result of her faith. Leah trusts in the God who notices her pain and for her hope, or lack of it, that Jacob will now turn his heart toward her. In spite of Leah bearing Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, however, Jacob apparently remains unloving toward Leah (Genesis 29:32–34).
Leah seems to give up hoping that bearing sons will increase Jacob's love for her. She names her fourth boy Judah, which means "praise" or "may God be praised." Leah's faith in God's goodness remains intact, even while her hope that her husband will love her appears to slip away (Genesis 29:35).
The last verse of this chapter specifically indicates that Leah stopped conceiving children after Judah. This might be due to a temporary time of infertility. However, the next chapter speaks of Rachel's anger that Leah has had children while Rachel has not. This jealousy from his favored wife might have inspired Jacob to withhold himself from Leah in an effort to give Rachel a child to call her own.