Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the older was Leah, and her younger sister was Rachel. There was no brightness to Leah’s eyes, but Rachel was stunningly beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel, so he said, “I’ll serve you for seven years in exchange for the hand of your younger daughter Rachel in marriage.” Laban said, “Agreed. I’d rather you have her than any other man I know. You may stay here and work.” So Jacob served Laban for seven years in exchange for Rachel. The years went by quickly and seemed to him to be only a few days because of the immense love he had for her. When the time came, Jacob approached Laban and said, “I have now completed seven years of work for you. I ask you now to give me my wife so that I may consummate my marriage.” Laban gathered together all of the people in the area and prepared a great feast to celebrate the marriage. But in the evening, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and Jacob slept with her, thinking she was Rachel. Laban gave his servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant. When morning came, Jacob realized it was Leah and said to Laban, “What have you done to me? Did we not have a deal—seven years of labor in exchange for your daughter Rachel? Why have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger in marriage before the firstborn. If you complete this wedding week with Leah, then I will also give you Rachel. But in return, you must serve me another seven years.” Jacob agreed and completed his week with Leah. And then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel in marriage. Laban gave his servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant. Genesis 29:15-29
This story of Jacob and Laban in Genesis 29, at least on one level, is meant to remind us of the Exodus—to foreshadow it, point toward it, and give layered meaning to the coming story of the Israelites in Egypt. If we can see the miniature Exodus this story reveals—that Jacob represents the Israelites and that Laban represents Pharaoh—then understanding how Jacob ended up enslaved to Laban can provide not only a lens through which we can examine the central story that underlies the entire biblical narrative, but also a mirror in which we can face the question “How did we end up as slaves in Egypt?”
“How do God wrestlers end up enslaved in the narrow place?”
That is a question that concerns all of us. And the answer this story seems to provide is through delusion, deceit, and dehumanization. Without question, these are not friendly words. My delusion, deceit, and dehumanization are not the kind of things I want to see looking back at me in the mirror. So, before we attempt to face the mirror, let’s spend some time looking through the lens of Jacob. You may remember Jacob. He’s one of the twins who tumbled and kicked and struggled while still in the womb. He’s the one who was born clutching the heel of his brother Esau—the one whose name literally means heel-grabber. Jacob is the one who tricked his brother Esau into selling his birthright and lied to his father to steal his brother’s blessing.
Jacob has a story that is chock full of delusion, deceit, and dehumanization.
And just in case we had forgotten who Jacob had been, the story of Laban and Rachel and Leah makes sure that we remember. The Genesis storyteller goes to great lengths to make sure we connect the dots. In the fifteen short verses that make up this story in Genesis 29, there are no fewer than a dozen allusions to Jacob’s past. The story is saturated with what is known in Hebrew as remez—directional arrows or hints that point to other stories—reminding us that they are all connected. For example…
In verse 20, this story states that the first seven years of labor seemed like just “a few days” to Jacob. The Hebraic phrase translated as “a few days” is yamin ahadim, which means “a short while.” Jacob’s mother, Rachel, uses the same exact phrase in Genesis 27 after Jacob steals Esau’s blessing—telling him he should go hide at Uncle Laban’s place for yamin ahadim—“a short while.”
In that story, when Jacob steals the blessing of the firstborn from Esau, Jacob covers himself in the textures and smells of Esau. He presents himself as Esau to deceive his father. Similarly, Laban covers Leah in the textures of a bride and presents her to Jacob as Rachel. The eleventh century rabbi Rashi taught that even the presentation of Zilpah as a servant to Leah was part of the cover up. According to Rashi, Zilpah was the younger of the two servants and should have gone to Rachel. Thus, presenting Leah with Zilpah further disguised Leah as Rachel.
Jacob is able to deceive his father, Isaac, into thinking he is Esau because of Isaac’s failing eyesight. Isaac can’t see, so in darkness, he relies on his sense of touch. Laban is able to deceive Jacob by presenting Leah at night so that, in the darkness, Jacob can’t see and instead relies on his sense of touch.
When Jacob wakes up the next morning and realizes what has happened, he asks Laban, “Why have you deceived me?” using the Hebraic word, mirmah—the same root word Isaac had previously used to describe what Jacob had done Esau.
These stories are connected. The details and language used are hints and allusions to their interwoven nature.
The same dehumanizing deceit that pulsed through Jacob allowing him to violate his brother Esau, his father Isaac, and his entire family now runs through the veins of Laban as he violates Jacob and Rachel and Leah and their entire family. As Michael Williams states in The Storytellers Companion to the Bible, “the trickster is tricked, the deceiver is deceived”—which we are certainly meant to recognize. In fact, as the reader or hearer of this story, it feels good to know that what goes around comes around—that Jacob gets a taste of his own medicine. That just feels right. Yet, there is still the nagging question of what started all of this? Why did Jacob trick his brother out of his birthright? Why did he deceive his father in order to steal the blessing of the firstborn from Esau? What sets all of this in motion? I would invite you to consider the possibility that these horrible stories all begin in the same place, with the same problem…
an unshakable belief in something false despite evidence to the contrary; a refusal to experience things as they truly are.
Get the next installment in real time & receive Darrell's blog directly to your email by subscribing below:
Great Gift for Friends & Family
Consider buying Faith Lies as gift this year for family and friends in your life who are asking questions about their faith or deserving of the hope that comes from a liberated faith.
Fresh Bible Study for the New Year Grab in bulk and build community around finding freedom in our faith apart from the fear that traps us.
Faith Lies: 7 Incomplete Ideas That Hijack Faith and How to See Beyond Them is for people noticing the cracks in the foundation of their faith as well as those who feel they have been hurt or discarded by a God or a faith that just does not make sense. See what it's all about. Let's dive in together.