Jacob’s wives and children (29:1-30:24)
Nestled between the accounts of the two theophanies (28:10-22; 32:22-32) is the fascinating Laban material. The transformation of the character of Jacob is yet incomplete though it has begun. Jacob is still the deceiver, but in Laban he has met his match. For twenty years (31-41) Jacob will be exploited by his uncle in much the way he exploited his own father and brother. Laban’s duplicity is portrayed in the marriage arrangements made with Jacob (29:15-25). Such trickery results in serious contention between the two competitive sisters who have now become Jacob’s wives. The family strife Jacob experienced as a youth has followed him to Haran. Favoritism in each instance (25:28; 29:30) brought destructive elements in its wake. Jacob’s sons are born in envy, rivalry, and dispute.
The plot intensifies when it becomes apparent that the younger sister, Rachel, beloved of Jacob, is barren (29-31). Like Sarah (11-30) and Rebekah (25-21) before her, Rachel’s barrenness will testify that the future belongs to God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist (Ro 4:17). And because of God’s faithfulness to the promise, this family has a future and a hope. Rachel’s barrenness provides the motif of all that transpires. It represents the pathos in which Leah names her sons (29:32-35). It evokes bitter feelings between the sisters (30-1). It is the cause of angry words between Jacob and Rachel (30:1-2). It is the motive for presenting the maids as surrogate mothers (vv. 3-13). It explains the enigmatic recourse to the mandrakes (vv. 14-17).
Throughout the narrative God is depicted as One concerned for the dispossessed. It is because Leah is unloved that God blesses her (29-31), while the favored Rachel is barren. Life and death, birth and barrenness belong to God. God retains the last word in the situation. Jacob’s deceptions catch up on him, and the despised Leah becomes the mother of six Israelite tribes including the priestly and kingly tribes of Levi and Judah. God will not be manipulated either by threat (30-1) or mandrake (v. 14). It is in the act of remembering Rachel (v. 22) that God and God alone grants her fertility. The future is in his hands.