05. Jacob’s stay at his uncle’s place; Jacob’s marriages

Rebecca was well aware of the vengeance that Esau had been nursing against Jacob. Hence with Isaac’s permission, she sent Jacob away to her brother Laban, ostensibly to look for a bride. Esau then sent assassins to kill Jacob, whom they accosted while he was still on the way. They let him off snatching his valuables. But they took away Jacob’s tunic to convince Esau that Jacob was indeed dead. Jacob thanked God for his life and proceeded with his journey. While still in Canaan, Jacob decided to rest the night. He fell asleep and had a dream where he saw a stairway leading to heaven with angels going up and down on it. Jacob saw God standing on the top stair. He gave a vision to Jacob, repeating the promise that He gave Abraham and Isaac. God promised Jacob the very land on which Jacob lay.

When Jacob awoke from sleep, he was still thinking of the dream. He thanked God, promised Him that he would preserve the stone on which he had rested his head while asleep (Stone of Jacob) and to the place where he received the divine vision, he gave a name. He called it Bethel (House of God).

Jacob’s marriagesJacob reached city of Haran, where he met the local shepherds. The meadow there had a well with a large rock upon its mouth where the shepherds had lined up their flocks. Jacob asked why the flocks had yet not drunk water even though it was afternoon. The shepherds replied that all of their brethren were yet to arrive with their flocks and that the large rock upon the mouth of the well could be moved only when all the shepherds together apply force. The flocks could be set for grazing only after they had had water which was possible only when the rock was moved. By then, Jacob’s uncle’s – Laban’s daughter, ‘Rachel’ had arrived there bringing with her, his flock and his shepherds.

Jacob then all by himself, successfully moved the rock, the rock that otherwise necessitated the combined force of all the shepherds. He then instructed that the shepherds begin to give the sheep water to drink. Rachel had witnessed this extraordinary display of strength. On learning that the man was her cousin, she ran home to inform her father about Jacob’s arrival.

Laban rushed to welcome him, well aware of the renown of Jacob’s family. Selfish and cunning that he was, Laban figured that fortune would smile upon him as long as Jacob, who came from a family blessed by God Himself, lived with him in his house. He invited Jacob to stay with him at his house and Jacob stayed there for a month. During this time Jacob put in a lot of hard work to help Laban keep his large flocks. His work was perfect to a T. He left just no room for criticism. After learning that Jacob had come in search of a bride and that he had liked Rachel and Rachel too had begun to like him, Laban played his cards and he played them right. Wearing a mask of goodness, Laban said to Jacob, ‘Though you are my nephew you must not work for free. You must take remuneration for your work’. That was when Jacob expressed his willingness to marry Rachel. As per the customs at the time, Jacob owed his fiancée’s family some form of repayment. But he had nothing to give by way of repayment. Hence as compensation, Jacob agreed to work with Laban for 7 years. He started staying at Laban’s place and exactly as Laban had anticipated, those 7 years were years of wealth and prosperity.

Jacob and Rachel at the well
Jacob and Rachel at the well

At the end of 7 years Jacob married Rachel but here again, the conniving Laban planted his elder daughter Leah in place of Rachel. Totally oblivious of this, Jacob married her. After the marriage when Jacob became aware of this deceit he questioned Laban. To this Laban replied that ‘as per the customs of the region, the younger daughter could not marry before elder daughter’. However, Laban had an offer for Jacob: he could still marry Rachel if he so wished but then he would be required to spend another 7 years at Laban’s home. Left with no option, Jacob agreed.

Accordingly, he Jacob married Rachel and continued working for Laban for another 7 years. Jacob also married Zilpah and Bilhah who Laban had appointed as handmaids for Leah and Rachel. Zilpah and Bilhah also acted surrogate mothers to the children of Leah and Rachel. Jacob fathered 6 sons – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulun and a daughter – Dinah from Leah. With Bilhah he had two sons, Dan and Naphtali and with Zilpah, he had two sons – Gad and Asher. Though issueless, Rachel was his favourite wife. Rachel gave birth to their child after 7 years. He was named ‘Joseph’.

After Joseph’s birth, Jacob gradually realized that he had now stayed away from his home for a long time. Most importantly it had dawned on him that he there he was but a slave. He felt he ought to consider returning to his own house, to his father. He expressed his wish to Laban but with his sweet-talk, Laban, promising him a stake in his flocks and business, kept evading the issue and Jacob was forced him to stay with him for another 6 years. Though Laban had deceived Jacob in the offered stake, it was indeed God’s grace that the sheep that had come Jacob’s way, whatever the number, they grew and multiplied at an astonishing rate and within no time Jacob had the largest of flocks, a fact that left other shepherds amazed and Laban and his sons, in envy. Their resentment for Jacob grew.

Jacob knew well that Laban would only put a spoke in his wheel, if he asked permission to return to Canaan. So Jacob decided to leave Laban’s place without asking him, the very moment he got an opportunity. There are references which say that it was God Himself Who appeared to Jacob in a vision and asked him to make this decision.

And Jacob landed the opportunity he was looking for. Once when Laban was travelling out of the city for some work, Jacob managed to flee from his house and set out for Canaan, taking along with him Leah, Rachel, all his children and also all the wealth, clothing, flocks, etc. that belonged to him. Rachel was pregnant for the second time then. Laban’s house was polytheistic and observed relevant rituals. Rachel was brought up in this very atmosphere and was tempted to take along, an idol of one of the deities.

Upon his return, Laban learnt of Jacob’s escape and sent his men to look out for him. On receiving the information that they were headed for Canaan, Laban directed his search accordingly. He also noticed that an idol was missing from his house. Just when Jacob and his folk were about to reach the borders of Canaan, Laban caught up to them. Moreover, stories with references of God, appearing to Laban in a dream, a night before he caught up with Jacob and warning him that no harm come to Jacob, are also known. (To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar