Updated: Nov 1, 2019
The scent of roasted meat filled the air. It made Rachel's heart skip a beat as she hastened home from the sheepfold. Finally, it was her wedding day! All around her was bustle and energy as the servants prepared the food and wine for the large gathering planned for nightfall. Away from the house was a large tent with the sides tied up for the gathering. She blushed as she looked a little further and saw the figure of her soon-to-be-husband as he raised the bridal tent a little ways from the feast. He was a handsome man, her betrothed. Her skin tingled in anticipation of his touch.
Seven years! Seven years since the first time she had laid eyes on him. He had startled her the first time they met. She had come as a girl to the well, and he had rolled away the large rock for her, a feat usually reserved when all the men were gathered at well, for it was very heavy. She had been even more stunned when he kissed her cheek and announced himself as her relative!
Her father had been pleased to welcome Jacob into his home, and even agreed to take the young man as his future son-in-law. Jacob had come without flocks or herds for a bride-price, but he had been willing to serve seven years so that he could claim Rachel as his own.
Seven years was a long time for a man to wait, and sometimes Rachel worried he would despise her before the time was up.
“Do you still desire me?” she had whispered only a few weeks ago. “Do you still wish for me to be your wife, the same way you did all those years ago?”
“Can't you tell by the way I look at you?” Jacob had murmured, leaning a little closer. She had peered up into his eyes and shivered happily at the intensity that burned there. “To me, it feels like it has only been a few days.”
Now the years were up, and it was time for her father to fulfill his vow.
Jacob seemed to feel her gaze, and he turned her way. She gave a bashful wave, and turned and ran to the house. It was time for her to prepare.
She needed to bathe and perfume herself before she put on the new clothes she had carefully sewn. As the sun dipped below the horizon she would conceal herself in the veil she had woven and be led by a procession to her husband's tent. He would take her inside and claim her as his own while the family feasted and celebrated the union.
Dashing through the doorway, her mind full of dreams, Rachel nearly tumbled into her father.
“Father!” she laughed. “I'm so sorry!”
Her father didn't even smile, and Rachel furrowed her brow. He took her arm and led her into the women's room at the back of the house. Rachel saw her mother, Leah, and the maids all waiting there. Her wedding clothes were spread out, ready to put on. The air was sweet with perfumed oils.
Yet, no one was smiling.
“What's wrong?” Rachel asked, her heart dropping like a stone.
Her father, Laban, released her arm and Rachel hurried to her mother's side, worry seeping into her veins.
“You know our traditions,” Laban said, his voice even and in control.
“What do you mean?” Rachel breathed, but her eyes flew to her sister. Leah had dropped her gaze to the floor.
“Leah is older. Our traditions say she must be married first,” Laban said, crossing his arms as if to shield himself from his daughter's dismay.
Rachel's hand flew her mouth. “But you promised Jacob! It has been seven years, Father. The wedding feast is being prepared as we speak.” Panic clawed its way up her throat and her voice became shrill. “Today is my wedding day!”
Laban's gaze was implacable. “Jacob will take a wife today. But it shall not be you.”
All the air seemed to be sucked out of the small room. The corners of her vision grew dim. She clutched her mother's arm for support. She was not going to be given to Jacob?
“But, then who—” she began, but then it hit her. Leah. She turned back to her older sister, and Leah lifted her soft, brown eyes at last. Though she didn't smile or gloat, Rachel could see the joy that danced in her sister's eyes.
“But he's my betrothed!” Rachel gasped out, hot tears beginning to stream down her cheeks.
“That is enough,” Laban snapped. “You will not cry on your sister's wedding day! Your sister has a right to a husband and children before you. Now, help her prepare!”
Laban swept from the room like a cold breeze. Rachel stood stunned, staring after him. Why was he doing this? There had been plenty of time for Leah to be married. There had even been talk about sending Leah to marry Esau, Jacob's brother. Laban had been hesitant to send his daughter so far away and Leah hadn't been eager to go. So they had done nothing, happy to let the situation go on and on until now. Now, this was their solution?
Anger flared in Rachel's heart and she lunged at her sister. “How could you!”
“Rachel!” their mother snapped. “It is not her decision. It is the will of your father.” Rachel's shoulders dropped. Her father's word was law in the family. Tears dripped off her chin and she wiped them with her sleeve.
“Does Jacob know?” Rachel whispered.
No one answered her.
Rachel was not permitted to sit in the corner and weep as she wished. She was forced to brush and braid her sister's gleaming hair. Her hands shook so bad that she had to undo the work and start over, but Leah was wise enough not to complain. Leah was silent while the maids massaged her skin with scented oils, but Rachel could feel the satisfaction rising off her sister like steam from a pot.
Rachel gave a little cry as her own wedding clothes were slipped over Leah's head. The careful weaving, the delicate embroidery, the robes created by Rachel's hands— were now for Leah. Now she knew for certain, they were trying to pass Leah off as her. How could her father be so cruel to her, and to the man who had served him as a son for seven years?
The lamps were lit as the sun sank low in the sky. Rachel could hear voices as the people arrived at the feast with joy and laughter. Rachel, her ears carefully attuned, was able to pick out Jacob's voice among all the rest. She closed her eyes and felt sick to her stomach. She had to warn him!
She took two steps towards the door before a claw-like hand gripped her arm and yanked her back. “Stay here!” Zilpah commanded. “Your father has commanded that you remain in this room until morning!”
Rachel pleaded her mother with her eyes, but her mother instead arranged her eldest daughter's necklaces.
Zilpah hissed, “Try to shout, or wail, or any attempt any other nonsense, and your father has promised that you will regret it.”
Rachel felt all the fire go out of her bones. She was her in her father's complete control until given to a husband, and at the whim of his mercy. Zilpah let go of her arm and whispered, “If you do not make trouble, perhaps your father will give you to Jacob also.” Rachel flinched at the idea as if slapped.
They all looked up as the music began at the feast. It was time. The women began to kiss Leah and give her blessings. Rachel hung back until her mother noticed and pulled her forward.
Rachel, seething inwardly, stiffly embraced Leah. She kissed her sister's cheek, but whispered in her ear, “You may be his wife in name, but I am the woman he loves.”
She pulled back and saw the pain in Leah's eyes. Leah knew that she was not Jacob's choice and that he was going to be disappointed, or even angry when he saw Laban had tricked him. That was Rachel's only consolation as her father appeared and led Leah away in Rachel's place.
Read this story for yourself in Genesis 29:1-23
This story grew out of a question I had: How did Rachel feel about Leah usurping her wedding day? Sisters can be best friends or bitter rivals. I wonder what Rachel and Leah's friendship was like before this day. Could they have been friends if their circumstances had been different, or were they doomed to compete and compare?
This story highlights that important fact that just because it is recorded in the Bible, doesn't mean that it is the way God wanted things to be. The Bible is full of real, flawed people. They often made mistakes or did things that make us raise our eyebrows. Reading the crazy antics that some of the people in the Bible got up to reminds us that we cannot hold fellow humans up as our standard!
The one and the only person who ever lived a blameless life was Jesus. Everyone else you read about in the Bible, even great heroes like King David, are going to let you down if you try to use them as a moral guide for your life.
Laban was deceptive here. Definitely not a code to follow. You might say that Jacob deserved to be tricked after stealing his brother's birthright and blessing, but still, this was crazy!
Leah and Rachel are matriarchs in the Jewish line, the mothers of nations. Even so, when you read about them, we see more squabbles than wisdom. Their lives did not go as they wished, but I'm sure their attitudes caused the entire family a lot of strife. Jacob treated Leah differently than he treated Rachel. It says that Leah felt unloved. (Genesis 29:32) Now, of course, Jacob hadn't intended to marry Leah, but once the dust had settled, he should have been kinder to her. She was, after all, his wife. Leah and Rachel started a competition about who could have the most sons, even giving their maids to Jacob to take as wives in an attempt to “win” Jacob's affections. Leah snarkily insists that she has “hired” Jacob from Rachel, and commands him to show up for an intimate evening.
The union between Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and then additional wives later on is not a good example of a marriage! We don't know how willing of participants the sisters (or maids) were, but it seems like Leah and Rachel were pawns in their father's hand because of their culture. I don't believe God wanted women to be used in this way. The first recorded union, one set up by God himself, portrayed Eve and Adam as “one flesh”. Eve was created to partner with Adam, and closeness is implied in that language. There is virtually no way to be “one flesh” when there are multiple participants in the marriage.
Polygamy was widely practiced in the Old Testament culture, but that seems to be something that God permitted to happen, rather than something He encouraged. (Rather like how God permitted divorce with the giving of a certificate, though it was not His ideal for the people.) Later on in the scriptures, there is even a specific law that forbids a man from marrying sisters. (Leviticus 18:18) We read other stories in the Bible of all the trouble that comes from rival wives, such as Sarah and Hagar, or Hannah and Peninnah. When we get into the New Testament, we see that polygamy is not carried forward into the early church. (Timothy 3:12)
So what of these two sisters? Did their rivalry derail God's plan for Abraham's descendants?
Leah was perhaps less loved, but her son Judah was an ancestor in the royal lineage of King David. Moses, Aaron, and the priestly line came from Leah's son Levi.
Rachel's son, Joseph, saved both Egypt and his own family from starvation when a seven-year drought stuck the land.
God works amid our mess-ups, our mistakes, and our flaws. Jacob's theft of his brother's birthright, Laban's deception, Rachel and Leah's rivalry, none of these were too much for God to handle. I find that incredibly comforting. I'm not saying that we should just throw up our hands and stop trying our best, but I do love this quote by Lisa Bevere:
“If you think you've blown God's plan for your life, rest in this: you are not that powerful.”