When we last saw Jacob he was running from Beersheba for his life, fleeing the vengeance of his brother Esau. He did not get very far before he learned that God was going with him. The message came in the form of a dream about a ladder that stretched from heaven to earth. The Lord stood above the ladder and said to Jacob, “Behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15). Jacob called the name of the place Bethel, meaning “house of God.”
Armed with that precious promise of God’s presence, Jacob headed for Haran, the land of his mother’s family. It was a long and lonely journey. He arrived in the general vicinity of the city weary, footsore, homesick, and not exactly sure where to go. He spotted a well and stopped to rest. There were some shepherds sitting around the well, so Jacob started a conversation with them: “My brothers, where are you from?” They answered, “We are from Haran.” Jacob probably heaved a sigh of relief. The Lord had brought him safely to his destination. He continued, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” “We know him,” they said. Again his heart must have leaped within him at the realization of God’s faithful direction. “Is it well with him?” he questioned. And they replied, “It is well, and behold, Rachel his daughter is coming with the sheep” (Gen. 29:4-6).
Jacob turned his head, took one fateful look, and it was without a doubt love at first sight. She was a lovely girl, “beautiful of form and face” (Gen. 29:17). And her eyes—what gorgeous eyes they were! Since they are contrasted with her older sister Leah’s, which had no brightness or sparkle, they must have been dark and lustrous, captivatingly beautiful.
Jacob was impressed—probably too impressed. We get the idea that he was so fascinated by Rachel’s beauty, and so enchanted by her charm, that he failed to recognize her shortcomings or even to consider the will of God in his relationship with her. And being the shrewd operator that he was, he got down to business immediately. He reminded the shepherds that grazing time was being lost and that they should water their flocks and get them back out to pasture while it was still light, probably a ploy to get rid of them so he could talk to Rachel alone. But the shepherds had some sort of agreement that they would not roll the stone back from the mouth of the well until everybody’s flocks were gathered (Gen. 29:7, 8).
“While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. And it came about, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went up, and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother” (Gen. 29:9, 10). Jacob may have been a homebody, but he was no weakling. He moved a stone that normally took several people to move, and watered all of Rachel’s sheep. Could he have been showing off just a little?
We go on to read, “Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted his voice and wept” (Gen. 29:11). The emotion of the moment overwhelmed him. The miracle of God’s guidance and care, the thrill of meeting his pretty cousin, the prospect of what the future would hold—all of it filled his heart so full that he wept for joy. Our culture frowns on a man expressing his emotions like this, but honestly expressing one’s feelings might promote greater emotional health and greater marital stability.
It seems as though this romance was off to a blazing start. The neighborhood beauty and the new boy in town had found each other. But from the beginning we are a little dubious about the match. We know that a relationship based primarily on physical attraction rests on a shaky foundation. Hollywood has given us some good evidence for that thesis. And the marital misfortunes of the proverbial football hero and homecoming queen bear it out too. They can make their marriage succeed, but it will take a little extra effort, and they will need to make their relationship grow far beyond the physical magnetism that got it started.
But when a man is enamored of a woman, he does not want to hear those things. He is going to have her, and nothing else matters. It was only one month after Jacob arrived in Haran that Uncle Laban approached him to see if they could work out a mutually acceptable wage arrangement. The Scripture says that Jacob loved Rachel and offered to serve Laban seven years for her hand in marriage (Gen. 29:18). He had nothing to offer Laban for his daughter, so his labor was promised in lieu of a dowry. Now we are even more dubious. One month is hardly sufficient time for us to get to know someone well enough to make a lifelong commitment, and it surely is not enough time to learn whether or not we are in love. True love requires thorough knowledge. To profess to love someone we do not know intimately is merely to love our mental image of that person. And if he does not measure up to our mental image, then our so-called “love” turns to disillusionment and resentment, and sometimes to hatred.
But Jacob thought he was in love. When Rachel was near, his heart pounded faster and a wonderful feeling swept over him. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on, and he felt life without her would be worthless. That was enough for him. “So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her” (Gen. 29:20). That is a remarkable statement. In fact, they are about the loveliest words ever penned of a man’s feeling for a woman. Seven years is a long time to wait, and I think Jacob really did grow to love Rachel during those years. The physical attraction was still there, but he could not live in such close contact with her through a seven-year engagement period and not learn a great deal about her, both good and bad. This marriage was to see hard times, but had it not been for this long engagement and Jacob’s deepening and maturing love, it probably would not have survived at all.
Too many couples marry in haste and repent at leisure. Seven-year engagements may be a little excessive, but time is needed to learn someone’s desirable and undesirable traits, so that we can decide whether we can give of ourselves unselfishly for the other person’s good in spite of his unappealing characteristics. One great test of true love, therefore, is the ability to wait. Infatuation is usually in a hurry because it is self-centered. It says, “I feel good when I am with you, so I want to hurry up and get you to the altar before I lose you and lose these good feelings.” Love says, “Your happiness is what I want most of all, and I am willing to wait, if need be, to be sure this is what is best for you.” And if it is real, it will stand the test of time. Jacob waited, and his romantic love at first sight grew to become a deep bond of spirit and a total commitment of soul.
There is an old saying that goes, “True love never runs smoothly.” That’s the way it was with Jacob and Rachel. Let’s look at love under great stress. Uncle Laban was the one who threw the monkey wrench into the machinery. Sly, deceitful old trickster that he was, he substituted Leah for Rachel on Jacob’s wedding night. With a heavy veil over her face and long flowing garments covering her body, she got through the ceremony undetected. By talking in whispered tones in the darkened tent, she made it through the night. But can you imagine Jacob’s utter consternation when the morning light exposed Laban’s chicanery? He was probably furious with the whole family for their double-dealing fraud.
That was not exactly the happiest way for Leah to start her married life, was it? I suspect that she loved Jacob from the start and longed for him to return her affection. She cooperated willingly with her father’s scheme but found very little satisfaction in the husband she had gained by deceit. Tricking someone into marriage is dangerous business, but it is still being done today. Some women try to buy a man with sex, or trap him with a baby, or lure him with family fortune. A man may also trap a woman by promising wealth, or trick a woman by pretending to be something he is not, masking his faults until after the ceremony. It may not take any longer than the honeymoon for his wife to discover that she married a monster she never really knew. The consequences of deception are usually painful and distressing.
Big-hearted Laban offered to give Rachel to Jacob as well if he would work for seven more years. “Complete the bridal week of this one, and we will give you the other also for the service which you shall serve with me for another seven years” (Gen. 29:27). The week refers to the week of wedding festivities. Jacob did not have to wait seven more years for Rachel, only one week. But he had to work seven more years without pay after marrying her. “So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and indeed he loved Rachel more than Leah, and he served with Laban for another seven years” (Gen. 29:30).
So we have the first of the God-fearing patriarchs entering into a bigamous relationship. It was not God’s perfect will. God made one woman for one man (Gen. 2:24, cf. also Lev. 18:18; 1 Tim. 3:2). Although Jacob was tricked into it, there were alternatives. Some commentators insist that he should have rejected Leah since he did not take her willingly. May I suggest another alternative; Jacob could have accepted his marriage to Leah as the will of God for his life and learned to love her alone. Jacob’s father accepted the consequences of his deceit when he impersonated his brother Esau and stole the family blessing, and Isaac was commended for it in the New Testament. Maybe Jacob would have been commended for accepting these consequences from the sovereign hand of God had he exercised that degree of faith. And may I remind you that Leah, not Rachel, was the mother of Judah, through whom the Savior would ultimately come (Gen. 29:35). But Jacob was not willing to believe that God was in control of these circumstances. He was going to have what he wanted in spite of God’s will. And the events that follow should be evidence enough that bigamy was never part of God’s plan for the human race.
In the pressure of that bigamous relationship, Rachel’s true character began to surface. When she realized that Leah was bearing Jacob children and she was not, she became intensely jealous of her sister and said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (Gen. 30:1). She was saying essentially, “if I can’t have my own way, I’d rather be dead.” Here was a woman who had almost everything in life—great physical beauty, all the material things she needed, and the adoring devotion of a loving husband. Wasn’t Jacob’s love worth more than any number of sons? No, it wasn’t, not for Rachel. She had to have everything she wanted or life was not worth living. She was envious, selfish, peevish, fretful, discontented, and demanding. And Jacob lost his cool, “Then Jacob’s anger burned against Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’” (Gen. 30:2).
His anger was not right in God’s sight, but his evaluation of the situation surely was. The miracle of conception lies within the power of God.
The sin of discontentment has ruined countless relationships since Jacob’s day. Some couples get angry with God for not giving them children, while others who do have children look forward to the day when the kids will be grown and gone and they can have some peace and quiet. Homemakers want to be working wives, and working wives want to be full-time homemakers. There are Christians who are dissatisfied with the places where they live, the jobs they have, the money they make, and the houses they live in. Something else always looks better to them. Some wives are discontented with their husbands. They whine and scold because the men don’t pay enough attention to them, don’t spend enough time with the children, won’t do little jobs around the house, stay out too late, or think more of their jobs, their cars, their hobbies, television, or sports than they think of them. Some husbands are discontented with their wives. They criticize them for the way they dress, the way they fix their hair, the way they cook, the way they keep house, or the way they treat the children. They get upset because they sleep too late, eat too much, waste too much time, or spend too much money. No matter how hard some wives try, they can never please their husbands.
Some of these things are important and need to be talked out. I am not suggesting that we totally ignore them and suffer in silence. But a spirit of discontent that causes us to fuss, nag, bicker, quarrel, and complain is a great hindrance to happy marital relationships. God wants us to be content with what we have. “But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6). Paul could say, “For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am” (Phil. 4:11). When we can recognize the presence of discontentment in our lives and acknowledge it as sin, we can seek God’s grace to overcome it and find new joy in living.
Rachel’s discontentment led her to the same kind of fleshly scheme Sarah tried. She gave her handmaid Bilhah to Jacob so that he could have a son by her, and she did it twice (30:3-8). Technically, the children of that union would be Rachel’s children in their culture. But we get another glimpse into Rachel’s selfish nature when Bilhah’s second son is born. She said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and I have indeed prevailed” (Gen. 30:8). She named the child Naphtah, which means “wrestling.” She saw herself in a contest with her sister for first place in Jacob’s estimation.
Her jealous malcontent was seen again a short time later. Little Reuben, Leah’s firstborn, who may have been about four years old at the time, was out in the field following the reapers around picking some plants called mandrakes or love apples, as any little boy of that time might do. When he brought them home and presented them to his mother, Rachel saw them and decided she wanted some too. She always seemed to want what somebody else had. So she peddled Jacob’s affections to Leah for the night for a couple of those love apples (Gen. 30:14, 15).
The same spirit of discontent shows up again in her life. God finally did give her a son of her own, and now we expect her to be satisfied. But she named him Joseph, which means “may he add.” And she said, “May the Lord give me another son” (Gen. 30:24). More, more, more! Rachel was never completely happy with what she had.
But the end is not yet. God told Jacob that it was time to leave Uncle Laban and go back home to Canaan. He had prospered to such an extent that Laban no longer felt very kindly toward him. So Jacob gathered his wives and children and his belongings and he slipped away while Laban was out shearing his sheep. But Rachel took something that did not belong to any of them; she took her father’s idols, the household gods called terephim (Gen. 31:19). The possessor of those images was accepted as the principal heir of the family, even if he was only a son-in-law.
Again, Rachel’s greed was showing. She wanted her husband rather than her brothers to have the largest share of the family inheritance so she could benefit from it too. When Laban finally overtook them and searched their belongings for his terephim, Rachel lied to him and deceived him to keep him from finding them (Gen. 31:33-35). This lovely little Rachel seems to have been a shrew!
But do you know what? Except for the one time that Jacob got angry with her for blaming her childlessness on him, there is no indication that he ever loved her any less for her faults. In fact, there are indications that he maintained his devotion to her to the very end of her life. For example, he put her in the favored position to the rear of the company when they went to meet Esau and their lives may have been in danger (Gen. 33:2). Jacob was far from perfect, but he is an example to us of how a husband ought to treat his wife when she isn’t all that she ought to be.
Some husbands say, “I could love her more if she would only be sweet.” Love that functions only when she is sweet is not really love. God wants wives to sense their husbands’ intense love for them even when they are acting like stinkers (Eph. 5:25). And most of us have moments like that. Maybe men should ask themselves this question periodically, especially in the middle of a disagreement, “Is my wife conscious of my love right now? Is she feeling love, or is she feeling anger, hostility, and rejection?” God made a wife with the need to rest secure in her husband’s love at all times. And that will depend largely on the attitude her husband projects by things as little as the look on his face and the tone of his voice, especially when she is moody and disagreeable.
We have seen Jacob’s love at first sight and his love under great stress. Look, finally, at love through deep sorrow. God allowed Rachel to have her one last request. She did bear another son. Her labor was severe, and it became evident that she was going to die in childbirth. When the midwife told her she had given birth to a son, she gasped out his name with her last breath—Ben-oni, which means “Son of my sorrow.” Jacob later changed it to Benjamin, “Son of my right hand.” But isn’t it ironic? One day years before she had screamed, “Give me children, or else I die.” And she died giving birth to her second son. The child lived. But they buried Rachel by the side of the road leading from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. You can still visit her tomb today, a lasting monument to the disaster of discontentment.
Jacob never got over Rachel. At 147 years of age he called his sons together in Egypt to bless them, and he was still thinking about her. “Now as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, in the land of Canaan on the journey, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (Gen. 48:7). He loved her to the end of his life. But what good did it do her? She could not fully enjoy his love. That gnawing discontentment kept her from enjoying anything totally, and it kept others from enjoying her. It isolated her in a grim world of loneliness. Then she died, leaving Jacob to the sister she envied so much in life. And even in death, she was alone. At Jacob’s request, they buried him next to Leah in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron beside Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah (Gen. 49:29-31; 50:13). Rachel lies alone.
Could it be that the loneliness in our lives or the conflicts in our relationships are the result of an underlying spirit of discontentment? It will not change as long as we think satisfaction can be found in any material possession or improved circumstance. Rachel proved that. Real satisfaction can only be found in the Lord. He is the one who satisfies the thirsty soul and fills the hungry soul with good things (Ps. 107:9). He has instructed us to be content with what we have, for while the circumstances of life change daily, He is unchanging and ever with us (Heb. 13:5). As our knowledge of Him increases through the study of His Word and through prayerful periods in His presence, we shall find a settled peace and contentment growing within us. Then we shall be able to receive with gratitude what He gives us, and at the same time thank Him for what He denies us, being confident that His ways are perfect. And we shall be able to change what can be changed, while joyfully accepting what cannot be changed, being assured that it is part of His perfect plan to bring us to maturity in Christ.
1. Discuss some of the values of a lengthy and close acquaintance before marriage. How can couples who married without it now compensate for it?
2. What could Rachel have done to overcome her jealous discontentment? What could Jacob have done to help her?
3. What are the things in your life you would consider of the greatest value?
4. Finish the following statement as you might have done before reading this chapter: “I could be happy if only ...”
5. If you inserted some improved circumstance or material possession, how might you finish the statement to be more consistent with the principles of God’s Word?
6. What characteristics in your mate bring you the greatest contentment? What characteristics bother you the most? If you feel that certain things should be changed, what should you do?
7. Do you feel jealousy toward some other person? How does God want you to handle those feelings?
8. For husbands: Does your wife continually sense your love for her? You might find out by asking her. How can you demonstrate love even in her “bad moments”?