In the Weekly Torah Portion Vayetze, special attention is given to the life of Jacob. The story of Jacob's marriage plays a key role in understanding the entire subsequent history of the Israelite people up to the time of the judges.
As a result of Jacob’s impulsive actions against his brother and father, supported by his mother, Jacob is forced to leave his home. The expression Vayetze – (Heb. – “and he went out”) begins the narrative of Jacob's wandering and life in his uncle's household in Haran, from where his grandfather Abraham had departed a century earlier. Despite the explicit divine support, he found himself in a less than hospitable environment. While his uncle Laban welcomed him warmly, there was one problem. Jacob, without material support, had nothing to pay for his beloved Rachel. Unlike modern Western customs where parents give a dowry upon marriage, in the Ancient Near East, the marriage process looked quite different. A marriage contract was signed between the bride’s father and the prospective bridegroom, stipulating that the groom would pay a specified sum to the bride’s father. This was done to demonstrate the young man’s financial capability. Jacob lacked such a sum, but Laban had a specific goal. Laban, the son of Nahor, Abraham's brother, was displeased with the situation in which half of the vast estate owned by his grandfather Terah (Farrah) was elsewhere. He hoped to restore the former wealth of the family clan through Jacob’s marriage by uniting their “capital.” Therefore, he allows Jacob to work for Rachel for seven years.
However, Laban faces a problem. His other daughter Leah, as the Scripture states, “had weak eyes” (Gen 29:17). This expression needs to be explained in the context of Mesopotamian culture of the second millennium BCE.
As evidenced by cuneiform tablets found throughout the Mesopotamian region, each family member was obligated to contribute to the economic activities of the clan. When choosing a wife, a young man was primarily guided by the economic viability of the young woman. The bride's “price” directly depended on her craft skills and abilities. That's why Jacob meets Rachel at the well. The area around the well served not only as a watering place for livestock but also typically housed a small market where women brought their products, including jewelry, textiles, and leather goods suitable for domestic use. Rachel was there with the flock and possibly had her handicraft items with her. And it’s there that Jacob falls in love with her. Leah’s problem is not that women with poor eyesight were considered unattractive, but because due to poor eyesight, she couldn’t be trained in the skills of fine crafts highly valued in brides. It was advantageous for Laban to marry Leah off to the silverless Jacob and secure a substantial bride price for Rachel from someone else. That's why he proceeds with his plan, and Leah does not object. She understands that her chances are slim.
On the first wedding night, Jacob falls into the pit he once dug for his brother. After seven years of waiting, he, of course, was eager to experience the joys of the wedding night. Clearly not sober after the wedding feast, he immediately fulfills his marital duties without exchanging a single word with his new wife. His intoxicated state and the explosive character, also inherent in his twin brother, play a cruel joke on Jacob. Only in the morning does he discover who he actually married.
Alexander Bolotnikov, PhD
Director of the Shalom Learning Center