In the third generation, the promises God gave to Abraham hang on a knife-edge. Jacob is the sole person who can advance the vision of descendants in the land (YHWH’s nation), but he has splintered the family and abandoned the land. The whole kingdom project dangles like a thread.
For two decades, Jacob lives among foreigners—“the people of the east” (29:1). Laban may be related (29:13-14) but he’s a foreigner: the narrator keeps calling him “Laban the Aramean” (31:20, 24; also 25:20 and 28:5). At this point, Jacob has fled from the land, to live among gentiles.
Here Jacob the deceiver finds his match. Laban tricks Jacob by giving him Leah instead of Rachel, so Jacob works 14 years for the bride he wanted (30:27). Then he works a further 6 years, but Laban keeps reneging on the terms of employment (31:41).
Rachel (30:14-16) and Jacob (30:37-42) both use superstition to try to gain a fertility advantage. The narrator doesn’t critique their beliefs, but God’s angel redirects Jacob’s understanding: his success has come from God’s intervention (31:12).
Jacob ends up with two wives. When Leah and Rachel are not falling pregnant they use their handmaidens as surrogate mothers. Jacob’s two wives and two concubines bear him many children: an unknown number of daughters (who don’t count as heirs in their culture) and these sons (29:31 – 30:24):
- Reuben (a son), Leah
- Simeon (heard), Leah
- Levi (attached), Leah
- Judah (praise), Leah
- Dan (judge), Bilhah (Rachel’s maid)
- Naphtali (wrestling) , Bilhah
- Gad (lucky), Zilpah (Leah’s maid)
- Asher (happy) , Zilpah
- Issachar (hired) , Leah
- Zebulun (honour) , Leah
- Joseph (add/taken), Rachel
Benjamin is born later. These effectively become the twelve tribes of Israel. What a messy story: a deceitful man with four wives, living far from the land! Nevertheless, Jacob has finally laid the foundation for God’s representative nation.
The narrator wants us to understand that God is at work, laying the foundation for his kingdom. Despite the greed and trickery that led Jacob into exile, despite the wasted years serving Laban much longer than expected, despite Laban’s conniving and Jacob’s superstitious manipulations, and despite his turbulent home life, Jacob has become fruitful. God was at work. The God who revealed himself to Jacob at Bethel was, in fact, “with him” (31:3 compare 28:15).
One thing remains if God is to establish his nation through Jacob’s descendants. They must return to the Land. Ironically, it is the animosity between Jacob and Laban that prepares Jacob for the move (31:1). YHWH insists Jacob must return (31:3), a message confirmed with a dream (31:12).
In the middle of this muddle, YHWH still founds the nation that will represent his kingship on earth. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is at work. How encouraging this must have been for Israel though the difficult years of their history, even when they themselves went into exile.
The God who rules heaven and earth is determined to be with his people. That’s the certain hope we have. The story will not end any other way. Through all the struggles of history, he will fulfil his goal and establish his kingship over the earth.
What others are saying
Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 250:
It is into this most bitterly divided family that the forefathers of the twelve tribes were born. Fathered by a lying trickster and mothered by sharp-tongued shrews, the patriarchs grew up to be less than perfect themselves. Yet through them the promises to Abraham took a great step toward their fulfillment, showing that it is divine grace not human merit that gives mankind hope of salvation.
Wilbur Glenn Williams, Genesis: A Commentary for Bible Students (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 1999), 224:
Both Jacob and the author of Genesis knew that in reality God was fulfilling the promises that He had given Jacob at Bethel (see 28:13–15). This serves as a vivid illustration that God is not hindered by crafty deceivers, that He sees justice is done, and that His promises come to pass regardless of all attempts to hinder Him.
Rolf Rendtorff, The Canonical Hebrew Bible: A Theology of the Old Testament. Translated by David E. Orton. (Leiden: Deo, 2005), 30:
When Jacob has experienced the most devastating bankruptcy, when all seems lost and blessing seems to have turned to a curse, God adds his blessing to him.
Read Genesis 29 – 30.