The complicated story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel comprises one of the larger sections of Genesis and includes much information relevant to the history of the Jewish people. Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, fled to his mother’s brother Laban. At the time, Jacob feared his twin brother, Esau, would kill him (Genesis 27:41–46). It was at Laban’s that Jacob met Leah and Rachel.
Laban offered his nephew Jacob a place to stay. Jacob soon fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, and agreed to work for Laban seven years in exchange for marriage to her (Genesis 29:16–20).
Laban agreed, but after seven years, he deceived Jacob. On the night that Jacob and Rachel were to be married, Laban gave Rachel’s older sister, Leah, to him as a wife instead. Jacob protested, but Laban argued that it wasn’t the custom to give the younger daughter in marriage first. So it was official: Jacob and Leah were to stay married. Laban then said Jacob could still have Rachel in exchange for another seven years of work (Genesis 29:21–30). In an ironic twist, the deceiver Jacob had himself been deceived. In exchange for fourteen years of labor, Jacob had two wives, Leah and Rachel.
Jacob showed favoritism to Rachael and loved her more than Leah. God compensated for the lack of love Leah received by enabling her to have children and closing Rachel’s womb for a time (Genesis 29:31). There developed an intense rivalry between the two wives. In fact, at one time the wives bartered over the right to sleep with Jacob. Genesis 30:16 says, “When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, ‘You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ So he lay with her that night,” and Leah became pregnant. In the end, Jacob fathered twelve sons and a daughter. Jacob and Leah had six sons and a daughter; Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant, bore Jacob two sons; Jacob and Rachel had two sons together; and Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant, bore Jacob another two sons (Genesis 35:23–36).
After twenty years with Laban, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, now very wealthy, moved their family back to Canaan. As they were leaving Laban’s house, Rachel stole her father’s teraphim and lied about having them (Genesis 31). As he drew closer home, Jacob knew that he would have to face Esau again. He still feared Esau’s anger, and he sent gifts to satisfy him before he arrived. The night before Jacob crossed the Jabbok River, he “wrestled with God” and was given the name “Israel” along with God’s blessing.
The story of Jacob and Rachel ended tragically, as Rachel died giving birth to her second child, Benjamin. Rachel named him Ben-Oni (“son of my trouble”), but Jacob renamed him Benjamin (“son of my right hand”). Rachel “was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Over her tomb Jacob set up a pillar, and to this day that pillar marks Rachel’s tomb” (Genesis 35:19–20).
Jacob and Leah’s marriage lasted longer, but eventually Leah, too, died in Canaan and was buried in the same tomb as Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 49:30–32). Jacob and his son Joseph would later be buried in this tomb as well (Genesis 50).
The story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel is filled with much difficulty, yet God used these people greatly to impact history. Their twelve sons were the leaders of the twelve tribes that became the nation of Israel. Through their family, God blessed the entire world, as Jesus Christ was born from the tribe of Judah and offers salvation to all (John 3:16; Luke 2:10).