When Isaac became concerned about the neighborhood Canaanite girls stealing the heart of his youngest son, Jacob, he instructed Jacob to leave home: “Marry one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother” (Gen 28:2). So Jacob packed up and headed for Paddan-aram (his mom’s hometown).
It was an emotional trip-leaving his parents, striking out on his own. On the way, Jacob stopped at Luz to get some shut-eye. During the night Yahweh himself appeared to Jacob in a dream, reiterating the promises he’d given years grandfather Abraham. It was a good sign.
An Jacob neared his destination, he came to a well. Some local shepherds there were in the process of telling Jacob all about Laban when a gorgeous shepherdess-Laban’s daughter Rachel-showed up with her flock. When happened next was like a scene from a romantic comedy. Jacob jumped up, watered Rachel’s thirsty sheep, kissed his shocked cousin, and began to weep loudly. When he gathered himself, he told Rachel who he was. In a flash she was running home to tell her father the news (see Gen 29:1-12).
Jacob stuck around and started helping Laban out. When Laban became uncomfortable with all that free labor, he said to Jacob, “Tell me what your wages should be” (Gen 29:15). Jacob didn’t even have to think. “I’ll work for you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (29:18).
Seven years seems like a long time to us, but the “shapely and beautiful” Rachel was a catch, and Jacob was utterly smitten. Consequently the years “seemed like only a few days to him” (Gen 29:17-20).
However, on their weeding night Uncle Laban pulled a fast one. He gave Jacob his older, less attractive daughter, Leah. It sounds hard to believe, but whether due to darkness, an excess of veils, or perhaps too much wine at the reception, Jacob was none the wiser. In the bright light of morning, Jacob was justifiably ticked. He confronted Laban, calming down only when Laban agreed to give him Rachel in one week’s time if Jacob would work for him seven more years. Jacob agreed.
Marriage is complicated; throw in an extra spouse, and things start getting really messy. Rachel was beloved, but childless. Leah, despite being unloved (see Gen 29:31), had several children. After watching her big sister produce four sons, Rachel became angry and desperate. She arranged for Jacob to have children by her servant girl, Bilhah, which resulted in the birth of two sons (see Gen 30:1-7). This started unhealthy competition between the sisters. Leah responded in kind, giving her handmaid, Zilpah, to Jacob. Soon, there were two more sons in this atypical family.
It wasn’t until after Leah gave birth to two additional sons and a daughter that “God remembered Rachel. He listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, ‘God has taken away my shame'” (Gen 30:22-23). She named the boy Joseph, which means “may the LORD add another son to me” (30:24). The name was probably both a note of praise and a prayer.
Soon after the birth of Joseph, Jacob decided to take his family back to Canaan (see Gen 31:17-20). During the long journey, Jacob had a strange midnight wrestling match with God at the Jabbok River (see Gen 32:22-32). He also had a nerve-rattling reunion with his brother, Esau (see Gen 33:1-16). Rachel became pregnant again either during the family’s sojourn in Succoth or their short stay at Shechem (see 33:17-18). It was after stopping to worship at Bethel, and then heading for Ephrath (Bethlehem), that Rachel went into severe labor (see 35:16).
Life was always so complicated for her. Her rare beauty. Her conniving father. Having to share her husband with an envious big sister. Infertility. And now this: giving birth in the middle of a trip in the middle of nowhere.
It was another boy. God had answered her prayer (see Gen 30:24). Realizing she wasn’t going to see her newborn grow up, she named him Ben-oni, “son of my sorrow.” Probably because didn’t want to think of Rachel’s death every time he called his son, Jacob changed the boy’s name to Benjamin. Then he buried the great love of his life.