Omens that occur when man meets woman are most often the good sort of omen. When Jacob, to help his cousin Rachel water her flock, rolled the heavy stone cover from the well, the water rose to the top and overflowed. Jacob knew he had met his destined bride. He could not know how much more the omen meant, or how it would light up the eyes of dedicated crooks and fortune hunters far and wide. For twenty years the well overflowed and watered every flock in the land. These were also the years that Jacob, had he known it, was sentenced by God himself to hard labor for committing fraud.
When they met, Rachel was a snip of a girl just five years old. Jacob on the other hand was a young seventy something. Who would have thought it, the way the girl said to him, “I want to marry you, cousin Jacob. I’m afraid however that you won’t like my father much at all. He’s the biggest swindler hereabouts; and believe me, there is a lot of competition for the title.”
“Don’t you worry,” says her old cousin. “When it comes to cheating, your father and I are brothers.” “What!" says Rachel, “You mean to tell me that a saint like you can act dishonestly?” He likes the way Rachel gets alarmed. “With saints you may act saintly, and with crooks, crookedly,” he quotes from somewhere. “Believe me, Rachel dear, that is God’s own truth.”
The prospective father-in-law at this time was studying a full report on his visiting nephew. Laban learnt that Jacob was strong and clever; that he had gained both the birthright and his wealthy father’s blessing; that he had moved the enormous stone from the well with one hand; that the water had risen in his honor. You may imagine how effusive Laban welcomed Jacob when his daughter brought her suitor home. ‘A servant of Abraham brought ten camels with him,’ Laban calculated. ‘So how many would the grandson bring!’ Yet here was Jacob, empty-handed: no gold and silver, not one camel. ‘It can’t be,’ thought Laban. ‘Diamonds perhaps?’ When they embraced Laban slid probing hands all over Jacob’s tattered clothes. He even kissed Jacob to make sure that he was not hiding any diamonds in his mouth.
Make no mistake, it distressed Jacob as much as Laban that he had come empty-handed. What a bad first impression for a hopeful son-in-law to make! It was a good thing that he had an explanation ready. “Sir,” he says to a perplexed Laban, “I really came with nothing. I was robbed on the way. My brother sent his boy, Eliphaz after me. He took all my belongings, though he was good enough to spare my life.”
Laban's mouth turned down. Here was no bargain bridegroom. “I intended to honor you as I would a king,” he tells Jacob. “But I see you are only a dry meatless bone. Come inside, anyway.” Just how upset Laban was, became clear when they sat down to some light refreshment. “Since you have nothing,” said the reluctant host, “I have no obligation whatever to take you in. But you are my flesh and blood after all, so you can stay for a month. I will feed you like a dog and you will eat the leftovers from our table.”
Even such meager board and lodging was not free. Jacob would have to attend Laban’s flock seven days a week. You would not expect a desperate beggar to accept such terms. Jacob did. He wanted to get to know Rachel, and her older sister Leah who, people said, was destined for Jacob’s terrible twin Esau. Jacob had a feeling about Leah, and wanted to satisfy himself that she was no loose idolater like others in the family. Jacob therefore worked his month-long contract.
By this time Laban’s mind has changed. Impressed with the naïve Jew’s hard work, he tells him it’s only right that he should be paid like a normal worker. “How much do you want?” he asks. Had Laban’s black heart changed together with his mind? It sounded like it; but the scheme coursing through his brain had business and profit writ large. Laban’s idea was that if Jacob asked for ten gold pieces he would give him five. He also factored in Jacob’s boast to Rachel, which by now had gone public. If Jacob thought he could out-cheat him then why had he worked a whole month without pay? What the hell was his nephew concocting? Something that comes for free always costs a lot in the end, thought Laban. ‘Let me invite him to set his own terms and see what terms he sets,’ he thought. The terms Jacob set took the scoundrel by surprise.
“Sir,” he says with no hint of deviancy, “I will work for you for seven years in exchange for young Rachel.” Then recalling who and what he was dealing with, Jacob added, “I heard that people around here are swindlers. No one must think that you are cheating me, so let us clarify our agreement beyond any doubt. I am working for your daughter Rachel, not for any other girl by that name, nor any girl who may change her name to Rachel.” But why seven years and not five, or even two? Better still, why not one year? Rachel, remember, was only five years old at the time. Jacob felt that it would not be seemly for him to marry a girl so young. Twelve seemed a decent enough age for a wife.
Though Laban remained skeptical of free labor he agreed to Jacob’s terms, without committing himself to the exact details. His answer was a model of ambiguity. “Better I give her to you than to another man. You are nothing but a beggar. Rachel is so beautiful I could marry her off to the richest of men. But it’s better I give her to you, because then I won’t lose my daughter. A rich man would take her away.”
For the next seven years Jacob worked for not a zuz. When the time came he went to his uncle and demanded that he be given his intended right away. “God wants twelve tribes to be born from me,” he said. “I am already eighty four years old, so there is no time to lose.”
Laban was like many crooks; he knew a good thing when he saw it. Under Jacob not only had his own flocks multiplied but thanks to the overflowing well, land yielded fat crops and equally fat sheep. He called a meeting with the town elders and said to them: “You are aware that ever since my nephew came here we have been blessed with abundance. But now he wants to marry my daughter Rachel and go away with her. The good fortune that is upon us will depart with Jacob. I have a plan to detain him for another seven years. But the plan will need your help.”
They agreed on the spot, and Laban explained his plan. He would give Jacob not his young daughter Rachel, but his older daughter Leah. Then he would make his son-in-law work another seven years for Rachel. “But how can I be sure that none of you will inform Jacob?” he said. “It will spoil the plan. I have to ask you for security to guarantee that no one will reveal the plan. Each of you must leave a piece of jewellery as a pledge of silence. Don’t worry, you’ll get it back after the wedding. You have my word.”
So the town elders came with their valuables. Laban went directly to a dealer, sold every last item, and with the money organized a wedding feast on the most sumptuous scale. The whole town was invited. They danced and sang and told the groom what a blessing he had been to their city. Candles were extinguished, and the bride was led in.
“What is this!” says Jacob. “Why do you darken the room?”
“What do you think!” the guests answer. “In our country a bride behaves modestly.” Jacob, prepared for some deceit or other, asks the bride for the secret words he and Rachel had set. Leah to his surprise gave the words. Jacob felt easier. The guests danced and sang a refrain: “oh-lay, oh-lay, oh-lay”. It was their way of hinting that the bride was in fact Leah. They did this so that Jacob would not later blame them for concealing the truth. Had they not tried to warn him?
But where was Rachel? When Leah was brought in as the bride, Rachel did not want her older sister to be shamed in public. ‘How terrible for her!’ she thought. Rachel even helped Leah conceal the truth by telling her sister the code words. Even more, she hid herself in the bridal bedroom and spoke for Leah so that Jacob would consummate the marriage before discovering the fraud in the morning.
“What have you done to me!” he rebukes Laban the next morning. “Our agreement was for Rachel.” His uncle, perfectly composed, explained that it was not the custom to marry off a younger sister before the older. But to show that he could be as good and magnanimous as the next man, Laban offered to give Jacob young Rachel straight after the seven day wedding feast. He made one stipulation: Jacob had to work seven years for her, as he had worked for Leah.
Leah. What made her be a willing party to the fraud? Jacob was furious with her. “How could you pretend to answer me when I called you Rachel? How could you fool me all through the night?” Leah’s response left him deeply troubled and ashamed. “I learnt from you,” says Leah. “Did you not go to your father dressed up as Esau? And when your father called you Esau did you not answer to the name of your brother? You see, I am only your student after all.”
You might think that such a beginning would poison a marriage for all time. But it was not so. No ill feelings ever came between Jacob and Leah, who attributed their different deceptions to a divine plan. It was their destiny to marry. They had only done what was right by their God. As for the town elders, Laban dealt with them as fairly as he'd dealt with Jacob. When asked to return the jewellery, Laban told the people to go the storekeeper with whom he had lodged it all. Pay him his price for storage, Laban told them, and the storekeeper would return their valuables. No problem at all. As you'd expect, when they went to the storekeeper people found that his price was higher than the value of their jewellery. Oh, he was a clever crook, Jacob's in-law and Balaam's grandfather.