Bride-Price: The Story of Jacob’s Marriage to Rachel and Leah
The story of how Jacob ends up marrying his two cousins, Leah and Rachel, begins in Canaan, with the marriage of his older twin, Esau, to two Hittite women of whom Isaac and Rebekah do not approve. Unwilling to risk her other son also marrying locally, Rebekah complains to Isaac, who commands Jacob to look for a wife elsewhere:
בראשית כח:א וַיִּקְרָא יִצְחָק אֶל יַעֲקֹב וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ וַיְצַוֵּהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֹא תִקַּח אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן. כח:ב קוּם לֵךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם בֵּיתָה בְתוּאֵל אֲבִי אִמֶּךָ וְקַח לְךָ מִשָּׁם אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת לָבָן אֲחִי אִמֶּךָ.
Gen 28:1 So Isaac sent for Jacob and blessed him. He instructed him, saying, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. 28:2 Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother…”
Unlike Abraham’s more general command to his servant to find a wife for Isaac from his hometown (Genesis 24), Isaac tells Jacob specifically to marry one of his maternal cousins. When Jacob appears in Haran, he asks the locals about his uncle Laban, and they inform him that the girl approaching now to water her flocks is Laban’s daughter Rachel.
Jacob quickly helps her water the flocks and is overcome with emotion; he kisses her and begins to weep, telling her that he is her father’s sister’s son. Rachel then runs home to tell her father, and Laban comes, hugs and kisses him, and brings him home.
After Jacob works for a month (29:14), Laban asks him to name his wages:
בראשית כט:טו וַיֹּאמֶר לָבָן לְיַעֲקֹב הֲכִי אָחִי אַתָּה וַעֲבַדְתַּנִי חִנָּם הַגִּידָה לִּי מַה מַּשְׂכֻּרְתֶּךָ.
Gen 29:15 Laban said to Jacob, “Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?”
Laban was likely expecting Jacob to respond by requesting a percentage of the livestock, a typical request in exchange for tending sheep, and something Jacob will ask for fourteen years later—but Jacob responds instead with a request for a wife.
בראשית כט:טז וּלְלָבָן שְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת שֵׁם הַגְּדֹלָה לֵאָה וְשֵׁם הַקְּטַנָּה רָחֵל. כט:יז וְעֵינֵי לֵאָה רַכּוֹת וְרָחֵל הָיְתָה יְפַת תֹּאַר וִיפַת מַרְאֶה. יח וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֶעֱבָדְךָ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּרָחֵל בִּתְּךָ הַקְּטַנָּה.
Gen 29:16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 29:17 Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. 29:8 Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
The requirement for Jacob to “pay” to marry Rachel fits with the basic sequence of marriage steps assumed in the Bible and ancient Near East.
Marriage and Bride-Price in the Bible
Before a man could marry a woman, he needed to pay her father a מֹהַר (mohar), alternatively translated as “bride-price” or “bride-wealth.” Deuteronomy mentions a payment of fifty shekels of silver, though the payment may have differed based on time, place, and even the social status of the woman.
Certain circumstances demanded a larger payment than normal. For instance, after Shechem debases Jacob’s daughter Dinah, eager to get Jacob and his sons to allow him to marry the girl, he says:
בראשית לד:יא …אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵיכֶם וַאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרוּ אֵלַי אֶתֵּן. לד:יב הַרְבּוּ עָלַי מְאֹד מֹהַר וּמַתָּן וְאֶתְּנָה כַּאֲשֶׁר תֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָי וּתְנוּ לִי אֶת הַנַּעֲרָ לְאִשָּׁה.
Gen 34:11 …Do me this favor, and I will pay whatever you tell me. 34:12 Ask of me a bride-price ever so high, as well as gifts, and I will pay what you tell me; only give me the maiden for a wife.
Clearly, this is being suggested because he placed himself at a disadvantage by taking the girl without permission and before they were married. In another example, Saul demands an unusual bride-price from David to marry his daughter Michal:
שמואל א יח:כה וַיֹּאמֶר שָׁאוּל כֹּה תֹאמְרוּ לְדָוִד אֵין חֵפֶץ לַמֶּלֶךְ בְּמֹהַר כִּי בְּמֵאָה עָרְלוֹת פְּלִשְׁתִּים לְהִנָּקֵם בְּאֹיְבֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ
1 Sam 18:25 And Saul said, “Say this to David: ‘The king desires no other bride-price than the foreskins of a hundred Philistines, as vengeance on the king’s enemies.’”
Saul is merely trying to get David killed with this request, but when David succeeds, he does marry Michal. Later, when he becomes king, he refers back to this as his “betrothal” payment (2 Sam 3:14).
Marriage Contracts in the Ancient Near East
In addition to the bride-price, ancient Near Eastern documents also mention a marriage contract. For example, the Laws of Eshnunna, dating to the 20th century B.C.E., states (⸹28):
“If ... he arranged for a marriage contract and libation (symbolic action) with her father and mother and took her, she is a wife; the day she is caught with (another) man she shall die; she shall not live.”
Similarly, the 18th century Laws of Hammurabi state (⸹128):
If a man took a wife and did not arrange for her marriage contract, that woman is not a wife.
The word used for “marriage contract” in both cases is riksātum. Martha Roth translates this as “formal contract,” highlighting the legal nature of the agreement. Contracts were not always written documents; most times they were oral agreements, such as we see between Jacob and Laban.
The terms of the contract included the dowry (Akkadian tirḫatum), from the father to the husband, and the marriage gifts (Akk. biblum), from the husband to the bride’s family. This latter parallels the biblical mohar, and was generally composed of movable objects, such as: household items, furniture, clothing, textiles, silver, jewelry, handmaids, and sometimes land. In Old Babylonian texts, the presentation of the marriage gifts, either by the groom or a proxy for the groom, often occurs concurrently with the recitation of the verba solemnia by which the marriage contract is made.
Later, Judaism developed its own version of the marriage contract, called the ketubah, focused on the husband’s financial obligations to the wife (like the ancient Near Eastern tirḫatum), but in the Bible, we only hear of the bride-price payment by the suitor.
The Betrothal and Terms
When a girl’s father agreed to a union between a suiter and his daughter, the suiter often did not have the bride-price handy. This may be one reason for the betrothal period, what the rabbis call ʾerusin (from the root א.ר.שׂ). The girl’s betrothal to the man made her unavailable to other men, but she still lived with her father until the man paid the bride-price.
Another reason for the betrothal period is that the marriage agreement was often concluded when the girl was still a minor (i.e., pre-puberty), which was considered to be too early for marriage in ancient Near Eastern cultures. The deal would be concluded and the girl betrothed, but she would not enter the husband’s house and the marriage bed until she reached an appropriate age.
Thus, the time between betrothal and consummation of the marriage could be quite long. For example, this Old Babylonian Contract (YOS 8 51) speaks of a five- to ten-year betrothal:
Ellum has distrained (received as a debt-pledge) Tabbi-Ištar, daughter of Dašuratum. Concerning Tabbi-Ištar, daughter of Dašuratum: he [Ellum] had sworn an oath at the gate of “the Great Goddess,” not to approach her and not to take her. Dašuratum swore an oath by King Rim-Sin: “For five or ten years I shall look after/preserve my daughter for Ellum, for marriage I shall give [her] to him.”
This contract helps us understand Jacob’s deal with Laban. He wishes to marry Rachel, but he has no land or money to speak of; he is a guest in Laban’s house. Marriage is not free, so he offers his own labor as the bride-price (mohar/tirḫatum). While the text makes no mention of his being betrothed first, Jacob’s need to wait until the bride-price is paid in full in order to marry Rachel fits with biblical and ancient Near Eastern practice.
Marriage to Leah
Upon completing his side of the bargain, Jacob insists to Laban that it is time for him to fulfill his side:
בראשית כט:כא וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל לָבָן הָבָה אֶת אִשְׁתִּי כִּי מָלְאוּ יָמָי וְאָבוֹאָה אֵלֶיהָ.
Gen 29:21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I may cohabit with her.”
While Jacob’s comment may sound overly forward, it reflects the stage of full marriage, what the rabbis call nisuin (from the root נ.שׂ.א), which is accompanied by consummation:
דברים כב:יג כִּי יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה וּבָא אֵלֶיהָ...
Deut 22:13 A man marries a woman and cohabits with her…
Laban agrees to this, and after a celebratory feast, the marriage takes place:
בראשית כט:כג וַיְהִי בָעֶרֶב וַיִּקַּח אֶת לֵאָה בִתּוֹ וַיָּבֵא אֹתָהּ אֵלָיו וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ.
Gen 29:23 When evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him; and he cohabited with her.
The problem, of course, is that Laban did not give Jacob the wife for whom he believes he has contracted. Though when we look at Laban’s agreement carefully, we can see that he never explicitly accepts Jacob’s proposal or mentioned which of his daughters he is offering:
בראשית כט:יט וַיֹּאמֶר לָבָן טוֹב תִּתִּי אֹתָהּ לָךְ מִתִּתִּי אֹתָהּ לְאִישׁ אַחֵר שְׁבָה עִמָּדִי.
Gen 29:19 Laban said, “Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me.”
The next morning, when Jacob realizes that he has married the wrong daughter, he confronts Laban, who plays his trump card:
בראשית כט:כה וַיְהִי בַבֹּקֶר וְהִנֵּה הִוא לֵאָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל לָבָן מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לִּי הֲלֹא בְרָחֵל עָבַדְתִּי עִמָּךְ וְלָמָּה רִמִּיתָנִי. כט:כו וַיֹּאמֶר לָבָן לֹא יֵעָשֶׂה כֵן בִּמְקוֹמֵנוּ לָתֵת הַצְּעִירָה לִפְנֵי הַבְּכִירָה.
Gen 29:25 When morning came, there was Leah! So he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?” 29:26 Laban said, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.
Laban claims that Jacob should have known that in Haran, one does not marry off a younger daughter before the older, and since he took Leah and slept with her, there is no turning back.
A Second Marriage in Reverse Order
Laban does not stop there, but offers Jacob a way forward:
בראשית כט:כז מַלֵּא שְׁבֻעַ זֹאת וְנִתְּנָה לְךָ גַּם אֶת זֹאת בַּעֲבֹדָה אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲבֹד עִמָּדִי עוֹד שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים אֲחֵרוֹת.
Gen 29:27 Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years.
This, of course, was Laban’s intention the whole time, to trap Jacob into working for him for fourteen years and at the same time marry off both his daughters, including the less attractive one for whom Laban would not have otherwise gotten such a large bride-price as he received for Rachel.
Nevertheless, Laban understands that he can only push Jacob so far without causing an out-and-out breach, so he suggests something unusual: Jacob will marry Rachel almost immediately, and pay the bride-price afterwards; Jacob agrees to this compromise:
בראשית כט:כח וַיַּעַשׂ יַעֲקֹב כֵּן וַיְמַלֵּא שְׁבֻעַ זֹאת וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ אֶת רָחֵל בִּתּוֹ לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה... כט:ל וַיָּבֹא גַּם אֶל רָחֵל וַיֶּאֱהַב גַּם אֶת רָחֵל מִלֵּאָה וַיַּעֲבֹד עִמּוֹ עוֹד שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים אֲחֵרוֹת.
Gen 29:28 Jacob did so; he waited out the bridal week of the one, and then he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife… 29:30 And Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served him another seven years.
Precedent for Marriage before Payment of Bride-Price
Laban’s suggestion of reversing the order of the marriage agreement is unusual but not unprecedented. The most common deviation from paying in full before the marriage was in cases in which the bride-price was to be paid in installments.
For example, a contract from the town of Nuzi presents the case of two parents who have given their daughter, Azuli, as a daughter-in-law (kallutu) to a man named Hapuka. Hapuka in turn gives Azuli to his son Puhishenni as a wife. Three sheep have been given up front as part of the bride-price.
The contract stipulates: “When Azuli and her husband get together (have intercourse), (then) shall Hapuka give over the remaining silver” to Azuli’s parents. This contract states that intercourse would the time at which the bride-price should be paid in full.
Children: The Culmination of Marriage
The discussion above, which sees consummation as the final step of marriage, works with an economic model; the husband supplies money and the father supplies the sexual rights to his daughter. But the birth of a child can also be seen as the culmination or final stage of marriage, since this is one of the main reasons for marriage. In fact, many ancient Near Eastern marriage contracts take this into account, stipulating that the husband has until the birth of the first child to make his final payment.
The stories about the matriarchs appear to be working with this model. We see from the stories of Sarah’s barrenness, as well as that of Rachel and Leah, that a wife who cannot produce children might even feel the need to give her husband a surrogate to produce children for her (Gen 16:2, 30:3, 9), since otherwise, they are not fulfilling their function as wife. This child-centered perspective can help us understand the next scene in the story.
Although married only a week apart, the experience of the two sisters differs drastically: during a period when Leah has four sons (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah) Rachel remains barren. After Leah bears her fourth son, Rachel expresses her distress to Jacob:
בראשית ל:א וַתֵּרֶא רָחֵל כִּי לֹא יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב וַתְּקַנֵּא רָחֵל בַּאֲחֹתָהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל יַעֲקֹב הָבָה לִּי בָנִים וְאִם אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי.
Gen 30:1 When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.”
Perhaps Rachel is pleading with Jacob to beseech God on her behalf, just as Isaac does for Rebekah (Genesis 25:21; see Genesis Rabbah 63:5). In a world where a woman’s place was to provide her husband with offspring, especially sons, barrenness was equivalent to a social disability. Why is Rachel barren while Leah has children from the beginning?
Despite the couple living together in an intimate relationship, the biblical text assumes that women remain barren until God activates the womb. Thus, whether or not a woman gets pregnant is dependent on God’s intervention. So why does God intervene early on behalf of Leah and not Rachel?
Insofar as Leah is concerned, the text already tells us why:
בראשית כט:לא וַיַּרְא יְ־הוָה כִּי שְׂנוּאָה לֵאָה וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ וְרָחֵל עֲקָרָה.
Gen 29:31 YHWH saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.
This explains why Leah bears children so quickly, but not why Rachel cannot. Moreover, her complaint to Jacob after Judah is born is just the beginning. As Jacob tells her that he cannot control whether or not she conceives, Rachel gives him her handmaid Bilhah as a surrogate, and they have two sons (Dan and Naphtali). After that, Leah gives him her handmaid Zilpah as a surrogate, and they have two sons (Gad and Asher). Then, Leah has two more sons with Jacob (Issachar and Zebulun) and a daughter (Dinah). Only then are we told that God opens Rachel’s womb and she gives birth to Joseph.
Why does Rachel have to wait so long? The timing may be the key.
Bride-Price Before Baby
The birth of Joseph occurs around the same time that the bride-price is paid in full, and thus Jacob asks to leave:
בראשית ל:כה וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה רָחֵל אֶת יוֹסֵף וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל לָבָן שַׁלְּחֵנִי וְאֵלְכָה אֶל מְקוֹמִי וּלְאַרְצִי. ל:כו תְּנָה אֶת נָשַׁי וְאֶת יְלָדַי אֲשֶׁר עָבַדְתִּי אֹתְךָ בָּהֵן וְאֵלֵכָה כִּי אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֶת עֲבֹדָתִי אֲשֶׁר עֲבַדְתִּיךָ.
Gen 30:25 After Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Give me leave to go back to my own homeland. 30:26 Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served you, that I may go; for well you know what services I have rendered you.”
Leah, who was married with the bride-price paid up front, has a child every year (six boys and a girl), while Rachel does not have a child until year seven of her marriage. Rachel jumps the gun with her complaint, and while she requests a son on year four of her marriage, God will not grant her one for three more years—literally the moment the bride-price is paid in full. In this reading, the story of Rachel’s barrenness underscores the incomplete nature of their union until Jacob has paid his debt to Laban in full.
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Dr. Kristine Henrikson Garroway is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Bible at the HUC-JIR. She received her doctorate in Hebrew Bible and Cognate Studies at HUC-JIR. Garroway is the author of Children in the Ancient Near Eastern Household.
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