Four Wives, Twelve Kids, and A Lot of Sheep

When you read Genesis 29-30, do you feel like you’re reading the script summary of a prime-time TV soap opera?

In the beginning of the reading, Jacob – apparently penniless, but just blessed by God with a six-fold promise like his grandfathers – entered Haran, where his uncle Laban lived. Meeting some shepherds at a stone-sealed well, he asked after Laban. They knew Laban; in fact, pointed out that Laban’s daughter Rachel was bringing her father’s flocks to the well. Rachel was a babe. (See Genesis 29:17.) Jacob lost no time, rolling the stone away from the well, watering the sheep, and then kissing Rachel and telling her that he was her cousin. So she ran to tell her father.

After living and working with Laban’s family for a month, Laban tried to negotiate terms of payment for his nephew. Jacob wanted to marry his younger daughter, Rachel, in exchange for seven years of work. Laban saw an opportunity, and agreed.

However, the tables turned on trickster Jacob, who had cheated his brother out of his birthright and deceived his own father into giving him Esau’s blessing as well. After working seven years to get Rachel – which seemed only like a few days to him, he loved her so much – her father sneaked older daughter Leah into the honeymoon tent, and Jacob was none the wiser till morning.


Jacob confronted Laban, who explained that it wasn’t his custom to give away his younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Jacob ended up agreeing to work another seven years to pay the dowry for Rachel. At the end of a honeymoon week with Leah, Laban approved his engagement to Rachel.

After working out the second seven years, Jacob took Rachel as his wife and became a bigamist, just like his grandfather Abraham.

“… and he loved Rachel more than Leah.” ~ Genesis 29:30b

Never, ever a good idea.

It got worse. Seeing that Leah was not loved, the Lord blessed her with four sons by Jacob. Rachel, not having children, became jealous and gave Jacob her maidservant Bilhah to be his wife (just as grandmother Sarah had done with Abraham and Hagar). They had two sons together. Three wives, six sons. Then Leah gave Jacob her maidservant Zilpah, and they had two sons. Four wives, eight sons. Then Leah and Rachel got into a fuss over some plants of some undescribed value, and in exchange for the ones Leah gave Rachel, she got Jacob for a night. They had a fifth and sixth son together: Four wives, ten sons. Plus a daughter named Dinah.

Finally, the Lord had compassion on Rachel and enabled her to have a son named Joseph (“May He Add”), hoping that she might have another.

Can you imagine God choosing to work His will through one of the families in a television soap opera?

Four wives, twelve kids. All that in seven years.

Because when the seven years of Rachel’s dowry were over, Jacob went to Laban to settle accounts and start his own shepherding empire back in his own homeland, the land God had promised to him. Jacob asked only for the dark and color-speckled sheep among Laban’s flocks – by far the minority – and Laban agreed. But the very next day, Laban – the old cheat – separated all of the dark and color-speckled sheep from his flocks and gave them to his sons, sending them three days’ journey away to graze.

Jacob, perhaps through long and close association with the flocks as an on-site shepherd of at least fourteen years, had figured out a way to affect the color of the wool of the flocks. So he spent the next mating season arranging for the birth of dark and color-speckled sheep … building his own young, strong flock.

And he prospered as a result, accumulating large flocks, many servants, plus camels and donkeys.

Nice family.

Should they have prospered as they did, tricking each other and making deals and trying to get ahead; get their own way? They did. Is that they way God planned for them to get ahead?

Or did He allow them – in the absence of a law or other moral code – to experience the fact that through those “dealings,” you can get ahead … but only at the cost of others; of relationships that should have been dear to you, trust that you should have built on, and love for others that you should have felt?

Was He hoping that they would call on His name and ask Him what to do and how to live and what He wanted?

Was He waiting to see if they would build their own ethic?

Maybe the most important thing to note is that throughout the deceit and cheating and bigamy, His promise toward this family never changed, from one generation to the next. He confirms it with each patriarch in turn.

And while His choice may be inscrutable to us, it is as sure as daytime and night-time, seed-time and harvest.

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