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After Jacob arrived at Laban’s place, he started working for Laban without getting paid. About a month later, Laban realized he eventually had to pay Jacob for his labor, so he asked Jacob how much he wanted to get paid. Jacob said he could work for Laban for seven years if Laban gives him Rachel, whom he fell in love with at first sight. Laban agreed with Jacob as his suggestion was an excellent condition for Laban.
But Laban was a greedy person. He thought that he could use Jacob for fourteen years, not just seven years, if he utilizes Jacob’s love for his daughter Rachel. So after seven years, Laban gave Jacob Leah, instead of Rachel. Laban’s excuse was the local custom, which he had never mentioned for the last seven years. And he suggested another seven years of his service for Rachel. Jacob, of course, could not give her up now. So he accepted the term and served Laban for another seven years.
Issues in Understanding the Story – Women as Property
The central figures in the story are considered to be Jacob and Laban. The cruelty of Laban or Jacob’s love for Rachel is the story’s primary focal points for many readers. But it is not satisfactory; such a perspective does not address very serious gender inequality issues here.
In Ancient Near East, women were perceived as the property of the head of the family. Likewise, women in the Bible appear to be a part of the possession of the chief of a house. Even the last commandment of the Decalogue (Ex 20:17) treats ‘wife’ as her husband’s possession along with other possessions, such as donkeys and oxen. Such a cultural aspect is also obvious in this story. Laban had the right to transfer his ownership of his daughters and maidens to Jacob.
Rachel might have fallen in love with Jacob and wanted to marry him. If that was the case, then one might say it is ok for Laban to give Rachel to Jacob since Rachel herself might have wanted to be given to Jacob. But we do not know how Rachel and Jacob’s relationship developed before the marriage contract. Moreover, even if Rachael also loved Jacob, one should think that it is still true Rachel could not choose her own path. Rachel’s life depended entirely on the contract between his father and Jacob, not her own will. That is, even if she wanted to marry Jacob right away, she could not have done so because Laban would not let her marry Jacob. Laban was going to make Jacob work seven more years using his second daughter. Rachel even had to disappear on the day of her own marriage following his father’s order to deceive Jacob. And she also had to watch her own sister joining the bed of “supposedly her husband.” Rachel was given to Jacob without any marriage ceremony after seven days. SHe lost her husband to her sister and the dream of having a sweet family.
Leah’s case is more miserable. She became the property of a man, who does not love her, and desperately had to compete with her sister to win her husband’s love. But she failed. She had envied the relationship between her sister and her husband. She lived in a sense of alienation for the rest of her life.
The case of Zilpah and Bilhah, the maidservants, was even worse. They were, of course, the property of Lean and Rachel and forced to become surrogate mothers for their owners. That is, their bodies were exploited, and they had to surrender their children to the owners. They were merely means without any human rights.
What to Say
Some might say those women have to thank God for they were an important part of God’s providence; they became the mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel. But it is excessively positive an evaluation of the events based solely on the result. We must evaluate the events according to moral principles, not just the result.
Great men and women of God in the Bible commit their lives to God’s works, endure difficulties, and achieve their goals. The procedure is often painful, but they know how honorable their participation in God’s works is. Paul’s confession–“I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.”– is precisely from his clear perception of the greatness of his works. But the four women in this story could not have such a perception. They just had to struggle with their lives. They were just “means” for others’ profits. They felt no dignity. They could not actively participate in God’s providence.
We must understand that the Bible reflects ancient worldviews and must evaluate them on our moral principles. Otherwise, we might indiscreetly be buried under obsolete ancient ideas about women and commit mistakes to justify/romanticize women’s forced sacrifice as God’s providence. We should say women should choose their own paths. We should lament on those who were involuntarily sacrificed as means of profiting others. Moreover, as Kant already taught us through his “Categorical Imperative,” we must remember that “human individuals are ends not means of our own ends.”