Did Jacob do right in unconditionally accepting Laban's covenant terms? He seems to have offered no objections and therefore had no personal plans for enlarging his family. Indeed, it is quite possible that he originally intended to have a monogamous family like his father Isaac. But Yahweh had other plans. That such a covenant was entered into, in which Jacob voluntarily limited himself to Leah and Rachel as full wives, was, we may presume, also providential. How different history might have been had there been 15 or 20 tribes of Israel had Jacob taken other wives.
People have sometimes asked me if there is any prophetic significance in the fact that Jacob, the son of Isaac, had four wives. Technically-speaking, he actually had two wives (Leah and Rachel) and two concubines (Zilpah and Bilhah) all of whom he acquired under less than happy circumstances. These he obtained in his 'pre-salvation' days, as it were, prior to his being renamed Israel after his spiritual battle with Yahweh's angel at Peniel. Jacob (which means 'deceiver') fell in love with Rachel (meaning 'lamb'), the younger daughter of Laban (ironically meaning 'white' or 'glorious' which he was neither) but was tricked into first marrying his elder daughter, Leah (meaning 'weary') by a father-in-law who was a greater trickster than himself, not to mention being a pagan unlike Jacob, the Yahweh-worshipper. Though he came, I believe, after his spiritual victory at Peniel (Heb. 'face of God') whence he was named Israel (Heb. 'ruling with God') to love both Leah and Rachel alike, it was not so at the beginning - his natural resentment into being forced to marry someone against his will led him to favouritise Rachel. This inequality of love led the two wives into an unhappy rivalry, each trying to outdo the other in giving Jacob children, resulting in them giving their handmaidens Zilpah and Bilhah to their husband as concubines.
However disasterously Jacob's polygamous marriage began, they did turn out as Yahweh had intended in the end, for all four women were ordained by heaven to be the mothers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The fault of the initial unhappiness and rivalry was not, as we know, polygamy per se but the fact that the marriage principle had been entered into in the wrong way, by trickery. And sadly much modern polygamy is being entered into in the same unhappy way. 'All's well that end's well,' the saying goes, though Jacob paid a heavy price in losing his Rachel during the birth of Benjamin.
Why did Jacob only have four wives? Was this to set a standard for us in terms of a manageable numbers per pro the teaching of Islam? Apart from the fact that every husband has a different capacity in marriage - most being unequipped to handle more than one wife - most scriptorians forget Jacob entered into a very unhappy and unequal covenant with his father-in-law at Mizpah (Heb. 'watchtower') after his flight from Haran, in which he agreed to take no more wives in exchange for Laban leaving him and his family alone.
Laban, you must remember, was a deceitful, materialistic and controlling man. In spite of the fact that Leah and Rachel now belonged to Jacob as his wives, Laban still regarded them as his personal property (v.43). In reality, he had treated them as strangers but now suddenly decided to 'own' them again (v.15). As Matthew Henry pointed out:
"May Yahweh watch between you and me when we are absent one from the other. If you mistreat my daughters or if you take besides my daughters, although no man is with us, see, Elohim (God) is witness between you and me" (Genesis 31:49-50, NASB).
"It is common for those who are without natural affection to pretend much to it when it will serve a turn. Or perhaps Laban said this in a vain-glorious way, as one that loved to talk big, and use great swelling words of vanity: 'All that thou seest is mine.' It was not so, it was all Jacob's, and he had paid dearly for it; yet Jacob let him have his saying, perceiving him coming into a better humour. Note, Property lies near the hearts of worldly people. They love to boast of it, 'This is mine, and the other is mine,' as Nabal, 1 Samuel 25:11, my bread and my water.
"He proposes a covenant of friendship between them, to which Jacob readily agrees, without insisting upon Laban's submission, much less his restitution. Note, When quarrels happen, we should be willing to be friends again upon any terms: peace and love are such valuable jewels that we can scarcely buy them too dearly. Better sit down losers than go on in strife. Now observe here,
1. The substance of this covenant. Jacob left it wholly to Laban to settle it. The tenour of it was,
(from Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Modern Edition, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1991 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.)
(1) That Jacob should be a good husband to his wives, that he should not afflict them, nor marry other wives besides them, v.50. Jacob had never given him any cause to suspect that he would be any other than a kind husband; yet, as if he had, he was willing to come under this engagement. Though Laban had afflicted them himself, yet he will bind Jacob that he shall not afflict them. Note, Those that are injurious themselves are commonly most jealous of others, and those that do not do their own duty are most peremptory in demanding duty from others.
(2) That he should never be a bad neighbour to Laban, v.52. It was agreed that no act of hostility should ever pass between them, that Jacob should forgive and forget all the wrongs he had received and not remember them against Laban or his family in after-times. Note, We may resent an injury which yet we may not revenge.
Now why, given the customs of the time, would Laban seek to limit Jacob to his own two daughters? Given his materialism, doubtless he was thinking in terms of what his grandchildren would inherit. More wives outside the Laban clan would have meant a thinner distribution of worldly goods to Jacob's children and therefore, one imagines, less prestige for Laban.
Would Jacob have been a manogamist, married only to Rachel, had his father-in-law not tricked him into marrying Leah first? We many never know the answer to that question. Certainly monogamy-only thoughts are the natural disposition of the spiritually young. I myself had a 'monogamy dream' with two children in a little cottage in the Polish countryside outside Białystok. It did not turn out so. Though faced with the truth of biblical polygamy in my 20's, I chose to ignore and suppress it for the sake of my dream, until I could no longer deny the call of the Spirit and yielded.
When young, I dreamed of a small monogamous family in the country
The call to true polygamy is not after the flesh. Indeed, if we are truly walking in the Holy Spirit we will probably not even entertain it until Yahweh comes and presses it upon us. Then events will conspire to make that call undeniable.
My own view is that Jacob most certainly was called into polygamy by events over which he had little control. That he was supposed to 'see' and love Leah cannot be denied, since it was Yahweh's will that he be the father of 12 sons and a daughter through his four women. For millennia Jews have blessed their daughters to be like Rachel and Leah, and their sons like Jacob - not the unredeemed deceiver, but the ruler with Elohim (God).
The story of Laban and Jacob is to remind us, I think, that Yahweh can arrange our family affairs even when we aren't listening to Him and often under adverse conditions. We may discover that many of the marriages of the first generation Christian/Messianic polygamists, though starting under less than desirable circumstances because of the carnality, rebelliousness and tradition-bound nature of man, will end up successful and according to Yahweh's will. Though this is not at all to justify carnal arrangements, with its attendant grief, it is a suggestion that we stand back and let Yahweh do His work in this very unruly and unteachable first generation.
Like Jacob, we are desitined to what we are called by Yahweh
First created on 29 April 2002
Updated on 12 March 2016
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