Investigating ancient marriage contracts and the biblical story of Rachel and Leah
Who are Rachel and Leah in the Bible? Sisters, rivals, mothers, matriarchs—these two women had a complicated relationship.
In the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Kristine Henriksen Garroway situates the biblical story of Rachel and Leah in its ancient Near Eastern context. Her article, “Why Leah Gives Birth Before Rachel,” examines Jacob’s marriages to Leah and Rachel—and their resulting children—in light of ancient Mesopotamian marriage contracts. These clarify the timing of the births in the story of Rachel and Leah in the Bible.
Rachel and Leah in the Bible
We first meet Rachel and Leah in Genesis 29: After traveling a long distance, Jacob stops at a well near Haran and sees Rachel, his cousin, as she is watching her father’s flocks. Jacob rolls away the stone covering the well and introduces himself to Rachel with a kiss. Rachel reports the news to her father, Laban, and he runs out to meet Jacob at the well. Laban then brings Jacob home, and he stays for a month. After this time, Laban and he come to an agreement: Jacob will serve Laban for seven years to marry Rachel. This was to pay the bride-price, part of an ancient Near Eastern wedding contract. The seven years pass, and Jacob marries Laban’s daughter—but not the one he expected. Laban switches Leah, his older daughter, for Rachel, his younger daughter. When Jacob realizes the deception, he confronts Laban, and they come to another agreement. After completing his wedding obligations to Leah, Jacob can marry Rachel immediately in exchange for another seven years of service.
Genesis chapters 29–30 and 35 detail the births of Jacob’s many children. Leah gives birth to four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Bilhah, Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s concubine, bears two more sons, Dan and Naphtali. Zilpah, Leah’s maid, gives birth to Gad and Asher. Then Leah bears another two sons and a daughter: Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah. Finally, Rachel gives birth to Joseph—after seven long years of waiting—and later Benjamin (Genesis 35:16–18).
Even though Jacob marries both sisters just a week apart, Leah conceives right away, but Rachel does not. Why the long delay for Rachel?
Mesopotamian Marriage Contracts
Garroway surveys marriage contracts from ancient Mesopotamia, which reveal some of the customs and traditions behind the biblical story of Rachel and Leah. Ancient Near Eastern wedding contracts shared certain elements:
1. The groom and the bride’s father—not the bride—negotiated the marriage agreement.
2. The groom paid a bride-price to the bride’s family. The exact terms of this price were determined by the groom and bride’s father. Garroway explains:
When a couple was to be married, the groom and bride’s father would contract a marriage agreement. Most of these were oral agreements that were solemnized by an oath and the exchange of valuables or goods, such as furniture, clothing, textiles, jewelry, servants, or land. The gift the groom agreed to bring was called a mohar in Hebrew (e.g., Genesis 34:12). The agreement and exchange of goods underscored both the economic aspect of marriage and the strengthening of social kinship bonds.
3. There was a waiting, or betrothal, period during which the groom gathered the bride-price and the bride reached a marriageable age.
4. After paying the bride-price, the groom was allowed to marry the bride.
5. On some occasions, the groom was allowed to marry the bride before the full bride-price had been paid. In those cases, though, it had to be paid fully before the birth of their first child.
Garroway elaborates on this last point:
Some ancient Near Eastern marriage contracts stipulate that the marriage can take place before the bride-price has been paid in full. In these contracts, the bride-price is paid in installments. However, the final installment must be paid before the birth of the first child. According to Genesis 29, both Rachel and Leah live with Jacob in an intimate relationship, but only Leah bears children. Genesis 29:31 suggests God opens Leah’s womb right away because she is unloved. Rachel must wait.
It is not until Leah has seven children that God remembers Rachel, and she bears her first son (Genesis 20:20–24). Reading the story in light of the surrounding culture in which it arose provides another possible way to understand the narrative and birth of Leah’s and Rachel’s children. Leah has children right away because Jacob has fulfilled his marriage contract obligations. His seven years were served before they were married. However, Rachel’s son is born only after Jacob served for seven more years.
Garroway demonstrates that the timing of births in the biblical story of Rachel and Leah was significant. Joseph was born after the bride-price for Rachel was paid in full. Thus, Joseph was considered a legitimate heir.
Learn more about Rachel and Leah. In the Bible, they progress from sisters to rivals to revered matriarchs. Explore the ancient Near Eastern context for the biblical story of Rachel and Leah in Kristine Henriksen Garroway’s article “Why Leah Gives Birth Before Rachel,” published in the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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