Painting by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 19th Century

Jacob's Encounter with Rachel - RaphaelJacob continued his journey and soon arrived in the land of the “eastern peoples” where he saw a well with three flocks of sheep laying near it. Jacob watched as the shepherds rolled a stone off the mouth of the well when the sheep approached. After the sheep were watered, the shepherds rolled the stone back over the mouth of the well.

Jacob approached the shepherds and inquired where they were from. They told Jacob they were from Haran (Jacob’s destination). He asked them, “Do you know Laban, Nahor’s grandson? Is this his well?” The shepherds confirmed that they knew Laban and that indeed, the well belonged to him.

At that moment, Laban’s daughter, Rachel, approached the well with some sheep. Jacob told the shepherds, “The sun is still high. It is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Why don’t you water the sheep and take them back to the pasture?” The shepherds replied, “We can’t until all of the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep.”

While Jacob talked with the shepherds, Rachel approached the well with her sheep. Jacob went to the well and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep for her. Jacob then kissed Rachel and told her that he was a relative of her father, the son of Rebekah, Laban’s sister.

Rachel ran from the well to tell her father. As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob’s arrival, he rushed to meet him. Laban embraced Jacob, kissed him, and took him back to his home. Laban told Jacob, “Indeed, you are my own flesh and blood.”

What the story means to us today

Preview to a “what goes around comes around” lesson for Jacob

Jacob will soon learn a lesson, “what goes around comes around”. After Jacob’s role of deception, the tables are about to be turned. However, before Jacob experiences the receiving end of a deceitful maneuver, he will fall in love – with Rachel.

Not chance, but God’s guiding hand

Many of the events in this story could be identified as “chance” – the lucky discovery of one of Laban’s wells, meeting Rachel (his future wife) at the well, Rachel approaching the well just as Jacob was talking with the shepherds, etc. However, you should recognize God’s guiding hand in each of the events. Jacob may not immediately appreciate the ultimate outcome of his arrival at the well that his uncle owned, the meeting of Rachel at the well, or Laban’s upcoming trickery, but upon completing the story, it will be become clear how God’s plan was carried out, with a purpose, just as it is carried out in each of our lives – whether we foresee the end-game objective or not.

Additional thoughts and considerations

Rachel and Jacob by James TissotWhy did Jacob tell the shepherds to take their flock back to the pasture?

Jacob lifts the stone from the well so Rachel can water her sheepThe Bible tells us that Jacob suggested the shepherds take their flock back to the pasture. This verse may seem oddly out-of-place. Why would Jacob tell the shepherds how to do their job?

This verse may pointedly show us that Jacob is a ambitious, driven, hardworking man. His instructions can be construed as directions to “stop standing around and get back to work”. His ethic is further demonstrated after the shepherds reply that they cannot water the sheep until the stone is rolled away from the mouth of the well – Jacob goes and uncovers the well himself.

Contrast this with another potential reasoning and likely hidden agenda, that humorously marks the start of one of the most memorable love affairs in the Bible. As the shepherds point out that Rachel is approaching, could Jacob have sought a way to get rid of them so he could be alone with Rachel? In this light, Jacob’s comments can be taken as an example of yet another of Jacob’s schemes. If this was his intent then, humorously, the shepherds do not tell Jacob to mind his own business but rather calmly and bluntly point out that they cannot water the sheep until the stone is removed from the well and then presumably, they stay right where they are.

Rachel, a female role in ancient times

Although the mention that Rachel approached the well “with some sheep” may be mere decoration, a more likely explanation may be the unique circumstances. In ancient times, it was likely unusual for Israelite women to tend to the sheep. The innocuous injection of this brief explanation paints the picture of Rachel as a strong woman. Also note that the description of the events imply Rachel was not wearing a veil either, potentially another indicator of her unique character.

We met Laban in an earlier story

You may remember Laban from an earlier story. In Genesis 24:1-61, Abraham’s servant was sent to find a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac (Jacob’s father). Similar to the events in this story, Abraham’s servant met Rebekah (Jacob’s mother) at a well in Nahor. Her brother, the same Laban who met Jacob at the well, went to the well to greet the servant and offer him a place to stay for the night. Later Laban agreed to allow Rebekah to become Isaac’s wife.

Despite Laban’s gracious consideration for his guests, in a later story, we will see the tables turned on Jacob when ironically, Laban deceives Jacob (in regard to Jacob’s potential marriage to his daughter) just as Jacob had deceived his father in the matter of the birthright blessing.

The science and history behind the story

Kisses in ancient times

Although Jacob did eventually fall in love with Rachel, his greeting with a kiss should not be construed as a sign of romantic love (further supported by the statement, “Laban, the brother of his mother”, emphasizing the familial relations between Jacob and Laban). In the ancient Near East, greeting with a kiss, for both men and women, was a normal greeting. In fact, when Laban meets Jacob, the Bible notes that he embraced and kissed him too. Regardless, this is the only instance in the Bible of a man kissing a woman who is not his wife, sister, or mother.

The covering of wells

Modern readers may wonder why the well was covered with a stone in the first place. Safety of people and animals as well as protecting the water from contamination are certainly valid reasons but remember, this is a dry, arid region where water is a scarce commodity. To save water, wells were covered to eliminate wasteful evaporation. In fact, herds were gathered around the well first, and then the well would be uncovered.Ancient biblical well - single stone with hole cut in middle

In ancient times, a flat, thick stone was placed over the well with a hole cut in the center forming the “mouth” of the well. The hole would then be covered by another heavy stone to secure the well. Regarding the well in Haran, it is unknown if the stone were so large that it required two or three men to roll away or if the stone was light and only rolled away once all shepherds had their flocks in place, ready to water.

Notes on Biblical translation

Jacob “lifted his feet”

The story begins by noting that Jacob continued his journey into the land of the eastern peoples. In some translations, the Hebrew is more accurately translated to “lifted up his feet”, painting a picture of a high-stepping Jacob who now has a new lease on life after God promised him blessings he had so desperately tried to gain by his own vain efforts.

Land of the “eastern peoples”

The Bible says Jacob journeyed to the “land of the eastern peoples”. The Hebrew word used to describe the area is a generic designation for any location east of the promised land of Canaan (beyond the border of the Jordan River).

The name “Rachel”

The name “Rachel” means “to journey as a ewe that is a good traveler”.

Bible Text

Rachel and Jacob by William DyceNIV

Then Jacob continued on his journey and came to the land of the eastern peoples. 2 There he saw a well in the open country, with three flocks of sheep lying near it because the flocks were watered from that well. The stone over the mouth of the well was large. 3 When all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone away from the well’s mouth and water the sheep. Then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well.

4 Jacob asked the shepherds, “My brothers, where are you from?”

“We’re from Harran,” they replied.

5 He said to them, “Do you know Laban, Nahor’s grandson?”

“Yes, we know him,” they answered.

6 Then Jacob asked them, “Is he well?”

“Yes, he is,” they said, “and here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep.”

7 “Look,” he said, “the sun is still high; it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. Water the sheep and take them back to pasture.”

8 “We can’t,” they replied, “until all the flocks are gathered and the stone has been rolled away from the mouth of the well. Then we will water the sheep.”

9 While he was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherd. 10 When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of his uncle Laban, and Laban’s sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep. 11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud. 12 He had told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father.

13 As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. 14 Then Laban said to him, “You are my own flesh and blood.”

The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

The Message

Jacob set out again on his way to the people of the east. He noticed a well out in an open field with three flocks of sheep bedded down around it. This was the common well from which the flocks were watered. The stone over the mouth of the well was huge. When all the flocks were gathered, the shepherds would roll the stone from the well and water the sheep; then they would return the stone, covering the well.

4 Jacob said, “Hello friends. Where are you from?”

They said, “We’re from Haran.”

5 Jacob asked, “Do you know Laban son of Nahor?”

“We do.”

6 “Are things well with him?” Jacob continued.

“Very well,” they said. “And here is his daughter Rachel coming with the flock.”

7 Jacob said, “There’s a lot of daylight still left; it isn’t time to round up the sheep yet, is it? So why not water the flocks and go back to grazing?”

8 “We can’t,” they said. “Not until all the shepherds get here. It takes all of us to roll the stone from the well. Not until then can we water the flocks.”

9–13 While Jacob was in conversation with them, Rachel came up with her father’s sheep. She was the shepherd. The moment Jacob spotted Rachel, daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, saw her arriving with his uncle Laban’s sheep, he went and single-handedly rolled the stone from the mouth of the well and watered the sheep of his uncle Laban. Then he kissed Rachel and broke into tears. He told Rachel that he was related to her father, that he was Rebekah’s son. She ran and told her father. When Laban heard the news—Jacob, his sister’s son!—he ran out to meet him, embraced and kissed him and brought him home. Jacob told Laban the story of everything that had happened.

14–15 Laban said, “You’re family! My flesh and blood!”

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.

imageThe NET Bible

So Jacob moved on and came to the land of the eastern people. 29:2 He saw in the field a well with three flocks of sheep lying beside it, because the flocks were watered from that well. Now a large stone covered the mouth of the well. 29:3 When all the flocks were gathered there, the shepherds would roll the stone off the mouth of the well and water the sheep. Then they would put the stone back in its place over the well’s mouth.

29:4 Jacob asked them, “My brothers, where are you from?” They replied, “We’re from Haran.” 29:5 So he said to them, “Do you know Laban, the grandson of Nahor?” “We know him,” they said. 29:6 “Is he well?” Jacob asked. They replied, “He is well. Now look, here comes his daughter Rachel with the sheep.” 29:7 Then Jacob said, “Since it is still the middle of the day, it is not time for the flocks to be gathered. You should water the sheep and then go and let them graze some more.” 29:8 “We can’t,” they said, “until all the flocks are gathered and the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well. Then we water the sheep.”

29:9 While he was still speaking with them, Rachel arrived with her father’s sheep, for she was tending them. 29:10 When Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the sheep of his uncle Laban, he went over and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well and watered the sheep of his uncle Laban. 29:11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep loudly. 29:12 When Jacob explained to Rachel that he was a relative of her father and the son of Rebekah, she ran and told her father. 29:13 When Laban heard this news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he rushed out to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban how he was related to him. 29:14 Then Laban said to him, “You are indeed my own flesh and blood.”

Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press, 2006. Print.

King James Version

Then Jacob went on his journey, and came into the land of the people of the east. 2 And he looked, and behold a well in the field, and, lo, there were three flocks of sheep lying by it; for out of that well they watered the flocks: and a great stone was upon the well’s mouth. 3 And thither were all the flocks gathered: and they rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the sheep, and put the stone again upon the well’s mouth in his place. 4 And Jacob said unto them, My brethren, whence be ye? And they said, Of Haran are we. 5 And he said unto them, Know ye Laban the son of Nahor? And they said, We know him. 6 And he said unto them, Is he well? And they said, He is well: and, behold, Rachel his daughter cometh with the sheep. 7 And he said, Lo, it is yet high day, neither is it time that the cattle should be gathered together: water ye the sheep, and go and feed them. 8 And they said, We cannot, until all the flocks be gathered together, and till they roll the stone from the well’s mouth; then we water the sheep. 9 And while he yet spake with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep: for she kept them. 10 And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. 11 And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept. 12 And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother, and that he was Rebekah’s son: and she ran and told her father. 13 And it came to pass, when Laban heard the tidings of Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him, and kissed him, and brought him to his house. And he told Laban all these things. 14 And Laban said to him, Surely thou art my bone and my flesh.

The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.

Sources: NIV, The Message, The NET Bible, King James Version, NET Bible Notes, Faithlife Study Bible, The Apologetics Study Bible, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Commentary, The Bible Reader’s Companion, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Holman Concise Bible Commentary, The Bible Exposition Commentary, The Teacher’s Bible Commentary, The Teacher’s Commentary, The Bible Guide, Word Studies in the New Testament, Holman Bible Handbook, Calvin Commentaries, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines, The New Manner and Customs of the Bible, Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Bible Dictionary, Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, The Archaeological Encyclopedia, Biblical Archeology Review, The New Bible Dictionary, The Lexham Analytical Lexicon, Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database
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