The story begins in Canaan. Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebekah, is instructed by his father to leave Beer-Sheva and “go to Paddan-aram … to take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother” (Genesis 28:2). Jacob sets out for the region of Haran as he was told and “he came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night” (Genesis 28:11).

There he dreams that “a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. And the Lord was standing beside him” (Genesis 28:12–13). In the dream, God promises Jacob that his descendents “shall be as the dust of the earth” and that God will protect Jacob wherever he goes and “will bring you back to this land” (Genesis 28:14–15).

When Jacob awakens he sets up a stone to mark the place—Bethel—where God appeared to him. Resuming his journey he comes to a well in Haran where shepherds water their flocks.

Rachel, Laban’s daughter, arrives at the well with her father’s flocks. After Jacob helps her water her flocks he reveals to Rachel that he is her father’s nephew. Rachel returns with Jacob and Laban takes Jacob into his home. After a month passes Laban asks Jacob, “What shall your wages be?” (Genesis 29:15). The text immediately informs us:

“Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel” (Genesis 29:15–17).

Jacob then answers Laban:

“ ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel’… So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:18, 20).

But Laban deceives Jacob. In the dark of the wedding night, Laban brings Leah to Jacob “and he cohabited with her” (Genesis 29:23) thinking she was Rachel. In the morning, Jacob discovers the deceit; he is outraged. Laban responds to Jacob’s outrage by giving him Rachel as his other wife at the end of the first week of Jacob’s marriage to Leah. But Jacob must work another seven years. The wrenching conflict between the sisters is now established; we are told explicitly that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (Genesis 29:30).

Although it is Rachel whom Jacob loves, it is Leah who gives him children. Leah bears four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Rachel is barren.

Despairing and envious of her sister, Rachel gives Jacob her maid Bilhah as a concubine, and Bilhah bears two sons, Dan and Naphtali (Genesis 30:1–8).

Not to be outdone, Leah gives her maid Zilpah to Jacob as a concubine, and Zilpah too bears Jacob two sons, Gad and Asher (Genesis 30:9–13).

But Leah’s child-bearing days have not ended. Next she bears Issachar and then Zebulun, and, finally, Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah (Genesis 30:14–21).

Without a pause the story continues: “Now God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22). And so Joseph was born (Genesis 30:22–24). This is why Joseph is Jacob’s favorite—the firstborn of his beloved Rachel.

After 20 years with Laban, Jacob requests permission to return to Canaan. After some complicated negotiations with Laban over ownership of the flocks, Jacob leaves with his family and his share of the flocks and servants. Unknown to Jacob, Rachel steals her father Laban’s household gods. When Laban discovers that his gods are missing, he sets off in pursuit and overtakes Jacob and his party. Jacob denies having taken anything belonging to Laban: “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live.” (Genesis 31:32). Unknowingly Jacob has condemned his beloved Rachel. (As we shall see, she dies in childbirth.)

Laban searches in the tents for his gods. “Rachel, meanwhile, had taken the idols and placed them in the camel cushion and sat on them… Rachel prevents Laban from searching her saddle by saying: “ ‘Let my lord not take it amiss that I cannot rise before you, for the period of women is upon me’” (Genesis 31:34–35).

Rachel’s theft goes undiscovered. Jacob and Laban agree to part, each to his own homeland. They make a mound of stones and set up a pillar to mark the line that neither will cross with hostile intent toward the other.

Jacob proceeds toward Canaan sending messages ahead to his brother Esau. Before they meet, Jacob encounters a man at night who “wrestled with him until the break of dawn.” When the man “saw that he had not prevailed against [Jacob] he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket…” (Genesis 32:25–26). At dawn, before the man departs, Jacob asks for his blessing. “What is your name?” the man asks. When told, he replies: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed…” (Genesis 32:28–29). Limping, Jacob continues on his way to his feared reunion with Esau.

The brothers meet and part in peace after a fearful reunion. Jacob resumes his travels with his wives and children, arriving in Shechem, in the land of Canaan, where Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped, followed by the devastating retribution by Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi (Genesis 34).

God then tells Jacob, now named Israel, to return to Bethel where his dream of the ladder to heaven occurred and to build an altar there. Jacob instructs his household to “Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst, purify yourselves, and change your clothes” (Genesis 35:2). After they comply, Jacob builds the altar and sets up a pillar where he made an offering to God.

The story of the two sisters, Rachel and Leah, ends soon after the family caravan departs from Bethel. Rachel is again pregnant. Labor begins. When “her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, ‘Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.’ But as she breathed her last—for she was dying— she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath—now Bethlehem” (Genesis 35:17–19).