Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. In Genesis chapter 29, Jacob arrives at a well, outside of Haran. There, in a setting
teeming with rich imagery, he meets local shepherds and plies them with questions. Abravanel explains
the significance of the dialogue at the well, both significant topics for Bible students. As to Jacob’s
questions, what was he getting at? Here is Abravanel’s interpretation.
“Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the children of
the east…And he looked, and behold a well in the field…And Jacob said
unto them, My brethren, from where are you? And they said, We are
from Haran. And he said unto them, Do you know Laban the son of
Nahor? And they said, We know him…And he said unto them, Is it well
with him? And they said, It is well. And behold, Rachel his daughter
comes with the sheep.”
Jacob sought out Laban, Rebekah’s brother, this despite Isaac’s advice. The aged patriarch had called for
Jacob to pay a visit to Betuel, Rebekah’s and Laban’s father. First, Jacob learns from the locals that he
arrived in Haran. Next, Jacob asks: “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” Yet, Laban was the son of
Betuel and grandson of Nahor.
Abravanel clarifies. Of course, Jacob knew Laban’s lineage. The reason he calls Laban the son of Nahor
(and not Betuel) was Jacob’s way of paying respect to the family’s pedigree. Nahor was Abraham’s
uncle. Pegging Laban to Nahor underscored the more prestigious family ancestry.
Next, Jacob asks: “Is it well with him?” Abravanel understands the question, not as a nicety, but rather
as a crucial barometer. Jacob needed to know if Laban lived in peace. The patriarch feared that perhaps
a tribal feud engulfed Laban and the townspeople. Jacob had plenty of infighting back home. He needed
No sooner had Jacob heard that peace reigned in Haran than more favorable news followed. “And they
said, It is well. And behold, Rachel his daughter comes with the sheep.” When Jacob heard about good
neighborly relations in Haran, followed by news that Rachel was approaching, a strong premonition
from Above overcame him – he felt certain that the two were destined to marry.
How did Jacob know that Rachel would be his bride? He had heard the story of divine providence, one
that arranged for Rebekah to meet Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, at the well. The venue turned out to be a
precursor, as Isaac and Rebekah married. Now, Jacob felt that the well, with its history and symbolism
alluding to life, would become the backdrop whereby he would find his wife.
In sum, Abravanel argues that Jacob’s arrival at the well, and the conversation with Haran’s shepherds
that took place there, was anything but casual or chance. It had the mark of divine providence written
all over it.