I find a lot of tension in the story of Leah and Rachel. On the one hand, the (male?) narrator measured the women by the number of sons they bore and in the case of Rachel on her physical beauty as well.
“The problem for Rachel and Leah is indeed one of un-wholeness. Neither are allowed to be whole persons…Once married they become caricatures of the roles assigned to married women. Rachel is the wife, the lover, the one desired by her husband. Leah is the mother, the ‘other,’ and fertile to a fault, it seems. They each want to be the other” (Fewell/Gunn, p.78).
To a great extent, the women bought into this very limiting value system. As one feminist scholar argues, “Here lies the poignant trap of patriarchal motherhood: women face social death without children and physical death to bear children” (Fewell/Gunn, p.79).
On the other hand, the sisters show some independence and strength. To “dismiss these women simply as products of patriarchy is to do them an injustice” (Klagsbrun, p.271). Though the women focus on their jealousies and competition to provide Jacob with children, there is more going on in the story. As Irmtrud Fischer explains, “the Hebrew Bible is too realistic to pay homage without exception to patriarchy and its glorification of the male” (p.72). Leah showed courage by acknowledging her children as gifts of God and Rachel took the initiative to have children through her handmaid. The “mandrakes incident shows that the women could determine when and with whom Jacob would have sexual relations” (Jeansonne, p.85-6). Both sisters stood up against the abuses of their father and urged Jacob to leave Haran.
It is easy for contemporary westerners to conclude from the biblical story that the “woman’s wish for a child surpasses any reasonable emotional need, and is almost irrational in its force and magnitude” (Aschkenasy, p.81). However, it is important that we don’t unknowingly impose our views about motherhood on the biblical texts. Motherhood was seen as a natural law of life, a way for a woman to participate in the divine creative element.
“Biblical woman found this ‘natural’ phenomenon sanctified and deepened. She lived in a world whose tradition gave as its first command to humankind, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen. 1:28)…Childless love was thought to be incomplete, and giving birth [offered the]… ability to transcend the self into another” (Dresner, Barren, p.445).
When I read Leah and Rachel’s story more closely I find other motivations for their desire for children beyond uncontrollable maternal urges. Leah and Rachel were very human, complicated women who were not depicted as paragons of virtue or epitomes of evil. They are both pawns of patriarchy while at the same time subversive figures in search of their own spiritual and personal fulfillment.
Rachel at the Well
After escaping the wrath of the deceived Esau, Jacob arrived at his mother’s homeland in Haran where he met one of his future wives at the local well. At Jacobs first encounter with Rachel, it is hard to determine Rachel’s character. On the one hand no speech was attributed to her and on the other, she was shown to be somewhat independent in her work as a shepherd. Later in the story we find out that she can also be a rebellious figure. “The quality of self-reliance, even audacity, which Rachel as shepherdess represents, continues in her lifetime and in legend after her death.” (Dresner, Rachel, p.35).
Perhaps Jacob approached the same well that his mother once met Abraham’s servant for both wells were near Laban’s house. “Knowing her to be his uncle’s daughter and believing her to be his destined one, Jacob finds marvelous new strength…and proceeds to roll back the huge stone…Surely this was a very different Jacob from the young man Scripture described as a quiet man, dwelling in tents” (Dresner, Rachel, p.31). The future spouses have much in common: quiet natures capable of strong actions.
Detail of Leah from Rachel Hiding Laban’s Teraphim by Giovanni Battista
Overtaken with passion, Jacob kisses Rachel. It seems that she did not mind Jacob’s kiss for she informed her father, Laban, of the eligible man’s arrival. It appears that the two fell immediately in love. At the same time, the text emphasizes Rachel’s beauty casting doubt on whether Jacob cared for anything more than her appearances.
Meanwhile, the older sister was noted only for her eyes. Described as racot, usually translated as weak or ugly, the term can also mean tender. “The text is not explicit as to whether the word has negative connotations of ugly or the positive connotation of tender, but surely the narrator is trying to juxtapose Rachel’s appearance with Leah’s” (Goldstein, p.63). Certainly there seems to be something noteworthy about Leah’s eyes.
“It has sometimes been interpreted as meaning weak or watery eyes; it is sometimes translated as ‘lovely.’ It has been suggested that perhaps Leah had blue eyes, a strange occurrence in the Middle East. It is well known that blue eyes are more sensitive to light, thus watery, and are often myopic. They can certainly also be lovely!” (Nowell, pp.30-31).
Whatever the nature of her eyes, they did not add to her appeal. It’s hard to think of Leah as a good catch when her father had to deceive Jacob in order to marry her off (Engar, p.147). Regardless of her physical attributes, “Leah and her eyes become symbols of what Jacob cannot, or will not see” (Goldstein, p.62). As readers we find great sympathy for “the girl with the lonesome eyes.”
Bedtrick: The Substitution of Leah for Rachel
Jacob arrived in Haran with nothing to provide for a future bride so he agreed to work for Laban for seven years in order to earn Rachel’s hand. On the night the marriage was to be consummated, Laban switched the older daughter for the younger. Upon discovering the deception the next morning, Jacob confronted his father-in-law. Laban responded by saying that it was not customary that the younger daughter marry before the firstborn (habbekira). By using this particular term the narrator “recalls the earlier narrative where Jacob had lied to his father Isaac and said that he was ‘Esau, your firstborn’…The reader knows, of course, that Laban had remained silent about ‘the custom’ when Jacob first asked to marry Rachel, and thus his reasoning does not appear sincere” (Jeansonne, p.73). As Jacob spurned the rights of a first-born child, so Laban upheld the rights of his first-born. “Laban’s remark has a taunting tone: although your country may permit lapses in proper conductnamely, your behavior with Esau–in ‘our’ country we respect the traditions” (Dresner, Rachel, pp.44-5).
Of course, Laban’s real purpose for the deceit was to extract seven more years of free labor from Jacob. Throughout this entire episode, Rachel was silent. “Her father certainly views her as an object and refers to her as such. He tells Jacob, Fulfill another seven years, and this one too will be given to you (Gen. 29:27). Laban neither consults her nor calls her by name” (Abrams, p.215). For the narrator, neither Rachel or Leah’s consent was relevant as the women were passed from father to husband. The female perspective was insignificant and the women were treated as objects.
Midrash has a heyday with the substitution of Rachel for Leah. The ancient sages speculated that Rachel must have suppressed her own desires and assisted in the deceit by helping her sister appear and act like the woman Jacob thought he was getting. She was portrayed in rabbinic literature as an exceedingly gracious and forgiving woman for this act. I find this highly unlikely. Given the fact that we later discover that she was something of a trickster, I find it much more likely that Laban locked Rachel away so that she could not interfere with the nuptials. Leah too must have had the trickster gene for she cooperated with the switch and kept silent over the matter. “Leah may not have the creative intelligence of Rebekah, but her disguising herself as her sister makes her the fit consort of the man who disguised himself as his brother” (Engar, p.147). Diamond makes a good case that Jacob did not notice the difference between the two women because he was exceedingly drunk after Laban plied him with ample spirits at a banquet before the consummation of his marriage.
One final note on the “bedtrick.” The practice of marrying the sister of your wife was a forbidden sexual union in the Levitical laws (18:18). So how did Jacob get away with marrying two sisters? Commentators have dealt with the discrepancy in the following ways: 1) “The proscription against such a marriage was not yet in effect when this liaison occurred, the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai having followed by centuries the events of [Jacob’s] story.” 2) The prohibition “only applied when the patriarchs resided in the land of Israel but not outside the land–such as in far-off Haran where Jacob married both Leah and Rachel.” 3) “there was divine sanction to violate the law in this particular case, because the future progeny of these marriages would comprise the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel.” 4) “Because Leah and Rachel each feared that whichever of them did not marry Jacob would become the wife of his brother Esau, God decided to give them both to Jacob” (all quotes Dresner, Rachel and Leah).
A week after marrying Leah, Jacob married Rachel and then worked for another seven years to pay for her brideprice. During this time Leah bore many sons and Rachel was barren. “One Hebrew word usually translated ‘barren’ or ‘childless’ (ariri) comes from the root meaning ‘strip,’ with connotations of destitution. Another word meaning ‘barren’ or ‘childless’ (aqar) comes from the root meaning ‘pluck’ or root up'” (Jeansonne, p.75). It has been argued that if a woman failed to produce children then she was regarded as a disgrace and shamed by her community. “Further, as if to add to the barren wife’s sense of failure and inadequacy, it is implied that her childlessness was the result of divine retribution for some moral deficiency in her character” (Davies, p.74). In favor of this view, the example is usually given of all the wombs of Gerar being closed when Sarah entered Abimelech’s harem. However, since the king didn’t actually commit adultery, the closure of the wombs was simply an act of God unconnected to Abimelech’s moral character. Certainly a childless women could be distraught by her condition but it isn’t clear if this was a result of self-imposed shame or actual social censure. Barrenness may not have been seen as a consequence of a sin but an opportunity for God’s power to be displayed.
Except for Leah, barrenness was a characteristic of the matriarchs, the very women charged to build great nations through their pregnancies. “Why this paradoxical infertility? To alert us to the precariousness of human birth and the preciousness of the child once born…Barrenness, then, drove home the inestimable value of these children” (Dresner, Barren, p.446). The inability to conceive heightened the miraculous element of the birth and focused attention on the importance of the son born (Aschkenasy, p.81). As the Israelites began expanding their control over the Promised Land, the repeated stories of barren matriarchs miraculously cured by God served a specific purpose.
“It was difficult for the Israelites to accept that Yahweh, whom they had known as a liberator God, was also the Lord of fertility in the new land of Canaan. The stories of the women whose wombs were opened and closed according to Yahweh’s will were part of the monotheizing theology of the Yahwist…the stories of the barren women functioned to show that the gift of life came from Yahweh alone” (Callaway, p.32).
Finally Rachel couldn’t stand it any more. “Give me sons,” Rachel demanded and Jacob responded angrily: “Am I instead of God who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?” Jacob was saying, don’t blame me if you are barren. It was God who made you barren. The insensitivity of his remark is made more apparent by remembering that his father prayed for children on behalf of Rebecca and his grandfather prayed on behalf of his grandmother Sarah. Didn’t past experience tell him that at least he should pray on behalf of his wife? “Rachel’s exposure of his ineptness, in other words, is justifiable, which is what makes Jacob so angry” (Pardes, p.73). The medieval Jewish commentator Isaac Arama argued that Jacob’s outburst was an affectionate rebuke to Rachel. Jacob was trying to tell her that her relationship to him was not as the bearer of his children. His love for her was unconditional and she should stop worrying about becoming pregnant. If this is true, Jacob’s love is a hint that the Bible values women for more than just the number of sons they bear.
Miriam, Deborah, Yael, Abigail, Esther and Judith also serve as examples of women who were appreciated not for their mothering potential but for their personal contributions. Childlessness appeared to be an acceptable alternative to the “mommy track.” Surprisingly, biblical women had a lot of “career” options. Though in some ways Rachel chose to lament her situation, there might have been more to Rachel’s urgency to bear children.
Leah too chose to suffer by letting her personal worth be determined by Jacob’s love. “If barrenness was a cause of great misery for a woman, fruitfulness did not necessarily guarantee her happiness” (Aschkenasy, p.84). The manner in which Leah named her children emphasized that she did not find Jacob to be a loving companion. When her first son was born she optimistically exclaimed: “Now therefore my husband will love me.” The text states that when God saw that Leah was hated he opened her womb. “The word for ‘was hated’ (senu’a) may have connotations of sexual revulsion and is an appropriate indicator of Jacob’s feelings toward Leah” (Jeansonne, p.74). Obviously Jacob remained a reluctant husband and at the birth of her second child Leah hoped that at least Jacob didn’t hate her. She proclaimed, “Because the Lord has heard that I was hated, he has therefore given me this son also.” Upon the birth of her third son, she gave up hope of any affection from Jacob but she reasoned that as his fecund wife, at least Jacob had to spend more time with her in her tent: “Now this time will my husband be joined to me.” At the birth of Judah, Leah simply thanked God for her forth son.
“At this point, Leah seems to despair of ever gaining Jacob’s attention and seems resigned to finding solace in her sons; thus the sons are seen as a forced substitute for the man, not as a source of the greatest feminine joy. After a pause, Leah bears Jacob two more sons, and her expectations are revived; both sons’ names mirror her renewed hope for the only reward that seems to matter to her: ‘Now will my husband dwell with me’ (Gen. 30:20)” (Aschkenasy, pp.84-5).
To a certain extent Leah continued to measure her worth by Jacob’s desire for her. At the same time she showed a marked determination to persist in publicly announcing the way that Jacob ignored her. “On the occasions that he speaks of his ‘wife’ in the years when Leah alone is still alive, it is always to Rachel that he refers. Under such circumstances, Leah’s dogged resolution in naming her children is quite remarkable…there is a protest implied in the naming of her children” (Dresner, Rachel, p.55). God heard this protest and rewarded Leah with continued fertility. “One gets a man’s love; the other gets a child’s love” (Goldstein, p. 65). If God intended to equalize the sisters with this formula, I find this kind of divine intervention to be disturbing.
In thinking of my own encounter with the Holy One, it occurs to me that we project onto God our own intentions and limited ideas of equality. My sense is that God paid attention to both women and there was no need for each sister to compete against the other. Leah and Rachel had equal access to the numinous and were both worthy of respect. However, Rachel and Leah were rivals and their conflict should be taken very seriously. The Bible is full of stories of sibling rivalry, mostly of brothers fighting brothers. But when two women are in conflict usually it is described as a quarrel and the women are characterized as argumentative and jealous. These belittling terms are never used when describing power struggles between men. The implication is that conflicts between men concerns more important matters than women’s interests. This kind of sexist thinking should be avoided when discussing women and their concerns. It is important to keep in mind that rivalry is not a problem particular to women or intrinsic to female nature. “Trickery in the Bible is not a female prerogative” (Frymer-Kensky, p.277). I love Francine Klagsbrun’s comparison between Ruth and Naomi and Jacob’s wives: “I much preferred the true sisters Rachel and Leah, full-blooded, complicated, picking at each other the way my brother and I picked at each other” (p.262). I think that anyone who has a sibling, male or female, can relate to this typical way in which family members relate.
The Birthing Contest
Eventually Rachel’s need to produce heirs grew so intense that she resorted to using her servant Bilhah as her surrogate. Like Sarah before her, she offered her slave to Jacob to be impregnated on her behalf. “Rachel’s language and actions mirror Sarah’s as they both attempt to build a legacy through the children of their maidservants” (Caspi/Havrelock, p.6). After the birth of Naphtah via Bilhah, a competitive Leah then enlisted the services of her maid Zilpah to provide her with even more progeny. Nachmanides (Ramban) wrote, “I do not know what motivated this deed of Leah and why she gave her handmaid to her husband for she was not barren that she should hope to have children through Zilpah” (Ramban, p.368). Leah claimed as her own the two sons Zilpah gave birth to. In her subsequent naming speeches Leah proclaimed “What good fortune!” and “What blessedness because women will call me blessed!” Unlike her own children, Leah did not invoke God but referred only to her luck and social standing in her naming speeches at the subsequent births.
There are two schools of thought regarding the sisters’ rush to out-perform the other to produce heirs. The first analysis asserts that Rachel and Leah took advantage of their higher status and forced their slaves to have intercourse with their husband. Scholz finds the story troubling because “it is about two women, Bilhah and Zilpah, enslaved by other women who encourage their husband to rape their slaves…Sometimes scholars suggest that this custom was common in the ancient Near East, as if to normalize a horrendous practice,” (Scholz, p.80, n.7). Most commentators neglect the class distinctions “and prefer to focus on God’s support of Rachel and Leah, the slave-owning women. Generally, scholars approve of god’s [sic] support because they ignore Bilhah and Zilpah” (Scholz, p.82). By thanking God for the children born through their handmaidens, Rachel and Leah regard the oppression of Bilhah and Zilpah as God’s will.
Regardless of the social or historical setting, enslavement and rape should not be condoned. Furthermore, interpreters conclude that the sisters bought into the interests of patriarchy which valued women mainly for their ability to produce sons to carry on male lineages. By offering Bilhah and Zilpah to their husband for impregnation, Leah and Rachel were simply extending their role as sexual pawns in men’s power games. Pitzele writes, “Women bear sons for men. Motherhood has been co-opted in the interests of lineage and class…” (p.181). The contest between the two women dramatized the worst features of the women’s personalities and male interests.
The other school of thought does not dismiss these women as products of patriarchy but uncovers their noble intentions. Though it appeared that her primary concern was her competition with Leah, Rachel’s naming of Bilhah’s second son was indicative of a larger preoccupation. “Great wrestlings [naftuley Elohim, lit. a contest of God] I have wrestled against my sister and I have prevailed,” she proclaims upon the birth of Naphtah by Bilhah. Although the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel will occur later in Genesis 32, Rachel’s naming speech used the same language (wrestling, prevail) to describe her husband’s encounter. In this manner the narrator invites us to compare her experience with Jacob’s. “It is indeed remarkable that the narrative relates the conflict between her sister and herself to the divinity” (Scholz, p.86). From her perspective, the struggle with her sister was a religious/spiritual matter and just as profound an experience to her as Jacob’s struggle with the angel was for him. For Leah’s part, she attributed the births of her sons to God: “Yahweh saw my misery…For Yahweh heard that I was unloved… Now I shall praise Yahweh!”
“In other words, Leah correlates her fertility to the divinity although her goal to gain the love of her husband remains unattained. Initially, Leah believes to gain love for her fertility, but after the fourth son she recognizes that her God-given fertility will not provide her with Jacob’s love, and so she praises God without a reference to her husband” (Scholz, pp.84-5).
Neither woman received a divine message yet repeatedly they invoked God in naming their sons. Klagsbrun claims that Leah and Rachel were divinely directed, that “an intimacy with the divine…perhaps lay at the heart of their desire for children” (p.271). She sees the two women as strong figures who were crucial to the destiny of their people. As I will discuss below, Rachel and Leah saw the building up of their lineages through their handmaidens as a sacred process of determining the religious leader for the family in the next generation. Both interpretations hint at a complicated and interrelated truth. Neither Rachel nor Leah should be judged solely on their culpability or their good intentions. Their humanness is entwined with positive, negative and neutral characteristics.
Bilhah and Zilpah
Though Scholz warns against contextualizing the abuse of women, the Bible does not state that Jacob raped the handmaidens. It is plausible that Bilhah and Zilpah consented to the arrangement and felt a sense of fulfillment in becoming mothers. There is evidence that in early Israel servants were considered an integral part of the family and as a consequence motherhood was a communal activity. Even though Bilhah and Zilpah were used as surrogate mothers, it appears that their children retained their identities as their offspring.
“The narrator refers to Leah’s children, Issachar and Zebulun, as the fifth and sixth sons, whereas if Zilpah’s children, Gad and Asher, were counted equally as the children of Leah, Issachar and Zebulun should be reckoned as the seventh and eighth sons. Moreover, when Jacob gathers his wives and children to meet Esau, he separates the children to remain with their own mothers” (Jeansonne, p.135, n. 22).
Regardless of Bilhah and Zilpah’s status, their sons were treated as equal members of the twelve tribes of Israel. “It seems that their oppression turns into liberation in the next generation, and God supported at least their sons” (Scholz, pp.80-1). Perhaps Bilhah and Zilpah did not conceive of themselves as oppressed. In group oriented societies like Jacob’s extended household, individuals derived their identity through their bond with the group. Since the handmaidens provided additional offspring to the family, they contributed to the welfare of the clan and therefore would have been highly valued by the group.
Bilhah and Zilpah were not related to Abraham or his family, therefore the children born through the exogamous unions with Jacob were not eligible for the Abrahamic promise. In reading Isaac and Jacobs stories we become keenly aware that marrying the right wife was of paramount importance. Esau found that out the hard way when he experienced his parents’ disapproval upon his marriage to several Hittite women. However, there was a way for a child born through an outsider to be inducted back into the “rightful” family: through adoption. Since the children born through Leah and Rachel’s servants would have been classified as “incorrect” they corrected the descent of Dan, Naphtali, Gad and Asher by adopting their maids’ children as their own, something Sarah refused to do for Ishmael (Exum, p.109, n.19). The very birthing process demonstrated this collective understanding. Ancient Near Eastern sources portray a specific position in which both the biological and adoptive mother situated themselves during the birthing process. The adoptive mother acquired the child by participating in the birth of the child. “The mother who gave birth would sit between the legs of the woman who would become her child’s social parent while the midwife assisted in the delivery” (Teubal, Hagar, p.84). In this manner the two women participated in an intimate manner, the one holding the other in her arms during delivery connecting them together in the birth of the child. The Bible uses the expression “to bear on one’s knees” to describe this practice. This proscribed position assigned the adoptive mother’s social position to the newborn but did not remove the child from the birth mother.
The Mandrake Root Incident
At the time of the wheat harvest, Reuben, Leah’s oldest son, brought her some mandrakes as his way of informing his mother that he was aware of her affliction as the less-preferred wife. “Mandrakes are fleshy plants, referred to as ‘love apples,’ believed both to contain aphrodisiac properties, and also thought to be a cure for barrenness” (Bronner, p.19). Rachel then politely requested the mandrakes, thinking perhaps that it would be a small matter for her fecund sister to give the roots away.
“Leah’s response belies the depth of her anger and exasperation. In a forceful statement she cries, ‘Was it a small matter that you took my husband? Must you even take my son’s mandrakes?’ (30:15). This statement indicates that as the second but more beloved wife, Rachel has usurped Leah’s position of privilege as first wife and firstborn. It also indicates that at some point in the marriage Rachel has obtained sexual monopoly of Jacob” (Jeansonne, p.77).
In exchange for the root, Rachel trades a night with Leah. Previously the sisters’ sexuality had been controlled by the scheming of their father but now Jacob’s siring service was the property of Rachel. Ironically the sisters’ husband became a pawn in their fight for fertility. “This encouraging story rests on the efforts the two women accomplish to break out of the narrow limits set by their father and husband. The exchange is thus thoroughly subversive. The elders, in Ruth, comment upon that story by acknowledging afterwards the rightness of the women’s subversion when they equate Ruth to the position of Rachel and Leah together” (Bal, p.85). We may need to reassess the assumption that women’s sexuality was exclusively controlled by their fathers and husbands and that there may be more ambiguity and flexibility in the biblical social roles than previous thought. We are meant to invoke the notorious deal between Jacob and Esau over the lentils and the birthright when Leah gives Rachel the mandrakes. In both cases the younger sibling initiates the deal and in both narratives the struggle is for family leadership.
With biting wit, the story shows us that Leah understood that she lived in a household of tricksters. The man who did not want Leah as his wage for seven years work (Gen. 29:15) became Leah’s wage as she exclaimed at the birth of Issachar: “God has given me my wages because I gave my slave woman to my husband!” (Gen. 30:16). The story is not about the cooperation between Leah and Rachel as Leah’s angry retort demonstrates. It is only when Rachel bribed her that Leah relinquished the mandrakes.
In another irony we learn that the mandrakes didn’t help Rachel since she had to wait almost three years before she finally became pregnant. Meanwhile, without the use of the aphrodisiacs/fertility roots, Leah gave birth to two more sons and a daughter. Rachel finally did become pregnant with Joseph. “Rachel conceives, not because of any plan of her own, but because God ‘listened to her’ and ‘opened her womb'” (Jeansonne, p.78). The narrator attributes nothing to the mandrakes, “but regards female fecundity as due solely to divine intervention” (Exum, pp. 123-4). The story of the mandrakes was included to show how powerless Rachel was in controlling her own fertility and thereby highlighting God’s role in reversing her sterility. Joseph’s birth demonstrated that motherhood was Rachel’s consuming preoccupation as evident in her proclamation: “God has taken away my disgrace.” So she named him Joseph, which is to say, “May the Lord add another son for me.” She does not express thanks for her child but asks for another.
And Rachel stole her father’s idols. And Jacob stole the heart of Laban the Aramean in that he did not tell him that he was about to flee. (Genesis 31:19-20)
Several scholars contend that Rachel’s concern was for the control of the line of descent, the social structure organized around the family property. “One probable reason for the wives’ concern for lack of sons is that apparently in biblical times children were heirs of their mother’s estate quite apart from their fathers” (Davidson, p.233). In her father’s household, descent and inheritance was figured through the women. “In matrilineal systems, the sister’s son is regularly the mother’s brother’s heir…Laban himself insisted on the principle of descent through women. For example, when he overtook the fleeing Jacob, Laban claimed that ‘the daughters are my daughters and the sons are my sons’ (31:43)–these ‘sons’ being the ones everyone else thinks of as Jacob’s sons, and whose relation to Laban can only be traced through women” (Jay, pp. 105-6).
Rachel and Leah sought to maintain their own separate estates, an important consideration as they entered a patriarchal community whose laws could leave a widow destitute. Through Jacob’s story we learn why Abraham was so adamant about not letting Isaac personally go to Haran to obtain a wife. He might have ended up entangled in the matrilineal system of the old country just like Jacob did. Once under the authority of his mother’s brother, Jacob had very little control of his destiny.
Finally however, Jacob and his wives lost patience with Laban and his tricks. Jacob asked his wives for permission to leave their father’s house. “Recognizing that a break with Laban and Laban’s sons at this point would put an irrevocable breach between his own immediate family and that of his wives, Jacob solicits their agreement” (Jeansonne, p.80). Without his wives’ support he could be guilty of abducting the women as Laban later accused him (Exum, p.116). Feeling exploited by their father, the daughters denounced Laban and concurred with Jacob. “Are we not considered by him as strangers? For he has sold us and even totally consumed our money!” they exclaim.
“The sisters’ complaint is significant in that it offers a thinly disguised critique of the oppression of women within the patriarchal system…Their words are a remarkably forthright protest against the exploitative male-dominated structures of their day. The narrative bears witness to a clash of competing interests and provides a further example of the way in which an anti-patriarchal perspective has been preserved in the biblical text” (Davies, p.97).
Although Jacob consulted both women, Rachel commanded the stage. “It is she who is addressed first and she who responds first. It may even be that it is Rachel alone who is speaking, for the text can be read ‘Then Rachel replied (singular), and Leah consented (31:14)'” (Dresner, Rachel, pp.93-4). Rachel was also the principal actor. Just before leaving Haran she stole her father’s teraphim. When Laban discovered they were missing, he overtook the fleeing family and demanded their return. Rachel hid them under her saddlebag and when her father confronted her she claimed that she “had the way of women” and therefore could not rise.
Much has been written about the teraphim and the significance of Rachel’s theft. The following is a summary of scholarly explanations of what these items were. In Gen. 31:30 Laban calls the stolen teraphim his “gods” (elohim) and therefore many scholars have determined that the teraphim were household deities. Using comparative data from the ancient Near East, van der Toorn has determined that teraphim were more likely ancestor figurines than household deities.
“In the biblical texts the designation ‘gods’ is not always to be taken in a strictly metaphysical sense. In 1 Sam 28:13, for instance, the witch of Endor calls the shade of Samuel elohim, i.e., a superhuman, spiritual being. According to Isa 8:19 the Israelites used to speak of the ‘dead’ (metim) as ‘gods’ (elohim)” (van der Toorn, p.211).
The teraphim represented ancestors raised to the status of semidivine, not gods but human beings with special powers. Because the teraphim could be expected to speak (Zech 10:2) they could be consulted for divination and oracular queries (Ezek 21:26). Meyers suggests that the teraphim were votive objects expressing the quest for fertility (Meyer, p.162).
Regardless of the exact purpose of her father’s teraphim, why did Rachel take them? The midrash suggests that Rachel stole the teraphim to prevent them from revealing to her father that Jacob and his family had secretly left. I am surprised by this analysis since it assumes that the teraphim were efficacious as divinatory objects, not a power I would expect the ancient rabbis to imbue “idols” with.
This is what modern scholars suggest:
- Rachel stole the teraphim because she wanted to be protected by them. “It was the business of such teraphim to help the protégé in home and farm, to bless his family and flocks: Rachel believed that in stealing this image she was thus carrying along the Fortune of the house” (Gunkel, p.344). According to Morrison, the fertility and welfare of the family was the responsibility of the teraphim and therefore they were the “very heart of the family” (p.161).
- Rachel stole the teraphim to gain religious authority over the family. Phyllis Bird suggests that the teraphim were associated with women’s religious practices in ancient Israel but she cautions that women’s “religion cannot be equated with goddess worship, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that women’s religion did represent a significantly differentiated form of religious expression within Yahwism… To speak of the faith of Israel’s daughters [and wives] means at the very least to reexamine the boundaries of the religion we have reconstructed and to make room for more differentiated forms of piety than we have hitherto imagined” (p.107-8). A Nuzi adoption document indicates that the chief heir was to receive the family gods. “Their possession distinguished him from his siblings, and empowered him to conduct the family ritual. All other family members had to come to him in order to participate in the worship of the family gods. [For example] Micah built and equipped a family shrine and appointed one of his sons to officiate as priest (Judg. xvii 5)” (Spanier, p.406). Recently tablets were found at Emar, an ancient Amorite city. The records indicate that during the early biblical period it may have been common for societies to participate in domestic cults of the ancestors. In several of the recovered texts the father directs the daughter to call upon the household gods. “At the death of her father, the girl would enter into possession of her parents’ house, the place that harbored the images of the family deities and ancestors. As a duty concomitant to her privilege, she was to ensure the continuation of their cult” (van der Toorn, p.221). Rachel considered the teraphim to be part of her inheritance and she may “have intended to found a new shrine in Canaan with the teraphim” (Teubal, Sarah, p.98-9).
- Rachel stole the teraphim in her struggle to win primacy within Jacob’s household, a goal that would not necessarily be divorced from the prior explanation. Jay argues that the theft of the teraphim was Rachel’s attempt to control descent through women (p.107). The teraphim were passed down from a father to his heir. The individual who possessed the teraphim held the authority as head of the household. “Since Jacob was never aware of the theft, it seems unlikely that it was for his sake she acted. Her objective was to prevail over her sister in the contest for family supremacy. The ultimate expression of her success would be the appointment of her son as his father’s chief heir. Since Leah had borne several sons, including Jacob’s firstborn, Rachel perceived that the teraphim would invest her own son, Joseph with a mantle of authority which override all other considerations” (Spanier, p.405). Morrison also agrees that Rachel’s actions were not for Jacob’s sake because he was never in Laban’s line of inheritance (p.161). Rachel stole the teraphim to legitimize her claim that her first-born would carry on the family’s line of descent. “Her possession of the gods would make Jacob not a ‘paterfamilias’ but a mere husband in a system of descent through women. Rachel’s theft is the reverse of Jacob’s theft from Isaac and Esau…Jacob stole a paternal line. Rachel stole a maternal line. Jacob’s departure for ‘matrilineal’ Haran was a consequence of his theft. Rachel’s theft was a consequence of her departure for ‘patrilineal’ Canaan” (Jay, p.107). With the possession of the teraphim, her son could later lay claim to the leadership of the pro-Israelites. “Rachel’s theft of the teraphim is part of the original basis for the claim of the house of Joseph to national leadership” (Spanier, p.410).
- Another approach is to compare the biblical use of teraphim with parallels noted in the Nuzi tablets. This would suggest that by carrying off the teraphim, Rachel obtained the title to Laban’s estate. Contrary to this view, Gordon writes, “Since they were bound for Canaan and were leaving Mesopotamia for good, it is not likely that the gods conveyed valuable property rights. The possession of the gods may rather have betokened clan leadership and spiritual power to the extent that made possessing them of paramount importance” (Gordon, p.129). Greenberg argues against this point by noting that Laban had sons who would inherit the teraphim and if “anyone else who came forward with the gods must surely have ipso facto stood condemned as a thief. We must bear in mind that it was not the gods that made the paterfamilias, but the father’s act of bequeathing them…mere possession of symbolic objects was not enough to establish a claim to the office they symbolized” (Greenberg, p.244). Therefore, Rachel’s possession of them was not an attempt to become her father’s presumptive heir. “That would have been as foolish as the theft, by a king’s son, of the crown while his father still lived” (Greenberg, p.245).
- If the teraphim were seen to have powers of fertility, then these “hearth gods” may have been particularly vital in Rachel’s mind given her preoccupation with having children.
Given the details of the story, I propose that Rachel simultaneously held all of these reasons for stealing the teraphim. As the first born, first wed and mother of the eldest son, Leah had every right to consider herself the head wife and therefore should have held the inheritance rights and the authority associated with them. Rachel thought she needed the teraphim believing that they embodied cultic, ancestral and procreative powers she needed to usurp her sister’s position. Despite the fact that Leah should have felt secure in her ranking, the names she gave her sons reflected her ongoing need to advance her station in the family. Finally, it becomes absolutely clear that she was secondary when later Jacob and the entire family approached Esau expecting a violent confrontation.
“Jacob’s organization of the family entourage in preparation for his encounter with Esau provides evidence of Rachel’s superior status. The maidservants and their sons were placed in the vanguard, followed by Leah and her children, with Rachel and Joseph bringing up the rear…Jacob had thus arranged a fitting ceremonial procession, advancing from the least to the most important, while placing those he valued most highly in a position least vulnerable to possible attack” (Spanier, pp.407-8).
It is not clear whether Rachel’s theft secured her higher status or if her role as lead wife was inevitable given Jacob’s love for her.
The Way of Women
“Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for I have the way of women” Genesis 31:35
Upon learning that the teraphim were missing and Jacob had snuck away, Laban caught up with the escaping family. He searched everything including the tents of his daughters. The term “tent” connotes “household” in biblical contexts. “That each woman administers her own separate household is even more evident when Rachel asks that her lineage be built up (Gen. 30:3). Rachel is referring to her own lineage, not that of the clan. Rachel’s seemingly anguished plea to her husband Jacob, ‘Give me children or I will die,’ does not express envy of her sister’s fertility (Gen. 30:1). To Rachel, ‘I will die’ meant ‘my house will die out.’ This is borne out by the act that Rachel is not anxious about having a child of the body to compete with Leah, her sister, because she presents her husband with Bilhah. The shifhah was not ‘barren’ and could presumably have given Rachel a child at any time, if completion for progeny were the issue” (Teubal, Hagar, p.60).
When Laban approached Rachel she declined to rise before her father. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible “to rise before someone” is not necessarily an indication of deference but shows that one is capable of challenging one’s adversary. Thus Rachel’s words can be taken to mean that she is refraining from confronting her father as well as showing obsequiousness toward him.
“Thus not only can we identify two ideologies in the mouth of the same speaker (namely, an ideology of servility and an ideology of resistance), but those two ideologies are present in the same words…Rachel is thus speaking two languages simultaneously: one is the male-dominated language that sees the ‘way of women’ as a sexually ‘other’ way of being; and the second is her own language, created from her female perspective, which understands the ‘way of women’ as an unsanctioned, subversive way of attaining justice. Her subversive action in stealing the teraphim is matched by her equally subversive undermining of male definitions of women and her creation of new meanings out of male-generated language” (Lapsley, pp.240, 242).
Feminist writers refer to this as the “double-voicedness of women’s language” which tells a muted story alongside the dominant cultural meaning. The muted story is a desire for justice and self-representation in a treacherous setting. It is from the traces of barely audible voices that we can piece together what Rachel might have been thinking. Perhaps she was keenly aware of the irony that it was her father who stole her from Jacob in the first place by substituting her sister in her stead (Fuchs, pp.72-3). I hear a note of sarcasm in her plea that Laban not be angry with her considering how angry she is with him.
Laban then refrained from searching under Rachel. Most interpreters argue that he did not search her because he was deterred by her menstrual impurity and he did not want to be defiled by it. However, Laban kissed both his daughters on his departure which meant that he was not avoiding physical contact with Rachel. Be’er puts forward the idea that it was the custom to not require menstruating women to stand. “A menstruating woman was exempt from certain obligations that required her to move about” (Be’er, p.162). The prohibitions against touching a menstruating women were either a later development or not a custom of Laban’s household.
When Laban confronted Jacob about the stolen terephim, Jacob implied that all his possessions belong to God. In contrast, Rachel and Leah used a number of financial terms: portion, inheritance, selling, money, and riches. Their primary concern was their economic survival which could be procured through the multi-faceted potency of the teraphim. I am not suggesting that Jacob was morally superior to his wives; the fact that he stole his brother’s inheritance and the ruse he played with the spotted sheep would preclude that conclusion. Honesty was not seen as the best policy in this family. “Both force and deception are seen as appropriate, active responses to threatening situations inn biblical texts” (Fishman, p. 275). Oddly Rachel was forthright about their concerns in speaking with Jacob while at the same time she concealed the teraphim from her father.
Rachel Gives Birth
It seems evident that Rachel was not actually menstruating.
“Although it is impossible to know what the ancient Israelite knew about conception and pregnancy, fact is that later on in the journey, Rachel gives birth to Benjamin…possibly the notice of Benjamin’s birth is the narrator’s means for informing the reader that Rachel was lying all along” (Steinberg, pp.107-8, n. 43).
Tragically Rachel died with the birth of her second son. Just before she passed away she named him ben-‘oni, (Son of my sorrow). Though Rachel had previously cried out to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die,” ironically she died upon giving birth.
“One could argue that Rachel’s untimely death is a belated fulfillment of Jacob’s curse: ‘Any one with whom you find your gods shall not live’ (Gen 31:32). But close attention to the text would disclose that the object of Jacob’s curse is the one who would be found out by Laban. Since the latter is not shown to find his gods with Rachel, it is a matter of speculation to attribute her death to Jacob’s curse…The emphasis in the scene on the fact that the dying Rachel is giving birth to a son (Gen 35:17) and the attention given to this baby’s name (v.18) suggest that the narrator is not so much interested in the moral relationship of Rachel’s death to her deception as in the ‘product’ of her death” (Fuchs, p.81).
Once again the narrator did not challenge the deceptive actions of the matriarchs (and patriarchs) and we are left with the impression that Rachel’s clever ploy in stealing the teraphim was acceptable.
Jacob quickly changed the name of the newborn to “Benjamin,” meaning son of my right hand. He renamed him perhaps to protect the newly born child from such a gloomy name, “perhaps in an attempt to mitigate the pain which characterizes his beloved’s life, or possibly as a promise to the dying Rachel that…the younger shall prevail, just as one’s right hand prevails. Later, when blessing Joseph’s sons, he will similarly switch hands, placing the right hand on the younger Ephraim and his left on Menashe” (Pardes, p.72). Of course, it is also possible to interpret the renaming as a ceremonial induction into patriarchy thereby erasing the matrilineal authority Rachel had attempted to bestow upon her children.
Jacob buried Rachel where she died, along the side of the road. In Jewish tradition her resting place along the highway became a comfort to the exiles banished from the Holy Land as they passed by. “Her grave became a shrine for all the generations to come, for exile was to become the permanent condition of the people” (Dresner, Rachel, p.180). Even as early as the writings of Jeremiah one thousand years after her death, Rachel was seen to be the mother par excellence to care for the children of Israel: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children” (Jer. 31:15).
“In this proem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and Jeremiah all plead with God to save the Jews from the horrors of exile in Babylonia, but to no avail. Finally Rachel speaks up and appeals to the Almighty…No longer infertile, no longer an object, she has become mother to a nation, taking up their cause before God’s throne” (Abrams, pp.220-1).
Rachel symbolized the determination of the Jewish people in times of tragedy. Even today barren women make a pilgrimage to her tomb to pray that they might conceive as she did. For many she has become a symbol of hope.
Eventually Leah also died and was laid to rest next to Jacob in the family burial place. “Leah, the unloved one, is buried next to Jacob in the Cave of Machpela. She lies next to him in the family plot, while Rachel is buried on the road” (Goldstein, p.68). Though near him in death, she was never Jacob’s beloved in life. With the public naming of her sons, everyone knew her disappointment. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that in the next generation her sons will hate Joseph, Rachel’s first born and the sibling rivalries will continue. In life and in death, both women left a legacy of pettiness and great valor.
For Further Reading
Abrams, Judith Zabarenko – “Rachel: A Woman Who Would Be a Mother” Jewish Bible Quarterly 18 (1989-90), 213-221
Aschkenasy, Nehama – Eve’s Journey: Feminine Images in Hebraic Literary Tradition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986)
Bal, Mieke – Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987)
Be’er, Ilana – “Blood Discharge on Female Im/Purity in the Priestly Code and in Biblical Literature” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy, (Series 1), Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 6. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994)
Bird, Phyllis A. – “Israelite Religion and the Faith of Israel’s Daughters: Reflections on Gender and Religious Definition” in The Bible and the Politics of Exegesis, David Jobling, Peggy L. Day, and Gerald T. Sheppard, eds. (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1991)
Bronner, Leila Leah – Stories of Biblical Mothers: Maternal Power in the Hebrew Bible (Dallas: University Press of America, 2004)
Callaway, Mary – Sing, O Barren One: A Study in Comparative Midrash. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 91. (Society of Biblical Literature, 1986)
Caspi, Mishael Maswari and Rachel S. Havrelock – Women on the Biblical Road: Ruth, Naomi, and the Female Journey (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 1996)
Davidson, Richard M. – Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007)
Davies, Eryl W. – The Dissenting Reader: Feminist Approaches to the Hebrew Bible (Aldershot, Eng.: Ashgate, 2003)
Diamond, J.A. – “The Deception of Jacob. A New Perspective on an Ancient Solution of the Problem” Vestus Testamentum 34 (1984) 211-213.
Dresner, Samuel H. – “Barren Rachel,” Judaism 40 (1991), 442-451.
Dresner, Samuel H. – “Rachel and Leah: Sibling Tragedy or the Triumph of Piety and Compassion?” Bible Review 6, no. 1 (1990) 22-27; 40-42.
Engar, Ann W. – “Old Testament Women as Tricksters” in Mappings of the Biblical Terrain: The Bible as Text, Vincent L. Tollers and John Maier, eds. (Bucknell Univ. Press, August 1990)
Exum, J. Cheryl – Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 163 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993)
Fewell, Danna Nolan and David M. Gunn – Gender, Power, and Promise: The Subject of the Bible’s First Story (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Fischer, Irmtrud – Women Who Wrestled with God: Biblical Stories of Israel’s Beginnings. Linda M. Maloney, trans. (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 2005)
Fishman, Sylvia Barack – “Soldiers in an Army of Mothers: Reflections on Naomi and the Heroic Biblical Woman” in Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story, Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, eds. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva – “The Sage in the Pentateuch”, in John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue, eds., The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1990)
Fuchs, Esther – “For I Have the Way of Women: Deception, Gender, and Ideology in Biblical Narrative” Semeia 42:68-83 (1988)
Goldstein, Elyse – ReVisions: Seeing Torah Through a Feminist Lens (Woodstock, Vermont: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998)
Gordon, Cyrus H. – The World of the Old Testament (Phoenix House, 1960)
Greenberg, Moshe – “Another Look at Rachel’s Theft of the Teraphim” Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962) 239-48.
Gunkel, Hermann – Genesis (Mercer University Press, 1997)
Jay, Nancy – Throughout Your Generations Forever: Sacrifice, Religion, and Paternity (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992)
Jeansonne, Sharon Pace – The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990)
Klagsbrun, Francine – “Ruth and Naomi, Rachel and Leah,” in Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story, Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer, eds. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)
Lapsley, Jacqueline E. – “The Voice of Rachel: Resistance and Polyphony in Genesis 31.14-35”, in A. Brenner, ed. Genesis. A Feminist Companion to the Bible, 2nd series; (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) 233-48.
Meyers, Carol – Discovering Eve (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988)
Morrison, Martha A. – “The Jacob and Laban Narrative in Light of Near Eastern Sources” Biblical Archaeologist 46 (1983), 155-164.
Niditch, Susan – “Genesis” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992)
Nowell, Irene – Women in the Old Testament (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1997)
Pardes, Ilana – Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992)
Pitzele, Peter – Our Father’s Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995)
Ramban (Nachmanides) – Commentary on the Torah: Genesis, translated and annotated by Charles B. Chavel (Judaica Press, 2005)
Scholz, Susanne – Introducing the Women’s Hebrew Bible. Introductions in Feminist Theology 13. (London: T&T Clark, 2007)
Spanier, Ktziah – “Rachel’s Theft of the Teraphim: Her Struggle for Family Primacy [Gen 31]” Vetus Testamentum 42 (1992) 404-12.
Speiser, Ephraim A. – Genesis: The Anchor Bible (Anchor Bible, 1964)
Steinberg, Naomi Anne – Kinship and Marriage in Genesis: A Household Economics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993)
Teubal, Savina J. – Hagar the Egyptian: The Lost Tradition of the Matriarchs (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990)
Teubal, Savina J. – Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1984)
van der Toorn, Karel – “The Nature of the Biblical Teraphim in Light of Cuneiform Evidence” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990) 203-22.
Wander, Nathaniel – “Structure, Contradiction, and ‘Resolution’ in Mythology: The Treatment of Women in Genesis 11-50” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 13 (1981) 75-99.
Zlotnick, Helena – Dinah’s Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible to Late Antiquity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002)