This post is a bit longer than usual because it’s a complex story, but I’ve tried to condense it as much as possible.
We probably all know the story of Jacob and his numerous sons, even if only from Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
But what do we know of Joseph’s mother, and the mothers of the many other sons of Jacob, for there were at least four? Rachel and Leah, who were sisters, and Bilhah and Zilphah (their maids).
If anyone thinks the Old Testament is dull, they haven’t read the story of Rachel and Leah. It involves two women wounded by the actions of their father, mistaken identity, sisterly jealousy, fierce rivalry, and even curious aphrodisiac plants!
I’ll cover both women over the next two days, but first some background.
Leah and Rachel were the daughters of Laban (Rebekah’s brother) and lived with him in Haran. Leah is the eldest and we’re told, ‘her eyes were lovely (or in some versions of the bible ‘weak’), whereas Rachel ‘was graceful and beautiful’.
Jacob, one of the sons of Isaac and Rebekah, was on the run from his twin brother Esau (as we read yesterday). He had fled to his Uncle Laban in hope that he might find a wife.
He found two!
Firstly, Rachel’s story.
Rachel was looking after her sheep when she first saw Jacob by the well. In a wonderfully romantic encounter (or maybe a rather clunky way in which a man shows off to a woman he fancies?), Jacob sees Rachel, leaps off his camel, rolls back the large stone over the well (showing off his rippling muscles?) to water her sheep.
Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud.Genesis 29.9-11
Gloriously romantic, or all a bit much, depending on your perspective!
From this moment on Jacob loves Rachel, but in order to marry her he has to work for her wily father Laban for seven years:
..and they seem to him but a few days because of the love he had for herGenesis 29.20
When the time was up there was an engagement feast and, in an action that would change the course of the sisters’ lives forever, Laban sent older sister Leah into the tent to have sex with Jacob. In that culture, that meant that they were then married. Jacob didn’t realise what had happened until the morning and was understandably horrified. I don’t imagine Rachel was particularly pleased either!
Laban allowed Jacob to marry Rachel the next week after making him pledge to work for him for another seven years. The sisters had no say in all of this of course. Having multiple wives was common in the culture of the time, but it isn’t hard to imagine how difficult it must have been for the sisters.
Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, but Leah was able to have children. A recipe for disaster! Rachel wanted children more than anything and as time went on she envied Leah and got so low that she cried out to her husband:
give me children or I shall die!Genesis 30.1
This didn’t go down well, Jacob got angry and Rachel, in her desperation, came up with a plan which involved sending her maid Bilhah to have sex with Jacob so that she could have a child through her as a surrogate. Her plan worked and two sons were born.
Eventually Rachel had a son of her own: Joseph.
The family left Laban’s household and headed back to Canaan where Jacob was eventually reunited with his brother Esau. The journey turned out to be calamitous for Rachel. But before this there is a wonderful demonstration of her strength of character in the tale of the missing idols. Laban was enraged that someone in the fleeing party had stolen his ‘household Gods’ so he searched everywhere until he came to Rachel’s tent. She had them but managed to foil him by putting them in her camel’s saddle, sitting on it, and telling him she had her period!
Let not my Lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of the woman is on meGenesis 31.35
I love this!
Rachel had her longed for second child whilst on the journey. It was a difficult pregnancy and she didn’t survive the birth. Her final act was to name her son Ben-oni, which means ‘son of my sorrow’, a name that revealed so much about this beautiful but deeply sad woman who never seemed to be able to find contentment in life.
Thankfully for the baby Jacob overruled the name and called him Benjamin which means ‘son of my right hand’. The tribe of Benjamin became one of the most significant tribes for the people of Israel, and it was from here that the first king of Israel (Saul) emerged.
Rachel was buried on the way to Bethlehem, and her tomb is a significant site for pilgrims to this day.
God, you are my God, early will I seek you, My Soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You, in a barren and dry land where no water is'. Psalm 63
Rachel’s life wasn’t easy and she faced many challenges and sorrows along the way. I wonder if she was happiest when looking after her sheep as a child. Women in the ancient world were expected to produce offspring and their prosperity and happiness depended upon this. Let’s pray for all those who continue to be defined by their fertility, and for those who never seem to find contentment in life.
Holy and Eternal God,
give us such trust in your sure purpose,
that we measure our lives
not by what we have done or failed to do,
but by our faithfulness to you. Amen
From A New Zealand Prayer Book