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Women in the Old Testament: Rachel & Leah

Friday, July 06, 2012

If we think family life can be a complicated affair in these times, the Old Testament can always seem to go one better. The story of Leah and Rachel is a complex tale of sisterhood, displaying a kaleidoscope of emotions, sandwiched between the more brotherly tales of Esau and Jacob and Joseph and his brothers. Often, it is simply seen as a tale of rivalry and bitterness between two women, but it is not so simple. It is one of love and resentment; jealousy and deception; loyalty and betrayal. Much more lies behind the tale than one would think at first glance.

We meet Rachel and Leah following the journey of Jacob to Haran. Jacob had followed the instructions of his mother, Rebekah, to leave the family and go to the house of her brother Laban, as a result of Jacob’s deception of Esau, his brother, and the disquiet that followed upon it. Arriving in Haran, Jacob first met Rachel at a well, and immediately fell in love with her. After a month working for her father, Jacob asked for Rachel’s hand, and this was agreed providing Jacob worked for Laban for a period of seven years. This he did, and then asked for his wife. Jacob, the deceiver of Esau, then became the deceived. With the complicity of the sisters, Laban substituted Leah for Rachel at the wedding ceremony. Leah was Rachel’s elder sister, and though Rachel loved Jacob very much, she did not frustrate the deception. When the morning after the wedding came, Jacob realised he had been deceived and confronted Laban. Laban claimed that though it was a deception it was justified, as Leah was his eldest, and pledged Rachel as a second wife if only Jacob would remain in his service for another seven years. This was agreed and after a week Jacob married Rachel and worked on for Laban.

Jacob’s love for Rachel was all too evident, and Leah felt betrayed by God but determined to win the love of her husband. God ‘opened Leah’s womb’ and she bore Jacob four son’s in succession; Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Rachel could not conceive, and in her jealousy, she gave her handmaid, Bilhah, to Jacob as a surrogate, and Bilhah bore Dan and Naphtali. Leah then did likewise, giving her handmaid Zilpah, who gave birth to Gad and Asher. Leah then became fertile again and gave birth to Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah, Jacob's first and only daughter. Only after many years without fertility did God grant Rachel two sons, Joseph and Benjamin – the latter would be the cause of her death in childbirth on the road back to Canaan. Of all the children, Rachel's son Joseph was Jacob’s favourite, and destined to be the leader of Israel's tribes between exile and nationhood.

Though much evidently passed between the two sisters, a closer reading of the text shows more depth and subtlety in the relationship than might be immediately apparent. Each sister, though bearing their share of frustrations and disappointments remain loyal to Jacob and each other.  Jacob involves them both in the decisions on their future, such as the return to Canaan, and each shows an eagerness to grow in spiritual matters and draw closer to God. It is easy to dismiss the sisters’ eagerness to bear Jacob sons as mere rivalry, but that would be to judge too harshly. Both wanted the love of their husband, not to the exclusion of each other; both wanted to secure his love and the future of their people through their offspring; both were prepared to help each other in doing so and thus aimed at drawing closer to God in matters spiritual and in securing the future of Israel.  To present a clear-cut analysis of the Rachel and Leah’s motivations and intentions throughout their lives could easily be misleading; to do so would miss the point that God is working through all the confusion and turmoil we may often associate with family life.

Graham Hunt OP


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