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Rachel and Leah

RACHEL AND LEAH

RACHEL AND LEAH , or in Hebrew, Rael and Leʾah, were wives of Jacob and daughters of Laban. According to Genesis, Rachel, who was the great-granddaughter of Abraham's brother Nahor, met Jacob at a well after he had fled Canaan to escape his brother Esau. Jacob worked for Laban for seven years so that he might marry Rachel, but he was deceived into marrying her older sister Leah and had to work another seven years to earn Rachel's hand.

Both women have animal names: Rael means "ewe" and Leʾah means "cow." Although Rachel was beautiful, Leah was more fertile. They thus embody the two aspects of femininity that are emphasized in the Bible, and their conflict demonstrates the importance attached to male attention and appreciation. At one point Leah gave Rachel mandrakes to improve her fertility in exchange for Rachel's turn to spend the night with Jacob. In so doing the sisters exerted some control over where their shared husband spent his time.

Ultimately Leah produced seven children (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah); two more (Gad and Asher) were born to her slave girl Zilpah. Rachel's slave girl Bilhah bore Dan and Naphtali; later Rachel produced two sons of her own, Joseph and Benjamin.

When Jacob fled from Laban, Rachel took the family idols, sitting on them when her father came and claiming she could not rise "because the way of women has come upon me" (Gn. 31:35). She died after giving birth to Benjamin and was buried at the spot, between Bethel and Ephrath. Her purported tomb is venerated to this day and may have been similarly regarded in biblical times (Gn. 35:20, 1 Sm. 10:2, Jer. 31:15). Leah apparently died in Canaan and was buried in the cave of Machpelah (Gn. 39:31).

Most scholars agree that these stories include personifications of Israelite tribal history. The Leah tribes may have formed an early confederation. The monarchy and the priesthood are ascribed to tribes descended from her sons Judah and Levi. Rachel is the mother of the Joseph tribes, which were dominant in northern Israel, and of the adjoining Benjamin tribe, from which came the first king, Saul.

See Also

Jacob; Joseph; Saul.

Bibliography

A thorough survey of the patriarchal narratives is in Nahum M. Sarna's Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966). The historical material is discussed in great detail in Roland de Vaux's The Early History of Israel, translated by David Smith (Philadelphia, 1978). Postbiblical traditions pertaining to biblical events are collected in Louis Ginzberg's The Legends of the Jews, 2d ed., 2 vols., translated by Henrietta Szold and Paul Radin (Philadelphia, 2003).

Frederick E. Greenspahn (1987 and 2005)

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