Rachel and Leah
Rachel and Leah
Sisters who were matriarchs of Israel.
Rachel (fl. c. 1500 bce). Fourth matriarch of Israel. Flourished around 1500 bce; died in childbirth; grave near Bethlehem is a site of pilgrimage; daughter of Laban; sister of Leah; favorite wife of Jacob and one of the four mothers of the 12 tribes of Israel; children: Joseph and Benjamin.
Leah (fl. c. 1500 bce). Third matriarch of Israel. Name variations: Lea; Lia. Flourished around 1500 bce; buried with Jacob in the ancestral cave in Hebron; daughter of Laban; sister of Rachel; first wife of Jacob; children: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun—6 of the 12 tribes of Israel.
According to Genesis, Sarah and Abraham, prophet and father of three modern religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), had a son named Isaac. When Isaac grew, he married Rebekah , and the couple conceived twins. When her time came, Rebekah delivered first Esau, then Jacob, who came from the womb clinging to his brother's heel. As the boys matured, Isaac favored Esau and arranged to confer on him his birthright as the eldest son—that being a double portion of the family's possessions and the inheritance of the covenant God made with Abraham. On the day Isaac prepared to bless his first-born, Jacob was able to fool his aged, blind father into thinking he was Esau, and so Jacob succeeded, through fraud, in securing Isaac's blessing and Esau's birthright. In anger, Esau vowed to murder his brother. So, to save her favorite son, Rebekah persuaded her husband to send Jacob off to the land of her brother, Laban, who lived in Paddan-aram (Haran) in Mesopotamia. There, according to Hebrew custom, Jacob would seek a wife among his maternal cousins.
After an arduous journey, Jacob arrived at a well just outside Haran, and there, come to water her father's flocks, was a young shepherdess. The woman was Rachel, daughter of Laban, Jacob's uncle. Jacob was moved to tears by his kinswoman's shapeliness and beauty. After helping with the sheep, he kissed her and determined that she would be his wife. Jacob, having left home empty-handed, had no means by which to pay the bride-price for Rachel, so he agreed to give Laban seven years of service. The seven years passed quickly: "they seemed like a few days, so great was his love for her" (29.20), and at the end of that time the wedding feast was duly celebrated. But Jacob was about to become the victim of a fraud similar to the one he perpetrated on his brother. The comely Rachel had an elder sister named Leah, who was "dulleyed" and ill-favored. On the night the marriage was to be consummated, Laban veiled Leah and sent her into the bridegroom's darkened tent in place of Rachel, so Jacob laid with Leah, and she became his wife. On discovering the ruse, Jacob demanded to know why he had been hoodwinked, and Laban defended his actions on the grounds that it was the custom of his people that the eldest daughter must marry first. Jacob was determined to have Rachel, so he could do nothing but consent to work another seven years for her hand. At the end of 14 years, when Rachel, too, was his wife, Jacob agreed to go on working for wages in Paddan-aram for seven more years.
Yet the family's problems were not over; conflict arose between the two sisters forced into the awkward position of sharing one husband. God had graced Rachel with a sweetness and beauty, which caused Jacob to treasure her dearly, but her sister Leah, unloved and forgotten, God blessed with progeny. While Rachel remained childless, Leah gave birth to four sons, each time hoping "now my husband will love me" (29.32). In distress at her barrenness, Rachel first reproached Jacob ("Give me children or else I am dead" [30.1]), then finally decided to offer her husband a proxy. She had her maid-servant, Bilhah , lay with Jacob on the understanding that Bilhah's children would be her own. Through Bilhah, Rachel would "build up a family" (30.3). Bilhah and Jacob had two sons, and Rachel was pleased. She called the second of the two boys Naphtali (struggle), claiming, "With great struggle have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed" (30.8). Leah, who had at this point ceased bearing, hastened to outdo her sister; she also offered her servant to Jacob as a surrogate. Through this girl, Zilpah , Jacob had two more sons, both to Leah's credit.
This competition between the sisters, to provide their husband with sons, continued. At one point Reuben, Leah's eldest son, brought mandrake plants from the field, and Rachel demanded he give them to her, for mandrakes (in Hebrew dudaim or love-givers) were thought to counter infertility. Leah bargained with her son's mandrakes and would only agree to give them to her sister if Rachel would allow her access to Jacob's bed. The deal was struck, and when Jacob returned from the country, Leah informed him, "You are to sleep with me tonight. I have hired you with my son's mandrakes" (30.16). Leah and Jacob had two more sons and a daughter. God finally took pity on Rachel's "humiliation" and blessed her with a son, who would play a pivotal role in the history of the Hebrews; she named him Joseph.
The time came when Jacob wished to leave the service of Laban and return to the land of Abraham with his two wives, two concubines, eleven sons, one daughter, and manifold flocks, but his father-in-law sought to cheat both Jacob and his two wives. He equivocated about the animals he promised Jacob as wages for his labor and refused his daughters their portion of the bride-price and inheritance, which, by ancestral law, belonged to them. So Rachel, unbeknownst to Jacob, stole from her father the statues of the household gods. The family left Paddan-aram clandestinely, but when Laban heard that Jacob had absconded with his wives and herds, he pursued and overtook them in Gilead, demanding to know why his children had left in stealth and stolen his property. As Jacob was unaware of Rachel's theft, he assured his father-in-law that he had taken only what was his, and that if anyone of his party had stolen from Laban, that person merited death. Rachel hurriedly took the contraband gods from her tent, put them in her camel bags, and sat on them while her father searched in vain, telling him she could not rise because it was her time of the month. Angry words passed between Jacob and Laban, but in the end they agreed that Jacob would return to his homeland on the condition that he treat his wives well and never marry again or return to Laban's territory. The two men erected a stone pillar and ate a sacrificial meal to cement the bargain.
Hark, lamentation is heard in Ramah, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her sons. She refuses to be comforted: they are no more.
Once Laban was appeased, Jacob's thoughts turned to home, and he began to plot how to approach his estranged brother, Esau. Soon, upon reentering Edomite country, Jacob learned that Esau was approaching with a force of 400. As what seemed like an opposing army arrived, Jacob divided his family into groups. He placed the servant-girls with their children in front; Leah with her sons were next; but Rachel and Joseph he placed in the back, the most protected position. Despite her inability to increase his wealth in sons, Jacob still loved Rachel most. As it turned out, Jacob's fears were unwarranted; when he and Esau met, the reunion was amicable. Both brothers had prospered and Esau seemed to have forgiven the fact that his brother had stolen his birthright. Jacob and his family rested in the land of Canaan near Shechem.
One day Dinah , the daughter of Leah, "went out" to visit with the local women, and a Hivite prince named Shechem raped her then claimed to love and want her for his bride. Jacob and his sons were incensed about the insult to Dinah, who had been violated by an uncircumcised man. Hamor, Shechem's father, offered to accept Dinah as his daughter-in-law and suggested to Jacob that his family settle in the area and that the tribes of Jacob and Hamor exchange women as wives, thus forming one kin. Hamor agreed to pay whatever bride-price Jacob might demand for Dinah's hand. The price was heavy—heavier than Hamor knew, for Jacob's sons were plotting against him. They insisted that all the men of Hamor's tribe be circumcised. Hamor and the men of his tribe agreed. All had their foreskins removed, but two days later, while they were still weakened and in great pain, the brothers of Dinah armed themselves, entered the city, killed every male, carried off the women, and plundered the houses in retribution for the rape of their sister.
In fear of retaliation, and on the advice of God, Jacob and his family purged themselves of all foreign gods and fled, which put a strain on Rachel, who was pregnant for the second time. They reached Bethel where God had first appeared to Jacob many years before when he was escaping the wrath of his brother. God again manifested himself, renewed the covenant he had made with Abraham and Isaac, and informed Jacob that he must henceforth be called Israel. The group traveled on toward the Promised Land, and a short distance from Ephrath (Bethlehem) Rachel had a second son whom she named Ben-oni (son of my sorrow), later changed by Jacob to Benjamin (son of my right hand). However, much to Jacob's grief, Rachel died in childbirth. After a lifetime together filled with familial strife and divisive jealousies, Jacob (whose years of life were "few and hard" [47.9]) still treasured her above all else. He buried Rachel by the side of the road to Bethlehem and erected a pillar over the spot so that her name would be remembered. Leah lived on and was buried with Jacob in a cave at Machpelah in Canaan. To the end, although Leah had more of Jacob than Rachel ever did, she never won his love.
Rachel had only two sons with Jacob, but she became the mother figure of the Hebrew nation. From her grave near Bethlehem, centuries after her death, Rachel was uniquely placed to observe the fate of her people. When two tribes of Israel were carried captive into Babylon in 587, they passed the pillar under which Rachel lay buried, and this mother of nations cried out in the wilderness at the misery of her children (Jer. 31.15). And again, Rachel's groans rose from the grave for the Innocents of the tribe of Benjamin massacred by King Herod soon after the birth of Jesus. The Mater Dolorosa lamented in pain, echoing the sobs of the mothers of Israel (Mt. 2.18).
Rachel and Leah are remembered quintessentially as mothers. The bearing of children in the kin-based culture reflected in Genesis was a task of great importance. So vital was that function that it became the prime, and often only, method through which women could achieve recognition and validation. As a consequence, when women could not bear, they lost self and societal worth and, like Rachel, had cause to wail "I am dead." (Ironically, having a child killed Rachel.) However, concomitant with their status as mothers, several other important issues relating to the two sisters arise from the narrative (called the Jacob Cycle). Primary among them are (1) Rachel's and Leah's historical (or quasi-historical) position as progenitors of Israel; (2) patriarchy in the Hebrew Bible; (3) the place of Rachel and Leah as characters in world exegetical literature and feminist scholarship; and (4) Rachel's special role as universal mother and theological image of the feminine.
(1) It is unlikely that Rachel and Leah, as portrayed in Genesis, existed historically. The Hebrew Bible is challenging because it represents centuries of accretion, interpolation, and reworking. Questions about the historicity of the events in Genesis are central to a discussion of the text, and the most fruitful approach is to recognize in the Old Testament trace elements of numerous historical periods and myriad levels of meaning conflated, overlapping, juxtaposed, and sometimes standing in stark contradiction. This multiplicity is certainly evident in the stories of the first parents of Israel—cradle of Hebrew history, religion, and Jewish group identity.
Archaeological finds and philological studies have necessitated a thoroughgoing revision of the dating of the events in the Old Testament and their chronological ordering. The material in Genesis comes from traditions which may have begun formation around 1900 bce but which were committed to writing much later. The earliest author or group of authors of the
Old Testament as we now have it are anonymous, but labeled "J" (for the use of the divine name Jehovah or Yahweh) and "E" (for the use of the Hebrew term Elohim for God). Both lived in the 9th century bce. Much later, sometime between 587 and 400 bce, another author/s called "P" (Priestly) reworked or added to the writings of "J" and "E." In addition to numerous others who adjusted the texts, around 400 bce, an editor (or group of editors) known as "R" (Redactor) revised the Old Testament canon in a desire to make one continuous narrative out of a medley of disparate sources. As a result of the fact that the Hebrew Bible was composed and reworked in stages by multiple authors, and because cultural boundaries between Israel and its neighbors were less distinct than once thought, the text consists of ancient Mesopotamian and Canaanite customs, beliefs, and attitudes interspersed with later Hebrew ideologies.
Most Biblical scholars have reached agreement that Genesis, although preserving traces of the historical account of the formation of ancient Israel's population, is a mythologized narrative which represents a reading back into the earliest legends of institutions which were developed much later. The 12 tribes were not literally the descendants of Jacob's sons, rather, later Hebrew authors composed this simple narrative scheme in order to impose a unity on their own pre-history. There is no consensus on exactly when the 12 tribes formed a common identity. Although some argue that they established a form of political unity after the escape from Egypt, while they wandered in the Sinai desert, most hold that the alliance grew from the unification of independent tribes only after the Israelites conquered Canaan under the leadership of Joshua (c. 1225 bce). Several of the tribal names come from ancient sites in Canaan, such as the mountains of Naphtali. Over time those who dwelt in these areas assumed the names of the localities. Sigmund Mowinckel posits that Jacob and Israel were originally two distinct persons. Israel was the eponym of a group that moved from the Sinai Peninsula into Canaan and united with indigenous "Habiru" tribes. This combined people worshiped the single god Yahweh. The polytheistic Jacob tribes were from Northwest Mesopotamia and mixed with "Israel" as both were migrating into Palestine about the same time. Mowinckel holds that all the traditions associated with Rachel and Leah originated with the Mesopotamian contingent of tribes. By contrast, Martin Noth holds that the "Leah tribes" existed as a very early confederation of six Canaanite clans that were joined only later by the two "Rachel tribes," which penetrated Canaan from Mesopotamia, thus increasing the component number of tribes in the confederation to 12. These newcomers brought with them the stories of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah.
"Twelve" is a conventionalized Biblical and Near Eastern figure appearing frequently in Genesis for describing coalitions of peoples. There are 12 tribes of Joktan (10.26–29), Nahor (22.20–24), Ishmael (25.13–16), and Esau (36.10–13). The duodecimal arrangement of the descendants of Israel was artificially maintained even when one tribe disappeared or was split. Twenty different listings of the tribes of Israel appear in the Bible, and only two of them are the same.
We can guess at the early history of the peoples by deconstructing the stories in the Jacob Cycle. The attribution of tribes to Leah and Rachel dates from an early stage of Israelite organization, and tribal historical development and struggles for supremacy are encoded and personified in the tales of the conflict of the two sisters. For instance, the tribe of Judah (from Leah) was antagonistic to the tribe of Benjamin (from Rachel). Further, the attribution of certain tribes to servant-girls may indicate their lower status or late entry into the confederation. At any rate, the legend of the 12 sons of Jacob represents an idealized view of the origins of the people of Israel rather than a historically accurate one. Its purpose was to give Israel a strong identity, and Rachel and Leah are central to every version of the account.
(2) An analysis of the matriarchs of Israel inevitably involves a discussion of patriarchy. The later Biblical authors "P" and "R" were living in a period when the existence of Israel as a nation and Judaism as a religion was threatened. In 722 bce, the Assyrians destroyed 10 of the 12 tribes, and in 587 the Babylonians conquered the other two tribes of Judah, destroyed most of their sacred and historical writings, and carried the Jews into captivity for 50 years. On their return to Judea from Babylon in 537, in order to rebuild their beleaguered community, members of the endangered society restructured themselves within very tightly controlled limits designed to protect religious traditions and cultural hegemony. The work of "P" and "R" reflect the rigidity of their era, including an inflexible adherence to strict patriarchy and absolute monotheism. Patriarchy is a reference to more than descent patterns; it describes a culture in which the social and ideological repression of women, and the domination of older over younger men, prevail. Some scholars see in Genesis a thoroughgoing and unrelenting imposition of patriarchal values. For them the Bible is androcentric and women are cardboard creations of male narrators' ideas about the other sex. Female characters' only role is to facilitate the stories of fathers, husbands, and sons. Once they have served their purpose, they disappear from the narrative. Their point of view is ignored and their deaths are rarely mentioned.
Other scholars, however, see in Genesis a more complex and less monolithic working out and juxtaposition of various ideas about the role of men and women. Because Genesis was written primarily by "J" in the 9th century bce, the Jacob Cycle contains vestiges of an early matriarchy. The power of the father in Genesis is not self-evident but is painstakingly constructed and incompletely imposed onto "J's" original material. Jacob is involved in a matrilocal marriage, and his brother Esau is blameworthy because he marries out of the matriline. It is important that the covenant pass through not just the right father, but also the right mother, even if she does not bear the oldest son. Jacob is compelled to obtain the permission of his wives before leaving Paddan-aram. They are willing to leave because their father has denied their rights of lineage by treating them as foreigners. There is a strong sense that the children of Jacob belong to Laban through his daughters, which accounts for his indignation when Jacob flees Paddan-aram with the family. According to one translation, Laban protests, "These daughters are mine, these children are mine, these flocks are mine, everything you see is mine" (Mitchell, 67). Further evidence that the earliest Israelites lived under matriarchal systems can be gleaned from a midrash (Jewish Biblical commentary) which maintains that each of the sons of Jacob, except Joseph, had a female twin whom he married. Some have read this tradition as evidence of cognatic descent patterns (reckoned from both parents). According to the same source, one of the tribes of the Leah federation, that of Dinah, was completely matriarchal. Also, Bilhah and Zilpah were thought to be Laban's daughters by concubines. So all the tribes of Israel were born of the daughters of Laban.
Rachel's theft of her father's teraphim (small idols of gold and silver empowered by the stars to tell the future) is one of the plot elements which best elucidates the tension in the text between conflicting notions of power and lineage. In this story Rachel is not acting under orders from her husband or father, but pursues her own interests. The 1st century ce Jewish historian Josephus claimed that the theft occurred because Rachel wanted to use the idols for bargaining power against Laban if necessary (Antiquities 1.19.8). The Genesis Rabba (Jewish Biblical commentary) maintains that Rachel wanted to purge Laban of his idolatry, and another early Jewish source says that she stole the gods so that they would not reveal the fleeing family's whereabouts to Laban. Others have proposed Rachel was simply spiteful, dealing with Laban the way he had dealt with her, or was herself idolatrous in that she was planning to establish an Aramaean-style shrine in her new home. However, non-Biblical Mesopotamian documents (Nuzi tablets) illustrate that perhaps Rachel stole the teraphim because possession of them insured transference of property and/or the hereditary power over the kingroup. In other words, Rachel's was a matriarchal system where leadership of the clan resided in the woman's line, and she wanted the teraphim in order to maintain that authority for her son, Joseph. Some scholars view the inclusion of the plot element in which Rachel bleeds on the teraphim and subsequently dies in Ramah as a device to subvert the matriarchal claims implicit in the story.
Several philologists claim that not only did matriarchal patterns hold in Israel's pre-history, but that the founders of the dynasty were goddesses. Leah translates as "wild cow" and Rachel means "ewe," suggesting vestiges of pagan worship of the female and that the mythological origins of the tribes were at one time traced back to founding goddesses. Throughout Genesis there is a persistent emphasis on the role of Yahweh as life-giver. It is God who opens the wombs of the mothers of Israel. When Rachel cannot conceive, Jacob demands of her, "It is my fault that God closed your womb?" (30:2). Numerous scholars, wondering why so often in Genesis the line of descent of God's chosen people is threatened by sterile wives, have come to the conclusion that it was important for the author/s to establish the generative power of their deity in the face of competition from Canaanite fertility goddesses. Yahweh must be seen as not only the creator of the universe, but also the fountainhead of the mysterious process of female productivity. In the incident of the mandrakes, God's prerogative is threatened. For Rachel to have conceived because of this plant (whose roots resembles the male genitals) would have been a form of sympathetic magic, so one midrash has Rachel giving the mandrakes over to a priest rather than ingesting them, and for this meritorious act of resisting temptation, God rewards her with a child. In this story Rachel's integrity is preserved and so is the omnipotence of God as the well-spring of human life.
(3) Despite their restricted role in the Old Testament narrative, the two sisters have assumed tremendous importance in post-Biblical commentary and, more recently, in feminist scholarship. Although the Bible is sketchy in its characterization of Jacob's wives, subsequent ancient and medieval commentary, particularly by Jewish writers, tends to develop their personas more fully, giving them life and considerably more mettle. Post-Biblical tradition, rather than viewing the sisters as passive (and guiltless) "fields to be ploughed," attributes to them autonomous intentions that do not always align with plans the men in the text have designed for them. Later writers particularly make Leah more concrete, meritorious, and fully human. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Rachel and Leah, like Esau and Jacob, were twins; Leah was the elder, and both sisters were very beautiful. Here the word rakkôt, normally translated as "dull-eyed," is read "tender or soft-eyed." Leah only became disfigured through weeping and mourning, to the point that she lost her eyelashes, because she was afraid that she would be forced to marry Esau, whom she had heard was "evil and his trade banditry" (Tanhuma Buber, Gn 152). Despite her ugliness, Jacob would have asked for Leah first, but he hesitated to take the older of his cousins and further defraud Esau of his right as first-born. In medieval mystical exegesis, Leah represents messianic hopes of the fruitful reunion of Israel with God, and Philo (1st century ce Jewish historian) claimed Leah had the virtue of a virgin because she was alienated from men and close to God, she was "out of reach of the passions" (De Posteritate Caini, 135). According to a 5th-century ce account, when Jacob discovered he had married the wrong sister, he reproached Leah angrily: "Deceiver, daughter of a deceiver!" But Leah calmly replied, "Is there a teacher without his pupil? I learned from your example. Did you not answer your father when he called Esau?" (Genesis Rabba 70:19). For she had heard Jacob himself explain how he swindled his own brother seven years earlier. Here Leah was complicit in the marriage fraud and unintimidated by her husband's reproof.
Another midrash shows Leah's authoritative traits as she furiously arraigned Rachel who snatched the mandrakes from Reuben. "Give them back at once…. [I]s it not enough that you have stolen my husband?" Genesis Rabba finds Leah's bargaining with the mandrakes immodest to the point that it claims her daughter was just like her. Dinah was responsible for her rape because she "went out" and played the floozy, like Leah in the incident of the mandrakes. At the hands of Jewish scholars, the daughters are especially assertive in the face of their greedy father. From the beginning, Rachel advised Jacob not to trust her father, and she warned him that Laban would try to substitute Leah for her. They arranged a series of signals they would exchange on the nuptial night so Jacob would know the woman about to enter his bed was Rachel. But when the wedding night came, Rachel could not find it in herself to allow her less fortunate sister to be shamed, so she showed her the code signals she and Jacob had devised. She lay under the nuptial bed and answered when Jacob spoke so that he would not recognize Leah through her voice. As a reward for this sisterly self-sacrifice, God granted Rachel the privileged position of being mother to Samson, Joshua, and King Saul. Leah repaid Rachel's generosity. After giving birth to six boys, when Leah again conceived, knowing that Jacob was destined to have 12 sons, she prayed for a girl so Rachel would have at least 2 sons. God changed the male fetus to a female and gave Rachel Joseph as a reward for Leah's goodness.
Rachel and Leah have become favored topics for modern feminist Biblical scholars, but evaluations of the sisters differ widely. Some have observed that Old Testament women are given short shrift, that none of the Biblical matriarchs match the human depth and literary complexity of the father figures. Their appearances are designed to bolster the main narrative, which is ultimately about men—male patriarchy and an exclusively male-identified god. Esther Fuchs claims that the Genesis authors typically neglect full explanations of motivations behind the female protagonists' decisions, and at crucial points in the narrative the text is opaque regarding women's reactions. For example, the female slaves Bilhah and Zilpah are completely muzzled in the text. Rachel's agony at childbirth is over-written when Jacob alters her dying words by changing her son's name. Further, mothers often interfere to help sons but not daughters; there are few stories of mother-daughter relationships in the Old Testament. The reader is ignorant as to how Leah responded to the rape of her daughter; in fact, we never hear how Dinah herself felt about her situation. Was the intercourse between her and Shechem really rape?
The author's silence about women's motivations often results in their actions becoming morally troubling. Rachel's theft of her father's teraphim is puzzling because the text does not give enough context for the reader to evaluate it, and the author him/herself neither condemns nor praises the act. Whereas the text provides a full explanation and justification for Jacob's theft of Esau's birthright and his flight from Laban, Rachel's robbery is never made clear so she is never vindicated. Rachel's stealing of the teraphim is tainted with the suspicion of paganism, but in the same scene Jacob's distaste for idolatry is unequivocal because he dismisses the gods as "household objects." The reader remains ambivalent about Rachel who appears deceptive and disloyal. These attitudes echo in medieval commentaries, which interpret Rachel's early death at Ephrath as the unwitting consequence of Jacob's curse on whomever carried off Laban's property.
There is, however, a more positive way to view Rachel's behavior. She may be, in the mind of the Biblical narrator, the female counterpart of Jacob. Like him, Rachel must jockey and scheme to establish her status in the family in which she exists in a state of competitive friction with her sister. Like Jacob, who is favored by his mother and his God, Rachel is younger than her sibling rival, but best loved. Both Jacob and Rachel are forced by circumstances to play the part of "trickster"—a role often assumed by those in positions of powerlessness. Rachel filches her father's teraphim and prevents Laban looking into the camel bags by claiming that she can not rise to kiss him because "the common lot of women" (Gn. 31.35) is upon her. Most have seen this as a reference to menses, some to pregnancy, but in either case she understands the horror Laban has of touching a menstruating or pregnant woman, two conditions considered unclean and polluting in much of the ancient world (see Lev. 15–20). Is she lying to her father? The answer is not clear, but perhaps what is most important is that we see this female protagonist not as mendacious but as resourceful, in much the same light that Jacob is portrayed when he designs stratagems to achieve his ends in the face of Laban's rapacious greed or in obtaining his brother's birthright. Just as Jacob steals the patriline, Rachel steals the matriline.
Much of the ancient and modern commentary on Rachel and Leah has focused on the sisters' relationship. Some have attempted to see beyond the apparent oppression of the two daughters and view Rachel's and Leah's lives as valiant, inventive, and selfless attempts to satisfy the demands of the patriarchal autocracy of their culture and in so doing prove how thoroughly they comprehend God's mandates. According to this reading, the two women recognize that Jacob's romantic preferences and their own jealous competitiveness are standing in the way of God's designs: the building up of his people. Therefore, with one another's help they bear and exercise the maternal prerogative of naming the children who will father the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This story then becomes an analogue of women working together to further communal goals.
Others claim that the primary motives of the women are personal and that there is unremitting conflict between them. Of the 12 sons of Jacob, the names of 8 are related directly to the antagonism between Rachel and Leah. Interestingly, the authorial voice through these chapters is sympathetic to the plight of the sisters. The reader is invited to view the deep hurt produced by the patriarchal system in which Rachel and Leah are trapped. The two sisters are used by a father who cheats them of their inheritance and exploits their husband. The only legitimacy possible to them comes through bearing sons. When Rachel finally delivers her long-desired boy, all she can think of is having more; the name "yosef" means "may the Lord add another son" (30.24). Both sisters secure proxies to get ahead in the race for status. They haggle over who will have access to Jacob's body, fountainhead of the only power these women can attain. The text is not silent about the injustice nor is it indifferent to the two women. Rather it acknowledges the sacrifice of personal happiness required for the building up of the 12 tribes. Leah and Rachel are both active players in the drama of their lives, maneuvering as best they can within the confines of a patriarchal system that the text does not criticize, but implicitly problematizes. The tension in the narrative may be due to multiple authors from different time periods with widely divergent views about patriarchy working with the same inherited material. In short, the author/s portray Rachel and Leah as women unwillingly cast in pivotal roles in a sacred panorama they do not choose; nevertheless, they perform their parts admirably, but as real woman with human foibles.
(4) Even as Jacob preferred Rachel to Leah, Rachel has been the favorite of the two sisters over the centuries in art, literature, and theology. One of the reasons for this is because of the humanity of Rachel's love affair with Jacob. Nowhere else in Genesis is the relationship between a man and woman described in such tender and exuberant terms. The spontaneous kiss of Jacob is so imbued with youthful passion that it has been viewed as scandalous by many historical commentators, including the Protestant reformer John Calvin. For Josephus, Rachel embodies the ideal of romantic love. She is the romantic ingenue par excellence, and Jacob is her match. Josephus uses the word "eros" to describe the couple's relationship (Antiquities I.288). When Rachel dies, her husband's productive life is over. He sires no more children, and the narrative switches focus from him to his sons. Throughout his life Jacob laments the loss of his beloved and transfers his devotion to her children. According to a medieval midrash, when Reuben complains about Jacob's favoritism, the patriarch responds, "I served Laban for Rachel's sake, not for your mother Leah's. The ploughing and sowing I did in Leah should have been done in Rachel, and Joseph should have been my firstborn" (Graves, 241). Throughout his life he loved Joseph above all and ultimately conferred on him all the privileges due the oldest son. When Jacob was an old man about to die, he lapsed into a sorrowful reverie bemoaning the loss of his beautiful wife and first love (Gn. 48.7). The romance of Rachel and Jacob has inspired important art, especially since the Renaissance, including works by Palma Vecchio, Hendrik Terbrugghen, Hugo Van der Goes, Claude Lorrain, and Marc Chagall. Rembrandt's Danaë is about Jacob's unintended marriage to Leah. The romantic relationship has also spawned post-Renaissance literary compositions, including songs, a comic opera, an oratorio, and a ballet. Robert Browning plays on the story of the two sisters in The Ring and the Book, and a contemporary novel, The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant reinterprets the love story for a 21st century audience.
Another reason Rachel has assumed primacy as a mother figure over her sister, despite the fact that Leah had more children, is, paradoxically, Rachel's early barrenness. The motif of the barren woman is not completely negative in the Hebrew Bible. Jewish homilies on Genesis compare the seven days of creation to seven barren women. Female infertility provides a metaphor for the prodigality possible through the intercession of Yahweh. God is able to demonstrate his power and charity through the hopeless Rachel, and for the same reason the barren woman becomes a symbol of Israel during the Babylonian captivity (Is. 49.21, 51.2, 54.1–3). Just as Rachel was without issue but was eventually granted offspring, captive Israel would one day be built up. The plight of the barren matriarchs of Genesis comes to stand for the whole of Israel. The potency of this metaphor explains why Rachel has, from a very early date, been favored over Leah. Despite being the younger sister, Rachel is listed before Leah in the wedding blessing in the Book of Ruth (4.11). There is also a street named after her in modern Jerusalem called "Mother Rachel Street." Rachel is also favored over Leah in the Christian tradition. She is mentioned in the nuptial mass, and because she had only two children, Rachel, like Mary of Bethany (Luke 10.38–42), is a model of the contemplative life. Jesus favored Mary like Jacob did Rachel. Leah, on the other hand, mother of seven children, is like Martha of Bethany . She symbolizes the active life of service, one held to be inferior to the life of spiritual meditation. This theme has been developed consistently through the Christian era, including its elaboration by Dante in his Divine Comedy (Purgatory 27.100–108) and Michelangelo who portrayed Rachel on the tomb of Julius II garbed in the habit of a contemplative nun. Further, Leah with her dull eyes was a Christian metaphor for the synagogue (or the Jewish people) who could not see the truth. Rachel, like the early Christian church, was at first disadvantaged by her barrenness, but came to outdistance her sister and triumph as the mother of all Israel, like the church came to dominate the synagogue.
Finally, Rachel is remembered as the quintessential mother because of the position of her tomb and its mention in Jeremiah 31.15. The tomb of Rachel (called kever Rachel) has been over the centuries, and continues to be, a site of pilgrimage, especially on the 14th day of the month of Heshvan—the purported day of her death. Today, pictures of the tomb decorate homes in Israel, and it is replicated on household objects. People, drawing on "the merit of Rachel," take packets of earth from her gravesite to give to exiles or to bury with their loved ones. Childless women measure the tomb with red string, which they attach to their persons hoping God will "open the womb" as he once did for Rachel. But the numinous power of Mother Rachel reaches well beyond her biological function as life-giver.
Jeremiah's lament for the children of Israel held bondage in Babylon (in which Rachel is evoked mourning the fate of her children) is the basis of a long tradition in which she becomes identified with the divine spirit of the Jewish people (the Shechinah). In mystical writings, Rachel is called Mother Zion, and it is at her grave that the messiah will first appear at the end of time: "And she will rise up/ And kiss him" (Dresner, 205). An elaborate medieval midrash spins a tale of Jeremiah seeking someone to convince the Lord to release his captive people. God will not listen to Moses or any of the patriarchs, but he does respond to Rachel's blandishments by which she reminds him that if she was not envious of Leah on what should have been her own wedding night, how could he be so jealous of foreign gods as to punish his people for worshipping them? God replies, "For thy sake, Rachel, will I restore Israel to their land" (Dresner, 161). In this text, God reveals his female nature through empathy with the mourning mother and Rachel becomes the deliverer of her people. The Lord assures the entombed Rachel weeping in Ramah that her children will return safely: "There shall be a reward for your toil; they shall come back from the land of the enemy" (Jer. 31.16). This verse has attained special prominence as an analogue for God's promise to his people as it is the prophetical reading selected for the second day of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and is incorporated into the evening service. Christians have focused on Rachel crying out in mourning for the children slaughtered by Herod. A liturgical drama, the Ordo Rachelis, produced in the 5th century and redacted several times in the Middle Ages, features Mother Rachel bemoaning the fate of the sons of her second son, Benjamin. She is consoled by the promise of the Innocents' resurrection.
Throughout Jewish history, during the Holocaust and the wars Israel fought with its Arab neighbors in the 20th century, the tomb of Rachel has been a symbol and place of solace and miracles. Christians and Muslims, but particularly Jews, have sought out the kever Rachel to pray for the deliverance of their people in times of national crisis. During the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when Israel was in peril, Rabbi Hayim Shmulevitch stole to the grave of Rachel late one night and prayed: "O Lord! You said to Rachel: 'Restrain your voice form weeping,' but I say: 'Weep Mama, weep!'" (Dresner, 197). The image of Rachel suffering for humanity has been appropriated by secular culture. Albert Camus (The Fall) and Herman Melville (Moby Dick) both employ the motif to capture the epitome of maternal empathy. Rachel has become a metaphor for compassion—for motherhood.
Despite their struggles, Rachel and Leah are inexorably paired as matriarchs of Israel. Although Genesis separates beauty and fertility, two aspects of womanhood personified by the rival sisters, the wedding blessing in the Book of Ruth extols both women in one breath, and in so doing implicitly reunites them: "May the Lord make this woman … like Rachel and Leah, the two who built up the house of Israel" (Ruth 4.11).
Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, Heroes: Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster-John Knox Press, 1994.
Callaway, Mary. Sing, O Barren One: A Study in Comparative Midrash. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1986.
Dresner, Samuel H. Rachel. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994.
Graves, Robert, and Raphael Patai. Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis. NY: Greenwich House, 1983.
Jay, Nancy. "Sacrifice, Descent, and the Patriarchs," in Vetus Testamentum. Vol. 38, 1988, pp. 52–70.
Mitchell, Stephen, trans. Genesis: A New Translation of the Classical Biblical Stories. NY: HarperCollins, 1996.
Noth, Martin. The History of Israel. 2nd ed. NY: Harper & Row, 1960.
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. NY: Basic Books, 1981.
Bal, Mieke, ed. Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women's Lives in the Hebrew Bible. Decatur, GA: Almond Press, 1989.
Sarna, Nahum M. Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel. NY: Schocken, 1966.
Martha Rampton , Assistant Professor of History, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon
"Rachel and Leah." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rachel-and-leah
"Rachel and Leah." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 20, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rachel-and-leah
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