Leah and Rachel

Two sisters, both married to the same man, both desperately in love with him, each contending for his favour; this is the story of Leah and Rachel, wives of Jacob progenitor of Israel. The story is recounted without passion or sentiment, but passion and sentiment there must have been. The unfortunate Jacob was called a prince with God (Gen.32:28) on account of his place in the Divine purposes, but in domestic life he knew little peace and must sometimes have been hard put to, in order to hold the balance between the two sisters who became his simultaneous wives.

It was not altogether Jacob’s fault. He had been deceived by his father‑in‑law Laban. He wanted Rachel for his wife and only Rachel. The story makes clear that he had no eyes for the elder sister Leah. But there was an element of poetic justice in the situation, for Jacob’s very presence in this land was in consequence of his deception of his father Isaac in the matter of Esau and the birthright. Following that episode he had set out for his uncle’s establishment five hundred miles away to get out of Esau’s sight, and immediately upon arrival fell passionately in love with his cousin Rachel. She was about seventeen and he was fifty‑seven (which, considering the longer lifespan of men in those days was equivalent to mid‑thirties today). Laban, perceiving which way the wind was blowing, proposed that Jacob enter his service on the stock farm for seven years, after which he would consent to the marriage, and this Jacob accepted. So the story runs; "Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her." (Gen.29:20)

Came the end of the seven years and time for fulfilment of the contract. Laban, however, had been thinking. Rachel was apparently a very attractive girl, but there was the older sister, Leah, who, if the Hebrew term is correctly translated, was what we today would call dull‑eyed. Laban would like to get her off his hands; Jacob had proved a very useful member of his workforce but once he had married Rachel he would want to be off home again with her. With a little astuteness he might bind Jacob to him for another term of years. So he called all the menfolk of his acquaintance to the wedding‑feast. When it was over Jacob was conducted to his quarters and his bride brought to him. Not until next morning did he discover, to his consternation, that the woman beside him was not Rachel, but Leah.

This time it was at least partly Jacob’s fault. For this kind of deception to have worked it could only be that Jacob had imbibed much too freely at the feast on the previous evening—Laban had probably seen to that anyway—and was in no condition at its end to differentiate between one and the other. Only when he sobered up in the morning did he realise the truth.

Of course, he expostulated, but Laban was ready with an excuse and a fresh proposal. It was not the custom of his country, he explained, to permit the marriage of the younger daughter first. It seems a bit feeble; he had had seven years already to have acquainted Jacob with the marriage customs of the country and only when it was too late did he think it necessary so to do. But he went on soothingly, Jacob could have Rachel also if he would consent to remain another seven years in Laban’s service. He must give Leah the first seven days, then the second marriage could take place.

One wonders what part the two sisters took in all this. Leah must have been a consenting party. The narrative shows that she also was in love with the handsome stranger who had come into their household and since she could not get him by fair means was not averse to becoming his wife by trickery. Rachel also must have known about it, and she certainly would not have consented willingly. A distinct impression is given that both the girls had to do as they were told; Laban is pictured as a rather unscrupulous and domineering personage who intended to have things his own way. Women were of little account in those days, and it was very much a man’s world; Rachel was probably told she could have Jacob on her father’s terms or not at all. The sequel shows that she never forgave Leah. And Laban’s dominance over his daughters is highlighted by the alacrity (eagerness) with which they seized the opportunity to get away from him when, much later on, Jacob proposed that they all migrate to Canaan and the home of Isaac his father.

The second seven years passed. Leah had given Jacob three children, Reuben, Simeon, Levi. Rachel was childless. With each child Leah reiterated her belief that her husband would be reconciled to her on their account, but it was a vain hope. Jacob was indifferent; he performed his duty as a husband but that was all. Rachel was his one and only love and he could not forget Laban’s deception. But Rachel was getting desperate. In accord with the beliefs of the times, her only hope of retaining Jacob’s love was to give him children. So she pleaded with her husband "Give me children or else I die.," (Gen.30:1) It is possible that the Hebrew term is better rendered "Give me children, whether or not I die" and casts a better reflection on Rachel’s character; she was prepared to give her life if need be to experience the happiness of bearing a child to Jacob. His rejoinder sounds harsh and unsympathetic in the A.V. rendering; his "anger was kindled against Rachel"—"am I in God’s stead?" (Gen.30:2) he asked, but this attitude and these words are quite likely the outcome of his own feelings of disappointment and frustration. He was probably quite as bitter at the turn events had taken as was Rachel.

At this point Rachel, evidently fearing that, although still only thirty‑one years of age, she would never become a mother, invoked the old Sumerian and Hurrian laws which still prevailed in Syria, and took the same action as Sarai the wife of Abraham, in similar circumstances, more than a century previously. She exerted her legal right and privilege of giving her handmaid Bilhah to Jacob so that any resulting children would be accredited to Rachel as the legal wife. The next few years saw two sons and perhaps a daughter or two result from this union and Rachel was more content. "God…hath also heard my voice" she said, "and given me a son." (v.6) Rather less worthily, perhaps, when the second of Bilhah’s sons was born, she gloated over her victory over Leah; the old jealousy was still there. Leah was not slow to retaliate. She had a fourth son, Judah, by now and probably a daughter or two also, but then came a halt and in the endeavour to maintain her advantage and not be outdone by Rachel she followed her sister’s example and gave her own handmaid Zilpah to Jacob. This brought two more sons into Jacob’s growing family so that after about seventeen years of married life he had eight sons and an unspecified number of daughters, together with four wives between whom he had to keep the peace. Quite enough for one man! When his mother Rebekah sent him to her brother’s home to find a wife from her own family she could hardly have expected this denouement (conclusion).

At this time there occurred the incident of the mandrakes. (Gen.30:14‑16) Reuben, the eldest child of Leah, now about sixteen years of age, found mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother. Rachel, seeing them, coveted, and asked Leah for some. Leah struck a bargain; if she could have Jacob’s company that night Rachel could have the mandrakes. Rachel assented, and the result was the birth of Leah’s fifth son, Issachar.

No one knows for certain just what plant is represented by the Hebrew dudaim, translated mandrake, only that the term means love‑plant or love‑apple, but there is every probability that the botanical mandrake is the one. Had the writer of the account any idea that thousands of years later his story would still be read he might have given an explanation but as it was everyone in his day knew what the term implied. The mandrake is a tap‑rooted plant bearing small flowers and apple‑like fruits, native to countries in the Middle East and carrying a superstition that it is conducive to fruitfulness when eaten by barren women; this might very well be the plant referred to. The association in this particular case is obvious. Apparently the finding of the fruits was something of a rarity and Rachel grasped at this straw of hope that by this means the dearest wish of her heart might be fulfilled.

Another son, Zebulun, was born to Leah, and the one daughter of Jacob whose name is mentioned, Dinah; at forty‑nine years of age Leah seems to be content with six sons of her own and two by Zilpah. A comparison of Gen.29:31‑34 with 30:18‑20 appears to indicate that she had by now given up all hope of winning Jacob’s love, and had settled down to an acceptance of the position. Her eldest sons were approaching manhood and with Rachel still childless Leah must have been increasingly looked upon by Jacob’s servants and retainers as the matriarch of the clan.

Ten years after the incident of the mandrakes, and twenty‑seven since the date of Jacob’s two marriages, the unexpected happened. Rachel, at last, gave birth to a son.

At fifty‑one years of age she must have long since given up all hope. Now her native faith came to the top and she acknowledged the goodness of God; in a flash of prophetic insight she voiced her belief that He would give her a second son. Jacob, at ninety‑one, must have felt a sense of overwhelming satisfaction. This was the son he had always wanted, and it is clear that he looked upon Joseph as his principal heir and possessor of the birthright. The well‑known jealousy of the older brothers at a later date stems directly from this fact. Joseph, the son of his beloved Rachel, was always the dearest to Jacob’s heart.

From this point of time Jacob began to fret to go home. He had got the wife he came for, he had got his heir, but he was still in Laban’s service. He had little of his own. Whether his intimation to Laban that he now wanted to return to Canaan was as sincere as appears on the surface or merely a ploy to facilitate some bargaining of his own with Laban is impossible to say but at any rate by the time the two men had fenced around the position and come to terms Jacob had secured an extremely favourable agreement. The details of that agreement form no part of this story; suffice that within the short space of six years the older sons of Jacob, now in their twenties, were managing an increasingly prosperous stock farm on their father’s behalf while Jacob, sixty miles distant, continued to supervise Laban’s interests. The story says of him that during those six years "the man increased exceedingly, and had much cattle, and maidservants, and menservants, and camels, and asses." (Gen.30:43)

Not unnaturally, Laban’s own sons began to grumble. They saw their father’s and so their own prosperity begin to diminish as that of Jacob increased. "The countenance of Laban" was "not toward him (Jacob) as before." (31:2) Although the agreement had looked on the surface as though Laban would reap the greater advantage he now realised that he had been outwitted by a man who knew a great deal more about stockbreeding than he did himself, and this he did not like. Jacob formed the opinion that it was about time to pack up and go. His wives agreed with him. They saw a better future for themselves and their sons five hundred miles away from Laban in Canaan. It remained only to organise a quiet and successful departure.

The opportunity came at the annual sheepshearing which was an occasion of much ceremonial feasting and ritual, when normal work ceased for a week and all the outlying workers came into the headquarters of the establishment to participate. Jacob assembled his people on his own territory which was already sixty miles in the direction of Canaan from Laban, and set out. By the time some local busybody had got to Laban to tell him what had happened Jacob had already something like a hundred miles start. By the time he had cleared another hundred miles Laban and his men had caught up with him and there ensued the acrimonious altercation which is recorded in Gen.31:25‑55. Of the many complaints that Laban had, the one which annoyed him most was that Jacob in departing had, so he thought, stolen his "gods"—his teraphim, to use the Hebrew word—an accusation which Jacob hotly denied. And this is where Rachel comes back into the story.

Rachel—who like everyone else in her family, seems to have had an eye to the main chance—had packed with her belongings the "images," the teraphim which belonged to her father. Says ch.31:19 "Rachel had stolen the images that were her father’s." She had a purpose in so doing which overshadowed all considerations of morality. These "teraphim" were miniature figures of ancestral family gods which were handed down from father to son and esteemed as guardian deities warding off illness and danger to the house and its occupants. The predominant race occupying and ruling the land in which Laban lived was the one known today as the Hurrians, and by Hurrian law physical possession of the family teraphim entitled the holder to a share in the father’s estate. It would seem that Rachel’s object in stealing and concealing them was that upon Laban’s death she could claim a share of his estate, perhaps fearing that her young son Joseph might be deprived of any share in that of Jacob by the older sons of Leah. At any rate, when Laban, at Jacob’s demand, searched his wives’ tents for the missing treasures, Rachel adopted a successful subterfuge by reason of which he went away empty‑handed. Not that it did her much good. A little later Jacob had all the teraphim and other symbols of idolatrous worship throughout his establishment given up and buried. For him and his people there was to be only one God, the God of Abraham. The incident does reveal that for all their professed worship of God, the religion of Laban and Leah and Rachel was tinged with idolatry.

Now the sands were running out for Rachel. The long five hundred miles journey to Canaan, encumbered as it was with flocks and herds, occupied three years. They must have been three tedious years, and Rachel was no longer young. Added to that, she was to know motherhood again. The climax came when they were almost within sight of their destination. At a little country place which afterwards became Bethlehem, Jacob’s twelfth son, Benjamin, was born and simultaneously Rachel breathed her last. She was sixty‑three.

One can only guess at the thoughts of Jacob, as he buried her there by the wayside and erected a pillar of stone to mark the spot, a spot which is still marked today by a monument. For her, and for him, and for Leah, life had been a long disappointment and frustration. Later history has shown that they were all instruments in the hand of God, but sometimes it is a hard thing to be an instrument in the hand of God. They all were subject to the shortcomings which are common to all men, but at any rate they did their best. Of Leah we hear no more. When Jacob and his family migrated into Egypt thirty years later to escape the famine her name is not mentioned; she probably died quietly in the interim. Her passing severed the last link binding the family of Abraham to that of Nahor his brother. When Israel returned from Egypt four centuries later the descendants of Laban were enemies. He must have fathered an influential nation, for in the 8th Century B.C. the Assyrians called North Syria the land of Labanu, and in fact his name survives in the name Lebanon applied to part of that land today. Unworthy as his character may have been, the crowning glory of Laban the Syrian was that his two daughters became the mothers of the Divinely chosen nation of Israel.