Friday, January 09, 2015

The Not-So-Romantic Tale of Jacob, Rachel and Leah

Those of us who grew up in the church are familiar with the story of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah. After fleeing for his life from his brother Esau, Jacob comes to his relative Laban in Haran to find a wife, and meets Rachel, Laban's daughter. He falls in love with her at once and makes an arrangement to work for seven years to earn her hand in marriage. At the end of the seven years, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Rachel's older sister Leah instead, and Jacob works another seven years for Rachel. The story is almost always presented as a beautiful love story with a touch of intrigue thrown in. Laban is considered a rotten trickster, Leah his accomplice, Jacob is viewed as receiving a bit of poetic justice after having tricked his brother and his father out of the oldest child's traditional birthright, and Rachel has the role of the hapless heroine, caught in the middle of this mess through no fault of her own. It is often pointed out that "Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her" (Gen. 29:20).

We are told that "Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. Jacob loved Rachel" (Gen 29:17-18). Commentators are not agreed on what the "weakness" of Leah's eyes means. Most seem not to believe that it reflects poor eyesight or blindness; the majority seem to believe that her eyes were simply unattractive--possibly blue, which may have been considered a defect in the ancient Middle East. Adam Clarke has an intriguing suggestion: that the "weakness" of Leah's eyes reflects not a negative quality but a positive one--that she did have pretty eyes, but by contrast, Rachel's entire "form and appearance" were attractive, and therefore Jacob gave his love to Rachel. One way or another, it was Rachel's beauty that swayed Jacob. There's nothing wrong with this, in and of itself: many significant women in the Bible are described as being beautiful. But if we look at the respective characters of Leah and Rachel, and the results that came from the two marriages, a picture emerges that is very different from the romantic one usually taught.

The first characteristic we see in Leah is a desperately sad desire for her husband's love. The text seems to indicate that God gave Leah children as a sort of compensation for the fact that Jacob hated her (Gen. 29:31). The names of her children reflect this desire for Jacob's love:
And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son, and said, “Now this time my husband will be attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore his name was called Levi. And she conceived again and bore a son, and said, “This time I will praise the Lord.” Therefore she called his name Judah. Then she ceased bearing.
Gen. 29:32-35
By the time she had Judah, she was resigned to her fate. Throughout all of this, however, there is no record that she reproached Jacob for his lack of love for her, blamed Rachel, or did anything other than to seek God for help. We may regard Leah as deserving the scorn of her husband due to having tricked him into marrying her, but we don't know whether she was forced into the subterfuge by her father, or what would have happened to her if she hadn't gone along with the plan. Maybe she was a willing participant and the deception was a horrible act. If so, she paid dearly for it.

We can contrast Leah's attitude with that of Rachel: "When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, 'Give me children, or I shall die!'" She then gives her servant Bilhah to Jacob as a wife in order to have surrogate children through her (Gen. 30:1-4). Seems that the lessons of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar hadn't been learned. In contrast with Leah's naming of her children, Rachel's naming of Bilhah's children shows her bitterness toward her sister:
And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Therefore she called his name Dan. Rachel's servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed.” So she called his name Naphtali.
Gen. 30:5-8
Leah then follows suit and gives Jacob her servant Zilpah, who also bears two children to Jacob. Once again, Leah's naming of the children reflects no ill will either to her envious sister or to her unloving husband: 
Then Leah's servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. And Leah said, “Good fortune has come!” so she called his name Gad. Leah's servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. And Leah said, “Happy am I! For women have called me happy.” So she called his name Asher.
Gen. 30:10-13
Subsequent to this is the passage about mandrakes. Leah's oldest son Reuben brings her some mandrakes (in Hebrew, literally "love plants") that he has found. The plant seems to have been thought of as some sort of aphrodisiac (cf. Song of Solomon 7:13) and possibly was credited with promoting fertility. Rachel asks Leah for the mandrakes, and Leah responds, "Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son's mandrakes also?" (Gen. 30:15). This exchange has often been understood as poor barren Rachel begging for a chance finally to conceive, and jealous Leah spurning her request. 

However, Rachel responds by offering Leah a night with Jacob in exchange for the mandrakes, an offer which Leah accepts (Gen. 30:15-16). What this tells us, quite clearly, is that Jacob is no longer sleeping with Leah, since he never loved her and she is no longer producing children for him. Otherwise, Leah would simply have held on to the mandrakes for the next opportunity to use them with Jacob. It also tells us that Rachel is evidently comfortable with bargaining away a night with her husband in order to get what she wants. Perhaps Leah's response to Rachel is less bitterly jealous than some have thought, and more a simple statement of the truth. 

At any rate, the result was that "God listened to Leah" and she had another child, Issachar, so named because Leah said, "God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband" (Gen. 30:17-18). This statement has been criticized because Leah is attributing God's favor to an immoral act. But Leah at least seems to have felt some sense of loss in giving Zilpah to her husband. If Rachel had the same qualms over offering Bilhah to him, we are never told so. Leah has one more son with Jacob, Zebulun, and Leah says, "God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons." If Leah cannot have her husband's love, she would at least like to have his respect. The final child given to Leah, that we know about from the scriptures, was a daughter, Dinah.

In the end, God also had compassion on Jacob's favored wife Rachel.
She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she called his name Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son!”
Gen. 30:23-24
So if Leah suffered from the lack of her husband's love, Rachel had suffered from the social shame of barrenness, and correctly attributed rescue from that shame to God. Her desire for another child was granted in Benjamin, whose birth took Rachel's life. She gave the baby the name of Ben-oni, "Son of my sorrow," which Jacob changed to Benjamin, "Son of my right hand" (Gen. 35:16-19).

The one final thing that we know about Rachel's character involves the theft of her father's household idols. When Jacob decided to leave Laban stealthily and return to his own land, Rachel stole her father's household idols, and when Laban caught up to them, he confronted Jacob on their loss. Jacob invited Laban to search his family's belongings, not knowing that Rachel had stolen the idols, telling him that the person who had them would die (Gen. 31:19, 32). While Laban was searching, Rachel sat on the idols and claimed to her father to be having her period, so he did not discover them (Gen. 31:34-35).

Genesis does not record the reason why Rachel took the idols from her father. Various explanations have been suggested, including wanting to remove a means of divination by which her father might track down the family, wanting the precious metals in them for their monetary value, or wanting to remove idolatry from her father's household. All these seem to be evasions of the more simple and probable explanation: that Rachel was herself an idolater and took the idols because she wanted them for herself. Whatever motives she did have led her first to theft and then to deceit. She did not own up to having taken the idols, even though it seems unlikely that doing so would have led to Jacob carrying out his threat, since she was his beloved wife, and her father Laban, the aggrieved party, had not demanded it.

The overall portrait that scripture paints of Rachel, if we're willing to look at it, is of a woman who has only physical beauty to commend her. She is unreasonably demanding, selfish, manipulative, deceptive, and probably idolatrous. Though Genesis makes it clear that Jacob loved Rachel, it nowhere states that Rachel loved Jacob. The true love story here would be Leah's undying desire for the love of the husband who despised her. If she had a choice in the deception of Jacob that led to her marriage to him, she paid dearly for it.

What can we say of the outcome of the two marriages? Leah bore Jacob six of his twelve sons, including Levi and Judah, whose descendents would become the most significant of the twelve tribes, containing the priestly and kingly lines, the latter leading to Jesus, the Messiah. Rachel and the two servants bore Jacob two children each, the most notable of them being Joseph. Joseph becomes notable, however, as a result of his brothers' jealousy of him, a jealousy provoked by their father's favoring him over them, which stemmed from his father's favoring of Joseph's mother over theirs. The brother's jealousy leads them to sell him as a slave into Egypt, where by a miraculous set of events (and a lot of hardship along the way), Joseph ends up in a position to help Egypt and his family sustain a horrific famine. Joseph is truly one of the great heroes of scripture. He's a great example of what God can do with someone who began as a spoiled child in a dysfunctional family.

It's interesting to imagine, as a thought experiment: what would have happened if Jacob had recognized Rachel's character and chosen to marry Leah instead, or if he had accepted his marriage to Leah as God's will and never married Rachel. Of course, this is a tough pill to swallow. Tricked on your wedding day is pretty bad, and the society did accept polygamy. But what if?

Well, Jacob would have ended up with a wife who was devoted to him. She seems to have been devoted to him even when he hated her. They would have had six sons and a daughter. There would have been no reason for Jacob to have had children with Leah's servant. There would have been no reason for jealousy among the six sons since the son of a different, favored mother would not have existed. Presumably God would have found other means of saving the family from the famine--possibly avoiding the necessity of going down to Egypt and eventually being enslaved there. Levi and Judah were both children of Leah and would still have been the progenitors of the priestly and royal tribes. Jesus would still have come from the line of Judah. It would seem that a lot of things would have worked out much better in the long run.

I'm not saying that this is how things should have happened. God foreknew from the beginning what would happen, and factored all the human responses that occurred into account. He knew that six more children would be born to Jacob, and the tribes descended from Bilhah, Zilpah, and Rachel were just as much chosen Israelites as those descended from Leah.

But I don't think that we should read the story of Jacob and Rachel as a wonderful, sweet love story. It's rather a tragedy, a cautionary tale warning against the dangers of focusing too much on physical beauty. It also tells us to think twice about disappointments in our lives, situations in which our plans do not work out, in which we may even be sabotaged or cheated out of what we wanted. Perhaps what God gave us is actually better, if we had eyes to see it. Perhaps we shouldn't try so hard to force our way into what we think we want. We may regret the consequences.

For more on marriage, check out my book, Marriage, Family, and the Image of God .

Marriage, Family, and the Image of God


  1. Just Beautiful!

  2. Better late than never, but it should be noted that Jacob requested to be buried with Leah in the tomb of Abraham and Sarah. He could have been buried with Rachael or had Rachael buried with his parents along with or instead of Leah. I believe perhaps, in his old age, that Jacob came to an understanding of his wives that is not specifically stated in the text but is implied in the burial arrangements.

  3. Traditional Jewish thought is that Esau and Jacob were supposed to marry Leah and Rachel, providing two families from which to build the Jewish people. The idea is that Leah knew this, and agreed to the deception of Jacob to achieve God's plan through human means- like Sarah and Hagar.

    1. That's an intriguing possibility. It doesn't address the flaws in Rachel's character, though. And any time we try to achieve God's plan through human (usually devious and sinful) means, Bad Things happen. Sarah and Hagar failed to accomplish God's plan, and ended disastrously. Same with Moses killing the Egyptian.