Lent Series: Women in the Bible
Rachel & Leah (Genesis 29-31)
Biblical marriage is, more often than we’d care to admit, a transaction between two men. The story of the sisters Rachel and Leah, their husband Jacob, and their father Laban is no exception.
Off Jacob went, having deceived his father and cheated his brother of the old man’s blessing. Off he went to find a wife, in the land of his relatives, because a local goyish lady just wouldn’t do. There, in the east, at a well, he meets Rachel—the daughter of his mother’s brother—tending her father’s sheep. He kisses her, waters her sheep, and tells her they are first cousins, and off she goes to tell her father Laban. The men hang out for a bit, and the negotiations begin. Jacob will serve Laban for seven years in exchange for his younger daughter’s hand in marriage. Seven years later, Laban gives his maid Zilpah to Leah, his elder daughter, and sends Leah off into Jacob’s tent who, before the days of night lights, was none the wiser. Come morning, a dissatisfied Jacob approaches Laban, and they cut another deal. Laban gives his maid Bilhah to Rachel, and sends her off to Jacob, in exchange for another seven years of labour. Jacob loves Rachel more than he loves Leah, and this begins the sisterly feud.
The body count in this battle is large, but not in the usual way. Some say that it kickstarted the whole people of Israel, and that’s true enough. Certainly, Jacob got thirteen children out of it: twelve boys and a girl. The twelve boys went off to fulfil Yahweh’s promise to Abraham, and the girl—Dinah, barely mentioned in this story—is eventually seduced and/or raped by an uncircumcised man, and it’s unclear which aspect of this atrocity enraged her brothers more. In any case, precious little else is said about her in the Bible. But I digress. Seeing that Leah was unloved, Yahweh makes her fertile and Rachel he made barren. And so, Leah gave birth, first to four boys. In response, Rachel gave to Jacob her maid Bilhah, who bore him two sons. As you might expect, the sons are Rachel’s rather than Bilhah’s, who never gets to speak. Leah retaliates in kind, giving Jacob her maid Zilpah, who bore another two sons. The maids don’t even get to name the children. Leah’s strategic surrogacy seems premature in retrospect, as she then produces two more sons, before she finally has a daughter, Dinah. And finally, Rachel manages to have her own biological children: Joseph—he of the amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat—and, eventually, Benjamin, at whose difficult birth she died.
So far, so mired in patriarchy, but this is hardly surprising: even without buying into the myth of moral progress, one would hardly expect the Bible to be any less sexist than our present situation. To read the Bible from the margins is to look for the subtle ways in which otherwise subdued voices can tell us about how dominant forces can or should be subverted. Our story begins in Genesis 29 as a transaction between two men, the trickster Jacob and Laban, his uncle who too will prove a wily character. As the story progresses, however—through to Genesis 31—we see how the sisters Leah and Rachel exercise their own agency, limited though it is by the social structures they inhabit. The two paradigmatic incidents involve mandrakes and teraphim respectively.
Mandrakes—or, literally “love plants” in biblical Hebrew—were thought to be an aphrodisiac and enhancer of fertility. In fact, it is a hallucinogen, and may cause poisoning, vomiting, and diarrhoea if ingested. Anyway, Reuben finds some one day, and gives them to his mother Leah who, as we have established, has no need for them. Rachel, on the other hand, wants them, and so she trades for them an amorous night with Jacob, their husband. “You must come in to me; for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes” is, in my estimation, one of the best lines in all of Scripture. I have hired you. The word sachar has strong commercial connotations. It is Jacob’s turn to be the object of a transaction between two women. And for her chutzpah Leah receives not just one more son, but two, and a daughter also.
The mandrakes seem to have worked, for at the end of this episode, Rachel finally manages to conceive. Or—according to the Midrash—Leah intercedes on her sister’s behalf while pregnant with Dinah, which prompts Yahweh to remember Rachel and open her womb. This rabbinic embellishment has Leah demanding justice for her sister, so that she has at least as many sons as their maidservants. Thus, Dinah—whose name is exceptionally left unexplained in the biblical narrative—is given a name that means “justice”, much like her half-brother Dan, born by Rachel’s maid Bilhah. The story of Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn, turns out to be a crucial prologue to the story of the Exodus, in which again mothers play a central role, but that’s a talk for another time.
We turn now to the matter of the teraphim, the household gods that problematize the view that ancient Israelites were iconoclastic monotheists in stark contrast to their pagan Ancient Near Eastern neighbours. Rachel steals Laban’s teraphim, and no one really knows why. The context is Jacob’s increasing unhappiness in his father-in-law’s household, a frustration he expresses to his two wives, who agree with him, pointing out with one voice that not only had Laban sold them, but that he was quickly using up his earnings from the sale. It might be too anachronistic to say that they were criticising the patriarchy, but they were at least participating in a revolt against a patriarch. So they fled—Jacob, and Rachel and Leah, and their household—but before they did so, Rachel swiped her father’s household gods, and neither Laban nor Jacob were any the wiser. Indeed, Jacob’s ignorance—and remember, knowledge is power, in the Bible as much as elsewhere—nearly lands them in trouble, as he curses to death anyone whom Laban finds has stolen his gods. As Laban is searching, Rachel puts the little statues in a camel’s saddle and sits on it. Her father searches her tent, but she does not get up, saying, “I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me”. A woman may not have been fazed by this, but Laban—afraid of menstruation as the members of his sex are wont to be—left her unsearched, and thus failed to find his precious gods.
If Leah’s mandrakes and her fertility were the sources of her power over Jacob, then the teraphim and menstruation were Rachel’s sources of power against Laban. Nobody knows why she took them, but one influential reading is based on the claim (for which there is some evidence in extra-biblical material) that household gods were symbols of inheritance and leadership. If so, then Rachel’s taking of Laban’s household gods was a wresting of power and resource from her father who sold her. Perhaps she did so for the sake of her husband or her sons, but this is not to say that she did not also do it for herself.
So, we have a story about two women—sisters, and then wives to the same man—who managed to objectify the objectifiers and trick the tricksters. None of this undoes the structural patriarchy of the biblical text and its world, but it is not nothing either. After all, the gospel is about—among other things—the subversion of power by the seemingly powerless. A young woman, pregnant out of wedlock, gives birth to a King, and lays him in a manger. A man from the Jewish backwaters of the Roman Empire is rejected by the religious power brokers and executed as a political criminal by imperial forces, and rises again in glory. Such stories about the subversion of power—not for its own sake or even our own, but for the good of all—are the stuff on which the Christian faith is founded. And accustomed as we are to forget it, women like Rachel and Leah—and Sarah (Isaac’s mother); and Rebekah (Jacob’s mother); and Jochebed (Moses’s mother); and Rahab the prostitute; and Deborah the Judge; and Mary Magdalen the apostle to the apostles—women are, as should be obvious but so often isn’t, crucial and active participants in the economy of salvation, the story in and to which we, all of us, belong.