Rachel—The Protective Mother of the Covenant Nation

Posted by on Nov 27, 2023

Rachel and Leah engaged in a difficult contest for the heart of their husband Ya’akov and for the position of first wife in the family. In the article Leah—The Mother of the Covenant Nation, we present to the reader the story of rivalry between the sisters from Leah’s point of view. The story of wife who felt unloved and unwanted. It would be therefore advantageous for the reader to study what we have said in that article. In the following continuation of the foresaid article, however, we will present the same story from Rachel’s perspectives and how she might have felt in her constant struggle to bear children to his beloved husband Ya’akov. We will try to show that the question of rivalry between Rachel and Leah is far from being easy to solve, and this being the case we leave the question open on which side the priority lies. We now turn again to the contest between the matriarchs, who built up a nation, as we would like to posit another way to look at their story, specifically in reference to their reconciliation.

First love but not first blindness

Rachel and Leah. Did the patriarch love them both?

Rachel and Leah. The matriarchs who built up a nation.

Ya’akov fled his family and the land of Kana’an for fear of his brother Esav, who sought to kill him. When he arrived in the land of Charan, the land of his mother, Rivkah, Ya’akov saw Rachel the daughter of Lavan, his mother’s brother, at the well. Ya’akov fell in love at first sight, kissed her and wept aloud (Gen 29:10-11). Why did he weep? He wept for he foresaw that while Eliezer brought many gifts, when he arrived in Charan in search of a bride for his father, he had arrived empty-handed. When Lavan, the father of Rachel, heard that his nephew had arrived, he remembered Eliezer and ran to greet him but only to find out that Ya’akov arrived destitute. Ya’akov loved Rachel at first sight, but he did not have money to start a family. To gain the good disposition of Lavan, he had to work for his uncle seven years to marry Rachel. In the negotiation between him and his uncle, even though Ya’akov had spelled out which daughter, namely Rachel, he wanted to marry (for Lavan had an older daughter), he thoughtfully added the word “the younger daughter”, so that Lavan would not give him a different girl. Ya’akov said,

Let me serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter. (Gen 29:18)

Ya’akov served Lavan for seven years in order to marry Rachel, because of the love he had for her. After the seven years of servitude had past, Ya’akov came to Lavan to claim what was his right, according to the agreement he had with Lavan. Lavan agreed and made a feast. But when evening came, instead of giving him Rachel for wife, he brought Leah his older daughter in Ya’akov’s tent. And Ya’akov went in to her that night. In the morning, however, he found out that it was Leah not Rachel he had slept with. Ya’akov became very angry and went to protest before Lavan. The explanation his uncle gave him was that the tradition required that first the oldest daughter was to be married, not the youngest. As a wedding gift to Leah, her father gave her Zilpah as a servant. The rest of the story is well known. Ya’akov worked seven years for Leah and then he was allowed to marry his beloved Rachel, but he had to work seven more years for her.

Now, the question presents itself. Could Ya’akov not tell the difference between his beloved Rachel and her sister Leah in the duration of the whole night? He did not seem to have noticed a thing that night, and the surprise only came the next morning, when he saw Leah in his bed. Would it not be obvious to him that the woman in his bed was not Rachel after some brief conversation, especially during the intimacy? Lavan played a trick on Ya’akov, but that should not have surprised him, for this is where all started.

Measure for measure

Ya’akov tricked his father, when he asked him, “Are you really my son Esav?”, and Ya’akov said “I am” and received the blessing meant for his brother. It is hard to miss the parallels between what Ya’akov did to his father and what Lavan did to Ya’akov later on, when he tricked him think that Leah was really Rachel. Ya’akov took advantage of his father for being blind, and Lavan of Ya’akov being “blind” for being in love: this is a measure-for-measure justice. But unlike Yitschak (who became immediately suspicious when Ya’akov said he was Esav), Ya’akov did not even suspect that he was with the wrong woman in the bed, not until the next morning when he saw her. How was that possible? The idea that Ya’akov and Leah were entirely silent all night seems to be unbelievable and out of place with Ya’akov’s behavior when he kissed Rachel at their first meeting at the well (Gen 29:11), and with his straightforward claim for intercourse in Gen 29:21. Even if they were entirely silent during the intimacy, how much conversation would it take to realize that it was not Rachel in his bed but another woman? A dark room could not have been an excuse for him.

But if some suggest that Ya’akov must have been drunk in his tent based on the fact that he came from Lavan’s “feast”, even drunkenness could not have been a reason for his failure to recognize that the woman he was kissing in the bed was not the one he had already kissed before. Ya’akov’s drunkenness does not explain anything either.

Note: Hebrew word for “feast” is מִשְׁתֶּה mishteh, which literally means “drink”, by implication “drinking”, hence, “drinking party”. We found the same word in the story of Noach (Gen 9:20-27), and in Esther (Est 5:4-6). We now return to the text.

The drunkenness may explain Ya’akov’s failure to notice the wrong woman in his bed, but it does not explain Leah and Rachel’s involvement and particularly their silence after the disclosure of Lavan’s deceit. When Ya’akov saw Leah in his bed instead of the beloved Rachel, he did not blame Leah and/or Rachel for this (although he had the complete reason) but went straight to Lavan to quarrel with him. Why was he blind to see that it was not his Rachel in the bed?

The silence of Rachel

And why were Rachel and Leah silent next morning and did not object to their father’s arrangement? Rachel could have the full right to protest (she was supposed be in the tent), and Leah could have claimed innocence, but they said not a word. Their silence could mean only one thing: they knew nothing about it either. It could have been that not only Ya’akov, but both Leah and Rachel were also deceived by Lavan. When the narrator says that “Lavan gathered all the men of the place and made a feast” (Gen 29:22), he has not made it clear feast for whom. Ya’akov and Rachel, as well as the reader, have been left with the impression that this was a feast for Ya’akov and Rachel. In Rachel’s eyes, Ya’akov was her husband, according to the deal between the two men, and she had a strong legal claim to the marriage. Ya’akov pointed explicitly which daughter must be his wife (Gen 29:18). Rachel knew it was her wedding night, because that was the arrangement seven years prior, but it was her sister who went into Ya’akov’s tent, not she. Did Rachel protest that night that she was not told to go into his tent? Perhaps, Rachel did not know of the trick, but she did not claim the first night either. Why was she silent in that night after the drinking party, when she was not told to go into his tent? Did she know that her sister was told to sleep with Ya’akov?

In Leah’s eyes, Ya’akov was supposed to be her husband, if her father had not announced openly whose wedding feast it was. When her father brought her to Ya’akov’s tent that night, in her mind, it was her wedding night, because per the custom the younger daughter should not marry before the first-born (Gen 29:26). Thus, much later when Leah accused Rachel of stealing her husband, she was right in her mind: Ya’akov was her husband. According to this reading of the story, Leah was just as confused as Ya’akov was that morning. But why did she remained silent in the morning and did not claim her right? Early in the morning both sisters seem confused, and they should have been if they had known nothing about the switching, but confused by who, by their father only?

The issue in the family seems to have been resolved, when Lavan offered Ya’akov to work seven more years for his daughter Rachel. And as a wedding gift to Rachel, her father gave her Bilhah as a servant. Ya’akov consumed the marriage that night, and he served Lavan seven years. In the issue of the patriarchs’ polygamy, there is a common mistake made when it is asserted that they were in sin to marry more than one woman. Perhaps, the last thing we would expect the Torah to allow would be polygamy. But this is the place to note that this bigamy of the patriarch must not be judged directly by the Torah (see Lev 18:18), which prohibits marriage with two sisters at the same time or be judged as incest for cohabiting with a close relative, since there was no such a law in existence then to prohibit it. Facing this perplexity concerning bigamy and incest, we will leave the issue unaddressed, as it was unaddressed by the narrator of the story either.

Rachel was loved but Leah was hated?

Ya’akov consumed the long-awaited marriage with the beloved Rachel, and in the next verse we read, as follows,

And he also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah. (Gen 29:30)

The traditional translations like the above have rendered this verse to read: “he also loved Rachel more than Leah”. What was the necessity for the extraneous word “also” in this statement? Should it not have been said simply: “and he loved Rachel than Leah”? With this statement the Torah means that while Ya’akov did love Leah, he loved Rachel more, as we read literally, “And he also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel from Leah”. The Torah had to write this using the word “also” in order to convey the idea that Ya’akov loved Leah, even though originally, he had not chosen her to become his wife. Now, that since she had become his wife, he loved her, however, he loved Rachel more; Rachel was his first love. And although his first experience of marital intimacy had been with Leah, he continued to love Rachel even more, for she was in his heart. This is hinted at the word גם gam, which means “also” and “moreover”, used twice in the same sentence.

This informs us that Ya’akov loved Leah also, even though she was not his first choice. But since she had become his wife, he indeed loved her, however, he loved Rachel first. Ya’akov loved Rachel by choice, at first sight, but he came to love Leah too, by necessity, as she became his wife under the given circumstances. Had the arrangement not been done the way it was disclosed to the reader, and Ya’akov married first Rachel, eventually the patriarch would have also married Leah and loved Leah by choice.

Or, had we not been told Lavan’s trick and thus spared of the details in the story, and we were simply told that Ya’akov worked for Rachel seven years, but he married Leah first, according to the tradition, and then married Rachel for whom he worked seven more years, we would not have seen any conflict in the story. The correct interpretation appears to us to be that when Ya’akov married Rachel, and although he loved Leah, he loved Rachel even more for she was his first love.

An alternative reading of the above verse comes from the use of the word גם gam, which appears twice in this verse, in order to also indicate that Ya’akov spent more intimate time with Rachel than with Leah. In other words, the Torah says that as he had cohabited with Leah the first night and afterwards, he cohabited with Rachel more, because he loved her more. We therefore can translate our verse without changing its meaning thus,

And he cohabited with Rachel more, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. (Gen 29:30)

Who hated Leah and why?

The issue between Lavan and Ya’akov seems to have been resolved by a second marriage in the family, but not the issue between the two rival sisters. Another difficulty in this verse and the one that follows is that the Torah suddenly refers to Leah as being hated. The very next verse reads,

And Yehovah saw that Leah was hated, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. (Gen 29:31)

These words beg for an explanation. Now, Leah had indeed taken part in the deceit (whether inadvertently or not) and had hurt her sister first and also Ya’akov. For even if we were to say that she was not rebellious against her father, who took her and brought her into the tent, by showing respect for him, she pretended herself all night to be Rachel, which was the reason why Ya’akov did not recognize her until he saw her in the morning. It was for this reason that the reader receives the impression that Ya’akov hated her, when reading the passage: “And Yehovah saw that Leah was hated”. While this interpretation of “Leah was hated” seems to fit with the plain meaning of the text, we find it unsatisfying for the following reason. If we are told that Ya’akov loved Rachel but also Leah in the preceding verse, why is it assumed here that it was Ya’akov who hated Leah?

One more thing should be noted in the verse though. The narrator of the story indeed tells us that YHVH knew Leah was hated but without telling us hated by whom. Was it Ya’akov who hated her? Hardly, for we already know that he loved Leah even though he loved Rachel more. Ya’akov might have hated Leah that morning for having participated in Lavan’s scheme (from his point of view), perhaps done for respect to or fear of her father, but later he began to lover her, especially after Leah gave him his first son Reuven and even to more sons than the beloved Rachel did. This certainly does not mean that Ya’akov hated Leah, for if he had indeed hated her, he could have divorced her on the grounds that she was not the wife in the agreement Lavan and Ya’akov made seven years prior.

As in the preceding verse, we will offer the reader an alternative interpretation of verse 31: “YHVH saw that Ya’akov loved Rachel so much that Leah felt like a concubine”. Ya’akov did not hate her; in fact, he loved her, but he loved Rachel more, and the rival Rachel knew that it was so. But YHVH kept Rachel barren. The narrator tells us that Rachel was barren to indicate that it was hoped that by making Leah fruitful Ya’akov’s love towards Leah would come with the birth of their first son. And perhaps it did.

Therefore, if it was not Ya’akov who hated Leah, who hated her? It was not Lavan her father who thought her only good to marry her first according to the tradition. And if it was not Ya’akov and Lavan, who hated Leah then? It must have been Rachel her sister, the beloved wife of Ya’akov, who saw in Leah a rival in the family, a rival who had stolen her husband-to-be. From Rachel’s point of view, she had the full right to be angry with her sister. It was Rachel whom Ya’akov had [ever] kissed. It was Rachel the bride-to-be Ya’akov worked for in the last seven years. It was Rachel’s wedding feast, not Leah’s. It was Rachel who was supposed to be in Ya’akov’s bed, not Leah. As Rachel saw this whole ordeal, in her mind Ya’akov was stolen from her by her sister. Later in the story we will see a resentment, competition, even hostility, that will start being developed between the two wives, who were in competition to give more children to Ya’akov even through their maidservants.

The desperate Rachel

When Rachel thought of her own barrenness, she became envious of her sister, who was blessed with sons. But instead of praying to YHVH, as Ya’akov’s mother had done, Rachel turned against her husband. When she saw that Leah had already given Ya’akov four sons and she could not bear her husband children, she envied her sister, and said to him in emotional displeasure, “Give me children, or else I will die!” (Gen 30:1). Upon hearing this, Ya’akov’s anger burned against Rachel, because she blamed her barrenness on him or something he had failed to do, as if he were in the position to decree who was to be barren or fertile. Thus, Rachel’s demand to her husband “give me children” became preposterous and disrespectful in Ya’akov’s eyes.

Moreover, Ya’akov might have feared that Rachel had brought a curse upon herself, for indeed, Rachel died while giving birth to her second son. Or at Rachel’s burial, Ya’akov must have realized that he himself might have brought a curse upon her beloved wife, when he said to Lavan, “In whom you find your idols, he shall not live” (Gen 31:32). And perhaps for the reason of having hated her sister, it was decreed in heaven that Rachel should not receive the dignity of being buried in the Cave of Machpelah, where the matriarchs Sarah and Rivkah were buried and where her beloved Ya’akov was buried too (Gen 23:19, Gen 49:30-31). Instead, she was buried alone on the side of the road to Bethlechem (Gen 35:19).

After Ya’akov’s anger against her, Rachel said,

See, my maid Bilhah. Go in to her, and let her bear for me, and let me be built up from her as well. (Gen 30:3)

What exactly is being said here? Rachel suggested what Sarah had suggested to Avraham, that she was even willing to become a mother through her servant having a child by him. She therefore asked Ya’akov to sleep with her servant, as Sarah asked Avraham to sleep with Hagar. But Rachel (unlike Sarah) was careful in her choice of words. She said first to her husband: “my maid Bilhah”, before allowing him to cohabit with her saying, “Go in to her”. Thus, by identifying Bilhah as her servant, Rachel made clear to her husband that she was his wife, and her servant remained a servant regardless of her demand to have a child by her. Instead of saying: “Go in to my maid” as Sarah had said to Avraham (Gen 16:2), Rachel excluded any misunderstanding as to who the favorite wife of Ya’akov was. Yet, in the next verse, the narrator made it clear that Bilhah was given to him as wife. Thus, Bilhah’s status in the family was changed from servant to wife, and all her children who would come out of her womb should be equal to the other sons of Ya’akov by her sister Leah. Later when the time came, Leah acted similarly when she ceased bearing and gave her servant Zilpah to cohabit with Ya’akov as wife (Gen 30:9).

It should be acknowledged here the selfless act of Rachel and Leah towards their maidservants, namely, elevating their status in the family. This new status of Bilhah and Zilpah was further confirmed in Gen 37:2, where it was made clear to the reader that Bilhah and Zilpah were wives of Ya’akov, not concubines. This teaches that Bilhah and Zilpah gained the status of wives with all the security that such a status guarantees. Therefore, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah were wives of Ya’akov, and all of the twelve sons of Ya’akov were thus made equal in the family (as explained in the article The Forgotten Matriarchs of Israel – Time of Reckoning Ministry).

But why did Rachel and Leah change the legal status of their maidservants? Because they both knew what was to be a concubine in the family of their father Lavan, and what was to a child born of a concubine. According to the tradition (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer), Bilhah and Zilpah were sisters, as the daughters of Lavan’s concubine. Another possible reason why they gave Ya’akov their servants was that Rachel and Leah were aware of the Covenant, according to which the land of Kana’an had been given to their husband Ya’akov and his posterity. Then realizing that Yitschak had no other sons but Ya’akov (according to the Covenant) and in order to increase his progeny so as to inherit the Land, Rachel and Leah wanted to give him as many children as they could.

Rachel was remembered

This noble act of the sisters however did not preclude the rivalry between them for the position of first wife in the family of Ya’akov. The rivalry continued in verse Gen 30:14 and onward with giving more children to their husband. YHVH listened to Leah and saw her efforts to bear Ya’akov as many sons as possible and restored her fertility again (compare to Gen 30:9). She conceived and bore Ya’akov a fifth son. Elohim remembered Rachel, as well, and He opened her womb, and she conceived and bore a son, and named him Yoseph. When Rachel became pregnant with Yoseph, the narrator noted that Elohim “opened her womb” (Gen 30:22), meaning that prior to this moment, Rachel’s womb was closed. We should note that the same is said about Leah: before bearing her first son, Reuven (Gen 29:31), so that we would know that Leah and Rachel were barren, when they married Ya’akov.

Rachel, in naming her first son Yoseph, makes clear to the reader what infertility in the ancient world feels like. Upon giving birth, she said, “Elohim has taken away my disgrace”. The experience of infertility was utterly devastating for a barren woman in in the ancient world, in which there was no social security system, welfare, and public assistance, we know today. A widow, barren or divorced woman is left on her own, in contrast with a family that have many children. The more workforce a family had, the better chances for survival.

And when Rachel had born Yoseph to Ya’akov, Ya’akov said to Lavan, “Send me on my way, to go to my own place and to my land” (Gen 30:25). This conversation between Ya’akov and Lavan took place fourteen years after Ya’akov had agreed to work for his uncle in exchange for Rachel and Leah. According to the tradition, Rivkah sent her nurse Devorah to Padan Aram to inform Ya’akov that his brother Esav’s hatred toward him had abated and it was now safe for him to return home. Until now, Ya’akov had worked solely for Lavan and his benefit fourteen years. But that was not good enough for Lavan, who did not want to let Ya’akov go out with the fruits of his labor, so that he made Ya’akov work six more years—this time for himself. Ya’akov worked six years to gain wealth to sustain his huge family. He became exceedingly prosperous, because YHVH was with him, as He had promised Ya’akov before he headed to the land of Haran (Gen 28:14). Ya’akov acquired abundant flocks and handmaids and purchased camels and donkeys. Then YHVH said to Ya’akov that the time had come to return to the land of his father Yitschak.

Rachel and Leah in reconciliation

In conclusion of our study, it remains for us to explain how the rivalry between the sisters ended. Ya’akov presented before Rachel and Leah his struggle with their father in the past twenty years. They agreed and now we witness the confession Rachel and Leah made to their husband,

Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not regarded by him as strangers? For he has sold us and also entirely consumed our money. (Gen 31:14-15)

The two sisters evidently realized that when their father gave them to Ya’akov in marriage, they were considered by him as commodities, for not only did he not give Rachel and Leah any dowry, but he sold them as property in exchange for labor. And after that, instead of paying Ya’akov what was his due after fourteen years of labor, he had to work for himself six more years, so that he did not have to leave destitute. That was the essential moment in the life of Rachel and Leah, when they came to reconciliation of their tensed relationship. From this moment on we do not see rivalry between the sisters, as the family seemed to feel helpless in the face of destiny. But as their journey to the Promised Land will transpire before the reader, Rachel was left with not many days to live. Soon she will die on the road to Bethlechem, when giving birth to her second son to her beloved husband.

We will now return to answer what we have consistently asked in the course of this study: Why? When we reflect upon what we have said above, we now realize that it would have taken more than just blindness to confuse one into the dark; it takes Heaven too. The whole ordeal of switching the brides must have been an arrangement made in Heaven that the patriarch Ya’akov must have many sons, who could not have come from Rachel’s womb only, for she was yet barren. It was first the barren Rachel then Leah, who offered her half-sister as a wife to Ya’akov so that his seed might multiply to become a nation. The Land promised to Avraham could be populated only by a great nation. It was destined in Heaven that the patriarch must have twelve sons, from whom seventy descendants were destined to go down to Egypt, and from whom a whole nation was destined to settle in the Land according to the promise made to Avraham, Yitschak, and Ya’akov.

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