As we begin to look at the lives of the women in these stories, let's note that Rebekah, our mover and shaker from the last episode, again starts the action in this story when she sends Jacob back to her family to look for a wife. She does this partly so he can escape the anger of Esau, whom she helped Jacob trick out of his firstborn's blessing from Isaac, and partly because she wants him to marry within her family rather than with a local Hittite woman like Esau has done.
Rachel and beauty
Jacob first meets Rachel at the well. This scene should remind us of when Abraham's servant met Rebekah: again there is animal watering and a beautiful eligible young woman. Rachel is introduced to us as a shepherd, which makes her the first career woman in the Bible. This time it is Jacob who takes the initiative, helping get the water and intervening in some local conflict over the well, and he is delighted to find that Rachel is a potential wife. They go to find Laban, who again is very happy to welcome an unexpected kinsman with marriage potential for his daughters.
After Jacob has been there a month, they arrange his future marriage to Rachel, which will take place after Jacob has served Laban for 7 years. Leah is mentioned as Laban's other daughter who is less desirable because of her "dull eyes." Translators tell us the meaning of the description isn't clear. But the point is that Rachel is much prettier.
Jacob clearly falls in love with Rachel instead of Leah because of her beauty. This is a major major topic among ideas about women. It's almost axiomatic that women's beauty is of high value in the world, where men's attractiveness is not as important. Beauty is considered to be a corollary of femininity. It's also pretty much universally acknowledged is that this is not fair. That most women would love to be absolutely beautiful is evidenced by all the trappings of fashion, makeup, jewelry, beauty products, fitness plans etc. It is a major deal in women's lives that takes up a lot of time, energy, and money. But we don't pursue all this stuff out of stupidity and frivolity. This story is the first Bible story giving evidence that the prettier a woman is, the more desirable and loved she will be, the more things will go well for her, and the more power she will have. I can feel angry eyes burning back at me from the reading side of this post, but believe me mine are flashing from this end too, because it's not fair and it also affects me. But listen, let's acknowledge how this is and speak frankly about it.
Also, let's read along, and see where this advantage and disadvantage take Rachel and Leah in their lives, and how God deals with each of them in their own situation. In doing so let's look for clues about how he values physical beauty in women. He is its creator after all.
After the seven years fly by for Jacob who is so in love with Rachel that they "seemed to him but a few days," the day for the marriage arrives. Laban reveals himself to truly be from the same stock as his strategically dishonest sister Rebekah. In an almost identical trick to the one she played on Isaac, he substitutes Leah in for her sister when Jacob is unable to see her and recognize what is happening. When he realizes he's been tricked, it's too late. The deed has been done and Laban's agenda is achieved.
Laban's action is truly unfair to Jacob and he is right to be angry. But I do wonder if Laban's motivation was one of love to poor Leah, who he worried would not receive her own attention, and might not gain herself a husband on her own, and would therefore have no one to provide for her. He gives Rachel to Jacob as well, as promised, but gets seven more years of labor for himself out of the deal. Jacob takes this all as well as could be expected.
Leah and children
Immediately after the wedding, the narrative begins to take up Leah's case, that Jacob loves Rachel much more than her, and that the Lord sees this. "When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he enabled her to have children, but Rachel could not conceive." There is a lot going on there. God seems to have noticed that Leah was suffering from a lack of love from her husband, and mitigated that suffering by honoring her with children. Though we saw God's similar concern that Sarah would be the mother of Abraham's heir, the children God gives to Leah seem to be to comfort her even more specifically, since God will bless Jacob with many legitimate sons through several women in the end. God clearly finds her lack of received love to be wrong, and intervenes to compensate and bless her.
The meanings of the names Leah gives her boys are a peek into how her relationship with Jacob is developing: Reuben -"The Lord has noticed my misery, and now my husband will love me"; Simeon - "the Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me another son"; Levi - "surely this time my husband will feel affection for me, since I have given him three sons"; Judah - "now I will praise the Lord!" Does the meaning of that last name show a development that Leah is at last giving up on Jacob's affection and turning to receive the affection of God, who blesses her regardless of what her husband does?
Rachel is on a different journey. Though she is loved dearly by her husband, she is unable to have any children. If beauty is one asset women are expected to have, fertility is another. And it was even more important in the historical setting of Genesis than it is today. Further, I think biologists would say that in the grand scheme of things, our ideas of attractiveness tend to be characteristics that indicate fertility. Beauty is often a sign of what nature deems really important between the sexes, ability to reproduce.
Rachel becomes jealous of Leah's children, despite her clear victory over Jacob's affection. Her infertility also causes a relational wedge between her and Jacob. She demands that he give her children, "or I'll die!" Jacob is "furious" at this and says that God is the one keeping her from having children. But neither of them approach God for help. Instead, we see Rachel using mandrakes to try to increase her fertility. When Rachel finally does conceive, it says that God remembered her and answered her prayers. But there is no recorded conversation between either of Jacob's wives and the Lord compared with what we had with Rebekah and Sarah.
Rachel's infertility is first mentioned in contrast to Leah, who God enabled to have children because she was unloved. I would love to understand God's motivation here. It does seem that God is comforting Leah in her loneliness and rejection by giving her children. Is Rachel punished for being loved? My idea of infertility is typically that it's a problem--that scientifically, if the right things happen, a couple will get a baby. But maybe this is the wrong way to look at it. In each of the family stories we've read, the couple has been completely dependent on God for a child, and the child does not arrive without his intervention. When you consider even from a physical standpoint all the millions of tiny developments that have to go right for a healthy baby to arrive, it does seem miraculous that it ever happens at all. And perhaps this is the correct way to look at children. They are brought about by God as a gift. Though we participate, it is up to him to give them.
Servant-wives as teammates, not rivals, this time
This drama always seems less present, though, in the lives of the servant women recruited by their mistresses for help when God is not delivering on the timeline desired. Maybe though we don't know their stories as much as we know Leah's, God is acting similarly for the servant women who are not honored and cherished in marriage?
But in this story, the servants Bilhah and Zilpah are pretty much completely accepted into the family. Where Sarah was jealous of Hagar's pregnancy, Rachel and Leah are delighted with the children of their servants, and take credit for them. Perhaps the difference in their emotional experiences is because of the competition between the sisters. Another reason that marriage is best with just one man and one woman--competition in this relationship is terrible! Because of the rivalry between the sisters, maidservants become teammates rather than rivals themselves.
It's noteworthy that where Ishmael was rejected as the heir and sent away, Bilhah and Zilpah's children are full tribes of Israel. God does accept them, and Jacob accepts them and blesses them on his deathbed (albeit with shorter blessings than Rachel and Leah's sons receive). Though the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher are less legendary than the Levites, the tribe of Judah, and the others from the lines of Rachel and Leah, they are Israelites, where the Ishmaelites and the Edomites are not. Is this partly due to the real influence of Sarah and Rebekah who are both influential in their stories in favoring their boys? Of course God works through all of this. But perhaps in these stories we can also see these women's actions influencing the plot.
We don't know a lot about the servant women of Rachel and Leah other than that they were lauded for bearing children. After Zilpah bears her first son, Leah says, "Now the other women will celebrate with me!" Maybe this tells us that the women of the household were a bit of a support group for each other, in the absence of the relational support of a primary marriage relationship?
When all of his children are born, Jacob feels the need to separate from Laban. After some years of negotiating about livestock with shrewd Laban, Jacob receives a message from God that he should just go, and return to his homeland. I love that he consults Rachel and Leah about this move. They respond to the idea with hearty approval, seconding Jacob's disillusionment with Laban, saying that he will not give them any inheritance, and expressing that "all the wealth God has given you from our father legally belongs to us and our children." This discussion about money is the reason they think Jacob should "go ahead and do whatever God has told you."
They leave in secret, and in an interesting development, Rachel steals her father's household idols. Are they valuable, and is she hoping to get some "inheritance" back from her father after all? Is she doing it out of superstition? Laban chases the family down, angry both because they left without telling him and because of the stolen idols. Jacob is sure of his his innocence, and unknowingly puts Rachel in grave danger, by promising to put to death anyone who may have taken them. He also promises to give back any other stolen goods, not mentioning a death penalty in that case. Maybe he would be more upset to find anyone in his household worshiping idols than thieving.
Anyway, Rachel, proving her genetic connection to her father and aunt, sneakily avoids being caught, using a very feminine excuse (while sitting on the idols, she says she can't get up, she's having her period). After Laban unsuccessfully searches Jacob's belongings, Jacob makes a great speech defending his innocence and rubbing Laban's nose in it. And that's that. As far as we know, nobody ever finds out about Rachel's theft.
In the next part of the story, where Isaac returns home and has to face down Esau, we see a contrast between him and his father and grandfather when facing conflict with other powerful men. Where both of his forefathers used their wives as bargaining chips with local kings, offering them without qualms to their rivals, when Jacob goes out to meet Esau, he protects everyone. He appeases Esau with gifts before they arrive, and then divides his family into groups to attempt to keep some of them safe. His divisions clearly and openly show the rank of the women in his family. Least protected are the servant wives and their children who go to meet Esau first, then Leah and her children, and finally Rachel and Joseph.
The meeting goes well, and after reconciliation the brothers live in two different towns. But Jacob is forced to move again after a scandalous and murderous incident with a local tribe over his daughter Dinah. I think we'll talk about this one in separate post. They leave, and return to camp at Bethel, where Jacob has earlier met God. Here Jacob does order his household to get rid of all of their idols, so he must have had some knowledge of the presence of idols in his family after Rachel's theft. Also at Bethel, they hear of the death of Rebekah's old nurse. We learn her name, Deborah, and they name the tree where they bury her "the oak of weeping." She seems to have been much beloved. In contrast, we don't even know exactly when Rebekah dies.
The sisters' lives in hindsight
Jacob's family next moves to Ephrath, or Bethlehem. But on the way, Rachel goes into labor, and winds up being the first recorded woman in the Bible to experience the curse of difficult childbirth to such an extent that it causes her death. The story is very sad. She has intense labor pains and a difficult delivery, and she must have been having a terrible time because her midwife tries to comfort her "Don't be afraid--you have another son!" "With her last breath" she names the baby "son of my sorrow." We have her pain, her fear, and her sorrow, in the last moments of her life all recorded in these sentences. It makes my heart ache.
Jacob does not want to leave the baby with this legacy from his mother in his name, and changes it to "son of my right hand" or Benjamin. They bury Rachel there and leave a stone monument, which "can be seen there to this day." I wonder when it faded out of memory. Wouldn't that be amazing to find??
After Rachel's death, her maidservant Bilhah gets into trouble with Reuben, and in half a verse we are given the report of their affair, with no other commentary. But this sexual sin keeps Reuben from receiving the firstborn's blessing from his father, even though he is the only son of Jacob who will later keep his brothers from murdering Joseph.
We don't hear any more about either Rachel or Leah, except in much counting of their descendants over the next few chapters. Though Leah's death is not recorded, Jacob later tells us that she is buried with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah at Mamre. Though she was less loved by her husband, she was honored to be the mother of the most important tribes of Israel and to be buried with the patriarchs, where Rachel was not.
These chapters are, among other things, a contrast study of the lives of a pretty woman and a plain woman. Beauty, often associated with fertility, turns out not to guarantee it for Rachel, but the favor of God does for Leah. However God does not completely deny Rachel, whose physical condition gives her the advantage in romance and disadvantage in family honor, and he also gives her a son at last. But judging from Rachel's tragic early death, beauty and a romantic spark did not ultimately give her the win in life. I wonder as the years rolled on for Leah how the pain of her rejection by her husband evolved, and whether she achieved peace and happiness in life.
Does either sister really know God? There is little evidence of their interaction. So for this story I think we can gain the most from looking at how God acts toward them. As we often see in the Bible, here God brings about a reversal, where the person you would expect to see in a place of honor: the young, pretty sister, does not receive favor from God as much as the older, less pretty sister.
About beauty itself, I think we see God acknowledging it as an asset for women, though of course he doesn't use it to calculate a woman's value. Instead, he blesses those who suffer for lack of beauty the same way he blesses the poor, who suffer for lack of money. Maybe that's a good analogy for considering beauty. Like money, or any other skill or asset, it's not good or bad in itself, it is just a resource to use for God's purposes, and he takes into account what we have been given and how we use it. Though money and beauty ease life for some, they don't guarantee happiness and can become completely irrelevant to whether we achieve it. But in neither case can they be completely ignored when you consider a person's situation in life. One difference is that money can be more attainable for most, where beauty is not as attainable. This contributes to the power dynamic between men and women where a general human lack of ability to become much more beautiful affects women more than men. But we can take heart that God sees and understands all this, and is good and trustworthy in the midst of it.
- Both Sarah and Rebekah have real influence on the major plotline of the family God chooses to form his people.
- In this story we see the advantage that beauty gives some women in life being acknowledged and mitigated by God's favor.
- Neither Rachel nor Leah is recorded interacting with God. The only references to God in their lives are comments about their prayers when their children are born.
- Why the difference in status for Ishmael compared with Bilhah and Zilpah's sons?
- How do you reckon with the intuitive way people value beauty in women? Not fair, but real. What do we do with it?