II: Leah and Rachel

20 02 2009

I. Intro to naming speeches

II. The backdrop

How the narrative leads us to the naming speeches or When Jacob met Rachel

Jacob has just left his home with his father Isaac’s charge to find a wife among Laban’s daughters (28:1-2).  Isaac also wishes the blessing of God to be upon Jacob by causing him to be fruitful and to multiply (28:3).  On his way Jacob has a dream in which God tells him that his descendants will be “as the dust of the earth” (28:10-22).  From early in the narrative, we see that God is in control of the progeny of Jacob, and only God knows how great that progeny is.

We are first introduced to Rachel at the well where her father Laban, Jacob’s maternal uncle, watered his flock.  Rachel is a shepherdess bringing her father’s flocks to the well (29:9).  This leads to the dramatic scene in which Jacob rolls the large stone away from the well by himself, kisses Rachel, and weeps.  Later, Jacob meets Laban and agrees to work for him for seven years so that the younger daughter, Rachel, might be his wife.  We are briefly introduced to Leah and told that she was the older of the two daughters and that she had “weak eyes”[1] (29:17[2]).  This is contrasted by the description of Rachel as being beautiful of form and face.  Rachel is the focus of Jacob’s affection; Leah (and Laban) is the foil to his love story.

            After seven years, Jacob has earned the right to marry Laban’s daughter.  He anticipates Rachel, but on the wedding night, Laban substitutes Leah.  Jacob awakens the next morning to quite the wedding gift: “So it came about in the morning that, behold, it was Leah!” (29:25). Angry, he confronts Laban who tells him it is customary to marry the older before the younger.  Jacob agrees to work seven more years for Rachel.  This portion of the narrative ends by telling the audience that Jacob loved Rachel more than he loved Leah (29:30).  Yet, despite his greater love toward Rachel, it is Leah who is carrying Jacob’s first child.


It’s a Boy!  The Significance of Male Children in the Ancient Israelite context

Before learning of Leah’s conception, the reader is told that God saw that Leah was unloved (some translations such as the KJV use hated) and opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.  “The author juxtaposes the action and attitude of Jacob toward Rachel with those of God toward Leah.”[3]  Before both sections of Leah’s birth speeches, we are told that God is responsible for her fertility; God “opened her womb” (29:31) and “gave heed” to her (30:17).  Before the birth of Joseph, after Jacob has ten sons and one daughter, God finally remembered Rachel and “opened her womb” (30:22). 

The society in which Leah and Rachel lived is a far cry from the technologically advanced culture of American life.  Planned parent-hood and pre-natal care were not options.  The goal in the agrarian society was to have as many children as possible, and pray that they were male.  Children were needed in the daily operations of performing the household duties.  “In her kind of society an individual has no power unless he/she is protected by the family.  Therefore family continuity is a supreme value that ought to override matters of personal happiness and fulfillment.”[4]  The importance of boys comes from the fact that the ancient Israelite society was patriarchal.  Lineage was traced through the male, and with no sons, a man’s lineage ended.

“‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (1:28) is the first command of God in the Book of Genesis, and fertility is always associated with blessing throughout the Hebrew Bible.  In a society where population growth was desirable and equated with political strength, and where infant mortality was high, neither men nor women believed that no wanting children was acceptable.  The stories of the matriarchs reveal the patriarchal goal of having sons to add to a man’s prestige and material well-being.  However, they also present the prominent theological perspective that the God who calls Abraham out of Ur keeps the promise of descendants and is a powerful God of fertility.” [5]

As the text establishes so many times, God is in control of fertility of the women and the lineage of Jacob.  Neither Jacob’s denial of love to Leah nor his favor of Rachel have any bearing on what God intends for this family.  Tune in next time for a discussion of Leah’s first four naming speeches!


[1] It should be acknowledged that scholars disagree concerning this phrases meaning.  The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NRSV) translates it as “lovely” with a note that the meaning of the Hebrew is uncertain.  Footnote 29:17 reads, “The Hebrew adjective rakkot, used to describe Leah’s eyes, can mean either ‘delicate’ or ‘weak,’ and thus it may be either positive or negative.” Hiebert, Theodore, “Genesis” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.  (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2003).   The Jewish Study Bible translates it as “weak eyes” offering no explanation for their choice in translation.  I am intentionally using the “weak” translation as it differentiates physically between the sisters giving Jacob room to be physically drawn to one and not the other.  Perhaps I am wrong.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all references will be from the book of Genesis as translated in the New American Standard Bible.

[3] Ross-Burstall, Joan.  “Leah and Rachel: A Tale of Two Sisters.”  Word and World Vol. 14 Number 2 (1994). pg. 165.

[4] Brenner, Athalya.  The Israelite Woman: Social Role and Literary Type in Biblical Narrative.  Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1985. pg. 93

[5] Jeansonne, Sharon Pace.  The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.


Leah and Rachel pt. I

6 02 2009

The women’s group at my church, FEMME, has decided to study and discuss women in our history (Scriptural and non-scriptural). I have decided to start with Rachel and Leah. I’d start with Eve or Sarai/Sarah but they are very controversial…I don’t think that’s the best starting point for me. I wrote a paper on them my first semester in Grad School that my professor quite enjoyed. I also enjoyed what I discovered about their story. I focused on the birth narratives of their sons, taking a literary approach (“What does the text say”). What I learned in my research is that the way they name their children mirrors the way they related to one another and to Jacob, their shared husband, and  Yahweh.

For now I will deal with the significance of the mothers’ naming their children, and, more than that, getting to explain why they named them what they did!

If you read through the book of Genesis closely, you will notice that only four women get to name their children. Two of those women are Eve (4:1 “I have gotten a man-child with the help of the Lord” thus naming Cain) and Tamar (38:29 “What a breach you have made for yourself!” thus naming Perez); the other two are, of course, Leah and Rachel. An interesting side note, Tamar had twins, yet only has a voice in naming one. There are several names in Genesis: Cain, Abel, Seth, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and lists upon lists of genealogies. But here in Genesis 29-30, two mothers have their voice in naming all twelve of their sons.

In much of the reading I did (outside the feminist perspective or very observant readers otherwise), I noticed that this portion was referred to commonly as the genealogy of Jacob’s sons. Yet Jacob is a secondary character at best, and, as we shall see in later blogs, a tool in the story more than anything else. This story is about Leah and Rachel, not Jacob, not the sons. As such, I believe it has much to say about the way women treat one another (and men). Eventually I will take on the application aspect of this piece, but for now you will have to be content on the doing some reading through the passage in an attempt to hear what it has to say to us.  

Finally, I wanted to include a rough outline of how I intend to work through this passage.  I reserve the right to scrap it and start over if I need to.

I. Intro to naming speeches

II. The backdrop/Leah’s first four naming speeches

III.  Rachel’s quarrel with Jacob/ Baby mamas.

IV. Love potions and Leah’s final 3 children

V. Rachel’s firstborn

VI. Application