FEMME discussion

6 07 2009

This is something i wrote for the women’s group at my church. A little less formal of a writing style on this one. enjoy!

Before you read this, I suggest reading Genesis 29:1-30:24. If you feel ambitious, read the entire “Jacob cycle” (27-35); it’s interesting stuff.
The story of Rachel and Leah is an interesting, and often overlooked, one. The part of their story I want to focus on details the births of the first eleven sons and the one daughter. Many commentators have read this story and celebrate the birth of the tribe’s of Israel. In most Bibles, the caption for this passage is something along the lines of “The Birth of Jacob’s Sons.” While this is true, it immediately puts the reader in a position to read with blinders on, so to speak, ignoring what can be learned from Leah and Rachel. The names they give their children tell the hidden story of the sisters, and it is this story from which I think we can learn.
After the debacle that is the Leah-Jacob-Rachel wedding triangle, the story moves us into the birthing narratives. First to conceive is Leah. This is an interesting twist in the story. As one might guess, motherhood was highly valued in ancient Israel, and a wife that was not bearing children could be reconsidered, to put it delicately. So it is quite interesting that, after we are told that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, Leah is the first to bear children. As the first wife, Leah was chief wife (polygamy was a common practice and seemed to be more concerned with protection and survival than “love” in the way we think of it); as the wife producing children she was the wife with social status. But notice how she names her children:

Reuben: “Because the Lord has seen my affliction, now surely my husband will love me.” Her first son is conceived through God’s direct intervention (this is why you should have your Bible close by…). But Leah assumes God is intervening to bring Jacob closer to her.

Simeon: “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” Her thoughts are still on her unloving husband, not on the work of God in her life.

Levi: “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Levi is the only son she bears whose naming does not acknowledge God at all. For a moment, Leah seems to lose her awareness of God’s work with her attention solely on Jacob’s approval.

Judah: “This time I will praise the Lord.” This naming is, for me, the most interesting. Jacob is not even alluded to. Interestingly, Matthew’s gospel traces the genealogy of Jesus to the tribe of Judah. The one child born in pure praise to God is the ancestor of Jesus. I find this beautiful (albeit a digression on my part).

After this sequence of births, we get a rare glimpse into the domestic life of Rachel and Jacob. Rachel becomes envious of Leah and demands that Jacob give her children lest she die. It is evident by the multiple children borne by Leah that the fertility problem does not lie with Jacob (though even if it did, no one would ever know; women were thought of as “incubators” so any problem with reproduction was because of the incubator, not the seed). Her demand for children is followed by one of the most darkly ironic statements in the Bible: “or I shall die”. Genesis 35:16-18 reports that Rachel died during the birth of her son Benjamin.

Jacob’s response to Rachel is very important. He told her that it is God who has withheld children from her. I think this indicates two things about their relationship: that Jacob longed to give Rachel children and that Jacob trusted in God’s timing (though some have read this as Jacob pushing the “blame” on God). Unfortunately Rachel was too caught up in her competition with Leah to trust God. This is evidenced by the next portion of the text.

Rachel recruits her maid Bilhah to bear children for her (it always amazes me how quickly the Sarah/Hagar story is forgotten). “So that she may bear on my knees” is interesting. Some think it was a sort of adoption ritual. Others, myself included, think it was a kind of fertility wish. The birthing mother would stand while giving birth and the mid-wife would lie on her back with her knees up to catch the child as it was born. It was thought to magically increase fertility in the midwife. Note the children’s names:

Dan: “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son.” Naphtali: “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed.”

Rachel feels in some ways vindicated (by God and in front of Leah) in having these children, but the reality is that Leah still had more kids and they were from her own womb. Regardless of her obvious advantage, Leah is provoked to jealousy. She volunteers Zilpah for childbearing to Jacob. She conceives and names them:

Gad: “Good fortune!” Asher: “Happy am I! For the women will call me happy.”

Note the difference between how Leah names these children and how she names her natural borne children. With the first four sons, Leah recognizes the role of God in the birth though she may be confused as to why God was involved. Here Leah is solely concerned with herself. She has “good fortune” and she will be called happy by the other women.

It is interesting that for Leah(29:31, 30:17) and Rachel(30:22) God opens their wombs so that they can conceive. With Bilhah and Zilpah (the maids) God is not said to open their wombs. The children borne of Bilhah and Zilpah are borne of the works of Rachel and Leah.

The next scene is full of as much manipulation and dehumanizing usage as the scene with Zilpah and Bilhah. Only this time Jacob is the pawn in the sisters’ struggle with one another. Rachel asks Leah for the mandrakes Reuben brought her. This seems innocent enough, but Rachel likely understood mandrakes to be a powerful fertility drug. Leah’s response is bitter and jealous: “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Rachel agrees to let Jacob “lie” with Leah that night in exchange for the mandrakes. When Leah informs Jacob of the agreement, he silently complies.

God again opens Leah’s womb and she conceives two more sons and one more daughter:

Issachar: God has given me my hire, because I gave my maid to my husband.” It is possible that Leah was trying to aggravate Rachel with this. If “bearing on my knees” is a fertility wish, then it did not work for Rachel. Leah was the first to conceive.

Zebulun: “God has endowed me with a good dowry; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.” Notice that she claims to have given Jacob six sons, ignoring the two borne of Zilpah. Leah here refuses responsibility for what she has given another. She has also gone back to square one, hoping Jacob will give her the acknowledgement she deserves for the children she has produced.

After this, Leah gives birth to Dinah, who unfortunately is given no naming speech. This is followed by God opening Rachel’s womb for no apparent reason. We are told that God remembered Rachel and she gave birth to Joseph saying “God has taken away my reproach; may the Lord add to me another son!” Rachel is still unsatisfied with her lot. Bilhah’s children were not enough, and neither is Joseph. She does eventually have another son, and dies in childbirth, naming him Ben-oni (son of my sorrow). Jacob calls him Benjamin.

What can we learn from these two sisters and their struggle with one another? First, I think it is quite obvious that neither celebrates the work of God in their life. They see the birth of their children as a means to an end and not an end in itself. They, being unsatisfied in their situation, refused to enjoy and appreciate the happiness God was giving them. Leah’s constant struggle for the love of Jacob, endlessly threatened her relationship with her sister. Rachel’s incessant need for children, most likely for social gain, threatened her marriage. Both sisters, instead of rejoicing that God had opened their wombs, craved more so that they could attain what they wanted: love and approval from those around them.

This happens in our life as well. We live in a society that judges us on performance, but we fortunately do not serve a God that does so. If we base our judgments of those around us on how well they perform and not on what God says about them, we sin. Those who regarded Leah highly because she bore Jacob many children were wrong to do so. They allowed the societal standards to determine her value. Had Jacob divorced Rachel because of her infertility, he would have been wrong to do so. He would have judged her worth on her function. We cannot allow ourselves to judge another on performance. We must trust what God has said about us and live as though that were the reality. And this is not easy.

We also learn what jealousy can do between two people. We cannot allow ourselves to be envious over what God is doing in another. Leah could not be content that God knew she was unloved and blessed her with many children. Rachel could not accept that the love of Jacob was enough and craved something that was not for her. Their jealousy led them to use their maids as objects to attain more children. They played God and ultimately dehumanized others. I have heard it argued that it was socially acceptable to provide a surrogate in the event of infertility to continue the family lineage (and I am convinced of a few instances where perhaps it is), but in this story I do not believe it is. Jacob has his heir; the lineage is intact. Bilhah and Zilpah are used to gain a want, not a need. They are ignored as soon as their function is performed; Rachel and Leah are still unsatisfied. Attempts to attain what God has for you outside of God’s timing, though seemingly fruitful, are ultimately futile and dissatisfying.

I think we can learn a lot more from these two sisters, but this is a start. Here are some questions to help guide your response:

1. In what ways are you viewing the work of God in your life as a means to an end, and not rejoicing in the work itself?

2. How have you judged those on your life? On performance or on truth? How do you change the tendency toward performance-based judgment?

3. How has jealousy over God’s work in others hindered you from growing into who God would have you to be? How can you rejoice in the growth of others without allowing jealousy to blind you to your own growth?

4. How have you dehumanized and used others (even in socially acceptable ways) to attain what you want?