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?


III: Leah and Rachel

19 03 2009

1. Introduction

2. The Backdrop

3. Leah’s first four naming speeches

“Now the Lord saw that Leah was unloved” (sane’).  This word is used only seven times in Genesis.  Twice it is used in the Rebekah/Isaac narrative, twice referring to Leah, and three times referring to Joseph.  Based on the uses within the Joseph/brothers story[1], I suggest that the term does not necessarily mean rejected or unloved, though that may be part of it.   

In the Joseph narrative, the brothers “hate” Joseph.  He is arrogant and acting as if he were the oldest of the sons.  They first hate him when they see that Jacob loves him more (37:4), they hate him more when Joseph tells the brothers his dream (37:5), and they hate him even more when they realize that the dream means Joseph will have dominion over them (37:8). 

Within this context, at least, this word seems to mean more than an emotional response, though not completely separate from it.  Joseph is hated because he is a younger son acting as if he is the eldest.  He’s operating in a position that, at least in his brothers’ minds, does not belong to him. 

Taking this into consideration, the problem in the Leah/Jacob union is not Leah.  The problem is that Leah is not Rachel.  The problem, then, lies truly in Jacob.  Leah is the first wife, the chief wife.  She is also the wife that is producing offspring.  Jacob worked fourteen years for Rachel.  Rachel is the woman he wanted from the moment they met.  Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah.  It comes as no surprise that Jacob despises Leah since she is in the position Jacob wishes for Rachel. 

Whatever this meant for the couple sexually is unclear.  What the text does reveal about their marital relationship is two-fold. First, she bore him six children, presumably within the (second set of) seven years he was working for Laban to “earn” Rachel.  This indicates the fertility of Leah.  Secondly, Leah did not have the same control of Jacob’s sexual activity as Rachel did.  This is indicated in 30:15 when Rachel gives Leah permission to lie with Jacob (to which I will return). 

In Leviticus 12, the days of ritual uncleanness after the birth of a child are laid out for women based on the sex of the child.  It is unlikely that Jacob and the women would have practiced such strict guidelines, as this story is set in a time prior to the giving of the law.  Regardless, of the amount of time spent after the birth of one child and the conception of the next, it is evident that Leah spent very little of her first years of marriage without being pregnant (she had seven children in seven years!).  Leah’s perpetual pregnancies may be the cause of minimal sexual activity between the couple.  Genesis 30:9 says that “Leah saw that she stopped bearing,” but the text gives no indication that it is due to a sexual abstinence with Jacob.  What the text does indicate is that, regardless how many children Leah were to bear for Jacob, he would never satisfy Leah’s desire for him.  This is evident in the speeches that accompany the naming of her children.

There could be several reasons why Jacob did not rid himself of Leah.  Perhaps he was afraid of what Laban might do if he divorced her.  Perhaps he felt an obligation toward his kinswoman that would not allow him to forsake her completely.  Or perhaps he realized that she was the wife that would provide the children to carry on his lineage.  The text does not indicate any reason why Jacob did not divorce Leah.  In his setting, there was no Torah to define his actions.  There was something that kept Jacob bound to Leah, but whatever that something is, the author either takes it for granted or finds it to be of little import for the purpose of this narrative.


Leah is the first to become pregnant, and the narrative sets Leah’s fertility and rejection by Jacob in contrast with Rachel’s barrenness and favor.  “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (29:31).  Leah bears four children consecutively in 29:31-35.  The first three naming speeches are all linked to her relationship with Jacob, and three of the four are connected to her belief in God. 

“Leah conceived and bore a son, and she named him Reuben; for she said, ‘because the Lord has looked on my affliction; surely now my husband will love me'” (29:32).  Reuben is her first-born.  His name literally means “see, a son.”  Her speech is two-fold.  She first acknowledges the favor that God has shown her.  God has indeed seen her affliction and allowed her to bring forth a son (see 29:31).  She concludes that since she has given Jacob his firstborn son, “surely now my husband will love me.”  The narrator quickly moves on to the conception and birth of Leah’s next son, which, though not explicitly stating it, assumes the paternal role of Jacob.[2]

“She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also’; and she named him Simeon” (29:33). Leah’s naming of her and Jacob’s second son indicates that the birth of Reuben did not solve her problem as she thought it would.  “The name Simeon is associated with the term sm’, literally, ‘he who hears.’[3]”  Leah believes that God has heard that she is unloved, and has therefore given her Simeon also.  She does not mention Jacob in this speech, but he may be understood as the one that hates her.  Perhaps she views Simeon as a means of making up for the fact that she is hated, or as a means (as she hoped with Reuben) of gaining Jacob’s love.  The text is ambiguous at best.  Regardless of the way Leah interpreted the birth of Simeon, it was not enough to satisfy her longing for her husband, as is evident with the birth of her third child.

“Again she conceived and bore a son, and said ‘Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons’; therefore he was named Levi” (29:34). For the first time, Leah recognizes Jacob as a father.   She does not mention God in this speech, and it is the only one of her naming speeches for her own sons that does not.  Levi’s name is connected with the word yillaweh, which literally means “he will be joined[4].”  Leah is still not satisfied with her lot.  She has three children and boys at that, giving her a place in her society, but she does not have her husband’s love.

“She conceived again and bore a son, and said, ‘This time I will praise the Lord’; therefore she named him Judah; then she ceased bearing” (29:35).  With the birth of her fourth child, Leah’s attitude seems to shift.  Her first three sons encouraged her hope that Jacob would love her, but there is no mention of her relationship with Jacob in this speech.  Leah simply says, “This time I will praise the Lord.”  Judah’s name has an “association with the term ‘odeh, literally ‘I will praise.’[5]”  There is no clear reason why she changes with the birth of Judah.  Perhaps she recognized that, despite being rejected by her husband, she was favored by God.  Or she may have, only momentarily, felt as though Jacob’s attitude toward her had changed.  Or she may have been grateful simply for having another son.  Whatever her reasoning, Leah is resolved, if not content, to praise God.  Rachel is another story.

[1] I will use this text as it deals with family relationships and not that of nations as in 24:60 with Rebekah.

[2] Joan Ross-Burstall. “Leah and Rachel: A Tale of Two Sisters,” Word and World Vol 14, no 2 (1994). pg. 169

[3] ibid., pg. 170

[4]Ibid., pg. 170

[5] Ibid., pg. 170

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