Isaac sent Jacob to Paddan Aram to marry a woman from among his and Rebekah’s relatives. The first relative that Jacob sees in Paddan Aram is his cousin Rachel at a well where Rachel brought the family’s sheep to be watered (Genesis chapter 29 begins tale of Rachel). Rachel was beautiful and had a lovely figure. Apparently, Jacob fell in love with her the spot because a month later he made a bargain to work for her father (Laban) for seven years in return for obtaining Rachel as his wife. Jacob was probably 20-21 years of age and Rachel in her early teens.
On Jacob and Rachel’s wedding night, Laban lead a veiled woman to Jacob. Not until the next morning does Jacob realize that the veiled woman was not Rachel, but her older sister Leah. Heart sick and angry Jacob confronted Laban and asked how could Laban have deceived him like this? Jacob wanted Rachel for his wife, not Leah. After the bridal week that Jacob spent with Leah, Laban gave Rachel to Jacob for his wife. Jacob worked for Laban another seven years to pay Laban for Rachel; however, she became Jacob’s wife immediately.
In a 2-3 week period Jacob married two women. The Bible does not say that Rachel and Jacob had a week-long festival to celebrate their marriage. If they did, it may have seemed a bit anticlimactic to Rachel or any young woman who dreamed of a wedding day and festival. Why would Rachel be party to her father’s deception of Jacob? One answer is that she had no choice. Rachel lived in a male-dominated society where a father ruled the family. A father’s responsibility was to find husband’s for his daughters. For Laban this meant finding a husband for Leah as well as Jacob.
Jewish rabbi’s propose that Rachel agreed to Leah’s marriage to Jacob because she loved Leah. She saw that Leah was not attractive and feared that Leah would have no opportunity to marry. Perhaps, Rachel was so sure of the depth of Jacob’s love that she expected he would find a way to marry her. Clearly, Jacob was not happy by the trick pulled on him and being Jacob, he showed his unhappiness in his preference for Rachel over Leah.
As the years of marriage passed, Rachel did not conceive despite Jacob spending his nights with her. She became increasingly frustrated over her barrenness. At one point, she told Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” (Genesis 30:1 NIV). Her words sounded accusatory and perhaps they were because Jacob became angry with her. He responded, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?” (Genesis 30:2 NIV). Readers cannot help contrasting Jacob’s response to Rachel with that of his father’s response to Rebekah’s barrenness. Isaac’s response was to take the problem to God. The result was that Rebekah conceived Esau and Jacob. Despite God speaking to Jacob at Bethel, Jacob did not turn to God for assistance with Rachel’s barrenness.
An incident with the mandrake plant showed the extent of Rachel’s desperation over not having children. This story begins with Leah’s oldest son, Reuben, finding mandrake plants in the field and bringing mandrake roots to Leah. Rachel saw the plants and asked Leah for them. Resentful of Jacob’s preference for Rachel, Leah asked Rachel, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?” (Genesis 30:15). Rachel responded by proposing a trade – Jacob can sleep with Leah that night in return for the mandrakes. Leah agreed. When Jacob came in from the fields, he was met by Leah who said, “You must sleep with me. I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” As a result of the night that Jacob spent with Leah, she became pregnant with Jacob’s fifth son. Rachel did not become pregnant as a result of acquiring – and most likely using – the mandrakes from Leah.
Eventually, Rachel had a son. Although extremely brief, the Bible record begins by say that God remembered Rachel, he listened to her, and enabled Rachel to conceive. Clearly, God kept Rachel from conceiving. Importantly, at some point Rachel stopped trying to manipulate a pregnancy with superstitions, e.g., mandrakes. She started to pray to God about her barrenness and God answered her. She named her son Joseph, the same Joseph who became a ruler in Egypt and saved father and brothers from the famine that afflicted many of the middle-eastern countries.
Soon after Joseph was born, Jacob determined to leave Laban and Paddan Aram; but first he consulted his wives. Rachel agreed that Jacob and the family should leave. Before the family left Laban’s camp, Rachel stole Laban’s household gods. Generally, household gods were small figurines that resembled gods. Idol worshippers believed that the actual gods lived in the figurines. At this time most Mesopotamian homes had household gods. It is hard to surmise why Rachel stole Laban’s household gods. One easy explanation was that Rachel continued to be annoyed that Laban caused Jacob to marry Leah, a rival that gave Jacob six sons. Another reason could be that Rachel thought that the gods would bring her good fortune and in some way cause her father to have ill fortune. If this was the reason for her theft, then she still did not fully adhere to God being the one and only God. Finally, Rachel may have seen that the household gods were crafted of precious metals. She wanted the gods for their monetary value.
While Laban was away from the camp shearing sheep, Jacob and his family left with all of his belongs including livestock. Laban heard about Jacob’s departure and found that his household gods were gone. Promptly he pursued Jacob and caught up with him in Gilead, east of the Jordan River. Now it was Laban who accused of Jacob of deceiving him by leaving with his daughters and grandchildren while Laban was away from the camp. Further, Laban asked Jacob why he stole Laban’s household gods. Jacob did not have a clue about Laban’s household gods being in his baggage. Rachel never told her husband she stole her father’s gods. If Jacob knew Rachel’s theft he would have never utter his next words, “if you find anyone who has your gods, that person will not live” (Genesis 31:31 NIV). Then he gave Laban permission to search through all the belongings of Jacob’s family. And search Laban did!
When Laban came to Rachel’s tent, she was seated on her camel’s saddle. Laban’s household gods were inside the saddle. Rachel called her father, “my lord” and begged his pardon for not rising because she was having her period. Although Laban searched other parts of Rachel’s tent and all the tents belonging to Jacob, Laban could not find his gods because Rachel was seated upon them.
Over the next four chapters (32-34) in Genesis, there is little information about Rachel’s Jacob or the family. We never learn when and what was Jacob’s response to learning that Rachel stole Laban’s gods; however, Jacob’s curse on whom ever stole the gods may have played a part in Rachel’s early death. Rachel became pregnant a second time, but had a difficult childbirth. Although Rachel lived long enough to name her son Ben-Oni (son of my trouble) she died almost immediately after the birth. Perhaps, not wanting one of his sons to carry the weight of such a name, Jacob changed the son’s name to Benjamin which means son of my right hand.
Rachel was buried near what is now Bethlehem. Jacob set a pillar up over the tomb as a memorial to her. Estimating Rachel’s age at death is difficult; likely she was in her mid-thirties. Although the Bible does not say directly, likely Jacob deeply mourned her death. Interestingly, the Bible recorded no other children born to Jacob after Rachel’s death in childbirth.
Copyright: April 25, 2016; Carolyn A. Roth