Genesis 30: Rachel Has a Beloved Son

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Throughout Leah’s childbearing, Rachel has been silent. She may be the one Jacob loves; she may be the one he is laboring for, but her heart is empty. She envies her sister’s ability to have children, because she has not been able to conceive. Bearing children was highly regarded in those days; it was a sign of God’s favor. Her barrenness cannot be attributed to Jacob for he has already fathered four sons. The problem is hers, and her suffering is so great that she feels she will die if she does not have a child. She says to Jacob, “Give me children, or I will die.” It is a desperate request, borne out of the deepest frustrations of watching her sister bear one son after another. Rachel is often regarded as a pampered, spoiled wife by commentators. Few take seriously the emptiness or nothingness that defines childlessness. An ancient saying put it succinctly, “One who has no children is accounted as dead.” Rachel has responded emotionally, deeply to this void. Obviously Rachel thinks Jacob can do something. Perhaps she expects him to pray for her. If he has been praying, perhaps he can pray a harder. After all, did not Isaac implore God to open Rebekah’s womb? What is Jacob doing for her?

Jacob’s response is strangely harsh. Genesis 30:2 reads: “Jacob becomes angry with her and says, ‘Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?’ ” It’s certainly not his fault that she is unable to bear children. But perhaps his words go a bit deeper than that. Let’s not forget that Jacob loves Rachel. Might his response be the lament of a man who wants his wife to be satisfied, happy with him – with or without children? She has invested everything in becoming a mother; he is happy with her as his wife. His love for her is unconditional. It transcends the traditional roles of womanhood.

Rachel, however, will not be consoled. She offers her maid, Bilhah, “That I may be built up through her.” The phrase, “let her give birth upon my knees,” refers to adoption, whereby Rachel will adopt this child as her own. Jacob is silent and “consorts with Bilhah.” She immediately conceives. Her son is born, and Rachel names him Dan, stemming from the verb, “he judged, or vindicated.” Both fit the occasion. It’s as though Rachel believes she has been judged and found guilty, resulting in barrenness. Now, however, God has heard her cry and has responded, thereby vindicating her. She has been given justice; she is no longer hopeless or helpless. Some scholars have stated that Rachel is being willful in using her maid to get what she so desperately wants. This is borne out even further by her naming of Bilhah’s second son. This time she chooses the name, Naphtali, which brings the struggle with her sister out into the open. This name is connected with the verb meaning, “my wrestling.” Some scholars describe this as a catty triumph over Leah suggesting that Rachel sees herself locked in a mighty struggle for sons, and now she has prevailed. She is triumphant. Not only is she the beloved wife, but now she is also the beloved mother of two sons!

However, the Hebrew words say “with wrestling of elohim.” Usually Elohim is translated “God.” In this case, translators use it to say “mighty” or “great,” meaning Rachel is having a mighty wrestling with her sister. The possibility exists, however, that Rachel’s struggle with her sister really reflects her struggle with God. Rachel believes that God has closed her womb and opened Leah’s. She relies fully on God’s purview to open her womb. Her struggle, then, has been to win God’s favor. In this, she has prevailed.

After realizing that she is no longer bearing children, Leah takes her cue from Rachel and also gives her maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob. Obviously her motives are not the same as Rachel’s, since she already has four sons by Jacob. But she, too, might be locked into measuring her worth as a woman by her ability to have children. Her maid quickly bears Jacob two sons. The first Leah names Gad, meaning “good fortune.” She mentions neither Jacob nor God in the naming of this child, but recognizes her good fortune, how lucky she has been. The second son is named Asher, meaning “happy one.” Interestingly, she states the women will recognize how happy she is. Again, there is no mention of Jacob or God, but she will enjoy greater esteem among women.

Up until this point, the text has been rather subtle. We’ve known the sisters through the naming of their children, speculating about their hopes and dreams. Now, however, they speak to each other, and we see firsthand the pain they both carry. One fine day, Leah’s firstborn, Reuben, finds mandrakes in the harvest field. A mandrake was a plant with large, broad leaves that fanned out from the root. In the midst of the leaves were little yellow and purple flowers. It was called the “love apple,” and it was believed to be useful in helping women to become pregnant. After seeing the mandrakes, Rachel begs Leah for some of “your son’s mandrakes.” No doubt, Rachel believes these will help her have a child.

Even though Rachel is very polite to Leah (saying “please”), Leah bursts forth, saying, “Wasn’t it enough that you took my husband, do you have to take my son’s mandrakes too?” Leah’s retort is formulated in such a way as to expect a negative answer. Interestingly, both women refer to them as Reuben’s mandrakes. It reveals the tension between them. They cannot deal openly with the issues that separate them. They each have what the other desperately desires. Rachel wishes to have a child; Leah wishes to be loved by her husband.

In truth, we will never know the tone of voice that Rachel and Leah use to speak to each other in the mandrake incident. It’s easy to speculate that Leah is deeply angry, that years of neglect have sharpened her tongue. Then again, maybe she’s teasing, reminding her sister in a less hostile fashion. Regardless of the duplicity of the last minute substitution on her wedding night, she is the first wife. Jacob has not divorced her. As first wife, she has certain rights and privileges, although scholars uniformly feel that Jacob’s primary residence is with Rachel.

Rachel says nothing. Is it because she knows how hard it has been for Leah? Or does she really want those mandrakes? She offers her sister a deal. In exchange for some of the mandrakes, she will allow Jacob to “lie with her.” This, of course, is what Leah wants, and she accepts the offer. She goes out to meet him as he is coming in from the fields. She simply informs him that he must sleep with her, because she has “hired” him for the evening. Again, we would give anything to know the tone with which these words are spoken. Jacob has no comment. The text merely says, “And he did.”

That life is still difficult for Leah can be inferred from the next verse which states that God hearkens to Leah and she bears a fifth son. As before, she names her son, calling him “Issachar,” meaning either “my reward” or “my hire.” Perhaps it is an indication to God that she’s been selfless in “sharing” Jacob. She feels that she has been rewarded for her good deed. Shortly thereafter, she bears another son; this is son number six! She names him, Zebulun, saying, “God has bestowed a great gift upon me.” In her exultation she declares that now Jacob will make a permanent home with her because she has given him six sons. Another meaning for the name, Zebulum, is “honor or exalt me.” It appears to have a double meaning: God has given her a great gift; now her husband will exalt her. Whether or not this happens is not stated. However, this child will always be a reminder of divine justice. Then it states that she bore a daughter and named her, Dinah.

Some have speculated that because it doesn’t say she conceived and bore Dinah, that Dinah and Zebulum are twins. But there is no mention of the word “twin” in the text, which would be unusual since Jacob is a twin. This is the only daughter among Jacob’s wives and handmaidens. Imagine having twelve brothers and four mothers! This is also the only time that Leah does not offer an explanation for the child’s name. Dinah’s birth, however, brings Leah’s children to the number seven, a number that typically signifies completion.

Remember the mandrake incident? Rachel has taken them hoping to become pregnant. She trades Jacob for the opportunity to at least try one more thing. But it is Leah who has borne three more children, and nothing has been said about Rachel. It is hard not to imagine Rachel agonizing mightily over this turn of affairs.

Finally, after the birth of Dinah, it says, “then God remembered Rachel.” It surely doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about her until that moment. It means that God comes to her aid; he listens to her; he hearkens to her. No doubt she, too, has had a lot to say. But it has been at least three years since the mandrake episode; clearly, the narrator wants us to know that Joseph is conceived because God has heard Rachel and not as a result of clever physical means. And now, finally, after Jacob already has ten sons and one daughter, Rachel bears a son. Surprisingly, the notation is brief. It simply says, “She called his name Joseph.” This name also has a double significance. The first is an expression of joy. God has taken away her reproach, her shame. All the years of unfruitfulness have been rectified. And the second expresses her hope for more to follow. If God has given her one son, surely there will be more. She is hopeful about the future. Her prayers give the glory to God – and there is no mention of the mandrakes.