Distressed Sisters Who “Built the House of Israel”
AS DAWN neared, Leah knew that she would soon be found out. Jacob, in whose arms she lay, was about to discover that she was not Rachel, her younger sister. At her father’s bidding, Leah, likely heavily veiled, had lain down the night before in the bridal bed made for Jacob and Rachel.
Imagine how Jacob must have felt when the morning light revealed the truth! Indignant, he argued with Laban, Leah’s father. Meanwhile, Leah must have pondered her own role in the charade and what its long-term effects might be. The story of Leah and Rachel is an integral part of Bible history. It also offers insight into the wisdom of monogamy and marital fidelity.
A Stranger at the Well
Seven years earlier, Rachel had run to tell her father that she had met a stranger at the well who claimed to be a relative. He turned out to be her cousin Jacob, the son of her father’s sister and a worshipper of Jehovah. A month later, Jacob offered to serve Laban for seven years for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Seeing how well his nephew worked and knowing that it was customary among their people for relatives to wed, Laban accepted the offer.—Genesis 29:1-19.
Jacob’s love for Rachel was no infatuation. Their seven-year engagement “proved to be like some few days because of his love for her.” (Genesis 29:20) That Jacob loved Rachel until she died suggests that she must have had many endearing qualities.
Did Leah too hope to marry a faithful worshipper of Jehovah? The Bible does not say. Laban’s ideas about her marriage are clearer in the record. At the end of Rachel’s engagement, Laban held a wedding feast. But during the evening, says the Bible account, he brought Leah to Jacob “that he might have relations with her.”—Genesis 29:23.
Did Leah conspire to deceive Jacob? Or was she simply obliged to obey her father? And where was Rachel? Did she know what was going on? If so, how did she feel? Could she defy the will of her authoritarian father? The Bible provides no answer to these questions. Whatever Rachel and Leah thought about the matter, afterward the scheme outraged Jacob. And it was with Laban, not his daughters, that Jacob remonstrated: “Was it not for Rachel that I served with you? So why have you tricked me?” Laban’s response? “It is not customary . . . to give the younger woman before the firstborn. Celebrate to the full the week of this woman. After that there shall be given to you also this other woman for the service that you can serve with me for seven years more.” (Genesis 29:25-27) Thus Jacob was maneuvered into a polygamous marriage that was to spawn bitter jealousy.
An Unhappy Family
Jacob loved Rachel. When God saw that in comparison Leah was “hated,” he opened her womb, while Rachel remained barren. But Leah wanted more than a child; she wanted Jacob’s affection. Seeing that affection go to Rachel, she felt wretched. Still, Leah hoped for Jacob’s love on account of her bearing his first son, Reuben, meaning “See, a Son!” Leah had reason for thus naming her child: “It is because Jehovah has looked upon my wretchedness, in that now my husband will begin to love me.” But Jacob did not; nor did he on the birth of another son. Leah called that son Simeon, meaning “Hearing.” She reasoned: “It is because Jehovah has listened, in that I was hated and so he gave me also this one.”—Genesis 29:30-33.
That God listened meant that Leah had prayed about her lot. She was seemingly a faithful woman. Yet, her pain persisted even after she bore a third son, Levi. His name, meaning “Adherence,” or “Joined,” is explained by Leah’s words: “Now this time my husband will join himself to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Evidently, though, Jacob felt no closer to her. Perhaps Leah resigned herself to that fact, for her fourth son’s name contained no reference to her hopes of better relations with Jacob. Instead, the naming of Judah expressed her thankfulness to God. The name “Judah” means “Lauded,” or “Object of Laudation.” Leah simply said: “This time I shall laud Jehovah.”—Genesis 29:34, 35.
If Leah felt wretched, Rachel felt no better. She begged Jacob: “Give me children or otherwise I shall be a dead woman.” (Genesis 30:1) Rachel had Jacob’s love, but she sought motherhood. Leah had children, but she sought love. Each desired what the other had, and neither was happy. Both loved Jacob and wished to bear his children. Each was jealous of the other. What a sad situation for that family!
Children for Rachel?
Back then, infertility was viewed as an affliction. God had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that their family would produce the “seed” by means of whom all families would bless themselves. (Genesis 26:4; 28:14) Yet, Rachel was childless. Jacob reasoned that only God could give Rachel sons, enabling her to contribute to such blessings. Still, Rachel was impatient. “Here is my slave girl Bilhah,” she said. “Have relations with her, that she may give birth upon my knees and that I, even I, may get children from her.”—Genesis 30:2, 3.
Rachel’s attitude might be hard for us to comprehend. However, ancient marriage contracts discovered throughout the Near East indicate that it was an accepted custom for a barren wife to give her husband a servant girl in order to produce an heir.* (Genesis 16:1-3) In some cases, the slave girl’s children would then be regarded as children of the wife.
When Bilhah had a boy, a delighted Rachel proclaimed: “God has acted as my judge and has also listened to my voice, so that he gave me a son.” She called him Dan, meaning “Judge.” She too had prayed about her plight. At the birth of Bilhah’s second son, Naphtali, meaning “My Wrestlings,” Rachel said: “With strenuous wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister. I have also come off winner!” The names point to the strife between the rivals.—Genesis 30:5-8.
Perhaps Rachel thought that she was acting in harmony with her prayers when she gave Bilhah to Jacob, but this was not God’s way of giving her children. There is a lesson in this. We should not grow impatient when we petition Jehovah. He can answer prayers in unexpected ways and when we least expect it.
Not to be outdone, Leah too gave Jacob her maidservant, Zilpah. She produced first Gad, then Asher.—Genesis 30:9-13.
An incident that highlights the rivalry between Rachel and Leah involved some mandrakes found by Leah’s son Reuben. This fruit was thought to aid in conception. When Rachel asked for some, Leah responded bitterly: “Is this a little thing, your having taken my husband, with your now taking also my son’s mandrakes?” Some understand her words to mean that Jacob was with Rachel more often than with Leah. Perhaps Rachel saw the merit of Leah’s grievance, for she answered: “For that reason he is going to lie down with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” So when Jacob got home that evening, Leah informed him: “It is with me you are going to have relations, because I have hired you outright with my son’s mandrakes.”—Genesis 30:15, 16.
The mandrakes did not help. When after six years of marriage Rachel finally did conceive and give birth to Joseph, it was because Jehovah “remembered” her and answered her prayer. Only then could Rachel say: “God has taken away my reproach!”—Genesis 30:22-24.
Death and Heritage
While giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, Rachel died. Jacob truly loved Rachel, and her two sons were dear to him. Years later, as his own death neared, he could not help but recall the untimely loss of his beloved Rachel. (Genesis 30:1; 35:16-19; 48:7) As to Leah’s death, we know nothing except that Jacob buried her in the cave where he too wanted to be buried.—Genesis 49:29-32.
In old age Jacob admitted that his life—including his domestic affairs—had been distressing. (Genesis 47:9) Doubtless, life had been distressing for Leah and Rachel as well. Their experiences highlight the sad consequences of polygamy and illustrate why Jehovah established that a man should have one wife. (Matthew 19:4-8; 1 Timothy 3:2, 12) Jealousy results when the romantic or sexual interests of a husband or a wife are not limited to one person—his or her spouse. That is one reason why God prohibits fornication and adultery.—1 Corinthians 6:18; Hebrews 13:4.
In any case, God continued—and still continues—to carry out his purpose, using imperfect but faithful men and women. The sisters both had weaknesses, as do we. Through these women, however, Jehovah began to fulfill his promise to Abraham. Rightly it is said that Rachel and Leah “built the house of Israel.”—Ruth 4:11.
One such contract from Nuzi, Iraq, reads: “Kelim-ninu has been given in marriage to Shennima. . . . If Kelim-ninu does not bear [children], Kelim-ninu shall acquire a woman [a slave girl] of the land of Lullu as wife for Shennima.”
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Leah and Rachel each desired what the other had, and neither was happy
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From Jacob’s 12 sons came the nation of Israel