Rachel’s world – ten boys, one girl but none of them hers by birth (although the two borne by her maidservant are technically and culturally hers).
She, the beloved wife of Jacob, that he worked many long years for (twice over) has to stand by watching as the sister, who their father infiltrated into Jacob’s life, bears healthy children, but we have seen that Leah feels too the pain of being unloved. Their maidservants also bear healthy sons by Jacob.
No doubt she was busy, with all the necessary household duties, the cooking, preparing of clothes, spinning, weaving. Perhaps sometimes she remembered her pre-marriage occupation of shepherdess. The situation does not bring out her best side. She is envious and jealous of her sister and she addresses Jacob directly “Give me children or I shall die”.
He is not impressed and is angry saying: “Am I in the place of God? It is he who has deprived you of children.”
As an alternative solution, she gives him her maidservant, who bears him two boys. Rachel has the right to name them. Thus:
Dan – “God has done me justice! He has heard my prayer and given me a son.”
Naphtali – “I have had a mighty struggle with my sister and I have won!”
Finally, perhaps after a period of fourteen years or so, during which Leah has borne six boys and one girl and their two maidservants have borne two sons each, the Lord kept Rachel in mind and a baby is expected. She names her son:
Joseph – “The Lord has taken away my disgrace” but she can’t resist adding “May the Lord give me another son.”
All this emotion, jealousy, envy, feeling of disgrace (inadequacy) – what a change from the beautiful young shepherdess. We reflected last time on the fruitful, but unloved wife Leah. We haven’t even reflected on the feelings of the maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah, given as presents to these two sisters, no doubt their constant companions, serving them, expected to obey the commands of their mistresses – even when that includes becoming a concubine to the master of the household. The children they bear are on behalf of their mistresses – so Rachel would consider herself the mother of Dan and Naphtali.
Think about what this period of twenty years has seen – the jealous, competitive sisters, set at odds by the decision of their father, tricking Jacob (he, who obtained his father’s blessing through the dubious tactics of his mother, the sister of Laban). A growing family living all together or nearabouts, with Jacob working for wages for Laban, who at the very least is quite a sharp operator. Jacob and Laban reach an agreement, which ensures that that Jacob becomes rich with a “great number of sheep, maidservants and menservants, and camels and donkeys.” If this was the story of Jacob, we could go into the details of how Jacob built up his flock, ensuring his animals were stronger and Laban’s were weaker. Jacob hears the voice of God telling him to return to his ancestral homeland.
He calls for both his main wives to come out to him in the fields where he works explaining that the way he is treated by their father is not working well for him and that God has a plan for him. Are they willing to leave their father and go with him to his homeland? Despite all the competitive jealousy (perhaps now that she had at least one child, it was fading a bit), they speak as one, voicing their disconnection from their father:
“Have we not been regarded by him as foreigners since he has sold us and well and truly used up our money? Surely all the fortune that God has taken from our father belongs to us and to our children. So do then all that God has told you.”
They are willing to co-operate and have their destiny firmly attached to Jacob and their children. They pack up (secretly). Jacob puts his children and wives on camels and they flee while Laban is away, taking also all the livestock that Jacob has accumulated. What a sight that must have been – children, animals, possessions, camels, packed up tents – leaving behind all that was familiar (for the women) to return to Canaan and Jacob’s father Isaac.
Ten days later Laban catches up with them where they are encamped at Mount Gilead. A confrontation ensues – why did you run away, tricking me, carry my daughters off like prisoners of war. I could have sent you off with music and singing, not to mention kissing my grandchildren and daughters goodbye. He doesn’t seem impressed really, however God has told him not to do any harm to Jacob However there is one thing – why has Jacob stolen Laban’s idols.
Unbeknown to Jacob and Laban – Rachel stole her father’s family idols before they left. No explanation is forthcoming for her action – did she feel that she needed a connection with her father even as she agreed to throw her lot in definitively with Jacob? Did the God of Jacob not quite resonate with Rachel and she wanted the “comfort” of the old, familiar, idols or did she want to wound and hurt her father completely, depriving him of something he really valued, aside from the his daughters whom he casually sold and used as bargaining chips twenty years previously. We are not told and can only speculate. However Jacob is (for once) wholly innocent and promises that whoever stole the idols will not live.
Laban searches the camp, first Jacob’s tent, then Leah’s and then the tent of the two maidservants. Finally Rachel’s. She has a bit of a female moment – seating herself on a handy camel (the idols stashed in the saddlebag) she excuses herself from rising in the presence of her father. He hunts high and low but fails to find the idols.
The two men reach an agreement
Laban: “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, these sheep are my sheep and all that you see are mine. What can I do today about these daughters of mine or their children?…May the Lord watch between me and you when we are no longer in sight of each other. If you harm my daughters or take other wives besides my daughters, even though no man is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.”
He departs next day, kissing his children and grandchildren and blessing them, returning to his home. Leah and Rachel, like their relatives Sarah and Rebekah have left their homeland and all the familiar for the land and God of their husband.
We leave Rachel and her sister Leah, and Jacob and his other two wives and their assorted children – building up a tribe, encamped in the Gilead Hill Country. Next time we will look at the story of Dinah, the only daughter in this family.
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