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Jochabed – the mother whose cleverness preserved her baby’s life

Jochabed belonged to the tribe of Levi, one of the sons of Jacob and Leah.  She was married to Amram, who was a grandson of Levi, via his son Kohath.  We are told in Exodus 6v20 that she was the sister of Amram’s father, which would make him her nephew. It doesn’t seem right to our modern sensibilities for marriage between such close relatives, but this is also the time of the Pharaohs who intermarried rather a lot.  For example, Tutankhamun married his half-sister Ankhesenamun perhaps in about 1332 BC.  According to Rabbinical Judaism, Moses might have been born about 1391 BC.

Jochabed, then, belonged to one of the tribes of Israel. She was a Jewish woman belonging to the people who worshipped the One God, whilst living in Egypt, under the rule of the Pharoahs.  As we read last time, (see Shiprah and Puah), Pharoah was not impressed by the increasing Jewish population and kept trying to think of ways to reduce them.  His attempt at ordering the killing of baby boys at birth was thwarted by the brave midwives, so he ordered that new born Israelite baby boys should be thrown in the River Nile.

That is the background then to the story of Jochabed.  The account in Exodus focuses on that family when she gave birth to her third child, having already a boy Aaron and a girl Miriam. For three months their beautiful baby boy was kept hidden.  This must have been a nerve-racking time for the family, but eventually she decided to do something.  Perhaps his older sister, aged eight or so was keen to be involved in the plan that the mother thought up.  Jochabed “made a basket out of papyrus leaves and coated it with bitumen and pitch.”

The basket was then concealed in the reeds at the edge of the river Nile and his sister kept watch to see what would happen.   What happened was that the daughter of Pharaoh and her attendants came to bathe.  Pharoah’s daughter (another nameless woman in the Bible), saw the basket and sent her attendants to bring her the basket.  When she opened it, she found a crying, but clearly Hebrew boy and she felt sorry for him.  At that point Miriam popped out of her hiding place and offered to go and find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby.

Let us consider then what all this might tell us – Jochebed and family lived near the River Nile.  She must have known, I think, that she was leaving her precious baby somewhere where there was a good chance that he would be found.  She must have observed that the spot where she chose to leave the baby was near a place where Pharaoh’s daughter and perhaps other highborn Egyptian ladies regularly bathed.  She then relied on the inquisitiveness and compassion of the woman who would find the baby to rescue her baby. Finally she set her daughter, a willing accomplice, presumably, to keep watch. 

She and her daughter must have thought about what would happen if the baby was found because the first thing Miriam suggests is perhaps she can find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby and then runs home and fetches her mother, thus ensuring that the baby’s formative years would be under the care of his mother. 

What a clever and sensible plan under the circumstances!

Solomon, Simeon, 1840-1905. Mother of Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57539 

Miriam went home and fetched her mother and brought her to Pharaoh’s daughter – an inference that this was a random Hebrew woman who Miriam found to wet-nurse the infant.  Knowledge would have been dangerous perhaps.  Pharaoh’s daughter paid Jochabed to nurse the baby until he was weaned (or thereabouts).  Then he was brought back to Pharoah’s daughter, who adopted him as her son and named him Moses “for I have drawn him out of the water.”

In a time of difficulty for the Jewish people, slaves in Egypt, this was a very successful outcome – not least because the baby grew to manhood and became the great leader of his people.  The co-operation (knowing or unknowing) of the women around him in his infancy ensured this.  We don’t hear Jochabed or Miriam speak but even so we sense the unrecorded words that were spoken between them which ultimately ensured the safety of their beautiful boy seemingly sent off unprotected in his “Moses” basket into the Nile.

Title: Finding of Moses
[Click for larger image view]
Tintoretto, 1518-1594. Finding of Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=49579 [retrieved April 7, 2021]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.
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Shiprah and Puah – the courageous midwives.

Exodus takes up the story of the descendants of Jacob, who are now living in Egypt.  The descendants of the family invited by the Pharoah grateful to Joseph, are now numerous and the Pharoah now ruling has no memory of Joseph.  As their numbers have increased, toleration has decreased and so they are now living under a hostile regime being made to work as slaves.

“In all their work the Egyptians treated them harshly”. 

In order to re-balance this perceived problem, Pharoah ordered that the Hebrew midwives should kill all their new born boys, but could allow girls to live.

Shiprah and Puah, two God-fearing Hebrew midwives, did not obey the earthly commands of Pharoah and let the boys live.  Pharoah, noticing that there were plenty of Hebrew boys, called them before him to explain themselves.

Well said these two rather clever women – Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. 

“They are vigorous and give birth even before a midwife arrives.”

No-one of course records if this assertion was true and indeed if Pharoah believed them.  However, he realised that these two good women would stand firm and so he made another order that all baby boys born to the Hebrews should be thrown in the Nile, although girls’ could be allowed to live.

Shiprah and Puah – just a glimpse of two women working under difficult circumstances and reconciling following the precepts of God and the commands of their earthly rulers.  We are told that:

“God blessed the midwives, and the people increased…because the midwives feared God, he made them mothers of families.”

Next time, we will look at one mother who ensured that her baby survived the cruel command of Pharoah.

Shiphrah, Puah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55961 [retrieved April 2, 2021].
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Asenath – wife of Joseph

Most of the women, featured so far have had quite a bit (comparatively) written about them.  About Joseph’s wife Asenath however, we know hardly anything, although we are at least told her name.  It is safe to say that in the ongoing story of God’s people, her own role is not noted as particularly significant.

Joseph, the son of Rachel and Jacob, had arrived in Egypt as a slave, sold by his jealous brothers.  He eventually rose to become the Steward of Potiphar’s Household, an indication of how hard he worked and how trusted he was, although still a slave.  Unfortunately things went a bit wrong and he ended up in jail after refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife.  After he began interpreting dreams and then enabling Egypt to withstand a famine, he rose high in the employ of and esteem of Pharoah.

One reward was that Pharoah found him a wife – Genesis 41v45 records:

“Pharoah gave him in marriage Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On.”

This was very clearly an Egyptian wife who didn’t at the time of her marriage to Joseph worship the One God.  In fact she was the daughter of a Priest of On, otherwise known as Heliopolis and centre of the cult of the worship of the Egyptian sun-god Ra.

Asenath’s feelings in being married to a foreigner who didn’t follow the customs of her people are not recorded. We can note that Joseph was thirty, that he was efficient in the service of Pharaoh and that he was presumably not unattractive as Potiphar’s wife had already expressed an interest in him. 

The similarity of the name of Joseph’s father-in-law Potiphera and Potiphar – his erstwhile owner/employer seems to have suggested to some that they are the same person, but there is no evidence that they are and it would seem unlikely – not to say messy.  There are a couple of traditions found outside the Bible. One suggests that perhaps Asenath, was in fact the daughter of Dinah, abandoned and brought up by Potiphera (thus meaning that she had a common heritage with Joseph). It is perhaps a desire for tidiness in stories that has helped with this suggestion.  Similarly there are suggestions in legends that she “converted” to Judaism.  Again, there is no evidence to corroborate this.

We are back then to what we do know from Genesis.  They married and they had two children.  Joseph named them:

Manasseh – “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s household”

Ephraim – “God has made me fruitful with children in the land of my sorrow.”

In the context of the narrative in Genesis 41, this seemed to be within the period of seven years of plenty, before the rest of Joseph’s family came to Egypt.

With the lack of information, it is not possible to know much more.  However, it is worthy of note that Joseph’s children by Asenath were blessed by Jacob as he was dying and they are thus named amongst the founders of the tribes of Israel.  Clearly, their mixed heritage did not preclude them from their place in the lists of descendants of Jacob.

As Jacob is dying he reminds Joseph that his burial place should be the cave in Canaan, which Abraham bought:

Genesis 49v31: “It was there that Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried.  There they buried Isaac and Rebekah and there too I buried Leah.” 

Sadly, Jacob’s beloved Rachel was not buried in the ancestral cave, as she died when they family were travelling and so was buried at a place on the way to Bethlehem.

Thus concludes Genesis and we have neatly recorded the burial places of  many of the women whose adventures we have narrated so far.

Next time we will begin following the stories of women, glimpsed in Exodus. We will thus be taken onto the next phase of the story of the Jewish people, who having settled in Egypt, are by the time of Exodus living under a hostile regime.

Pharoah gave Asenath to Joseph as his wife. Image copyright http://www.freebibleimages.org

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Joseph – son of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel

The story of Joseph is important in Genesis and is well-known in popular culture today, largely due to the musical “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat”.  His appearance in this blog “Women of the Bible” is to provide the context for how the descendants of Sarah and Abraham, who first see the working out of God’s covenant, and are a nomadic people become a settled people living under oppression in Egypt prior to their liberation by God and journey to the Promised Land (Exodus).

A tenuous link would be to say that to see the character of the mother, look at her children.  Leah’s children are not recorded in a way that shows their obedience to God’s law. Joseph, one of the two sons of Rachel, is portrayed very favourably.  He is obedient to the God of his ancestors, even when sold into slavery and living in a strange land.  He does not succumb to temptation when Potiphar’s wife tries to lead him astray.  He uses his gift of dreams in a positive way and famine is averted for  Egypt.

His brothers visit Egypt, in desperation, during the time of famine in their land, not knowing that the reason that Egypt has plentiful supplies in storage is through the foresight and dreams of their brother Joseph, who they had thought long-dead.  He recognises them, although they don’t him and after some to-ing and fro-ing, the whole family including his elderly father Jacob arrive in Egypt.

Genesis 46 records:                          

“And Jacob arose from Well-of-the-Oath and Israel’s [Jacob] sons took up their father, and their baggage, and their wives, on the wagons which Joseph had sent.  And they took up their possessions and all their property which they had acquired in the land of Canaan.  And they entered Egypt, Jacob and all his offspring with him.”

We are given a detailed list of Jacob’s family, now known as Israel, including his sons, daughter Dinah (no children of Dinah listed) and grandchildren, including the children of Judah by Tamar travelled to Egypt.  These numbered 66 as the descendants of Jacob (not including the wives of his descendants).  The Twelve Tribes of Israel had arrived to settle in Egypt.

Swanson, John August. Story of Joseph, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56562 [retrieved February 4, 2021].
Original source: http://www.JohnAugustSwanson.com – copyright 2005 by John August Swanson.

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Bath-Shua – Judah’s Canaanite wife

I don’t wish to refer to any woman as a “footnote” but there are some about whom we know considerably less.

Judah, the son of Leah and Jacob is noted to have had a wife – the daughter of Shua – a Canaanite woman (ie not from amongst his own family as his father and grandfather had found wives).  Judah had left his family and gone to a town called Adulla where he met his wife through a friend called Hirah.  The lists of descendants in 1 Chronicles refer to her as Bath-Shua the Canaanite woman.

They had three children – Er, Onan and Shelah.  Sadly she did not see her children grow up to be fine examples of manhood, both Er and Onan (sequentially married to Tamar) did not live a life in the favour of God and died prematurely. Her youngest son Shelah was still quite young and was promised to Tamar, but his father didn’t want that to happen.  Whatever opinion his mother had is not recorded, but she dies probably just as Shelah becomes of an age to marry, as we learn from the story of Judah, now a widower and Tamar. Interestingly Judah’s is accompanied on his visit to Tinnah by that same Hirah who was instrumental in finding for Judah his wife.

Poor BathShua – not even her own name is recorded – we have only the merest fleeting glimpse.

Woman of Canaan
Watanabe placed biblical subjects in a Japanese context rendered in the mingei (folk art) approach.
https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/woman-canaan-26809
Copyright Permission: This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial ShareAlike 3.0 License. I
Attribution: Watanabe, Sadao, 1913-1996. Woman of Canaan, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN . http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57538 [
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Tamar

Named in Matthew’s Gospel in the Geneaology of Jesus

With Tamar, we reach the story of the first of the five ancestors of Jesus named in the Genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew.

Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the sons of Jacob and Leah.  Her story is recorded in Genesis 38v6-30.  There is a suggestion that perhaps this story is written from a woman’s point of view.

Tamar was married first to the eldest son of Judah – Er.  Unfortunately, he died leaving her childless. As was the custom, Judah’s second son Onan was married to her with the plan that any children they had would be as if the offspring of Tamar and Er.  Onan was not keen on this plan, so ensured that he would not have children with Tamar.  God took a dim view of this and soon poor Tamar was left a widow again

So far so standard, but widowed Tamar was left with no husband, no children and no settled life of her own.  Judah had a third son – Shelah, but he was not grown up yet so Judah sent Tamar home to her father’s house, with the promise of Shelah as a husband when he was grown.  Tamar returned to her father’s house to await a husband who was some years away and would therefore be younger than her.  It doesn’t seem as if Tamar remained in the same place as Judah and his family.  However she would have known how many years she was expected to wait for her husband-to-be to reach maturity.  That time came and went and her husband did not arrive.

She took matters into her own hands and her methods might seem extraordinary to our modern sensibilities.  She was told that Judah, her father-in-law was now widowed and an interval had passed and that he would be coming to Tinnah, near to where she lived, for the annual sheep-shearing.  It is interesting that she was “told”.   That would seem to imply that she was regarded a someone who had not been treated in the right way and aroused sympathy where she lived.

“She took off her widow’s clothes and put on a veil and made herself beautiful and she sat by the gates of Enaim.”

She observed that Shelah was full-grown but he had not been given to her as husband.

“And when he saw her, Judah thought that she was a prostitute, for she had hidden her face, and he did not recognise her.”

It is very obvious that he did not recognise her for he then said:

“Let me come in to you?”

Tamar, who obviously had her wits about her and perhaps this was how she had wanted her plan to work asked:

“What will you give me if you come into me?”

He replied that he would send her a kid from his flock.  She was happy to accept a future gift, but as well wanted something tangible from the present and suggested that he give her his ring, necklace and the staff he carried.  These were very personal items that would be recognisable as belonging to Judah.  Tamar very sensibly didn’t trust a mere future promise of a baby goat, without keeping hold of some very real evidence.

He went on his way; Tamar became pregnant as a result of their encounter and Tamar resumed her widow’s apparel.  Judah made good on his promise and sent his friend back to Enaim (quite soon afterwards) with the promised baby goat, but there was no sign of the prostitute by the road and no-one knew anything of her. Does this signify that her local community tacitly “approved” of what she had done or that the actions of one woman were so insignificant that no-one had noticed?

Three months later, though her situation became a matter for comment and news reached Jacob that his daughter-in-law was pregnant.  He was duly outraged by her perceived immorality and ordered “Bring her out, and let her be burnt.”

Tamar of course had very cleverly ensured an insurance against this happening and she sends word to her father-in-law:

“It is by the man to whom these things belong that I am pregnant.”

Judah recognised his personal items and furthermore that Tamar had been forced to take control of her situation because he had not provided her with a husband as by the custom of the time he should have done.  He says:

“‘Tamar is more righteous than I am because I failed to give her my son Shelah.’  And he did not have intercourse with her again.”

She gave birth to twins – Perez and Zerah and these two are listed as the sons of Judah, when the family of Jacob is enumerated and go to Egypt to visit long-lost Joseph.  Although Tamar is not named in this list, I think it is significant that her children were acknowledged as Judah’s offspring.   Tamar has played a very important part in the story of God’s people and her importance is clearer still when we realise that King David descends from Perez.  Tamar, is one of only five women, named in the Genealogy of Jesus by Matthew. A recognition of the consequence of Tamar looking after her own interests when those who should have provided for her did not do so.  Interestingly, Shelah grows up to become the father of a whole tribe who descendants are mentioned in Numbers 26v20:

“The other sons of Judah became clans: for Shelah, the Shelanite clan; for Perez, the Perezzite clan; for Zerah, the Zerahite clan.”

Tamar is not named as his wife, which probably indicates that, she was content that with the birth of her twins, she had resolved the problem of the lack of offspring caused by the deaths of her first two husbands.  Although her actions seem somewhat unorthodox to us, there seems to be an acceptance that she had to take this action to make up for the failure of her father-in-law to act as he should have done – later codified in Deutronomy Ch 25v5:

“So two brothers live together and one of them dies without any child, the wife of the dead man shall not marry anyone other than the brother of her husband.  He shall take her as his wife and shall raise offspring for his brother.”

Tamar has played a very important part in the story of God’s people and her importance is clearer still when we realise that King David descends from Perez and thus she is one of only five women, named in the Genealogy of Jesus by Matthew.

Picture acknowledgement: Vernet, Emile-Jean-Horace, 1789-1863. Judah and Tamar, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48067

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Dinah – the fate of one girl among many brothers

So far all the women we have looked at have been at the centre of a nuclear or thereabout family, Sarah, who waited a long time for Isaac, Rebekah who left her home to marry Isaac and bore him twins, the workings out of the lives of those children, with Leah and Rachel, Rebekah’s nieces both marrying Jacob.  The original family tree and revelation of God’s promise to the people of Israel.

Dinah is the only recorded daughter of Jacob and Leah.  Genesis 34v1-31 is where she is recorded “The rape of Dinah and its consequences.  Her voice is not heard – this is all “done to her”.  A novel written in 1997 by Anita Diamant – The Red Tent is an imagining of her story, told in her voice.

The perspective of Genesis is different.  Jacob and his wives and his concubines and their assorted offspring have finally left Laban and fled (secretly) – pursued by Laban who catches up with them, makes his peace with them (probably) and departs, kissing his daughters and grandchildren goodbye.  Jacob is then reconciled to Esau (the brother whose birthright he acquired many years earlier). 

“And Jacob came to Salem, a city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan when he came from Syrian Mesopotamia and he pitched his tent before the city.”

Dinah “went out to observe the daughters of the locals”.  There is of course much debate about this statement – somewhat odd in the context of a society where women did not tend to go out on their own.  Perhaps in that male-dominated world of her brothers she longed for some “refined” society or some company of her own age?  We hear of her as the only daughter of Jacob. 

She was seen by Shechem, the son of the ruler of the land, who took her, slept with her and humiliated her. So far, so bad followed by “he was attracted to her” and “spoke to her according to the heart of a maiden” He asked his father to let him have this “slave-girl” as a wife.  We do not hear  Dinah’s opinions or reactions.  I am reminded of those episodes where Sarah and Rebekah are told by their husbands to pretend to be sisters of their respective spouses when forced by famine into a foreign country to avoid the attentions of the locals.  In this case perhaps she went willingly into the neighbouring land – curiosity has been suggested as a reason.  He calls her a “slave-girl” which suggests that she is a captive and that this is no meeting of equals.

The proposal is put to Jacob, who has heard how his daughter has been treated, but he does not act whilst his own family are away from him. The father of Shechem, Hamor speaks to Jacob: “My son has chosen your daughter in his heart.  So give her to him as a wife.  Intermarry with us; give us your daughters, and take our daughters for your son and live among us.”  Shechem said “Increase the bridal price as high as you like, and I’ll give you just what you tell me and give me this child as my wife.”

Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi are not impressed with how their sister has been treated.  They don’t, however, give a flat refusal.  Instead they demand that to show good faith Shechem and all the others who wish to marry Dinah’s compatriots should be circumcised.  They agreed – the “young man wasted no time, for he was very keen on Jacob’s daughter.”  He put it to the other men of the city and they two were circumcised.  It was not however the plan of the sons’ of to intermarry and live with the people of Shechem peace and harmony.  They were not impressed that their sister had been humiliated.  Three days after the circumcision, when “they were in pain; the two sons of Jacob; Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took their sword, entered the city unopposed; and they slew every male.” They killed Shechem and his father and “liberated” their sister Dinah from his house.  The brothers’ plundered the city.  Jacob was not impressed and worried that this would provoke a fight with their neighbours.  His sons replied “Are they going to treat our sister like a prostitute?”

Suffice to say that the tribe of Jacob does not settle there, but goes on to Bethel where Jacob (now renamed Israel) builds an altar to God. “And Israel departed from Shechem and the fear of God was on the cities around them and they did not chase after the children of Israel.”

Not an edifying episode – we don’t hear anything of Dinah’s reaction or indeed any of her female relatives.  Even her father is fairly quiet in his response relying on his sons to take their devastating action. This story can be read in different ways – Dinah was attracted to a powerful man outside her own tribe (who still lived in tents) where he lived in a city, the son of a king.  Alternatively, she was led astray to the bright lights of the city, captured, enslaved and then a bargaining chip to be argued over.  Perhaps the only difference from what she might have expected is that she was not found a husband from amongst her own tribe.  The difficulty of this separate tribe of Israel settling and intermarrying with their neighbours who do not worship the same one true God is evident in this story.  The actions of her brothers are however less than admirable.  Who knows what Dinah thought – gratitude to be rescued from slavery and humiliation – tinged with resentment at being called a “prostitute”?  She had broken the rules, stepped outside her community and many had suffered as a result?  Was that all her brothers remembered about her for evermore?  We don’t really know what happened to her.  There are no lists of her descendants, when the family are enumerated and go to Egypt to visit the long-lost Joseph, so we presume that there was no “happy” ending.

Image © Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org

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Rachel – the Beloved, but Barren Wife

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.

Both images © Sweet Publishing / FreeBibleimages.org

Sarah – a woman who waited

During Advent 2020 I have been thinking about the theme of waiting and of the women who waited on God. Three of them – Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth were childless, which was a great sorrow to each of them. They faithfully lived out their lives in obedience to God and each week in Advent I have focused on them turn by turn as God’s promise to each was made good.

The medium that my reflections have been expressed through are a series of Advent Liturgies from which I have made a video as part of an ongoing series with the Under-5s in mind.

The first video is below and features Sarah.

Leah – the Unloved, but Fruitful Wife

Leah, the oldest daughter, was given to Jacob as his wife by her father Laban:

“It is not our custom for the younger to be married before the older”

Her life for the next few years is marked by the birth of her children.

First Reuben – “Yahweh has seen my misery” (now my husband will love me)

Next Simeon – “Yahweh heard that I was unloved and so he has given me this one too”

Third Levi – “This time my husband will become attached to me because I have borne him three sons”

Fourth Judah – “Now  I shall praise Yahweh”

Our earlier featured matriarchs were barren and miserable, now we have a fertile, but miserable wife.  The misery of this unloved wife is expressed echoing through the centuries – happening at the same time as Jacob was working the seven years to earn the lovely, but barren Rachel. Leah, who is never mentioned as beautiful, is bearing the sons who become the ancestors of the tribes of Israel. She is pivotal in building up the family of the fugitive who fled his own family.

With her fourth son Judah, she forgets her misery for a while perhaps and turns to praise God – the God that Jacob too worships.

Meanwhile Rachel, has become increasingly desperate, so she takes the solution that Sarah tried – she gives her maidservant to Jacob, that children born of Bilhah might be considered hers.  It sort of works – two children are born Dan and Naphtali.  However that jealousy and competition has taken root between the sisters so Leah gives her slave Zilpah to Jacob resulting in Gad and Ashchar.

There are now eight growing boys running around, presumably out helping their father with his work of shepherding and looking after the flocks of his father-in-law, two wives and their two slave-girls (given as “presents” by their father Laban on their marriages), all building up the family of Jacob – what we have come to see as the basis of the tribes of Israel.  By now probably the second batch of seven years has passed, years have gone by in a flash of competitive child-bearing and husband-attention seeking.

The hurt does not seem lessened.  One day Leah’s oldest son Reuben finds some mandrakes, believed in ancient times to aid fertility.  Rachel bargains for them paying the price of allowing Leah a night with Jacob in exchange.   The fruit of that night is Issachar.

Fifth son – Issachar – “God has given me my wages for giving my maidservant to my husband.”

Sixth son – Zebulum – “God has brought me a precious gift.  This time my husband will honour me, because I have borne him six sons.”

Finally (perhaps bringing a bit of relief into her boy-dominated world) a daughter Dinah.

It is perhaps heart-breaking to hear how she names her sixth son – still searching for her husband’s recognition – she has borne him six healthy children, without access to the modern healthcare we take so much for granted. Maybe it is heart-warming too, that she sees her sixth son as a “precious gift” from God, she does not grumble about having “another” child. The birth of her children and that of the maidservants serve to establish a growing tribe – who will be able to work together and build up the family enterprise. As Jacob’s family grows, so his flocks will and tending them will be the family business.

The birth of Leah’s children has marked the passing of the years – there is no indication of how many years have passed, but perhaps the birth of  seven children equates to the passage of 14 years – probably by the time Dinah was born that second seven years had now been worked twice over.  We leave the story of Leah here and next time will try and bring Rachel into focus before looking at how the next chapter of their life with Jacob unfolds.

Führich, Joseph, Ritter von, 1800-1876. Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54267 [retrieved February 1, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:JvFuhrichJosephRachel.jpg.