Rachel’s Inward Struggle

Valentine Blog Hop - Sharon Lathan, Novelist              

Introduction: Rachel could not stand that God blessed Leah and not her with children. It never occurred to Rachel that God took pity on Leah because she had to endure her husband’s rejection, not to mention her sister’s continuous wrath and contempt.  Because of her vanity, Rachel could not stand sharing center stage with Leah, a woman she regarded inferior to herself.  With the arrival of four children,  Leah grew in stature and in respect. Rachel might have taken her childlessness as a heavenly cue to start developing her inner spiritual life, but she was stubborn and manipulative like Jacob. Rachel began to raise the ante in a high-stakes game of upmanship that would only result in fracturing the family more than it already was. Though there were many errors in judgment in the sister’s competition with one another, the paradox is that God brought good out of their pettiness and jealousy. Despite the players’ motivations, the blessing God promised Abraham that his offspring would increase and multiply became realized.

30:1. When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. —  In a society that defined a woman’s worth by her ability to bear children, the ancients considered the barren woman a social disgrace to the husband, for people often considered the barren wife as a concubine instead of the mistress of her husband’s house. Rachel’s infertility probably caused her to withdraw from her friends, family, and even husband—thus separating herself from a network of significant people who could provide valuable healing and emotional support.

 . . . and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” – Did Rachel express a death wish? Could Rachel have been threatening suicide? When a person suffering from severe depression gives his significant other a verbal clue, the message must be taken seriously. Most suicidal persons do talk about suicide before acting. Her threat was in reality, a desperate plea for help. Rachel accused Jacob of being blasé toward her pain and distress. She felt that if her husband really loved her, he would make more of an effort to intercede on her behalf, and at the very least, try to buoy her spirit. Instead of support, all she received was criticism and shame.

There is something paradoxical about Rachel’s words here: she feels she will die if she has no children, but ultimately, she will die because she will eventually give birth to Benjamin.

n Alternatively: The Tanakh describes several women as, “barren.” The list includes Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah.  It is significant that Rebekah, Rachel’s mother-in-law, remained barren for twenty years. Yet, she did not let her barrenness diminish her self-esteem or spiritual relation with God. Circumstantially, Rachel, and Hannah shared much in common. Like Rachel, Hannah had too had to co-exist with a competitive co-wife who was very proud to show her children off, but only at the emotional expense of Hannah. Unlike Rachel, Hannah learned to channel her pain directly to God through prayer and faith. Hannah was as submissive as Rachel was defiant. Earlier, the biblical narrator described Rachel’s outer beauty; she lacked an interior dimension. As a result, Rachel looked turned to only external remedies for her sad situation.  She feels alienated not only from her sister Leah but also from God. She did not realize that God’s blessing might prove elusive until she eventually learned to step outside the walls of self-pity that imprisoned her.

30:2. Jacob became very angry with Rachel . . . — Jacob was upset at Rachel for being so despondent. As much as Jacob loved Rachel, he couldn’t just watch her act so smugly toward her sister who reverently acknowledged God’s gifts. Rachel acted like one who was completely oblivious to the workings of Providence. She viewed her life as if everything were a product of chance.

Jacob’s Unsympathetic Response to Rachel

“Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” — Unlike Abraham (Gen. 16:5), Jacob felt little sympathy for his anxious wife. The medieval Jewish commentaries raise an essential question: Did Jacob pray for his wife, Rachel? Unlike his father, Isaac, Jacob never offered a sacrifice on behalf of his beloved (See notes to Gen. 25:21). The biblical narrator remained silent on this issue, revealing something.  This led Rashi to argue that Jacob did not pray for her. He did not have to, for he already had children:

You say that I should do as my father did. But the fact is, the conditions are different. My father had no children at all, I, however, have children; God has withheld children from you and not from me.[1]

The Midrashic literature discusses Jacob’s cavalier response, the Midrash wondered:  How could Jacob speak to a woman tortured by childlessness? The insensitivity Jacob showed would someday come to haunt him through his children.[2] Ramban finds the Midrashic explanation too difficult to accept. For him, it was inconceivable that Jacob would not pray for his wife since it is the way of the righteous to pray for even unfamiliar women.

Ibn Ezra and Keter Torah adopt a similar approach. It seems more likely that Jacob did pray on behalf of his wife, but it was to no avail, for the proper time did not yet arrive. Perhaps Rachel felt that Jacob did not pray hard enough! Perhaps Jacob felt that he did not have to overextend himself on her behalf since he had children.  Philo argues that Rachel was guilty because she attributed god-like power to her husband instead of God.[3] Rachel failed to recognize God alone as the ultimate Source of life and not man.[4]

Some say Jacob wanted Rachel to take some responsibility for her own condition. Perhaps if she prayed to God as her sister did, God would answer her too.  Jacob got angry at Rachel not putting her faith and trust in God. This was clearly a situation where only her faith in God could help her. All human attempts to manipulate God’s blessing through mechanical means would not help Rachel. Once Rachel began to turn inwardly to God as her Source, her childless situation eventually changed for the better.

[1] Gen Rabba 71.

[2] The Midrashic literature criticizes Jacob’s lack of empathy, “Is this how you comfort a grief-stricken heart? As you live, someday when your children will stand before the son of Rachel, and he will use the same words thou hast but now used, saying, ‘Am I in the place of the Lord ?’“ Jerusalem Targum Gen. 30. 1-2, Tanhuma (Buber) I, 156, and BR 71. 6.

[3] Allegorical Interpretations, 3:182.

[4] There is a statement in the Talmud that also bears this truth out: R. Johanan said: Three keys the Holy Blessed One has retained in His own hands and not entrusted to the hand of any messenger, namely, the key of rain, the key of childbirth, and the key of the revival of the dead. (Ta’anit 2b)

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