Rachel: The Struggles of a Barren Woman

“When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die’” (Genesis 30:1).

In ancient Israel, a woman who had many children was greatly honored. She was seen by the community to have been blessed by God. When Rebekah left her family to become Isaac’s wife, her family blessed her with these words: “May you, our sister, become the mother of many thousands of children” (Genesis 24:60).

It is in light of this oriental view of motherhood that one should understand how the words of Rachel are filled with pathos, reflecting the agony of her desperate heart. When one becomes acquainted with the story of Jacob and Rachel, one reads of a beautiful love story, of how Jacob fell in love with Rachel, and of how the seven years he worked for her were “to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Genesis 29:20).

Rachel was the woman Jacob loved, but because of the cunning of Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law, Jacob married Leah first, and then he married Rachel. By giving Jacob children, Leah’s position as a wife was affirmed, while Rachel, unable to have children, became jealous of her sister. Rachel was bitter because her sister had children and she had none. Leah had given Jacob four sons and Rachel was barren, unable to conceive. Rachel’s harsh words to her husband give the readers an insight into Jacob’s marriage with Rachel and the tension that existed in the family because of the rivalry between the two sisters.

Rachel’s desire to become a mother was natural. Rachel’s desperate cry was the cry of a childless woman who desperately wanted to become a mother and through motherhood fulfill her destiny as a woman and as a wife.

In the Hebrew Bible women praised the Lord when he gave “the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children” (Psalm 113:9). This was the case of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. After giving birth to Samuel, Hannah said: “My heart exults in the LORD . . . The barren has borne seven” (1 Samuel 2:1, 5).

Rachel’s suffering became more grievous every day as she saw her sister enjoying the love and the affection of her sons. Rachel became jealous of Leah. In Israel the barren wife had no prospect for the future. Barrenness was believed to be a curse from the Lord (Genesis 20:18), thus the reason for Rachel’s desperate cry.

Rachel expressed her frustration as a childless wife by her outburst against her husband: “Give me children, or I shall die” (Genesis 30:1). Jacob’s reply to Rachel also expressed his frustration at the situation because he recognized that his wife was asking the impossible from him. Jacob asked Rachel: “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2).

When Rebekah was unable to have children, Isaac, her husband, prayed for her for twenty years before his prayers were answered (Genesis 25;21). Hannah also prayed to God asking him to give her a son (1 Samuel 1:10). There is no evidence that Jacob ever prayed for Rachel, but by calling children “the fruit of the womb,” Jacob recognized that children are gifts from God (cf. Deuteronomy 28:11: “The LORD will make you abound in . . . the fruit of your womb”). Jacob reminded his wife that the power of conception was not in his hands, that it belonged to God.

Out of her despair, desiring to be a mother, Rachel invoked a custom common in the ancient Near East, the same custom invoked by Sarah when she was unable to give her husband Abraham a son (Genesis 16:2). Rachel gave her maid Bilhah to Jacob as a wife so that the maid could conceive a son on her behalf.

The custom of adoption was common in Mesopotamia in the days of the patriarchs. According to documents from Nuzi, barren couples could adopt a son or a daughter and give them the legal rights and duties of a natural born child. In the process of adoption, the child of the servant was placed upon the mistress’s knees and declared to be her own child. Thus, Rachel told Jacob: “Here is my maid Bilhah; go into her, that she may bear upon my knees, and even I may have children through her” (Genesis 30:3). Later on, Jacob adopted Joseph’s two sons by placing them on his knees (Genesis 48:12). In addition, Genesis 50:23 says that the children of Machir, the son of Manasseh, were born upon Joseph’s knees.

The rivalry between Leah and Rachel continued for many years. One day when Ruben, Leah’s son found some mandrakes in the field, the rivalry between the two sisters became evident again. In the ancient Near East people believed that mandrakes, also known as “love apples,” were aphrodisiacs and that they produced fertility in barren women by aiding conception.

Thus, Rachel hoping that the mandrakes would help her conceive a child for her husband, offered Leah a night with Jacob in exchange for the mandrakes that Ruben had found. When Jacob returned home from the field, Leah told him: “I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes” (Genesis 30:16). After spending the night with Jacob, Leah became pregnant and gave Jacob another son, whom Leah named Issachar.

Then Leah gave birth to a sixth son. At the time her sixth son was born, Leah said: “God has endowed me with a good dowry; now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons, so she called his name Zebulun” (Genesis 30:20). Then, Leah gave birth to a daughter and called her name Dinah.

The rivalry between Leah and Rachel increased more and more as Leah gave birth to children and Rachel continued to be barren. The situation became even worse as the two women saw the hand of God behind this situation. According to the narrator of the story, at the beginning of the rivalry between Leah and Rachel, it was the Lord who allowed Leah to conceive: “When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). And Jacob told Rachel that it was the Lord “who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb” (Genesis 30:2).

Finally, the Lord had pity on Rachel and harkened to her desperate prayers: “Then God remembered Rachel. God answered her prayer and made it possible for her to have children” (Genesis 30:22). Rachel became pregnant and gave birth to a son whom she called Joseph. After Rachel became a mother, she said: “God has taken away my disgrace” (Genesis 30:23).

Scholars disagree on whether Rachel became pregnant because of the love apples mentioned in Genesis 30:15-16 or whether her pregnancy followed the birth of Dinah in verse 21. It seems to me that the birth of Joseph should be understood as a continuation of the mandrakes narrative in verse 16.

In spite of the oriental view of the aphrodisiacal power of the mandrakes, the text clearly says that Rachel gave birth because of the grace of God who opened Rachel’s womb. It was Rachel’s faith in God that allowed her to become a mother. Also, it was the grace of God in answering a desperate woman’s prayer that allowed the barren one to bear a son.

The Bible contains many stories of barren women who desperately wanted to become mothers, women who desperately wanted a future for their families. The barren women were Sarah (Genesis 11:30), Rebekah (Genesis 25:21), Rachel (Genesis 29:30), Hannah (1 Samuel 1:2), Manoah’s wife (Samson’s mother, cf. Judges 13:2), and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7).

All these barren women conceived and gave birth to children because of the gracious intervention of God, a God who opens wombs and “gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children” (Psalm 113:9). The affirmation that God opens the womb of barren women is affirmed by the prophet Isaiah:

“Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD” (Isaiah 54:1).

God’s promise to the barren women is incomprehensible. The birth of children to barren women cannot be explained, except when one looks at the powerful and marvelous work of God who creates something new when all seems to be hopeless and lost.

Rachel was blessed by God because he answered her prayers and allowed her to become a mother. The blessing of Rachel is reflected in the words of the women of Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Ruth’s son. After Boaz married Ruth and she gave birth to a son, the women of Bethlehem blessed Boaz with the following blessing: “May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11).

When God heard Rachel’s prayer by giving her a son, she recognized the work of the Lord. Her disgrace was removed from her and she was granted the desire of her heart: to become a mother.

Happy Mother’s Day, Rachel.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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