Genesis 29:31-30:24
Part 3 of 3

As the years went by, Rachel held Jacob’s heart, but Leah bore his children. Few things can provoke a woman to jealousy more than seeing another woman have child after child, while she remains childless. The ability to conceive and bear a child is such an emotional issue, one that those who conceive easily have difficulty understanding. It is a very sensitive matter to those who cannot. Remember the story of Hannah and Peninnah, both wives of Elkanah?  Peninnah had child after child but Hannah had none. I Samuel chapter 1 tells us how Hannah went to worship at the house of the Lord in Shiloh year after year, and year after year her rival provoked her causing Hannah to weep. (Childlessness is still difficult in our day; it was especially difficult in that day as children, especially sons, were to provide for and take care of their parents in their old age.) We need to be more sensitive toward those who cannot conceive.

Scripture is clear (v. 31) that God compensated Leah by making her fruitful. Why? Because she was not loved by her husband. It didn’t take long for her to conceive and bear Jacob’s firstborn son, Reuben. Notice the meaning of the name, for it gives insight into Leah’s emotional state of mind at the birth of this baby boy. Reuben sounds like the Hebrew word for he has seen my misery. The name actually means, see, a son. Therefore, Leah named her son Reuben, for she said,“It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now” (v.32). How she longed for Jacob to love her!

Leah conceived and bore a second son, calling him Simeon, probably meaning, one who hears, thinking, “Because the Lord heard that I am not loved, he gave me this one too” (v. 33). Can you hear the longing in her heart?

Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to her third son, she named him Levi, which sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew word for attached, thinking, “Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have born him three sons” (v. 34).

A fourth son was born. This time, we see a change in her heart. Leah named him Judah, which sounds like and may be derived from the word for praise. “This time I will praise the Lord,” she said. She appears to have ceased striving for Jacob’s love, at least for a while. And then Scripture says she stopped having children (v. 35).

Meanwhile, even though Rachel had the heart of her husband, she yearned for children. Elkanah, Hannah’s husband, could never meet the longing of his wife even though he wanted to: “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8b). The answer is no. A loving husband can never take the place of children in a woman’s heart. Husbands meet totally different needs than children. The abundance of one does not fill the emptiness of the other. Rachel desperately wanted children, all the more when her rival was having child after child. This was more than Rachel could bear. Let’s again use our sanctified imaginations to think about what it may have been like at the end of any given day for Rachel and Jacob.

One evening, when Jacob had returned from the fields to be with Rachel, her mood upset him.

“ ‘I’m not in  a good mood tonight, Jacob. You’ll find me happier if you spend the evening with my lovely sister, Leah!’ Her sarcasm darkened her usually lovely, gentle eyes, as she paced back and forth in front of Jacob.”

“‘Did you argue with Leah today?’”

“‘Argue?’ She whirled to face him, her hands on her hips. ‘We never argue – I wish she would quarrel with me. She just sits there with those squinty eyes of hers looking at me as though I’ve done her some great wrong just by being alive! But she’s sitting there with another one of your sons in her arms, and oh, Jacob, Jacob!’”

“She flung herself into his arms and held his head down hard against her cheek. Give me children, or I’ll die!’”

 Scripture says, “Jacob become angry with her and said, (30:2) ‘Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?’” (It obviously was not his fault!)

At this point, Rachel suggested something she had likely been thinking about for some time. Like her Grandmother Sarah, she knew of the custom of the day: when a woman could not have her own physical children, she could give her maid to her husband to bear children through her. Legally, these children would belong to the first wife. Rachel was also convinced she needed to “help God out.” (Remember how Sarah “helped God out” by giving her maid, Hagar, to Abraham? Genesis 30:4. See Helping God Out, another article on this website.)

Jacob responded to Rachel’s suggestion and took Bilhah as a second (in stature) wife. It didn’t take long for Bilhah to conceive. The names Rachel selected also revealed her emotional state. She bore a son whom Rachel named Dan, which means, he has vindicated. Rachel said, “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and given me a son” (v. 6). Bilhah conceived again and bore a second son. Rachel named this son Naphtali, meaning struggle. Rachel thought, “I have had a struggle with my sister, and I have won” (v. 8). She felt the rivalry keenly, which had shifted from husband competition to children competition. The birth of Dan vindicated her. With the birth of Naphtali, she felt she had won the competition.

Interestingly, up to this point, Rachel had been the only one competing for children. Leah only wanted Jacob’s love, she had plenty of children! But the taking of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid, gave things a new twist. Since Leah had stopped bearing (for maybe a year), she reentered the competition by giving Jacob her maid, Zilpah, who quickly produced two sons. Leah named them Gad, meaning “good fortune or a troop,” and Asher, meaning “happy” (vv. 11-13).

Leah now claimed six sons, including Zilpah’s two, and she was happy. She had evened the score by using her handmaid, Zilpah, and was still ahead. However, happiness that depends on circumstances rarely lasts long.

When unhealthy competition enters the picture, trouble results. Spiteful competition indicates that we want control, attempting to make things work out our way. But if we are under God’s control, this kind of competition becomes unnecessary. True faith is living without scheming and competing. When we follow God’s leading, the responsibility for either our failures or successes is God’s, and we can accept either with quiet hearts, knowing He’s in charge.

But the hearts of these two women were not quiet. The competition surfaced in the bedroom. Scripture says, “During wheat harvest, Reuben [Leah’s eldest son, about 4 years old] went out into the field and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother, Leah” (v. 14). Mandrake plants are from the potato family and have a forked torso-shaped root, which gave rise to the superstition that the plant carried aphrodisiac qualities (for which its fruit is still called love apples).

Rachel bargained with Leah for some of them, thinking they would help her bear children. When Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him, telling him he was hers for the evening, that she had “hired” him with her son’s mandrakes. What a sad marriage this had become (v. 16)!

There is no mention that Rachel turned to God in prayer over her childlessness as Hannah did (I Samuel 1:10,11) resulting in the birth of Samuel and three more sons and two daughters (2:21). (God doesn’t always answer our prayers like this, but He does sometimes.) Instead, she turned to competition and superstition, yet she remained barren. What can we learn from these women?

On a personal note, after four years of waiting, God finally answered our prayers and gave us two sons, a year and a half apart. Many couples have waited much longer and some have given up waiting. Some have adopted children which is a wonderful way to take care of orphaned children. We need to pray and wait patiently on God and follow His leading regarding having children or anything else for that matter. We need to learn to trust Him in all things.

Amazingly, God continued to bless this marriage and gave Leah two more sons and one daughter (additional unnamed daughters are mentioned in 37:35. They may be daughters-in-law, however). She named her fifth son Issachar, which sounds like the Hebrew for reward. Leah said, “God has rewarded me by giving me my hire.” She named her sixth son Zebulun, probably meaning, honor. Leah believed, “God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have born him six sons” (v. 20). Leah named her daughter Dinah (30:21). The meaning of her name isn’t given. She’s likely mentioned here only to introduce her to the narrative in chapter 34. Daughters simply didn’t have the status they have today.

God, in his mercy, finally opened Rachel’s womb. She bore a son and named him Joseph, which means, may he add. Rachel said, “God has taken away my disgrace. May the Lord add to me another son” (v. 24). With the birth of this long-awaited son, Rachel’s attitudes seemed to change. She at least recognized that God had given her this son, even though in the naming of Joseph, she revealed she still wasn’t content. She wanted another one. Yet she must have become a wonderful, godly mother to Joseph. How else can we explain Joseph’s character and commitment to God (along with God’s sovereign blessing)? It must have been Rachel who taught Joseph in his early years about his Father’s God, about the godly heritage that went before him and that he must carry that heritage on. Joseph became one of the most godly Bible characters in all of the Old Testament.

Women who have to wait for their children seem to enjoy an even greater sense of fulfillment and joy when they finally bear them. Rachel truly rejoiced as she held little Joseph in her arms. Why had God made her wait so long? Perhaps, like her Grandmother Sarah, He had been preparing the way for a miracle, to show forth His glory and mercy as He answered her prayers. God was maturing her through her struggle with Leah.

Rachel gave birth to another son, Benjamin, during the family’s journey to southern Canaan. But she died during childbirth and left her two sons behind. All Rachel’s competing had come to this–Leah would raise her children at least through Joseph’s teenage years. Hopefully, during those last years of her life, Leah became truly content, confident in her God and in her faith.

What can we learn from these two women? Rachel reminds us that a loving husband doesn’t guarantee happiness. In the end, only an intimate relationship with our Heavenly Father through Jesus Christ can provide true contentment. All other things and relationships may fail us, and to the extent we pin our hopes on those things, we will remain unfulfilled and hurting. It usually brings discouragement and defeat, and too often, divorce.

Leah kept looking for love, approval and acceptance from Jacob, and she, too, was continually disappointed until (we hope) she eventually oriented her life toward God. From Leah we learn the importance of keeping our focus on God, on developing inward character, learning to give instead of expecting to get. Her life reminds us that people are overly impressed by appearances, but God cares about what He sees in the heart. In Leah we see that God blesses people differently. We need to learn to accept our gifts as from Him,[1] to thank Him for them, and develop them for His glory, rather than mourn for gifts we haven’t been given.

How did Rachel and Leah measure up to Proverbs 14:1: A wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands, the foolish one tears hers down? Did they build up their homes or tear them down? Although they both seemed to have victory eventually over jealousy, bitter competition and continued disappointment, the effects of their rivalries continued for generations. Their actions bore consequences in their sons’ lives as the boys picked up attitudes from their mothers, causing major family dysfunction, sibling rivalries, intense hatred and the future selling of their brother, Joseph, as a slave to Egypt. And unhappy human relationships affect our connection with God. The answer has to be, for the most part, Rachel and Leah did not build up their homes: rather they sowed the seeds of destruction that resulted in bitter consequences for the infant Hebrew nation for years to come.

How did Rachel and Leah measure up to another verse: “These have come so that your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may be proved genuine, and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7)? Did their faith prove genuine? Did it stand the test of persecution and suffering? Did they pass the faith test? We hope the answer is yes, because we don’t know the end of the story in Leah’s life.

How would you score Rachel and Leah as women of faith on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest? Even though they both failed miserably at times, we hope they learned from their failures and grew in their faith…eventually.

Take Home Truth: Unhealthy competition can have generational consequences.

        Marilyn Kaynor