Genesis: Folklore of Faith, lesson 32 – the Tribes

Gen. 29-30: Sisters and Wives

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 4, 2006

Craig D. Atwood 

Introduction:             Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It’s been a quiet week around Home Church. Much of the congregation has gone up to Laurel Ridge for a morning of worship, fun, and food. This morning we are sending Scott Venable off for a three month sabbatical and welcoming Christy Clore who will fill in during Scott’s absence. One of my daughters has been concerned that Tuesday’s date will be 6-6-6, the date of the beast. She has an algebra test that day and is hoping that the apocalypse will come before rather than after the test.  

            Today is Pentecost Sunday in the Christian calendar and we will be celebrating Holy Communion in worship. Pentecost used to be one of the most important Christian festivals, but over the years it has been overshadowed by the big events of Easter and Christmas. Pentecost is called the birthday of the church because on that day, the gospel was heard in dozens of languages and the curse of Babel was momentarily overcome. I think one of the most important messages for Christians today, with Pentecost in mind, is that there is no such thing as Christian nationalism. The followers of Christ speak over a thousand languages and minister in almost every country on earth. Our banner is the Lamb once slain whose message remains one of radical compassion and love even for our enemies.

Jacob and his Wives:            The grand themes of Pentecost seem far removed from the stories we are now discussing in Genesis. Today we are examining the birth of the children of Jacob, and it is a very human story filled with jealousy, whining, and even root-doctoring, but out of all this emerge the 12 tribes of Israel. Last week’s lectionary reading involved the selection of Matthias as one of the 12 apostles, and several people asked me why they wanted 12 apostles. The simple answer is that 12 was symbolic of the 12 tribes. By setting aside some of the apostles as the Twelve, the early church was making the point that it was the new Israel. It was a way to connect the story of the church and the apostles to the story of Israel. So, our lesson today is not as far off from the church calendar as you might expect.

            Many historians think that the story of Jacob and his wives reflects the complex tribal politics of ancient Israel. The argument gets very technical and the evidence is a bit scanty, but the theory makes a certain sense. In the period of the Judges there was no nation of Israel; there was only a confederation of tribes that had some shared history. Traditionally the number of tribes was 12, but there actually 20 different lists of tribes in the OT. By the time of the exile, the number 12 had become traditional and the listing of the tribes in Genesis and Deuteronomy had assumed symbolic status. It is likely that the story of Jacob was told, in part, as a way to unify the tribes by creating a common history. The author of Genesis, as we have seen before, was working with older sources and weaving them into this new story of faithfulness in the midst of exile. It is also a story about hope for the future. The story of the tribal patriarchs was linked to the hope for the restoration of all Israel, but it is the matriarchs who are most important in this story.

Childbirth:            In our lesson for today, we see one of the places where the traditional chapter division of the Bible is inaccurate. The chapters of the OT are not original to the text. They were added in the Middle Ages by scholars to make it easier to lecture on the Bible. Chapter 30 should begin at verse 29:31 (“When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved…”) and end with verse 30:24 and the birth of Joseph. At least that’s the way we are going to study it today!

            Rather than read the entire story of the birth of Jacob’s children, I will summarize the action. As you read it yourself, I hope you will notice that this is definitely a story in which women are the central characters and actors. Jacob is a rather passive figure throughout, and his only speech is not very pious. You will remember from last week that Jacob was tricked by Laban into marrying both of his daughters, Leah and Rachel. He loved Rachel, not Leah, and this set up a bitter rivalry between the two sisters, which was fought through childbirth. You may remember from earlier discussions that pregnancy was even more important in the ancient world than today. A woman’s status depended greatly on whether she was married and had children.

            Rachel’s cry to Jacob, “Give me children or I shall die!” is more than hysteria or hyperbole. Not only did she have the longing for children that many men and women today have, especially those are unable to conceive, but she knew that her life might depend on a son. She had no guarantee that she would be cared for if her husband died, but a son would provide for her in her old age. She also knew that the primary reason to divorce a woman was barrenness. In short, there were some genuine issues of survival wrapped up in this folktale.

Leah:                        Genesis sets up the conflict between the sisters in one of the most evocative sentences of the Bible: “When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.” God responded to the plight and prayers of Leah. He had compassion on her precisely because she was trapped in a loveless marriage.  She was a victim of a social system that disadvantaged all women, but particularly women who were unattractive. Perhaps the rabbinical idea that Leah’s eyes were weak from weeping is true, but it seems that she was weeping because she had to marry a man who did not love her. Sure, he made love to her, but that is a quite different thing.

            What was it like for Leah to be with Jacob, desperately hoping to win his affection? This is the raw material of great literature and really bad television shows, but the religious point of this story is that the LORD God who created the heavens and earth had compassion on this unloved woman in Haran. With Jacob’s help, God provided Leah with a son who would love her and care for her. She had the honor of being mother to Jacob’s first-born. Like many women today, though, Leah thought that by having a child, the father would love her. Like many women today, Leah found that love does not work that way. You cannot save a marriage by having a child.

            She named her first son Reuben, of course, because she loved corned beef and sauerkraut with Russian dressing on rye bread. No, I’m afraid that one of my favorite lunches does not figure in this story, but perhaps Reuben could be the patron saint of deli workers everywhere. Reuben actually means “see, a son,” which is a bit prosaic for a name. It is a bit like naming a baby Femalé because she’s a girl, but the ancient world did not have books of baby names to help mothers. Genesis invests the name Reuben with more meaning by connecting it to the LORD having seen Leah’s misery. We saw that same idea with the story of Hagar who spoke to El Roi, the God who sees.

            In all Leah had six sons and one daughter. She was matriarch of some of the most powerful tribes in ancient Palestine. It is interesting that it was the unloved wife who was the mother of Judah, the tribe of King David and the Jews. According to ancient tradition, then, Leah was the ancestor of Jesus. Though she was unattractive, unloved, and rather unhappy, Leah was chosen to play one of the important roles in the history of salvation for all people. She reminds me a bit of that great American hero, Eleanor Roosevelt, whose work saved thousands of lives and made the world a safer place but was cruelly mocked for not being beautiful.

            Today we have a very destructive view of personal beauty and fulfillment in relationships that is fueled by American manufacturers and advertisers. We rate actors and actresses according to their waist size and cheek bones rather than talent, and our young women are literally dying to be thin and beautiful. Perhaps we should reclaim Leah as a patron saint, as a reminder that God does not judge us by the standards of sex appeal and beauty.

Zilpah and Bilhah:  Leah had a slave named Zilpah and Rachel’s slave was Bilhah. I’ve met a lot of Leahs and Rachels through the years, but I’ve never known a Zilpah or Bilhah. According to the story, when Rachel saw that her sister was having children and that Jacob was paying attention to that family, she grew desperate. Like Sarah, she told Jacob to sleep with her slave and have children by her. When Leah saw what Rachel had done, she responded in the same way. It was a bit like the arms race in the Cold War, and Jacob was the main weapon.

            I know I’m in the minority here, and I have never met a woman who agrees with me, but I feel sorry for Jacob. He has been reduced to a sex object fought over by women who want to get pregnant. Now, I’m sure that some men would be glad to be in this situation, but we would have no trouble identifying this passage as a sexual objectification of a person if it was a woman being passed around by two men competing with each other. Jacob has already been forced to marry a woman he didn’t love, and now he is expected to perform on command. As we shall see, Leah even bargains for the right to sleep with Jacob by giving her sister a valuable herb called mandrake. It is a rather unsavory tale.

            Even more than Jacob, though, it is the two slaves who deserve our sympathy. They are two of the most neglected women in Scripture even though they are the mothers of four of the tribes of Israel. We don’t want to acknowledge that out ancestors in the faith had slaves or were slaves. We like the story of the liberation of Israel from slavery in Egypt, but are uncomfortable with the fact that the Israelites themselves owned slaves, particularly when those slaves were used sexually by their masters in the way Zilpah and Bilhah were. We want to just ignore this story and continue to silence those women.

            Three things distinguish the story of these serving women from the story of Hagar who was also treated as a surrogate mother. First of all, there is no rivalry between the maids and their mistresses. Rachel and Leah are competing with each other, not their servants. This may indicate that these slaves accepted their place in the social hierarchy better than Hagar had or it may simply be that you can only have one rival at a time. A second difference is that the children of Zilpah and Bilhah remained part of the family. They were not driven from the camp but are taken into the covenant. The third difference is that the LORD does not speak to these slaves the way he spoke to Hagar. It is often the case that those chosen for the blessing of speaking with God are those who have been rejected and outcast, not those who are conforming to the accepted norms. We hear no more about these two women in Scripture or their thoughts and feelings.

Rachel:            We do learn about Rachel’s feelings.  We will say more about Rachel next week since she is one of the most interesting characters in Genesis and suitable partner for Jacob. Rachel was desperate to have children even though she had the love of her husband. Of the four wives of Jacob, she was the last to give birth. We do not know if she had miscarriages or still births previously. The Bible only tells the story of live births not conceptions. According to the OT, life began with breath rather than fertilization.

            In a moment I’ll read a portion of Rachel’s story from Gen. 30, but for now I want to point out that she was the mother of Joseph who will be Jacob’s favorite. The Joseph saga is one of the longer portions of Genesis, and we will spend several weeks on it. The tribe of Joseph split into two tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, which were the most powerful tribes in the north. It is likely that much of the material used in Genesis was preserved by these tribes. Later in Genesis Rachel will also give birth to Benjamin and die in childbirth. I will be reading from chapter 30 verses 14 to 24.

Read: Gen. 30:14-24

Mandrakes:            Mandrake is an interesting plant that has a long history of use in the Mediterranean area and Middle East. (from It grows wild and is hard to cultivate. Its official name is Mandragora officianarum, and it is a different plant from American mandrake. Believe it or not, it is in the same family as the potato, but is a bit more potent than the typical spud. It has long, dark green leaves and is related to deadly nightshade. Around the time of the May wheat harvest, its fruit ripens to a bright yellow-orange. The fruit is sometimes called Love Apple or Satan’s Apple. The plant also has a long brown root, like a parsnip, that can be four feet long. The most distinctive feature of the root is that it is divided and looks like two human legs. This may be why the plant has long been considered an aphrodisiac. The root and berries are poisonous but can be used as an herb and in medicines. For centuries it has been used as a mild narcotic in medicine and religious rituals. This is the kind of thing that a person my grandma called a root-doctor knows all about.

            The ancient hearers of Genesis 30 would have known this about mandrakes, just as we know all about aspirin. Mandrake was part of a woman’s medicine cabinet, but it was particularly valuable since you could not always get hold of fresh mandrake. With this in mind, the story of Rachel requesting the mandrake that Reuben had found makes sense. Although it was not an herb reputed to produce children; it was an herb that was used today to help set the necessary conditions for producing children. Today we have other drugs for that.

            What I find most interesting in this story is that Genesis is not embarrassed by the fact that Rachel used herbal medicines here in her effort to get pregnant. In the 16th century, she might have been considered a witch for using such traditional wisdom, and commentators today still have trouble with this story. Preachers and rabbis prefer to focus on the idea of God intervened compassionately to help Leah get pregnant rather than Rachel taking a hand to help nature along. We see, though, that Rachel is very much like her husband and her relative Abraham. She is willing to take action to move history forward. Would she have gotten pregnant without the mandrake? We don’t know, just as we can never know the results of actions we didn’t take. It is interesting is that the Bible includes this story of Rachel giving God a hand, even though it is a hard story to preach on. Again, we see the author of Genesis using folklore and old stories to craft a tale of God’s subtle working in the world. In the end, it was still “God remembered Rachel and opened her womb.”

Dinah:                        Genesis 30 focuses on women, especially Rachel and Leah, and so it is a little surprising to realize that only one daughter is mentioned among the eleven sons. It is unlikely that four fertile women who were so energetic in their attempts to have children would have given birth only to one daughter. This is a stark reminder that in traditional cultures, daughters are less valued than sons. They are not written into the narrative. So why is Dinah named here? It is because she will figure prominently in a later story.

Conclusion:            We have come to the end of our time for this Sunday. Genesis 30 is not a rich source of theological or psychological insight, like other sections of Genesis. Many people find it rather dull and even a bit unpleasant. Some theologians, like Martin Luther, are even a little offended that the Bible devotes so much attention to this scene of domestic unrest, but this story does provide us a glimpse of domestic life. The history of salvation and God’s dealing with the world is not as clean and tidy as we often portray it. In Genesis 30, the history of the covenant is propelled through the competition of two jealous sisters and even a bit of folk medicine. This should offer us some comfort as we try to live faithfully in our messy world. May we learn to love and serve God while using the resources at our disposal to prepare for the future.




See Num. 1:26, Deut. 33:6, II Sam. 19:43; I Kings 11:31; Gen. 46:8; I Chr. 2-3; Judges 5:14.



Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: