Beautiful Rachel, Weeping Rachel ~ Biblical Women
Beautiful Rachel, Weeping Rachel
I was always fascinated by Rachel when I was told stories about women in the Bible as a child. A beautiful woman whom Jacob loved so much he was willing to work fourteen years for her? I guess I have always been a romantic at heart! But when it comes to women in the Bible that people write about, or make sermons about, or create devotionals around, there are far more of these focused on her sister, Leah, than on Rachel. Leah is the relatable one, and Rachel is—well, not much of a role model.
Why don't we feel much of a connection to Rachel?
First, she is beautiful. We can be suspicious of beauty, and see it as a marker of shallowness. We don't naturally feel a connection to someone who has a benefit they were just born with—we feel more comfortable with those who "work" for their benefits in life, because it reassures us that life is fair.
Second, Jacob is infatuated with her, and therefore favours her. We pity her sister Leah because Leah is not loved, and we feel Leah's pain when she laments being unloved. We can all relate to longings for someone who does not care for us as much as we care for them. Unconsciously, we take Leah's side.
Third, we feel most of Rachel's actions are not actions we should imitate. When Jacob leaves his uncle Laban's house, she steals his household gods. She follows other superstitious practices, such as acquiring mandrakes in the hopes they will help her conceive. And despite being beautiful, the words she is recorded as saying are not words that seem to point to a sweet and kind character—such as when she confronts Jacob: “Give me children, or I shall die!”
But we already know that these stories in Genesis are not records of actions we should imitate. It's worthwhile to point out that while Genesis says that Jacob loved her, nothing is said about her feelings towards him. When she discusses her marriage later, she describes her father as "selling" her. Has her beauty and Jacob's favouritism really made her life easier? While we may struggle to relate to her, there is a lot about her life that we can sympathize with.
Here are a few points that make her more relatable.
She struggles to have children. We have a lot of sympathy for other women in the Bible who struggle with this, such as Hannah and Sarah. Rachel clearly sees this as a disgrace. "I shall die!" speaks to her deep misery over the closure of her womb. Jacob rightly reminds her that only God can give her children, but he also does not sound overly sympathetic to her. This is in contrast to Abraham and Isaac, who prayed to God when their wives were unable to have children (Bruce Waltke points this out in his commentary on Genesis). Jacob does not cry to God in a similar way on behalf of his wife Rachel's disgrace.
Could it be because the struggle between Rachel and her sister Leah so closely mirrors the struggle between himself and his brother Esau? Jacob has spent much of his life fighting for what he wants, and not crying out to God for it. Here Rachel also struggles with her sister. Rachel wants what her sister has (children), and Leah wants what Rachel has (Jacob's love)—and Rachel the younger sees this struggle as a struggle to overcome her sister (“With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and have prevailed," she says, when Naphtali is born through her servant Bilhah). Rachel and Jacob are startlingly similar in their striving with life. They fight, fight, fight for what they want, even when reality does not go their way.
However, in both Jacob's life and in Rachel's life, God shows them grace. Jacob shows no sign of depending on God or calling out to God in all his striving, and yet God shows up to him and makes him promises (such as at Bethel when he dreams about the ladder from earth to heaven, or when his uncle Laban cheats him of his wages but God promises to prosper him), until Jacob begins to learn to depend on his God. Rachel, too, struggles with her sister, using her servant Bilhah to bear children for Jacob, and asking for mandrakes to open her womb. But after all of this, and after Leah has born many children, the text says, "Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her." God remembers her. And it seems Rachel has learned her machinations with servants and mandrakes are useless, for it says God "listens" to her, meaning she has at this point been calling out to him.
The sad irony of Rachel's life is that, though her whole personality after marriage is consumed by her struggle to have children, it is by bearing a child that she meets her death. As she dies giving birth to her second son, she names him, Ben-Oni ("son of my suffering"). “In dying Rachel became a prophetess,” says Abraham Kuyper, meaning her naming of her son also points to the suffering the tribe of Benjamin undergoes, and the later massacre at Bethlehem. Whether or not this naming is meant to be a prophecy, it is undeniable that Rachel’s role as a weeping mother continues to come up in prophecy later on.
Rachel comes up twice more in the Bible after her story in Genesis—first in Jeremiah's prophecy, which is then echoed and fulfilled in Matthew.
In Jeremiah, God promises to bring all his scattered children of Israel back to the land. Though the prophecy says, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more,” it urges Rachel not to cry. The whole chapter is filled with happy scenes of the children of both Rachel and Leah rejoining in new wine, oil and flocks.
Matthew picks up this prophecy after King Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, using Rachel’s voice to lament their deaths. But here it sets the stage for Jesus, who is the one to ultimately fulfill all prophecies, and gather all God’s children back to him.
It does sound like the passionate Rachel to refuse to be comforted like this. She is characterized throughout the rest of the Bible as the mother she longed to be, but a suffering mother. And here God comforts her as well. As Jeremiah 31 says,
“The Lord says to [Rachel],
‘Stop crying! Do not shed any more tears.
For your heartfelt repentance will be rewarded.
Your children will return from the land of the enemy.
I, the Lord, affirm it!
Indeed, there is hope for your posterity.
Your children will return to their own territory.
I, the Lord, affirm it!”
God hears Rachel’s grief. In her wrestling with God for the blessing of children, she had to learn to rely on God alone for this blessing. And this blessing did not result in the ultimate fulfillment that all humanity was looking for—neither of her two sons were the child of the promise that God had told Eve about. Suffering and grief continued after their births (and through the very act of them being born). But it is still God alone whom Rachel, and all of us, must rely on. He promises an end to grief through the work of his Son, Jesus.
God hears Rachel’s grief, and he hears ours. Life isn’t easy. Many of us have to struggle, and many of us might feel it’s just one thing after another, as Jacob and Rachel experienced. But through it all, God guided them, flawed though they were. And God promises to guide us through our life as well.
New to this newsletter? Want to read some past issues? You might enjoy these issues about the beginning and end of the Bible:
If you have anything you’d like to see in this newsletter, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me, comment below! It’s nice to hear from my readers.