Sisters Leah and Rachel join Sarah and Rebekah to complete the set of matriarchs among women of the Torah. They were daughters of Jacob's uncle Laban and thus their husband's first cousins as well as his wives. This close kinship would be frowned upon if not outlawed in contemporary times because of what is now known about the possibility of reinforcing familial genetic defects. However, as multiple historical sources have pointed out, marriage practices in biblical times were designed to serve tribal needs to preserve bloodlines, and so close kinship marriages were permitted.
Beyond their close kinship, the story of Leah, Rachel and Jacob (Genesis 29 and 30) turns on a fundamental tension in their family dynamic that gives insight into the tragic nature of family feuds.
Leah's Marriage Was Made By Deception
Jacob had fled to his uncle's household after he deprived his brother Esau of the firstborn's blessing from their father Isaac (Genesis 27). But the tables were turned on Jacob after he worked for seven years to gain Laban's younger daughter, Rachel, as his wife.
Laban deceived Jacob into marrying his firstborn daughter, Leah, instead of Rachel, and Jacob only discovered he'd been tricked after his wedding night with Leah. Having consummated their marriage, Jacob couldn't back out and he was furious. Laban placated him by promising he could marry Rachel a week later, which Jacob did.
Laban's trickery may have gained Leah a husband, but it also set her up as a rival to her sister Rachel for their husband's affections. Scripture says that because Leah was unloved, Yahweh endowed her with fertility, with the result that she gave birth to six of Jacob's 12 sons -- Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun – and to Jacob's only daughter, Dinah. According to Genesis 30:17-21, Leah gave birth to Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah after she had reached menopause. Leah is not only a matriarch of Israel; she's a metaphor for how highly fertility was prized in ancient times.
The Sisters' Rivalry Gave Jacob a Big Family
Sadly, Rachel whom Jacob loved was childless for many years. So in an episode reminiscent of Sarah's story, Rachel dispatched her maid, Bilhah, to be Jacob's concubine. Once again, there is an apparent reference to the ancient cultural practice of surrogacy in Genesis 30:3 when Rachel tells Jacob: "Here is my maid, Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children."
Learning of this arrangement, Leah tried to maintain her status as senior matriarch. She dispatched her maid, Zilpah, to be Jacob's second concubine.
Both concubines bore children to Jacob, but Rachel and Leah named the children, another sign that the matriarchs maintained authority over the surrogacy practice. Bilhah gave birth to two sons whom Rachel named Dan and Napthali, while Zilpah mothered two sons whom Leah named Gad and Asher. However, Bilhah and Zilpah are not included among the women of the Torah considered matriarchs, something scholars interpret as a sign of their status as concubines rather than wives.
Finally, after Leah had borne her third post-menopausal child, Dinah, her sister Rachel gave birth to Joseph, who was his father's favorite. Rachel later died giving birth to Jacob's youngest son, Benjamin, thus ending the sisters' rivalry.
Patriarchs and Matriarchs Are Buried Together
All three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, claim the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Bible as their ancestors. All three faiths hold that their fathers and mothers in the faith – with one exception -- are buried together in the Tomb of the Patriarchs located in Hebron, Israel. Rachel is the one exception to this family plot; tradition holds that Jacob buried her in Bethlehem where she died.
These ancestor stories show that the spiritual progenitors of Judaism, Christianity and Islam were not model human beings. By turns they were distrustful and devious, often jockeying for power within their family structures according to the cultural practices of ancient times. Nor were they paragons of faith, for they often manipulated their circumstances to try to achieve what they understood as God's will according to their own timetables.
Nonetheless, their faults make these women of the Torah and their spouses all the more accessible and in many ways, heroic. Unpacking the many cultural hints in their stories brings biblical history to life.
Women of the Torah Sources:
Huwiler, Elizabeth, Biblical Women: Mirrors, Models and Metaphors (Cleveland, OH, United Church Press, 1993).
Stol, Marten, Birth in Babylonia and the Bible: its Mediterranean setting (Boston, MA, Brill Academic Publishers, 2000), page 179.
The Jewish Study Bible (New York, Oxford University Press, 2004).
All About the Bible, www.allaboutthebible.net/daily-life/childbirth/