Who Was Rachel?

The last of the matriarchs was Jacob's true love.

Rachel daughter of Laban was one of the two wives of her cousin Jacob, the love of his life, and the mother of his sons Joseph and Benjamin. Jacob, aided by his mother, had tricked his blind father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing that was intended for Esau, his older brother.

Furious at Jacob’s trickery, Esau made a vow to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac passed away. To protect Jacob from Esau’s revenge, Rebekah decided to send him away to her brother Laban in Haran.

Finding a Wife for Jacob

She went to Isaac and complained, “I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries a Hittite woman like these, from among the native women, what good will life be to me (Genesis 27:46)?”

Isaac sent for Jacob, blessed him and said, “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother (Genesis 28:1–2).” Jacob did what his father requested and went to Haran.

He arrived at the town and saw shepherds standing next to a well. He asked them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” They answered, “Yes, we do. There is his daughter Rachel, coming with the flock (Genesis 29:5–6).”

Jacob went to the well, rolled the stone from its opening, watered the sheep, kissed Rachel, and wept when he told her that he was the son of Rebekah, her father’s sister.

Rachel ran home and told her father that a relative had arrived. Laban came out to see Jacob, embraced him, and brought him to his house. Four weeks later, during which time Jacob had fallen in love with his beautiful cousin Rachel, Laban said to Jacob, “Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be (Genesis 29:15)?”

Jacob answered, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me (Genesis 29:18–19).”

Laban’s Trickery

The seven years that Jacob worked for Laban seemed to him like only a few days, so great was his love for Rachel. After the seven years were over, Jacob told Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled (Genesis 29:21).”

Laban made a wedding feast and invited all the people of the place. After the wedding night, Jacob woke up to find that the woman next to him was not Rachel but her older sister Leah.

He went to Laban and complained that he had been deceived. Laban explained that it was the custom of the land that the elder daughter should be married before the younger; but, in this case, he would allow Rachel to marry Jacob a week later, with the condition that Jacob work another seven years for Laban. When the week was over, Jacob married Rachel. As a wedding gift, Laban gave her his maid Bilhah to be her servant.

Jacob did not hide the fact that he loved Rachel and hated Leah; but it was Leah who gave him sons, while Rachel remained barren. Rachel, childless, became envious of her sister and said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.”

Jacob was angry and answered, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” Rachel said, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children (Genesis 30:1–3).”

Jacob took Bilhah as a concubine; she became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy to whom Rachel gave the name of Dan. Bilhah became pregnant a second time, and she had another boy, whom Rachel named Naphtali.

One day, Reuben, Leah’s eldest son, brought some mandrakes from the field and gave them to his mother. Rachel saw the mandrakes and said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” Leah answered, “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?”

Rachel replied, “I promise, he shall lie with you tonight, in return for your son’s mandrakes.” That evening when Jacob returned from working in the field, Leah told him, “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes (Genesis 30:14–16).”

Leah conceived that night; and when the time came, she gave birth to Issachar, giving him that name, because, she said, “God has given me my reward for having given my maid to my husband (Genesis 30:18).”

Much to her surprise Rachel also became pregnant and gave birth to a son, whom she named Joseph, “God will add,” hoping that she would have more children (Genesis 30:24).

Taking Leave of Laban

After the second seven years were over Jacob told Laban, “Give me leave to go back to my own homeland. Give me my wives and my children, for whom I have served you, that I may go; for well you know what services I have rendered you.”

All the young animals that were born were streaked, speckled, and spotted. In this way, he built up his own flock and became a very wealthy man.

Laban’s sons noticed the wealth of Jacob and were jealous. Even Laban, Jacob felt, started treating him differently. Jacob called his wives, Leah and Rachel, and told them that he had dreamed an angel of God appeared to him and told him that God had noticed all that Laban was doing to him and that the time had come for him to return to his native land.

Leah and Rachel answered, “Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely, he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just as God has told you (Genesis 31:14–16).”

Rachel and the Idols

Jacob gathered all his possessions and his flocks, put his sons and his wives on the camels, and left Paddan-aram. Rachel secretly took her father’s idols, taking advantage of the fact that Laban had gone to shear his sheep.

Laban discovered that Jacob was gone. He and his men set out in pursuit and caught up with Jacob and his family seven days later, near the hills of Gilead. Laban reproached Jacob for taking away his daughters in secret, without letting him say good-bye or kiss his grandchildren.

“You had to leave because you were longing for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?” asked Laban. “I was afraid because I thought you would take your daughters from me by force. But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive! In the presence of our kinsmen, point out what I have of yours and take it,” answered Jacob, not knowing that Rachel had stolen the idols (Genesis 31:30–32).

Laban searched the tents, including Rachel’s tent, but did not find the idols, because Rachel was sitting on them. “Let not my lord take amiss that I cannot rise before you, for the period of women is upon me (Genesis 31:35),” apologized Rachel for not getting up in the presence of his father.

Jacob and Laban made a covenant between them, which they celebrated by gathering stones into a heap, making a sacrifice, and eating. Then they parted in peace: Laban returned home, and Jacob continued his voyage to Canaan.

Jacob and his family settled near Shechem. After his sons Simeon and Levi killed all the males in Shechem to avenge their sister Dinah’s lost honor, Jacob decided to move the family to Beth-el. From there they went to Ephrath.

On the way to Ephrath, Rachel, who was again pregnant, gave birth to a boy, whom she called Ben-oni, “son of my suffering,” but Jacob called him Benjamin, “son of the south,” because he was the only one of his children who was born in the south (that is, in Canaan). All the others, including Joseph, Benjamin’s full brother, were born in Aram-naharaim.

Rachel died, after giving birth to Benjamin, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath. Jacob set a pillar on her grave.

Ironically, it was Leah, the unloved wife, who rested in the same grave as Jacob, not Rachel, the love of his life. Over 1,000 years later. the prophet Jeremiah wrote that the voice of Rachel was heard in Ramah bitterly weeping and lamenting the exile of her children.

Reprinted with permission from Who’s Who in the Hebrew Bible (The Jewish Publication Society).

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