Rachel and Bilhah: Common practice, or Tragic Desperation?

Albeit the book was released far earlier, the popular show “The Handmaid’s Tale” has done a severe discredit to the scriptures. If you are unfamiliar with the premise of the show, here is a link to the synopsis:

Ultimately, the dystopian society is represented as reflecting extremist “old testament” lifestyle, part of which involves the men being given handmaids to procreate with due to their wives being infertile. All of this is supposed to be based on Genesis/Bereshith 30:1-3,  which the husbands in the show read as part of the “ceremony” of having sex with the handmaids, and is supposed in the show to be scriptural “proof” that this is something normal to be done. The text in question reads:

1And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die.” 2And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, “Am I in God’s [Aluhayim’s] stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?” 3And she said, “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.” (KJV)

One may assume much, and possibly the worst, from these three verses. However, historical context and scriptural context are quite important when understanding this passage, and when it is understood, it is not as malevolent as it is tragic when regarding the house of Yakub (Jacob).

First, one must understand the time of this incident. Albeit modern society generally encourages or lives by the idea that women’s identities should be about work-force careers, independent expression, and making a name for themselves in the manner of men, in that time a woman’s greatest desire and aspiration was to have children. It was considered a great shame in those times to bear no children, and was quite often the case for hopelessness and depression. It was not just a shame in the eyes of others—a woman was truly sorrowful for this, seeing herself as useless. Indeed, in the previous chapter, we see that because Le’ah was un-loved, YHWH blessed her with fruitfulness.

And YHWH saw that Le’ah was unloved, and He opened her womb, but Rahel was barren. (Genesis/Bereshith 29:31)

Because Yakub loved Rahel but did not love Le’ah, in order to lift her spirits and recompense her, YHWH gave Le’ah the ability to have and nurture many children.

If we understand this, then we can look at the whole context of the story. In Genesis/Bereshith 29:32-35, we see that Le’ah gave birth to at least four children, while Rahel had borne none. This was a great cause of distress for Rahel, and for more than just the reason that she was a woman who was not bearing any children. Le’ah and Rahel were sisters, and so this marriage of Yakub to two sisters was in the beginnings of producing a feud between the two sisters over their mutual husband, Yakub, and this feud escalated into madness. Here we come to the original verses in question: Gen/Ber 30:1-3. Unfortunately the text does not read as emotionally as it does matter-of-fact, so we are presented with a flat-toned scene that could be interpreted as commonplace. However, what is going on in this scenario is actually quite desperate and depressing, and the stuff of a tragically dysfunctional domestic situation. Rahel can be understood not as being melodramatic in this situation, saying “or else I die” but can be better understood as threatening to commit suicide. In Eberyeh (Hebrew) the word here for “die” is מתה or (MuThHa) and in this form means “to die” or “to put to death as penalty” with this verb specifically acting on herself. In a sense, she was saying she would give herself a death penalty.  Here it makes more sense why Yakub would become angry with her, to be described as a kindled, or burning, anger. His wife was threatening to kill herself if he did not give her children, and he had no power to give her children, hence his statement, “Am I in Aluhayim’s stead?” or “Am I in the place of Aluhayim?” This was a desperate scenario for both. Rahel was not at all in a sound state of mind, seeing as she is threatening to kill herself, and seeing as how there was nothing either of them could physically do to give her children, Rahel took her maid and gave her to Yakub under the delusion that she could bear children through the maid—effectively taking the maid’s child and raising it as her own, which is exactly as it sounds: the thoughts of a mentally-stricken woman who was desperate to have children, but could not.

Yakub obliged, seeing as how this was the only way his beloved wife proposed to not kill herself, and seeing as how this act betrothed him to the maid, the maid became his wife. If one continues on from this point, we see this was not the only element of dysfunction if the house of Yakub between his two wives, for Le’ah had stopped giving birth at this point. Now jealousy and sorrow were in Le’ah, and she followed her sister and did the same thing that Rahel did, which was give her husband her maid to do the same act (Gen/Ber 30:9). The rivalry between the two sisters over Yakub was so intense, that we see in Gen/Ber 30:14-15 they were fighting with each other over mandrakes (or, “love-apples”), which in those times were believed to be an aid to fertility and so were used as charms to promote it. This understanding of the mandrakes bolsters the nature of the feud between the two sisters, and how desperate they were to supplant each other in bearing children for Yakub.

There is one other instance in which a wife gives her maid to her husband, and understanding that scenario makes it clear that it was a similar instance of desperation.

1And Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no child. And she had a Mitsrian [Egyptian] female servant whose name was Hagar. 2And Sarai said to Abram, “See, YHWH has kept me from bearing children. Please, go into my female serant. It might be that I am built up by her.” 3And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. (Genesis/Bereshith 16:1-3) (TS2009)

The account of Abraham and Sarah should be understood in a similar context of Yakub and Rahel. YHWH had promised Abraham that he would be given a land as an inheritance for his descendants, and that a great nation would come from his seed, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen/Ber 12:1-3; 13:14-16). Abraham had been promised this by YHWH the Creator Himself, yet Abraham and Sarah were both old, and Sarah was beyond child-bearing years, and as well, she had no children. The question and fear for them was: how would the promises of the Creator be fulfilled when between the two of them it could not seemingly be fulfilled? Out of desperation to have these promises come true, it was taken into Sarah’s hands to give Abraham her maid, since that seemed like it was the only way for this to be possible. Otherwise YHWH would be a liar, or her husband a madman; and as well, the great hope of having a great legacy of a powerful and prolific nation would die with them, and instead of being the root of the greatest nation, they would only be the last of their house, and their lives would end with the great hopeful promise of YHWH being found to be false. However, it is revealed later that YHWH had His own plans, and as well had the power to make her fertile in her old age, and so she bore a son by her own flesh with Yakub, rather than vicariously through another woman. But, the situation remained similar: both wives were in desperate situations that would have been emotionally taxing and stressful, albeit, in very different ways which were expressed differently emotionally. It remains, however, that these were both distressing times for each woman and her sense of purpose and duty for her husband and their family.

Ultimately, the domestic situation of Yakub and his two wives was replete with chaos due to the rivalry between the two sisters for their mutual husband. Indeed, if we read all of the history of Yakub’s family in various scriptures—Genesis/Bereshith, Jasher, and Jubilees—it is clear that the whole of their family was dysfunctional, and not just the relationship between Yakub’s wives and their rivalry’s effect on Yakub. The idea that the scene presented in Genesis/Bereshith 30:1-3 is somehow conventional practice of life back then is flawed, and only serves to defame and slander what is written in the TaNaK. The actions displayed in Gen/Ber 30, as well as with Gen/Ber 16, are not at all by convention, but rather by severe desperation of the individuals written of.

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