The story of Rachel, whose name in Hebrew means “ewe,” perhaps indicating Rachel's vulnerability or possibly suggesting that the sons/tribes she birthed were sheep herders, is found in Genesis 29–35. The story utilizes both J (Yahwist) and E (Elohist) sources, with the J source predominant. After Jacob deceives his father, Isaac, into giving Jacob the blessing that was intended for his twin brother, Esau, he flees from Esau's wrath. Jacob then goes to the home of Laban, the brother of his mother, Rebekah, to live. He meets Rachel, Laban's beautiful, younger daughter, and falls in love with her (Gen 29:1–14). Not having anything to use for the bride-price, Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years in order to buy his bride. Laban, however, deceives Jacob into marrying Rachel's older sister Leah instead, by placing her in the nuptial tent in place of Rachel and claiming that custom required the older daughter to be married first (Gen 29:15–26). Jacob then agrees to work seven more years for Rachel's hand in marriage (Gen 29:27–30).

Like the matriarchs Sarah and Rebekah before her, Rachel is initially barren (Gen 30:1–2). She is distraught about her infertility, her vexation being aggravated by Leah's fecundity. Rachel vents her frustration to Jacob, of whom she demands, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Gen 30:1). Jacob responds angrily, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Gen 30:2). At this point Rachel, like Sarah, gives her handmaid to Jacob (Gen 30:3–8). Unlike Sarah and Hagar, however, there are no apparent tensions between Rachel and her handmaid, Bilhah. Bilhah gives birth to several sons for Rachel. Rachel names the first son Dan, meaning “[God] has judged,” saying that God had judged her (positively) by providing a son (Gen 30:6). She names the second son Naphtali, meaning “I have wrestled,” as Rachel announces, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed” (Gen 30:8).

There are tensions between the sisters Rachel and Leah, though they are remarkably mild considering the situation in which they find themselves: married to the same man, one of them fertile, the other barren. On one occasion, Rachel buys mandrakes—supposed fertility enhancers—from Leah in exchange for access to Jacob for Leah (Gen 30:14–18). Evidently, Rachel controls who sleeps with Jacob. Although Rachel and Leah are often depicted as bickering sisters, it is clear that the two sisters are cooperating so that each can get what she needs and wants.

Rachel finally succeeds in having her own biological son, whom she names Joseph (Gen 30:22–24), meaning “May [God] add more [sons].” She eventually bears a second son and, perhaps realizing that she is dying in childbirth, names him Ben-oni, “Son of my sorrow.” Jacob, however, renames him Benjamin, meaning “Son of the right (hand), or, of the south.”

Rachel's sons, Joseph and Benjamin, and Joseph's sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, are known as the Rachel tribes. Since Ephraim was the largest tribe in the northern kingdom (after the split between the two kingdoms), the northern area—which is called Israel after the division—is also sometimes called Ephraim. The Joseph-Ephraim-Manasseh tribes were perhaps the group that moved to Egypt and then entered Canaan in the thirteenth century B.C.E. after the other tribes had already entered from elsewhere. The name Benjamin, with its “right” or “south” connotation, reflects Benjamin's Canaanite birth and may indicate his late joining with the other Rachel tribes.

Between the birth of Rachel's two sons, Jacob becomes unhappy with Laban's attitude toward him and thus consults with Rachel and Leah about the possibility of leaving. This consultation is an example of women's empowerment in a time when women often are understood to have had no voice in such matters. The two sisters both feel that their father has cheated them (Gen 35:16–20), and so the family departs while Laban is busy with sheep shearing. Without informing Jacob, Rachel takes the family gods, which are small statues (Gen 31:17–19). Her motive is not stated, but it may have been anger at her father. It could also have been that the gods represented family leadership. Three days later Laban returns from shearing his sheep and discovers the family gone along with his gods. He pursues them, catches up to them, and upbraids Jacob for disappearing along with the family gods (Gen 31:22–30.)

When asked about the gods, Jacob honestly tells his father-in-law that he knows nothing about them and invites him to search his family's belongings (Gen 31:31–32). In a scene that was surely perceived as riotously funny to the original audience, Rachel says that she cannot get up from her seated position because she has the “way of women” (Gen 31:35): she is having her menstrual period. Whether she is telling the truth or not does not matter. The mere idea that the gods would be exposed to such impurity would have greatly amused a monotheist. There may be an ironic double meaning to Rachel's words as well (Lapsley 1998). She cannot rise to confront her father legally, because women are not allowed this kind of independent action. Therefore, she follows the way of women—the way of tricksters. Of course, in this respect she is also following in the footsteps of her husband, Jacob.

Rachel is a beloved figure in Jewish tradition. Jeremiah speaks of Rachel crying for her lost children, those lost in exile (Jer 31:15). She is comforted by God, who tells her that he will have compassion on Ephraim (Jer 31:18–20), Joseph's son and thus Rachel's grandson, who represents all of Israel. Jeremiah 31:15 is quoted in Matthew 2:18 but is interpreted as a prophecy of Herod's destruction of the infants.

According to Genesis 35:19, Rachel was buried on the way to Ephrath—that is, Bethlehem. 1 Samuel 10:2, however, indicates that she was buried in Zelzah in the territory of Benjamin, near Bethel. This is corroborated by Jeremiah 31:15, which says that Rachel's voice can be heard weeping in Ramah, which is in the land of Benjamin.

The traditional site of the tomb, one of the holiest sites in Judaism, is located just north of Bethlehem. From 1948 through 1967, while it was in Jordanian hands, Jews could not visit the tomb. After the 1967 war, Jews as well as visitors of other faith traditions could again visit the site. In 2002 the area around the tomb was annexed into Jerusalem, and recently a barrier was erected separating the tomb from Bethlehem, so that visitors must approach from Israel rather than Bethlehem, which is now in Palestinian territory. A competing site, perhaps the original location of Rachel's burial, is near contemporary Er-Ram (biblical Ramah), north of Jerusalem.

Rachel's name is mentioned in the book of Ruth. When Ruth marries Boaz, the people say “… May the LORD make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem. . .” (Ruth 4:11). In this way the terrible rift between beautiful Rachel and fertile Leah is finally healed.

In Jewish tradition, Rachel is the eternal mother who cares for her lost children. She is also a special mediator for women who have difficulty becoming pregnant. In Christian tradition, she is the contemplative sister who comes to symbolize the church, while Leah is the active one who represents Judaism, a contrast that views Judaism negatively. As wife of the patriarch Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, Rachel is also revered by Muslims.

[See also Leah.]

Bibliography

  • Bellis, Alice Ogden. “A Sister is a Forever Friend.” Journal of Religious Thought 55:2/56:1 (1999): 109–116.
  • Lapsley, Jacqueline E. “The Voice of Rachel: Resistance and Polyphony in Genesis 31:14–35.” In Genesis: The Feminist Companion to the Bible, edited by Athalya Brenner, pp. 232–248. FCB 2/1. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 1998.
  • Lapsley, Jacqueline E. “Hearing Whispers: Attending to Women's Words in the Voice of Rachel.” In Whispering the Word: Hearing Women's Stories in the Old Testament, pp. 21–34. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
  • Pardes, Ilana. “Rachel's Dream: The Female Sub-plot.” In Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.
  • Pardes, Ilana. “Rachel's Dream of Grandeur.” In Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible, edited by Celina Spiegel and Christina Buchmann, pp. 336–337. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1994.
  • Strickert, Fred. Rachel Weeping: Jews, Christians, and Muslims at the Fortress Tomb. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2007.
  • Trible, Phyllis. “Gift of a Poem: A Rhetorical Study of Jer 31:15–22.” Andover Newton Quarterly 17 (1977): 271–280.

Alice Ogden Bellis