Welcome to the fifth week of our Summer Bible journaling challenge, Women of Valor. Today, we will be studying and journaling Rachel’s story from the Book of Genesis. Please note that, because this is the last woman of Genesis who we will study, there will be a one-week break before we begin studying Miriam and other women of the Old Testament. This short pause will allow you to catch up or take a breather before we continue with our study.
This week’s reading: Genesis 29:9-31; 30:1, 22-26; 31:1-3, 17-21, 33-35; 35:18-20, Ruth 4:11
This week’s journaling focus: Ruth 4:11
This post comes with a free journaling printable, which is designed to complement Leah’s journaling printable. To download it, click below to be taken to the resource library. The library is password-protected; to get the password, sign up for the mailing list here.
Rachel was Jacob’s second wife, but was anything but secondary in his eyes. Jacob loved Rachel and would have done anything to make her happy. Still, her story is not without sadness: more than anything, Rachel wanted a child, but for years she had to watch her sister Leah have children while she stayed barren.
Because the stories of Rachel and Leah are so intertwined, last week we were able to see parts of Rachel’s story through Leah’s perspective. Today is a continuation of last week’s readings in more ways than one. We will read about Rachel’s life, but also about her legacy and that of Leah: how they intertwined, and the roles they played in the future of God’s people.
A Closing Note on the Matriarchs
Rachel is the last woman of Genesis who we will study as part of our Women of Valor series. These women, who include Hagar as well as the four Matriarchs — Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel — were each known and remembered in large part because of their children. For many of us, that may be a difficult pill to swallow, because not all of our stories end as Sarah’s did, with our prayers for children or other lifelong dreams answered in the ways that we want. But is important to remember that these women are remembered as mothers in large part because of the time in which Genesis was written. Just as each of us leaves a beautiful and rich legacy made of relationships, home, creativity, and wisdom, the Matriarchs’ legacies were broader than the children they had. These legacies also include the lessons they teach us now. Today, we read Rachel’s story with that idea of a richer ‘legacy’ in mind.
Rachel’s Story (in Two Parts)
Part One: Rachel’s Life
Rachel was Leah’s sister: “beautiful in form and appearance” (Gen 29:17), and loved deeply by Jacob. When she encountered Jacob at the well, she was only a young girl. After he kissed her and wept, he went to her father and exchanged seven years of labor for her hand in marriage. As we learned last week, on the night of his intended wedding to Rachel, he instead was given Leah, something that Jacob only realized in the morning light (Gen 29:25).1 So he went to their father, Laban, to see that justice be done. One week later, he married Rachel, in exchange for seven more years of service.
In marriage, Rachel was given the love that Leah wanted; but for years, she went without the children she so desperately wanted. This divide turned Rachel and Leah into not just sisters, not just women who shared the same man, but also into rivals, battling each other for their husband’s affection and children. Finally, after what seems to have been many years of waiting, Rachel conceives a son. In her joy at finding out, she cries, “God has taken away my reproach,” (Gen 30:23) and when her son is born, she names him Joseph, in the hopes that “the Lord [may] add to me another son” (Gen 30:24).
After Rachel has her son, Jacob goes to Laban and asks that he and his wives be allowed to return to Jacob’s home country in exchange for his many years of service. But Laban feels that he has been blessed by Jacob’s labor, so instead he makes a counter-offer, saying that he will give Jacob anything he asks for wages. Jacob stays and grows his own flock of sheep and livestock. But after he hears Laban’s sons speaking of him with bitterness, he decides to leave, and hears the voice of the Lord saying that God will be with him (Gen 31:1-3).
So Jacob sets his wives on camels and gathers his livestock to leave. But before they do, when Laban is shearing sheep, Rachel goes into his house and steals his idols. We don’t know why this was; perhaps to spite him, or maybe because she herself still used idols instead of or in addition to worshipping Jacob’s God. When Laban goes after them to retrieve his idols, Rachel sits on them and pretends that she is menstruating and cannot get up (Gen 31:33-35). So Rachel protects her family from the ramifications of her stealing, through a lie. Perhaps not something we would expect from one of the most celebrated mothers of our faith!
During the journey, Rachel conceives again and finally has her much-wanted second son. However, the labor is too difficult for her, and this is where Rachel meets her end. With her dying breath, she names her son Ben-Oni, meaning “son of my sorrow,” but Jacob renames him Benjamin, or “son of my right hand.” And “so Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)” (Gen 35:19) left in a middle-place between her family’s past and future, much as she was in a middle-place between joy and sorrow for much of her life.
Part Two: Rachel’s Legacy
Still, despite the sad end to Rachel’s life, her story lives on through her sons. Her first son, Joseph, is favored by Jacob and thus sold into slavery by his brothers, but rises from slavery to become an overseer of Egypt. He also becomes a strong and confident patriarch much like his father, and reconciles with his brothers despite their betrayal. He and the Rachel’s son Benjamin, along with Leah’s sons and those of their handmaidens Zilpah and Bilhah, become the heads of the Twelve Tribes of Israel and so the fathers of God’s people.
Rachel was an imperfect woman. She kept idols, which tells us that her faith was likely less strong than Leah’s, or that her long-lasting infertility perhaps caused her to trust less in God. She was bitter towards her sister, though the sour parts of their relationship were two-sided just as much as were the loving parts. And she was not naturally resilient, often complaining or lashing out at her loved ones such as when she yells at Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!”
And still, despite her imperfections, she was chosen to be one of the mothers of God’s people. Along with Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah, Rachel is considered one of the matriarchs. She is still remembered today, honored in homes around the world on the night of the Jewish sabbath, when daughters are blessed with the words,
“May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.”2
Though Rachel may have felt forgotten when God did not give her children, she was always remembered, just as God remembered Hagar, and Sarah, and Rebecca, and Leah in their own distress. And still today, we remember her.
As matriarchs in the Judeo-Christian tradition, both Leah and Rachel had lasting legacies through their children; but they also offer us a legacy of lessons, teaching us how and how not to respond to life’s trials. Though Leah is often thought of as the forgotten or overlooked sister, Rachel’s life is also deeply challenging, in part because of her response to difficulty. How do Rachel and Leah respond to challenges differently? How do their differing responses to challenges shape their lives?
Questions for Contemplation
- Rachel deals with a lot of sadness and jealousy because of her rivalry with Leah, which was likely made worse by the fact that the two women were sisters. How could their close relationship have eased their burdens, rather than worsening them if they had responded to this situation differently?
- Rachel and Leah’s legacies are most often seen as being through their children, but as we saw in ‘Making Connections,’ they also offer another kind of legacy. What is your legacy? Is it your work? Your family? Your creativity? Is it the kindness with which you live your life? How would you like to be remembered by those who know you?
Rachel’s legacy through her sons is what the elders in the Book of Ruth refer to when they say that “Rachel and Leah… together built up the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11), a verse that we also encountered last week. When I hear this, I imagine these two sisters building up a castle, taking turns laying the stones brick-by-brick. You may choose to illustrate this verse in that way, or you may decide that you would like to take the verse in a more personal direction by reflecting on your own legacy. What have you ‘built’ in your life, through work, family, or relationships? Consider journaling that today, illustrating your family or friends, or even a self-portrait of you Bible journaling as you leave behind a legacy of faith. Finally, you may choose to letter the word ‘legacy’ in the margin of your Bible, surrounded by meaningful words or phrases that relate to the legacy you hope to leave behind. Have fun with this verse as you journal today.
If you’d like to read more about Leah and her story, please feel free to check out these resources. All links to Amazon throughout this post are affiliate links.
- “Leah” in Women of the Bible: 52 Bible Studies for Individuals and Groups by Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda, pages 64-70. This is a great book that I’ll be referencing a lot in this series. It reflects on 52 different women of the Bible and includes context, prayers, and reflection questions. This book is more faith-focused than academic.
- “They May Have Been Twins — But Not Identical” in A Faith of Her Own: Women of the Old Testament by J. Ellsworth Kalas, pages 49-60. This is a great book of reflections on women of the Bible, written by famed pastor and professor J. Ellsworth Kalas. It is an easy read and offers new insights. This book is more faith-focused than academic.
- The Red Tent by Anita Diamante. This is a fictionalized telling of the life of Dinah, Leah’s only daughter. Part 1 of this book focuses heavily on the story of Leah and Rachel. Though this book is fictional, it is beautifully written and has brought many people to be interested in the stories of women of the Bible — including me when I was thirteen years old!