In our Mummy Meditations community, we’ve been looking in detail at the story of Leah and Rachel. I say in detail, as we’re now in the sixth week of studying these women. We take one verse at a time, and really pull apart what God is saying in that verse.
It’s been an up and down journey with Leah and Rachel. There’s so much about these women that is so relevant to what we deal with today: the obsession with appearances, the spirit of comparison, the desire for a husband, the jealousy, the struggle to conceive. In her blog post last week, Rachel looked at how the character Rachel dealt with disappointment and jealousy, and this week, we look at her actions as a result of her disappointment.
Very simply, as Rachel seems to be unable to have children, she gives her servant to her husband to act as a surrogate.
A few months ago, we looked at Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. On the face of it, the women’s actions look the same: the wife gives her slave to her husband in order to conceive a child. Leaving aside the questions of slavery, of abuse and of adultery for the moment, the two stories are actually quite different.
You see, Jacob already has an heir. Leah has borne him two sons. Rachel is the more beloved wife, yet she cannot have children. In fact, we are told that God allows Leah to conceive children almost as a comfort or a panacea for being unloved.
Rachel’s desire for children doesn’t come from a desire to give Jacob an heir, or even to see God’s promises fulfilled, like Sarah. Instead, her desire for children comes from seeing what other people have. It’s the spirit of comparison over and over again.
As a result of this desire, several other people suffer. Poor Bilhah – ‘given’ to bear a child. It’s The Handmaid’s Tale happening in Genesis – in fact, in the dystopian novel, this story is the justification for the use of the handmaids, who bear the children for infertile couples.
When we looked at Hagar, we had such sympathy for her. Although we don’t hear Bilhah’s side of the story (she appears to become one of Jacob’s concubines), it’s all too easy to imagine the child taken from her. Having to watch the child that you grew and birthed, be claimed by another woman? That’s just all too hard.
Rachel’s selfishness comes across so strongly here. Yet, it’s a very human emotion. Millions of women struggle with infertility every day. Thankfully, we now have so many different options for infertile couples, and forced surrogacy is illegal. But taking action that harms others so that we can get our own desires? Perhaps that’s something to think about a bit more.
The part of the verse that really stood out to me this week was Rachel’s speech: “God has vindicated me; he has listened to my plea and has given me a son.” Honestly, I can understand this. She prayed for a son; through her own actions, she has been given a son. Yet, when we compare this to Hannah, who also prayed desperately for a son, without harming others, we see a significant difference.
She is mistaken. God has not vindicated her. God has not provided her with a son. Later on – sorry for the spoilers – Rachel does give birth herself to two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. These sons were from God, but Dan, and later Naphtali, were born through Rachel’s own intervention, rather than divine intervention.
I think this is a really hard thing to contemplate: when are our prayers answered by our own human actions, and when are our prayers answered by God? For surely, and certainly, God uses human actions to answer prayers?
I think the answer lies with Bilhah. If our human actions cause other people to suffer, or cause God’s laws to be broken (here, the commandment of ‘Do not commit adultery’ is broken), then it is not from God. There’s also a need to be in tune with the Holy Spirit, and to be spending time regularly in prayer and in studying God’s word. I imagine, in her jealousy and desire for a son, that Rachel was not particularly mindful of those things when she claimed that God had vindicated her.
Also, I think the word ‘vindicated’ is significant here. ‘To vindicate’ means to clear someone of blame or suspicion, and also to prove someone to be right, reasonable or justified. Perhaps Rachel felt some guilt about how she had treated Leah? Perhaps she felt some guilt about how she had treated Bilhah? And the birth of a healthy boy, to her, ‘proved’ that her actions were reasonable and justified? How often do we feel ‘justified’ when we commit some kind of sin?
In this story, it’s easy to dismiss Rachel as the ‘pretty and beloved one.’ Eventually, she gets her desires. But it’s such a long, slow struggle for her. She has so much to learn, about the nature of God, about grace and kindness, and about guilt.
Join us next week as we look at the next twist in this family saga, Genesis 30:15: But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?” “Very well,” Rachel said, “he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” Do come over to our Mummy Meditations Community and join in the discussion.