Rachel’s Empty Arms
By David Wright
The Genesis account of Joseph is a familiar Bible story. Even small children in Sunday school classes hear about the beautiful robe worn by Jacob’s favorite son. Joseph was only 17 when his older brothers stripped from him that symbol of their father’s partiality and sold him as a slave for 20 pieces of silver.
Potiphar, the captain of the Egyptian state police, purchased the boy. Joseph served well and was soon entrusted with all his master’s financial affairs. Unfortunately, Potiphar was not the only person in the household pleased to have Joseph about.
Finding the young man irresistibly handsome, Potiphar’s wife made bold advances. Joseph turned her down. Hurt and angry, she resolved to get even. She accused the young slave of attempted rape.
This false charge landed Joseph in prison, where he remained for several miserable years. But God had not forgotten his faithful servant. Pharaoh himself freed Joseph and made him ruler over all the land of Egypt, his vice-regent.
Seven years later a severe famine afflicted the region. Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy grain for their hungry families. Joseph treated them harshly at first, accusing them of being spies and even imprisoning them for a few days. Finally, though, he relented. Joseph revealed his true identity and forgave his brothers, repaying their treachery with genuine kindness.
Yes, Joseph endured years of suffering. Every good Bible student knows the story well. But Rachel, the patriarch’s mother, suffered an ordeal of her own, an ordeal countless other women have experienced.
Rachel and her family lived in the ancient Mesopotamian city Haran. It was located on the Balikh River, a branch of the Euphrates. In the days of the patriarchs, Haran was a thriving city. Important roads leading to Babylon, Damascus, and Nineveh converged there. Idolatry characterized the city’s religious life.
Rachel’s family was closely related to that of Abraham. Her great-grandfather Nahor and Abraham were brothers. Her aunt Rebekah married Isaac. Rachel herself, of course, was one of Jacob’s wives.
Rachel belongs to a small group of women honored in the Bible for their physical beauty. Leah, her older sister, had weak eyes, “but Rachel was beautiful of form and appearance” (Gen. 29:17). That is, she had a lovely face and figure.
God blessed Rachel with money too. When her future husband arrived in Haran, he seemed to own nothing more than what he carried on his person. Only a few years later, however, Jacob was quite wealthy. He “became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks, female and male servants, and camels and donkeys” (Gen. 30:43).
A gift presented to Esau hints at the extent of Jacob’s possessions. Jacob was returning home after an absence of 20 years, and he learned that his brother, accompanied by 400 men, planned to meet him. The twin brothers had parted on less than friendly terms. In fact, Jacob had left home for Haran because Esau was threatening to murder him. So to appease any bitterness that might still be lingering in his brother’s heart, Jacob presented him with “two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milk camels with their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten foals” (Gen. 32:14-15). The total number of animals equaled 580. If Rachel’s husband could make such a generous gift, then surely she could have any material thing she wanted.
This beautiful, rich woman had yet more to be thankful for. Her husband passionately loved her. When Jacob came to Haran, he immediately began working for Laban, Rachel’s father. After a month Laban said, “Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what should your wages be?” (Gen. 29:15). Jacob answered, “I will serve you seven years for Rachel your younger daughter” (v. 18).
To a generation of American women accustomed to opening doors and pulling out chairs for themselves, Jacob’s offer seems incredible. Yet this lengthy service did not trouble him at all. The years “seemed only a few days to him because of the love he had for her” (Gen. 29:20). However, the seven years stretched into 14.
On his wedding night Jacob received the wrong bride. Laban worried that he would be unable to find a groom for his unattractive Leah, and so he veiled her face and presented her to Jacob as Rachel. In the morning light Jacob discovered the deception and confronted his father-in-law. Laban explained that it was uncustomary to give the younger daughter before the elder and then proposed a second contract.
After a short honeymoon with Leah, Jacob was to marry Rachel — if he committed to another seven years of service. Jacob agreed to these terms. What else could he do? He and Rachel married a week later. If Jacob was smart, he peeked under the veil before saying “I do” the second time. Anyway, he consummated his second marriage, and he “loved Rachel more than Leah” (Gen. 29:30).
Someone unfamiliar with Rachel’s story may conclude that she had everything a woman of her day could possibly want. She was gorgeous. She was rich. Her husband was crazy about her. But such a conclusion would be wrong. What Rachel wanted more than anything else was the one thing she could not have.
A baby was what Rachel longed for. A baby was what she could not have. When God “saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Gen. 29:31).
At one time or another, most women experience the frustration of badly wanting something that everyone else seems to take for granted. Lisa, for instance, frets over her job. All her friends seem to enjoy their work. They do something meaningful and relish their relationships with coworkers. They receive good pay, an apparently inexhaustible number of personal days, and several weeks of vacation. They all have excellent insurance benefits and a generous retirement plan.
Lisa’s job, however, is boring and unsatisfying. She feels lonely at work instead of fulfilled. Her salary is below average, and her benefits trifling. To get a day off, she has to put a polished apple on the supervisor’s desk. Why, Lisa wonders, can’t I find a job like everyone else?
Unlike Lisa, Penny has no job outside the home. She has three small children, and caring for their needs is a full-time job – and then some. Penny’s frustration is an incredibly tight family budget. Other homemakers in the church throw money around like confetti. They shop at the mall and come home with bags of designer clothes for themselves and their children. They drive new SUV’s and live in spacious new houses.
But for Penny, even buying groceries is a strain. A carefree shopping trip is out of the question. Most of the clothes worn by the family are hand-me-downs. Just when it seems that she and her husband may be getting ahead, the children get sick. Medical bills eat up any surplus and leave the family even further behind. Why, Penny asks herself, can’t I have money like all my friends?
Jennifer’s frustration is altogether different. Its source wears an extra-large shirt and a pair of pants. Her three sisters have wonderful husbands, men who are sensitive and caring. They come home from work in the evening and immediately start helping around the house. They vacuum, mop, scrub the commode, wash clothes. Jennifer’s brothers-in-law are good with the children too. They help with homework, dress the little ones on Sunday morning, and read stories at bedtime. These exemplary fellows are romantic also. They never forget a birthday or anniversary. They pick out the sweetest cards and buy roses.
Jennifer’s husband would not recognize a rose if she stuffed it in his ear – something she is occasionally tempted to do. His idea of “helping around the house” is synonymous with home repair. If the hinges on the bathroom door are squeaking, he is right there with a spray of lubricant. But he is nowhere to be seen in the kitchen unless it is time to eat. He is too busy to play with the children but has plenty of time for every ball game on TV. Why, Jennifer wants to know, can’t I have a good husband like my sisters do?
The frustration of feeling left out is especially intense for the infertile woman. Everyone else seems able to have a baby. Unwed teenagers, completely unprepared for the responsibility of motherhood, easily get pregnant. Older women, already blessed with several children, have little “accidents” at age 40. Some women even conceive while using birth control. The infertile woman feels so excluded. She longs and prays for a baby. She cries bitter tears and undergoes painful examinations and tests. All to no avail. A baby simply will not come.
To Rachel’s great dismay, Leah seemed as fertile as a mother rabbit. She “conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben” (Gen. 29:32). Leah “conceived again” and gave birth to a son. She named him Simeon (v. 33). She conceived a third son, and “his name was called Levi” (v. 34). Leah gave birth to a fourth son, and “she called his name Judah” (v. 35).
Rachel was now bitter with disappointment. Leah was not only her sister but also a rival for Jacob’s love. Rachel knew that she was prettier than Leah and that Jacob had chosen her over her older sister, but would Rachel continue to have first place in her husband’s heart if Leah gave him children while Rachel could not? Rachel’s envy and despair led to a painful quarrel with Jacob. “Give me children,” she cried, “or else I shall die!” Furious with her, Jacob said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Gen. 30:1-2).
Rachel knew that fighting with Jacob was bringing her no closer to motherhood. So she chose the course that Sarah had taken years before. An ancient Mesopotamian marriage contract often included a stipulation that an infertile wife might give her servant girl to the husband. Any child conceived in that union would legally belong to the infertile wife. Sarah had exercised this option when she gave Hagar to Abraham.
Rachel had a servant girl. She told Jacob, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her” (Gen. 30:3). As hoped, Bilhah was able to conceive. She gave birth to two sons, Dan and Naphtali.
The remarks Rachel made when these boys were born revealed the anguish infertility had caused her. At the birth of Dan, she said, “God has judged my case; and He has also heard my voice and given me a son” (Gen. 30:6). These words pointed to the discouragement Rachel felt in her relationship with God. She had prayed and prayed, but it seemed that God was not listening. When Bilhah delivered Naphtali, Rachel said, “With great wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and indeed I have prevailed” (v. 8). This comment underscored the bitter conflict between the two sisters. Rachel envied Leah, resented her, competed with her.
If Rachel thought that the birth of two children by Bilhah was a victory over her sister, the triumph was short-lived. Leah, temporarily unable to conceive again, decided to give her own servant girl to Jacob. Zilpah exactly matched Bilhah’s success, giving birth to two sons. Leah named the first boy Gad. When the second child came, she “called his name Asher” (Gen. 30:13). “Asher” means “happy.” Leah might have been happy, but Rachel did not share her enthusiasm.
In fact, the next incident in the Genesis narrative was unbearably painful for Rachel. Reuben, the oldest son in the family, went into the field at wheat harvest time. There he found a plant superstitiously thought to help women conceive. When Reuben brought the mandrakes to his mother, Rachel learned of it and asked for them. Leah said, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” (Gen. 30:15). Rachel desperately wanted the mandrakes. Perhaps this was the very thing she needed. But to get them, she would have to strike a bargain with her sister.
What Rachel offered was her bedroom time with Jacob that evening. Leah readily accepted this proposal. When Jacob came from work that day, she met him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes” (Gen. 30:16). So Leah slept with him that night. And she conceived and gave birth to a fifth son, Issachar.
To Rachel, life must have seemed cruelly unfair. Even with the supposed aid of the mandrakes, she remained an infertile woman. Her sister conceived without them. And Leah was not finished yet. She got pregnant once again and delivered a sixth son, Zebulun. She also gave birth to a daughter, Dinah.
Rachel is beside herself at this point. Everyone but her, it seems, is a mother. Her sister has seven children. Her servant girl has two children. Leah’s servant girl has two children. But Rachel’s arms are empty.
Rachel had a broken heart, but she never stopped pouring out her anguish to God. He listened and at long last granted her request. She conceived and gave birth to a son.
Joy touched Rachel in every possible way. First, the baby’s birth removed the social stigma of infertility. “God,” Rachel said, “has taken away my reproach” (Gen. 30:23). Now she could hold her head high in the presence of all the other women in her family and society. She belonged, fit in.
The baby also renewed Rachel spiritually. It was a trying thing to feel that God was not listening, to cry out to him day after day and never seem to get an answer. This heavy spiritual burden was now lifted. She knew that God had “listened to her and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22).
Finally, Rachel experienced the intense physical and emotional pleasure of cuddling a warm, soft, beautiful child. She was so happy that she named her son Joseph, saying, “May the Lord add to me another son” (v. 24, NIV).
The author of Genesis felt no need to report that Rachel adored her new son as if he were the first baby ever born into the world. Proudly she nursed him. Happily she admired his tiny fingers and toes, and caressed his silken cheeks.
Having a baby was so thrilling that Rachel longed to repeat the experience. She was thinking of this when she named her son. “Joseph” means “may he add.” It was Rachel’s fervent prayer that God would give her a second son.
Rachel’s story has no happy ending. The birth of a second baby took her life. The Bible says that “she had hard labor” (Gen. 35:16). The midwife told her not to worry – she was delivering a second son. But Rachel was dying. And as her soul was slipping away, she named her boy Ben-Oni.
In Hebrew Ben-Oni means “son of my sorrow.” Rachel had good reason for feeling acute grief at the moment of death. She was dying young, but that was not the worst of it. Every loving mother fervently hopes to live long enough to raise her own children. This was Rachel’s hope, of course, but death crushed it. Joseph and Ben-Oni (renamed Benjamin by his father) would grow up without their mother. Life must have seemed a cruel thing to Rachel.
Leah’s life was equally difficult. She was born with an unattractive face. Something was wrong with her eyes. Fearing that he would never find a man for Leah, Laban resorted to trickery to secure her husband. How utterly humiliating! Jacob did not choose Leah, did not want her, did not love her.
Reading of Leah’s repeated attempts to win Jacob is deeply touching. When Reuben was born, she said, “The Lord has surely looked on my affliction. Now therefore, my husband will love me” (Gen. 29:32). But she was mistaken. When Levi was born, Leah said, “Now this time my husband will become attached to me” (v. 34). But she was wrong. After Zebulun’s birth, Leah said, “Now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons” (Gen. 30:20). Wrong again.
Leah lived her entire married life in the shadow of her beautiful younger sister. Probably, Jacob warmed to Leah somewhat after Rachel’s death, but even then his clear preference for Joseph and Benjamin was a constant reminder of Rachel’s cherished place in his heart. If Rachel could have somehow grasped the pain of Leah’s situation, sympathy might have eased her own burden.
Sympathy for other women may also console the infertile Christian woman today. As Rachel herself discovered, the ability to conceive and deliver a child is no protection against heartache. Some women give birth to two or three children and then die with ovarian cancer at age 30. Others bear healthy children who then become terminally ill at five years old or die on the highway at 16. Still others give birth to children severely disabled in mind or body.
Yes, life on earth is often cruel. Anyone looking for perfect fairness in this world is thoroughly disillusioned. No doubt, Rachel shared her husband’s desire for “a better, that is, a heavenly country” (Heb. 11:16). The heavenly country is the home where all earthly wrongs will be righted, where all hurts will be soothed away by God’s gentle touch. The Bible says that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
Rachel’s Empty Arms
The cause of Rachel’s infertility is unknown. Discuss some of the reasons why women are unable to conceive and bear children. How common is this problem? Many American women now marry in their late 20s and put off childbearing for several years. How does this trend affect fertility?
- Rachel felt social rejection as a result of infertility. Does an infertile woman experience the same thing today? Does she feel out of place in a world of mothers and children, or does she feel completely accepted?
- In this chapter the author suggested that if Rachel had grasped the pain of Leah’s situation, sympathy might have eased her burden somewhat. Do you agree or disagree? If forced to choose, would you prefer to walk in Leah’s shoes or Rachel’s? Explain why.
- A woman battling infertility may feel that her friends make matters worse by being insensitive. If you were unable to bear children, what comments would you resent? How comfortable would you be if other women asked about your problem? Would you want a friend to recommend adoption, or would you prefer to weigh the possibility in your own time and way?
- If an infertile Christian is hurting, what does she need from other women in the church? Discuss the healing power of friendship, prayer, and genuine sympathy. In a typical church family, how well do fertile women support their infertile sisters? What can be done in your congregation to improve this support?