What is a Woman Worth?
Systems and Agency in Haran
This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Genesis these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.
TW: Patriarchy, Fertility Challenges
Jacob had deceived his brother, not once, but twice—manipulated or outright stolen from the elder brother what, for all rights, should have been his. Esau, understandably, was furious about the second, more elaborate deception. Rebecca—the parent who aided and abetted Jacob’s theft of the elder brother’s blessing—advised Jacob that perhaps it was time to, you know, get out of town for a bit, and sent him to visit her brother Laban.
Just as he got to Haran, Jacob encountered Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, and fell for her quickly. Within the month, he had asked Laban that his wages be the opportunity to marry her after seven years’ work.
Of course, there were two sisters involved in the story; to my great personal consternation, the main thing that the text wants us to know about Rachel is that she is Very Hot.
“Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had soft eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful.” (Genesis 29:16-17)
I’m going to generously—and still with some amount of eye-rolling—choose to suggest that we could read this (still problematic) framing for these women from Jacob’s perspective. He’s a young, impressionable man, struck particularly by the looks of the woman with whom he is smitten, sure, OK.
But it tells us a lot, actually, as we set up this story about women, and women in a patriarchal system, that the text wants us to know how important her appearance is to her value, here.
The question about Leah’s eyes is somewhat more interesting. The word describing her eyes is often translated as “weak,” but could just as well be translated as “soft” or “tender.” And indeed, commentaries abound--one midrash suggests they were soft from crying because she thought she was supposed to marry the (too-vilified) Esau. (Genesis Rabbah 70:16) and pointed to her sensitivity as a person. A 12th-13th c. Franco-German tradition (Daat Zekinim) suggests that the softness of her eyes made her “beautiful all over,” as opposed to just having Rachel’s hot bod. And there are commentaries suggesting that her soft/weak eyes reflect a disability—and, perhaps, a liability in the ancient world, where women’s value was measured by financial transaction.
Again, what is a woman worth, and why?
It may be worth noting that Laban so saw his daughters as property that he named them after livestock. Leah means “cow” in Akkadian or proto-Semitic, and Rachel means “ewe.” So.
Anyway, after the seven years, this happens:
Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I may have sex with her.”
And Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast.
When evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him; and he had sex with her...When morning came, there was Leah! So he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?” Laban said, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.” (Genesis 29:21-26)
The guy whose major defining characteristic up until this point had been cheating and manipulating the rights associated with birth order (a significant thing in this society) finds that he, himself, has been cheated and manipulated, as relates to birth order. It seems, finally, Jacob has found someone who is as capable of pulling dirty shenanigans as he is. Game must recognize game—or, at least, game must recognize that what goes around also comes around.
There are, of course, questions about Rachel and Leah’s roles in this deception. It’s easy to see them rendered passively in the text—married off—but that’s neither inevitable nor particularly realistic.
They were sisters, both necessarily party to the manipulation and trickery, here. Various midrashim depict Rachel teaching Leah the secret signs she had developed with Jacob so that Leah could fool him (Talmud Bava Batra 123a) or even hiding in the tent as Jacob and Leah consummated the marriage, answering him with her own voice (Genesis Rabbah 70). In that latter midrash, Rachel even savagely rebukes Jacob when he tries to be indignant about it.
All that night, Jacob would cry out to her “Rachel!” and she [Rachel, hiding] answered him. In the morning, he saw it was Leah. He said to [Rachel]: “What is the trickery you pulled on me?!” She said to him: “Is there ever a teacher with no students? Did not your father call out ‘Esau’ and you [in trickery] answered him! (Genesis 27:24) So too, you called out to me and I [in trickery] answered you.”
Oof. It burns.
However, whatever implied solidarity there might be between the sisters is burned through pretty quickly once Jacob gets the green light to marry Rachel, too; everybody should probably have taken a pause and read some books on ethical nonmonogamy before proceeding in what turn out to be fraught emotional and reproductive waters. To wit:
“And Jacob had sex with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah...God saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.” (Genesis 29:30-31)
What a mess. Was God only (metaphorically, non-anthropomorphically) trying to help by compensating Leah for her lack of genuine love by making sure she had access to the other tool of power and control a woman might have in an ancient patriarchal society? Sure, you can see it.
Might it have been a bit better for God to, you know, have helped to unseat the patriarchy completely and saved us all thousands of years of trauma and suffering? I’m just saying.
Life is a Sacred Text is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support this work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This then kickstarts a whole back and forth wherein Rachel and Leah compete with each other for Jacob’s favor through the mass production of babies.
Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘God has seen my affliction’; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’” She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This is because God heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also”; so she named him Simeon. Again she conceived and bore a son and declared, “This time my husband will become attached to me, for I have borne him three sons.” Therefore he was named Levi. She conceived again and bore a son, and declared, “This time I will praise God.” Therefore she named him Judah...When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” (Genesis 29:32-30:1)
This section of the story is mostly desperate and painful, though there is one interesting little interlude in a couple of verses:
Once, at the time of the wheat harvest, Reuben came upon some mandrakes in the field and brought them to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”
But she said to her, “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” Rachel replied, “I promise, he shall lie with you tonight, in return for your son’s mandrakes.”
When Jacob came home from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” And he lay with her that night. (Genesis 30:14-16).
Mandrakes—probably mandragora autumnalis, a member of the nightshade family—were thought to have medicinal properties associated with fertility. (I decided, in the end, not to go down an entire botanical rabbit hole to determine whether or not there is peer-reviewed data to back this up, but, in any case, there seems to be a longstanding association.)
In any case, inside an episode of two fiercely competitive sisters, desperate both for their husband’s love and the power and control that their status as mothers can confer them, we have this scene in which one of them has something that the other wants, and they cooly negotiate the terms of the exchange with one other.
Jacob has no say, no voice, he simply must agree with whatever is decided—not unlike the ways in which he had to suck it up and accept the terms of his post-facto updated wedding agreement(s).
This set of stories is profoundly about patriarchal control, patriarchal societies—these women’s only sources of hope are as heir-producing mothers; they are pitted against each other for life by their father for this one guy’s favor. Neither of them has any ability to decide to leave this unhealthy dynamic and go, I don’t know, get a small business loan and start a pottery shop in the neighboring town.
They have no freedom, no financial protection if they are not under the shelter of their father or husband, and they have precious few options even within this framework.
Jacob experiences some mild comeuppance in this mandrake interlude, as he did with the wedding, but both were in the larger context of choices he was able to freely make, and, in the end, he walks away from both episodes with his agency freely intact.
Rachel and Leah’s choices, on the other hand, were mitigated from the beginning, their bodies and their roles defined by their usefulness to Jacob, but also operating in periodic defiance to—or at least moderate subversion of—him.
These stories are a potent reminder that systems and individuals are not the same thing.
Rachel and Leah are trapped in a patriarchal system.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have any agency, or that Jacob always has a voice.
And it is a reminder that having less power isn’t the same thing as having no power, and that there wasn’t room for yet more choice and agency to be wielded.
For, indeed, Rachel and Leah were not the only women conscripted into their babymaking wars.
“[Rachel] said, ‘Here is my enslaved-woman Bilhah. Have sex with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children….’ When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took her enslaved-woman Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as concubine.” (Genesis 30:3, 30:9)
Needless to say, Bilhah and Zilpah could not, did not consent to this forced taking of their sexual and reproductive lives, their bodies.
Though we see places where Rachel and Leah find ways to claim agency in a patriarchal society, they also deny it to these two women who have no safe way to refuse sex to the man to whom they have been “given,” no capacity to decline a forced pregnancy, coerced surrogacy, no voice in the question of whether they might raise these children as their own.
Like Hagar, Bilhah and Zilphah do not consent, do not choose—and the text doesn’t even share enough about them to even begin to offer the reader a true look at their experience.
We never hear them speak.
If you like this kind of thing, there’s more of it—
For free every Monday—sign up at the button just below.
And you can get even more as part of a community of rabble rousers going deep into the questions and issues, with even more text and provocation, every Thursday. That includes archives, guided text study, open discussion threads, more musings, Ask The Rabbi threads, guest posts and building community through applying the biggest questions to our own lives Please join us (also at the button just below).
Or you can subscribe at the paid level if you want to support this work and simply want to enable it to continue.
And please know that nobody will ever be kept out due to lack of funds. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org for a hookup. And if you’d like to underwrite one of these donated subscriptions, you can do so here.
And if it resonated with you, please share this post:
Sending a big pile of blessings and goodness your way.