Sibling Rivalry: The Story of Leah and Rachel

Jeremiah R. Grosse
February 15, 2011
Reproduced with Permission

Any parent who has two or more children or anyone has at least one sibling can understand the issue of sibling rivalry with no problem whatsoever. In some cases it actually helps the siblings to become more productive and make use of gifts or talents they never knew they had. The challenge is when the siblings believe that they must compete for their parents' affection. This can lead to nastiness, backbiting, and undermining the very people who are supposed to be there for us when no one else is, namely our own family.

The story of Leah and Rachel is rather unique in terms of sibling rivalries since we rarely hear of two sisters married to the same man at the same time. The fact that they are both sisters as well as wives to the same husband adds an entirely new dimension to such rivalry, especially when the husband openly professes his love for only one of the sisters.

What do we know about these two sisters? After Jacob is sent to Haran to live with his uncle in order to avoid Esau's wrath after Jacob stole Isaac's blessing which was intended for Esau, he meets Rachel in the field near Haran where she is shepherding her father's flock. Jacob kissed Rachel and wept aloud.

When Laban heard that his sister's son, Jacob, had arrived, Laban went to meet him. He embraced and kissed Jacob and said, "Surely you are my bone and my flesh." After Jacob had spent one month at Laban's home, Laban said, "Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing?"

At first glance it would seem that Leah and Rachel are the objects which Jacob and Laban are trading. Note the flow of the text here: [Laban says] "What shall your wages be?" which is followed immediately by the words, "Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah and the name of the younger one was Rachel." Not only Rachel, but also Leah would be Jacob's possession. They would surely share the same fate.

Although we seem to know nothing more than the fact that they were sisters, stories handed down throughout the generations about their similarities circulated amongst the people. Some even believed them to be twins. Given the fact that Esau and Jacob were twins, there is every reason to believe that Leah and Rachel may have been twins based upon the fact that twins run in families.

Like Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel were described as quite different from the very outset of the story. Listen to the Genesis account again, "Now Laban had two daughters, the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger one was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was shapely and beautiful."

Leah may have been fittingly described as having weak eyes (einayim rakkot), since her name, Leah, means weak or tired. Over the course of time a legend grew that Leah's eyes were indeed weakened and she herself became weary from weeping over her fate. For when she and her sister were born, her father, Laban, had arranged with his sister, Rebekah, living in Canaan that their two first born children, Leah and Esau, would one day marry, as would the two younger children, Rachel and Jacob. When Leah heard what kind of person Esau was, she prayed to God, beseeching, "May it be Your will that I do not fall to the lot of that wicked man." Leah's eyes were weak because of her deeply sensitive nature.

Perhaps that is why people said that Leah's eyes were rakkot, since the Hebrew word more typically means delicate or soft. While Rachel was outwardly beautiful, certainly more physically appealing than her sibling, Leah was sensitive and kind - tender of spirit. The sisters represent two different natures - two different forms of beauty, and Leah's purity of spirit is deemed more substantive. Indeed, Rachel, the beautiful one, was barren, while Leah, by contrast, was very fertile. Rachel, who later stole her father's household gods, is appropriately described as barren, "being void" of concern and sensitivity.

The differences between the sisters should not be surprising since we know that surface beauty is often deceptive. We, like Jacob, however, are frequently enticed by what our eyes see and what our hearts feel, as opposed to that which our minds and souls can appreciate. We, too, are taken in by surface traits and rarely ever probe more deeply.1 How often have we heard about people entering into a relationship and if there was no immediate "chemistry" the relationship ends up going nowhere?

It would appear that there was "chemistry" between Rachel and Jacob; however, this may have blinded him to some of Rachel's faults. The fact that initially she seemed to be devoid of any real emotions is not a positive quality. She may have been beautiful to look at, but there does not appear to be any real substance once one gets below the surface.

After working for Laban for seven years, Jacob finally approaches his uncle and says, "Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I may lie with her." (Gen. 29:21) Now it is time for Laban to take advantage of this opportunity and use his daughters as barter. Laban's has already received seven years of essentially free labor from his nephew and he had no intention of losing such a valuable commodity as the result of a wedding.

The night of Jacob's wedding, after a large feast celebrating his union to Rachel, as Jacobs lies waiting in their marriage bed, Laban tricks his son-in-law by substituting Leah for Rachel. Jacob slept with Leah thinking that Rachel had shared his bed. How was it possible that he could be fooled like this? After residing in Laban's home for seven years and counting the days until he was able to make Rachel his wife, why wasn't he able to tell with whom he slept? Did he not know the sisters at all, or was he so self-involved that he simply could not distinguish one sister from the other? What is known is that in the morning light, Jacob was aghast to see Leah.2

Perhaps we should not be surprised since Jacob was able to convince his blind father, Isaac, that he was Esau in order to steal Esau's blessing and now the same trick which he pulled on his father was pulled on him. After all, Jacob may not have been blind; however, she would have been veiled and with no light available and in the throes of passion he may not have been able to distinguish one sister from another.

Is Jacob's vulnerability so surprising to us? Have we not wondered how it is possible that we fall prey to the very traits and acts which we have witnessed in relation to our parents and criticized? People thought many times that once they become parents, they would never do the things that their parents did to them! However, there is more here. When they are honest with themselves, they will even admit (if they are at all self-aware) that their kids act toward them the very same way that they acted toward their parents, and their kids, like them, get away with it. They are as vulnerable to their children as their parents were to them, and things have a way of coming full circle. So it is that Jacob gained the status of the firstborn and then, to his chagrin, married the firstborn daughter of Laban.

Jacob's fate vis à vis Laban's daughters was set by his actions with his own father and brother. The deceiver was now the one who was deceived, although Jacob does not seem to understand the connection between the events, as he incredulously exclaims to Laban, "What is it that you have done to me? Did I not work for Rachel for you! Why did you deceive me?" (Gen. 29:25) Ironically, his father, Isaac, had used the same term in describing his actions toward his brother Esau: He said, "Your brother has deceived me and took your blessing." (Gen. 27:35)

We all know individuals like Jacob. It might be your own son or daughter, one of your siblings, or we ourselves (however, we probably would not recognize it in ourselves). It is the person who is quick to complain about how he or she is being treated, all the time failing to understand that he or she is guilty of the very same behavior. It is the child who pouts about her brother who would not lend her a toy, yet is never comfortable sharing what she has with others. Why is it that we criticize in others what are sometimes the very traits we possess?3

One thing we have not looked at is how this turn of events impacted these two sisters. What was it like for both of them to live under the same roof as Jacob for these seven years? All this time Jacob was working in order to make Rachel his wife. How did the two sisters relate to one another? How did Leah feel knowing that Jacob desired Rachel? Did this serve to confirm her belief that she was not attractive and would not attract a man? Even worse, what was she to do when her father took her aside on the evening of Rachel's wedding and told her that she was to lie with Jacob? Did she try to talk her father out of this decision knowing what it would mean to Rachel or perhaps she was somewhat eager knowing that it would be her that Jacob would wed? After all these years of feeling rejected, now she is finally going to marry; however, in the morning both she and her father had to face Rachel. What could Leah possibly say that would relieve Rachel's pain?

Each one of us who has a sibling knows that moment when we faced our brother or sister, when one of us was hurt by our parent who gave unexpected and perhaps unwarranted preferential treatment to the other. Surely those people blessed with children have done the same more than once, causing one of them much pain. Sometimes parents do try to compensate, however inappropriately, when they perceive that one of their children needs special attention, despite the unfairness and the tension it engenders. Many times, they think that their actions are justified. In the light of morning, as the children face them and each other just as their matriarchal forbearers did, what could they possibly say to one another? Could Laban have acted any differently given his family's situation? Can parents today forestall conflict among their children by better anticipating how what they do will affect them?

What makes matters worse and complicates the situation even more was Laban's promise to give Rachel to Jacob following the seven day bridal feast if he would serve him for another seven years. (Gen. 29:27) Not only would Leah and Rachel have to live under the same roof as wives of the same man, but they would do so knowing Jacob's preference and remembering the way in which Leah had joined with him. For the foreseeable future, they would share the same husband, if not his affections.4

Although Leah and Rachel shared a husband, both sisters were convinced that Jacob loved only Rachel. Was this really the case? Our sole indication about how Jacob felt is that we are told that "he, indeed, loved Rachel more than Leah." Jacob clearly felt more for the younger of the two sisters, but Leah is not despised or rejected. We do not hear of Jacob's indifference to Leah; he never says anything about how he feels towards her; nor is he willing to forego his relationship with her in deference to her sister. Jacob simply loved them both, albeit feeling more passionately for Rachel. This, in fact, might have aggravated the situation. Knowing that Jacob loved each of them - perhaps in different ways - could only serve to make the sisters' relationship more contentious. What lay ahead was seven years of strife as each sister/wife would vie for her husband's attention and love?

Parents too can sometimes sense that one of their children feels unappreciated or unloved, no matter how much they pay attention to him or her. That child is convinced that they love their other child(ren) more, even though it might be the case of loving their children in different ways. This is particularly true in families where there are both children and stepchildren. Often, it is impossible for the spouse's children to feel that the stepparent cares for them in any deep way. It is so obvious to them that their stepparent's affections lie with their "real" children. Not only the spouse's children, but the "real" children experience the same feelings among themselves.

Like them, Leah's feelings did not go unnoticed. Although Jacob may not have looked at her in the same way he looked at Rachel, and as a result she may have felt tremendously insecure, jealous, and unworthy, there was a power in the universe in whose eyes she could find favor. God saw how bereft Leah felt and helped her to realize her own worth and power by enabling her to become pregnant. (Gen. 29:31) She would be the wife who would bear Jacob's children. Once again, we are struck by the contrast drawn between the two sisters. Leah, the sibling with the weak eyes, though not as attractive as her sister Rachel, was perhaps softer and more sympathetic as well as more fertile. It is poignant that Rachel, who was physically more beautiful, at this point was incapable of having children. Leah, the more compassionate one, had her womb opened by God, while Rachel remained barren. The sisters appear almost diametrically opposite, two very different individuals physically as well as emotionally. Taken symbolically, Rachel and Leah, like their counterparts, Jacob and Esau, represent the contrasting sides of each other. As we witness their competition, we get in touch not only with our own conflicts with our siblings, but with our inner struggles as well. We, too, can at times be warm, compassionate, and giving, and at other times be cold, empty, and hard. The struggle between these two sisters forces us to confront who we are.5

Who we are should be the reflection of our own gifts and talents; however, how often do we define ourselves in relation to the "other"? So it is with Rachel and Leah. Until now we know absolutely nothing about Rachel's feelings. Perhaps she is totally devoid of them? Yet, having experienced the birth of her sister's four sons (including Jacob's eldest son, Reuben) and realizing that she has not provided Jacob with any children, she became envious of Leah and demanded of her husband, "Give me children or I shall die!" (Gen. 30:1) All Rachel can see is that her sister is fertile and presented her husband with four sons, and that as a result, her relationship with Jacob is in jeopardy. If we did not know better we might have thought that it was Leah who mouthed these words. Here Rachel sounds just like her sister prior to the birth of her children. Rachel, too, seems insecure, jealous, and self-deprecating. Only through bearing children can she feel whole and fulfilled.

If we are honest with ourselves here, Rachel's response is quite painful to us - most probably because deep down we know these feelings of jealousy and insecurity. We have felt at times, especially in our youth, inferior to our brother or sister, and most probably expressed it inappropriately. We yelled at one of our parents or took it out on another sibling, but we rarely ever expressed our feelings directly since we were not even all that conscious of them. Parents have seen their children act in similar ways. How many of their actions are a result of how they feel vis à vis one of their siblings? When one child heard that his brother had gotten excellent grades for the semester and he was able to get only Cs no matter how hard he tried, his negative self-perception resulted in biting and angry comments towards everyone. We experience inappropriate behavior in our families all the time, but we do not always recognize the source.

Angered by Rachel's outburst, Jacob retorts, "Can I take the place of God, who has denied you the fruit of the womb?" (Gen. 30:2) Jacob seems completely oblivious to Rachel's pain. He does not realize how painful it has been for her to witness her sister giving birth to one son after another while she remains barren. How can this be? All Jacob is capable of is denying his own responsibility and putting the onus on her, and, by extension, on God. How different from Leah who raised her voice praising God for providing her with children. (Gen. 29:35) Up until this point, there is no indication that Rachel ever praised God for anything she had received.

Jacob's angry response to Rachel is not unfamiliar. We all know couples who are faced with problems of infertility and the strain that it places upon their relationship. Feelings of frustration, anger, defensiveness, and guilt are all common in these situations. The anguish experienced by a couple who is unable to get pregnant cannot and must not be either dismissed or diminished in any way. The bearing of children is one of the premier fruits of marriage and for many, particularly those who do not believe in life after death, that they will be able to live on in their children long after they have died.6 The fact that Jacob professed his love for Rachel so openly leads us to believe that he would be more understanding of her pain, which makes his response all the more shocking.

Believing that her relationship with Jacob is slipping away from her, Rachel, like Sarah before her, offers Jacob her handmaid, Bilhah, so that she might bear children for Jacob.7 Both Leah and Rachel become convinced that bearing a child would raise their status and solidify their relationship with Jacob. It is sad to think that a wife would not be respected as much for who she is as for what she can provide for her husband (namely children); however, there are numerous examples of couples getting divorced because they were not able to bear children.

When Bilhah conceives a bears a son for Jacob, Rachel exclaims, "God has judged me and has also heard my voice and given me a son!" Even though she and Leah had emphasized that God heard their pleas, she cannot name her son Simeon, or any variation on that name, since Leah had already named her son Simeon, so she names her son, Dan. The two sisters act in almost identical ways and their lives are continuously intertwined. They are locked in an intense a struggle as their cousins, Jacob and Esau.

This is most evident when Rachel's handmaid conceives again and gives birth for a second time. Upon seeing the child, Rachel exclaims, "I have been engaged in a God-like struggle (naftulei Elohim naftalti) with my sister and I have prevailed." (Gen. 30:8) Rachel therefore named her second son, Naphtali. Echoing through Rachel's words is the description of Jacob's struggle at the Jabbok with his counterpart: "You have struggled with the Divine and the human, and you have prevailed." (Gen. 32:29) Rachel prevailed over her sister just as Jacob would prevail over Esau in his struggle.

Like her husband Jacob, Rachel was able to overcome the other side of herself, her shadow, and become whole. The tension and strife between the two sisters is summed up in this one dramatic remark by Rachel, but at the same time it powerfully recalls the similar stories of self-struggle throughout Genesis. Just as these Biblical characters, we wrestle with all that is within us, in hopes of prevailing - overcoming our fragmentation and overcoming the disparate elements within us.

The conflict between Rachel and Leah should not surprise us; however, since they, like other siblings in the stories in Genesis have much in common. Now that Rachel's handmaid has provided Jacob with two sons, Leah, who just a few short years ago felt that the bond between her and her husband was secure and firm, can only think about one thing - that she is no longer able to bear children. All that she can see is her barrenness, just as her sister Rachel several years before had been envious of her. Each one is defined by the other.

Given the fact that Leah was unable to give Jacob children, what was she to do? Like her sister, Leah gave her handmaid, Zilpah, to Jacob in the hope that she would provide children to Jacob through Zilpah. Not only did both wives give their handmaids to their husband, but Zilpah quickly conceives and bears two sons, who Leah names Gad and Asher. Once again feeling vindicated, and even triumphant, Leah proclaims, "What luckcwhat fortune! Women will deem me fortunate." (Gen. 30:11-13) The shift in fortune and role reversal only serves to underscore the tension between the two symbolic sides of every person. As different as they are, the two sisters experience their conflict in similar ways, just as each of us vacillate between feelings of control and vulnerability. In this light, the only question we think about here is how Rachel will react to Zilpah's bearing two additional sons for Leah. Though Rachel thought she had prevailed over her sister, it is clear that she will have to do something drastic if she is to retain Jacob's love.

In the days of the wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the first, and brought them to his mother Leah. Mandrakes were believed to have an aphrodisiac quality. Rachel then said to Leah, "Please give me some of your son's mandrakes." Leah responded, "Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take my son's mandrakes also?" Rachel said, "Then he may lie with you tonight for your son's mandrakes."

The balance of power has now clearly tipped in Leah's favor. She sees how important the mandrakes are to Rachel. Her sister has given up the one thing that she has had all these years, access to Jacob. This is done in order to gain Leah's mandrakes which symbolize her fertility.

When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him, and said, "You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son's mandrakes." This is surely not the same Leah which we have met before. She has now gone out into the field, similar to the way Rachel had been in the field shepherding her father's flock. The roles seem to be reversed as Leah behaves much more like her younger sister.

Jacob lies with Leah that night and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Leah said, "God has given me my hire because I gave my handmaid to my husband"; so she named him Issachar. Leah conceived again, and bore Jacob a sixth son.

If the relationship between the two sisters had changed, so has Jacob's relationship with them. One can only imagine what Jacob thought when Leah informed him that he was her "hireling" that night. After all, when he first came to Laban's house, his uncle gave him his daughter Rachel as his "wages" and seven years later Jacob demanded payment. Over the course of his stay in Haran, he had gone from the barterer to the one being bartered. The exchange between Leah and Rachel here also reminds us of the incident between Esau and Jacob over the birthright. In both, an established right is given up for a desired vegetable substance. Esau sells his birthright for a pot of lentil soup, while Rachel exchanges her "right" to lie with Jacob for Leah's mandrakes. Jacob, who takes advantage of his brother's desperate hunger and as a result his willingness to give up his status, is here the very object being bartered. As Esau could only think of his immediate gratification, so, too, can Rachel. The irony, of course, is that not only does Jacob become the object being bartered, but Leah's actions remind us of his own behavior toward Esau - both seem in control and take advantage of their siblings.

Just when we seem to be able to understand one or all of the characters in the narrative, they change on us. As sides or shadows of the symbolic whole, we should not be surprised when they when they act in completely contradictory ways. We, too, occasionally act in very different ways, exhibiting our contrary sides. Yet, we derive hope that we can bridge the sides of our own natures from the coming together of Leah and Rachel.8

The powerful moment of Leah conceiving after lying with Jacob is all too familiar to many today who struggle to conceive a child. When people desperately want children, sometimes nothing they try seems to help. They have utilized every kind of mandrake, but to no avail. Occasionally, when the individuals simply are relaxed and comfortable with themselves and their relationship, when the feel a sense of wholeness and bonding, they unexpectedly experience the miracle of childbirth.

There is something much more important here for us to reflect upon, even if we have never faced problems with infertility. As we try to become "new" selves, the notion that giving up something which seemingly will give us power we can become empowered is a challenge we all must face. Do we really believe it? Can we actualize it in our own lives? Can we who need to feel in control and enjoy exercising the power of our office or position learn to act in the exact opposite manner? Can we alter the way in which we relate to those who are significant in our lives, thereby finding our true selves and greater happiness in the process? The story of Leah and Rachel teaches us that we have no choice but to struggle with these challenging questions.

As stated earlier, after Jacob slept with Leah she conceived and bore him another son. Leah felt the power of this new life she had created surging through her body and she believed that surely she was assured of her place in Jacob's life. When she immediately conceived again, she knew that God, in giving her this gift, had guaranteed her future. It was Leah who had provided Jacob with the majority of his sons, including Reuben, his eldest son, and Judah whose tribe would bring forth the messiah. She named her sixth son, Zebulon, because the bond between her and Jacob would last forever.

Zebulon would not be the last of Leah's children. After his birth, Leah bore a daughter whom she named Dinah. A story circulated among Jacob's clan that Dinah's birth was miraculous. Supposedly Leah was informed by the oracles that she was carrying a boy in her womb, which would have given her seven sons while her sister had only one of her own. Feeling secure in herself and in her relationship with Jacob, she now empathized with her sister's predicament for the first time. Leah prayed earnestly for a girl, asking that God would alter the sex of the child in her womb. Leah's piety and caring, long recognized by the people, is clear here and her prayer is the first step toward reducing the tension between the two sisters. The battle for Jacob's affection and their place in the family hierarchy seems to be over. The sisters, apparently so different, are now moving toward a greater sense of unity and integration.

Leah had given up her mandrakes and the possibility of giving birth to a seventh son. Rachel had given up the one thing which had given her power in her relationship with her sister - namely access to Jacob. By sacrificing something of themselves each sister gained. As God had opened Leah's womb years earlier, He now opened Rachel's womb. She bore Jacob a son and named him, Joseph, for God had removed her disgrace.

The sisters were finally equals; both had provided Jacob with a blessing for the future. Rachel bore Joseph with the promise of a twelfth son, Benjamin, a son of Jacob's old age, just as Leah had provided him with his firstborn.9 Even after all of this we are left with the problem of not knowing which of Jacob's two wives is more valued and which of his sons will be the guarantor of his peoples' future. Reuben, Leah's eldest son, was, by right, the guarantor; however, he slept with Bilhah, Rachel's handmaid, which defiled Jacob's marriage bed since was considered his wife according to ancient Near East custom once she bore Jacob children. Sleeping with Bilhah cost Reuben his position as heir.

Joseph and Benjamin were the sons of his old age. It is not surprising that he adored Joseph since his mother, Rachel, was the apple of Jacob's eye. In choosing Joseph to be his heir, Jacob unknowingly insured that the tension which had existed between Leah and Rachel would be carried on to the next generation.10 This leaves us wondering if our conflicts with our own siblings and with the shadows of our own personalities can ever be totally resolved. Can we truly repair our relationships and thereby experience a greater sense of wholeness in our lives?11

End Notes

1 Norman J. Cohen Self, Struggle and Change: Family Conflict Stories in Genesis and Their Healing Insights for Our Lives (VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006) p. 130 [Back]

2 Cohen, p. 131 [Back]

3 Cohen, p. 131 [Back]

4 Cohen, p. 132 [Back]

5 Cohen, p. 133 [Back]

6 Jeremiah R. Grosse "Artificial Insemination: A Religious Perspective" [Back]

7 According to Ancient Near Eastern law, a handmaid is considered an extension of her mistress and the child is legally her mistress' child. (Cohen, p. 205) [Back]

8 Cohen, p. 143 [Back]

9 Cohen, p. 146 [Back]

10 Jeremiah R. Grosse "Finding Guidance to Deal with Family Struggles" [Back]

11 Cohen, p. 148 [Back]