A few days ago I mentioned the story of Rachel and Leah in my post. Actually, I didn’t. It was embedded in a quote I included from Dani Shapiro’s latest collection of brilliance, Devotion. A friend commented on the story of these two women; I told her I’d blog on it soon. Soon = today!
Rachel and Leah are married to the same man. (No, not in Utah; common practice in that time and culture.) Their story is mired in controversy from the start as Jacob falls in love with the beautiful Rachel, but is tricked into marrying the elder and less-beautiful Leah. He labors years for their father in order to have Rachel, as well. The die is cast. Tension abounds. As if that’s not enough, the plot thickens when we discover that Rachel is barren and Leah is giving birth with ease – multiple times. One particular scene ensues in which they bargain for mandrakes (a known fertility enhancer and aphrodisiac), knowing that the one who feeds them to Jacob will have him in her tent that night. ‘Doesn’t matter who “wins,” really. It’s the warring and competition that get me. The claws come out.
Or do they? (I attended a meeting a few weeks ago where a man said to me, “Be careful, Ronna; your claws are coming out.” Yes, really. You might be able to imagine how I felt about that.)
The story of these sisters is more disconcerting than encouraging. But here’s what I wonder: was such actually true or is it even remotely possible that it’s told and interpreted this particular way to make a not-so-subtle point; highlighting womens’ contention (over their collaboration), their cattiness, their “true” nature? Do you see where I’m going? All stories, no matter how or where they are told, scripture notwithstanding, illustrate something, tell us something, make a point. None are completely objective recitations of facts alone.
So what’s the meaning, the point, the application here? Well, I did a bit of digging. Here are a few options:
Date rape is nothing new…Mandrake was the date rape drug of choice. It was the focal point of the battle of Leah and Rachel, two warring wives who happened to be married to the same holy man of God. In this soap-operatic passage, one of Jacob’s wives bitches out his other bitch in a fit of jealousy and scorn, even attempting to swindle her son’s mandrakes. The son saves the mandrakes for his mother, protecting them from the evil co-wife, then his mother somehow sneakily intoxicates Jacob…becomes impregnated with their fifth son.
Never use sex to bargain or manipulate. Sexual intimacy is a sacred expression of love between a husband and wife that is to be enjoyed without any strings attached and without any politics.
Rachel and Leah were both in error by making a good gift from God (children) the ultimate touchstone of fulfillment and happiness. Leah could tell you that this did not prove out. So, today, a career will not bring a woman (or a man) fulfillment either…The worship of God is man’s highest and most noble end. Neither children nor careers will replace it. The biblical position seems to be that mothers who raise their children to be faithful worshippers of God have fulfilled their calling in life.
Admittedly, as I looked through various interpretations of this text, I saw some far better than these. And, in case you wonder, these aren’t the worst! (I’m not even giving attribution because that just feels cruel – and catty. Now wildly perpetuating the stereotype, I know.) See? I’m making my own point. Even in the way I’ve chosen to give my perspective, I’ve totally tipped my hand. Objectivity is an illusion. I’d rather not pretend anything other.
But underneath all this, this story makes me sad. We read of two women, two sisters, who allegedly war over a man. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t. We will never know. But even if so, is this the perspective and perpetuated stereotype we want remaining? God, I hope not.
Here’s what I know. The tendency definitely exists for catty, competitive behavior between women; but its not our “true nature” or birthright by any stretch of the imagination. Stories like these – and the pressures endured for centuries underneath the weight of patriarchy – are, at least in part, what initiate and force this behavior. When we must function, get ahead, and even survive in a man’s world where his bed, his domain, his “choosing of us” is what gives us value and worth, it’s not surprising that we war with one another. And yes, it makes me sad, for this is what’s imbued in the telling of Rachel and Leah’s story – time and time again.
The work of moving into worlds beyond patriarchy, beyond limited perspectives, beyond silence, is hard. But it can be done. It happens when we retell our own stories. It happens when we retell these old stories. It happens when we wonder how women might have told their own stories in Scripture if they were central, rather than peripheral. If they were not silenced, but given opportunity to roar! Lynn Gottlieb in She Who Dwells Within asks what happens
…when we transform Rachel and Leah’s stories into a tale about two loving sisters instead of jealous rivals? When we allow biblical women a story behind their roles as mother? …[when we mine the] wisdom contained in the traditional sources and help one another envision a future in which men and women have equal opportunities to tell stories in public?
When we are no longer silent…
Rachel’s voice matters. Leah’s voice matters. Mine does. Yours does. Tell the stories. Listen to theirs. Tell your own.
P.S. One might read this post and think that I’m this angry, militant woman up on a soapbox. Claws out. Teeth bared. It’s not that the tendency isn’t there, but that wouldn’t be an accurate reflective of how I feel about all of this, of my deeper motivation, of my heart. I recognize myself in these stories, these women – both the stereotypes and the truths. I am humbled to be in their company. I’m reminded – again and again – that I’m not alone. And my own faith is strengthened when I’m with them. They offer me much. I am grateful.