THE LIFE OF JACOB'S WIFE RACHEL was never an easy one. In the first place, she had Laban for a father, and in the second place, she had Jacob for a husband. And then, of course, she also had her sister, Leah.

Rachel was the younger and prettier of the two girls, and Laban told Jacob that if he worked hard for seven years for him, he could have her. So Jacob worked hard for seven years, but when the wedding night rolled around at last, Laban sneaked Leah in in Rachel's place, and it wasn't till Jacob got a good look at her the next morning that he realized he'd been had. Leah was a nice girl, but she had weak eyes, and Rachel was the one he'd lost his heart to anyway. Laban gave some kind of shaky explanation about how it was an old family custom for the oldest daughter to get married first no matter what, and Jacob had to work another seven years before Rachel was finally his in addition to Leah.

To be married to two sisters simultaneously is seldom recommended even under the best of circumstances, and in this case it was a disaster. For a long time Rachel couldn't have babies, and Leah had four. When they weren't fighting with each other, they were fighting with Jacob, and when Jacob wasn't fending them off, he was trying to outcheat his crooked father-in-law, Laban, with the result that in the end the whole situation blew up, and Jacob cleared out with both his wives plus Laban's household gods, which Rachel pinched for luck just as they were leaving because luck was what she felt she was running out of. It wasn't long afterward that Rachel died on the road giving birth to a son whom she lived just long enough to name Benoni, which means "Son of my sorrow," although Jacob changed it to Benjamin later on.

Even in death her problems weren't over. From her sons and Leah's the twelve tribes of Israel descended, and the whole story of the Old Testament is basically the story of how for years to come they were always getting into one awful mess after another with God, with their neighbors, and with themselves. Centuries later, when the Babylonians carried them off into exile, it was Jeremiah who said that even in her tomb she was grieving still. "A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping," he said. "Rachel is weeping for her children" (Jeremiah 31:15).

But Rachel's children were also God's children, according to Jeremiah, and the last words were God's too. "Is Ephraim my dear son?" God said, naming one of them to stand for them all. "Is he my darling child?" And then God answered his own question in a way that even to Rachel, with her terrible luck, must have brought some hope. "Therefore my heart yearns for him," God said, "and as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still" (Jeremiah 31:20).

Genesis 29-31; 35

-Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words

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