Certain theological questions transcend time, maintaining their relevance across cultures and eras. Among those is the question of adequacy: Why does God choose me? As Christians, we often do not feel worthy of God’s call – the reality of our human failings seem like they should disqualify us from serving as inheritors of God’s promise. We think that God should choose the faithfulness of saints over the foolishness of sinners like ourselves.
God certainly has worked through people of incredible faith and piety, but if we read the Bible carefully, we notice that God has also chosen some who do not fit the twenty-first century American mold of a “good Christian.” Indeed, God often chose those who wrestled against God and humanity to be the bearers of promise.
As one example, let us examine the birth story of the twelve tribes of Israel. Genesis 29:31-30:24 records Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel, fighting to bear him children in order to gain favor in the eyes of God, Jacob, and society. Within this text, we will specifically focus on the verses addressing Rachel’s confrontations with Jacob and with God in 30:1-8, although we will consider the entire section as a contextual whole.
We’ll begin by briefly examining the questions of Genesis as a book (what is its place in the Bible? who was its author and when was it penned? why was it written?) and as a piece of literature (how does the book flow? what themes press through the text?) before doing an analysis of our particular segment of Genesis and finally returning to our opening questions about the types of people God chooses.
What is Genesis?
Genesis is the opening book of the Bible and is situated as the first of a group of five books called the Pentateuch, which serves as a foundation the rest of Scripture.
Scholars generally agree that the Pentateuch came together as an editorial combination of stories that had been passed along orally for generations. It was compiled after the Israelites had been scattered from their homeland and oppressed under the Babylonian exile. The Pentateuch was likely formed in an effort to maintain the unique cultural history of the Hebrew people while they were forced to live as a lower class among other cultures. Had God really chosen them, set them apart as God’s people?
God had promised them a land that would be theirs forever, but in the tides of war it seemed like God had broken that covenant. The Hebrews were experiencing a devastating identity crisis on a national level. Peter Enns notes,
The central question the exilic and postexilic Jews asked themselves was, ‘Are we still the people of God? After all that has happened, are we still connected to the Israelites of old, with whom God spoke and showed his faithfulness?’ Their answer to these questions was to tell their story from the beginning and from their postexilic point of view – which meant editing older works and creating some new ones. The creation of the Hebrew Bible, in other words, is Israel’s self-definition as a nation and the people of God in response to the Babylonian exile.1
The compilation of their oral traditions into a written testament that could be read and shared was a crucial part of shoring up their identity as the people of God in the midst of their collective self-doubt. By reminding Israel that God had chosen them and by breathing new life into their heritage, the Pentateuch united them and gave them hope for their future.
What Does Genesis Say?
The book of Genesis tells the origins of the Hebrews as people of God’s promise. Walter Brueggemann divides Genesis into four subsections2:
- “The Sovereign Call of God” tells the stories of creation and early humanity’s struggle to live into the call to be what God created us to be.
- “The Embraced Call of God” details the life of Abraham and his consistent trust in the direction of God.
- “The Conflicted Call of God” captures Jacob’s wrestling with God throughout his life as he becomes the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.
- “The Hidden Call of God” describes the work of God in Joseph’s life as he rises to power in Egypt to protect the family of God from famine.
It is helpful to note, as Gordon J. Wenham points out, that the book can more generally be divided into two overarching sections: the opening chapters that deal with creation and the world as a whole, and the rest of the book that establishes the story and lineage of the Hebrews specifically. “The sheer volume of material, more than 80 per cent of Genesis, devoted to this family shows where the interest really lies,” explains Wenham. “Here are explained the origins of the nation of Israel, and more particularly of the 12 tribes that made up the nation.”3
Our segment of the text is taken from Jacob’s story, which is a humorous one. For example, Jacob woos his future wife Rachel by singlehandedly moving a mammoth stone from the mouth of a well as a demonstration of his masculinity. Brueggemann notes that “[the story] permits the Israelites not only to laugh with the success of their hero, but to laugh at Laban. And through Laban, they laugh at their perennial antagonists, the Arameans.”4
In the midst of oppression, these stories not only bound the Israelites together as a community, but they also taught them valuable lessons about themselves that, through reading and laughter, became embedded functions of their group dynamic. Comedy often conveys truth in a way that bypasses the critical view we bring to a journalistic accounting of history – as we laugh, we internalize the narrative without questioning it.5 By telling these stories with humor, the editors of Genesis implanted their messages deep within the culture of the exiled Hebrews.
There is more than comedy underlying the text, though. The description of Jacob’s story as “The Conflicted Call of God” reminds us that Jacob’s life was dominated by fighting and manipulation. Even in his mother’s womb, Jacob fought with his twin brother so intensely that Rebekah questioned whether she wanted to live (Genesis 25:22). The name she gave him meant “He takes by the heel,”6 which proved to be a fitting descriptor of Jacob throughout his life.
Jacob manipulated his older brother Esau and tricked his father Isaac to make himself the blessed son of God’s inheritance, but was forced to flee from home to escape their anger. While camping in the wilderness at in a place he would call Bethel, Jacob had a vision in which God recognized his status as the blessed son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, and promised Jacob that his descendants would be numerous and scattered across the earth like dust in the wind.
Even after this spiritual encounter with God, Jacob did not change. He lived with his uncle, Laban, and the two of them participated a years-long game of wits regarding their livelihoods, social status, and even Leah and Rachel (Laban’s daughters, who became Jacob’s wives), until Jacob’s relationship with Laban became so strained that Jacob once again had to flee.
The climactic moment in Jacob’s story may be when he and his family were returning to the place he was born. Anticipating a confrontation with his brother, Jacob wrestled with a mysterious man that the text seems to suggest was an incarnation of God. This man gave Jacob a new name, Israel, saying “…you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28, NRSV).
This new name confirmed Jacob’s character as a man of conflict, even elevating it to specify his penchant for conflict with the divine. For the final third of his life, though, Jacob tried to live more-or-less at peace with his family and neighbors.
Through most of Jacob’s life, we see only a little evidence of faithfulness to God. Indeed, until he wrestled with the mysterious man, he seemed to be mostly indifferent to the God of his fathers, looking out instead for his own self-interest. Even the few moments when he did declare his faith in God, such as after the vision of God at Bethel, his allegiance was self-centered, binding his faithfulness to God’s continued blessing over his life.
Form and Flow
As we read Genesis, we understand it as a nationalistic narrative that uses mythic stories to convey a deep truth of cultural identity. It does not provide an accounting of dates and times for sentimentality or posterity; rather, it is a retelling of their cultural ethos, a capturing of their spirit and community, and a reminder that they are and have been the people of God’s promise.
As we have seen, Jacob’s story follows three movements:
- Early life and conflict with his parents and twin brother (Genesis 25:19-27:40)
- Maturing and starting his own family in Haran (Genesis 27:41-30:43)
- Growing in wisdom and reconciliation with his brother (Genesis 31-35)
It is significant that the segment we are examining falls almost directly in the center of this story. Genesis 29:31-30:24 is the central focus of the narrative, as is demonstrated by the way its opening and closing movements draw attention inward to our segment. Though our selection is not the climactic moment in the story, its centrality is affirmed by its content, to which we now turn our attention.
When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” Jacob became very angry with Rachel and said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” Then she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, that she may bear upon my knees and that I too may have children through her.” So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife; and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore Jacob a son. Then Rachel said, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son”; therefore she named him Dan. Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed”; so she named him Naphtali. (Genesis 30:1-8, NRSV)
Wrestling, But With Whom?
Our text segment immediately follows Jacob’s marriages to Leah and Rachel. The surface of the narrative is the birth of Israel’s twelve tribal namesakes, and these children are born in quick succession. Within the span of twenty-eight verses, Leah, Rachel, and their maids give birth to eleven of the twelve sons of Jacob (in addition to one daughter).
These children were not born without conflict, though. From the beginning of our segment, Rachel, the younger sister and the one loved by Jacob, was unable to bear children. Leah, on the other hand, who was older and only married to Jacob because of the trickery of her father, gained the favor of God and quickly bore four sons.
In Genesis 30:1, we see that Rachel “envied her sister.” This establishes the narrative as a sibling rivalry, akin in some aspects to the rivalry Jacob experienced with his own older sibling, Esau.
There was clearly some tension between the two sisters, as is demonstrated later in the chapter by Rachel’s bargaining of a sexual encounter with Jacob for a collection of mandrakes which, according to folklore at the time, were an aphrodisiac to heighten sexuality.7 This story also parallels one from Jacob’s childhood: he sold soup to Esau in exchange for the family birthright.
This tension between the sisters, though, seemed to grow into a mutual understanding of sorts. Dennis Olson points out that “the narrative introduces a scene of negotiation, compromise, and fragile resolution.”8 The true heart of the struggle seemed to be between each sister and God, rather than between the sisters themselves.
The first verse continues, “and [Rachel] said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!’” At first, this seems like an overly dramatic response to her infertility, but within the cultural context of this time, a woman’s life was directly connected with her ability to have children. The role of women at this time was to bear workers and warriors for their families, so a woman’s status in both familial circles and larger society were dependent upon the number of children – sons, in particular – she was able to produce. To be unable to bear sons was a source of shame for Rachel, so in a sociological sense, her life was forfeit because of her barrenness.
Her frustration would have gone deeper than sociology, though. If a woman’s husband were to die, her sons would be the ones to take care of her. Women had no social status on their own, so they were unable to work in honest trades to provide for themselves or their families. If Rachel had no sons when Jacob died, she would have no one to care for her and she would literally die, or else be reduced to a life of prostitution or begging.
In addition, she surely knew about God’s promise to Jacob about the proliferation of his descendants so, when she saw Leah’s active womb, Rachel likely saw herself being erased from the lineage of this great nation that was to arise.
Her demand that Jacob impregnate her was not a threat; rather, she was speaking into the reality of her place in society and the dependence of her existence upon her ability to bear him sons. She was not being melodramatic; she was speaking from a rational, present fear.
Jacob responded by becoming angry with her, saying in verse 2, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” Throughout his life, Jacob rarely expressed anger. Although Jacob was often embroiled in conflict and manipulation, Shaul Bar observed that this outburst was an exception to Jacob’s normally cool demeanor and that, surprisingly, this anger was in response to the wife he most loved.9
Because of this deep connection he felt with Rachel, perhaps Jacob had given her access to depths of his emotion that he kept distanced from others in his life. Regardless of the source of his anger, Jacob told Rachel that he couldn’t control her fertility – she needed to take her concern to God, who had closed her womb.
Rather than simply waiting for God to dictate her future, Rachel made use of a tactic that Jacob’s grandmother, Sarah, had used in her own battle with infertility, even though it had not worked out well for Sarah. Rachel ordered her maid, Bilhah, to sleep with Jacob and bear children on behalf of Rachel. This practice was not uncommon at that time – it was essentially a system of surrogacy where a woman’s maid or servant would bear the child into the arms of the woman, who would be considered the mother of the child.
The tactic was successful in this case, and Bilhah bore two sons to Jacob in verses 5-7. Rachel named the first child Dan, which the text describes as meaning “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son” (verse 6).
The word “judged” communicates the idea that Rachel had indeed pleaded her case before God, who had weighed her argument and determined that she was, in fact, worthy of a child. Within the framework of understanding God as opening and closing wombs to grant women children, this would be seen as a reversal of God’s prior decision to bar her from motherhood. By naming the boy Dan, Rachel declared her conviction that she, with justice on her side, had changed God’s mind.
Rachel named the second son Naphtali, a name which carries some controversy in the determination of its meaning. The root word itself comes from the Hebrew word niphtal, which means something along the lines of “my struggle, my strife”10 in Hebrew and seems to indicate a wrestling with God. The text itself, though, says in verse 8 that Rachel chose the name because “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed.”
There is ambiguity regarding why the editor of Genesis would have added to the actual meaning of Naphtali’s name to indicate that Rachel wrestled with Leah, but that ambiguity is mirrored later in Genesis by Jacob’s wrestling with the mysterious man in chapter 32. In that passage, some scholars conclude that Jacob wrestled with a physical man (perhaps even Esau), while the text seems to suggest that the man was a manifestation of God.
There is a duality in both of these stories – the simultaneous wrestling with God and with humanity – that gives deep insight into the character of both Rachel and Jacob.
What Does This Mean?
The idea that Rachel’s wrestling with God and Leah is an allusion to Jacob’s wrestling with God and Esau is not one that we should miss. Indeed, the idea of wrestling, of challenging both God and humanity, is a thread that runs deeply through the Jacob narrative.
From the beginning, Jacob was an underdog who had to scheme and maneuver to succeed – in some cases, he had to do so even to survive. His two wives, particularly Rachel, embodied many of the same character traits as Jacob himself. They had the tenacity to do what they needed to do in order to secure a future for themselves.
For the Israelites in exile, who were themselves wrestling with their heritage and their status as inheritors of the promise of God, this story of their nation’s birth would have established their cultural history as a line of scrappy fighters.
When they wondered whether they had been abandoned by God, they could look to Rachel, who had also been forgotten by God but had wrestled and pushed back until God heard her voice and gave her victory. By looking to Rachel, they could be inspired themselves to wrestle and question God while still trusting for deliverance. As the exiled Hebrews laughed along with Jacob’s story, they gained from it the courage to do what they must to survive and prevail as the people of God.
There is a tension in this interpretation: did God choose Jacob because of his tenacity, or did God give Jacob a character of tenacity to get through his circumstances? The text itself will not help us resolve this question, but I find comfort in the idea that the Bible reveals a heritage of people with diverse strengths and weaknesses.
Abraham, the first patriarch, was a man of devout faithfulness; Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, the parents of the Israelite tribes, were cunning and devious and, at times, seemed faithless; Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, rose to great political power and used that power to protect his family.
Unlike the heroes of other cultures, the heroes of our faith were not superhuman or terribly exceptional in any way except that they were heirs to the promise of God. They were surprisingly, authentically human. And that tells me it is okay for me to be human as well. Indeed, sometimes that very humanity is what I need – what the people of God need – to endure the circumstances of life.
1 Enns, Peter, “When was Genesis Written and Why Does it Matter? : A Brief Historical Study,” The BioLogos Foundation, <https://biologos.org/uploads/resources/enns_scholarly_essay3.pdf> (accessed 10 March 2017).
2 Brueggemann, Walter, 1982, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 8-10.
3 Wenham, Gordon J., 2002, Exploring the Old Testament, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 35.
4 Brueggemann, 250.
5 For more information on this effect in contemporary culture, see: Peterson, Russell Leslie. 2008. Strange Bedfellows : How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy into a Joke, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
6 Coogan, Michael D., Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, 2010, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 46.
7 Brueggemann, 251.
8 Olson, Dennis, “Revenge, Forgiveness, and Sibling Rivalry: A Theological Dialogue Between Scripture and Science,” Ex Auditu, Vol. 28 (2012): 115.
9 Bar, Shaul, Daily Life of the Patriarchs : The Way It Was, Oxford, GB: Peter Lang AG, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2014, 137-143.
10 Behind the Name, “Behind the Name: meaning, origin and history of the name Naphtali,” BehindTheName.com, <https://www.behindthename.com/name/naphtali> (accessed 25 March 2017).