Three Plus Four: Rachel

YOUNG FAMILY?

Last time, we spoke about Leah, who was “hated”—not chosen. The last one of the four mothers, Rachel is depicted in Genesis as Jacob’s beautiful and beloved wife—the one whom he had chosen from their first encounter.

The story of Jacob’s passionate love for Rachel is one of the most romantic stories in the Bible. While reading a very graphic description of their first meeting at the well, a Christian reader usually imagines a young man who was so excited to see this beautiful girl, that he alone rolled the stone that several men would normally to roll together. However, in Jewish tradition we find a very different picture. How old were the heroes of this romantic tale?

From Scripture we can derive how old Jacob was. We know that he was 130 years old when he came to Egypt[1]; there were 5 years of famine left at that time[2]; Joseph was 30 years old “when he stood before Pharaoh,”[3] which means that Joseph was 30+7+(7-5) = 39 years old when Jacob came to Egypt at the age of 130. Accordingly, Jacob was 91 years old when he fathered Joseph (indeed, “a son of his old age”[4]).  We also know that Joseph was born at least 14 years after Jacob’s arrival in Padan Aram. Therefore, Jacob saw Rachel for the first time, when he was 91-14 = 77 years old.

How old was Rachel? There are several traditions regarding Rachel’s age when she was married to Jacob (depending on whether they were married before or after the additional seven years), but most commentators agree that Rachel was twenty-two years old when Jacob first met her.

The Biblical concept of age differs significantly from our modern understanding, and the story of 77-year-old Jacob falling in love with 22-year-old Rachel proves that. However, we still have to keep in mind the 55 year age gap between them in order to understand the complicated dynamics in this family!

WHY DID RACHEL DIE?

The Jewish commentaries lavish endless praise on Rachel: they describe her as merciful, generous, compassionate and selfless. Frankly, I personally do not see it in the Scripture. I have an impression that Rachel was rather “spoiled”, at least at the beginning of the story, by her beauty, by her “chosen” (preferred) status, by probably being the “baby” of the family (although we don’t know if she had younger siblings, the Torah doesn’t say, so we can suppose that she was the youngest one). She could allow herself many things that her “hated” sister would not allow; possibly, here lies the explanation for her strange theft. You might remember the story: in Genesis 31, after long years of serving Laban, Jacob decides to return home. When he leaves, Rachel steals her father’s household idols. Laban overtakes Jacob and accuses him of the theft. Jacob is absolutely convinced that, as a matter of principle there could not be any stolen goods in his camp. To the depths of his being, he is insulted by such suspicion. Indignant at the accusation and not knowing of his wife’s theft, he invites Laban to search the whole camp, saying: ‘With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live.’[5]  Laban searches the tents but does not find his idols: Rachel hides them by sitting on them. Thus, the story seemed to end favorably. But, is it really the end?

Shortly after arriving in the land, Rachel unexpectedly dies in childbirth. Most readers do not see any connection between her death and Laban’s search in chapter 31. Yet Jewish commentators connect this tragic event to Jacob’s oath to Laban: With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live.’ This oath was fulfilled—not by Laban, but by God Himself: the one who had stolen, had to die.

The Hebrew shows that both Jacob and Rachel realized this connection as well. The name that the dying mother gives to her son – Ben-Oni – probably means “the son of my iniquity” (און שלי, “my evil”). Understandably, Jacob did not want the child to carry this name, therefore he called him Benjamin, “son of the right hand,” which may be also interpreted as “son of the oath,” since the right hand in the Bible often symbolizes an oath.

We see the laws of the spiritual world in the Scriptures. Unseen and often ignored, they are nonetheless just as inviolable as the law of gravity. God Himself fulfilled Jacob’s oath to Laban – and Rachel dies. This connection is lost in translation, but the Hebrew Scriptures make it very clear.

This story has yet another unexpected implication. Many years later, Joseph’s brothers are accused of stealing by the steward of Joseph’s house. You probably remember this story: the brothers come back to Egypt for the second time, this time with Benjamin, and after they had accomplished their mission, they begin their journey back.  You might also remember that, not long before they left, Joseph commanded his steward to put his – Joseph’s – silver cup into Benjamin’s sack. Then, when they had gone out of the city, and were not yet far off, the steward overtook them and accused them of the theft. The insulted brothers swear to their innocence in literally the same words as Jacob did: ‘With whomever of your servants it is found, let him die.’[6] Just like Jacob, they knew well that stealing was sin, and even the thought that they might somehow be mixed up in theft was unbearable and offensive to them. Both searches start in almost the same way; but the end of these stories is very different: Joseph’s goblet was found in the sack of Benjamin, the youngest son of Rachel! We know that Benjamin did not steal the goblet, we know that all this was Joseph’s plan—however, there is a profound spiritual truth that we should learn from the comparison between these two searches. The Bible wants people to be aware of the spiritual accountability that they carry, not only for their children, but before their children as well: things they hide from God and man may, in a most unexpected way, surface in the lives of their children. This is why the search of Rachel, the mother who had actually stolen and yet on whom nothing was found, reverberates a generation later, in as tense a drama through the search of her son, who though innocent, was accused of stealing.

This post is the last one in our Three Plus Four series – and I would like to finish it with the words that I found after I had begun the series: “of symbolical numbers in Scripture, there are none whose meaning is so certain and obvious as the numbers three, four and seven.”[7] “The literary device known as the »Ascending Number«, »Graded Number« or »X/X+1« pattern, has long been identified and studied in the Biblical and extra-Biblical texts. Of special interest here is the case of the 3/4 sequence, in which the fourth item, or a group of four, signify a change from the previous three.”[8] There is no doubt that the seemingly random choice of Three Fathers and Four Mothers in the history of Israel has a very profound spiritual meaning—and I really hope that these articles have helped you to see it!

[1] Gen. 47:9

[2] Gen. 45:6,11

[3] Gen. 41:46

[4] Gen..37:3

[5]Gen. 31:32

[6] Gen.44:9

[7] Adolph Saphir, The Lord’s Prayer, Keren Ahvah Meshihit, Jerusalem, p.59

[8] Shira Golani, “Three Oppressors and Four Saviors – The Three-Four Pattern and the List of Saviors in I Sam. 12,9-11,” ZAW 127 (2015), 294-303,

If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding  eTeacher’s wonderful courses  (juliab@eteachergroup.com). You might also enjoy my books, they all are Bible based and have a lot of Hebrew insights you can get them here. 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

You might also be interested in:

Where To Study Biblical Hebrew –...

By Julia Blum

The Lessons Of Exodus

By Julia Blum

Join the conversation (2 comments)

Leave a Reply

  1. Patricia Schekahn

    Dear Julia,
    I hope you are well.
    Thank you so much for the exciting journey through the history of Israel’s Three fathers and Four Mothers.
    These stories helped me a lot because you unfolded “the spiritual truth in them that we should learn from.”

    “The Bible wants people to be aware of the spiritual accountability that they carry, not only for their children but before their children as well: things they hide from God and man may, in a most unexpected way, surface in the lives of their children.”

    I was moved by your words because they reflected what happened in my life some time ago.
    Just before my beloved father died, he told me about his childhood in Nida, Lithuania and told me things I had never heard before.
    Later, after my father died, someone let know me about a TV documentary about Nida. In this documentary, I found relatives of my father, even my great-grandmother by name.
    Now I am looking for my father’s Jewish merciful neighbours and the children he told me about.
    Sometimes God reveals such hidden events for a family member to act responsibly towards the offspring.
    As you have taught us:
    “The laws of the spiritual world in the Scriptures are just as inviolable as the law of gravity.”
    They change our lives; they change my life, I’m on the Way!
    I am deeply grateful for that.
    Best wishes
    and
    Blessings

  2. Gladys Fox

    Thank you Dear Julia,
    You open the Bible to me in so many ways and I believe that is why God has led me to you
    The Bible is far more complex than most Christians know. You certainly have helped me learn more of these complexities . This is why the Bible is so amazing and no book can even come close to it.
    With love to you and all people may God shine His face upon you and Bless you!