Name Meaning—Rachel was the first person in the Bible to have a proper name derived from the brute creation. Wilkinson remarks, “that, for the most part, the formation of a human name from that of an animal is traceable to some peculiarity either observed or desired in an individual, which would thus be most intelligently expressed in a rude and simple age.” Rachel, the name of Jacob’s beloved wife means “ewe,” employed more or less as a title of endearment, just as the word “lamb” is among ourselves. Laban, accustomed to tenderly nursing the weak ewes as they were born, thought “ewe” to be a fitting name for his second daughter.
Family Connections—Rachel was the daughter of Laban, the son of Bethuel and Rebekah’s brother. Rachel became the second wife of her cousin Jacob and the mother of his two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. (Compare material under Leah.)
As we have already shown, the characteristic feature of the Bible in pairing certain individuals, compelling us to compare and contrast the lives they lived together, makes it difficult to separate any couple and deal exclusively with one or the other. Invariably, as in the instance of Leah and Rachel, their lives were lived out in close association. Yet we must try and isolate Rachel from her sister, for the galaxy of the Bible’s famous women would be incomplete without such a star. Surely, the much-loved wife of Jacob, and mother of Joseph, Israel’s saviour, and also Benjamin, could not have been an ordinary woman even though she shone with reflected glory. From the many references to Rachel we have the following facets of her life and character—
It would seem as if Rachel had all the loveliness of her aunt, Rebekah. The sacred record speaks of her as “beautiful and well favoured” (attractive). Her sister Leah was “tender-eyed,” meaning some form of eye blemish making her less appealing than Rachel who prepossessed Jacob physically. Seeing her in all her natural charm and beauty, Jacob loved her. Although beauty may be only skin deep, it nevertheless wins admiration. The Hebrew form of Rachel’s description (Genesis 29:17) suggests that she was “beautiful in form and beautiful in look.” That God does not look upon the outward appearance merely is evidenced by the fact, of which Ellicott reminds us, that “it was not Rachel, with her fair face and well-proportioned figure, and her husband’s lasting love, that was the mother of the progenitor of the Messiah, but the weary-eyed Leah.”
While, as the younger daughter, it was Rachel’s task to go to the well and draw water for her father’s sheep, it was no mere coincidence that she went that day when Jacob arrived. She might have been sick or indisposed, and if Leah had had to go for the water that day, what a different story might have been written of Jacob, as well as of the history of Israel. Fleeing from his home to Haran, Jacob met God at Bethel and left it “lifting up his feet” (Genesis 29:1, margin), implying a lighthearted alacrity as he continued his journey with the divine promise in his heart, “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest” (Genesis 28:15). Thus, with the assurance of the divine presence and guidance as a guarantee of favor and safety he met the shepherds who told Jacob of Rachel (Genesis 29:6)—the name that was to charm his heart the rest of his life. That meeting between Jacob and Rachel was of God, and it was His providence that ordered the first glimpse of each other at the well. We are apt to forget that often the most seemingly ordinary incidents in life are as much of the divine plan as the smallest parts of a watch, and upon these smallest parts of the plan all the others depend. Our steps, when ordered by the Lord, lead to great issue.
As far as Jacob and Rachel were concerned that meeting was unforeseen and unpremeditated. “A divinely directed life is often shaped by circumstances that human prescience could not have foreseen.” As soon as they met it was love at first sight, at least with Jacob. The first sight of his cousin’s beautiful face and figure cast a spell over him and he “kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept.” As she was his cousin, Jacob was not prevented from kissing Rachel by the etiquette of the East, which was the home of warm feelings and demonstrative actions. Probably the tears Jacob shed were those of gratitude to God in bringing him to his mother’s relatives, and also tears of joy because he knew instinctively that the lovely maiden he kissed would be his wife. Jacob removed the stone from the mouth of the well, helped Rachel water the flock, acquainted her with his story, and was taken home by an excited Rachel where he was hospitably welcomed.
George Matheson draws our attention to the interesting fact that the meeting of Jacob and Rachel is “the first courtship in the Bible growing out of a cousinly relationship—in other words, as having its roots in a previous friendship.” Jacob, a poet by nature, dazzled by Rachel’s beauty, broke out into a deep love before marriage—a thought to ponder in these days when young people are being told that pre-marital experiences are quite in order, to test whether they are suited for each other. Jacob was to prove that the typical trial of love is waiting, and he had to wait many a year before the one whom he loved, as soon as he saw her, became his wife.
We are distinctly told that “Jacob loved Rachel,” and that the seven years he served Laban for his daughter, “seemed to him but a few days, because of the love he had for her” (Genesis 29:18, 20). Even after Jacob found that he had been deceived by Laban and had been given Leah instead, he married Rachel and then served another seven years for her because “he loved her more than Leah” (29:30). From the first moment Jacob saw Rachel he loved her, and she became his choice as a wife. But while she alone was in the heart of her lover, “the real choice was not Jacob’s but God’s, and for the first place God had chosen Leah.” In his second marriage, Rachel only received half of Jacob, the other half had been given to her rival sister.
While Leah might have had “the keys of Jacob’s house, Rachel had the keys of his heart. Leah seems to have influenced his judgment: Rachel never ceased to hold his love. Leah bore Jacob six stalwart sons, Rachel was the mother of only two: but the sons of Rachel were dearer to him than the sons of Leah.” Jacob is outstanding among male lovers in the Bible for the true, romantic, abiding love he bore for Rachel. Whether such a deep and ardent love was reciprocated we are not told. The Bible has no reference to Rachel’s love for Jacob. She appears as a somewhat placid character. We have no record of any grief she felt, or protest she made when she discovered how Leah had taken the first place in Jacob’s life. We would like to believe that Rachel’s love for Jacob was as romantic as his was for her, and that also the years she had to wait for him seemed but a few days because of her heart’s affection for Jacob.
The deceit perpetrated by Laban upon Jacob, Leah and Rachel, adds color to the record. Laban cunningly beguiled Jacob into marriage with Rachel’s elder sister and less beautiful sister. Jacob had accepted Laban’s terms to take no wages for his labor in his fields, and at the end of the seven years' waiting expected to receive Rachel. In the gloom the bride appears closely veiled, according to custom. The ceremony is performed and the wedded pair return to their bridal chamber. But in the light of early morning Jacob discovers Laban’s duplicity—a duplicity in which Leah must have had a part.
Leah, by her father’s deceit, had stolen her sister’s blessing. Isaac had blessed Jacob, believing him to be Esau, and now Jacob marries Leah believing her to be Rachel. In the moment of his surprised discovery did Jacob remember how he had stolen his brother’s birthright by covering himself with a hairy skin and venison-smell, and making himself appear as Esau? Was this a retributive providence for his own deception of his blind and dying father?
Laban condoned his unrighteous act by declaring that in those times the younger daughter should not be given in marriage before the first-born. He should have told Jacob this when he covenanted to serve the first seven years for Rachel, or before the marriage anyhow. Jacob then became involved in two marriages, which were not deemed unfitting in an age when polygamy was tolerated even by godly men. What interests us is the absence of any recorded protest on Rachel’s part against her father’s deception! Why did she not cry out when she saw that Leah, instead of herself, was being given to Jacob? If Rachel had resentment at the hour of marital vows between Jacob and Leah, she must have suppressed it. Why was she so placid amid such a calamity, at least for the man who loved her so deeply? Perhaps the deep, unchanging love Jacob had for Rachel found little echo from her own heart.
Once Rachel became Jacob’s second wife, her continued barrenness created an unreasonable and impatient fretfulness within her soul. Seeing Leah’s many happy children made her jealous. What anguish is wrapped up in the phrase, “But Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31). Says Donald Davidson, “Rachel would taunt Leah on not having the love of her husband, while Leah would find revenge in the childlessness of her rival.” Rachel’s whole being was bound up in the desire to become a mother, so she cried to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (30:1). Rachel should have cried to God instead of Jacob whose anger was kindled against her for her impossible request. Certainly he loved Rachel with a true and tender love, and indignation because of her, must have been a source of bitterness. He should have thought of the bitterness of Rachel’s disappointment, and quietly pointed out to her the withholdings of Providence.
Poor, childless Rachel was not forgotten by the Lord for He remembered her and opened her womb (30:22-24). She gave birth to a son, and thereby took away her reproach. The grateful mother became a prophetess for she called her baby Joseph, which means, “The Lord shall add to me another son”—which was not merely the language of desire but the prediction of a seer. Of all the children of Jacob, Joseph became the godliest and greatest. Renowned as the saviour of Israel he stands out as the most perfect type in the Bible of Him who was born of woman to become the Saviour of the world.
The time had come for Laban and Jacob to part. While Laban had learned by experience that he had been blessed for Jacob’s sake the patriarch likewise had been blessed, and with his wives, children and rich possessions found he could no longer live at Haran. So he set out for his old home, and took with him all that God had given him. Laban was loathe to lose the diligent partner who had worked with him so faithfully for twenty years. While Laban was absent for a few days caring for his many sheep, Jacob gathered all his family, cattle and possessions and secretly left. Returning home and finding Jacob gone, Laban set out to overtake the travelers. Catching up with them Laban took Jacob to task not only for leaving so secretly but also for stealing some of his household goods and gods.
It was this accusation that revealed Rachel, lovely as she was, in an unlovely light. Although the wife of the heir to God’s promises, she evidently was a secret believer in old heathen superstitions. She stole the household goods, and when Laban sought for them among the goods of Jacob, she had them hid beneath her person. In her cunning in hiding the small images in human form used for divination and which had a religious significance (Judges 17:5; 18:14, 17, 18, 20, etc.), Rachel manifested something of her father’s duplicity. It was not until Jacob reached memorable Bethel that he buried those strange idols under the oak at Shechem. Those lifeless deities, the size of a miniature doll, were regarded as “indispensable evidence as to the rights and privileges of family ownership. Hence, Laban’s query, ‘Wherefore hast thou stolen my gods?’” (Genesis 31:30). Because of his superstitious beliefs, Rachel likely stole the gods to insure a prosperous journey. Such relics from the old home would guarantee all continuance of the old good fortune. Jacob’s trust was in the great God at the top of a ladder with its ascending and descending angels, but Rachel wanted humbler gods that she could see. Further, those household divinities suggest the laxity of true worship in the home.
Thus, although living in a polygamous state, maritally, Rachel was also guilty of religious polygamy. There was a professed relationship to the God of Israel, yet at the same time she was married to idols (Genesis 30:23, 24). Rachel had no right to carry away what was not her own. Had she known that those stolen images would become a terrible snare in Jacob’s family, perhaps she would not have taken them (35:1-5). Images and relics have always been dangerous elements in connection with true religious worship. How prone the human heart is to forsake the spiritual for the material, the Unseen for the seen and temporal! May ours be the constant desire to obey the apostolic injunction to keep ourselves from idols! (1 John 5:21).
We now come to a feature peculiar of Rachel as a mother. Hers is the first recorded instance in the Bible of death in childbirth and her sepulchral pillar is the first on record in the Bible. It would seem as if Rachel had surrendered her idolatry before the death stroke fell on her. The hallowing influences of divine blessing on her husband and his seed as the result of Bethel, begot within her a sense of divine awareness. Young Joseph’s great reverence for God bespeaks of Rachel’s godly training in his boyhood years. Jacob’s love for her and his stronger faith (Genesis 35:2-4) helped to purify her character and she lived on long after her death in the life of her noble son.
While Jacob and his host were on the way from Bethel to Ephrath, tragedy overtook Jacob when Rachel died in giving birth to her second son, Benjamin (35:16). She had named her first son Joseph, meaning, “The Lord shall add to me another son,” which prediction was fulfilled when Benjamin was born. How often the brightest anticipations of life are clouded by the gloom of the grave! Rachel prayed for children, but the beginning of her second son’s life was the ending of her own. What travail and anguish are resident in the phrase, “Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour ... she died” (Genesis 35:16, 18). Facing death she called her son, Benoni, meaning “son of sorrow.” Suffering had brought her to the gates of death and the gift she coveted proved to be a crushing burden under which she sank. But Jacob chose another name for their child and called him Benjamin, signifying, “the son of the right hand,” and showered much affection upon the motherless child.
The last cry Rachel uttered as she died was “Benoni”—son of sorrow—and it is in the spirit of this Benoni that the Bible portrays Rachel. When Jacob came to die in extreme old age, he spoke sorrowfully of the early loss of his beloved Rachel who through her years had been caught in a web of much sorrow and unhappiness. He had loved her at first and ever afterward. Brokenhearted, Jacob buried Rachel on the way to Bethlehem, and set up a pillar over her grave. In “his heart that grave remained ever green, and he never ceased in fancy to deck it with flowers.” In a previous grave at Shechem he had buried Rachel’s idols, and with them her superstitious beliefs. Now he stands at the grave containing the dust of his beloved one and the pillar he placed over it was a sad memento of a broken heart. In later days Rachel’s tomb became a conspicuous landmark (1 Samuel 10:2). With Leah, Rachel had helped to build the house of Israel (Ruth 4:11). One day Rachel’s precious dust will be reanimated and she will sit down with the glorified with “Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”
Rachel’s cry for children was prophetic of the slaughter of the innocents when Christ was born (Matthew 2:16-18). Jeremiah pictures Rachel as rising from the grave to weep over the children being carried away to Babylon, never to return (Jeremiah 31:15). Thus the “Benoni” of Rachel’s heart as she died has been re-echoed throughout the entire history of Israel. Often it does seem as if tragedy triumphs, but the key to the mystery of sorrow can be found in the words of the church which for centuries has been singing for Rachel whom Jacob loved—
Sad-eyed Rachel, do not weep,
Your children die as martyrs go;
They are the first-born of the seed
Which from your blood began to grow;
In spite of tyranny’s dread days
They bloom in glory to God’s praise.