The introduction of Rachel in Genesis paints an appealing picture of an accomplished woman. She had the sensitivity to respond to family needs by tending her father’s sheep, the adaptability to handle the flock, and the capability to interact with other shepherds near the well (Gen 29:9). We are drawn to the description of her beauty and almost amused that Jacob was instantly smitten with Rachel at an ancient desert water cooler.
So how did a woman so poised, beautiful, privileged and accomplished end up succumbing to the intoxicating poison of envy? How did this shape her relationship with the Lord and affect her marriage and family dynamics?
There were at least seven years between the time that Jacob began working for the hand of Rachel and the time she became his wife. During this period, the painful debacle occurs where Laban deceives Jacob into marrying Leah. This results in tremendous conflict for Rachel, Jacob, Laban, and Leah, who seems forced to live as the “unwanted wife.” Yet the Lord brings comfort to Leah and her struggles with insecurity by providing her many sons, including Judah, the name-bearer of the line of the Messiah.
But Leah’s comfort is offset by the envy and probable bitterness of Rachel, who is barren. Infertility itself can be a most frustrating and painful experience even today, just as it was for Rachel. Scripture calls her out, though, in Genesis 30:1 as she slides down the slippery slope of envy and begins to blame Jacob. The Newberry Bible indicates that she quite literally said, “Give me sons so that I might be built up or I’m going to die.” This indicates how crucial it was in those days to build posterity (see Heb. Bahnim, “sons to build up”). Her desperation is almost palpable as Bilhah, her handmaid, is commissioned to bear a son for her. When that son (Dan) is born, Rachel reveals her inner conflict when she states, “God hath judged me, and hath also heard my voice, and hath given me a son” (Gen 30:6).
It is unclear for what Rachel believes God has judged her, but could it be that the object of her envy had switched from Leah to Bilhah? The lesson is that envy and bitterness can decimate our relationships. Proverbs 27:4 says, “Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able to stand before envy?” Not that we would stratify sin, but could it be even harder to recover from envy and bitterness than wrath and anger? Rachel displays her struggle again when she says, “With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed” (Gen 30:7). Thus, Bilhah’s son was called Naphtali, “my wrestling.” But did Rachel really prevail? Soon Leah enters the competition and Zilpah, her handmaid, gives birth to Asher.
In the succeeding verses, Rachel attempts to remedy her situation through the equivalent of modern-day fertility treatments – mandrakes. Pathetically, she plays on Leah’s insecurities by offering her time with Jacob in exchange for her son Reuben’s mandrakes. We shouldn’t criticize Rachel for seeking treatment, but her exchange with Leah reveals the level of manipulation she was willing to undertake. It is humbling to consider what sinful behaviors we might succumb to just as easily when motivated by envy, bitterness or discontent.
Thankfully, the story of Rachel does not end on a negative note. Because of the impeccable timing of the blessing of God, she recovers and rises to a place of worship and praise. From there, her faith is strengthened, and she learns to trust God, who never fails His people. God remembered Rachel, and blessed her with a son, Joseph (Gen 30:22). Little did she imagine the immense blessing her boy, a picture of Christ, would bring to the people of Israel.
It is lovely to see the changes in Rachel’s attitude when Joseph is born. Finally, she recognizes that God has brought her through her trial, not her negotiations and manipulations. From the meaning of Joseph’s name, it is evident that her faith increases exponentially, as she even expects God to grant her another child (vv23-24). Perhaps she had received a promise from the Lord or maybe she was now relying on the Almighty to meet the need of a seed for Israel. Either way, she was right!
Waiting for God to work in our lives is a challenge for all of us. So, let us be encouraged from Psalm 18:30-32: “As for God, his way is perfect: the word of the LORD is tried: he is a buckler to all those that trust in him. For who is God save the LORD? or who is a rock save our God? It is God that girdeth me with strength, and maketh my way perfect.”
Our trials, concerns and burdens are daunting, and they always provide opportunities for the flesh to gain the upper hand. But hardships and difficulties can also be times of waiting on God to bless in His perfect timing. Would a Joseph born concurrently with his half-brothers have fit into the plan of God to deliver the family from terrible famine? Just as Rachel never understood God’s plan for Joseph to become the great deliverer he was, we do not always know the reasons God allows or disallows things in our lives either. We can be sure, though, that His ways are always best. In the end, they will lead to praise and worship of the sovereign God, just like Rachel’s experience did.
Finally, Rachel, consumed by the reproach of being barren, would never see how she was viewed historically. In Ruth 4:11, the people in the gate and the elders of the city wished Ruth the ability to give birth to Boaz’s children, following the example of Rachel who “did build up the house of Israel.” God used both Rachel and Leah to accomplish His purposes, but notice that Rachel is mentioned before Leah. Additionally, there is no mention of Rachel’s reproach nor commentary over which of the sisters produced more heirs. God is so gracious to us, isn’t he? We are often impatient and slip into the darkness of envy and discontentment when the Lord seems silent and still when we pray. But truth be known, He really is working even if we can’t see it.
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.