Notes on Genesis (xv)
‘But when the Lord saw Leah was hated, He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.’ (Gen 29:31)
Having travelled to the east in search of a wife, Jacob ended up with two, the daughters of Laban, Leah, who seems to have been noteworthy only for her eyes (mentioned at 20:17; whether they were an asset or a liability is not clear), and her beautiful younger sister, Rachel. After Leah, said here to have been hated by her husband, had given birth to four sons (John Chrysostom attributes her becoming a mother to God’s care for a rejected person) , the jealous Rachel sent her handmaid Bilhah to be another wife to Jacob, who had two more sons by her. He then had two sons to Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid, two more to Leah, and finally two to Rachel. The twelve tribes of Israel begin with these brothers.
Jacob had fallen out with his brother Esau, but the dynamics between his wives were worse (‘with great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister’, 30:8). One desperately sought love (29:32), yet the other envied her (30:1). In some ways the unedifying story fits into the pattern familiar in Genesis: the younger sibling is the more desirable, and it will be through one of her sons, Jacob’s eleventh, that the line of history passes. But the tale has counterparts beyond the world of Genesis.
The first book of Kingdoms (=1 Sam) begins with another story of two wives, one of whom was fertile. The other prayed in tears for a son, and in due course gave birth to Samuel. The prayer she then uttered (1 Kingd 2:1-10) has many similarities with the Magnificat uttered by the Theotokos (Luke 1:46-55), which in some ways seems modelled on it. And it cannot be accidental that the name of Samuel’s mother, Hannah, is in Greek Anna, the name given by early tradition to the mother of the Virgin. Like Hannah, Anna is described as despairing of conceiving and dedicating her child to the Temple.
We hear of another pair of sisters between whom there was tension. When Christ was received into the home of Martha, her sister Mary sat at his feet, causing Martha to complain that she was doing all the work (Luke 10:38-42). Christ stated that Mary had chosen the better part, but as Ambrose points out, ‘Virtue has many forms.’ Indeed, Ephrem notes that, when Christ visited them after the death of their brother Lazarus, Martha ran to greet him while Mary stayed at home (John 11:20), and we read that ‘Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus’ (John 11:5), both the sequence of names and the one whose name is suppressed being contrary to what the story in Luke might have led one to expect.