Infertility in the Bible: Rachel, the Barren Sister
Ciara Dove-Reid, RDN
March 14, 2022
“Give me children, or else I die.”
This dramatic yet telling quote relays the pain Rachel felt as she had to repeatedly witness her sister become pregnant by her husband while she remained barren.
Infertility in the Bible: Rachel, the Barren Sister
Last month we talked about Isaac and Rebecca and how they finally gave birth to Jacob and Esau after decades of infertility. Well, if we continue their story, we see that their son Jacob went on to marry Rachel and Leah who were both sisters and distant relatives of his mother.
I must add that it was never Jacob's intention to marry Leah, he only wanted to marry Rachel, but was tricked into marrying them both. Unfortunately, the story goes that Leah was fruitful and Rachel was barren.
Today, we will take a deep dive into how Rachel responded to her circumstance and we will also see how God may have been using her infertility to teach both she and her husband about His sovereignty.
Let’s see what we can learn from the circumstances surrounding Rachel and how she responded to infertility:
1. Rachel lived a life of privilege
Rachel lived a life of privilege. The scripture describes Rachel as beautiful and well-favoured, a starking difference when compared to her sister Leah, who is described as being “tender-eyed” and hated.
16And Laban had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured (Genesis 29:1).
When reading this scripture, I wonder how Rachel responded to this favor. Was she entitled or conceited from her beauty? Did she relish in her sister being in a lowly position? Or was she humble and kind toward her sister?
We will never know Rachel’s heart, but we do know that God looks at our life's circumstances when considering to give us children.
We see this with Rachel’s sister Leah. God directly considered her circumstance when deciding to give her a child.
“ And when the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived, and bare a son, and she called his name Reuben: for she said, Surely the Lord hath looked upon my affliction; now, therefore, my husband will love me” (Genesis 29: 31-32).
Leah was treated poorly her whole life and for this God had great compassion on her.
Perhaps Leah’s affliction caused her to naturally be more meek and quiet in spirit, an attribute that God finds very precious and often rewards (1 Peter 3:4). Or, maybe God simply saw that her life was missing love and wanted her to experience love through her children.
Takeaway: Regardless of Rachel's attitude in life, this story provokes us to remember that God takes into account your entire circumstamce when deciding whether or not to give you a child.
I believe that another undertone here is that God looks for those who are humble, whether due to their afflictions or due to them seeking to be humble to please God. Practicing a humble heart and countenance while praying for a child, is surely wise.
2. Rachel was angry and envious that she was infertile
Leah went on to have 6 boys and 1 girl and her ability to be so fruitful made Rachel very envious.
I am sure that Leah became well known throughout the land for her ability to be so fruitful. She was still not the favorite of Jacob, but for once in her life, she may have been viewed in high esteem thanks to the fruit of her womb.
Meanwhile, Rachel had to live in the shadows of her sister and may have even been judged for her inability to conceive.
Rachel became so angry and envious of Leah that she even threatened Jacob with killing herself if he didn't allow her to conceive.
“And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die (Genesis 30:1).
She seemed adamant that her inability to bear was her husband's fault and perhaps thought threatening suicide was the best solution.
God does not reward envy and hatred. God could have very well chosen to withhold her blessing longer due to how she responded to her circumstances.
Again, we do not know God’s exact thoughts toward Rachel, but it’s wise that we seek to bear fruits of the spirit like long-suffering and patience when asking for the gift of parenthood, and not fruits of the flesh like anger and envy.
3. She did not understand God’s sovereignty over the womb
The mere fact that Rachel went to Jacob to ask for her womb to be opened, gives us the impression that she didn't acknowledge that God is the one who unlocks the womb. Her husband tried to relay this reality to her, but I don’t think she fully understood it.
We see this in Jacob’s response to her:
“And Jacob's anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb” (Genesis 30:2).
This is a very important aspect of Rachel’s Journey and a theme that we see amongst some of the other women in the Bible who suffered infertility.
God had big plans for many of these women yet many of them did not fully understand God's role in life. Infertility could have served as a tool to allow God to create this perspective. After all, Rachel was married to a man whose son's would be the pillar of the 12 tribes of Israel.
We need to make sure we are recognizing God’s sovereignty over the womb. Failure to recognize his hand could provoke Him to prolong your infertility in an attempt to help you cultivate a new perspective about his divine intervention, especially if you are a child of God whom he holds to a higher standard.
4. She saw childbearing as a competition
We do not know if Rebecca ever harkened to Jacob’s rebuke and went to seek God in prayer. But we do see that shortly after Jacob rebuked her, she took matters into her own hands and sought what we could call a “surrogate”.
She allowed Jacob to sleep with her handmaid Bilvah, who went on to bear two children in her honor. A common practice during this time.
Interestingly, at the birth of her second son, Rachel responds:
“With great wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and I have prevailed: and she called his name Naphtali. “ (Genesis 30:8).
This response to me indicates that she had a competitive spirit. Instead of thanking God for her blessing, she was instead happy that she was able to somewhat level the playing field with her sister.
I can't blame Rachel at all for feeling this way. She never intended to share Jacob with anyone, but thanks to her father’s dishonesty she was forced into a hidden competition she never asked for.
However, because she had to prove herself to Leah, Jacob, and society, she may have lost track of the true purpose and beauty of childbearing.
Sadly for Rachel, after this, we see Leah's handmaid went on to conceive two children with Jacob also.
Shortly after, we see that God opens Leah’s womb again and allows her to have 2 more biological children. I imagine this was hard for Rachel to watch, especially after she thought she leveled the "playing field ".
Be careful to have the right intentions for wanting to be a mother:
Today I find that social media is influencing some women to desire children for reasons outside of serving God through parenthood.
Instagram is flooded with celebrities and "influencers" that take seductive and glamourous pregnancy photos, seeking to bring a "goddess" like praise to themselves.
People are even using their infants to gain followers on social media.
There is no doubt that pregnancy and motherhood are joyous and deserving of praise.
However, we must be careful that social media doesn't cause us to covet having a child in a way that is outside of Godly intent.
As Godly women who look forward to motherhood, we must remember that the privilege of motherhood lies not in being able to partake in a "trend", or allowing us to be "god-like" but instead, it is in having the opportunity to raise a soul in the ways of Christ so that they might be accounted worthy to serve God in Heaven.
5. She worshipped other gods:
Lastly, of the most interesting aspects about Rachel and Leah is that they did not grow up with exposure to the God of the Bible.
We see that their father practiced witchcraft and divination and owned several valuable idols of other gods. Some speculate that Leah and Rachel were both into some aspects of divination as well, which is why some claim that Rachel desperately wanted some of Leah’s mandrakes. According to extrabiblical lore, mandrake is a root that was used in various spiritual rituals to support fertility.
In scripture, we also read that when Jacob packed his family up to start his own settlement, Rachel stole her father's idols and took them with her (Genesis 31:19).
Her father found out and eventually pursued Jacob and accused him of stealing the idols.
Jacob was very confident that neither he, his wives nor his children stole the idols of another god. He even told his father-in-law that if he found the idols, he could kill the person who stole them.
When Rachel heard this, she hid the idols in furniture loaded on her camel and sat on top of them. When her father Laban asked to check the camel's carriage for the idols, she lied and said she couldn’t move since she had the issue of blood (menstruation).
She seemed to be so entangled in idolatry that she couldn't part with her idols at any cost. As far as we know, the idols were never uncovered. It seems God remained the only one privy to knowing her hidden secret.
I personally speculate that like her father Laban, Rachel may have viewed the God of the Bible as another God to add to her collection of spirits and deities that she worshiped throughout her youth.
She may have even distrusted the God of the Bible, seeing how she suffered from infertility for so long. Perhaps she had planned to keep the idols as a backup for if the God of the Bible didn't come through?
Can idolatry cause God to close your womb?
This story was not put in the Bible by coincidence. Note that God did not allow Rachel to get caught, but he allowed us as the reader to see what she was hiding.
It begs the question of just how idolatrous Rachel was, and whether or not it played a role in God withholding the fruit of her womb for so long?
We do not know, but it reminds us to fear God and follow his commandments and live a life of repentance, especially if we hope to rear Christian children one day.
And idols take many forms in our modern age so we have more to be cautious. Anything that pays homage to another God, or anything that you put trust in over God can become idolatry.
This could be money or even medicine. Does that mean money and medicine are evil? No. However, they are examples of two things that we can easily put our trust in over God.
There are also practices that can be seen as idolatrous in God's eyes.
I will interject with a personal story about idolatry. I was very into yoga years ago. I did not know that many of the poses and yoga sequences were originally intended to pay homage to Hindu gods.
I found myself becoming very emersed in yoga, and God actually allowed me to have a spiritual encounter which confirmed that this was a form of idolatry that he disliked. It's important to ask God to reveal idolatry in your life because like with Rachel, he sees it when others can't.
But God is Gracious:
I went a bit out of order here, because I wanted to save the best for last. But getting back to Rachel's story, we see that right before Jacob moved his family away, God hearkened to Rachel and opened her womb, allowing her to birth a son named Joseph.
Joseph, though his life was ridden with much strife, went on to eventually rule as King of Egypt, where God used him to save thousands from famine.
God knew that it wasn't fair Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah, and he also knew the pain and hurtful position Rachel was in, he was not blind to their situation, just like he was not blind to Leah's situation. In fact, shortly before Jacob left to start his own settlement, God told Jacob that he saw all the trickery that his father-in- law did.
" ..For I have seen all that Laban doeth unto thee, I am the God of Bethel, where thou anointedst the pillar, and where thou vowedst a vow unto me: now arise, get thee out from this land, and return unto the land of thy kindred" (Genesis 39:12-12).
I believe that God used Rachel’s infertility to prune her character and teach her His sovereignty to prepare her for a bigger role. We will never know God’s exact reasons for each circumstance, but we do know that God always has beautiful plans in mind for his children.