The Bible Says What? ‘Jacob’s relationships were abusive’
“The Eternal One saw that Leah was hated and he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren” (Genesis 29:31)
We read about Jacob’s marriage to sisters Leah and Rachel. Leah, given to Jacob against his will, longed for some of the love he lavished on her sister. She had good reason to envy the beautiful, beloved Rachel.
Hated as she was, Leah bore many children, so her position in Jacob’s home was firm. Rachel, long denied the gift of childbirth, disappointed him. While later tradition viewed
Jacob with mercy, the book of Genesis depicts him as a harsh man who took out his anger on the woman who bore him seven healthy children.
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We learn more about Jacob’s relationships when Leah names her son Reuven, explaining he was called that because the Eternal has discerned her humiliation. ‘Reuven’ in Hebrew has several usages in the Bible, including ‘physical abuse’ and ‘rape’.
The women in our story are living in a situation that we would now describe as abusive. And that’s before we have drawn any attention to the two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah.
Even if we read these stories in their historical context – Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah lived in a world in which multiple women shared one husband – the Biblical author indicates to the reader that the situation of the wives was not just another example of polygamy. We must not close our eyes to the fact that Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah are portrayed as experiencing domestic abuse from their husband and from each other.
As modern Israeli Bible scholar Dr Liora Ravid stresses: “We cannot deny that in naming her firstborn son, Leah used a term that in biblical language means rape, physical abuse, disgrace and humiliation.”
- Rabbi Lea Mühlstein serves Northwood & Pinner Liberal Synagogue