Rachel, the Infertility of a Desperate Housewife

Three things are never satisfied; four never say, “Enough”: Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, “Enough” (Proverbs 30:15-16).

I prayed much for the birth of my two children, but will not pretend to know the anxieties of severe infertility. I am a mother and so I can only imagine undesired childlessness to an extent. I cannot fully claim the deep aching described in Proverbs 30:15-16 concerning the barren womb, which is compared with death’s unceasing appetite, the land’s insatiable thirst for water, and the unquenchable craving of fire. What vivid imagery!

Certainly, this was Rachel’s hunger for children. Her's is a story that begins like a fairy-tale but without the classic happy ending. Picture Rachel as the beautiful princess destined for the handsome prince. For seven years, she waits for Jacob as he labors for her father, Laban, in exchange for her hand. The Scripture tells us that the seven years fade as mere days for Jacob because of his great love for Rachel (Genesis 29:9-20). Sigh!

Sadly, the years of sweet sighing end in woes when Laban gives Leah, Rachel’s older sister, to Jacob instead of his intended. He adds Rachel to the family portrait at the end of Leah’s bridal week—for the price of another seven years of labor—and Jacob becomes the husband of two brides within a week (Genesis 29:21-30). Rachel, who for years dreams of a life with her beloved, is now the second of two wives. Imagine her disappointment!

And to make matters worse, she is found to be barren while her sister wobbles around, belly bouncing with life, birthing one son after another. The Scripture states that “when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister” (Genesis 30:1). And in many ways, her envy turns into utter desperation.

Just consider her desperate cry in Genesis 30:1. Rachel confronts her husband with these words: “give me children or I shall die!” The statement is packed with emotion! No doubt, thoughts of children consumed Rachel incessantly. Each month brought the hope of pregnancy and then the despair of an empty womb. Each fruitless cycle carried heartfelt petitions to God--for Genesis 30:6 indicates that Rachel sought God with her request.

Rachel’s desperation is further seen in the giving of her maid servant to Jacob as a concubine. She states in Genesis 30:3 “Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her.” Like her great mother-law, Sarah, before her and like her sister after her, Rachel places her maid in the arms of her husband as her surrogate. Bilhah has two sons on behalf of Rachel but the insatiable womb hungers on.

Rachel’s desperation continues, as witnessed in the incident with the mandrakes. Mandrakes were orange-colored fruit that were superstitiously thought to be fertility-inducing.[1] Leah’s eldest son, Reuben, finds the fruit during harvest and brings them to his mother. Rachel is so eager for the effects of the fruit that she willingly exchanges her night with Jacob for the mandrakes—and sadly for Rachel, it is her sister who conceives that night (Genesis 30:14-18).

But “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18) After the birth of ten sons and at least one daughter by other women, God remembers Rachel and listens to her; He opens her womb and she conceives and bears a son (Genesis 30:22-23). She welcomes her firstborn, Joseph, and credits God for removing her reproach. Yes, the shame was gone...but not the desire. Joseph, which means "may God add another," is not only a name but a prayer, a plea to God for more children (Genesis 30:22-24).

And perhaps it is this yearning for more that beckons Rachel to her father’s gods. After twenty years of service, Jacob leaves Laban for Canaan in Genesis 31. Before parting the land, Rachel steals her father’s household gods (Genesis 31:19). These were figurines of nude goodness that signaled special protection or guaranteed fertility for the bearer.[2] Is it possible that Rachel’s desperate desire for children pulls her to these idols, perhaps for some added security?

The reason is untold. Yet how closely she resembles her future progeny in this instance. The people of Israel struggle with syncretism--the attempted merging of religions--throughout their history. We see this as early as Exodus 32:1-5; the people worship a golden calf as though it were the God who brought them out of Egypt. Years later, Elijah gives this admonition: "How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him" (1 Kings 18:21). Israel will continue to vacillate between God and false idols until they are finally exiled from the land (2 Kings 23-25).

Rachel prays to and credits God for her children yet takes and keeps her father’s idols. Jacob tells Laban that whoever stole his gods would be put to death (Genesis 31:25-35). Rachel is not found with them yet she dies. Incidentally, she dies giving birth to her second son—the very child she so desperately wanted (Genesis 35:16-21).

Let us search our hearts as we read her story. What idols might we be clasping today? What are we so desperate for that we would look to satisfy apart from God? For whenever we wrap our ultimate value, joy, identity or need around anything apart from Christ, we have molded an idol. We can even worship God’s good gifts as though we were worshiping God Himself.

"Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139: 23-24). Please make my heart as hungry for You as the barren womb is for life.

*Thanks for reading! This post is part of my Mothers in the Bible Series; we are looking for glimpses of the gospel in the lives of biblical women--from Eve to Mary, the mother of Christ. Click here to see other writings. And please let me know your thoughts!

[1] The MacArthur Study Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008) 58.

[2] Ibid, 60.