The story of Rachel and Leah from Genesis, sisters married to the same man and in eternal competition with one another, resonated with me in a profound way. The parallels with my own personal experiences, especially Rachel’s painful years of infertility, were obvious but it felt like a deeper connection than just shared infertility woes. I didn’t grow up with sisters, so it was strange that I felt so connected to this particular story and not Sarah who had a much longer period of infertility to contend with. It wasn’t until I looked at the story on an archetypal level that the message went from just personal relation to a larger lesson about human nature and relationships that, for me, were both profound and timely.
In the story, Jacob went to the land of his mother’s people to find a wife. When he arrived, he saw and fell in love with his cousin, Rachel. An agreement was made between Jacob and Rachel’s father, Laban. Jacob would work for Laban for seven years and at the end of that time, be given Rachel as a wife. He “served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her” (Gen 29:20). On the wedding night, Laban switched Rachel for her older, less attractive sister, Leah. Jacob woke to find himself married to the wrong sister and Leah was doomed to live the rest of her life as an unloved wife. Distraught and still in love with Rachel, Jacob agreed to work another seven years for Laban in order to marry her. It was agreed however, that Jacob only had to wait one week to marry Rachel and so it came to be that Jacob married the two sisters.
Jacob loved Rachel but she was unable to give him any children. This was a problem since Jacob had been told by God that he was to be the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. It is also a problem because Rachel desperately wanted a child. Then there is Leah, Jacob does not love Leah but she is abundantly fertile. She takes her solace with her children but she desperately wants her husband’s affection. “The names that Leah gave her sons reflected her hope that Jacob would come to love her because of the sons she was bearing him” (Otwell, 52).
In both of these women, we see not only a woman that embodies an archetype but also a woman that wants to fill both archetypes fully. Rachel is the wife that wants to be a mother and Leah is the mother that wants to be a wife. In the end, Rachel has children and so is given the opportunity to fill both archetypical roles but not after many years of anguish and the feeling of competition for offspring was firmly established between the sisters. Instead of feeling simply gratitude at the birth of her first son; she is already unsatisfied and wants another son. Her final son comes at the cost of her life as she dies in childbirth and so never reaches the final destination.
Archetypes are tricky because they can be so personal in interpretation. Many critics of the scriptures claim that there are only two archetypes represented for women, the Madonna (mother) and whore (sexual object) but there are many archetypes for women throughout Genesis alone. Rachel and Leah are an example of the predominant archetypal roles traditionally assigned to women, mother and wife. Leah, conceived her children not out of purity like the Madonna, but out of incomplete sexual relations, sex without intimacy. She is not the Madonna, she is purely the mother archetype. Since Jacob does not love or desire her, she is free from the obligations of wife that would distract her from the role of mother. Rachel, on the other hand, is most certainly appealing to Jacob sexually, but she is much more than a sexual object and not at all seen as a whore. Rachel is the archetypal wife, Jacob loves her and she has the ability to devote her attentions to him since she does not have children to mother. Both women fulfill their archetype but neither is fulfilled by their archetype.
The stories from the Torah are complex and at the same time, they are general enough to be open to a variety of interpretations. With just this one small section of the story of Jacob, the range of interpretations is vast. Some see Rachel as a sympathetic character, desperate to become a mother and contribute to her husband’s lineage while others have seen her as a once beloved wife that becomes intolerable in her single-minded desire to best her sister in a competition for sons that in the end, becomes the cause for her death.
Genesis does not tell us how Rachel feels about Jacob but we know he loved her. Her desire for children seems to be driven by status but that may be the way it is presented because of the fact that Leah was so fertile and Jacob was only prophesized to have twelve sons. This is a complicated issue and because we are only given a small glimpse into the lives of this family, I like most readers, will use the lens of my personal experience to fill in the blanks. I found many connections to the story of Rachel and Leah. While I never had to compete with a sister, I think Rachel and Leah also represent two sides inside the soul of married mothers. While they are represented as two women, I argue that they can be viewed as the archetypal individual struggle to act as a mother or a wife. The competition between the sisters can be a metaphor for the competition within the self to find balance between the archetypes. Since it is impossible for me to separate my story from the sisters’ story, I will tell my story as it relates.
My story is similar to the story of Rachel. My husband and I met when I was only fifteen years old and both of us felt an attraction to one another just on first sight. Early on in the relationship, we felt that we wanted to be married but we waited almost eight years because we were young when we met. After a couple of years of marriage, we felt ready to start a family but it just didn’t happen.
After eight years of trying and ten years of marriage, I became pregnant with our son. For that first ten years of marriage and the eight years of dating, I was predominantly the wife archetype. I was also a student and a teacher for many of those years but my husband also had his studies and career to build so this in no way detracted from my role as wife but actually was beneficial since it added money to our household and going to school was a way to build for our future. We balanced each other well but we were uncomplicated and easy to balance.
I was able to be the “cool” wife that did fun things because I didn’t have kids to take care of like the other wives. At gatherings, we could stay late because we didn’t have tired little children wanting to be home. I was self-sufficient and independent. If I needed to go to work, I went to work. If I wanted to go see a friend, I went and saw her. I never had to worry about who was going to watch the kids or work around nap schedules. In many ways it was wonderful, but it became unfulfilling and each month brought another disappointment and failure.
My husband and I had never really fought up until this point in our marriage. Like Rachel, I felt like I would die if I didn’t get to be a mother and was willing to take drastic medical and financial measures, but my husband was hesitant. I saw so many others become pregnant so easily like Leah did and I became envious and angry with the world. “When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob became incensed at Rachel and said, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Gen 30:1-2).
Rachel did not have the advantage of modern medicine but she did have an option like surrogacy and she gave her husband her maidservant to bear children for them. In this way, she had two sons but it was not enough. Later in the story, there is a fight between the sisters over some mandrakes. Mandrakes were used for two things, as an aphrodisiac and as an aid for infertility. Leah wants the plant so that Jacob may have attraction to her, even if it is medicinally induced and Rachel isn’t satisfied merely having claim over two children. She wants more sons and she wants to carry them and bear them. In the contest for the plants, Rachel trades an evening with Jacob for the plant and both sisters become pregnant. The sisters continue to compete with each other for children and in the end, Jacob has twelve sons and one daughter by four women, two of which were his wives.
What does it mean to be a wife? This is a tricky question and one that I do not intend to answer on my own, Craig Ballard Millet wrote a book on six archetypes she saw represented in the scriptures, two of which were the wife and mother. I will be using her definitions of these archetypes and merge them with my own experiences and observations to help define these roles. “Part of the problem in discussing the archetypal wife is that we tend first to think in terms of stereotypes, and the stereotypical wife is very different from (the archetypal wife). The little woman who sacrifices her name and herself to her husband’s every whim, and who cannot know herself apart from his reaction to her, is a negative and destructive picture of what should be an archetype of considerable power” (Millet, 77). The stereotype of the wife is a doormat and not a partner for her husband, merely a servant.
Millet writes, “The archetypal wife is not simply a mirror reflection of her partner. She is a woman who innately has within and who intentionally cultivates skills of intimacy, commitment, and love. These are difficult skills to cultivate and difficult ones to exercise. They require constant attention and constant work, but the rewards are also generous” (78). For the archetypal wife, it is all worth it because she has shared her life and her love with her partner. “She will feel that her role as wife has far outweighed in value any money, success, or even fame that she has earned in a career. For her, that one primary relationship defines her life and is her life” (Millet, 78). I’ll admit, my first reaction to that quote was a negative one but then I had to understand my objection. Millet is speaking of an archetype, not a person. It is hard and not recommended for a person to attempt to fill only one archetype and neglect the other parts of themselves. People are more complicated than archetypes which is why we struggle when trying to fulfill our roles. We have multiple roles to fill and it becomes impossible when conflict arises between these archetypes just like the sisters battled for supremacy, so too do those archetypes struggle for supremacy within us.
Being an archetypal wife may be difficult but it becomes a struggle for time and balance when the wife’s role changes and she also needs to incorporate the archetype of mother. In fact, Millet never mentions children in the chapter on wives. Children automatically change a woman’s role to include the mother archetype so she can no longer be a pure wife archetype. If a married mother tried to be a wife archetype, her children would suffer and that would not be good for the marriage just like a mother completely switching to the mother archetype is not good for a marriage. Before I talk about the wife that transfers all of her energies toward the mother archetype I need to address a crucial aspect of the wife archetype which is how a wife archetype becomes a mother archetype, sex.
Sex is an important factor of the wife archetype and often the way a marriage is made legal is sexual union, as was the case in the time of Rachel and Leah. It was because Jacob had sex with Leah that he was married to her. It could not be undone. Sadly for Leah, this was probably the only time in her marriage that Leah experienced a loving sexual union. For every other sexual encounter with Jacob after the first, the purpose was procreation and possibly a bit for recreation but never for expressing love.
The Battle between Sisters – The Battle for Balance in Self
The reason I feel it is important to mention sex as part of the wife archetype is because it is a part that may get lost when the wife becomes a mother. Whether the couple stops having sex altogether, it will usually decline with the arrival of children. This is natural but the reaction from the husband is also natural – he feels neglected by the wife. She is tired, her body is different, and if she is nursing, her body isn’t even her own and she may not be interested in sex. In the animal kingdom, as with lions and many primates, males have been observed killing the offspring of nursing females to make them ready for sexual activity quicker. The nursing offspring is seen as competition for the female. This seems brutal when put to milder terms, the nursing child is competition even for the father. The mother must spend her time and energy on the new life but also, her love becomes shared. In humans, we recognize this so men do not kill their offspring in order to regain their wives but they do still exhibit jealousy.
Sex is just one of the many important elements to the wife archetype that change when she steps into the mother archetype. A mother simply cannot spend the amount of time and attention on keeping the house clean, making meals, having relationship time with her husband, maintaining her appearance, or on any of her many former activities from her wife archetype days. She can easily lose herself in her new archetype to the point that her husband feels unloved and uncared for. When the wife becomes a mother, the husband also becomes a father. He has also had a transition of archetype to deal with and has his own new needs. He may become angry or frustrated at the situation and since he loves his children, he takes his anger out in other ways. Both parents are dealing with the loss of their old archetype but also the loss of the other’s archetype.
This disconnect from the former archetypes of the new mother can lead to problems with the other areas of her life, like for me with my classes and marriage. I became so engrossed in my new archetype that I let the other areas slide, which to a point, is expected. The problem is when the mother does not return her attentions to her former archetypes that she risks losing those roles. If the mother does not realize that she has lost her wife archetype and that she was in jeopardy of losing her husband’s affections, she may lose the relationship that creates the archetype and would simply live without that part of her soul. Some people lose other archetypes when taking the new role as mother, many quit school or work, and some, often not by choice, quit the archetype of wife.
The Mother and Me
This leads me to Leah, the mother that wants to be a wife. In the soul of the married wife, Leah is a warning of what happens when we lose ourselves in motherhood and no longer attempt to fill the wife archetype. This part of the narrative becomes painful for me because it is still fresh in my life that I recognize I have become like Leah. Like many mothers, I fell in love with my children and want to spend all of my time and energy on them. Especially after waiting for so long to become a mother, once I was given the opportunity to fill the role, I went into it whole-heartedly. My body was not my own for almost six years of pregnancy and nursing. It became soft as I never quite lost my “baby weight.” I had a mom’s body. Our kids slept in our bed, it was nice for the kids but not for my marriage. This is not limited to me or my experiences. Most women struggle to maintain intimacy with their husbands while balancing the new responsibilities of motherhood.
I had neglected the wife archetype for too long in order to fill the mother, student, teacher, and other archetypes. I recognized the changes in our marriage but I did not see them through the eyes of the man that once had a wife but was now married to a mom. Luckily, I think the revelation came in time that I will not completely lose my role of wife but it definitely will take time to repair. Today, I relate more with Leah than Rachel. I wish my husband loved me the way he did before we had kids. When sex occurs and a woman becomes a wife, it can’t become undone. The purity is lost but it can be something wonderful and more beautiful than the original purity. Once a woman has a child and enters the mother archetype, there is no going back – the love shared with the couple will always be different – not less or more, just different and as a former Rachel, I miss that kind of love. The new love is more complex, it is deeper in many ways but it is also shared with the child(ren) and complicated because it requires balance. The purity of love between just the two is gone but it can be something wonderful and mot beautiful than the original purity. “When Adam and Eve choose knowledge over innocence, they open to receive life in all its fullness, which includes both pleasure and pain” (Pearson, 109).
The Mother the Archetype
The mother archetype is the ideal mother for a child but not always ideal for herself or for others. “Integration for a woman whose archetypal nature is maternal will mean consciously expanding her role beyond home into other areas of her life beside her children” (Millet, 105). Like with the pure wife archetype, the mother only cares about fulfilling her archetype. One danger with total identification with these archetypes is that they are based on relationships and are therefore based on other people that are also flawed and human. The archetypal wife may have a job but it is not her focus, her marriage is the most important aspect of her life. An archetypal mother may have a husband but her focus is on her child(ren), not her marriage except for how that relationship may affect her child(ren). In this last aspect, a mother archetype may not recognize that she can harm her children by engrossing herself too much in her new role. “Putting all her energies into her own family may not be healthy for her or for them” (Millet, 105). Children need their mothers to be more than archetypal mothers. Their mothers and fathers are their role models. If the mother is unfulfilled like Leah, the children will see this as a way to live life. There is also a danger that an archetypal mother will have difficulty releasing her role once her children are ready to stop being mothered. “She will need to intentionally cultivate the strengths of one of the three independent archetypes in preparation for the time when her children are grown” (Millet, 105). If a mother fails to have balance and devotes herself entirely to her archetype she risks a loss of identity when her children become independent or she takes a risk that they do not become independent and she mothers them even as adults. This is why there needs to be balance. A person can’t be an archetype and as seen with the story of Rachel and Leah, only filling one archetype tends to lead to discontent, bitterness, and even hostility.
To further this metaphor, it is interesting to see that Joseph, the firstborn of Jacob and Rachel becomes a great figure in later stories. “The child born out of the love match was more important than all the other sons put together” (Sanford, 34). The others did not thrive like the son born out of wholeness. Leah’s sons were raised by an archetype that was unfulfilled. There father favored the sons of Rachel because he loved their mother. Probably even more so after her death, he looked to them as an extension of her and for this reason, they thrived.
So, how to find balance? This is the question for every person that exists no matter what archetypes they are living. In the story, Jacob can also be seen as striving for balance. Craig Sanford argues the metaphor of the story is about Jacob striving for balance. This is an example of how these complex stories can represent different things to different readers. “There is a sense in which every man has a Rachel and a Leah within him. It is as though there is a pull within each man towards social conformity and adaptation to outer demands and expectations” (Sanford, 35). He argues that Jacob’s steadfastness to Rachel demonstrates that Jacob is a man of love. He cleaves to the wife he loves over the wife that gives him sons and status.
Like most of the stories found through Genesis, the interpretation of a story is more telling of the interpreter than it is about the story itself. I maintain that this is a story of balance and as a wife and a mother, I identify that balance as the balance between the archetypes because I am currently trying to find that balance. By working on this paper right this minute, I am not folding the clothes that have been sitting in the dryer since last night and by doing so, also letting the clothes I washed last night sit in the washer. I didn’t get them folded and put away last night because I fell asleep putting the kids to sleep and neglected both my archetypal wife roles of keeping the house clean and orderly and going to sleep with my husband. To balance the student archetype, I have to neglect things like laundry. To balance the wife archetype, I have to make my children grow and become independent by sleeping without me. This balance, it is what allows them to have cause for independence and lets them see it is okay for a person to put their needs first sometimes.
To balance school, work, motherhood, family, my creative side, and all of these things will be a constant struggle for balance. I will never be able to fill any of my archetypes without feeling dissatisfaction with the other areas of my life. This is true for everyone; for Rachel, for Leah, for Jacob, for me, and for you. This is a universal truth and why reading this on an archetypal level is so beneficial.
Archetypes are universal. The truth that we are human. That we can’t and shouldn’t even try to live our lives devoted to a single archetype because we are complex, like the stories of the Torah. To me, I read this as a story about balance between mother and wife because I live those archetypes but it can be read as a need to balance any archetype. The story works for so many people on so many levels. This is why so many have argued these texts were divinely inspired. The texts balance the historical aspect with the literary elements, they speak to us personally and universally, they were carried through the oral traditions of a people yet said to have been written by the hand of God – they achieve balance where we cannot.
I wish my conclusion was more definite, one that gave an answer but this is a research paper, not an argument paper. My need for balance will leave you with the lesson I have learned. It is okay that I fail because I am human, but I need to strive to not fail too often in any one archetype or I risk losing that role. We all struggle to maintain this balance. We can’t expect ourselves or others to always fill the archetypal role we want them to fill because they too are balancing their archetypes. In the end, I guess this story, my struggles, and this lesson which on the surface seem sad and difficult have all come together to become something better, something nicer. This has all been a reminder to be a little kinder to myself and to others and a reminder to focus not on an archetype but to focus on balance and let the rest fall into place.
Millett, Craig Ballard. In God’s Image: Archetypes of Women in Scripture. San Diego: LuraMedia, 1991. Print.
Otwell, John. And Sarah Laughed: The Status of Women in the Old Testament. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977. Print.
Pearson, Carol. Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Print.
Plaut, W. Gunther, Bernard J. Bamberger, and William W. Hallo. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981. Print.
Sanford, John A. The Man Who Wrestled with God: Light from the Old Testament on the Psychology of Individuation. New York: Paulist, 1981. Print.
3 thoughts on “Rachel and Leah – Wife and Mother”
Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted to say wonderful blog!
That is unfortunate – now, I’m curious what your comment said. Thank you for the feedback 🙂