Exploring Babylon Chapter 8.1
The biblical Rachel, the last matriarch to join and add to the clan that becomes Israel, is tied to the east in several ways — all leading, ultimately, to Babylon.
Children of Two Lands
Rachel is introduced just after Jacob arrives in the “land of the Easterners [אַרְצָה בְנֵי-קֶדֶם]” (Genesis 29:1, last week’s Torah portion: Vayetze, Gen 28:10-32:3).
The construct “בְנֵי-קֶדֶם, bnei-kedem” — sometimes translated as “people (or children) of the east,” sometimes, “Kedemites” — does not appear anywhere else in the Torah, although it shows up ten times later in the Tanakh (Concordance Even-Shoshan). Many Torah translations leave the expression without comment (cf. Alter, Fox, URJ, Women of Reform Judaism, Gefen Onkelos); the Stone Chumash simply points out that Ur Kasdim and Haran, places associated with Abraham’s family, are east from Canaan.
Some commentators note that eastward is the direction Abraham sent the children of Ketura, whom he married after Sarah’s death (Gen 25:6). The word “kedem” itself means “past,” as well as “east.”
Previous #ExploringBabylon chapters discussed two themes, repeated through much of Genesis:
- Ur Kasdim and Haran as “Back Home” for the family of Terah;
- the descendants of Sarah and Abraham as perpetually “from there.”
Both themes appear in Jacob’s story, and both appear, in two quite different ways, in the stories of Leah and Rachel.
Jacob is urged, separately by Rebecca and Isaac, to leave Canaan, with both parents saying that he should seek out Rebecca’s brother and find a wife from the uncle’s household (“back home”). Isaac echoes Abraham’s earlier words, insisting his son should find a wife “from there [מִשָּׁם].”
In their instructions to Jacob, Rebecca calls her old home “Haran,” while Isaac calls the place “Paddan-Aram.” Jacob goes to Paddan-Aram (Gen 28:5), going out from Beer-Sheva toward Haran (Gen 28:10). Where he arrives, however, is “artzah bnei-kedem.”
Jacob’s grandparents and parents retained a sense of “from there,” while leaving “back home” behind: Sarah and Abraham left there, as did Rebecca. But Jacob’s trajectory is different: He will live decades among the people of kedem. So, even though the plain meaning of arriving “artzah bnei-kedem” is reaching the “east country” or “land of the Easterners” (as JPS has it above), Jacob has also, in a sense, traveled toward his family’s past. And Rachel’s introduction links her to this land in a way that Leah’s does not.
Jacob arrives in the land of the Easterners, where he sees a well and flocks of sheep and then meets locals who tell him his cousin Rachel is on the way. Rachel, whose name means “ewe,” is intricately woven into this landscape and the household of Laban, where she is seen and heard taking an active role.
Leah, in contrast, is not introduced until 29:16 and then only as Laban’s older daughter with tender, or weak, eyes; she is not linked to the land in any way and does not interact with Laban, except as the passive object of his machinations.
The sisters jointly declare themselves “as outsiders” [כִּי מְכָרָנוּ] in Laban’s household, when Jacob proposes leaving (Gen 31:14-16). The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary adds:
By acknowledging their outsider status in the household, Leah and Rachel prepare themselves to journey to an unknown land. They distinguish themselves from their father, citing the egregious manner in which he married them off and then denied them their due.
— Rachel Havrelock’s commentary to Vayetze
But this doesn’t pan out in the same way for both sisters.
Eventually, although we learn nothing about the later stage of her life, Leah does settle with Jacob and the extended family in Canaan; she is buried at Machpelah with Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, and, finally, Jacob (Gen 49:31). We also learn that Dinah, “the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land” (Gen 34:1); this troubling episode is beyond the scope of this project, but it does seem relevant that Leah and Dinah are thus linked, not to the old land but to the new.
Rachel, in contrast, seems to have stronger relationships to the old land and to the old family. She steals the terafim (הַתְּרָפִים [idols, household gods]) from her father’s house (Gen 31:34), which many commentators link to inheritance or clan leadership — although there is great variety in interpreting the meaning of her act. Moreover, when Laban comes in search of his property, Leah is again a cipher in his presence, but Rachel is seen and heard responding to her father.
However the theft is interpreted, Rachel’s act exhibits strong opinions about her native culture and her place in it. She does not simply move on. And she doesn’t simply move into the new land, either, as her story unfolds in this week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach, Gen 32:4-36:43).
We’ll explore Rachel’s appearance in the Book of Jeremiah more thoroughly later, but it seems important to mention here the second bookend for her story: We saw above how the landscape appeared prior to Rachel’s gradually coming into view as part of it (Genesis Chapter 29). In Jeremiah 31:15, her cry is heard “wailing, bitter weeping,” before we are told that it is Rachel weeping.
Rachel is tied strongly to the land of her birth; she doesn’t leave it easily or have an opportunity to live in the new land, even as she gives birth to the only child of Jacob, tribe of Israel, born there.
And Rachel died, and was buried on the road to Ephrath (Gen 35:19). Why did Jacob see fit to bury Rachel on the road to Ephrath [and not in the cave of Machpelah*]? Because our father Jacob foresaw that they who were to be exiled would pass by way of Ephrath. Therefore he buried her there, so that she might beseech mercy for them. Referring to this, Scripture says, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children” (Jer. 31:15).
— Sefer Ha-Aggadah 50:87, based on Genesis Rabbah 82:10
*Footnote provided by Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Ramah, near where Jacob buried Rachel, lay north of Jerusalem in the path of the exiles driven toward Babylon. Hebron is south of Jerusalem, and the patriarchs and matriarchs buried there in the cave of Machpelah were out of the way of the exiles going northeast to Babylon.
In this way — and in others we’ll explore soon — the bookends of Rachel’s life and death link her to the Babylon of the past and future and to the precarious nature of Israel’s future on the land.