Thoughts from the Sukkah 2016 Edition — Day 4

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3


Yesterday we looked at Jacob’s marriages and the idea that Leah is the first wife and the more spiritual woman while Rachel is his earthly love. We saw the pain that this caused for Leah even though she was able to give Jacob four sons and Rachel remained barren.

Consider the children

Before we get started with today’s portion of the story I would like to encourage you to consider the marriage relationship between Leah and Jacob and the sons who were influenced by it. I am especially struck by their sons Simeon and Levi based on other things I have read about them. Simeon and Levi are sons that held themselves to a very high standard of righteousness, which is a wonderful thing and part of what allowed Levi’s descendants to take on the priesthood. They also held everyone else to that same high standard of righteousness which is where they had their downfall. Their lack of mercy and forgiveness is a key factor in their interactions with Joseph and with the Prince of Shechem, the event that caused them to lose their blessings from their father.

By the time the Israelites go into the Land, the Levites have redeemed themselves by taking on the Priesthood and it’s rigid attention to detail that kept them alive in the presence of God. They are allowed to have land but it does not belong to them. They are the caretakers of the Cities of Refuge — the places where those accused of crimes, or found not guilty of murder and unable to return to their home until the sitting high priest had died, were to go and be protected and shown mercy. Simeon’s descendants are given islands of land within the borders of Judah’s land with the hope that they would be influenced and impacted by their brother’s deep mercy surrounding them.

The character qualities of each of the sons, and of Dinah, the only daughter, are worth considering as we read about the family into which they were born.


Rachel was the second wife, the younger sister, and the recipient of Jacob’s deepest love. She was beautiful in form and appearance, and she was barren.

There is a teaching that the Matriarchs were barren so that they would be driven to cry out to God even more and their spiritual maturity would ready them to be the mothers of the Patriarchs or tribes that they were going to mother. There are many reasons that Rachel is seen as representing the earthly aspects of Jacob.

Instead of turning to God to ask him to open her womb, she became jealous of her sister Leah. She demanded that Jacob give her children both blaming him for her not having children and manipulating him with her threat of death. Whether she meant she would literally die or that her soul would be as dead we do not know. What we do know is Jacob’s response.

Jacob was angry with Rachel and reminded her that he was not God and was not the one who was preventing her from having children. With the reminder that it was God who was not granting her children, Rachel did what Sarah had done years before and brought her maidservant Bilhah to her husband. She told him to sleep with Bilhah and let her have children who would be counted as Rachels. Bilhah became his wife and she conceived and gave birth to a son. Rachel named him Dan as a way to acknowledge both that God had judged her unworthy to have children of her own but had heard her voice and given her a son.

Bilhah conceived again and gave birth to another son. Rachel named this child Naphtali–a beautiful name but one that was chosen because she had schemed against her sister to make herself equal to her and had prevailed.

The Competition

When Leah realized she was not having children anymore and her sister was catching up to her in the number of sons she had provided to Jacob, she got back into the competition by offering her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob so that she could have children and increase the sons credited to Leah. Zilpah did conceive and she did bear a son. Leah declared that good luck had come and named him Gad.

Zilpah had a second son for Jacob and Leah named him Asher because she declared that she had good fortune and women had deemed her fortunate.

Bilhah and Zilpah

It’s fascinating to me that we know so little of Bilhah and Zilpah and yet they are the women who brought forth four of the sons of Jacob, four of the tribal fathers.

We know they came from Laban’s home and that they were given as maidservants to his daughters when they married Jacob. We know that their relationship was such that they either willingly, or obediently, became Jacob’s wives in order to provide children who would be credited to the women for whom they were maidservants. We see this idea of one woman having a child for another in the story of Ruth when Boaz is counted as Naomi’s son.

As I mentioned above we also saw this with Sarah and Hagar and we know it did not go well between them after that.

Little is known about these women but some have suggested that culturally they would likely have been half-sisters to Leah and Rachel. They are certainly devoted to them and as they become part of the tribe of Jacob they do their part to grow the family.

Reuben’s gift

During the wheat harvest Reuben found dudaim in the field and brought them to his mother Leah.

This part of the story is considered one of the most puzzling of texts because no one really knows what the dudaim were. There are many guesses — possibly jasmine, violets, mandrakes, or even a basket of figs. We do not know what the dudaim really was, but we do know that Rachel saw them and wanted them so badly that she offered to trade her night with Jacob for them.

There are some beautiful commentaries out there about why Reuben, thought by some to be 4 years old when this event took place, would bring dudaim to his mother. Some suggest that he brought it home because nothing planted for harvest belonged to their family who existed at the mercy of Laban for whom Jacob worked, but this wild plant was something he could pick and bring to her. Some have suggested they may have had fertility-inducing powers and he brought them because he knew his mother longed to have more children. Some suggest he brought it to his mother because he knew she longed for Jacob’s love and they may have had love-inducing powers.

Some commentaries speak to the way the text talks of him walking out to find them and relate this to the firstborn walking in the wisdom of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. He is the product of their love for God and whatever the plant was he had gone to it with wisdom and brought it to honor his mother

Let the bidding begin

Rachel wants the dudaim. She wants them so badly that she asks for some of them. If there was a connection to fertility or love this would be a bold thing to ask of Leah considering the competition they are in both for Jacob’s love and for how many sons they will provide for him. One commentary even calls her entitled for thinking she had a right to them.

Leah was upset at the request and said to her, “Was your taking my husband insignificant? –And now to take even my son’s dudaim!”

Leah has laid the situation out plainly. Regardless of how she came to be the one to marry Jacob, once they were married it was inappropriate for Rachel to also become his wife. It was selfish, entitled and hurtful. Had Rachel done what was right she would not have created this mess they are in. Although that is not taking into consideration the fact that Jacob would have still resented Leah for not being Rachel, it reveals that she thought they might have been able to overcome that if Rachel had not continued to be a constant presence in their lives.

In response, Rachel offered her night with Jacob to Leah in exchange for the dudaim. She is praised in the Jewish commentary for wanting to smooth over his sister’s hurt feelings, but also taken to task for considering a night with Jacob such an unimportant thing that she would trade it for the dudaim.

Because sex is the right of the woman, Rachel was able to make this offer. When Jacob came in from the field Leah went out to meet him and informed him that he would be with her that night. She told him she had traded her son’s dudaim for a night with him and it was a binding agreement. Jacob complied and went to her tent for the night.

Leah’s not out of the game yet

God heard Leah’s heart’s desire for more children and once again she conceived. As this story follows immediately upon the last one I have always thought that she must have conceived that night. What irony that Rachel gave up a night with Jacob in exchange for the dudaim and on that night Leah conceived.

Let’s talk about fertility for a minute

This is where some knowledge of women’s fertility cycles may come in handy.

Women’s fertility cycles are tied to the moon, just as the Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar. Cycles of the moon control when a woman is fertile, when she ovulates, and when her menstrual cycle begins. Women who live outside of the city in nature are generally more connected to this cycle than those who live in cities, especially in the modern world. And women who live together become synced in their cycles.

This means that all four of the women with whom Jacob was having children would have been fertile, ovulating and menstruating at approximately the same time.

As for sperm and the role it plays in conception, sperm that will produce a male lives for about 24 hours and must penetrate the egg within the 48 hours that it is viable and making its way into the womb. Sperm that will produce a female lives longer (it is generally thought to live up to 4 days but I personally know of children conceived after 5-6 days). There are definitely exceptions, but, in general, if sex is had very close to ovulation the odds are you will conceive a boy. If sex is had days before ovulation the odds are you will conceive a girl.

This begs the question of how much the timing of these children was due to natural conditions and how much their conception was miraculous.

Since Jacob’s bed was permanently set up in Rachel’s chamber as his favorite wife, it is most likely that she was having the most sex with him and this is why she was so distraught that she brought forth no children whatsoever. It’s quite possible that the nights of highest conception likelihood were reserved for Rachel and this is why Leah is so sure that God is showing her favor when she not only conceives, but has sons.

Which brings me to one other thing that is not generally addressed in commentary and I am left assuming this is because most commentary is written by men. Rachel is barren. This does not necessarily mean that she cannot conceive children, it may mean that she suffers repeated miscarriages. If this is the case it means many things that impact our story.

First, it means that she is experiencing hormonal roller coasters. The experience of being pregnant and losing that pregnancy is very hard on a woman’s body. Her hormones become confused and she suffers loss physically. The death of life within her affects her soul. I won’t go into detail beyond that but her intense distress, jealousy and blaming Jacob for her not having a child is even more understandable if she is suffering multiple miscarriages.

Second, it may give some insight into what the dudaim actually was.


While it is clearly impossible to know for certain what plant it is that Reuben picked for her mother, there is a plant that is native to Persia and has varieties that are known to come from the Middle East that is called dudaim. It is a melon.

The melon is known for its musky scent and is not as sweet as other melons like it, but the scent is often used to freshen chambers and is very fragrant.

The dried juice of the dudaim has antiemetic properties and is used to help with digestive disorders including nausea and vomiting.

dudaim melon

dudaim melon

If this is the dudaim that Reuben found and picked for Leah, Rachel may have thought nothing of giving away her night with Jacob because she already knew she was pregnant. She may have needed it to help control the morning sickness.

Dudaim is also a very interesting thing to consider from the perspective of the proto-canaanite word pictures that were the root for Hebrew and many other languages. The pictures for each letter in the word dudaim suggest that Rachel wanted to keep her womb closed tightly and calm the chaos (nausea and indigestion) that was at work inside her as she hoped to bring her firstborn into the world. Any pregnant woman with chaos in her belly knows that she will give almost anything to calm it.

She would also not be concerned about a night of sex with her husband. That would probably be the farthest thing from her mind.

If Leah knew that Rachel was pregnant her anger at her about stealing her husband and bringing so much distress into her life makes even more sense. As does Jacob not questioning the changed sleeping arrangement. If this was known then what Leah told him when he came in from the field would be more like, “Rachel isn’t feeling well tonight. She traded her night with you for something to settle her stomach.”

Back to Leah

Whether that night, or soon after, Leah did conceive again, and she had a fifth son. She declared that, “God has granted me my reward because I gave my maidservant to my husband.” She named him Issachar.

Then she conceived again and had a sixth son. She declared that,”God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will make his permanent home with me for I have borne him six sons.” She named him Zebulun.

Then Leah gave birth to Dinah, the only daughter born to the family. As the mother of four sons and only one daughter I have a special place in my heart for Dinah.

Rachel finally has a child

The telling of Rachel’s birth comes at the end of Leah having children, but there is no evidence that this is a chronological timing of the birth. Hebrew story telling is circular. It would make sense to place the story about the dudaim into Leah’s chronology of births if it indicated the trading of nights with Jacob that allowed for Leah to conceive. Then the telling of the birth would have its own place not just because it is a child born to a different mother, but because it is the firstborn child of Rachel, the beloved.

It would make sense to look at the order of blessings to try and find a chronology confirmation, but Jacob also blessed Joseph’s children before blessing any of the other sons. Or at least the telling of their blessing was set apart as well.

While I am putting forth that Rachel may have given birth to Joseph at some point during the time that Leah was still having children, whether that is the case or not does not change the significance of any of the births. Rachel may have lost at least one baby during the time that Leah was having children. We know of Rachel’s distress but are not given the private details of her pain or the details of the depth of her struggle.

Rachel did finally have a child. She named her son Joseph because, “God has taken away my disgrace.” And she added, “May Adonai add on for me another son.”

Even in her thrill at giving birth, finally!, she is already wanting more. The excitement we have for her is somewhat dampened by her expression that it was not yet enough.

Jacob’s first attempt to leave

At this point in the story Jacob approached his father in law Laban and indicated that he wanted to leave and return to his home.

His 14 years of contract had previously ended but Jacob had waited until Rachel gave birth. We are not told why, but there is commentary suggesting that Jacob knew that because of Joseph’s birth he would be able to conquer Esau and it was safe to return to his family. It may be that he wanted his beloved wife to have the opportunity to give birth in her own home with her family around her. We don’t know.

We do know that Jacob is ready to leave, and Laban isn’t ready to let him go. Tomorrow we will talk about why and how that played out.

Day 5

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