The ancient Hebrew people in Genesis lived a nomadic lifestyle. They traveled in camps of 25-50 people. More than fifty people would be difficult to feed, and less than twenty-five people could mean less than adequate protection for their camp. The oldest male acted as the leader of his faction; he was the law and law enforcement. Along with him the clan consisted of his brothers, unmarried sisters, sons, nephews, grandsons, wives, and children.
A new social structure developed by the time of the ancient Jewish monarchy. Ancient Israelites settled in towns, and the old nomadic way of life withered away. Small houses were too small to support families of fifty, and married sons moved out of their father’s house. Throughout Hebrew history, though, family has always been the backbone that held Jewish culture intact.
Since the family structure is so important to the ancient Hebrews, why did Leah and Rachel compete for Jacob’s affection? I know my mother would never compete with any other woman for my father’s affection (especially her sisters)! If he wants another woman, then he can have her. He made a poor choice! (I can picture my mother saying this now with loads of sass.) A Genesis 29 & 30 episode would tear a modern family apart, so why did it seem to strengthen Jacob’s family? Why was he blessed for taking another woman that was not his wife? Even if the women were Rachel and Leah’s handmaidens, why were Rachel and Leah not fighting for Jacob’s faithfulness instead of his favor?
In a modern context we might find the what happens in Genesis 29 & 30 confusing or even downright appalling, but for the ancient Hebrew people these things, while rare, weren’t unheard of or even unlawful. While the Halakhah and the Talmud are clear that women are to have only one husband, men could have as many wives as they pleased and could afford to support. Monogamy was the norm, but polygyny was legal and respectable. The ancient definition of adultery was sex between a married woman and a man who is not her husband. Women were seen as their husbands’ possession, and men were free people. At the end of the first century BC, long after Genesis, the Hebrew people began to wonder why the definition of adultery should not include unfaithful husbands.
Even if what transpired with Jacob, Rachel, Leah, and their handmaids was lawful, there still is no explanation concerning the sisters’ willingness to have their husband sleep with another woman. Even the biblical account makes clear that what happened sewed some discord between the sisters. Again, the incident makes more sense through the lens of ancient Hebrew culture and context. Rachel offered her servant because she couldn’t have children; this emphasizes how vital childbearing was to the ancient Hebrew culture. Children contributed a hand with the sizable amount of work to be done for the family. Also, everyone felt an urge to leave a part of them behind for the future, and male children would carry on the family name. Men also proved more valuable to ancient Hebrew families because while girls would eventually leave the family for whatever family they would marry into, male children stayed and added to the family when they married which provided more help for the elderly within the family circle.
Bearing children was the ultimate aim for the ancient Hebrew woman. It wasn’t uncommon for barren women to offer their servants to their husbands so that they would have children to help toil for the family, carry on the family name, and to ensure there would be someone to look after the accredited mother and father in their old age. These truths along with the strange idea that adultery only applied to the wife makes the Genesis 29 & 30 affair less taboo. Context is key; Jacob wasn’t necessarily indecent, Rachel and Leah weren’t crazy, and, while it may be hard to imagine, children were considered even more of a blessing then than now.