Rachel is a powerful biblical character, in her showing up and in her disappearing. Moreover, she just may be the biggest “oker/uprooter” of the whole family….
Now we see her, now…
Rachel sometimes appears quite strongly, especially when linked to “back home” in Babylon. Before we see Rachel, who is actively working on the land as a shepherdess, we meet the landscape (Gen 29:1-6). The place is called by an unusual past-imbued expression: “eretz b’nei-kedem” appears nowhere else in the Torah (although it is used later in the Tanakh); it is usually translated as something like “land of the Easterners,” but “kedem” also means “past.” (Thoughts on Rachel and “The Babylon Road” from a few years ago.) Her theft of the household golds, which many commentators link to the land or the family (of the past), creates prominent scenes around her and seems to tie Rachel deeply to her place of origin and/or the past.
On the other hand, Rachel sometimes appears in relief, more present by her absence or insubstantiality: Jacob prepares to marry Rachel, and “in the morning, behold, she was Leah!” (Gen 29:25). Rachel tells Jacob she’ll die without children (Gen 30:1). She labors with her second child at some unknown distance from the family’s future home; her death scene is all about the child and then Jacob (Gen 35:16-20).
Later in the Tanakh, we hear “wailing, bitter weeping” before we learn that it is Rachel who is weeping for her children who are not (Jer 31:15). As a sort of bookend to her appearance as part of her birth-home’s landscape (Gen 29), she recedes into the landscape of the place she will never live.
Not the end of the matter
Rachel is linked eternally, by Jeremiah, both to the exiles’ forced trek back to Babylon and to God’s promise of return. Through her children, she is also linked to exile and return, to uprooting and re-planting associated with the root ayin-kuf-reish.
Her younger son, Benjamin, is the only one of Jacob’s children to be born in the Land, albeit by the side of the road — making mother and son both uprooted and, in some sense, offshoot/re-planted. Her older son, Joseph, spends his entire adult life in Egypt and eventually becomes instrumental in re-planting Jacob’s family into Egypt, where they experience various forms of exile….until, generations hence, Joseph’s bones accompany the Israelites on the journey out of Egypt and into the wilderness.
A midrash points out that Jeremiah, in using the expression “baneha [בָּנֶיהָ], her children,” is calling the entire People by Rachel’s name….and by the name of her son and grandson:
…the descendants were called by her name, as it is written: “Rachel weeping for her children (Jer 31:15).” And that is not the end of the matter with her name, but also in the name of her son, as it is said: “Perhaps Hashem will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph (Amos 5:15).” And that is not the end of the matter with the name of her son, but also in the name of her grandson, as it is said: “Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me, A child that is dandled! (Jer 31:20).”Ruth Rabbah 7:13; ; see also verses below
This passage is part of a longer midrash discussing the blessing of Ruth as “like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the House of Israel!” (Ruth 4:11). Why is Rachel mentioned first in this context when Leah birthed more children? The midrash thus creates a kind of reversal in that Rachel, who birthed only two of Jacob’s 13 children, is honored in the naming of the whole family’s descendants.
…From a cursory review, the midrash, as it appears in Genesis Rabbah (300-500 CE?), seems focused on the sisters’ relationship, read as rivalry or contest of character. In Ruth Rabbah (700-950 CE?), the passage seems more focused on the lineage and descendants of Ruth and Boaz….
In both versions, the end result — whether the intended point of the midrash as constructed or not — centers Rachel, who never lives in the Land; her son Joseph, the transplant to Egypt; and Ephraim, son of Joseph and the Egyptian Asenath. Three generations whose lives unfold solely or mostly outside of the Land are thus honored for building up the “House of Israel.”
Still not the end
The midrash cited above includes a play on words around “but Rachel was barren (‘aqarah [akarah])” (Gen 29:31). Why is Rachel first? Because she was “primary (‘iqaro),” said R’ Abba the son of Kahana. In another version, R’ Yitzchak says Rachel is “the main part of the household,” using the same word-play: akarah>>ikar (Genesis Rabbah 71:2). (See also previous discussion).
The akarah/ikar midrash includes another important twist:
Rabbi Shimon the son of Yochai taught: “Because they spoke words against Rachel, so the descendants were called by her name…Ruth Rabbah 7:13
The whole people, all descendants of Jacob/Yisrael, are to be called by Rachel’s name because of words spoken against her. This seems to be referencing another midrash, one about Benjamin being caught with the goblet, apparently stolen from pharaoh’s house, in Gen 44:12. In the midrash about Benjamin, his brothers accuse him and insult Rachel by saying: “thief, son of a she-thief.” (See Sefer Ha-Aggadah 55:106, also cited in Jewish Women’s Archive, but I don’t know the original source). Calling Rachel “she-thief,” in turn, references her stealing of the teraphim from her father’s house (Gen 31:19).
It may be that the Ruth Rabbah midrash, in discussing Rachel’s children, has moved on from word-play around the root ayin-kuf-reish. But the image of Rachel having the entire people called by her name and those of her children, as a result of her stealing the teraphim suggests that she is an uprooter, an “oker,” not unlike the stonecutter seeking to move a mountain.
Another uprooting-type midrash about Rachel appears in Lamentations Rabbah. In a long prequel to the events of the Book of Lamentations, Moses and the patriarchs try to sway God from exiling the people after the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem. When the men all fail, Rachel steps up. She speaks of passion and pain in her own life in an attempt to overturn God’s jealousy and views on idolatry. She is apparently successful in that she elicits a promise from God that the people will be allowed to return (citing Jer. 31:18 — see Lamentations Rabbah [opening proam, petihtah 24] — citations below).
I don’t know enough about Lamentations Rabbah to be sure, but it looks like Rachel’s argument with God is devoid of references to her theft of the teraphim. So, she is arguing with God to overcome any divine jealousy regarding idolatry (presumably, in this reasoning, the cause of the exile) without mentioning what was going on with those teraphim…the meaning of the teraphim and her relationship to them is given many explanations, but some commentaries suggest she was trying to prevent Laban from continuing to engage in idol-worship.
There does seem to be an important contrast between the Ruth-related midrash and this one. In the former, Rachel’s actions around the teraphim — one of the few points in which she shows up in the Genesis text — were somehow essential in the formation of the people now called by her name. In the Lamentations midrash, God is moved by one of the points in Genesis where Rachel is most present in relief, invisible in the text itself but active behind the midrashic scenes. Her presence and her absence seem to be key in the uprooting and replanting of her individual family and the people Jacob’s descendants become.
Hate evil and love good,Amos 5:15
And establish justice in the gate;
Perhaps the LORD, the God of Hosts,
Will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me,
A child that is dandled!
Whenever I have turned [Lit. “spoken” ] against him,
My thoughts would dwell on him still.
That is why My heart years for him
I will receive him back in love
–declares the LORD — Jer 31:20