Allusions to Rachel in 1 Samuel
Rachel is one of the matriarchs of Israel. As such, she plays an important role in the unfolding story of the Book of Genesis. Rachel is best known as the beloved wife of Jacob (Gen. 29:18-20), and the mother of Joseph (Gen. 30:22-24). Other famous episodes in her life include the rivalry between her and her sister Leah (Gen. 30:8), her stealing the household gods of her father Laban (Gen. 31:19), and the birth of her second born son Benjamin which results in her death (Gen. 35:16-20). Many readers of 1 Samuel may be unaware of the numerous allusions to Rachel in its pages. Since Rachel lived approximately 800 years before the events recorded in 1 Samuel, what is the significance of the constant allusions to her? A brief discussion of typology, or intertextuality, as it is frequently referred to, is necessary to answer this question. Then we will look at each occurrence in 1 Samuel that alludes to Rachel and seek to understand its significance.
Typology, or Intertextuality in the Bible
I have written more extensively on the topic of typology elsewhere (see here). Peter Leithart provides a good succinct definition. He writes, “Typology means that earlier characters and events are understood as figures of later characters and events, and the text is written in a way that brings out the connection” (Peter Leithart, “A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1&2 Samuel,” p. 13). As I explained in my post on typology: “Biblical authors intentionally recall earlier stories, characters, and events as a way of commenting on the story, character, or event they are relating. The student of the Bible is being invited to compare the stories or characters in order to notice these similarities and differences. Through this comparison, the reader gains insight into what the biblical author is communicating. This is especially helpful when one is trying to understand a particular biblical character.” This practice or technique is what is meant by intertextuality. To put it simply, it is using Scripture to interpret Scripture.
Texts Alluding to Rachel in 1 Samuel and Their Meaning
Hannah and Rachel
1 Samuel begins with an immediate allusion to Rachel. Elkanah’s marriage to Hannah and Peninnah recalls Jacob’s marriage to Rachel and Leah (1 Sam. 1:1-6). This allusion is further solidified by the fact that one woman is barren (Hannah/Rachel) and one is fertile (Leah/Peninnah), which leads to conflict between them. Robert Polzin (Samuel and the Deuteronomist), followed by Keith Bodner (1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary), suggests that the birth story of Samuel (the kingmaker) looks forward to the birth of kingship in Israel. There are a number of connections in 1 Sam. 1 with 1 Sam. 8-9. The conflict between the women leads Bodner to conclude: “The advent of kingship in Israel will also produce conflict, and at this point in the story this conflict is symbolically represented in Hannah and Peninnah” (p. 16).
Ichabod and Rachel
The birth of Ichabod in 1 Samuel 4:19-22 contains the next allusion to Rachel. When the daughter-in-law of Eli hears of his death, the death of her husband (Phinehas), and the capture of the ark, she is overcome with premature labor and gives birth. The birth is difficult and results in her death. Before dying, however, she gives her son a strange name–Ichabod–which means, “the glory has departed.” These circumstances bear some resemblance to the story of Rachel giving birth to Benjamin. It should also be noted that the man who delivers the bad tidings in 1 Sam. 4 is “a man from Benjamin” (1 Sam. 4:12). When Rachel gives birth, she too dies, and in the process, she also gives her son an unusual name with a sad meaning. Benjamin’s original name as given by Rachel is Ben-Oni which means “son of my sorrow.” Apparently Jacob did not wish his son to be stuck with such a negative legacy and so changed his name to Benjamin (Gen. 35:18). In my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, I suggest the following application: “The parallel between the two birth stories may lie in the contrast they provide to one another. Ben-Oni does not properly reflect the future of Jacob’s family, and so Jacob changes his son’s name to Benjamin. However, the name, Ichabod, stands because it is a true reflection of the situation—“the glory has departed” (p. 77). It should be remembered that Saul is a Benjamite. Barbara Green (How Are the Mighty Fallen? A Dialogical Study of King Saul in 1 Samuel, p. 145) points out that the news the man from Benjamin brings leads to the mother’s death and the outcry of the people. Is this perhaps a harbinger of the problems that Saul’s kingship will bring upon Israel? It is interesting that a few of the ancient Rabbis even identified this Benjamite as the young man Saul!
Saul and Rachel
While the previous story of Ichabod’s birth alludes to Rachel’s death, the next story expressly mentions her tomb. After Saul is anointed by Samuel, he is given three signs to confirm his appointment. The first sign involves encountering two men by Rachel’s tomb (1 Sam. 10:2). As Saul arrives at the tomb of the matriarch of his tribe, he will receive news that the donkeys he went to seek have been found, and that his father is concerned about what has happened to him. While the immediate context confirms Samuel’s word that the Lord has anointed him, some suggest that in the bigger picture of Saul’s story the mention of Rachel’s tomb and the words of his father, may sound an ominous note. A tomb quite naturally speaks of death. Peter Miscall (1 Samuel: A Literary Reading) remarks, “…’tomb’ tips the ambiguous symbol of Benjamin toward the pole of misfortune and death” (p. 55). Regarding the father’s words, Bodner comments, “…the words of Saul’s father Kish mean more than the speaker(s) may realize. Kish says, ‘What will I do about my son?, suggesting that uncertainty clouds the future of his son” (p. 94).
Michal and Rachel
When Saul threatens David’s life, Michal seeks to protect him. Michal helps David out through a window in the house and then does something very interesting. She takes an idol (one wonders where she gets it), puts it in David’s bed and covers the head with goat’s hair (1 Sam. 19:11-17). When Saul’s soldiers come to take him, she claims that David is sick which allows David extra time to escape. Several features of this story recall incidents in the lives of both Jacob and Rachel. Bodner sums up the similarities: “Both of these episodes feature deceptive father-in-laws (Laban and Saul), younger daughters (Rachel and Michal), fugitive husbands (Jacob and David), and hidden idols (author’s italics, p. 206). In Family Portraits, my conclusion is: “Although Rachel is one of the matriarchs of Israel, the comparison here is not flattering. It serves to confirm that Michal’s religious devotion is misplaced” (p. 127). Michal’s possession of an idol, and lying to her father that David threatened to kill her, places her in a negative light, in spite of the fact that she saved David’s life on this occasion.
Saul and David, Rachel and Leah
In the larger picture of 1&2 Samuel we learn that Saul ,the first king, is a member of the Tribe of Benjamin. David, of course, is from the Tribe of Judah. Genesis reveals that Rachel had two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. The first king of Israel is, therefore, a descendant of Rachel’s. The Tribe of Judah, however, is descended through Leah and Judah becomes the preeminent son among Leah’s progeny (Gen. 49:8-12). The conflict between David (Judah) and Saul (Benjamin) is reminiscent of the conflict between the two matriarchal mothers and sisters, Rachel and Leah. Interestingly, although Rachel was the most loved by Jacob, it was Leah who rested by him in the end, as she and Jacob were both buried in the ancestral cave at Machpelah purchased by Abraham (Gen. 49:29-31). Similarly, it was David, the descendant of Leah, persecuted by Saul, the descendant of Rachel, who triumphed in the end.
Rachel is one of the revered matriarchs of Israel and deserves her place among the great women of the nation. Yet, it must be said, that her character description in Genesis, like that of her husband Jacob, is less than ideal. She is remembered for being beautiful (Gen. 29:17) and to her credit, she seeks the Lord in her barrenness and is granted a son (Gen. 30:22-24). However, she also has a fiery temper and a competitive nature driven, at least at times, by envy (Gen. 30:1-2). Rachel, like Jacob, can also be deceptive. As illustrated when she steals her father’s gods and lies about it (Gen. 31:19, 34-35).
When we turn to the allusions of Rachel in 1 Samuel, once again negativity dominates. Rachel’s comparison with Hannah is indeed a positive (both are the loved wife who is barren), but the similarity also extends to the conflict and rivalry represented in both families. The allusion between Benjamin’s birth and Ichabod’s is foreboding of difficult times ahead. If “the glory has departed” at the birth of Ichabod and he is the “new Benjamin,” then what does that forecast for the future of the tribe of Benjamin? We have already noted above that Saul’s first sign of kingship being confirmed in the vicinity of Rachel’s tomb does not seem to suggest a bright future. Finally, the similarities between Rachel and Michal are not complimentary to either, but, in the end, Rachel certainly fares better than Michal in biblical history.
Except for some aspects in the comparison with Hannah, it must be said that all of the allusions to Rachel in 1 Samuel are designed to communicate a negative message. Perhaps this relates to our final point above that the kingship was ultimately not destined for a descendant of Rachel from the Tribe of Benjamin, but for a descendant of Leah from the Tribe of Judah, and this may be one of the main reasons that the inspired author draws so many allusions to her in 1 Samuel.
Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel. Available at the following sites: Amazon USA / UK, and WestBow Press as well as other internet outlets.