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Women Of The Bible – Lesson #4 – Hagar, Rebekah, Rachael and Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah

 HAGAR

Scripture references:   Genesis 16:18, 15, 16; 21:917; 25:12; Galatians 4:24-25

Date:  About 2075 b.c.

Name: Hagar [HAY-gahr: light]

Greatest accomplishment: Hagar was the mother of the Arab peoples.

HAGARS ROLE IN SCRIPTURE

While the nkjv describes Hagar, as an Egyptian maidservant the blunt fact is that Hagar was a slave. Slavery in the ancient world did not involve the oppression of one race by another. But by its nature slavery involved the ownership of one person by another and thus the loss of the slaves right to make personal choices.

When Sarai decided to give her husband Abram a child through Hagar, everything changed for the slave woman. Hagar of course had no choice in the matter, and we have no insight into her feelings about her mistresss decision. What we do know is that Hagar quickly became pregnant. With her pregnancy Hagars attitude toward Sarai changed, and Sarai became despised in her eyes. The word despised suggests a natural reaction. Hagar felt contempt for her mistress. All those years of childlessness clearly were not due to Abrams sterility. Sarai was less of a woman than her slave was!

Hagars first encounter with God (Gen. 16:715). Sarais treatment of Hagar was so harsh that within weeks Hagar simply ran away. She headed south, trudging toward Egypt through the desert region, which we know today as the Negev. There, as she sat despondently by a spring of water, the Angel of the Lord found her.  While there is debate about the identity of the Angel of the Lord, the evidence suggests that the title indicates an appearance of God Himself. It is particularly significant that this is the second record of Gods appearance in physical form in Scripture (the first being God walking in the garden in the cool of the day).

The Angel of the Lord told Hagar to return to her mistress and to submit to her. And the Angel of the Lord promised, I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude (Gen. 16:10). Hagar returned to Sarais tent, and there she bore Abram a son named Ishmael.

Hagars second encounter with God (Gen. 21:821). We know little of Hagars next sixteen years. Despite Abrams deep affection for his son Ishmael (see Gen. 17:18), Hagar remained nothing more than Sarais slave.  During the happy celebration of Isaacs weaning, when Isaac was three or four, and Ishmael sixteen or seventeen years old, Ishmael was teasing his little half-brother. The Hebrew word does not tell us whether the teasing was good-natured or an expression of an underlying jealousy. But we do know that Sarah exploded and demanded that both Hagar and Ishmael be sent away immediately.

This time Abraham didnt agree. The text tells us that Abraham was very displeased at Sarahs demand—“because of his son. Then God intervened, and told Abraham that it was His will too that Hagar and Ishmael go.

Abraham obeyed Gods voice, and early in the morning he supplied Hagar and Ishmael with food and water and sent them away. They wandered in the desert until the water was gone. Then, in despair, she left her exhausted son in the shade of a low bush and dragged herself some distance away, weeping broken-heartedly. There, a second time, the Angel of the Lord spoke to Hagar. He repeated His promise to make Ishmael a great nation, and the Lord opened Hagars eyes and she saw a well of water (Gen. 21:19)a well that, like God Himself, had been there all along.

The last mention of Hagar in the Old Testament reminds us of Gods faithfulness to the oppressed. Gods words are about the future, not the past. So God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. He dwelt in the Wilderness of Paran; and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt (Gen. 21:20, 21).

 Hagar in the New Testament (Gal. 4:2231):

The Old Testament gives us insight into Hagar as a person. In the New Testament Book of Galatians Paul treats Hagar as a symbol. Looking back the apostle Paul views Sarais intent to have a child through her maidservant as human self-effort, in contrast to a trusting reliance on Gods supernatural intervention symbolized in the birth of Isaac long after Sarai ceased menstruating. In Pauls analogy Hagar stands for the view of law held in first-century Judaism, while Sarah stands for Christianity founded on total reliance on Gods grace.

 

REBEKAH

Scripture references:  Genesis 22:23; 24:1567;  26:611, 34; 27:117, 46;  28:5; 49:31

Date:  About 1925 b.c.

Name:  Rebekah [ruh-BEK-uh: meaning unknown]

Greatest accomplishment:  Rebekah was the mother of two great peoples, the Edomites through Esau, and the Israelites through Jacob.

REBEKAHS ROLE IN SCRIPTURE

It is fascinating how mothers sometimes shape the lives of their children. The story of Rebekahs long-distance courtship may be one of the most romantic in Scripture. Yet as a mother Rebekah made choices that ended in separation from her favorite son.

Rebekahs life story:  Rebekah was a granddaughter of Abrahams brother, Nahor. Nahor had accompanied Abraham and their father Terah when the family left the fabled city of Ur and settled in Haran. Haran was located in northern Mesopotamia, along a well-traveled trade route. After the death of his father, Abraham had left his brother in Haran and continued southward to Canaan where God had directed him. Rebekah was of marriageable age, probably in her early to mid teens, when one of Abrahams servants came to Haran in search of a bride for Abrahams son, Isaac.

Although Jewish culture was patriarchal (male dominated), women had the right of refusal when it came to marriage.  No force could be used to persuade her to marry the prospective groom.  We see this in Genesis 24:5-8 and 24:57-58.  According to the Mishnah, once a woman had refused the offer of marriage, she could not expect ANY benefit from the Groom, such as being able to keep part of the bride-price, or usage of any lands owned by the groom.  Speaking of the bride-price, the price for a chaste virgin (as established in the Mishnah) was 200 dinars (100 shekels), which was enough to purchase 3 slaves for up to 50 years (until the Year of Jubilee) with some left over.  This was a VERY valuable price, and demonstrates the value of finding a suitable bride.

 

RACHEL AND LEAH

Scripture references:  Genesis 2933; 35:1619;  46:1518; Ruth 4:11;  Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:18

Date:  About 1875 b.c.

Names:  Rachel [RAY-chuhl: ewe].  Leah [LEE-uh: wild cow].

Greatest accomplishment:   These two wives of Jacob and their maidservants gave birth to the men who founded the twelve Israelite tribes.

RACHEL AND LEAHS ROLE IN SCRIPTURE

Rachel and Leah were sisters whose lives were closely intertwined. They were the daughters of Laban, and both were married to Jacob, the son of their Uncle Isaac. One sister was loved, the other ignored.

Their life stories (Gen. 29:130). The two sisters grew up in the family of a sheepherder. As is sometimes the case, one daughter was beautiful, the other unattractive. The biblical text says Leahs eyes were delicate [rakkot] (Gen. 29:17), better translated weak. This may imply nearsightedness, lightsensitivity that made her squint, or some other defect.

It remains clear, however, that Rachel was far more attractive than her sister. When Jacob first met Rachel in the fields taking care of her father Labans sheep, he fell deeply in love with her. When Laban offered to employ Jacob and asked him to name his wages, Jacob unhesitatingly offered to serve Laban for seven years for the privilege of marrying Rachel. Jacob had no money to offer Laban for his bride, as custom required, so Jacob offered himself and his services.

The price Jacob offered was actually a handsome one. Old Babylonian contracts from the 19th to 16th century b.c., and contracts from Nuzi dating from the 16th to 14th centuries, spell out the responsibilities of sheepherders to sheep owners, and vice versa. The wages that Jacob would have earned over seven years were far greater than the bride price any suitor might be expected to offer a father!

But when the seven years were complete, Laban substituted Leah for her sister Rachel. And Jacob awoke to discover that the woman he had lain with the night before was not the woman he loved. So Laban offered to make a second deal for Jacob to earn Rachel by serving another seven years (Gen. 29:2630).

 

Bilhah and Zilpah

(Bilhah = timid or bashful; Zilpah = trickling) were slaves in Labans household before either Rachel or Leah were married (see Gen. 29:24, 29). This may suggest that the two were older than their mistresses. While wealthy city dwellers often purchased children to be companions for their young sons and daughters, Laban worked a ranch. The fact that even beautiful Rachel was pressed into service as a shepherdess makes it likely the two slaves were set to work!

Bilhah and Zilpah had been Labans slaves and were his wedding gifts to his two daughters. The transfer of ownership may not have made much difference to the two slave women. After all, they were still slaves, bound to obey whoever owned them. Yet in that day slave women owned by men were often used as sexual partners by their masters, or casually given to their owners sons or to friends as sex partners. Bilhah and Zilpah may actually have felt safer with women as their owners. No man could touch them without their mistresses permission.

If they did feel safer, they did not count on the intense rivalry that developed between the two sisters who owned them. Both sisters were married to the same man, Jacob. As Rachel watched her sister produce son after son for their husband, she became more and more frustrated and jealous. Following a custom explained earlier, Rachel gave her maid Bilhah to Jacob as a surrogate.

We have no indication in the biblical text of what Bilhah felt about this, or even what Jacob felt. Rachel commanded. Bilhah obeyed. By custom the sons born to the slave women belonged to the wife, a fact underlined by the Genesis report that Rachel was the one who named each boy. One she named Dan, and the other Naphtali.

When Bilhah had produced two sons for Jacob, Leah felt compelled to respond. She gave Zilpah to Jacob, and he fathered two more sons through her! Leah claimed them as her own and named these two Gad and Asher.

Sisterly cooperation (Gen. 31:135). While within the family fierce competition existed, when threats came from outside the two sisters presented a united front. Jacob served Laban fourteen years for his two wives, and God increased Labans flocks. For the next six years Jacob oversaw Labans flocks for payment. God saw to it that Jacobs flocks increased while Labans decreased.

When Jacobs contract with Laban came up for renewal [inMesopotamia contracts ran from sheepshearing time to sheepshearing time. See Gen. 31:19], God told Jacob it was time to return toCanaan. Jacob held a family counsel and talked it over with his two wives. As slaves, neither Bilhah nor Zilpah were consulted, although by custom their sons would inherit equally with the sons of Rachel and Leah. Jacob explained that God had shown him how to increase his share of the herds he supervised for Laban, and Jacob reviewed the growing hostility of Laban and his sons. Jacob also told them of the visit of the Angel of the Lord instructing him to return toCanaan. Now Rachel and Leah agreed.  The two might compete within the family, but they were united in their commitment to their own welfare and to that of their children after them.

Rachels theft (Gen. 31:2535). When Laban discovered that Jacob had left, he and his sons pursued them. On the way, God warned Laban against taking any action against Jacob. However, Laban did have one valid complaint: his household gods were gone.

The mention of household gods reminds us that all the peoples in the ancient world were idolaters. They believed in many deities, and they fashioned wooden or stone images as objects of worship. Abraham alone had had his vision of one God, and what we now take for granted about God was then a belief held only within Abrahams family.

But it would be a mistake to assume that Rachel, who had stolen her father’s household deities, did so for religious reasons. In that time possession of the household gods was significant in establishing a claim to the family estate! Rachel was ready to commit herself and her sons to an uncertain future inCanaan. But just in case, she wanted to hedge the bet she had placed on Jacob and his God.