“May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11). With these words of good wishes the elders of Bethlehem address Boaz, who is about to take Ruth the Moabite to wife. But who are Rachel and Leah, celebrated as the matriarchs of Israel, that is, the women who gave birth to the progenitors of the 12 tribes? First of all, they are two sisters, both brides of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. This already clashes with our sensibilities as we struggle to accept that the great patriarch was a bigamist, but a moralistic approach should not mislead us and dissuade us from reading the story of these two sisters through whom God’s promise to Abraham takes flesh in a lineage that cannot be counted (cf. Gen 13:16; 16:10; 17:6).
Rachel and Leah enter the narrative when Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau who wants to kill him, finds refuge in Haran with his uncle Laban, seeking a wife from among his kin on the explicit instructions of his father, Isaac, urged on by his wife Rebekah (cf. Gen 27:46; 28:1-5). As Jacob, having come a long way, stands by a well, the shepherdess Rachel appears: “Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud” (Gen 29:10-11).