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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

7. Injustice Against Women in the Bible

Updated: Apr 8

We're not supposed to excuse men's bad behavior - we're supposed to identify it.


Parshah Vayeitzei

TL;DR of the Text

Major Themes

  • What is truly necessary in life? 

  • What we learn about Jacob through his behavior towards women

  • The plight and anger of women

  • Rachel and Leah’s opinions of Jacob


*Important attribution note: All quotes listed in this article are credited to the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash. Here is an Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.


Genesis 28: 20-22*

“Then Jacob took a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, will guard me on this way that I am going; will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear; and I return in peace to my father’s house, and Hashem will be a God to me - then this stone which I have set up as a pillar shall become a house of God, and whatever You will give me, I shall repeatedly tithe it to You.”

Talk about life lessons! Even as Jacob embarked on an unknown journey likely fraught with danger, his requests were simple: 1) for God to be with him and protect him, 2) bread to eat and clothes to wear, and 3) the ability to return home safely without bringing trouble to his father’s doorstep. 


Jacob asked only for what his spiritual mission required. Let’s focus on the prayer for “bread to eat and clothes to wear.” Food, clothing, and safety comprise the fundamental necessities for human life. My meaning is twofold: a person does not need more to reach their full potential, but also, without those three things, they will never reach their full potential. 


Considering all of the wars and human rights violations happening across the world, I often meditate on the question of true necessity. Once the war in Gaza started with its devastation, I began to pray a daily, desperate prayer of gratitude for the ability to be clean. 


I have so many other things to be thankful for, but we’re watching as large portions of humanity have their most basic needs snatched away. Having clean surroundings, being able to clean myself, and using water to clean my environment are extreme luxuries. 


I know many people have never had access to these essentials, and I am in no way diminishing their struggle. I’m simply saying it’s getting worse. Increasingly, people are being deprived of the requirements for a minimally functional life. I do what I can to help, recognizing the immense privilege of having everything I need. 


Increasingly, people are being deprived of the requirements for a minimally functional life. I do what I can to help, recognizing the immense privilege of having everything I need.

Genesis 29:9-12*

“While [Jacob] was still speaking with them, Rachel had arrived with her father’s flock, for she was a shepherdess. And it was, when Jacob saw Rachel, daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the flock of Laban his mother’s brother, Jacob came forward and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well and watered the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel; and he raised his voice and wept. Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s relative, and that he was Rebecca’s son; then she ran and told her father.”

The Torah rarely repeats anything, yet we hear that Laban is Jacob’s mother’s brother three times. Why? 


One theory suggests Jacob might have employed this detail to avoid the appearance of impropriety. If the men surrounding the well suspected Jacob of harboring romantic intentions towards Rachel, they would have objected. This is a telling admission, since these men were Aramean, an ancient population of supposedly infamous immorality. 


Yet these supremely immoral men would have been disturbed to discover Jacob’s (true) romantic intentions towards Rachel? Interesting. Now why in the world would that be the case? Our Jacob was a paragon of moral virtue, was he not? 


Biblical chronology puts Jacob at 71 and Rachel at 16 when they met. Ick. 


I could hear the lines, “It was a different time” or, “This was common back then,” until the cows came home and I wouldn’t care. As a woman and a person, that is not a good enough reason. 



We’re supposed to model our morality after these peoples’ actions, yet their moral code screeches to a halt at the exact point of their treatment of women. So far, every moral failing has concerned women. Maybe this is why people brush their character flaws under the rug and focus on their good qualities - because the negative impacts of their flaws have mainly affected women. 


We’re supposed to model our morality after these peoples’ actions, yet their moral code screeches to a halt at the exact point of their treatment of women.

Genesis 29:21*

“Jacob said to Laban, ‘Deliver my wife for my term is fulfilled, and I will consort with her.’” 

Once again, the rabbis bend over backward to make up scenarios explaining the hidden noble intentions behind this crass statement. There’s only one problem with that theory: Moses wrote this book after the fact. If Jacob’s intentions were nobler than the words imply, different words would have been used. For example, “Deliver my wife for my term is fulfilled” (even this part of the sentence provokes discomfort, seeing as he referred to his wife like an Amazon order he placed) “so that we can begin building the nation of Israel.” It would have been simple to select an alternative in which Jacob sounds less like he was ordering off a menu. 


Genesis 29:30-31*

“[Jacob] consorted also with Rachel and loved Rachel even more than Leah; and he worked for [Laban] yet another seven years. Hashem saw that Leah was unloved, so He opened her womb.”

Can you even fathom just how mistreated and unloved a woman would have to be for the Torah to focus on her plight? The Torah paints a searing picture of the extent of Leah’s poor treatment at the hands of Jacob and the sadness of her life. 


Can you even fathom just how mistreated and unloved a woman would have to be for the Torah to focus on her plight?

By the way, Leah was the older, more age-appropriate sister, and the Torah forbids marrying sisters. The Patriarchs allegedly followed the laws of the Torah before they were codified, with Jacob’s marriages being a glaring exception. Presumably Jacob knew, so by all logic he should’ve only married Leah. Instead he married both of them, and didn’t love Leah at all. 


Why do we always have to choose between great men and good men? Most of the great men in history were not good, especially not to the women in their lives. We, as members of society, are the ones who give men their greatness. Let us agree that a man is no longer allowed to be great unless he is good. 


Let us agree that a man is no longer allowed to be great unless he is good.

Genesis 30: 14-16*

“Reuben went out in the days of the wheat harvest; he found dudaim* in the field and brought them to Leah his mother; Rachel said to Leah, ‘Please give me some of your son’s dudaim.’

But she said to her, ‘Was your taking my husband insignificant? - And now to take even my son’s dudaim!’ Rachel said, ‘Therefore, he shall lie with you tonight in return for your son’s dudaim.’

When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, ‘It is to me that you must come for I have clearly hired you with my son’s dudaim.’” 

*The translation for “dudaim” has been lost in time, but it might be some kind of flower. 


Every woman reading this passage hears in Leah’s voice echoes of her own. We each know the specific kind of frustration attached to relationship injustice. As we witness from Leah, eventually frustration calcifies into brittle contempt. 


Jacob cared so little for her that she hired her own husband to get him to sleep with her instead of Rachel. Of course, the rabbis chastise her for her excessive extraversion in “going out” to meet Jacob in the field; didn’t she know she was supposed to play the meek wife, forever waiting for Jacob to notice her? 


Didn’t she know she was supposed to play the meek wife, forever waiting for Jacob to notice her?

I’m picturing Leah, hands on her hips, tone dripping with derision, marching out into the field and telling Jacob she paid off his favorite wife. 


Go Leah.


Genesis 30: 38-39*

“And [Jacob] set up the rods which he had peeled, in the runnels - in the watering receptacles to which the flocks came to drink - facing the flocks, so they would be stimulated by the rods and the flocks gave birth to ringed ones, speckled ones, and spotted ones.” 

Peculiar. Jacob reserved the multicolored livestock for himself as his wages (in addition to Rachel, of course.) Through some mystical process, when the animals mated in the presence of the wooden rods Jacob installed, the offspring would be multicolored and join his stable. 


According to the rabbis, this passage contains a lesson about conception. If the circumstances of conception matter so much that they change the coloring of a lamb, then surely they’re exponentially more important for human conception. Our evolving understanding of epigenetics also strengthens this claim. 


Genesis 31:2-3, 14-16*

"Jacob also noticed Laban's disposition that, behold, it was not toward him as in earlier days. And Hashem said to Jacob, 'Return to the land of your fathers and to your native land, and I will be with you.'...

Then Rachel and Leah replied and said to [Jacob], ‘Have we then still a share and an inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not considered by him as strangers? For he has sold us and even totally consumed our money! But, all the wealth that God has taken away from our father belongs to us and to our children; so now, whatever God has said to you, do.”

Our father has sold us (implication: he has sold us to you.) 

What a powerful statement.

I’m not exactly getting an impression of Jacob basking in wifely adoration. After all, in their eyes, they were sold to him. 


Our father has sold us (implication: he has sold us to you.)

In case we were unclear on how they felt, the wives concluded their response with, “So do whatever you want.” 


Having seen quite a bit of the dynamic between Jacob and his wives, we can proceed to being shocked by the glaring textual omissions. 


First, the text mentions Jacob’s love for Rachel several times. However, at no point does evidence emerge that either of Jacob’s wives loved him. Ample proof exists of their sense of duty and a desire to participate in the creation of the Israelite nation through childbearing, but never love or even respect for their husband. 


Ironically, the wife who came closest to displaying love is the same wife Jacob ignored. Leah expressed a yearning for Jacob to love her, which, while not the same as showing love for him, is certainly closer to the mark than anything we observe from Rachel.


(Meme) A confused Kenny from We're the Millers with the caption "You guys talk to your wives?"

Jacob spoke to his wives only twice in the whole section: once to scold Rachel for complaining to him about her barrenness, and once to secure his wives’ permission to return to his father’s house. I’m not just talking about direct quotes - we aren’t provided with any other references to or descriptions of him speaking to his wives apart from those two times. 



Jacob and Rachel spoke at the well, as much as a 71-year-old and 16-year-old can converse, but this interaction supports the interpretation of aloofness. In Rachel’s mind, she simply extended hospitality to her father’s relative! From the moment Jacob revealed his desire for Rachel, he interacted only with her father Laban. 


Whereas Rebecca consented to her marriage to Isaac despite being between 3 and 14 years of age, no one asked Rachel. Laban accepted Jacob’s request to obtain Rachel as Jacob’s wages, and on the wedding night, Laban “took” Leah to the wedding tent without any indication that either of the daughters had a chance to give their input. 


If we pay attention, we stand witness to the women in this story being stripped of all agency at the hands of the men in their lives. God wants us to see this.


We stand witness to the women in this story being stripped of all agency at the hands of the men in their lives.

*Again with the Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

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