In the beginning was Eve, that foodie from Genesis 3, who "gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate" (Genesis 3:6). To be fair, Eve simply handed over the fruit; she didn't insist that Adam chow down. At least, not in writing.
Not so with the three matriarchs. Sarai clearly told Abram, "Go, sleep with my maidservant" (Genesis 16:2), Rebekah whined to Isaac, "I'm disgusted with living" (Genesis 27:46), and Rachel railed at Jacob, "Give me children, or I'll die!" (Genesis 30:1). Drama queens, all, and very 21st-century in the way they managed their mild-mannered husbands.
Sarai says "Go"
Considering Sarai's plight, it's easy to empathize with her: "Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children" (Genesis 16:1). In a time and place when a woman's worth was measured solely by her ability to produce sons, 75-year-old Sarai was running out of options.
She'd been exceedingly patient—with her husband, with her God, with her barrenness—from the day she married. If her patience was running thin, no wonder. If her faith was starting to wane, who could fault her? Silent in the biblical account until this moment, Sarai finally spoke up and said to Abram, "The Lord has kept me from having children" (Genesis 16:2).
So far, so good. She wasn't blaming God, simply acknowledging his sovereignty. If she'd called out to God for strength, prayed to God for direction, or pleaded with God to open her womb, we'd have praised her as the model wife.
But Sarai didn't call on God. Instead, Sarai cast her gaze toward an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar, a handy remedy for the Abe-needs-an-heir problem, and said to her husband, "Go, sleep with my maidservant" (Genesis 16:2).
Scandalous as her plan appears, Sarai didn't come up with this on her own. An Assyrian marriage contract, dating from around 1900 bc, required the wife to purchase a slave woman for her husband if a child was not produced after two years of marriage.
But God didn't call us to follow the culture. He set us apart, as he did this ancient couple, promising Abram, "I will make you into a great nation" (Genesis 12:2).
"I will make," not "Sarai will make."
Abram says zip
Of course, Abram still had to comply with his wife's audacious plan. A man who had spoken with God, who had faith in God's word, and who'd been declared righteous by a grace-giving God—surely this man would refuse to sin so egregiously.
"Abram agreed to what Sarai said" (Genesis 16:2).
No resistance? No discussion? No seeking God's blessing before proceeding with this no-no? Well … no.
Truth is, women often get what we want through not-so-subtle persuasion, verbal agility, and emotional expression. At least, that's how it works in my marriage. My husband and I live in the old farmhouse I fell in love with and drive the Toyota I picked out.
Does my dear husband have an opinion? Naturally. He's also a peacemaker, and granting my wishes gives him what he wants: harmony at the Higgs house.
I can see Abram nodding (and Sarai glaring at me for giving away our time-honored tactics). Abe wasn't the first or last man in history to have a pushy wife. Without hesitation Sarai "took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife" (Genesis 16:3). Notice how Sarai took and gave, just like Eve, who took and gave something forbidden to her spouse.
Sarai should have trusted God's timing. But she didn't.
Abram should have trusted God's provision. But he didn't.
In the push and pull of marriage, both partners bear the responsibility of honoring God first.
The next generation started out on a better footing. Isaac didn't sleep with Rebekah's maidservant in order to build a family, not even after 20 years of marriage. Instead, "Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren" (Genesis 25:21), and his prayer was duly—and doubly—answered.
Since Rebekah was still of childbearing age, hers was not a miraculous, postmenopausal conception like Sarah's, but it was twins. Like every pregnant woman with indigestion, swollen ankles, and a gymnast in her womb, when "the babies jostled each other within her," Rebekah moaned, "Why is this happening to me?" (Genesis 25:22).
Why me? It's a question we've all asked the Lord at some point. We pray for the perfect job, then are dismayed when it's not everything we'd hoped for. We pray for the ideal mate, only to be taken aback the moment his or her less-than-ideal traits surface. We pray for God to bless us with children, then balk when parenthood isn't filled with endless Gerber Baby moments.
So we understand why Rebekah wanted an explanation for her pain and applaud her bold move: "She went to inquire of the Lord" (Genesis 25:22). When she spoke, God not only listened, he also answered: "Two nations are in your womb … and the older will serve the younger" (Genesis 25:23).
From the moment Rebekah gave birth, that heel-grabbing younger son was the apple of her eye. Isaac adored the older Esau, "but Rebekah loved Jacob" (Genesis 25:28). Rather than standing side by side, loving their sons equally, this husband and wife stood apart and played favorites, driving a stake through the heart of their marriage.
Isaac grows old, Becky gets pushy
Forty years later, things came to a head. Isaac was an old man with eyes so weak "he could no longer see" (Genesis 27:1). His wife's hearing, though, was as sharp as ever. When Isaac called Esau to his side to confer the patriarchal blessing, "Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son" (Genesis 27:5). That is to say, eavesdropping.
A more assertive husband might have curbed her meddling nature, but Rebekah was married to a man who'd been overprotected by his mother, leaving Rebekah little choice but to mother Isaac as well, no doubt losing respect for him in the process.
When Rebekah dragged Jacob into the picture, she was no longer bent on pleasing her husband, only on getting his goat. "Go out to the flock," she told Jacob, "and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it" (Genesis 27:9). Like millions of wives after her, Rebekah literally buttered up her husband by cooking his favorite meal. Only a wife would know how best to deceive the man who loved her, confusing his senses so thoroughly Isaac made Jacob his heir.
At once Esau began plotting revenge. "The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother" (Genesis 27:41). Uh-oh. When Rebekah got wind of Esau's nefarious plan, she ordered Jacob to flee to her brother's place in Haran. But in order for Jacob to travel safely, Rebekah had to enlist Isaac's help, manipulating him once more.
She chose a concern they both shared—Esau's two pagan wives—then began a conversation with her husband—as I often do, sad to say—by breathing a sigh of complaint. "If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land … my life will not be worth living" (Genesis 27:46).
Another dose of high drama. Anything to get Jacob on the road, pronto. But Isaac couldn't see through Rebekah's machinations—or didn't want to—and so gave his wife what she wanted. Again.
With his father's blessing, Jacob soon departed, leaving Rebekah with a heartbroken husband whom she'd shamelessly betrayed. Some marriage, eh? Truth is, Becky left a lot to be desired in the good wife department. Isaac, too, forgot his first love and poured his affections into "godless Esau" (Hebrews 12:16).
Rebekah shouldn't have favored Jacob over her husband. But she did.
Isaac shouldn't have favored Esau over God's chosen heir. But he did.
In marriage, loving God first, and then each other, is the best way to show love to our children.
I need a baby
For a thumbnail sketch of Rachel, picture Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, tearfully demanding of Nicholas Cage, "You go right back up there and get me a toddler!"
Like her husband's mother and grandmother before her, Rachel was barren. She'd waited seven long years to marry Jacob, only to end up sharing him with Leah. Her sister gave birth as regularly as the ewes lambed every spring, yet Rachel couldn't conceive.
Naturally, Jacob bore the brunt of Rachel's frustration. (My husband would murmur, "Oh, there's a surprise.") Rachel didn't want just one child, not when Leah had four. She demanded, "Give me children, or I'll die!" (Genesis 30:1).
When wives throw out ultimatums, husbands seldom respond well. Case in point: "Jacob became angry with her" (Genesis 30:2).
Bet this wasn't the first time they'd had such a conversation. After four, five, six years of marriage without a child in her womb, any little spark probably set Rachel ablaze. Instead of dousing her fury with a pitcher of cold water, Jacob added gasoline, and said, "Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?" (Genesis 30:2).
Jacob knew God alone could open Rachel's womb and, to date, had not done so. We have no record of Rachel seeking God's counsel as her Aunt Rebekah once did, nor of Jacob praying on his wife's behalf as Isaac had.
Instead, Rachel offered a sadly unoriginal solution: "Here is Bilhah, my maidservant. Sleep with her …" (Genesis 30:3).
"Nooo!" we shout, waving our arms to get her attention. "Don't go there!" We know how this sleep-with-my-servant business can end up. Besides, Rachel's intentions weren't as honorable as her great aunt's: Sarai wanted an heir for Abram; Rachel wanted children for Rachel, period.
Pushed, pulled, and prodded
As for Jacob, this henpecked husband was tricked into marrying Leah by his conniving father-in-law, Laban, then forced to work an additional seven years for Rachel's hand, then pushed into Bilhah's arms so Rachel could wear the mantle of motherhood. Are we done yet? Nope. "When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her maidservant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife" (Genesis 30:9).
In case you've lost count, that's four wives. Although "Jacob was in love with Rachel" (Genesis 29:18), we're never told Rachel loved Jacob in return. In fact, she glibly bartered his sexual services for a handful of her sister's mandrakes, an ancient fertility drug. "Very well," Rachel told Leah, "he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son's mandrakes" (Genesis 30:15).
Did Jacob refuse, retaliate, rebel? No, he rolled over and "slept with her that night" (Genesis 30:16).
Rachel shouldn't have treated Jacob like a servant. But she did.
Jacob shouldn't have bowed to Rachel's every demand, rather than seeking God's will. But he did.
Instead we're called to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21), so that God alone has the upper hand in our marriage.
A lesson worth learning
Jacob listened to his wife. Just like Isaac. Just like Abraham. Three generations of strong-willed wives and soft-hearted husbands, without a lesson learned.
Well, one lesson, perhaps, that rings through the ages: Only a loving God could use such imperfect couples to accomplish his perfect will. Knowing God loved, blessed, and used this flawed patriarchal family, we can be sure there's hope for us all.
Even as we seek to honor the Lord in our marriages, to submit to each other in love, to resist the urge to push or rollover, we can rest in knowing God's well of patience is deep, his grace is abundant, and his faithfulness knows no bounds.
Liz Curtis Higgs is the author of 26 books, including Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible (WaterBrook Press). She and her husband, Bill, have been married 22 years. www.LizCurtisHiggs.com
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.