Rachel the Shepherd

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Surprises in the Bible

Biblical stories and images about biblical figures that we know are quite often not from our own reading but from listening to sermons or bible study group meetings. So when we actually read the Bible for ourselves, surprises emerge frequently, and the fact that Rachel was a shepherd might be an example. Today, I am going to talk a little bit about a not-so-well-known aspect of Rachel.

A not very well-known story about Rachel

When Jacob arrived at a well in Haran, his mother-side uncle Laban’s hometown, three flocks of sheep and their shepherds were beside it. The mouth of the well was blocked by a large stone. Only when all flocks gathered, the shepherds removed the stone and watered their sheep altogether. Interestingly, Rachel came to the well with Laban’s sheep when Jacob arrived there.

According to Gen 29:17, Rachel was graceful and beautiful. But what we just found is that her working conditions were quite tough to maintain her beauty as she had to deal with the harsh sun rays during the day and perhaps the threat of the wild animals during the night. It is surprising that a beautiful woman like Rachel worked as a shepherd while successfully managing her beauty. This is quite unexpected from a modern reader’s perspective.

But this is entirely possible. The Hebrew Bible tells us that women can be shepherds in ancient Near Eastern societies. For example, Zipporah, a daughter of Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, was a shepherd. Jethro had no son but seven daughters. When Moses arrived at a well in Midianites’ territory, he encountered Zipporah shepherding there. It was her ordinary routine to wait for her turn to water her flock until male shepherds water theirs first. But on that day, with the help of Moses, she was able to water the flock much earlier than usual. When she returned home, she explained to her father how she came home so early. This incident became an opportunity for Moses to marry Zipporah, the shepherd.

Another example can be found in the female protagonist in the book of Song of Songs. According to Song 1:5-6, the female protagonist called Shulammite (6:13) tells us that she is “dark” (but “comely” (JPS)) because her brothers made her guard the vineyards, and the sun gazed upon her. And in Song 1:8, her lover (the male protagonist) asks her to follow the tracks of his sheep and gaze her sheep together with his flock. So she was not only a vineyard guard but also a shepherd. We need further research to know how typical/atypical this case might have been in the ancient Near East, but we do know that women could be shepherds.

Why Rachel, Not Leah

It is strange why Rachel should be the shepherd while Laban had two daughters. (Of course, it might have been a necessary plot setting in which the meeting of Jacob and Rachel is destined.) A Jewish scholar of the medieval age, Nachmanides (1194-1270) explains that Leah was mature enough to marry, so Laban wanted to protect her from her unnecessary encounters with males shepherds. However this might sound strange for modern audiences, it is not without its logic. It is possible to assume that for Laban, Rachel was too young to be a bride, so he gave Jacob Leah first. And as well-known, Rachel could not have a single baby, whereas Leah produced many offsprings. Though the text indicates that God did not open her womb, some scholars argue that Rachel was biologically not mature enough to have a baby. They also argue that the reason biblical stories contain many barren women’s stories, in which the women eventually have babies, is because the early marriage was the ancient Near Eastern culture. In fact, after Rachel’s first son Joseph’s birth, she also gave birth to the second son Benjamin.

Anyway, Rachel, whom Jacob loved the most, was a beautiful woman, but surprisingly she worked in the field pasturing her father’s sheep enduring the hot sun.

* Nachmanides is often called Rabbi Moseh ben Nahman. So he is also known as Ramban, which is the acronym (R, M, B, N) of the name.

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