The stories of Sarah’s difficulties in conception, of the annunciation to Abraham and Sarah, and of the eventual birth of Isaac provide the first appearance in Scripture of the ‘type-scene’ previously outlined. These stories together are a somewhat unusual instance of the theme in that they are scattered over parts of several chapters of Genesis, rather than occurring in a compact unit as is usually the case. One effect of this scattering is to turn the separate elements of a typical annunciation story in this case into several significant stories, each with its own independent importance. This turn makes sense, because the husband in the story, Abraham, is the forefather of all the Jews and Arabs and a close relative to all of the Semitic neighbors of Israel. The stories of the family of this chief patriarch are therefore stories of whole nations and of their interrelations. So even the minor details of the story have wide-reaching implications. Nevertheless, while the stories that set forth this type scene in this case are scattered over many chapters, they contain most of the standard elements of a typical Biblical annunciation.
- The domestic scene is set in Genesis 11:26 – 16:2. Usually this setting of the scene takes only a verse or two. In Abraham’s case, however, ancestry and domestic situation are outlined at great length.
We are first told that Sarai is barren in 11:30, at the beginning of the Abraham stories. If we already know how important the annunciation type-scene is in Scripture, and if we consider the typical pattern of the scene, then as soon as we read 11:30 we should expect the rest of the typical pattern to begin to unfold. But in fact the second element of the scene, the presentation of Sarai’s rivalry with Hagar, does not come until 16:1-5. More than four chapters separate the first mention of Sarai’s barrenness and the continuation of the scene pattern. What is the reason for this delay’
It is noteworthy that in the intervening four chapters (12-15) God promises the childless Abram that he and his seed, which will be great in number, will receive the promised land (12:2f.; 13:15f.; 15:1-6). This promise makes no sense unless Abram eventually has a son. In fact, the promise is for a son by Sarai. The delay in the unfolding of this promise serves to emphasize Abram’s faith, his hope against hope and against all reasonable expectation. God’s promise and Abram’s faith in that promise come to the fore through the delay.
- Sarai’s rival, Hagar, and her conception of a child are presented in 16:1-5. The child’s birth is recounted in 16:15f. Now usually in an annunciation type-scene the rival wife or concubine and her children are shadowy figures with little importance in the dramatic action of the story. Hagar and Ishmael, her son, however, will figure prominently later in Genesis. Why? Ishmael is the traditional forefather of the Arabs, and so a figure of considerable importance to Israel. Furthermore, Ishmael and Hagar will be taken up as symbolic figures by later Scripture (Genesis 37:27, 39:1; Judges 8:24; Psalm 83:5; and especially Galatians 4:24f.). Both of these reasons help to explain the unusual attention given the rival wife and her son.
- Despite her infertility, Abram loves Sarai. Sarai is allowed to lord it over Hagar (16:6), and in fact Abram only took Hagar as a concubine in the first place because of Sarai’s suggestion (16:2f.).
- In the full version of the annunciation type-scene, the infertile wife prays for children. But Sarai does not do this. This marks a deviation from the type. In this deviation the hard-headed, skeptical Sarai/Sarah laughs at the idea of bearing a child at her advanced age (18:11f.). In part this deviation, shown by Sarah’s laughter, provides an etymology for Isaac’s name (‘Laughter’). Also Sarah’s skepticism sets off Abraham’s faith — though this should not be overemphasized, since Abraham laughs in an almost identical manner in 17:17. We are given a third case of laughter at Isaac’s birth (21:6f.). Perhaps the deviation is mostly meant to show the gratuitous nature of God’s mercies: he sends a child to the childless unbidden as a pure, unelicited grace.
- The fifth element of the typical annunciation scene is the annunciation itself. In the case of Abraham, the annunciation is complex. First, before the annunciation of Isaac’s impending conception and birth, there as a prior annunciation to Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, concerning Ishmael (16:10ff.). In this case the announcement concerns Ishmael’s birth, name, and future, rather than his conception. Other elements of the type scene in Hagar’s case here include her suffering and vexation at the hands of the other wife (16:6), the promise of great things for the child to come (16:10), the revelation of his name (16:11), and the notice of his actual birth (16:15). These are standard elements of the type-scene, but to the fertile woman.
Secondly, there is also an annunciation to Abram and Sarai. Rather than being a compact, brief, divine or prophetic announcement, as is usually the case, however, the annunciation of Isaac’s conception and birth is progressive and gradual. Abraham is first told that he will have descendants (12:2f., 15:2-5, 17:4). Then he is told that his descendants who will inherit the promises of God will not come through Ishmael, but through another son to be borne by Sarah (17:18) and to be called Isaac (17:19, 21). Finally, this prediction is repeated by the angel of the LORD in Sarah’s hearing (18:9-15). This gradual unfolding of the annunciation is unusual in annunciation type-scenes, but is not unusual in Biblical narrative. Often in Bible stories things unfold gradually before our eyes and we do not enjoy the perspective of a consistently omniscient narrator. We do not always have the ‘God’s eye view’ of things. The result is that as we read we see things much as they actually occur in real human life. As a rule, after all, God’s will and word unfold and become clear to people gradually.
- The sacrificial context for the annunciation comes in 15:9-17, an uncanny scene that foretells not only a descendant for Abraham, but also the sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus.
- This gradual annunciation meets with a strong, skeptical response in the laughter of Abraham (17:17) and of Sarah (18:12). On the positive side, Abraham’s faith in God’s gradually unfolding promise is emphasized in 12:4 and 15:6, as it is also in the later story of the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22).
- Sarah conceives and bears Isaac in 21:1f.
- God is praised for the birth by the name of Isaac, 21:6f.
- Normally at this point we expect to learn something of the child’s future as a hero and important figure for Israel’s future. Immediately after the birth of Isaac, however, the rivalry with Hagar and Ishmael is reintroduced (21:9f.). This reintroduction allows for a repetition of the fact that the main promise to Abraham will flow through Isaac (21:12), though another, lesser promise comes to Ishmael (21:13, as in 16:10). Considerable attention is devoted to Ishmael’s rescue in 21:14-21 (again with a parallel in events in chapter 16).
For Christians, this slightly ambiguous treatment of Isaac (who later in Genesis will be duped by his wife and son) may serve to introduce a qualification to the merely physical, genealogical nature of God’s promises. It is true that some of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac (the Jews) are God’s chosen people who will be blessed and an instrument for blessing. In this way the promise to and through Isaac is kept. Nevertheless, God’s interest and love are not restricted to the descendants of Isaac, but will embrace others as well. The comparative reticence about Isaac and the emphasis on Ishmael’s future connects the theme of the annunciation type-scene with the equally common Biblical themes of sibling rivalry and reversals of fortune. This in turn foreshadows the future, complex relationship of Judaism and Christianity and the double nature of Christ as both despised and rejected of his own people and yet also the fulfiller of their hopes and dreams and destiny.
The story of Rachel and her conception of children (Genesis 29-30) brings together the theme of this study (difficult conception, annunciation, marvelous birth) with most of the other common Old Testament type-scenes, most notably those of the hero meeting his bride by a well in a foreign land, a testing and epiphany in the wilderness, sibling rivalry, and reversal of fortunes as the line of promise begins to work its way down to Christ.
In the case of Rachel most of the typical elements of the conception theme are presented over the course of two chapters. Several elements, however, are presented in more detail than is usual. As in the case of Hagar and her son, for instance, the story of the less-favored wife and her children is presented in considerable detail, which is not typical. Likewise, both the domestic scene and also the story of the whole family (not just of the hero after the birth to the barren wife) are both given in greater than usual detail. Nevertheless, the Rachel story is more compact than that of Sarah. In particular, the Rachel story returns to the usual pattern of a very brief space between the notice of infertility (29:31, 30:30) and the unfolding of the rest of the elements of the type-scene (29:30, 30:2, 22ff.).
The extra detail and length in places are easily explained. The Rachel, Leah, and Jacob stories, as in the case of Sarah, Hagar, and Abraham, are about the forefathers (and mothers) of whole tribes (the twelve tribes of Israel), and so deserve the attention they are given. Israelite audiences would want to hear in detail about their own ancestors. The dramatic value of delay in the case of Abraham and Sarah as the annunciation and birth unfold, namely to emphasize the faith of Abraham, is unnecessary in the case of Jacob. Jacob’s main characteristic is not his faith but his craftiness. Great delay in unfolding the theme would serve no purpose in illuminating Jacob’s character.
There is, however, a considerable delay in one element of the story. The eighth element of the typical pattern of this type-scene often includes a notice of further children born to the barren woman after the birth of her first son. Usually this notice comes quickly after the wonderful birth of the first son. Indeed, in the case of Leah, the notice of the additional child, her daughter Dinah, comes immediately after the story of the birth of her brothers (30:21). Not so in the case of Rachel. After the birth of Joseph to Rachel (30:22ff.) she will have a second son, Benjamin. His birth, however, is not reported until 35:16-19, five chapters later. This delay has a purpose. Rachel’s sons need to be the youngest, to explain their position as their father’s favorites, to serve the Biblical theme of reversal (the younger/youngest becomes first), and, in the case of Benjamin, to serve dramatic purposes in the stories of Joseph in Egypt and his gradual revelation of himself to his family.
Most, but not all, elements of the typical annunciation type-scene are present in the Rachel and Leah stories.
- The domestic scene is set in Genesis 29, in the course of which we learn that Rachel is barren (29:31).
- Rachel and her sister, Leah, are rivals, and Leah soon proves to be fertile (29:31-35, 30:17-20). The rivalry is implicit in the circumstances of the sisters’ marriages to Jacob (29:16-30), and is explicitly stated in 30:8.
- Despite her infertility, Rachel is better loved than Leah, as we are told explicitly in 29:30 and as is, once again, obvious from the circumstances of the sisters’ marriages to Jacob.
- – 7. Normally the barren wife prays for children, and the annunciation type-scene unfolds from that point as God responds to the injured wife’s prayer. Here, however, there is a twist in the Rachel/Leah story. While Rachel is the loved wife, Leah is presented at first as the suffering party (29:31, though ‘hated’ is no doubt partly a matter of Semitic hyperbole). We are not told, as almost always is the case in this type-scene, that the fertile wife despised or taunted her infertile rival. In this case, although there is no explicit prayer (4) or annunciation (5) or cultic or sacrificial context (6) or strong reaction to the annunciation (7), God acts in pity when he sees a wife’s plight: ‘When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb: but Rachel was barren.’ (29:31) The twist, of course, is that this initial divine intervention is on behalf of the more fruitful, less beloved wife.
The story is somewhat complicated and drawn out, but not essentially altered, by the introduction of two concubines for Jacob in addition to his two wives (30:3-8, 9-13). Each concubine is associated with one of the wives as her maid.
After the twist and complication, Rachel’s conception is described. Rachel has prayed (4), for when her maid, Bilhah, has her first son, Rachel says, ‘God…hath also heard my voice’. There is, however, no annunciation (5), cultic context (6), or strong reaction to the annunciation (7).
It is notable that in all of this the active persons in the story are Rachel and Leah, who between them and with the help of one of the sons even decide with whom Jacob will sleep at night (30:14ff.). Jacob, the crafty deceiver and manipulator, is here manipulated. In fact, Jacob is presented as a rather minor actor, though of course with an essential role, in the story of his growing family. The theme of the deceiver being deceived runs throughout the Jacob stories, and here it is subtly present.
A careful reader will want to ask two questions at this point. First, why is there the twist presented by Leah’s initial appearance as the wife who conceives by divine intervention and pity? Secondly, why are several typical elements of the pattern absent (4-7 in the case of Leah; 5-7 in the case of Rachel)?
In the case of Rachel and Leah we see the themes of sibling rivalry and reversal of fortune. Leah is the older sister (29:16), but she is supplanted by the younger. The reversal extends to the sisters’ children, for although Leah has the first sons (30:32-35), Rachel’s son, Joseph, will be lord over his brothers (37:5-10, 42:6-9). If this were all there is to the story, the annunciation theme could proceed immediately to Rachel without the twist involving Leah’s misery and God’s intervention on her behalf. But Jews know that the ancestress of King David is Leah, who is the mother of Judah (29:35), and Christians know that that makes Leah, not Rachel, the ancestress of Christ, who was a descendant of David (St. Matthew 1:1-17, St. Luke 3:23-34). The reversal in behalf of Rachel is reversed yet again. The complexity of sibling rivalries in this case shows the complexity of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, the sister religions, both loved by God their Father. For this reason Leah as well as Rachel has a divinely-willed conception: which is the answer to the first question in the previous paragraph.
This same reason may lie behind the omitted elements of the typical pattern (the second question). The typical pattern of annunciation, sacrifice, and strong positive reaction (when the strong reaction to the annunciation is positive), serves to show unambiguous divine favor for the infertile wife. But in this case Rachel’s position is not, and is not meant to be, unambiguous. The divine, prophetic, and cultic elements of the story are softened or omitted to emphasize the human rivalry between the sisters and the unusually even-handed behavior of God towards them.
It is also possible that these elements are omitted or softened because there are twelve sons to be born rather than the usual single son and hero. God’s direct intervention might seem less marvelous after the twelfth repetition. In this case the large number of sons is itself the evidence of divine favor and response to human need, which favor and response assist both the less-loved and the initially-barren wives.
- Both Leah and Rachel have sons. Both also have other children after their first, much welcomed, son, which also is a frequent element in the annunciation type-scene: Leah has six sons in all as well as a daughter, Dinah, in addition to the sons (30:21); Rachel bears Benjamin long after Joseph’s birth (35:16-19).
- The names of all of the sons are given significance, often as signs of praise for God. In fact, the pattern in the case of all twelve sons is to state the bare facts of conception and birth and then to give the name of the son and its significance.
- Each of the sons, of course, is the father of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The narrator does not need to emphasize this obvious fact. The rest of Genesis and the Bible do the job for him.