Rachel and Channah

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The Book of Shemuel is replete with parallels to the Book of Bereshit.  One of the most blatant of these is the parallel between the story of Channah and Elkanah and the story of Rachel and Yaakov. At first glance, the two plots seem nearly identical: a man (Yaakov / Elkanah) marries two wives, one of whom (Leah / Peninah) is fertile, while the other (Rachel / Channah) is barren. This leads to conflict between the wives, until Hashem remembers the barren wife and gives her children. However, as seen below, these superficial similarities mask some significant differences between the characters of the two narratives.

Content Parallels

  • Infertility – Both Rachel (Bereshit 29:21, 30:1) and Channah (Shemuel I 1:2,5,6) are barren.
  • Loving husband – Both Yaakov (Bereshit 29:18,20,30) and Elkanah (Shemuel I 1:5) are described as loving their barren wives.
  • Second wife – Both Yaakov (Bereshit 32:23) and Elkanah (Shemuel I 1:2) are married to two wives1: Yaakov is married  to Rachel and Leah, and Elkanah is married to Channah and Peninah. One wife is loved but barren, while the other has many children but lacks her husband's affection (Bereshit 29:30-31 and Shemuel I 1:5). This results in conflict between the wives, with Rachel describing herself as wrestling with her sister (Bereshit 30:8), and Peninah described as angering her rival (Shemuel I 1:6).

Literary Allusions

  • Opening and closing the womb – In Bereshit, the opening of both Leah and Rachel's wombs is described using the language of: "וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת רַחְמָהּ". In Shemuel, Channah's barrenness is described with the similar phraseology,  "וַי"י סָגַר רַחְמָהּ" and "סָגַר י"י בְּעַד רַחְמָהּ" (Shemuel I 1:5-6).
  • Seeing the affliction – In both stories, a woman speaks of Hashem seeing her affliction (עֳנִי). In Bereshit 29:32 Leah speaks of how Hashem saw her affliction ("רָאָה י"י בְּעׇנְיִי"), and in Shemuel I 1:11 Channah asks Hashem to see her affliction ("אִם רָאֹה תִרְאֶה בׇּעֳנִי אֲמָתֶךָ").
  • Hashem's intervention – God remembers Rachel ("וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת רָחֵל") in Bereshit 30:22, just like Channah asks Him to remember her ("וּזְכַרְתַּנִי") in Shemuel I 1:11, and just as He remembers Channah ("וַיִּזְכְּרֶהָ י"י") in Shemuel I 1:19.
  • Pregnancy and birth – The verses use the same terms to describe the pregnancies and births of Rachel (Bereshit 30:23-24) and Channah (Shemuel I 1:20): "וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן... וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ".


  • Degree of similarity
    • "וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן" and "וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ" – Both of these are common phrases, found in almost all births in Tanakh.
    • Seeing the affliction – The language which express the affliction suffered by Leah and Channah is not identical, and is not unique to these stories.
  • Distinctive phrases
    • Opening and closing the womb – These are the only cases in which a womb is opened or closed.2
    • Hashem remembering – These are the only two women in Tanakh where the root "זכר" is used to express Hashem's remembering of them.3

Points of Contrast

  • Husband's support (or lack of it) – After Rachel complains to Yaakov about lacking children, he gets angry at her, and responds that it is not his fault (Bereshit 30:1-2). In contrast, after seeing Channah crying, Elkanah tries to placate her by telling her that he is better for her than children (Shemuel I 1:7-8).4 Additionally, while Elkanah loves Channah despite her barrenness (Shemuel I 1:5), no mention is made of Yaakov loving Rachel after the verses describe her as barren.5
  • Who is the victim? Shemuel I 1:6-7 implies that Peninah actively tormented Channah. In contrast, Leah never actually hurts Rachel,6 but rather is subjected to hate (Bereshit 29:31,33) and jealousy (Bereshit 30:1).
  • Status of second wife – After tormenting Channah in verses 6-7, Peninah (and her children) are never mentioned again. In contrast, Leah (and her children) remain an integral part of the story.
  • Remedy attempts – Rachel employs a variety of artificial means to be blessed with sons, starting by complaining to Yaakov, followed by an attempt at surrogate motherhood through Bilhah, and culminating in the request of her sister's "דוּדָאִים".  None of these methods are successful. In contrast, Channah starts immediately with prayer, which is promptly answered by Hashem.
  • Children's names – All of the names Rachel gives to her and Bilhah's children (Dan, Naphtali, Yosef, and Ben-Oni) relate to her pain and struggle. In contrast, Channah connects the name of her son (Shemuel) to Hashem's benefaction.7


While the general plot line in the two stories is quite similar, the depiction of the characters is rather different. These contrasts allow us to find deeper nuances in the behavior and motivations of the characters:

  • Channah – The parallels between Rachel and Channah showcase Channah's nobility and piety. In contrast to Rachel, Channah does not show any jealousy towards Peninah, and remains silent despite provocation. Additionally, when she tries to change her situation, she does so with a unique heart-felt prayer, and concludes with promising her son to Hashem.8
  • Leah – The narrator makes his judgement of Peninah clear: she is the unjustified aggressor, and she disappears quickly from sight, thus casting her in a negative light and simultaneously setting Channah as a positive character. In contrast, the narrator does not show any preference for Rachel over Leah. In fact, the literary similarities between Leah and Channah imply that Hashem actively intervened in Leah's favor in order to offset Yaakov's hate and Rachel's jealousy.9
  • Rachel & Yaakov – The comparison to Channah and Elkanah can be seen as distinctly unflattering towards Rachel and Yaakov. Rachel is depicted as a tragic figure, who despite finally giving birth to children, does not manage to have the same happy ending as Channah.10 Yaakov emerges as an unsympathetic husband, unfairly disliking Leah, and then becoming enraged at Rachel.11