GEMS FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT
The Bible mentions more than one hundred plants, herbs, and trees; everything from acacia and aloe to wheat and wormwood. Knowing the appearance and properties of these plants can help us better understand their use in Scripture.
For example, consider the mandrake plants referenced in Genesis 30:14-16. “Now Reuben went in the days of wheat harvest and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, ‘Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.’ But she said to her, ‘Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?’ And Rachel said. ‘Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.’ When Jacob came out of the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, ‘You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.’ And he lay with her that night.”
“Mandrakes, please,” asked Rachel. A seemingly innocent request. Yet, Leah responded angrily, saying, “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” Clearly, more was involved here than mandrake plants discovered in a wheat field. For Leah, the mandrakes were almost incidental. They merely represented one more item that Rachel was taking away—the most important of which was Jacob’s affection.
Though sisters, Rachel and Leah were both married to Jacob. However, Jacob had not chosen to wed Leah, but was tricked into the marriage by his unscrupulous father-in-law, Laban. Jacob’s first choice and first love always remained Rachel; as explained in Genesis 29:30, Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah.” Feeling unwanted and unloved, Leah resented Rachel.
But Rachel also resented Leah—not because Rachel felt unloved or unwanted, but because she felt maternally unfulfilled. By this time, Leah had borne Jacob four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel, however, had not conceived and was desperate to have children. “Give me children, or else I die!” she scolded Jacob in Genesis 30:1.
Rachel’s desperate desire to have children may explain why she desperately wanted the mandrake plants—desperation enough to offer Leah one night with Jacob in exchange for the mandrakes. “Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes.” But why the interest in mandrakes?
For millennia, the Mediterranean Mandrake or Mandragora Officinalis was used in traditional healing, magic, and even witchcraft—especially because of its narcotic properties and human-shaped roots. Over time, legends about the mandrake grew more prolifically than the plant itself; how it shrieked when pulled from the soil; how it radiated light after nightfall; how it brought fame, fortune, and power. Curiously, even the Jewish historian Josephus wrote of the mandrake’s strange ability to shrink away from harvesting hands.
Legends aside, since antiquity the mandrake has been prized for its healing qualities, especially as an aphrodisiac and remedy for infertility. For this reason, the mandrake was sometimes called the “Love Apple” and even “Satan’s Apple.” In fact, the ancients were so convinced of the mandrake’s pregnancy-power, they often wore it as amulets or slept with it under their beds.
Though the mandrake is highly toxic and potentially deadly if wrongly prepared and dosed, it is still used as a treatment for such conditions as ulcers, fevers, cancers, anxiety, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, jaundice, liver diseases, digestive issues, and yes, INFERTILITY.
And so. you see, Rachel asked for some of Reuben’s mandrakes—“Mandrakes, please”—because she hoped the mandrakes would help her finally conceive a child.
Mark Weis is pastor of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Lemmon, South Dakota.