Fertility and Mandrakes

Madragora autumnalis, SaraRead Genesis 30:14-22.

The final plant discussed under Plants and the Ancient Fathers is the mandrake. The mandrake is associated with the patriarch Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekah and grandson of Abraham. This event took place in Paddan Aram where Jacob was living with his mother’s brother, Laban (Genesis 29: 15 – 30: 13). Jacob’s two wives were the daughters of Laban. Leah was the first and older wife and Rachel the younger, second wife. Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. At this time, Leah has birthed four boys and stopped conceiving children. Rachel has born no children. Jacob spent his nights with Rachel.

The story of the mandrakes began with Leah’s oldest son, Reuben, finding mandrake plants in the field and bringing mandrake roots to Leah. Rachel saw the plants and asked Leah for them. Resentful of Jacob’s preference for Rachel, Leah asked Rachel, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?” Rachel responded by proposing a trade – Jacob can sleep with Leah that night in return for the mandrakes. Leah agreed. When Jacob came in from the fields, he was met by Leah who said, “You must sleep with me. I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” Leah became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son who was called Issachar. Then, Leah became pregnant with a sixth son (Zebulun) and later a daughter (Dinah).  Rachel did not become pregnant as a result of acquiring – and most likely using – the mandrakes from Leah.

Many westerners cannot make much sense of this story. What does the mandrake have to do with pregnancy? In early peoples, the mandrake was associated with the superstitious belief that it promoted fertility and conception in barren women. The mandrake root was consumed in very small amounts, cut into an amulet to wear on the body, or put beneath the bed. The Genesis story revealed that Rachel and Leah believed that mandrakes promoted conception. Both Leah and Rachel wanted children. Leah wanted additional children to win the regard and affection of Jacob.  Rachel wanted children to validate herself as a woman. Rachel was so desperate to have children that she was willing to have Jacob spend a night with Leah to get possession of the mandrakes.

We are not told whether Jacob believed that mandrakes promoted fertility; however, at this time Jacob spent his nights with Rachel knowing she wanted children. In earlier chapters of Genesis, the Bible recorded that Rachel told Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die” (Genesis 30:1 – 2). Jacob responded angrily asking Rachel, “Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?” Jacob’s response can be contrasted with that of his father Isaac and his care for his wife Rebekah. When Rebekah was barren, Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of Rebekah (Genesis 25:21). The Lord answered Isaac’s prayer.  Rebekah became pregnant and gave birth to Esau and Jacob.  There is no record that Jacob prayed about Rachel’s barren state. Rather, many years later the Bible recorded that God listened to Rachel and opened her womb and she conceived Jacob’s 11th son (Genesis 30:22 – 24).

Mandragora autumnalisCharacteristics of the Mandrake Plant

The mandrake, Mandragora officinarum (AKA M, autumnalis) is a member of the Solanacea family that includes some poisonous plants (nightshades), but also important crop plants such as potatoes and egg plants. It is native to lands around the Mediterranean Sea. The mandrake grows best in stony wastelands and uncultivated fields and will not survive severe winters. The most notable segment of the mandrake and the portion associated with fertility and conception is the root. Mandrakes have large brown roots (similar to parsnips) that can run three to four feet into the ground. The thick root is frequently forked similar to two legs. The root can weigh several pounds. On the surface of the ground, the mandrake is a dark green color with a rosette of leaves which can grow up to twelve inches long and six inches wide. Mandrake flowers produce globular yellow to orange berries which resemble small tomatoes.

Application of the Mandrake

The Bible story of the mandrakes speaks to individuals today. It tells us that Rachel could not manipulate her fertility by believing in the superstitious power of a plant, e.g., the mandrake. It was God who gave Rachel fertility after she prayed to him. We do not know if Rachel’s fertility would have occurred earlier if her husband Jacob – God’s chosen man and the son of the patriarch Abraham   — would have prayed for her. We simply know that when Rachel finally turned to God, God responded by granting Rachel’s request for a son. What a son Rachel received! Rachel’s first son was Joseph, one of the greatest men of the Bible whose life is an example for every Jew and Christian.

Many of us engage in superstitious behavior. We read our horoscope every morning and think that it will tell us if we are going to have a good day. We  ask God questions. Then open the Bible expecting that God’s answer will be in the first passage we read. This type of question and answer behavior is superstitious and an attempt to manipulate God’s word to meet our immediate situation and needs. God answers prayers and the answers are based on principles and truths for our lives found in the Bible. Paul wrote (Romans 8:26 – 27) that we do not know what we should pray for, but that the Holy Spirit knows what we need. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express so that our prayers will be in accordance with God’s will for our lives.

Thought:  I am sure that I have engaged in superstitious behavior and have tried to manipulate or end run God. I am equally sure and thankful that the Holy Spirit intercedes for me when I pray. Over time I have become willing to admit that I do not have the answers to every situation. More and more my prayers are simply, “Your will be done, God.” What about you?  Are you like Jacob’s wives trying by superstitious behavior or your own efforts to manage events and situations in your life? Or are you willing to wait prayerfully on God’s time and/or his will for you?

I love Bible plants along with their symbolism. If you want to learn more about them, read my two books: 1) Rooted in God and 2) God as a Gardener. You can purchase them from my website: Carolyn Roth Ministry at http://www.CarolynRothMinistry.com/

Copyright April 24, 2011, Carolyn A. Roth; all rights reserved.

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53 responses to “Fertility and Mandrakes

  1. Thanks for sharing on this as I too was curious as to why Rachel was so desparate for the mandrake roots. I can’t fathom sharing my husband with my sister or any other woman for that matter and it boggles my mind that she would give up a night with her husband to her sister just for her hope in some plant!!! Crazy!!!

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