A mandrake is a flowering plant native to Bible lands. It bears fruit somewhat like a plum, extremely fragrant. The root of the female version (and yes, plants often are male and female) forks to resemble the lower half of the human body.
Mandrakes have been associated with fertility for centuries. There is absolutely no scientific basis for the idea that exposure to mandrakes will make a woman more likely to conceive. Nevertheless, people continue to believe. Personally, I think it is an example of humanity desperate to exercise some control over the uncontrollable.
People of faith should be able to avoid such superstitious nonsense — not because we are more capable of controlling the uncontrollable, but rather because we have faith in the One who controls everything. We do not have to be in control, because we believe He is exercising control on our behalf and for our benefit (Romans 8:28).
This brings us to Genesis 30:14-21 and the story of Leah, her son Reuben, and her sister Rachel. God had blessed Jacob, the sisters’ husband, with eight sons by this point — four through Leah herself, and two apiece through the sisters’ handmaidens. (We will save the issue of polygamy for another time.) Rachel herself had no children, despite being Jacob’s favorite. And Leah, too, had ceased from bearing (Genesis 29:35).
Reuben, Leah’s firstborn, came in from the field having found mandrakes. No doubt understanding their (alleged) properties, he gave them to his mother. Rachel, greatly desiring to bear sons for Jacob, asked for the mandrakes. Leah, resenting the favoritism that had always been extended to Rachel, was not inclined to agree. Eventually, though, she gave them up on the condition that Jacob would lie with her that night. Ironically, though, it is Leah who conceives as a result of this pact — not only once, but at least three times. Only after Leah had borne a total of six boys and at least one girl (surely long after Rachel had run out of mandrakes) was Rachel given two sons.
I doubt the purpose of the story is to prove the ineffectualness of mandrakes. Perhaps, though, we are meant to learn that the true source of blessings is God, not our own devices. Instead of trusting in our own cleverness, initiative, and hard work, we should be trusting in God. Understand, all of these human endeavors and more besides may be valid in their place. However, even if hard work and careful planning lead to the desired result, still it is God who is the Giver of blessings (James 1:17).
Somewhat later in history, the psalmist would write, “He makes the barren woman abide in the house as a joyful mother of children” (Psalm 113:9). We know this to be the case from women such as Hannah (1 Samuel 1:5) and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7); however, surely both Leah and Rachel knew the story of their husband’s grandmother, Sarah (Genesis 18:9-12). No one would suggest that a woman will bear a child simply because she prayed for one. On the other hand, there is no doubt that God controls such matters and is fully capable of bringing children into the world — on one occasion even doing so without the aid of a human father (Matthew 1:20).
Psalm 127:2 reads, “It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors, for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.” Other translations support the idea that the sleep itself is the blessing God gives; however, I love the idea of “hard-working” humans working themselves into a frenzy, only to have God provide while he lies asleep in bed. We work and work (not that there is anything wrong with work, per se), but God is blessing us with all the important things on His own — not because we have somehow earned them, but rather because He is gracious and eager to bless.
Either way, the “mandrakes” we trust to get what we want out of life may or may not work. Faith in God is a far more reliable approach — assuming our request pursues “His will” for our lives (1 John 5:14-15).