Mandrakes in the Bible are mentioned related to fertility and marital romance. They are only mentioned twice, but their references are as intoxicating as the plant was purported to be in the ancient world. Mandrakes were prevalent in the Mediterranean and had as much lore and allure as they had usefulness (although they were not without risk).
Mandrakes are plants found in the nightshades family (others in that category include potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants). Mandrakes are flowering plants with a long taproot usually forked at the bottom, giving them an oddly human shape. Their botanical genus is mandragora. Most plants in this genus have some elements in their design that can be poisonous, hallucinogenic, or narcotic. Evidence exists that ancient societies used this root as an anesthetic and possibly a sedative for hysterics. Hence, it’s a root that can be useful for medicinal and nefarious purposes, and it’s natural for many legends to spring up around it.
When pulled from the ground, the mandrake sometimes resembled pulling a tiny person up by their hair, and ancient myths developed about mandrakes screaming when harvested. Writers, from Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling, have utilized this mythical phenomenon. Here is a quote from Romeo and Juliet, Act 4, Scene 3:
“So early waking, what with loathsome smells, And shrieks like mandrakes’ torn out of the earth, That living mortals, hearing them, run mad.”
Who would not be fascinated at how mandrakes are mentioned in God’s Word?
Where Does the Bible Mention Mandrakes?
The Song of Solomon is a beautiful, poetic book of the Old Testament, on one level an allegory of God’s love for His bride, the church. In Song of Solomon 7:13, the groom calls to his bride and invites her into romance, and she returns his invitation. She responds, “The mandrakes give forth fragrance, and beside our doors are all choice fruits, new as well as old, which I have laid up for you, O my beloved” (ESV). Her reference alludes to the aphrodisiac qualities of the flowering mandrake plants. The flowers are purple and reportedly give off a strong scent reminiscent of red apple. The language of Song of Solomon is ripe with references to the natural world and is wonderful to read and study.
In Genesis 30, mandrakes become a bargaining tool between barren Rachel and her fertile sister, Leah, women who will become mothers to the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob initially fell in love with Rachel and worked for her father Laban for seven years for her hand. On their wedding day, Laban tricked Jacob by placing Leah (heavily veiled) in her younger sister’s place in the marriage ceremony. He then let Jacob marry Rachel for another seven years of labor. Perhaps knowing poor Leah was unloved, God granted her the privilege of bearing children first. Leah was producing children for their shared husband, Jacob, while Rachel only had children through her handmaid, Bilhah. Once Leah experienced a lapse in pregnancies, she had more through her handmaid, Zilpah.
In the days of wheat harvest, Reuben went 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?” Rachel said, “Then he may lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came from the field in the evening, Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. And God listened to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Leah said, “God has given me my wages because I gave my servant to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar. (ESV)
Leah then had another son (and finally a daughter) before Rachel, at last, conceived Joseph. However, while mandrakes were fabled to have qualities that enhance fertility, this conception had nothing to do with mandrakes. The Bible says, “Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb” (Genesis 30:22 ESV).
A quick reading of Genesis 30 may lead one to imagine the fertility capabilities of mandrakes. However, the text is clear that “God opened Rachel’s womb,” and it occurred at least three pregnancies for Leah later than the original exchange of mandrakes.
The recorded exchange illustrates both these sisters’ longing for children and the lengths they would go to. Anyone who has waited for a child will understand its desperation. It’s so hard to wait. But sadly, even apart from the struggle with infertility, our relationships can sometimes become transactional (as this love triangle clearly became for a time). The story of the mandrakes can serve as a reminder that we are called to love one another, not use one another for our own purposes.
What Were Mandrakes Used for?
Mandrakes were revered and feared in ancient times, as is common with plants with strong capabilities. They contain alkaloids, so when the roots are consumed, they may induce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hallucinations, or asphyxiation, depending on the quantity. Hardly a prescription for romance!
Like many roots and plants containing medicinal properties, mandrakes were closely associated with witchcraft. The roots’ odd size and shape led to nicknames such as “apple of Sodom” or “Satan’s apple.” In many ancient texts of spells, references to mandrakes appear in potion ingredients lists.
John Donne mentions mandrakes in this 1900 poem, which exemplifies the mythology surrounding mandrakes:
Go and Catch a Falling Star
Go and catch a falling star,
Get with child a mandrake root,
Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil’s foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy’s stinging,
Serves to advance an honest mind.
If thou be’st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
Lives a woman true, and fair.
If thou find’st one, let me know,
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet;
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
False, ere I come, to two, or three.
Donne’s words about “all strange sights, things invisible to see” are a bitter ode to his notion that there are no faithful women. It contrasts with the faithful but intimate love portrayed in Song of Solomon, where the scent of mandrakes enhances the romance for the marital bliss of the king and his bride.
There’s nothing wrong with stories and legends, but the Bible does warn us against witchcraft. Christians are not to even “dabble” in sorcery, spells, potions, or conjuring. Rachel may have heard a tale that mandrakes would provide fertility, but it was God who answered her prayers when it was time. Jacob didn’t love Leah, but he loved Rachel so much he worked for another seven years for her hand. Leah’s great comfort was bearing many children. As can happen in all human relationships, the sisters yielded to envy and competition, even over childbearing.
The Paradox of Life Captured in the Mandrakes
Throughout the Bible, from Eden until Jesus returns, we see many examples of God giving humanity good things. Everything—from plants to animals to relationships to our own bodies—He designed and intended for good. But, after sin entered the world, we found ways to twist what God designed for good and find evil uses for it.
In that light, it’s interesting that the story of Rachel and Leah included mention of mandrakes. Mandrakes can aid healers with surgeries or calm troubled minds when used properly. When used improperly, they can lead to pain, suffering, the occult, witchcraft, murder, or accidental death. Likewise, as in Song of Songs, men and women can enjoy the riches of marital intimacy, designed by God as a gift to be enjoyed within the context of a faithful marriage. But, too often, we twist romantic and sexual relationships, so they lead to all kinds of relational poison, pain, and death.
Mandrakes were a gift to the ancient world to ease pain and enhance romance. They have been used for evil (and fabled for even more evil). The modern world continues to explore this amazing plant’s potential and the qualities God designed to provide in our service. Sometimes when reading the Bible, we skim over the plants and trees mentioned, but it’s always worthwhile to examine the mentioned ones and ask why. God has filled our world with messages and truths about who He is. It’s the wise seeker who sees Him everywhere.
Photo Credit: Getty Images/TETYANA LYAPI
Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.
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