This brief Testament begins with an expansion of the birth of Issachar drawn from Genesis 30:1-24. Unlike the biblical story, there is more dialogue between Rachel and Leah. Rachel accuses Leah of stealing Jacob as husband because Leah gave up her mandrake roots for a night with Jacob. (Mandrake roots were a well-known aphrodisiac in the ancient world, called “love apples” by the Greeks.) She was allowed to only bear six sons, the other two who might have born were given to Rachel (chapter 2).
It seems odd, however, that Rachel is rewarded for “despising intercourse with her husband” and offering the mandrakes at the house of the Lord instead of eating them herself. Perhaps this is a part of the “women are evil” theme sounded in the early testaments. Rachel is not evil because she wanted to sleep with her husband for the purpose of children, not sexual gratification (2:4).
Issachar describes himself as a quiet farmer who did not meddle in the affairs of others (ch. 3) who has “integrity of heart.” His integrity is blessed by the Lord and is the basis of the moral exhortation of this Testament. The “man of integrity” is described in chapter 4. He does not desire gold or defraud his neighbor; he does not desire fancy foods or wear fine clothes. He does not plan to live a long life but rather waits on the plan of God. “Bend your back in farming, perform the tasks of the soil in every kind of agriculture, offering gifts to the Lord gratefully” (5:3).
He claims never to have committed adultery or even looked promiscuously at another woman (7:2); he was never drunk (7:3); never coveted (7:3); never lied (7:4); always shared his bread (7:5); and always acted piously (7:6). He commends his children do the same, and the “spirits of Beliar will flee from you (7:7; cf., James 4:7). Like Judah, he is buried in Hebron (7:8-9). There is a “simple life” ethic in this testament: work hard and mind your own business. We encounter a similar ethic in 1 Thessalonians 4:11, where Paul urges his readers to lead a quiet life and to work with their hands. This theme is repeated in 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 in more stern language.
Chapter 6 is a mini-apocalypse, although it is very brief. In the last times people will abandon the way of life Issachar has described and they will abandon agriculture for “their own evil schemes.” This is described as following Beliar, not the Lord (6:2-3).
Perhaps this is a reflection of the growing tension between rural areas of Palestine and the Greco-Roman cities such as Sepphoris and Tiberias. These cities were established as commercial centers, not farming villages and likely drew some of the youthful population to work in industry rather than the family farm. The famous prodigal son of Luke 15 was a young man who sold his inheritance (of farm land) and went to the city to find his fortune.