Now that Jacob has married both Leah and Rachel – one because of deceit, the other because of love – he starts his family. Like so much of Jacob’s life, the building of his family is not without difficulty and rivalry. The ramifications of Laban’s trickery grow larger with the birth of each of Jacob’s thirteen children. The price he pays for one night of mistaken identity never goes away and affects almost everything he does for the rest of his life.
Jacob becomes the first patriarch to have more than one child in the line of promise. He will father twelve sons, and all of them will be included in God’s covenant with Abraham. Unlike his father and grandfather, he won’t have sons outside the blessing and one within. And for the first time, we see how God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants will be as the stars of the sky can come true. Isaac’s one son of promise – Jacob – multiplies into twelve.
Culturally, there is no such thing as waiting to have kids. As soon as Jacob’s marriages to Leah and Rachel are consummated, the goal of having children becomes very real for both women.
What complicates the new family is Jacob’s obvious preference for Rachel. She’s everything he wants in a wife. She’s the one he worked toward through seven years of labor. She’s the beauty he loved as soon as he saw her at the well. Leah, on the other hand, is the woman he’s saddled with because of Laban’s treachery. He loves Rachel. He has responsibility for Leah.
Thus Leah is unloved. Maybe even resented. But because of this, she’s the first to conceive (though Jacob doesn’t love her he still does his duty by her). God sees her plight and opens her womb. It’s interesting that the text gives this reason for God enabling her to conceive. We would expect a deeper reason for the birth order of the future namesakes of the twelve tribes of Israel. Instead, it seems that God simply has mercy on Leah and on her status as the unloved wife. Rachel may be loved, but Leah is fruitful.
Leah gives birth to a son and names him Reuben (Jacob will not have any role in naming his children until his last – thirteenth – is born). The name is a play on words meaning roughly, “see, a son.” She names him this because she says, “The Lord has seen my affliction.” This is where we see the effect of all that’s happened to Leah. Her father tricked someone into marrying her and she’s not loved by her husband. Her life is an affliction. Notice what else she says – “…surely now my husband will love me.” She sees her son as a ticket to Jacob’s love. She’s happy for her child but she ultimately sees him as a means to an end. It’s somewhat pathetic but also understandable. She’s the ultimate third wheel and she’s desperate to change her situation.
God continues to bless her with children. She has a second son and names him Simeon. His name is similar to the word for “hear.” She says, “The Lord has heard that I am unloved.” Obviously Reuben’s birth didn’t change Jacob’s feelings. She gives birth again and names the son Levi. His name has to do with “attach.” She says, “Now this time my husband will become attached to me.” She continues to cry out for Jacob’s love with each birth but nothing seems to change. Her plight is desperate and tragic. It’s easy to see why God has mercy on her and blesses her.
With her fourth son, her naming convention changes. She doesn’t reference her situation or her husband’s love. She simply names the son Judah, which is close to the word for “praise.” She says, “This time I will praise the Lord.” For some reason – and nothing in the text explains why – she sees Judah differently. Whether or not she knows he’s different is impossible to determine. But God knows this is the son through whom the Messiah will come. Thus Judah’s birth is cause for praise even if no one at this point knows why.
After her fourth son, Leah stops bearing children. The text doesn’t explain why. It could be that God simply keeps her from conceiving. It could also be, however, that Rachel steps in and forbids Jacob from going into her. In the next chapter we’ll learn that Leah has to strike a bargain with Rachel for Jacob to spend the night with her. There’s no way to know for certain, but that could mean that Jacob stays away from Leah for some time after Judah’s birth.
Things are different for Rachel. While Leah seems to get pregnant easily, Rachel has no luck. She has Jacob’s love but none of his children.
She becomes jealous and somewhat crazy as a result. She can’t conceive in a culture that values women primarily through childbirth and sees infertility as God’s disfavor. And it’s not just that women around her are having kids; she has to watch her husband’s other wife – her sister – become pregnant and give birth to multiple sons.
She says to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die” (it is sadly ironic that she will eventually die giving birth to Jacob’s youngest son – Benjamin). Her demand is completely irrational. There isn’t anything Jacob can do beyond go into her, which presumably happens regularly (he worked seven years for just that privilege). She obviously knows this, but she’s desperate and panicked and what’s rational doesn’t matter. Her impossible question causes Jacob to angrily respond that he isn’t God – he isn’t the One who’s made her barren. However, he doesn’t offer to pray for her as his father Isaac did for Rebekah (25:21).
Much as Sarah did two generations earlier, Rachel decides to take matters into her own hands. She gives her maid – Bilhah – to Jacob and tells him to conceive children with her. Since Bilhah is her maid – and has no rights of her own – any children she conceives will accrue to Rachel. This is what Rachel means when she says, “…go into her, that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children.”
So Jacob – who apparently doesn’t question her plan – goes into Bilhah and she has two sons. Rachel (notice that she names the boys, not Bilhah) names the first Dan, which means “judged.” This is because “God has vindicated (or judged) me.” She names the second son Naphtali, which means “wrestlings”, because “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and I have indeed prevailed.”
With both names Rachel shows what the births are really all about. She’s happy to have sons she can call her own, but she’s really happy about now being one up on her sister. Her sister has stopped having children while Rachel now has two sons.
Leah sees what Rachel does and decides to play the same game. She gives her maid – Zilpah – to Jacob and tells him to conceive children with her. Jacob once again complies (there is no way to know his mindset in all of this – perhaps he simply sees it as a way to have more sons and thus more blessings – and perhaps he simply wants to placate his feuding wives). Zilpah gives birth to Gad (“fortune”) and Asher (“happy”). Leah now has six sons she can claim as her own.
This is so different culturally from anything in our experience that it’s hard to fathom. How can Rachel and Leah want their husband to conceive children with other women? How can they want to take a difficult situation and make it even more complicated and volatile? Ultimately we have to see this as illustrative of just how much emphasis their culture places on child-bearing. And also to see it as a testament to the intense rivalry that develops between the sisters. They’ll do anything to one-up each other and to win Jacob’s favor.
It’s also interesting to speculate about Bilhah’s and Zilpah’s feelings. Are they happy to bear Jacob’s children or do they find it demeaning? Something to keep in mind is how Hagar reacted when she became pregnant with Ishmael. She felt superior to Sarah to the point that Sarah treated her harshly as a result (16:4-6). It could very well be that both maids are thrilled. The same desire that makes Rachel crazy likely makes the maids excited to have children – even if the children aren’t really their own (presumably without this arrangement they have no opportunity to start families of their own).
At some point during this time, Reuben – Leah’s firstborn – finds mandrakes in the field. Mandrakes are unique plants with a fruit that may be considered to increase female fertility. This may be why, when Reuben brings the mandrakes to his mother, that Rachel asks her for some of them.
Leah responds harshly to Rachel and mentions that Rachel has already taken Jacob and now wants to take her son’s mandrakes also. Thus Rachel offers to allow Jacob to sleep with her for the night in return for the mandrakes. Leah agrees and Jacob comes to her and she conceives a fifth son – Issachar (which is associated with “wages” – Leah says he is her wages for giving her maid to Jacob – apparently assuming God rewards her for enabling Jacob to have more sons).
This is a difficult scene to understand. Does it mean that Rachel has withheld Jacob from going into Leah? Is that why Leah stopped having children? What argues against this is Zilpah. Why would Rachel allow Jacob to go into Zilpah if she’d refused to allow him to go into Leah? Perhaps what this implies is that Jacob stopped going into Leah on his own because he simply prefers being with Rachel. In that case, perhaps Rachel closes her door here and refuses to allow Jacob to come to her. So Leah meets Jacob coming in from the field and tells him she’s hired him so he has to be with her for the night.
Whatever the arrangement is, it starts Leah bearing children again and she has another son – Zebulun (“honor”). After his birth – her sixth son – she shows that nothing has really changed from when she gave birth to Reuben. She’s still the unloved wife. She says, “…now my husband will honor me, because I have borne him six sons.” Her plight remains tragic. God has blessed her with six sons but she still doesn’t have the love she desperately wants.
After Zebulun, Leah gives birth to Jacob’s one and only daughter – Dinah. Nothing is in the text about her name or anything else about her. The author includes her birth because she will play a role in a future story.
After several years and MANY children by three other women, God allows Rachel to conceive. The text says God remembers her and gives heed to her. This likely means she has prayed for this for years. She gives birth to a son – Joseph. Interestingly, his name is associated with the word for “add to.” She says that God has taken away her reproach (she’s been scorned as a barren woman) but then says, “May the Lord add to me another son.” She actually names Joseph with the expectation that God isn’t done – she will have another son. Joseph is Jacob’s eleventh son and twelfth child.
Time and Age
In the study of Jacob’s arrival in Haran and his marriages to Leah and Rachel (29:1-30), we discussed that a case can be made for him to have been 77 when he came to Laban’s house. This comes from using Joseph’s age of 30 when he ascends to the throne in Egypt, Jacob’s age of 130 nine years later when he and his family come to Egypt, and the assumption that 14 years elapse from the time Jacob arrives in Haran to the time of Joseph’s birth (130-9-30-14=77). The 14 years comes from Jacob’s comment to Laban in 31:38 that he has served Laban for a total of 20 years – 14 years for the two wives and another six for his flocks. When this verse is combined with 30:25-26, it appears that Joseph is born roughly 14 years after Jacob comes to Haran.
The story we have just studied, however, makes this assumption difficult. For Joseph to be born 14 years after Jacob meets Laban, it means that Jacob has to father all twelve of his children (11 sons and Dinah) in seven years. This is because he obviously doesn’t father children during his first seven years when he works for Rachel, so he has to father his children in the second seven-year period. This assumes that his statement to Laban in 30:25 means he’s completed the second seven and he wants to go home.
There are several issues to overcome to fit the 12 kids into the seven years:
- The text says Leah stops bearing children after her first four sons. Assuming she has four sons in something less than four years, then has another two sons plus a daughter after she strikes the mandrakes bargain with Rachel, it means she’s only barren for something less than a year. And during that short period she presumably has Jacob conceive two sons with her maid Zilpah. One way around this is to assume Zilpah gives birth for the first time, conceives again, but doesn’t give birth before Leah becomes pregnant with Issachar (her fifth son).
- It seems reasonable to assume Reuben has to be a certain age when he brings mandrakes to his mother. There’s no way to know how old he has to be, but the text makes it sound as if he finds them on his own during harvest. If that’s the case, then he’s not a toddler. For the seven years to work, however, he probably can’t be older than four or five.
- The text will later refer to Joseph as the child of Jacob’s old age (37:3). This fits with our assumption of Jacob being 91 at his birth. However, for the timing to work it also means he’s about the same age as Dinah and probably very close in age to Zebulun and Issachar. This isn’t necessarily impossible, but the 37:3 text implies that Joseph is different because of Jacob’s age when he was born.
None of these problems is completely insurmountable. And it’s important to note that the text doesn’t demand that the children are born in the order they’re listed (Leah doesn’t have to have four sons before Bilhah gives birth, Bilhah doesn’t have to have both of her sons before Zilpah gives birth, Zilpah doesn’t have to be done before Leah bears again, etc.). But forcing all twelve births into seven years is difficult.
The solution, however, is no simpler. Jacob seems to clearly say that he’s with Laban for a total of 20 years. And he breaks the 20 down into fourteen and six. Some think that because he mentions the 20 years twice in his discussion with Laban (31:38 & 41), that he means the total is 40. This seems to be hard to defend grammatically.
At the end of the day there’s no way to know for certain. It makes sense from a reasonableness standpoint that Jacob is younger than 77 when he decides to find a wife (as we pointed out in the previous study). And if that’s the case, then he’s with Laban longer than 20 years and we don’t have to force so much into such a short period. But nothing in the text directly supports this, so it’s purely conjecture. The age of 77 itself, however, is also based on assumptions that may or may not be true (although it does have the advantage of using actual ages from different texts instead of just being an estimate of what’s reasonable). Like so much in Genesis when it comes to age and timing, we ultimately have to be content with uncertainty. If Moses didn’t think the ages of the characters in this story were important, we have to be satisfied deeming them unimportant as well.
The one characteristic that seems to summarize everyone’s actions in this story is selfishness. With each of her births – with the notable exception of Judah – Leah longs for the love of her husband. The children seem to be an afterthought compared to what they mean for her relationship with him. For Rachel, every child is a means to vindicate herself or set her ahead of her sister. And in their relationship with each other, they act with harshness and scorn and see only a rival to overcome instead of a sister to love.
No one acts with grace or mercy. Rachel doesn’t sympathize with Leah’s unloved state and Leah doesn’t sympathize with Rachel’s barrenness. Both likely enjoy the other’s misery. The mandrakes incident shows there’s no love lost between them. They both ask for God’s mercy and favor but refuse to grant it to each other. They pray for what they refuse to give.
And perhaps that’s the real lesson to learn. How foolish does it look for Rachel and Leah to cry out for God’s mercy throughout years of pain and yet absolutely refuse to be merciful to each other? Along the same lines, how often do we ask God to do something and He could justifiably reply, “I’ll start when you do?” Do we consider our prayers in light of our actions? Do we stop and examine ourselves in light of what we ask God to accomplish in our lives?
Even with that, however, there’s something else here we can’t miss. Incredibly, God IS merciful to Leah and Rachel. He allows Leah to become pregnant first and more often because of her unloved state. He eventually grants Rachel’s prayers for a child. And He allows both of their maids to give birth. In the midst of continual selfishness and scorn God still lovingly answers prayers. So there’s hope for us! Not that we excuse our selfishness, but that we can be encouraged by a story that shows God’s love and mercy are in fact never-ending, and that He is always, always faithful.
This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail (Lam 3:21-22).