Jacob, whom God renamed Israel: prince with God (Genesis 32:28; 35:10) had twelve sons, also known as “The twelve tribes of Israel” (Genesis 49:28). His twelve sons were born from four women: wives, Leah and her sister, Rachel; and their maids: Zilpah, Leah’s maid; and Bilhah, Rachel’s maid.
Other than their names and occupations, very little is known about Zilpah and Bilhah. From observation, they were simply slaves; under the complete control of their female masters. They were given to Jacob (30:4,9) for childbearing; not even given the ability to name their own sons: 30:6,8,11,13. None of their words are recorded, so they remain silent mysteries, yet vital Bible women because they gave birth to four of the twelve sons of Israel: Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher.
More is known of Leah and Rachel. Their father, Laban, was a brother to Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, which means that the three: Jacob, Leah and Rachel were first cousins. The sisters were also co-wives of Jacob’s and honestly, rivals.
The sisters, unlike their maids, were not left completely silent; and much can be learned about who they were simply by observing the words and actions we have been given.
Leah, the “elder” (29:16) sister, was “unloved” (29:31) by Jacob. She had “delicate” (29:17) or weak eyes (which was considered a defect). She was given to Jacob in marriage by her father, through deceitful means, Gen. 29:25b. She gave birth to Jacob’s first four sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. She also gave birth to his ninth and tenth sons, Issachar and Zebulun. From the meaningful names she gave her sons—and the words she uttered at the giving of them, one has the ability to peer into the soul of the unloved woman.
- She was afflicted, yet gave glory to God as the One who sees: Son #1: Reuben: (See, a son): “The LORD has surely looked upon my affliction. Now therefore, my husband will love me” (29:32).
- She knew she was unloved, yet gave glory to God as the One who hears: Son #2: Simeon: (Heard): “Because the LORD has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also” (29:33).
- Yet through it all she remained hopeful: Son #3: Levi: (Attached):“Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons” (29:34).
- She praised and gave glory to God: Son #4: Judah: (Praise): “Now I will praise the LORD” (29:35).
- She was thankful and gave glory to God as the One who pays: Son #9: Issachar: (Wages): “God has given me my wages, because I have given my maid to my husband” (30:18).
- She gave glory to God as the One who gives generously: Son #10: Zebulun: (Dwelling) “God has endowed me with a good endowment; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons” (30:20).
The following two sons were born to Jacob from Zilpah, Leah’s maid, after Leah had “Stopped bearing” (30:9) children. Leah named them.
- (Ambiguous meaning), Jacob’s “Troop” (through her) was growing, so maybe she just acknowledged that?: Son #7: Gad (Troop or fortune): “A troop comes!” (30:11).
- She was feeling blessed: Son #8: Asher (Happy): “I am happy, for the daughters will call me blessed” (30:13).
Apart from the names she gave to her sons, Leah’s words can only be observed twice more: Genesis 30:15-16; 31:14-16. In the first account, Leah responds to Rachel’s request for her son, Reuben’s, mandrakes: of the potato family (Smith’s Bible Dictionary, 378-9): “Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son’s mandrakes also?” (30:15). In such a response, one can observe Leah’s threatened; and therefore confrontational tone. Later that day, in a rather bizarre (to the modern society) exchange, Leah met Jacob, who was coming in from a day in the fields, and said: “You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes” (30:16). If she had to “hire” him, then one can assume that she certainly did not spend a lot of intimate time with him. It is also easy to observe who controlled that time with Jacob:
Rachel, the younger sister, was “Beautiful of form and appearance” (29:17) and was greatly loved by Jacob. She was “Barren” (29:31). She was envious of her sister, who was able to bear children (Gen. 30:1). Her envy is what propelled her have two children through her maid, Bilhah. Her discontent is also what prompted her outburst to her husband: “Give me children, or else I die” (30:1).
Like Leah, Rachel can also be observed through her words and the names she gave to her and Bihah’s sons:
- She had spoken to God and laid out her case; she knew that God had heard her: Son #5: Dan: (Judge): “God has judged my case; and He has also heard my voice and given me a son” (30:6)
- She was clearly in a competition with her sister: Son #6: Naphtali: (My wrestling): “With great wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and indeed I have prevailed” (30:8).
After Dan and Naphtali were born, the Bible tells us, “God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb” (30:22). She then gave birth to her first son:
- She acknowledged God’s healing, then “added” another son: Son #11: Joseph: (He will add): “God has taken away my reproach . . . The LORD shall add to me another son” (30:23;24)
- Rachel sorrowed greatly as she gave birth to her and Jacob’s youngest son, for she “Died and was buried on the way” (35:19) to Ephrath (Bethlehem) immediately after his birth. This son is the only one who was renamed by his father. The first name was given by Rachel as she died; the second name was given to him and was the one he kept: Son #12: Ben-Oni: (Son of My Sorrow) / Benjamin: (Son of the Right Hand).
God’s word gives us more information into the heart of the loved woman. From her words and actions, it is easily observed that this woman may not have been as internally beautiful as she was externally. In the account mentioned above regarding her nephew, Judah’s mandrakes, Rachel comes across polite when asking for the vegetables: “Please give me some of your sons mandrakes” (Genesis 30:14b); but after being confronted about deep personal issues, responds with manipulation: “Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your sons mandrakes” (30:15b), thus revealing her control over their husband. Her tone when speaking to her husband (Genesis 30:1) also reveals the liberty she took with the man who loved her.
Recorded later, we observe Jacob’s large family leaving Laban, Leah and Rachel’s father, after working for him “twenty years” (Genesis 31:38). Upon leaving, the Bible records: “Rachel had stolen the household idols that were her father’s” (31:19). After Laban goes after the troop and confronts an unsuspecting and innocent Jacob, asking: Why did you steal my gods?” (31:30b), Jacob responds by saying: “With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live” (3132a). Laban searches through all the tents, but finds nothing, why? “Rachel had taken the household idols, put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat on them” (31:34a). Then, when her father came near to her, she lied to him saying, “Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise before you, for the manner of women is with me” (31:35). While her actions reveal her character, her motive for stealing and lying to her father remains unclear.
Taken out of the Bible for observation are Rachel’s words: (You may place an adjective to describe the action–and possibly a character trait of Rachel–on the line):
- “Give me children, or else I die” (30:1) “Rachel envied her sister” (30:1) ______________
- “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her” (30:3). ______________
- “God has judged my case; and He has also heard my voice and given me a son” (30:6). _______________
- “With great wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and indeed I have prevailed” (30:8). ______________
- “Please give me some of your sons mandrakes . . . Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your son’s mandrakes” (30:14b; 15b). _________________
- “God has taken away my reproach . . . The LORD shall add to me another son” (30:23;24) _________________
- “Let it not displease my lord that I cannot rise before you, for the manner of women is with me” (31:35). ____________________
The only time the sisters ever appeared to be unified is when they supported Jacob’s decision to leave their father’s land after two decades and return to “His father Isaac in the land of Canaan” (31:18b). Observe the verbal exchange in 31:1-16.
The end of the story for these two sisters is very important. I will not interject my opinion here; instead I will leave you to your own interpretation. Here are the facts:
- Rachel “Died [immediately after giving birth to Benjamin] and was buried on the way” (35:19) to Ephrath (Bethlehem).
- Jacob, giving instructions to his family regarding his eminent burial, stated: “Bury me with my fathers in the cave that it is the field of Ephron the Hittite,. . . There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife, there they buried Isaac and Rebekah his wife, and there I buried Leah” (Genesis 49:29;31). Jacob did not give her a “wife” title—as he had for Sarah and Rebekah; but nonetheless, she is buried there, with him—and them!
No one really knows if Jacob ever grew to love Leah, but from observation—and our knowledge of Him, God took care of and loved the unloved; and I that is the lesson I have learned. Here are more facts:
- God blessed both the women, but through Leah was born six of the twelve tribes of Israel; and from those: Reuben (his firstborn), Levi (priestly tribe), and (most notably to me) Judah (lineage of Jesus)!
- Leah was blessed with a longer life than her sister.
- Leah was honored by being buried with her husband in the same tomb as Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah!
Jacob looked at the “Outward appearance” (1 Samuel 16:7)—as man often does, but God’s word reveals to us the hearts of these individuals. From what we observe about them, Leah’s inward beauty appeared to outlast that of the outward beauty of her little sister. Just as God taught through the example of the anointing of the shepherd boy, David, so I believe He teaches us through the example of the rival sisters, wives of Jacob, and mothers of the Israelite nation!
FACTS ABOUT LEAH:
- “Elder” daughter (29:16)
- “Delicate” eyes (29:17)
- “When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb” (29:31).
- “God listened to Leah” (30:17).
- Buried in a tomb with Abraham & Sarah; Isaac & Rebekah; and Jacob!
FACTS ABOUT RACHEL:
- “Younger” daughter (29:16)
- “Beautiful of form and appearance” (29:17).
- “Barren” (29:31b).
- “Envied her sister” (30:1).
- “God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb” (30:22).
- “Died and was buried on the way” (35:19) to Ephrath (Bethlehem).
The TWELVE TRIBES OF ISRAEL (in order):
(L) Reuben: (See, a son)
(L) Simeon: (Heard)
(L) Levi: (Attached)
(L) Judah: (Praise)
(B) Dan: (Judge)
(B) Naphtali: (My wrestling)
(Z) Gad: (Troop or fortune)
(Z) Asher: (Happy)
(L) Issachar: (Wages)
(L) Zebulun: (Dwelling)
(R) Joseph: (He will add)
(R) Ben-Oni: (Son of My Sorrow) / Benjamin: (Son of the Right Hand)
*(L) Leah, (B) Bilhah, (Z) Zilpah, (R) Rachel