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Here, we continue our study in Genesis.


Jacob's Children

 

29:31When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. 32Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, "It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now."

33She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, "Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, He gave me this one too." So she named him Simeon.

34Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, "Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons." So he was named Levi.

35She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, "This time I will praise the LORD." So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children.

30:1When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, "Give me children, or I'll die!"

2Jacob became angry with her and said, "Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?"

3Then she said, "Here is Bilhah, my maidservant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family."

4So she gave him her servant Bilhah as a wife. Jacob slept with her, 5and she became pregnant and bore him a son. 6Then Rachel said, "God has vindicated me; He has listened to my plea and given me a son." Because of this she named him Dan.

7Rachel's servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. 8Then Rachel said, "I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won." So she named him Naphtali.

9When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her maidservant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. 10Leah's servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. 11Then Leah said, "What good fortune!" So she named him Gad.

12Leah's servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. 13Then Leah said, "How happy I am! The women will call me happy." So she named him Asher.

14During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, "Please give me some of your son's mandrakes."

15But she said to her, "Wasn't it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son's mandrakes too?"

"Very well," Rachel said, "he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son's mandrakes."

16So when Jacob came in from the fields that evening, Leah went out to meet him. "You must sleep with me," she said. "I have hired you with my son's mandrakes." So he slept with her that night.

17God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son. 18Then Leah said, "God has rewarded me for giving my maidservant to my husband." So she named him Issachar.

19Leah conceived again and bore Jacob a sixth son. 20Then Leah said, "God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons." So she named him Zebulun.

21Some time later she gave birth to a daughter and named her Dinah.

22Then God remembered Rachel; He listened to her and opened her womb. 23She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, "God has taken away my disgrace." 24She named him Joseph, and said, "May the LORD add to me another son."

 

In this section, we have an account of the birth of all of Jacob's sons, except for Benjamin (who will be born after Jacob returns to Canaan, see Gen. 35). Through this account, we also are shown the consequences of polygamy, as we see the strife, jealousy, bitterness that is attendant with a polygamous marriage. As we read this account, we are reminded of the wisdom of God, who instituted monogamy, saying, "the two will become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5; I Cor. 6:16; Eph. 5:31).

Both Leah and Rachel suffered as a result of Jacob's polygamy. Leah was "not loved" by Jacob. Jacob, of course, loved Rachel, and did not want to marry Leah. God was compassionate to Leah's situation: "When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah became pregnant and gave birth to son" (29:31). Throughout this section, we see that God Himself was in direct control of the conception of Jacob's offspring. This is not surprising, for Jacob's offspring were to become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.

It seems that Leah's misery drew her close to God. We will see throughout this section that Leah realized that it was God who blessed her with children: "Leah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, `It is because the LORD has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now'" (29:32). However, though she was blessed with a son, her husband's love for her did not grow. It seems that God spread His blessings around. Leah had her son, but was not loved by Jacob. Rachel was loved, but had no children. We all have our blessings, as well as our troubles. Our troubles serve to keep us close to God, keep us depending upon Him, keep us in touch with Him through prayer. And just as we are not to envy our brothers for their troubles, nor should we envy them for their blessings. "We have different gifts, according to the grace given us" (Rom. 12:6). Be satisfied with the gifts and blessings that you have, not coveting the gifts that others are given. Learn, as Paul did, "the secret of being content in any and every situation" (Phil. 4:12). To covet is displeasing to God and an affront to Him. It suggests that what He has given to you is not good enough. To covet is to imply that God does not love you and does not give you what you need. Thus, it is a sin that is prohibited in the Ten Commandments: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Ex. 20:17).

Notice that here, and throughout this section, when a son is born, we are given the circumstances under which he was born, and then his name, which is related somehow to the circumstance. For instance, the first son was given the name "Reuben", which means "Behold! A son!". Also, "Reuben" sounds like the Hebrew for "He has seen my misery". It was not uncommon in that culture to give children names significant to the circumstances surrounding the birth. Moses (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) gives much detail concerning the birth and naming of each son. I believe that so much detail is given here because these are the births of the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel. More on this later when we summarize the names and the meanings of the names.

"She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, `Because the LORD heard that I am not loved, He gave me this one too.' So she named him Simeon" (29:33). "Simeon" means "favorable hearing". "Again she conceived, and when she gave birth to a son she said, `Now at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.' So he was named Levi" (29:34). "Levi" means "a joining" or "attached". It is touchingly sad how preoccupied Leah was with having Jacob love her. After each son was born, she looked to Jacob to see if there was a change in attitude. Each time she was disappointed. By the time she had her fourth son, it seems that her preoccupation with Jacob's feelings was waning: "She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, `This time I will praise the LORD.' So she named him Judah" (29:35). "Judah" means praise. Significantly this time, Leah, rather than being focussed on Jacob's attitude toward her, was focussed on praising the Lord. I am certain that Leah was much happier when she concentrated on praising the Lord. We are always better off when we look to God for happiness instead of looking to man.

Unlike Leah, Rachel showed no piety in waiting for a child. And unlike her aunt Rebekah, she did not show any patience, nor (it seems) did she pray for a child. Instead, "when Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, `Give me children, or I'll die!'" (30:1). This underscores the detrimental effect the bigamous family had upon its family members. Rachel did not have the leisure to wait patiently for God to bless her with a child. She felt she was in competition with Leah, especially in light of the promises of God concerning Jacob's offspring. She naturally wanted her own children to partake in the promises of God. Thus, the desperation in her plea to Jacob: "Give me children, or I'll die!" (30:1). Jacob knew that God was in control of the situation. He replied: "Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?" (30:2).

Rachel's impatience and jealousy of Leah led her to give Jacob her maidservant Bilhah as his wife, to bear a child that she would claim as her own. This was a cultural custom, which we have seen before when Sarah gave Abraham Hagar to bear a child for her. Of course, being a cultural custom does not make it right in God's sight. God's standard for marriage was, as we have stated, "the two will become one". However, one compromise leads to another. Jacob was married to two wives, why not three? Jacob offered no resistance to Rachel's plan, and Bilhah bore a son, whom Rachel took as her own: "Then Rachel said, `God has vindicated me; He has listened to my plea and given me a son.' Because of this she named him Dan" (30:6). "Dan" means "he has vindicated", or "judge".

We see next that, indeed, Rachel's motive in all this was to compete with her sister Leah: "Rachel's servant Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. Then Rachel said, `I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won.' So she named him Naphtali" (30:7-8). "Naphtali" means "wrestling", or "my struggle". Leah, unfortunately, joined in the competition: "When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her maidservant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Leah's servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. Then Leah said, `What good fortune!' So she named him Gad" (30:9-11). "Gad" means "good fortune". Then, "Leah's servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. Then Leah said, `How happy I am! The women will call me happy.' So she named him Asher" (30:12-13). "Asher" means blessed, or happy. One senses that this competition did not truly make Leah happy, for she says: "The women will call me happy." In fact, I dare say, with this competition between the sisters raging, there were not too many happy people in Jacob's household.

The next episode points out how absurd this competition was becoming. "During wheat harvest, Reuben went out into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, `Please give me some of your son's mandrakes.' But she said to her, `Wasn't it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son's mandrakes too?' `Very well,' Rachel said, `he can sleep with you tonight in return for your son's mandrakes.'" (30:14-15). The mandrake was thought to increase fertility, so, first, Rachel wanted some, then also, she did not want Leah to have any. So, she gave Leah the "right" to sleep with Jacob in exchange for the mandrakes.

But Leah's fertility had nothing to do with mandrakes. Rather, "God listened to Leah, and she became pregnant and bore Jacob a fifth son" (30:17). Leah must have been in prayer about having another child, for Moses tells us that "God listened to her." "Then Leah said, `God has rewarded me for giving my maidservant to my husband.' So she named him Issachar" (30:18). "Issachar" means "reward". I disagree with Leah's conclusion that God had rewarded her for giving Jacob Zilpah. God does not under any circumstances reward our sin. Rather, He forgives us, and in His grace, blesses us despite our sin.

Leah then had another son: "Then Leah said, `God has presented me with a precious gift. This time my husband will treat me with honor, because I have borne him six sons.' So she named him Zebulun" (30:20). "Zebulun" means "gift", or possibly "honor". Leah also gave birth to a daughter, Dinah, Jacob's only daughter.[Footnote #1]

 

 

Table I: The Names of the Sons of Jacob

 

 

At last, "God remembered Rachel; He listened to her and opened her womb" (30:22). Quite possibly Rachel had begun praying to have a child, for God "listened to her". "She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, `God has taken away my disgrace.' She named him Joseph, and said, `May the LORD add to me another son.'" (30:23-24). "Joseph" means "may He add." Her prayer for another son was answered in Gen. 35, when she bore a son whom she named "Ben-Oni", which means "son of my sorrow". This name was given because of the trouble in childbirth that she had. She died as she was giving birth to him. Jacob changed his name to "Benjamin", which means "son of my right hand". We may learn here that God blessed her by not giving her children. God knew of her weakness and foresaw the problems she would have in childbirth. God knows what is best for us. Though Rachel was despairing for not having children, God kept children from her so that she might enjoy life longer.

In Table I, I have summarized the names of Jacob's children, their meanings, and the circumstances under which they were named. Many have looked at these names and have seen a symbolic meaning to the names. Some have seen the history of Israel mapped out symbolically through the meaning of the names of Jacob's sons taken in order. This is not all that far-fetched, since these are the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. Some have seen the life of the Christian. Some have suggested that if you put the names in a sentence in order, you would have the message of the Gospel. These are all reasonably plausible since the names cover concepts such as good news, praise, vindication, struggle, gifts, "Behold! A son!", "son of my sorrow", and "son of my right hand." While not subscribing specifically to any particular symbolic reading at the exclusion of another, I realize that this book, the Bible, was written by the All-Knowing, Creator of the universe. I am certain there are grand secrets hidden on every page. And so, I encourage the reader to meditate upon these names of the sons of Jacob, and see for yourself what God says to you through them.

Yes, Father, we praise You for the greatness of Your Word, the depth of Your Word, that we can study it our whole lives and still learn new things, discover new treasures. Continue to speak to us through our study of it. Bless each hour that we dedicate to it. And help us, by Your Spirit, to turn our learning into application in our lives, so that we may live out what You have taught us in Your Word. In the name of Your Son, who is at Your right hand, we pray these things, Amen.


Footnotes:

1. Some think Jacob had more daughters on the basis of Gen. 37:35 and Gen. 46:7. However, the word used for "daughters" in those verses can also refer to "daughters-in-law", which I believe it does.

 


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