August 31, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Jacob’s wives and consorts

John F. Fink(Fifth in a series of columns)

Last week, I wrote about the way Rebekah and her son, Jacob, deceived Isaac, Rebekah’s husband and Jacob’s father. This week, it’s Jacob’s turn to be deceived.

Jacob returned to Mesopotamia to escape Esau’s wrath and to find a wife. He no sooner reached Haran, where Rebekah had grown up, then he met Rachel, the younger daughter of his uncle, Laban, Rebekah’s brother. Laban also had an older daughter, Leah.

The Bible says, “Leah had lovely eyes, but Rachel was well formed and beautiful” (Gn 29:17). Jacob immediately fell in love with Rachel. He proposed to Laban that he would work for Laban for seven years in return for Rachel. Laban agreed, and Jacob served him for seven years.

At the end of the seven years, Laban hosted a great wedding feast. As night fell at the end of the feast, he led the veiled bride to Jacob’s tent. That night they consummated the marriage. But when morning came, “Jacob was amazed: it was Leah!” (Gn 29:25).

Jacob immediately confronted Laban, asking, “How could you do this to me?”

Laban simply replied, “It is not the custom in our country to marry off a younger daughter before an older one.” But not to worry, he said, because Jacob could marry Rachel, too, in return for seven more years of service to Laban. But he didn’t have to wait seven years; he married Rachel a week later.

So Jacob had two wives. Not just two wives, but also their maidservants. Leah began to have children immediately, but Rachel did not. So Rachel gave her maidservant, Bilhah, to Jacob to be a surrogate mother just as Sarai had done when she gave Hagar to Abram. Then, when Leah stopped having children, she gave her maidservant, Zilpah, to Jacob.

The final five verses of Chapter 29 and the first 24 verses of Chapter 30 of Genesis tell us that Jacob was a pretty happy man as four women vied to become mothers of his children. At one point, Leah traded some mandrakes (an herb thought to promote conception) to Rachel in return for her turn to sleep with Jacob that night.

Eventually, Leah gave birth to six sons—Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun—and a daughter, Dinah. Rachel had two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Bilhah had two sons, Dan and Naphtali. And Zilpah had two sons, Gad and Asher.

Jacob remained in Mesopotamia for 20 years before he had a falling out with Laban, fled from him, and returned with his family to Canaan. After all that time, Esau was no longer angry with him and they had a peaceful reunion. Jacob settled first in Shechem, and then Bethel, where God changed his name to Israel, but then moved on.

Rachel was pregnant with Benjamin during this time and, as they neared Bethlehem, she went into a difficult labor. She died during the childbirth and Jacob buried her in Bethlehem. Her tomb remains a place of prayer for pregnant women. †

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