Genesis 29:31-30:24 - The Struggle for Covenant Children
God’s providence led Jacob to his relatives in Paddan-Aram. He comes to a well where the shepherds know his uncle Laban, then his lovely cousin Rachel “just happens” to come along, and soon Jacob is integrated into the household of Laban. Jacob comes to love Rachel. Laban has had other plans for Jacob, and he deceives Jacob into marrying Leah, the eldest daughter, before he can marry his beloved Rachel. In addition, Laban gets Jacob to agree to work for a total of fourteen years, which is a remarkable agreement. Yet Jacob loves Rachel, and he accepts this arrangement.
God Loves Jacob, but Jacob Hates Leah?
We have referred to God’s providence in bringing so many good things together for Jacob. The LORD does keep His word, although the twists and turns of life may not always be what we expect as He brings His promises into reality. In the events of Genesis 29, we have not read explicitly of God being involved, and yet we know all things are “working together for the good” of those who love God, for those who are called according to His purpose (cf. Romans 8:28). The God who stood “at the top” of the stairway in the dream, over “it/him” (Jacob?), is also the same God who promised to go with Jacob. He is always the “God who is with us,” His people.
The text of Scripture now mentions God again, and the reference is to Leah and the birth of children (verses 31ff.). The LORD takes note that Leah was “unloved.” The word used here is often translated as “hated,” the same verb used, for example, in Malachi 1:2-3: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.” Jacob “hates” Leah, and that sounds rather jarring. What does this mean?
First of all, remember what is said in verse 30. He loves Rachel more than Leah. That helps to put the words of verse 31 in context. The very fact that the LORD gave Leah four sons (by the end of this chapter) means that she and Jacob were sexually intimate in order that such children might be conceived and then born. At least it is not the case that Jacob and Leah will have nothing to do with each other! If “to love” and “to hate” are opposites, perhaps we can understand such hatred on the part of Jacob toward Leah, if we understand consider what love means.
The word meaning love in the Old Testament can cover many things. It describes God’s love toward Israel (cf. Malachi 1:2), our love as commanded toward God (Deuteronomy 6:5), and even what Amnon felt toward his half-sister Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1 (whom he “loved,” but sexually assaulted!). The word love in the Old Testament may cover attitudes, emotions, and actions (or even combinations of all three!). When God loves His people, that reality does not exclude His anger at them from time to time because of their sin. Anger is not equal to hatred. An emotion (as a feeling) is not the same as an attitude or a commitment. Love from God indicates a firm commitment to seek His people’s greater well-being, our ultimate good.
By the same token, the word hate may also cover attitudes, emotions, and actions (or combinations of these three). Jacob hates Leah, but this does not necessarily mean that he was physically abusive, verbally mean, or had dark, cruel thoughts toward Leah. He is married to her, but their relationship is nothing special, and it is likely that there is nothing overly warm and friendly in their dealings together. Jacob’s attention and affection is to the far more beautiful and attractive younger sister/wife, Rachel. Perhaps Jacob basically ignores Leah, paying no attention to her presence, her thoughts, or her feelings. This kind of hatred (cool indifference) is certainly felt deep in the heart and soul of Leah.
Leah: A Vine made Fruitful by the LORD (29:31-35)
The LORD notices all this in Jacob’s home. And Leah realizes this as well, as we hear what she says when she names her sons. God’s compassion is clearly in evidence in that He will make her a fruitful vine in the household of Jacob. To have two wives is bigamy, and that is not God’s ideal for marriage. For Jacob’s household things are complicated by his love for Rachel over against Leah. God compensates for this, so to speak, by blessing Leah with children. In all she is the mother of six sons, plus a daughter named Dinah.
There are several striking things to notice in the naming of these children. First of all, we read that it is Leah who names the boys. We wonder: is Jacob so uninterested in the birth of children to his “hated” wife that he is absent when it comes time to name them? Secondly, Leah provides a kind of explanation for each name, and that is included in the Biblical text for the names of all the sons.
- Reuben: “Notice, a son!” (or, He has seen my misery) Genesis 29:32
- Simeon: “hears” Genesis 29:33
- Levi: sounds like “attached”? Genesis 29:34
- Judah: sounds like “praise” Genesis 29:35
Leah’s words are remarkable in that with several sons she mentions the Name of the LORD explicitly (Reuben, Simeon, and Judah). She refers to God again when Issachar (sounds like “reward,” Genesis 30:17 18) and Zebulun (“honor,” Genesis 30:19-20) are born later on. Leah acknowledges that the LORD God has given her these children. Whether Jacob is greatly pleased with such sons or not at this point, we may not know. But Leah confesses that it was God who blessed her with sons.
At the same time, there is a darker, even disturbing, side to her comments with the birth of her sons. Look again at her words when they are born. With several of her sons (e.g., Reuben, Levi, Issachar, Zebulun) she makes comments that express her hope that maybe now her husband Jacob will love her. Children born to Leah are God’s blessing, but they become viewed almost as presents or gifts to win over an unloving husband. We can hear a quiet desperation, maybe a painful frustration, in Leah’s words when another son is born, “Maybe, possibly, this son will finally win my husband over.” But we never read that it is so.
“Warring” Wives (30:1-13)
Rachel’s natural instinct towards motherhood is frustrated by her infertility. She can see on a daily basis her own sister’s blessings in terms of the sons that God has given Leah. Can we speak of Rachel coveting her sister’s children, not in the sense of stealing or kidnapping the boys, but in the sense of being so driven, that she will resort to almost anything to have a son? To her husband she cries out, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” (Genesis 30:1). But Jacob is not God. Some have noted a kind of irony in her words as they are a kind of veiled prophecy. Rachel wanted either children or death, and it will be in giving birth to her second son Benjamin, that she herself will die (see Genesis 35:16-19).
Rachel is loved by Jacob, and yet she remains a barren wife. Now begins the “war of the wives” when Rachel gives her servant Bilhah to Jacob. Something similar had happened earlier in the household of Abram and Sarah (Genesis 16). The barren Sarah gives her Egyptian maidservant Hagar to Abram in the hope that the servant would bear a son, and the child would be adopted as the son of the couple. There is this difference, however: Jacob already has four sons, and thus, he is not childless.
Yet Rachel’s desire for a child is so great, that she will use her servant girl Bilhah to have children. We assume that Rachel will get the “credit” for any child to be born. This is what Rachel says in verse 3, “Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family.” Rachel is prepared to use her handmaiden for her own purposes. The maidservant will become a wife for Jacob, but she will be a wife of secondary rank, a kind of concubine. Bilhah bears two sons: Dan (“he has vindicated, judged;” Genesis 30:4-6) and Naphtali (“my struggle;” Genesis 30:7-8). But the text does not give either Rachel or Bilhah the credit for the children. In Genesis 30:5 and 7 the text tells us that Bilhah bears sons for Jacob. Rachel thinks that she has a fighting chance, so to speak, in the “war of the wives” to even the score with Leah. But the text tells us that the covenant sons belong to the elect son, Jacob.
It becomes apparent that Rachel stops bearing children for a period of time. So then it is Leah’s turn to make a counter move in this “war of the wives” when she gives her servant girl Zilpah to Jacob as well. Zilpah bears two sons: Gad (“good fortune” or “troop;” Genesis 30:10-11) and Asher (“blessed” or “happy;” Genesis 30:12-13). But even here again, the text points out to us readers in verses 10 and 12 that the sons borne to Zilpah are Jacob’s. If anyone is keeping score in this tragic-comic contest, then it is Leah with six sons, while Rachel gets credit for two sons. In the end, it is Leah who will be the mother of the priestly and the royal tribes. Levi (3rd son) will become the ancestor of Israel’s priests, while Judah (4th son) will be the ancestor of David, the messianic king, as well as of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the final Messianic King. But for the moment, while the wives are trying to outdo each other in the number of children born, it is Jacob the patriarch who is filling his household with the foundational layer of the Old Testament church community, through his two wives and their two maidservants.
This is a story of struggle, but now it is not between brothers, as we had read earlier in Genesis 25 and 27. This is a struggle between sisters, but who are also competing wives in one household. Fertility and barrenness have become issues, and even the children are drawn in to be used like weapons in the hands of the women. “Now my husband will love me, since I am fertile and can bear him sons,” is Leah’s thinking.
Rachel, in turn, resorts to some very questionable tactics in her desire to have a child. She makes a deal with sister (and fellow wife!) Leah to get the mandrakes, a plant that was thought to help make a woman fertile. Jacob had struck a deal earlier to get the birthright from brother Esau. Is this deal between the sisters similar to the deal that Jacob acquired with Esau in Genesis 25?
God Remembers Rachel (30:22-24)
In the end, God does remember Rachel. “Remember” is an important word. It is used in Genesis 8:1 when Noah is in the ark during the flood. It is used again in Exodus 2:24 when the Israelites cry out to God in their great misery. God remembers His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The word returns in 1 Samuel 1:19 when Hannah cries out in her distress of being barren. Our God keeps His covenant, and He always hears the cries of the needy, of those who turn to Him when their backs are to the wall, and we have nowhere else to turn. The Psalms remind us of that great truth. For God to remember does not mean that He forgot (as we humans can easily have the so-called “senior moments”). God remembers, and such a thought (if we may speak that way) is the prelude to Him taking specific action for His people.
In remembering Rachel, God opens her womb. She had viewed her barrenness as a “disgrace” (verse 23), but God’s mercy removes the barrenness and dispels the disgrace. Rachel’s firstborn son is named Joseph, which name means “May He add.” How shall we understand her comments at the naming? Is she saying, “How wonderful to have a child! May God give me another blessing like it.” Or is Rachel saying, “One son is fine, but it is not enough. I want more children!” We might wonder whether this desire for children has become an all-consuming obsession.
Twelve children (11 sons and a daughter, Dinah)! Truly Jacob has a full quiver. Many in modern society would look down on that number of children. But God is building His church, also through the means of covenant children born in the house of a believer. These sons will be the foundational patriarchs for the Old Testament church of God, namely, Israel.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
- The sixth commandment says, “You shall not kill (murder).” Read Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 40 and Westminster Larger Catechism, Q/A 134-136. What is forbidden in this commandment includes also envy, hatred, and the desire for revenge. The essence of hatred is the wish to remove the neighbor from our life, getting rid of that person placed next to us by God. How can that desire to remove a neighbor be a “slow death” for such a person, without anyone ever shooting or stabbing that person? Does Leah sense that hatred? How does she cope with it?
- Read Psalms 127 and 128. How do these Scriptures view covenant children in relationship to God, to the family itself, and also to the larger society? How do such views relate (in agreement or in disagreement) with Western society?
- Read Genesis 1:26-28 and Matthew 28:18-20. Population experts tell us that for a society to replace itself numerically, a couple should have, on average, 2.11 children. In many countries, particularly in Europe and in parts of North America, the birthrate has dropped below that number. At the same time, among Muslims (and others) the birthrate is higher than 2.11 children per couple. What will be the long-term effect if such birthrates continue? Is overpopulation also a possibility to consider? How should Christians view the mandate to “fill the earth” with Christian disciples?
- “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform!” What is the irony here with regard to Leah and her children? Had Jacob wanted to marry Leah? What is his attitude toward her? What is Leah’s importance in the coming of the Kingdom of God through her sons Levi and Judah?
- Jacob is a polygamist, and this is not God’s design for marriage. What kinds of tensions existed in this household? What must it have been like for these children to grow up in such a household? How can our homes create an atmosphere in which the covenant children sense in their hearts and souls that they belong to God?